Writer / Artist
Alternative editions:
Torso graphic novel review
Alternative editions:
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: Dark Horse - ‎ 978-1-5067-3025-7
  • Release date: 2000
  • Format: Black and white
  • UPC: 9781506730257
  • Contains adult content?: yes
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: yes
  • CATEGORIES: Crime, Period drama

Torso was Brian Michael Bendis’ fourth and final graphic novel as an artist, but it confirms what later became more apparent when accompanied by better art: he’s one hell of a writer. Here it’s in conjunction with Marc Andreyko for the cleverly told story of what Eliot Ness did after he and his Untouchables jailed gangster Al Capone in 1931.

The bare bones are that he moved to Cleveland for the newly created post of Public Safety Director, vowing to wash away the city’s stench of organised crime and police corruption. Instead he found himself tracking down a serial killer who decapitated their victims and also chopped off hands to prevent identification.

Bendis is a limited artist, but savvy enough to minimise the drawing, employing tricks like using the same pair of silhouettes having a conversation over five consecutive pages. At first the shopped in backgrounds change, but after three pages they’re also static. Visual repetition is frequent, and other tricks include copious shadow and large areas of black space. The results aren’t attractive, but get the job done.

The same principle is more or less that applied by the police. Two main characters are cynical detectives Walter Myrlo and Sam Simon, and they plod from place to place kvetching and theorising. Ness, meanwhile finds that previous reputation counts for nothing among the city bigwigs, who want everything sorted, but not in any way that will embarrass them or theirs.

Although Bendis is collaborating with Andreyko, this still reads very much like his previous works Goldfish and Jinx, with which this is collected in the Brian Michael Bendis Crime Noir Omnibus. It’s Bendis’ fast, intercutting dialogue, nominally realistic and free-flowing, but immaculately crafted to seem that way, at its best in an interrogation scene toward the end. The research is also admirable, covering far more than the basic historical facts. A procedural mystery, which Torso is, demands background information, so the pathologist’s views are explanations, and the detectives have views on the social conditions the victims live in.

The myth of Eliot Ness first perpetuated by the publication of his memoir The Untouchables in 1957, a month after he died, has elevated his reputation above mere human, but that fallible human is what Andreyko and Bendis concentrate on. He’s presented as a compulsive man, yet one with doubts, and no saint, riding roughshod over the dispossessed for what he sees as the greater good. Perhaps some events have been dramatised, compressed or switched a little chronologically, but Torso is a great read, which is why it’s re-released in new editions every few years.