If the phrase "graphic novel" makes you think of elves, anime characters and super-heroes, Sean Fitzgibbon wants to give you time to adjust your expectations. An artist who teaches at the University of Arkansas, Fitzgibbon has created a "true crime" graphic novel that he hopes to release later this year -- and it's a story that's well known to anyone who has made more than a cursory visit to Eureka Springs.
Completed in 1886 at a cost of $294,000, Eureka Springs' Crescent Hotel, located on 27 acres at the north end of West Mountain -- "a majestic location overlooking the valley" -- was considered "America's most luxurious resort hotel." "Featuring large airy rooms, comfortably furnished, the Crescent Hotel offers the visiting vacationer opulence unmatched in convenience and service," the Eureka Springs Times Echo enthused on May 20, 1886.
"Seldom has such a formidable construction undertaking been accomplished with such efficiency," the Times Echo went on. "The magnificent structure was then furnished in the most exquisite manner. It is lighted with Edison lamps, furnished with electric bells, heated with steam and open grates, has a hydraulic elevator, and is truly a showplace of today's conveniences."
It was in the 1930s that the history of the Crescent Hotel took the dark turn that fascinates Fitzgibbon. A "former vaudeville magician, turned inventor, turned millionaire business man, turned populist radio host, turned cancer doctor without a day of medical training in his life," Norman G. Baker, who called himself "doctor," lured the dying to the Baker Hospital located at the hotel, promising them he could cure them at his "Castle in the Air."
"What made Norman Baker's cancer cure charade so despicable is the human cost of his fraud," the Crescent Hotel website opines in its recounting of the history. "Hundreds of people who might have lived if they received legitimate medical care died because they put their trust in his cure."
Fitzgibbon, who moved to Fayetteville from Missouri in 2003 to pursue a Master of Fine Art at the University of Arkansas, is now an adjunct art professor at the UA and a nationally known artist whose work includes graphic novels.
"I have a passion for visual storytelling," he says, focused on "unusual, real places and events."
In this edition of "Meet the Makers," Fitzgibbon talks about his upcoming non-fiction graphic novel set during Baker's sojourn at the Crescent Hotel. It explores, he says, "one of the darkest and most controversial legends in the unique town of Eureka Springs."
Q. How did this story catch your eye?
A. When I was a kid, my family would visit Eureka Springs. I was always intrigued by its charming Queen Anne dwellings perched on limestone bluffs, steep elevations, and serpentine roads that don't intersect. However, the most compelling and mysterious feature to me has always been the old Crescent Hotel with its bizarre, dark and varied history. Years later, I stayed at the hotel and went on the ghost tour. What lingered with me was the story of the fraudulent medical practitioner that transformed the hotel into an abnormal hospital. Elements of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Stephen King's "The Shining" left me morbidly intrigued. Who was he and how could something like this have happened? After conducting extensive research, I learned of his assorted and controversial past.
This is my best interpretation of this peculiar person, place and time. Although Dr. Baker has been gone for many years now, echoes of his strange and contentious time in Eureka Springs still reverberate throughout the Crescent Hotel.
This book will appeal to readers of nonfiction, medical malpractice, ghost stories, mystery and literary horror.
Q. Is this your first graphic novel?
A. I have illustrated and written a graphic novel titled "DomestiCATed: Paths Once Crossed," a graphic novel made up of three dark short stories that follow a black cat as it ventures into the nefarious underbelly of domestic human existence. I've also illustrated a short story for Cemetery Dance Magazine's Grave Tales call "Ubiquity of Strangers." My work tends to be on the mysterious side.
Q. Why did you choose a graphic novel format for the story?
A. I'm a visual person, and I think in terms of images. In college, I studied both studio art and graphic design and I've always had a love for both literature and film. I think graphic novels are a wonderful way to communicate stories utilizing techniques derived from all the above. With the graphic novel format, I can take the readers to this specific place and immerse them in this setting throughout various times of its assorted history utilizing visual techniques and media that are unique to the graphic novel format.
I've also gained a lot from watching documentary films. Documentary filmmaking has evolved over the years without clear set boundaries using a collage-like array of filmmaking techniques and media, and I like bringing that experimental collage-like approach to my nonfiction graphic storytelling.
Q. Talk about graphic novels and their place in storytelling? Are they still perceived as being for "kids"?
A. Graphic novels are for everybody and all ages. Artists and writers from all disciplines, cultures and ages now see the medium as a way to tell stories of any genre and using virtually any method and bringing new and exciting work to the table.
Q. How much of the book has been completed?
A. It's finished! After a decade's worth of work, this exhaustively researched, 240 page, fully painted nonfiction graphic novel is completely finished and ready for the printer!
Q. How do you hope to fund publication -- and what can people do to help?
A. On Oct. 1, I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to hopefully get this book funded. If you're interested in the strange events that took place in the old Crescent Hotel turned hospital in 1937, then please support this project and pledge whatever you'd like to get this book finally printed and in your hands!
‘What Follows Is True: Crescent Hotel’
Go to seanfitzgibbon.com to sign up for more information on his upcoming graphic novel and follow Fitzgibbon’s work on Instagram at instagram.com/seanpfitzgibbon and facebook at facebook.com/seanfitzgibbonart.