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Capote in Kansas
Review by David E. Miller

Capote in Kansas cover
Capote in Kansas

Ande Parks
Chris Samnee

Oni Press
Softcover Original
Publish Date
July 20, 2005
Cover Price

In Cold Blood was written by a flamboyant, eccentric, and charismatic author named Truman Capote and first published in 1966. The novel instantly became an international best-seller and solidified Capote in Manhattan’s high society. Capote was best known previously for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but this book established his career as a legendary author and personality. It was written as a “nonfiction novel” that chronicled the events of two drifters who murdered an entire family in a small Kansas town. Its success created the genre of nonfiction crime literature that took a newspaper headline and turned it into a novel.

You could legitimately argue that without Capote, there would not be a plethora of minor newspaper headliners legitimizing their stories with six-figure book deals. But all of this loses sight of the tragic events that occurred in a Holcomb, Kansas, a town that few people in the state even knew existed. Lost in the shuffle of all of the success of the book and its author are the Clutter family, who were senselessly murdered in a botched robbery late one night in November, 1959. But most fascinating of all is how budding New York socialite Capote came to write about this small-town crime.

Capote wasn’t always the darling of high-society. He grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where he was neighbors with Harper Lee, who carved her own place with To Kill A Mockingbird (though there is a legitimate school of thought that he wrote this and let her take credit). Capote moved to New York to live with his mother and step-father and reinvented himself. The little article he read in "The New York Times" about a family slaughtered in Kansas changed his life forever, as he decided to challenge himself as an author and see if he could investigate roots he was familiar with while melding them with his current notoriety and prowess.

It should finally be noted that Capote was openly gay. That made no difference in his reporting on the Clutter atrocity, but it is a factor in the graphic novel, Capote in Kansas, so it needs to be mentioned.

Capote in KansasIt is a admirable that Parks and Samnee attempted to tackle this subject matter to begin with, considering the footsteps they were treading. It is difficult to simply dip your toe into these waters without getting immersed in a tidal wave, but these creators tried to swim forward anyway. The focus of the graphic novel was on Capote’s transformative experience in Kansas, as it would be impossible to get involved in the events of this murder without somehow being changed by the experience.

Samnee and Parks do a very good job of trying to give the reader a bird’s eye view into Capote’s world. Here he is, in the opening, at dinner in an elaborate New York restaurant with Norman Mailer, William Paley, and Harper Lee, offending those around him in his characteristic fashion. But the choice of writing a fluff piece for "The New Yorker" or following his heart to investigate this murder in Kansas leaves him in a quandary. With the help of Lee and the support of his lover, Capote ventures toward Kansas to write a novel about the town and it’s people. Once there, Capote finds that the small town does not appreciate his “culture,” and Capote is forced to try to blend in to gain anyone’s trust.

The experience is initially frustrating, but just as Capote is about to abandon hope, he finds help in the last place he would expect it – the Clutter house itself. There he meets the ghost of Nancy Clutter. At this point…I wanted to murder the book itself. Huh? The ghost of Nancy Clutter? The graphic novel's author is going to base his story on one of the greatest works of American literature and pull this? The source material isn’t rich enough that you have to invent this characterization? There isn’t enough depth in the murderers, the murder itself, Capote, or the townspeople? I thought I was going to read a graphic novel that respected the reader as an intelligent and educated consumer who would think that if you were going to tackle In Cold Blood, then you were really going to bring something special to the table, because otherwise, just write something completely original and leave the classics alone.

To be fair, the ghost of Nancy Clutter is used effectively as a story device within the confines of the graphic novel. Nancy helps keep Capote honest by telling her family’s story and giving them a voice, which leads to a touching ending. If I read In Cold Blood in High School, I would find this to be a nice compendium to the novel. However, I am an adult who greatly respects literature and the undeniable potential of the graphic novel as a format. I have seen other writers tackle serious nonfiction material and take it to transcendental levels. From Hell by Alan Moore is the prime example of this. Moore painstakingly researched the factual accounts of the Ripper murders and created a fictionalized account of history I would put on a pedestal with some of the greater works of literature. The Ripper murders became culturally significant, and Moore respected them as such, so why would the Clutter murders, which became culturally significant with the publication of In Cold Blood, deserve less? I don’t expect Parks to write like Moore, but if you are going to base your work on source material, then I think that the consumer deserves to be blown away by what you do with it.

I believe that Capote in Kansas will garner attention, but I’m not sure it will be for the right reasons, mainly because of the homosexual undertones of the graphic novel. Capote was gay and very flamboyant about his dress and the way he acted. In this work, we find Capote cavorting in private with some of the townspeople and having a “misunderstanding” with one of the killers. I applaud this book for not shying away from Capote’s sexual orientation, but it was still a leap to show these fictionalized accounts. I was impressed by the scene between Capote and Perry Smith because many critics felt that Capote had developed an affection for Smith due to his currying favor of Smith in his novel.

