Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Harpe": A Team of Tennesseans on America's First Serial Killers

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2010 at 11:42 AM

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You think times are tough? Lucky you this isn't the Old West (Tennessee and Kentucky, circa the 1790s/early 1800s). And lucky you you never met up with the Harpe brothers, Wiley and Micajah, of Knoxville.

They're a trigger-happy twosome bent on revenge, and they're the subject of a book called Harpe. They're also, according to the book's subtitle, "America's first serial killers" in an era noted for all manner of killing: beheadings; hangings; hatchet jobs; throats slashed; heads blasted; a dog chopped to pieces; and a horse forced off a cliff (along with a couple of riders — two clergymen stripped naked and roped back-to-back).

Not that the brothers are responsible for all the mayhem in Harpe, but they do their big share of it — not least, Micajah, a nervous hothead who can only take so much of Wiley's newborn son, who won't stop crying. So Micajah slams the infant against a tree.

"Yeah, it's gruesome stuff," admitted Memphian Adam Benet Shaw, who did the drawings for Harpe.

And it's basically all true. Writer Chad Kinkle, who lives in Nashville, worked from a book, circa 1850s, that recounted the Harpe brothers' murderous rampage. (That's 30 known victims in all.)

"Harpe is pretty close to what happened," Kinkle said. "I just had to 'massage' the different elements of the story to make it a fun read."

A fun read? That's open to question.

No question, the book's skillfully executed. The script by Kinkle (who studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design and earned his master's in film at New York City's New School) is a lesson in super-condensed storytelling.

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The illustrations by Shaw are exceptional. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, taught advanced figure painting at the Memphis College of Art, and today works as an illustrator out of his studio on Broad, in addition to producing figurative oil paintings. He collaborated with local artist David Mah on the mural inside downtown's Cotton Museum and for a portrait (right) featured in the recent film The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. He also did storyboards and design work on Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan.

"Chad and I know one another from a horror convention that took place a few years ago in Nashville," Shaw said. "I was there to sell my comic Bloodstream, and we started corresponding. Then Chad came with this story about the Harpes. He wrote the script. I put together some thumbnails. And we went over how the story would come together."

According to Shaw, the self-published Harpe took a couple of years to complete. Time spent per page of panels? "A couple of days in the studio, usually," he said. "I chose to go a little cartoony, rather than realistic — to get away from the stark violence of the story."

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"I certainly like art with a lot of deep dark shadows," he added. "I like black-and-white photography. The composition and various viewpoints of the individual panels in Harpe are based on what the story asked for. It's two steps away from film."

And as in film, in Harpe the violence is sometimes deliberately delayed. According to Kinkle, when you're writing a graphic novel, you don't want an important event to happen on a right-hand page. You want to surprise the reader. But some surprises you do want — to have readers see what's going happen, to, in Kinkle's words, "make them squirm a bit."

So far, those readers have totaled in the hundreds. By Shaw's estimate, some 700 to 800 copies of Harpe have been sold.

Today, January 26th, at 6 p.m., Shaw and Kinkle will be selling (and discussing and signing) Harpe: America's First Serial Killers at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis.

For more on Harpe, go to harpegraphicnovel.com. For more on the artwork of Adam Shaw, go to abshaw.com.

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