I decided to revisit my review of A History of Violence after reading it cover-to-cover for the second time, producing this newer, more accurate, hopefully more insightful draft. This comic is actually worse than I remembered it, and I’m sure many people will hate on me for hating on this story. I’ll try not to lose too much sleep over it.
Spoilers ahoy, but trust me you aren’t missing anything if you haven’t seen or read A History of Violence prior to reading this review.
Two criminals kill a couple hitchhikers on their way into Smalltown, USA, and try to hold up Tom McKenna’s diner, but they end up with more than they bargained for when Tom kicks their asses in such a big way that only one of them leaves the scene alive. Naturally, this attracts a hefty bit o’ press, to the chagrin of the McKenna family.
The media coverage leads to more problems as a semi-retired one-eyed mob hitman and his two young cronies begin stalking Tom and pestering his family. The hitman, Torrino, swears he recognizes Tom from his past, but he isn’t sure, and the last thing he wants to do is take loads of heat for killing the wrong guy (and his family). When he sees Tom’s son, Buzz — pretty much a spitting image of Tom in his younger days — Torrino is convinced he’s after the right guy. He takes Buzz hostage and forces Tom into a standoff on his front lawn that ends very badly for the mobsters, leaving the cronies dead and Torrino in a coma. McKenna: 3, Criminal Element: 0.
From there it gets even worse, as Tom has no choice but to come clean with his wife and kids regarding his mysterious past. When he was young, his friend Ritchie suffered a tremendous loss: his brother was popped by Manzi (Torrino’s boss) for being a dumbshit, and Ritchie was pretty bitter about it.
Bitter about his brother getting killed, that is. He already knew he was a dumbshit.
He and Tom made a hearty purchase of tear gas and uzis, killed the crap out of Manzi and all his men on Extortion Money Collection Day, then jacked the money and split it between them. Torrino showed up too late to kick ass, but did manage to get a good look at the two kids. Torrino hunted down Ritchie and tortured him into giving up Tom, who was a little more slippery than his unfortunate pal. Tom lost a finger, Torrino lost an eye, and both lost track of each other for twenty years until the whole diner holdup thing at the beginning.
After telling his family about who he really is, Tom finds out Torrino was killed in his hospital bed, and he keeps getting calls from Torrino’s new boss, Manzi Jr. It turns out Ritchie is still alive, and Manzi has been torturing him for twenty years. Tom goes to Junior’s torture pit and kills his men in a series of out-of-left-field gruesome scenes I’d expect to see in a horror comic. One guy slowly and inexplicably gets his hand snipped off by an elevator, then runs out of the building and cusses at/bleeds on anyone who refuses to help him get to a hospital. Meanwhile Tom busies himself crushing another thug under a giant concrete pipe like a bug under his shoe. After getting an eyeful of the limbless, burn-covered horror show Ritchie has become, Tom gets the shit tortured out of him by Manzi Jr. before getting his second wind and causing Junior to accidentally chainsaw his own head off. Tom puts Ritchie out of his misery at long last, shortly before he’s wheeled away by the paramedics.
A History of Violence was written by John Wagner and drawn by Vince Locke. Unfortunately the story is a poorly executed neat idea and looks like a life drawing student’s sketchbook. Bad for the art, worse for the writing. Wagner also writes Judge Dredd, so it’s no wonder why I didn’t like this graphic novel. I find Judge Dredd to be asinine as well, but I can recognize and applaud all its good points — it’s classic literature compared to this brain-breaking waste of ink.
Other than the fact that he insists on starting each chapter with some pretentious philosophical quote just like every other goddamn “gourmet” comic person, here’s my major complaint: an excerpt from the book’s introduction, written by Wagner, word-for-word, that proves what a poor writer Mr. Wagner really is:
“Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. No muscled Arnies, no dirtied Harries, just normal people – you and me. The guy next door. That’s the fascination. Put yourself in their place, wonder what you’d do, how you’d react – and be grateful that particular bombshell didn’t fall your way. But it could have. Don’t kid yourself, it could happen to you, anytime. Right out of the blue.”
Yeah, don’t kid yourself, life’s unpredictable. One minute, you’re a regular person with a job and a family. Then right out of the blue, you suddenly discover that you’re a mass-murderer with the mob on your trail!
Let’s come back to reality for a second. If Wagner’s whole premise for this book was “ordinary folks in extraordinary situations”, that means Torrino should not have found the right guy — Tom McKenna should have suffered through terrible ordeals because of someone else’s past, a la El Mariachi or any number of Alfred Hitchcock films. The fact that Tom McKenna was the right guy after all mean he’s not so fuckin’ ordinary, and thus Wagner failed miserably at what he was trying to accomplish.
But taking the failed “mistaken identity” theme out of the picture, the story is still a ridiculous mess — three different comics from three different genres that Wagner crudely stapled together and called a graphic novel. It starts as a dull thriller with mob guys harassing McKenna, who may or may not even be the guy they’re looking for. Then as McKenna reveals his past it turns into “heist gone wrong” with the young boys running around town, buying uzis and planning their hit on Manzi Sr., then getting hunted down and punished for it. Finally it swan-dives into Eli Roth territory, with Ritchie having been tortured for twenty years and reduced to a quivering heap of meat, and Manzi Jr. being a big-time torture connoisseur, and the climax with all the laughably and unnecessarily gruesome gangster deaths at McKenna’s hands.
The art is often a problem while reading: sometimes it’s very hard to tell one character from another, unless they have a very distinct set of physical traits — sunglasses and black jacket, or devil goatee, or missing a fucking eye. I can read an Eastman and Laird Ninja Turtles comic and tell the turtles apart based on their personalities, despite their looking identical; in A History of Violence, I could never tell Young Ritchie and Young Tom apart unless they were referring to each other by name. A few faces were consistent enough to recognize easily, but this comic is hardly Locke’s finest work. Ultimately, though, the art is hardly the biggest issue with this comic: what sinks it is the general storytelling incompetence and side-order of pretentiousness.
Favorite Character – Torrino, the hatchet man. He’s really the only one that’s interesting and distinct, and he looks like Ed Harris mixed with Clint Eastwood. That’s the coolest DNA combo you could ask for.
Defining Plot Element – The fact that Ritchie was tortured for twenty years instead of being killed. Se7en barely kept me watching with the Sloth victim being tortured for one year. No other element killed the story faster than this one.
Final Thoughts – Stick to Judge Dredd or Sandman. This pile of slag doesn’t deserve the praise it gets.