If the phrase "graphic novel" makes you think of elves, anime characters and super-heroes, Sean Fitzgibbon wants to encourage you to adjust your expectations. A Fayetteville artist and recent Artists 360 program recipient, Fitzgibbon has created a "true crime" graphic novel that has just been released -- 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." He didn't.
"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 Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville 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. This book will appeal to readers of nonfiction, medical malpractice, ghost stories, mystery and literary horror."
After more than a decade of work and funded by a month-long Kickstarter campaign in 2021, "What Follows Is True: Crescent Hotel," Fitzgibbon's 240-page, fully painted nonfiction graphic novel, will debut July 29 at a Launch Party from 5 to 8 p.m. in the McCoy Gallery at the Community Creative Center in Fayetteville. Part of "The Great Beyond: Comic Art in the Ozarks," the exhibition, open through Aug. 6, also features Chad Maupin, J.L. Morris, John Lucas and Gustav Carlson. Books will be for sale at the meet-and-greet or can be ordered at seanfitzgibbonart.com.
Fitzgibbon's fascination for the Crescent Hotel goes clear back to family visits to Eureka Springs when he was a kid, he says.
"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? This is my best interpretation of this peculiar person, place and time."
Having written and illustrated "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," and a short story for Cemetery Dance Magazine's Grave Tales call "Ubiquity of Strangers," Fitzgibbon didn't hesitate to choose the graphic novel format to tell the Crescent Hotel's story.
"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.
"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."
Graphic novels, Fitzgibbon asserts, are for everybody.
"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."