From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
Stephanie Phillips tells me that the idea for her latest Dark Horse comic, The Butcher of Paris, came to her in an unexpected way. A history lover, Phillips was going through a book about the end of the Second World War, specifically the Nazi occupation of Paris, when she found a mention of the Marcel Petoit. “There was this really brief mention of him, then the book just carried on with the rest of what it was talking about. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there was a serial killer in nazi-occupied France?'”
Petoit, the titular Butcher of Paris, was a doctor living in the occupied city of lights between 1940 and 1944. During that time, Petoit would offer Paris’s Jewish citizens a false promise of escape from the Nazis. Once he got them inside his house, Petoit would murder and dismember his victims. When police eventually raided his home, the remains of at least 23 people were found in his basement, although the true number of his victims remains unknown. It is suspected he may have killed sixty; it is theorized he may have killed as many as two hundred. Gripped by the horrific tale, Phillips decided to use Petoit‘s crimes as a unique angle into the often-written about world of occupied Paris.
To create that world visually, Phillips teamed up with artist Dean Kotz, colorer Jason Wordie, and letterer Troy Peteri. She calls the team “really amazing,” saying she “could not imagine this book any other way.” Phillips continues: “I know all my readers have seen that they are really some of the most talented people working in comics, period. I feel like we got really lucky to have them on this book.” That’s a sentiment echoed by every reviewer who’s read The Butcher of Paris so far. Kotz and Wordie’s moody, noir-ish cityscapes combine with the punctuation of Peteri’s letters to create one of the most poignant, impactful horror comics on the shelves today.
But in telling this impactful horror story, there was one thing Phillips wanted to avoid: sensationalism. As she explained to me, “I wanted to very particularly stay away from this trap of… I’m not sure what the right word for it is. I don’t want it to be all about the gore of the true crime. I wanted it to be about the situation and the truth of the people living through what was going on.”
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there was a serial killer in nazi-occupied France?'”
So how do you tell a true crime story without focusing on the “gore,” without aggrandizing acts that we should hold as despicable? Well, the first step was to not focus the story on the killer. She explains: “The story doesn’t start until after Petoit is already on the run, and they’ve already caught up to him. What was really interesting to me was trying to catch a serial killer during an occupation. That’s a way I wanted to get around doing the sensational aspect of watching him kill people, while we’re also in a city of Nazis taking people and killing people and torturing people.” By setting the story here, Phillips makes sure the “fun” of the story isn’t in following each killing as it happens. That’s fine for stories like Se7en or Friday the 13th, but when the victims are real, it’s a different matter.
Next, Phillips searched for a human point of view, a pair of eyes through which the reader could view the horrors of Petoit‘s crimes and of the Nazi regime. She found it in the book’s detective, real-life investigator Georges-Victor Massu. “I wanted to see this world through his perspective,” says the author, “because I think the situation is so difficult. This is an average guy, a family man. […] How does an average person keep their head on straight? Because this isn’t just somebody that’s in occupied Paris during World War II, he’s also the lead investigator trying to catch a serial killer. That’s a lot of layers and a lot of difficulty for someone who is trying to be a dad and a husband.” Of course, it’s not revolutionary to cast a detective as the main character in a true-crime story, but as Phillips continued writing Massu, it became clear that he was more than this story’s lead: he was its conscience.
When Petoit was finally brought to trial, the people of Paris did with his story exactly what Phillips avoided: they sensationalized it. They turned it into a cheap thriller and Petoit into a celebrity. And before you go blaming them, consider this: after all the horrors the world witnessed in WWII, the genocide, the war deaths, the devastation, don’t the actions of a serial killer seem much less horrific? What’s sixty deaths compared to six million? It’s at this moment in history that Georges-Victor Massu shines, and reminds of something as important now as it was then.
“The Petoit trial was a total circus,” says Phillips. “People were laughing and the media was going crazy. People dressed up and packed inside of this courtroom, they kind of treated it like entertainment. Massu was the only one there as this voice of reason. He asked them, ‘How dare any of you discredit the loss of even one life?’ We as a culture can’t only start caring once the number of bodies starts going up. One life doesn’t mean less than any other. We have care at the loss of one life, and that’s how Massu treats this entire story. He cares whether it’s one life or two hundred or six million.”
“…this isn’t just somebody that’s in occupied Paris during World War II, he’s also the lead investigator trying to catch a serial killer. That’s a lot of layers…”
Let’s not make a mistake: we have not lived through the same atrocities as the citizens of Paris did in World War Two. But there’s no denying we live in a time of horrors. From the rampant bigotry in our governments to our world’s monstrous treatment of the poor to, of course, the global pandemic of COVID-19, we have lived our share of terrible history. With these events headlining a 24-hour news cycle, we can become as desensitized as the jury in Marcel Petoit‘s trial. Just like then, we need a Georges-Victor Massu. We need stories that remind us to never weigh tragedies, to recognize the importance of every human being. A good true crime story can be exactly that, it can focus on the lives of those affected instead of their deaths. And because of the responsible attitude Phillips and her team have taken, The Butcher of Paris is one of those stories.
It’s Cops ‘N’ Killers Month at Nightmare on Film Street, meaning we’ve got more stories of true crime coming your way all April-long. Follow us on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages to make sure you don’t miss a single article. When you’re done with that, drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like see talked about in this column. For more horror interviews like this one, plus all the best reviews and recommendations you can find online, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.