A History of Violence (1997)
By: Tristan Jones on June 19, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Written by: John Wagner
Art: Vince Locke
Publisher: DC Vertigo
Often times, when you get a film based on a book, and you read that book after seeing the film, the reading experience is tainted by what you've already seen. Unless you have a really good 'disconnective' visualisation process, the way you picture characters laid down in the text will be largely based on the cinematic representation of that character. It's also invariably impacting on any element of surprise a book might hold. That is never likely to happen in the case of A History of Violence. Rread on and you'll find out why.

Now, some may argue that I made a bad choice in doing this, but I saw the film of A History of Violence before I read the graphic novel. I really enjoyed the film, however, I had mixed feelings about the book. I'm going to say, right off the bat, that both the cinematic and graphic novel versions of A History of Violence are two totally different things. The film lifts sections, characters, themes and ideas from the graphic novel and appropriates them for film, adding and changing bits and pieces along the way, but ultimately creates a fairly different story to what is presented in the book (similar to Batman Begins and Spider-Man). That said, a large majority of the people I've spoken to who have both read the book and seen the film, enjoyed the film far more when they hadn't read the book beforehand.

The book of A History of Violence was written by John Wagner (best known for his massive writing contributions to 2000 A.D.'s Judge Dredd comics) over a period of three years, and published by Paradox Press (now DC's VERTIGO label) in 1997. The story itself, follows the downward spiral into a criminal world that small-town diner proprietor Tom McKenna thought he'd left behind long ago, and the lengths he'll go to in order to preserve the safety of his family once his past starts catching up with him. All the hallmark characteristics of a great thriller can be found in A History of Violence, but therein lies the book's largest problem (in my mind at least).

The first chapter of A History of Violence presents the reader with a seemingly very real world. Everyone and everything interacts as you would expect, with the whole thing very solidly grounded in this established reality. However as the book progresses, it feels as though Wagner's grip on the reality he establishes early on slightly shifts, and things start happening that put the reader's suspension of disbelief into question. While the dialogue and characterisations are all consistent, as is Wagner's writing technically, each chapter escalates to the point where it feels as though you're no longer reading the same book. There were a few points (one in particular involving the character of Richie towards the end) where the book crossed into Batman territory in terms of comparative believability. It comes down to a case of predictable unpredictability; you know where it's leading, but the extent to which it takes it is what's surprising.

A large portion of the second chapter is also told in flashback. Flashback in comics is a bit of a double edged sword in my mind. I often see it best utilised when it's presented briefly amidst the panels of the main story, or a single issue devotes itself almost entirely to recounting past events (you also get miniseries that tell these sorts of things, but I'd be more inclined to call them prequel books). A History of Violence gives large slabs of flashback sequences that felt out of place in a graphic novel. Had they been broken up and spread out a little more through the book, or told in with more brevity, I would have been a little more comfortable with them.

Personal gripes aside, what I find a number of people tend to comment on and find most detrimental to the book is the art. Pencilled and inked by Vince Locke, who worked as the artist on the Eighties independent hit Deadworld before working on titles like Sandman, Batman and The Spectre, the art has a very sketchy, rough quality to it that a lot of people seem to have difficulty adjusting to, especially in black and white. Having pretty much grown up reading Mirage's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this wasn't really a problem for me, though character differentiation during the flashback sequences was a little jarring at first read (mainly due to design similarities). In spite of the rough style, the art really manages to encapsulate the motions from panel to panel and definitely suits the story being told. Fans of Guy Davis (Dark Horse's B.P.R.D. and Nevermen) will dig the artwork, as they both have similar aesthetic feels.

Just to return to two points made above, the film and the book are two completely separate things. Should you read the book first and see the film expecting to see what's down in the panels up on screen, be prepared to be bitterly disappointed. The book takes a completely different turn of events to the film, making each one a completely separate entity. Alternately, if you've seen the film, you're likely to be as surprised as I was when you see just how different they truly are. Both film and book open in similar fashions, but once the second chapter begins in both mediums, the two part ways. Honestly, I felt the film version carried itself better story wise, in that it never loses sight of where it's going, and more importantly, what the focus of the story is. The film may end abruptly, but it's a far more powerful and far more real story the whole way through than the book, but this is simply my opinion.

Either way, the book is definitely worth reading. It's a shame that it didn't first see light as a miniseries, as I feel it could have been told better as such, but A History of Violence is still a very competent book. Fans of Marvel MAX's Punisher books are bound to get a real kick out of it, as will fans of the Sin City books, but anyone looking for a great, relatively down to Earth thriller will probably enjoy this (even if they didn't enjoy the film). Three stars from me.
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