Tuesday 22 June 2010

The Hot Rock and The Hunter: Novels versus Graphic Novels versus Graphic Novels

Unusually among the various authors I collect – and probably unusually amongst authors in general – Donald E. Westlake has had two of his books adapted as graphic novels now. Last year American comics creator Darwyn Cooke published an adaptation of the first Richard Stark book, The Hunter, and a few weeks ago saw the first English-language publication (it came out in France a few years ago) of French creator Christian Lacroix's (a.k.a. LAX) adaptation of the debut Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock. I've actually read both the original novels and the graphic novels, so I thought I'd witter on a while about them. Who the hell knows if I'll come up with anything insightful, though, so if you make the effort to read it, I'd like to apologise in advance if, as is highly likely, this post turns out to be a tremendous waste of your time. Still, no change there, eh?

First up, it's worth noting that The Hunter and The Hot Rock are quite different books. For those who don't know, Westlake wrote in a number of 'voices', but essentially you can break his novels down into two categories: the funny ones, and the not-funny ones. The funny, or rather comedic, ones were mostly written under his own name, and include a series of crime caper books starring career criminal John Dortmunder and his crew of thieves, of which The Hot Rock (1970) is the first. The not-funny, or rather mirthless, ones were mostly written under the pen name Richard Stark and comprise in large part of heist novels featuring career criminal Parker (no first name) and his crew(s); The Hunter (1962) is the first of those.

That said, it's the same man writing both novels. The Hunter may be tighter and grimmer, and The Hot Rock more relaxed and amusing, but the prose is clearly that of the same person: straightforward, never overly descriptive, no wasted words, characters that speak plainly (even though they frequently misunderstand each other), and a real feel for the inner workings of the criminal world. And both Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter and LAX's The Hot Rock make a good fist of adapting the books into comics form. They're both pretty faithful, each going for a period approach, with only small changes to the structures: some added swearing and the omission of a twist ending in The Hunter; a dash of nudity at the start of The Hot Rock that isn't the in the novel. Where they differ is in their comics storytelling chops.

Cooke and LAX are both, in their own ways, excellent artists. Cooke is very much in the American tradition of artists like Alex Toth and Bruce Timm, with a little David Mazzucchelli mixed in: a stylist, for sure, with a clever and pleasing shorthand, but grounded in believable anatomy and surroundings. LAX is more akin to European artists like Jacques Tardi, with a mildly distorted, elegant linework and character features which can approach caricature. But whatever your personal stylistic preference (and mine, I should make clear, is for Cooke), where Cooke wins out is in his ability to tell a story in comics form.

You can see this most clearly in how each artist approaches the opening sequences of the two books. Cooke opt for a bravura, largely wordless opening in The Hunter, tracking Parker as he makes his way across New York's George Washington Bridge on foot, then showing him faking a driver's license, appropriating some poor schmuck's bank account, buying new threads and swindling cash, then finally coming to rest in a hotel room with a pint of vodka, all of which is lifted straight from the first chapter of the novel. It's a supreme piece of storytelling, imparting almost everything you need to know in images alone.

Oddly enough, LAX also has a sequence of 'silent' panels at the start of The Hot Rock, although nowhere near as extended as Cooke's. Dortmunder is released from prison, and as he walks along the sidewalk a car pulls alongside him. We know it's his associate, Kelp, who's driving the car, as LAX has already shown him stealing it, but Dortmunder doesn't know who it is in the car, so he panics and runs away. The car follows him until Dortmunder is trapped against a wall. Then Kelp reveals himself and says he couldn't work out how to roll down the electronic window to say hello. Dortmunder socks him in the eye.

Again, this is pretty much how things pan out in the novel too, except it's made much clearer in the novel that Kelp can't control the car because he's trying to work out the window buttons, so there's a little confusion in the graphic novel over why the car is swerving around so much. LAX doesn't help matters with his panel progression either; it's a jumpy, staccato choice of layout, with little flow from one panel to the next. That approach can work well in comics, but not in an establishing scene like this.

That haphazard storytelling follows through the rest of the graphic novel. Where Cooke opts for clearly defined sequences of exposition – filling in backstory, pausing for reflection – LAX scatters captions liberally, to the extent that it's not always apparent what's caption and what's dialogue. All of the words, regardless of whether they're captions or speech balloons, being placed in rectangles and in the same font also doesn't help here.

I don't want to be too down on LAX's The Hot Rock. It is a good graphic novel, a largely faithful adaptation that captures the tone of the novel (although personally I wasn't keen on the artist's interpretation of some of the characters, Greenwood in particular). If you know the novel, you'll enjoy this version of it, and if you don't, it's a pretty good way into Westlake's world. But what I really took away from it was an even greater appreciation of Cooke's The Hunter. Even before I read the LAX book I was finding new things each time I returned to Cooke's graphic novel, but now its elegant simplicity has been thrown into even greater relief for me. I'd go so far as to rank it as the best graphic novel of last year, above Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp even. It really is that great.

In a just universe – just for LAX, that is – Cooke's The Hunter wouldn't exist, and LAX's The Hot Rock would stand tall as the best graphic novel adaptation of Westlake's work; the creator obviously put a lot of effort into it and the results are enjoyable. Unfortunately – again, for LAX, but not so much for us – in The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke produced not only a great adaptation, but a dazzling work of comics storytelling in its own right. Hate to say it, but sux to be LAX.

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