For many, the visual is the most immediate and, therefore, the most authentic. Sometimes it’s hard not to disagree with this when observing the sheer spectacle on screen. But the more cerebral moments can be lost in translation, turning the profound to the twee.
First published in 1997 and written by 2000AD legend (and Judge Dredd co-creator) John Wagner, this graphic novel is much more renowned for being the source for the acclaimed 2005 film from David Cronenberg. This has led to the original falling into semi-obscurity and, in some cases, being the subject of ridicule from those who believe that the film vastly improved the tale.
Is that a fair synopsis? Read on and find out.
In a small town in Michigan, Tom McKenna lives with his family and runs a diner. A mild-mannered type, he surprises the wife and child when he single-handedly takes down two killers in his store. Becoming the reluctant local hero acts as a temporary respite, as Tom finds that characters from his past now know where he lives, meaning a long overdue conversation with his family about his true identity and why their lives are now in danger.
With scratchy, evocative artwork from Vince Locke (Batman, The Sandman), this is a tale of how violence begets violence and how identity is something that be thrown away at any moment. Reading it in one go, I was gripped by the tense script with a speed akin to a nightmare. With the artwork being in black and white, not only does it remove any stylisation from the violence, but it also makes it much more gruesome. As a result, you end up with the imagery playing on your mind much more than it would have had it been fully coloured.
Wagner has gone on record as saying that the story came from the idea of placing an ordinary person into a situation more familiar to the likes of Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. While that feeling of being overwhelmed by a situation that is spiralling out of control is more than evident among Tom’s family, little of it seems to apply to Tom himself. Although there is an element of desperation in how he reacts when he realises his family are in danger, he remains somewhat cool and calculated throughout.
As a graphic novel, it’s a great, pulpy read. However, it clearly had potential to be expanded and elaborated upon, hence why the 2005 film features a quite different second half. And it’s not hard to see why. Strands such as the shock and ambivalence the McKennas feel about the man they thought they knew is examined in greater detail, while the ending (which hints at further family disharmony) is much better than the one in the book (which wraps things up much more definitively). That’s not to say that the original ending is rubbish, as it works in the context of a pulp thriller. But the questions that should linger on afterwards don’t.
So don’t expect the film when you pick this up. Just go along for the ride.
John Wagner, Vince Locke, 1997, A History of Violence. Vertigo, ISBN-13: 978-1563893674
⏩Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.