Never mind Guardians of the Galaxy. The team of superheroes inhabiting indie comic book series Visitations are protectors of a more down-to-earth place than outer space—a cemetery. The ghostly group of pals roam a composite of some of Chicago’s most famous—and allegedly haunted—graveyards.
“Visitations is a kind of history of Chicago as seen through the residents of the oldest cemetery,” says the comic’s creator and artist, Scott Larson, who will be giving out bite-size editions of the title at Graham Cracker Comics on Saturday as part of a Free Comic Book Day event. “I grew up here and I loved it, and I was introduced to local history at a young age,” the Lincoln Square resident says. “So I guess you could say this is my way of honoring Chicago.”
Visitations serves up a surreal blend of fact and fiction set against a steampunk version of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Larson labels it a “gothic action-adventure-horror comic.” “This is a Fourth of July tale of Old Chicago,” the intro reads, “which is completely fictional, except the parts that are TRUE.”
In the first issue, “The Menacing Phantoms,” the Visitations crew are asked to save the day from goons employed by James “Big Jim” Colosimo, a real-life Italian-American mob boss who in the early 1900s built a crime syndicate through gambling and prostitution. In the just-released second edition, Nellie McCullough and her undead skeletal horse Kincade battle an evil gargoyle who interferes with a hot-air balloon exhibition that echoes Chicago’s 1908 White City Balloon Race.
“It’s such a great setting because this city has been such a driving force over the history of the United States,” Larson says. “Crime, corruption, the Stockyards. How it rebuilt itself after the Fire. Barack Obama and Abe Lincoln lived here. So many things are connected.”
It was Larson’s familial connection to death in Chicago, however, that inspired Visitations. A few years ago he learned that some of his ancestors immigrated to Chicago from Sweden in 1869 and were survivors of the Great Fire. Upon visiting their grave sites at Graceland Cemetery, Larson was struck by Eternal Silence, the grim reaper-like sculpture that—as folklore has it—grants those who stare into its shrouded visage a vision of their own death. The statue didn’t have that effect on Larson, but it left an obvious impression: the main characters in Visitations are anthropomorphic headstones and monuments, among them Eternal Silence and Piper Boy, another stone figurine Larson found in Graceland Cemetery.
Last year, when Larson first started the project, which was crowdfunded with more than $4,000 in donations in May 2016, he initially planned to concoct wholly new Chicago ghost stories. He began incorporating infamous local spook legends such as Resurrection Mary after meeting ghost hunter Ursula Bielski at Chicago’s Ghost Con last fall. “It would be remiss of me not to add more history,” he says of the next issue, to be published next year, which is set up as a tawdry first-person tale of the criminal underground in the Levee, the Chicago red-light district from the late 1800s until Vice Commission raids in 1912 virtually ended illicit activity in the area.
Larson also plans to incorporate historic tragedies into Visitations, from the familiar Iroquois Theater Fire to the more obscure Wingfoot Air Express disaster, in which 13 people were killed when a dirigible crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building in the Loop.
“People don’t really remember that Chicago has its own version of the Hindenburg [disaster] because 1919 was such a horrible year here: race riots, the Black Sox scandal,” Larson says. “I like putting little nuggets of history like that in.”
After eight issues starring the current graveyard gang, Larson says he plans to do a second series set during Prohibition and a third during World War II. After that, who knows?
“However long I live is how far I’ll get,” he says.
Scott Larson at Free Comic Book Day Sat 5/6, noon, Graham Cracker Comics, 77 E. Madison