Ed Gein is a killer whose story comes to us retroactively, well after the movie monsters and murderers he inspired staked their claim to fame in American cinema. His story has inspired the likes of Norman Bates in Psycho, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While each of these fictional killers latch on to the more sensationalistic aspects of Gein’s story, creator Eric Powell (The Goon, Hillbilly) finds the more grounded elements of his life to be just as horrifying and even worthy of their own book. This is the driving force behind Powell’s new graphic novel Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?, a fact-based psychological horror story that takes a deep look into the psyche of a killer that murdered two women between 1954-1957, engaged in body snatching, and created skin suits he would wear while alone in his dead mother’s house.
Powell is accompanied by true crime author Harold Schechter, whose book Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, The Original “Psycho” is considered the most comprehensive account of the ghastly crimes committed by the man also known as The Butcher of Plainfield.
Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? is currently on its Kickstarter run and is already fully funded. Albatross Funnies, Powell’s publishing company, will release the book in comic shops on July 21, 2021 and in bookstores on August 3rd, 2021. A bonus reward tier has been added which includes a sketchbook for those who pledge $50.00.
The Beat sat down with Powell to discuss his new book and how one lays bare the mind of a killer that hides amidst the fictional monsters his story brought to life.
RICARDO SERRANO: It’s interesting how Ed Gein’s story is often upstaged by the horror icons he’s inspired. They actually take precedence. How did you approach this challenge?
ERIC POWELL: There’s a lot to mine from Gein’s story if you’re a horror fiction writer like Robert Bloch or Thomas Harris. They took a lot from it. I mean, let’s be honest, Gein’s psychosis is very complicated, to say the least.
I think part of the challenge in telling his story is the fact that it’s a story of isolation. Unless you’re going to do a Tom Hanks in Cast Away kind of thing and just do a one-person show, it’s kind of a hard story to tell. But that’s the aspect that gave me the initial idea.
I was driving through a really rural part of Wisconsin, during the beginning of The Goon’s 20th anniversary book tour, and I started thinking about how truly isolated it is, this place that Ed Gein called home. I started thinking, if this mentally disturbed person was in the middle of all of this isolation, just living in their own mind, what kind of world would that have created for him. That was the initial concept.
The other thing that figured into my interest in the story was my appreciation of Harold Schechter’s work. I was very aware of his book on Gein, which is the definitive work on him. I thought, well, I could never dream of topping that or doing anything as good as that. So what’s the point? But I kept thinking about the idea. I thought to myself, what if I actually contacted him and collaborated with him on it? I decided that, if he wants to do it, I’ll do the book. If not, I’ll let it go.
Ended up being that Harold was a huge comic fan and was well aware of my work. He was really excited about the idea of doing a graphic novel, so we worked together on it. That’s when it became a story about Gein’s beginnings, a family story with a focus on the social impact of his crimes in the 1950s.
SERRANO: That impact, its reach, lies at odds a bit with the amount of people he killed. As far as we know, he killed two women. This isn’t meant to diminish those deaths in any way, but his behavior left a particular mark on popular culture despite there being worse serial killers in American history. I think a lot has to do with how he acted out some of the things that came after a killing or how he went about grave robbing to make human furniture and other macabre items.
Does this put you in a strange place as a creator? Knowing all those things he did that are unique to his story, how do you approach including them in the book without exploiting them for shock value?
POWELL: That’s an interesting point. I mean, there are many other killers worse than Gein. As you said, this isn’t meant to diminish anything that he did. He did some terrible things, period. But when you get into some of these other guys, like Albert Fish and Ed Kemper, and compare them with Gein, you get a more complicated picture of the man and his psyche.
Consider the fact that most serial killers are sexual sadists. They’re committing their crimes by torturing and hurting people to satisfy a need to feel empowered. That’s not really what Gein was doing. Up to a point, he was basically trying to have some form of company because he was so alone. And then there’s his living situation, which deteriorates when his very strict and religious mother passes away. He keeps her room in pristine condition, preserving it. He was basically living in a haunted house he created. He was trying to replace his mother with cadavers, basically.
SERRANO: You’re saying his story doesn’t fit a traditional serial killer mold, correct? That his legend takes a different direction that makes it stand out?
Powell: Yeah. There are serial killers that no one’s ever even heard of that have killed more than two people. I think it was the fact that he created this little world for himself that was so morbid and bizarre that it just turned him into a real-life Boogeyman. I think that’s how his legend grew.
We explore that a lot in the book, how his legend came out of this bizarre morbid game of ‘the monster next door,’ where neighbors would come up with greatly exaggerated stories about late night sightings and strange happenings involving Gein that just weren’t true. Thing is, these stories made for a scarier human monster.
SERRANO: Given the cultural baggage Gein comes with, how did you land on the visual approach you went with for the story?
POWELL: I would say that the artwork became somewhat grittier than usual. It feels a little dirtier here, if that makes sense. The washes and the pencil work and some of the stuff I put in there is meant to capture this man’s decrepit living environment.
As someone who grew up in a rural environment, I’m very aware of how the inside of an old farmhouse or a barn smells like, how it looks like. It served me well in this because it helped me get that across visually. I think one of the biggest draws to this case for me, while working on it visually, came in a segment of the story where Gein is at his lowest and most isolated in that farmhouse. It helped me in building up that atmosphere.
You know, the house is kind of deteriorating around him as the story moves forward. From the very beginning of the book, I was invested in getting that visual, but I also didn’t want to exploit it. I’m very much going for psychological horror in this book rather than, you know, all-out gore. So if anyone’s expecting graphic scenes of people being dismembered and skinned, they’re going to be disappointed.
SERRANO: Was there something about Gein’s story that you were adamant about getting into your book? Perhaps something that other books or documentaries dismiss too freely or a detail that gets lost you think deserves more attention.
POWELL: I wanted the mental health component to be present and clear. There’s a lot to feel bad about here, some truly horrible stuff that’s inexcusable, but I’ve always felt that it’s a shame there’s hasn’t been much of a focus put on mental illness regarding his case.
At the time of his arrest, the term serial killer hadn’t even been invented yet. I feel like had there been that kind of FBI Mindhunter-esque taskforce we see in the Netflix show that questioned him while he was serving time, there was a lot we could’ve learned from his state of mind. Once he’s caught, they kind of just lock him away, kind of like ‘let’s forget this guy ever existed.’
It’s a shame that we couldn’t have learned more to get a better understanding of this kind of thing.