The movie “Secretary” was bland, but garnered attention for its S&M theme. This book will also likely build a buzz for its sexual undertones, though I do not think the creators intentionally included that storyline to titilate, but rather because it is an integral part of Capote’s experiences.

Capote in Kansas kill shotThe characters were not fleshed out enough for this graphic novel to have much depth. Outside of the transformative experience, none of the other characters seem to have much of an impact other than to serve the purpose of facilitating this. Even Capote, who was very quirky and interesting in real life, comes across as little more than a gay author. Nancy serves as the focus, but she had a brother who died too and is not even mentioned. Nancy’s boyfriend at the time, Bobby, is shown being questioned by Capote, but all we get out of him about Nancy is, “She was a nice girl, Mr. Capote.” But what about the fact that Bobby was originally a suspect and had to take a polygraph to prove his innocence? Very little time is given to the killers. Dick Hickock, who was the mastermind, is only shown sporadically, and Smith, who was the patsy, is only a focus in terms of Capote’s attraction to him. But what about the fact that Smith didn’t want to kill the Clutters? He thought that Hickock would stop him before he had the chance. When he didn’t, Smith went on a murderous rage and killed the father and son. What about the fact that Smith said he was going to kill Hickock next, but chickened out? I think those are really interesting factors that should have been accounted for in some way. It would have rounded out the character as portrayed in the graphic novel as a person who was abused as a child and an artist at heart. It was also never mentioned that Hickock and Smith confessed to the murders before they ever went to jail and never denied what they did. There were so many crucial elements that went unmentioned. Nancy even goes so far as to sympathize with Smith in a discussion with Capote, saying, “I know it sounds ridiculous…but he seemed nice.” Really? Was that before or after he killed her mother?

The rich depth of In Cold Blood could certainly provide enough material for a tremendous graphic novel, and I don’t understand why I didn’t get to read one.

Samnee is not to be faulted here. I thought, for this newcomer, that he rose to the task. His art reminds me a little of Sean Phillips because of his line work and his ability to capture subtle facial expressions. It is clear that Parks and Samnee did a lot of research on the material so that everything looked right. They tried to capture Capote’s dress juxtaposed with that of the people of Kansas as well as the rustic architecture of the town. The story was translated quite well by the art and Samnee definitely has a skill in drawing the chronicles of people (and ghosts) and their struggles.
Bonus Features
There were no bonus features, but if you haven’t read In Cold Blood, do yourself a bonus feature and go read it because it’s phenomenal.
Final Words

I truly believe in the power of the graphic novel. I have experienced the rush of reading many great ones and the stomach punch of disappointment from reading a few poor ones. If it wasn’t clear, I greatly respect In Cold Blood and I am an even bigger fan of reading a graphic novel that takes me on a journey and impresses me past expectations. I’ll admit that I was really looking forward to reading Capote in Kansas. I knew what an eccentric character Capote was and was really intrigued to see someone try to tackle what Capote must have gone through.

As a work on it’s own, Capote in Kansas had it’s strengths. The storylines between Capote and his lover, Harper Lee, Nancy Clutter, and Perry Smith were poignant and creative, but shallow when compared to the material upon which they were based. I completely understand that Ande Parks was not trying to rewrite In Cold Blood and was giving us his take on the events. It is clear that a lot of research was done to approach the subject matter, but I think this story would have best been served as an original stand alone story not based on anything other than the creativity in the author’s head. In that regard, it would have been a decent graphic novel. However, you can’t get in the ring with Mike Tyson and just expect to get slapped around, you have to understand that the minute the bell rings that he’s gunning for your head. If you are going to base a story on this particular novel, you have to expect your work to be held to a higher regard, otherwise it’s best to go back to your dressing room. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was an unbelievable novel that no director could ever have hoped to capture, but sometimes we get movies like The Godfather that are based on novels and alter the cultural landscape. The point is that it is possible to transcend, like Alan Moore did in From Hell, but in order to do so is no small task. Sometimes it’s better to let the dead rest in peace.

Skip It (if you've read In Cold Blood)
Borrow It (if you have not read In Cold Blood)

David E. Miller (email) has been involved in the comic book industry for almost 20 years. He started out attending Serendipity Comic Book Conventions in Suburban Philly and befriending top independent creators like Reggie Byers(Shuriken for Comico). He parlayed his industry expertise into recruiting the Honorary Board for the New York City Comic Book Museum. His highest related achievement was sitting down with Stan Lee in his studio office for an hour talking history. His lowest was selling off most of his collection in High School.
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