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A History of Violence

I see problems on the horizon for the comic book industry. These are not problems that will be insurmountable, nor will they be problems caused solely by the industry, something that seems to happen a lot in these familiar realms that deal with overzealous fanbases and editorial oversight. But they will be problems that will have a tremendous effect on how comics are ultimately viewed by the public. Our problem is shame and how we deal with it.

Sitting on my desk is a copy of John Wagner’s and Vince Locke’s A History of Violence. Some people who have just read that line have thought: how did he get a copy of that Viggo Mortensen flick so soon? Many of you reading this might have already known that the said Viggo flick was indeed based upon a comic book property from Paradox Press, but I’m willing to bet that a fair number of you didn’t have a clue. I didn’t when I first saw this sitting in the graphic novel section of a Borders bookstore.

As I looked at the cover and saw the words “Soon to be a major motion picture!” printed at the top in plain black ink, I tried to think how this could have slipped by me. I am in no way saying that I’m any type of authority on comic books, that I should be some hub of funny paper information, but this is rather huge. The movie of the same name as the graphic novel has garnered massive critical acclaim, and some have been talking about Academy Award nominations for Viggo and his costar Maria Bello. Every Access Extra Hollywood Hot Minute celeb news magazine has had an interview with the director or the cast, and every one has talked about the powerful story behind the film. Not once did I hear the words “graphic” or “novel.”

I have to wonder where this is coming from, because the comic itself is the stuff of Eisner Awards. Suspense is hard to convey in comics, because we can turn the page and know what is coming next without always reading the dialogue and text, since the visual language usually speaks somewhat louder than the written. A comic book writer cannot control the way his or her comic is read the way that a film director can control the speed of his film; the speed, the presentation of the comic book material is more controlled by the reader than the artists, whereas the cinema viewer can only take in the material as quickly as it is presented by the filmmaker. So it is damn hard to really make a comic suspenseful, to keep a reader guessing, and that is what Wagner and Locke have done. They have made a true suspense thriller in comic book form.

Tom McKenna was just closing up shop one night when two malcontents thought robbing the small town diner was more fun than murdering hitchhikers. When it comes down to violent action, Tom manages to kill or cripple both men, saving his own life and becoming the small town hero he never wanted to be. He just wants all the media attention to go away and get back to living his happy familial life, when some dangerous men start asking questions about Tom and his supposed “life.” Believing him to be someone else, these strangers begin to add a certain level of disquiet to the small town of Raven’s Bend. Tom is pushed to the limit of danger, and we get to watch as he and his family try and deal with a threat that the ordinary man is never meant to deal with.

The level of writing and artistry on this book is superb. Wagner creates his characters well, but doesn’t give the reader any real character knowledge until after the first third of the book. He lets the reader walk into the story blind, faced with the characters as they live their lives and knowing about the characters only what is immediately apparent through their daily interactions with each other. Not knowing the characters thoughts or motivations make the story nail biting, because while Wagner gives us fully developed characters, he doesn’t tell us anything about them. We don’t know how dangerous the men seeking Tom are and we’re even less sure about how dangerous Tom is because he could be telling the truth about being just a normal guy from a normal town. But he could be lying. The fact that we don’t know until the second act, where Wagner fills in the background story, is wonderful, especially in the day and age of single-issue story plotting and six-issue arcs. By the time we get to know Tom, we’re dying to know Tom.

The artwork by Locke is not artwork I would usually call wonderful, but it so meets the needs of the story that I can’t help but applaud it. Locke appears to do all his artwork in ink pen with a thin scratchy line and he seems adept at the nearly lost art (in comics) of crosshatch shading. His figure work is not polished, but instead very raw in form and he uses that to great advantage when relating the suspense of Wagner’s script. Since his artwork more closely resembles ink sketching, it looks unfinished at times, almost uncertain, lending nicely to the uncertain elements of the story. His artwork defines the uneasiness of every scene: every time Tom and his wife are afraid for their family, every time a gun is pointed in someone’s face. His shading techniques end up making some great dark shadows, also indicative of the crime/thriller genre, and even though his sketched style is far from stable, he manages to convey emotion, action, and absolute horror whenever the script calls for it.

With the artistry of this book from in question, I still wonder why I haven’t heard anything about this movie being a comic book first. I think we’ve entered a time when the comic book has at least been able to grab significant attention through its recent onslaught on the movie industry, if not always gaining critical approval. But I can see the distinct difference between a “comic book movie” and a movie; there has to be some idiot in leather chaps or a cape before people will start talking about comics. If we have a movie like Daredevil or Spider-man, we’ll hear two things from at least one member of the cast or the director “I was always a big fan of the <fill in name here> comics when I was a kid,” or “I wanted to bring back that feeling of reading a comic book when you were a child with this scene.” Then, inevitably, Stan Lee will come by and explain how he got the idea for the comic, and about how cool it was. All talk of comics in the mainstream media is tied up in two things: superheroes and children. Comics are, essentially, viewed as something for kids, even after all these years where it has been decades since the actual market depended on kids as the main audience.

But this isn’t all the media’s fault, tough they share plenty of the blame. Part of it is the comic reading community. I believe we’re still stuck in the mindset that somehow, unless the attention is focused on a large property or a major character, we should keep hush about comics. I call it fanbase syndrome: we’re willing to dress up in lycra and tights and go to premieres of our favorite superhero movie, but when a comic book movie comes along that turns out to be just a good story that used to be in panels we ignore it and treat as just a movie. I remember when Road to Perdition came out, and everyone applauded the performances of Hanks and Newman, and no one talked about Max Allan Collins' original graphic novel on which the movie was based. And I’m talking about comic readers, not just the media. Where was the fervor around Hank’s performance and the constant comparisons between his portrayal of the character and Collins’? Did we do a lot of contrast and compare on Daniel Clowes' Ghostworld?

When I think of the sheer idiocy of campaigns like the “Bring Back Hal Jordan,” I am also forced to face the fact that, if given incentive, we’re willing to make big fusses over comics. Why aren’t we willing to do that over the smaller properties like A History of Violence? Why aren’t we out there raising a ruckus so that more people than just the comic book reading community know about great comics becoming great movies? Why aren’t we handing out copies on street corners?

I know some people have said that they feel as if they’re pushing comics onto people when they recommend them for reading. And I say, “Good.” Because you are pushing them, and you should be. They’re a unique art form, and one just as capable of being intricate and meaningful as written word literature. There’s no reason to not give someone a comic if you know they’ll enjoy a good story, graphically represented or not. At times, it seems as if we’re ashamed of word balloons and panels and splash pages, which is a shame, considering we’re the only people who can convince others of what we’ve always known; comics are a medium of expression as important as any other.

I’m certain this has all been said before, probably by someone far more eloquent and better equipped to speak on the subject, but I had to put it down on paper after reading this comic. I found it sitting on a clear plastic rack, next to empty spaces and a few copies of Chobits. It wasn’t displayed. There was only one copy. I can’t help but feel as if it and its creators deserved better than that.

A History of Violence

Robert Sparling

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