In 1895, Stag Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons dead in St. Louis — some say over a hat, some say over a card game, some say over a woman, others say different things. After the fact of the killing, however, this murder immediately took on the grip of legend. Why? This is one of the questions woven through a remarkable graphic novel written by Derek McCullough and drawn by Shepherd Hendrix. The tale of Stagger Lee — or ”Stagolee,” or ”Staggerlee,” or ”Stack-A-Lee,” depending on what version of the story is being sung — has proven remarkably durable, and McCullough and Hendrix explore the tale from many angles.
They are adroit in discussing the various depictions of race. Most of the time — but not every time — the disagreement occurs between two black men, and the motives, social context, and manners involved in gambling or expressing admiration for another man’s clothes, as well as Stag’s feelings of guilt and remorse, are carefully analyzed. The duo explore nuances of language, pointing out that ”apparently without exception, when this verse is sung by a white artist, ‘we’ are glad to see [Lyons] die. When sung by an African-American, ‘they’ are glad.”
If you’re an oldies fan or a baby boomer, you’re probably most familiar with Lloyd Price’s blast-furnace R&B version of the song, released in 1958, but one of the pleasures of Stagger Lee is both learning about all the other versions, from Ma Rainey’s to Bob Dylan’s, and to see Hendrix’s terrific portraits of the artists as well as his straightforward action-comics style in depicting the legend again and again, each time from a fresh perspective. As a work of scholarship as well as a roaring good tale, Stagger Lee is one of the finest graphic novels of the year.