Graphic Novelist Ande Parks Takes KC History to the Mattresses

Superman’s cape. Wonder Woman’s lasso. Daredevil’s cane.

Kansas native Ande Parks made his name lending line and shade to — or “inking” — the panels of some of the best-known superhero comics in America. But in recent years, Parks has been tackling work of a more complex, more creative and, for him, more rewarding nature: writing his own graphic novels.

Last night at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central branch, the Baldwin City, Kansas-based Parks explained the difference between graphic novels and stories about “guys in tights punching each other.”

Parks’ two original graphic novels are unsung classics in local literature. The first, Union Station (Oni Press, 2003), explores the famous 1933 Union Station Massacre, in which bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash and four Federal agents were gunned down in a botched rescue attempt (read the whole story here). Parks’ book explores the massacre and its aftermath, applying a fictional, noir brush to historical figures including gangsters Verne Miller, John Lazia and Adam Richetti.

His second book, Capote in Kansas (Oni, 2006), is a fictionalized re-imagining of Truman Capote’s experiences in Western Kansas investigating the Clutter family murders for his groundbreaking masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

A third Parks book, Ciudad, about a fictional South American kidnapping-and-rescue story, is due for publication in about a year and has been optioned for film treatment by Paramount Pictures.

Last night, Parks began by arguing some reasons why the graphic novel deserves a spot in the ranks of capital-l Literature. Clad in a natty Fedora and blazer and backed by PowerPoint, Parks said that unlike comic-book serials about superheroes, graphic novels are self-contained stories. Also, they are not a single style or genre but span multiple genres, like any other works of storytelling. Furthermore, as a medium (just like with film or fiction), graphic novels are essentially limitless in the kind of story they can tell.

Parks went on to dissect a scene from Union Station. It began with Verne Miller flirting with his live-in ladyfriend in their KC home, then moved to Miller getting the call that Nash would be passing through Union Station the next morning under Federal escort. In the next scene Miller brokered a deal with the shadowy John Lazia over dessert at the Savoy.

Parks gave some eye-opening tips for following the action in a graphic novel, such measuring the timing of a series of panels by characters moving in the background. “The magic happens between the panels,” Parks said, arguing that graphic novels are the only works of art where the viewer fills in literal blanks in the story. It’s the writer and artists’ job to make sure the story flows.

Clearly, the folks in attendance were already intimately familiar with the graphic-novel medium. For me, a newbie, Parks’ pointers were helpful in approaching an art form that has slowly but steadily been gaining mainstream appeal. (Notice how many recent Hollywood films have been based on graphic novels?)

It was also great to see Kansas City’s tough-guy past get such smart and sexy treatment. For most Kansas Citians, there aren’t too many opportunities to connect with our town’s delightfully sordid history – at least, not in ways as entertaining as the pages of Union Station.

Here’s to many more bullets and broads, Ande.

Postscript: As the new web content developer at the library’s Public Affairs department, I thought it would be fun to hold a drawing on our Facebook page to give away a signed copy of Union Station. Congratulations to our winner, Michelle!

Photos by Elise Del Vecchio

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