Local Legend | Stagger Lee

On Christmas Night, 1895, St. Louisan "Stagger Lee" Shelton shot a man for a hat and became a legend, a story retold in countless blues, folk, and rock songs from the likes of Dylan, the Dead, and the Clash. The legend lives on in a stunning new graphic novel whose creators visit the town where it all began this November.

 

 

Stagger Lee (Image Comics)

205 pgs. B&W; $17.99

(W: Derek McCulloch; A: Shepherd Hendrix)

 

Stagger Lee met Billy and they got down to gambling

Stagger Lee threw seven

Billy said that…he throwed eight

So Billy said, "Hey Stagger! I’m gonna make my big attack

I’m gonna have to leave my knife…in your back

 

Billy boy has been shot

And Stagger Lee’s come out on top

Don’t you know it’s wrong

To cheat the trying man

To cheat Stagger man" – "Wrong ‘Em, Boyo," The Clash

 

The story is a simple one: two men entered a St. Louis saloon on Christmas Night, 1895, and only one walked out alive. What was it that caused Stagger Lee to shoot down Billy Lyons? Cheating in a game of dice? A woman? Or was it Stag’s old Stetson hat? Musicians throughout the 110 years since have tried their hand at answering that question, from blues legend Mississippi John Hurt to ‘60s icons Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, and even Neil Diamond tried his hand at telling the tale. But the stunning new graphic novel Stagger Lee by writer Derek McCulloch and artist Shepherd Hendrix goes a step further, attempting to reconcile the Stagger Lee of legend with Lee Shelton, the real man who inspired a thousand songs.

 

Stagger Lee’s tale is a rich one, and this graphic novel adaptation, blending meticulously researched fact with historical fiction, is a riveting tale of violence, romance, addiction, law, and order. The world McCulloch and Hendrix craft is a stunningly vivid one, capturing the days of St. Louis as not just the Gateway to the West but the Wild West, a town festering with jukejoint brothels and crooked politicians, where the conflict between black and white was no closer to being resolved than when the Civil War ended three decades prior.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger imageCharacterization is where Stagger Lee truly shines, both in story and art. McCulloch’s script is sure-handed and uniformly strong, with each character given their own unique voice, from the smarmy politicians to the brazen hookers. The characters’ lot in life is spelled out immediately in the cadence of their speech and their choice of vocabulary, yet the dialogue never once dips into parody. Hendrix’s art is rock solid, using straightforward layouts to let the story unfold at its own pace rather than wasting time being showy. What is truly stunning about the art here is that Hendrix not only gives each character their own unique look, but he makes it clear instantly what race each character is without the use of color or screentones, and also without resorting to easy stereotypes. This may seem unnecessary to point out, but in a story such as this, where the racially-charged atmosphere drives much of the conflict, it’s vital, and he pulls it off flawlessly.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger imageThe creators made a number of surprising choices on Stagger Lee. One of the most obvious is the presentation of the art, which appears not in stark black and white but rather in brown ink on off-white paper, lending the story the sepia-toned authority of a Ken Burns documentary. Also, rather than follow what most writers would find the obvious narrative arc of simply following Stag’s story from beginning to end, McCulloch and Hendrix explore not only the story itself but the legend, interjecting with short vignettes that explore the songs that Stagger Lee inspired and how they relate to the real Shelton’s sad tale. Here, the pair bust loose: Hendrix’s realistic art taking a more cartoon-y, exaggerated bent, while McCulloch’s script leaves behind the dialogue-only approach of the main story for the lyrics of the many, many songs about Stagger Lee and narration to explain their significance. Characters routinely break the fourth wall as they point out to the reader the inconsistencies between the varying accounts. The best example occurs as McCulloch describes the differing fates that Shelton met depending on who was singing his story as Hendrix draws our hero hanging from a noose, his eyes bulging out of his head as he mutters to the reader, "Unfortunately, this ain’t one of the songs where I get away." These vignettes are godsends, injecting a grim, serious story with humor–and consistently funny humor, at that–whenever it needs it most.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger imageWith such a compelling creation, it’s almost criminal that Stagger Lee is the first comics work from either creator in years. McCulloch broke into the industry in the mid-80s before dropping out a decade ago, founding The Comics Legends Legal Defense Fund, Canada’s answer to the CBLDF, while Hendrix made his career as an inker in the early 90s, embellishing artists like Steve Leialoha and legend Bernie Wrightson, before leaving for a career in animation and video game design. Given the remarkable work the pair has done in Stagger Lee, we can all be thankful that both creators have new projects in the works for 2007.

Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix have a pair of appearances this week in the town where it all started, St. Louis. First, the pair will be appearing at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library (225 N. Euclid Ave) on Thursday, November 9th, from 7-8:30pm (call 314-367-4120 for more information). Then this weekend, the pair will appear at Star Clipper Comics in the U. City Loop (6392 Delmar Blvd.) on Saturday, November 11th, from 7-9pm (call 314-725-9110). For more information, visit www.staggerleebook.com

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