Monday, February 17, 2014

Hard Looks: Adapted Stories by Andrew Vachss

A sampling of dark crime fiction from a great comics series
I often envy my father’s and grandfather’s generations for growing up in the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. In those days every newsstand was loaded with inexpensive popular fiction of every conceivable genre, setting, and level of quality. In more recent times almost all of the pulp magazines have become extinct, and the niche they occupied has largely been filled by comic books. Ever since the “Silver Age” of the 1950s, however, superheroes have dominated the comics, shoving all other genres from the racks. In the early 1990s, back when I used to haunt the comic shops, one publisher that attempted to rectify this matter was Dark Horse Comics. They published a line of quality titles in the areas of movie adaptations, science fiction, horror, mystery, and crime. One series that fell under the latter category was Hard Looks, which ran from 1992 to 1993 and consisted of graphic interpretations of short stories by crime writer Andrew Vachss. In 1994, Dark Horse published a Hard Looks trade paperback, with a second edition in 2002. This collection includes 17 stories by Vachss. Eleven of them are comic adaptations; the other six are text stories accompanied by spot illustrations.

I read a couple Vachss books twenty-some years ago and was never very impressed with him as a novelist. His short stories are better, and lend themselves extremely well to graphic adaptation. What I like best about Vachss is simply his commitment to the comics medium. Hard Looks is only one of several comics projects he’s undertaken. Why don’t more genre fiction writers follow his example? The stories in Hard Looks are gritty tales of urban crime. The images—provided by artists Geof Darrow, Gary Gianni, Dave Gibbons, and others—often have the dark and stark flavor of film noir. Yet for the most part, this is not the sort of glorified, romanticized violence one finds in Frank Miller’s Sin City. Vachss has worked as an attorney, a social worker, a prison director, and a child advocate, and incorporates experiences from these occupations into his stories. His tales are populated by teenage gangsters, dirty cops, shifty lawyers, child molesters, rapists, and serial killers. Occasionally he drifts farther afield. “Half Breed” ventures into fantasy and horror territory, “Warlord” is set in the world of 1950s street gangs, and “Lynch Law” is a racially charged tale set in the American South in 1959. The rest take place in a brutal criminal underbelly of contemporary America that’s all the more shocking because it’s based on reality.

Not every story is a masterpiece, but overall they are quite good. Among the best are “Drive By,” in which a teenager tries to prove his worth to a gangster by attacking a rival gang; “Treatment,” which deals with the psychological rehabilitation of a sex offender; “Step on a Crack,” about two childhood friends who drift apart to opposite sides of the law; and “Hostage,” in which a police negotiator tries to coax an unstable gunman to release his captive. They’re all written in an unflinchingly realistic style and often end with a surprising twist.

The Hard Looks series ran for ten issues. This is not a complete compendium, but rather a “greatest hits” collection. Dark Horse recently published a second collection entitled Harder Looks, which appears to be available only in e-book format. What they should really do is publish a complete collection of all ten issues in one inexpensive, newsprint omnibus edition, similar to the Marvel Essentials series. Hard Looks was a great experiment in comic literature, and deserves to be resurrected and made available to a whole new audience. Until that happens, however, this volume will do just fine.

Stories in this collection
Drive By (art by Gary Gianni)
Replay (art by Bruce Jones)
Half Breed (text; illustrations by Geof Darrow)
Born Bad (art by Doug D’Antiquis)
Lynch Law (art by Warren Pleece)
Head Case (text; illustrations by Geof Darrow) 
A Flash of White (art by David Lloyd)
Cripple (art by George Pratt)
Statute of Limitations (text; illustrations by Tim Bradstreet) 
Treatment (art by Chris Moeller)
Tag (text only) 
Step on a Crack (text; illustrations by Warren Pleece) 
Hostage (art by Gary Gianni)
Dumping Ground (art by Dave Gibbons)
Date Rape (text; illustrations by Tony Fitzpatrick) 
Warlord (art by Paul Guinan and Tony Adkins)

Man to Man (art by Jack Pollack)

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