Capote in Kansas

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Until I did some research on the story presented in this book, I was ready to give Capote in Kansas a glowingly positive review. This new graphic novel seemed to be an intelligent and passionate presentation of the story behind one of the most important books of the 20th century, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I was going to write about how the story of the way Capote came to write his amazing book is wonderfully presented by Parks. I was going to talk about how Parks tells the story in a way that gives the reader a sense of the enthusiasm and sacrifices Capote had to make in creating the book. In every possible way, the story of an openly gay, even foppish, man moving to an alien society to plumb its depths is a compelling story. Writer Parks seemed to do a fantastic job of presenting the events and incidents that shaped In Cold Blood, perhaps finding the key moments that give Capote’s classic its incredible passion and verisimilitude.

The problem is that many of the incidents Parks presents didn’t actually happen. This graphic novel needlessly distorts such basic facts as Capote's life at home with his lover, his time with his friends, and even some of the basic facts of the story. At its worst, the book even feeds some of the more onerous stereotypes about gay men as promiscuous and omnivorous sexual beings, who deliberately set themselves outside of society in every way possible. In the end, the decision Parks made to fictionalize large sections of the book, to invent some incidents and distort others, does too much to destroy what he is striving for. His poor decisions make what seems at first to be an important graphic novel into a well-written and well-drawn failure.

Upon its release in 1966, In Cold Blood was an immediate best-seller and quickly entered the canon. Capote’s book is a scrupulously researched retelling of the circumstances leading up to the murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, by two men who were just out to make some money. In Capote’s book, readers get a close look at the murderers, cold-blooded Richard Holcombe and sensitive, artistic Perry Smith, as events of the day spiral horribly out of control. Capote weaves the story in an interesting subjective manner; rather than tell the story as a TV crime show would tell it, In Cold Blood gets inside the minds of everyone involved in the incident. Capote’s book is a kind of non-fiction novel that has captured the imagination of millions of readers.

The key problem I had with Parks’s take on Capote’s book is that by distorting or inventing certain events in Capote’s life, it damages the credibility of the rest of the book. If even one incident in the book never happened, it damages the credibility of scenes everywhere in the book. For instance, there’s a key moment towards the end that keys upon Capote’s sexuality and adds an odd element of poignancy and depth to both Capote and to one of the murderers. It’s a key moment in Capote in Kansas because of the symbolic depth it gives to the relationship between the two characters. If it didn’t happen, though, the whole relationship feels like a writer’s creation, a handy fictional shortcut that bypasses the much more interesting reality of the situation.

Why, for instance, does Parks go to great trouble to introduce the deep friendship between Capote and Nelle Harper Lee, who wrote the great book To Kill a Mockingbird, and depict her coming to Kansas with Capote, only to distort the story of their time together in Kansas? In Parks’s story, Lee leaves Capote alone in Kansas within a week after they arrive. Capote is thus left alone to interview the residents of the small Kansas town as a kind of fish out of water. In point of fact, Lee stayed with Capote in Kansas for a full month, and helped him with some interviews. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to present the facts of how Lee helped Capote perform good interviews, or how her presence helped to change Capote’s approach? It would have the salutary effect of having Capote slowly come to a realization on how to interview the Kansans, rather than his having a sudden epiphany.

What’s most galling about this book is that all this background information is freely available in some of the many books about In Cold Blood. In fact, I found a lot of information easily using an internet search. What purpose is served by distorting the facts when the truth is so easily discovered? Does Parks have an agenda, or is it just, as he suggests in his afterword, just anxious to break free of historical fact? If the latter is true, what purpose is served by this book? It just leaves me shaking my head.

That’s not to say that some decisions weren’t fitting. Parks shows Capote visiting the Clutter family house, where the ghost of teenager Nancy Clutter haunts the house. Capote and Nancy grow close, and she becomes Truman’s constant companion as he shapes the story of the murders. This is a wonderful invention: the idea of Capote and the house being haunted by a ghost holds great symbolic meaning. Capote really was haunted by the murders; having a literal ghost be present is a nice use of comic book conventions to convey an interesting metaphor.

Chris Samnee’s art is worth mentioning. His style is wonderful: full of evocative details and quiet moods. Samnee does a wonderful job of bringing out emotion in characters; the way he draws Capote’s face is particularly interesting. Samnee is the ideal choice for a story that’s all about emotions. His work is thoughtful and interesting, a real joy to look at.

The bottom line for me as a reader is that there is just too much in this comic that troubles me. There really is no reason for Parks to take such a fictionalized approach when the facts are so freely available. Facts are almost always more interesting than fiction, and since he had no constraints as to length of his book, there was no reason for Parks to extrapolate. It’s a shame. Capote in Kansas could have been a classic graphic novel.

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