This week’s pick from the short box of indie comics takes us once again into the world of crime fiction. A History of Violence from John “Judge Dredd” Wagner and Vince Locke really puts the “novel” in “graphic novel”, telling a deeply detailed story in its nearly 300 pages. I read it years ago but didn’t see the film until this summer. The book was more satisfying, especially the ending, which is a visceral punch to the gut in print but completely re-written and watered down for the film.
So, let’s start at the beginning, because A History of Violence opens with murderous intent.
Pretty soon, the murderers stop for a bite to eat in typical, small-town America, where everything is quaint, peaceful, and family-friendly. But when they try to start trouble at the local diner, the dude at the counter decides homie don’t play that shit, and he totally destroys them.
Diner dude wastes these guys and becomes a local celebrity. There, the story gets bogged down with scenes of his resultant interactions with the yuk-yuks from Anywhere, USA as they fawn over him at little-league games and other scenes I could skip. But this shift in the hero’s calm, daily life gets kicked up a notch when the leader of a criminal organization recognizes diner dude in a newspaper article, and decides to visit.
This scene begins a gradual reveal of diner dude’s past, and how he came to be involved with the underworld in his youth and eventually assumed a new identity so he could live a pastoral life in Generic, USA. The middle third of the book tells that story as a flashback, and it’s almost as much fun as the part in the Godfather novel where we flashback to Vito Corleone’s rise to power in his youth.
The first time I read A History of Violence, I couldn’t put it down. But upon re-reading, I could have done without so many extended, dialogue-heavy scenes of regular folks standing or sitting around while having an interpersonal drama. It often feels like this could be a real barnburner of a tale if we could just cut some of the “normal folks chatting in a mild state of distress” scenes, and get into the absolutely fucked-up criminal world that really drives the plot and drama. And by “absolutely fucked up”, I mean pages like this:
Earlier, I implied I didn’t like the movie, but mostly what I hated were the changes to the ending. In fact, the film did a better job portraying the shoot-out on diner dude’s lawn where his son was involved, and the film had a somewhat tighter pace. Also, Ed Harris as the eyeless criminal guy totally rocks.
I’m a bit ambivalent about the art in this story. The panel layouts and the visual storytelling of both quiet conversations and brutal conflict are top-notch, but I can’t escape the feeling that that I am looking at a sketch of the story instead of the final version. The art is very scratchy, and while it has a visceral power, after a couple hundred pages I started wishing another inker would come along and tighten it up. On the other hand, this is a gritty and compelling story once you get into it, and a gritty visual style suits it well.
Fans of crime fiction should read A History of Violence at least once because, despite its flaws, it is a dramatic and emotional journey that not even the film could match, and it isn’t a story you will soon forget. The original edition is long out of print, but the 2005 reprint will run you about $20.
Collector’s Guide: A History of Violence; 2005 reprint edition, Paradox Press.