Stagger Lee, Best of 2006?

Stagger Lee, by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd HendrixStagger Lee
By Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix
(Image, 2006; $17.99)

The first time I read Stagger Lee, months ago when it first came out, I was blown away by its ambition, a sprawling blend of [loosely] historical fiction and docu-drama centering on, but not confined to, the “legend” who spawned a multitude of songs, Stagger Lee, aka Stacker Lee, Stagolee, Stack-A-Lee, Stack O’Lee… While I’d never heard of any of these songs, the name brought immediate recognition from my mother, along with a puzzled, “someone wrote a book about that song?”

Indeed they did, and upon a second reading, it is without question one of the best graphic novels published this year; possibly, arguably, the best.

As writer Derek McCulloch lays it out, the underlying truth of the story, and the sole point upon which every version of the song agrees, is that Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons. From there the details vary, sometimes drastically depending on the teller, and McCulloch incorporates that variety into his own version of the tale as colorful, informative interludes to his main storyline, the defense of Stagger Lee, aka Lee Shelton, and the toll it takes on those involved.
Injecting several key fictional characters into the tale, McCulloch crafts a compelling take on the truth behind the legend — equal parts courtroom drama, love story, and social commentary — that deftly weaves together the corrupt political dealings of late-19th century St. Louis and the personal interactions of a handful of its negro citizens whose lives are touched by Lee Shelton’s crime in various ways. Among those affected are Shelton himself, whom McCulloch wryly posits was likely to have heard at least one of the earliest interpretations of his crime first-hand.

In many ways, Shelton is a spectactor to his own story as Justin Troupe — legal assistant to the morphine-addicted defense attorney, Nathan Dryden — takes center stage in a sub-plot that pulls several of the underlying historical threads together into a story that would be noteworthy on its own, separated from the “musical” interludes. It is the ambitious, and mostly successful, weaving of the two, however, that lifts Stagger Lee above the crowd of a bumper crop of great graphic novels that came out this year.

Shepherd Hendrix’ artwork is subtle and understated, perfectly complementing the densely layered storyline while bringing his own energy and flair to the proceedings. Effortlessly shifting styles as the tone of the story shifts (many of the “musical” interludes have a humorous slant to them, with Stagger Lee offering comical asides to his various crimes and punishments), his characters and layouts are very clean, working the one-color (brownish-black, faux sepia?) and coarse paper format to optimal effect. Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons are smartly defined by the patterns of their suits, and he’s particularly good with facial expressions, an essential skill for a dramatic story with minimal “action”.

There’s no self-indulgent two-page spreads here; instead Hendrix packs every page with as much detail and story as possible, making this as fulfilling a read as you’ll find in comics.

Determining a “best of the year” pick is always tricky because it’s never an apples to apples comparison, and there’s invariably something that came out early in the year, or at the very end, that slips under the radar. Also, 2006 was a particularly good year for original graphic novels, with American Born Chinese, Deogratias, La Perdida, Iron West and The Left Bank Gang among my absolute favorites, but for its outstanding combination of ambition, execution and re-readability, Stagger Lee gets the nod for my Best Original Graphic Novel of 2006.

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