Regarding the Matter of Oswald’s Body turns the JFK conspiracy into a neo-Western
The JFK assassination holds a very strange place in conspiracy theory history. It’s perhaps one of the most documented cases of its kind, a lot of it owed to the official story that came out of the Warren Commission, the group responsible for investigating the killing of the President on November 22nd, 1963. The commission’s conclusion placed the blame entirely on a single individual, a man named Lee Harvey Oswald. He was a US marine that had at one point defected to the Soviet Union and that, according to his wife Marina, had serious delusions of grandeur. The report couldn’t pin down the motive behind the shooting, though. For the express purposes of the official story, Oswald took that information to the grave.
Christopher Cantwell and Luca Casalanguida’s comic Regarding the Matter of Oswald’s Body exhumes Oswald’s body, quite literally, to question that narrative and entertain other possible versions of the truth to try and make sense of the absurdity behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It goes the way of the neo-Western to do so, a mix of Western genre conventions and noir beats with arthouse sensibilities sprinkled throughout (though this last ingredient is less present in Cantwell and Casalanguida’s comic).
The comic follows a makeshift posse composed of a bank robber, a car thief, a Civil Rights protester, and a failed G-man put together by the combined element of the mafia and a secret government operative that tasks them with kidnapping a man that is the spitting image of Lee Harvey Oswald.
It’s immediately apparent that, for readers who possess at least a passing knowledge of the conspiracy, the task represents a crucial piece in the assassination’s design and that the group of archetypal losers chosen for it are going to play a part that might shorten their life expectancy considerably. Of course, Oswald is a nobody in this part of the story, so the posse underestimates the mission’s importance by thinking they’re just working towards a generous retirement plant.
While the story is accessible, though it doesn’t make any promises to hold the reader’s hand, those who’ve seen a documentary or two on the assassination will catch on quicker to the mysteries of Oswald’s place in it. I’d even suggest watching Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) to get a primer on the conspiracy and all the theories that surround it, especially on the enigma of Oswald’s multiple sightings in gun ranges all over the US and even Mexico within impossible timeframes. It’s a fascinating story.
What sets Cantwell and Casalanguida’s comic apart from the countless books, movies, and even video games that deal in JFK’s killing in Dallas, at Dealy Plaza to be exact, is how expertly it adapts Western/cowboy movie elements to that history without sacrificing the highly unsettling aspects of a hushed political assassination in the process.
The haphazard group of criminals that gets forced into the giant conspiracy in Regarding the Matter of Oswald’s Body is burdened by the same moral complications of countless other cowboy characters that feature in American Westerns. They are guided by the promise of financial security to last them a lifetime, they seem hardened but are then unsure of the ethics behind the tasks they’ve been given, and then they question their actions in the grander scheme to reach a conclusion that might end in the kind of bloodshed that’s predicated on the principle of “doing the right thing.”
Without spoiling too much, the story essentially becomes an examination of flawed but regular people who go up against certain interests knowing their chances of success were already low from the moment they accepted the job. The noir elements come up in Cantwell and Casalanguida’s decision to shroud the main characters under the veil of secrecy, to the point where they’re seen as cogs in a machine much bigger and important than just the four of them. They the unlucky victims of history, obscure footnotes that’ll only be relevant to a very select few that already didn’t care much about them to begin with.
Then comes the matter of Oswald’s actual body, the one that was buried in Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery under a lonely grave marker adorned with his last name and nothing else. Just who is buried there if not the real Oswald? This question might as well be same one made about the bird statue’s value in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or what was inside the case that John Travolta and Samuel Jackson were after in Pulp Fiction (1994). In essence, Oswald’s corpse is the forbidden object that often becomes the source of everyone’s troubles and misfortunes once they’ve been hired to retrieve it.
The combination of all these elements result in a truly absurd and compelling piece of storytelling that puts proverbial cowboys in an environment where shadow agencies deceive common criminals into committing national tragedies. The posse at the center of Regarding the Matter of Oswald’s Body, though, doesn’t fight a greedy landowner or a dirty politician. They instead fight a corrupt system hoping to make a dent in it rather than tearing it all down. They know not to deceive themselves with the prospect of a happy ending. In the end, and to Cantwell and Casalanguida’s credit, it was a matter of placing cowboy-like criminals in front of people they’ve been all too familiar with: bad men with bad ideas and the means to execute them.