It’s Christmas Eve, 1895. In a sleazy bar in St. Louis, Lee “Stagger” Shelton just shot and killed Billy Lyons for touching his Stetson hat. This is the simple beginning to the ever-evolving urban legend of Stagger Lee. The story was picked up and used in song lyrics by old blues masters like John Hurt. From there it passed from mouth to mouth on the streets, prisons and bars all the way on to musicians like folk singer Arlo Guthrie, R&B artist Lloyd Price, contemporary post-pop maestro Beck, and postpunk songwriter Nick Cave. The legend of Stagger Lee changed with each interpretation, with each artist turning the story into tales of redemption, revenge, violence and even justice (note that some of the following images are links; clicking on them will take you to a slightly larger version of the same image for those interested).
Writer Derek McCulluch and artist Shepherd Hendrix have joined their talents to turn this odd legend into an unusual and gripping graphic novel. Part cultural essay and part dramatic narrative, their book mixes fact, critical interpretation and fictionalized accounts to tell a more believable version of Stagger’s story. The main plot focuses on the courtroom drama of Stagger’s trial, while side stories of political intrigue, racism and romance broaden and deepen the already rich themes. The black and white artwork done by Hendrix, with its straightforward, realistic approach, works well alongside the pseudo-documentary style of McCulloch’s narrative.
McCulloch occasionally breaks up the story with looks at different song lyrics and versions of Stagger’s legend; while these can get a little distracting, those willing to work through them will find them both informative and enlightening. One interesting aspect is that white artists always portray Stagger as the villain; black artists would sometimes portray him that way, but others would show Stagger as a man defending himself or even a victim of circumstance. Some versions even feel shockingly similar to today’s image of the hiphop gansta. Hendrix’s artwork becomes more cartoony during these essay sections, highlighting the over-the-top interpretations many musicians put Stagger through.
In reality we know very little of what actually happened. The only hard evidence comes from a small newspaper article in a St. Louis paper and Stagger’s arrest record (check out the Wikipedia Article for more details). The rest of what we know come from the songs. Much of what McCulluch puts into narrative----the court trial, the political scandal, a love story between a prostitute and a piano player who puts the story to song----are pieces of fiction based loosely on the real events. If done in a traditional novel this mix of fact of fiction would probably garner comparisons to authors like Don Delillo.
But since we are dealing with comics here the most appropriate comparison seems to be Will Eisner himself. Like Eisner, McCulloch is experimenting within the medium of comics. And much like Eisner, with experimentation come some small stumbles, particularly in regards to pacing. But these small stumbles don’t overcome what is otherwise a thoughtful and memorable work that examines the truth behind an unusual urban legend as well as offering a well-informed lesson on the importance of our national stories and how much we can learn from them.