The second volume of Denise Mina's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better than the first, both in plot and characterization. The second volume benefits from the principle characters actually meeting and working together, plus considerably more of the mystery unfolds. As well, Mina, with artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti, captures more of the characters' subtleties this time, especially in their dialogue, making for a volume that needed less careful parsing and offered more enjoyment.
[Review contains spoilers]
Though the first volume of this two-book series offered an interesting character study -- more so of Lisbeth Salander than Mikael Blomkvist -- it didn't ultimately feel like a satisfying read. Salander has an arc, in that she's raped by and then later takes revenge on her state guardian Nils Bjurman, but Blomkvist makes little headway in solving the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, and Salander and Blomkvist don't meet before the end of the book. The book felt less like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and more like Before Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The second volume makes up for this, however, and indeed to read the two books together is to get a much better reading experience (I wish Vertigo had released these as one truly novel-sized book, or that they eventually will). Within the first fifty pages, Blomkvist's daughter helps him find his first real lead in the case, and soon after Blomkvist hires Salander to assist him; they're getting shot at (and in bed together) before page 100.
I haven't read Larsson's books in print nor seen any of the movies, so I can't say whether the same is true to the originals, but in the second part of this tale considerably much more happens, and faster, than in the previous volume. That Blomkvist and Salander solve their case helps in no small part for the second book to feel more complete than the first; it probably doesn't hurt that the second volume has twenty more pages to tell its story than the first, too.
That Blomkvist makes no progress in the case in the first volume makes his storyline feel less necessary, contributing to the first volume's unevenness; the mystery, as it were, does not drive the story in the first volume. Perhaps it's Salander's personal storyline that gets short shrift in the second volume, but she's involved so much one would hardly notice, and indeed the psychological effects of Bjurman's attack permeate this book even if he physically appears in only one scene.
Indeed, in the second book Mina puts the comic book form to greater use to drive the book and show the states of the characters than in the first book; this second book feels positively more like a translation than an adaptation. This is most prominent in the phantom voices that taunt Salander about her assault -- Mina and artist Leonardo Manco depict these in floating instant message windows, on the backs of cell phones and the sides of purses, really giving the reader a sense of how inescapable Salander's trauma is. I also noted and appreciated that the only two-page spread in the book is where Blomkvist and his daughter talk and Blomkvist makes his first progress in the case. Blomkvist's break is highlighted by the spread, and the specialness of the paneling underlines the importance of the scene.
Mina has an unenviable task in trying to bring forth two characters voices on the page, both of whom are somewhat unemotional or disengaged from their surroundings. In the first book, some awkward paneling made it difficult to discern Salandar's social difficulties, requiring the audience to read a page over and over to "get it"; the extent to which Blomkvist is meant to be taken un-seriously, as something of a cad, was completely lost. In the second volume, sequences like Salander talking to her boss or Blomkvist bedding the emotionally-unstable Cecila are more direct, without being unsubtle; in comparison to Cecila's lovesick weeping, Blomkvist's disinterest becomes all the more clear.
Here again, the words and images are working together better than before; there's fewer panels that don't move the story forward, and a greater amount of the characters acting on the page in addition to the dialogue.
Again, the twenty extra pages here benefit the story immensely. Blomkvist and Salander have dispatched the bad guy, if not solved the mystery, a little after page 100, and that gives Mina fifty or sixty pages to really let the denouement unfold. This includes a couple of travels overseas that tease out the mystery's solution to the end, but I found even more interesting Salander's paranoia over her role in dispatching the villain. What is a victory for Blomkvist at the end of the book is not a victory for Salander, as Mina shows in the last pages as Blomkvist celebrates while Salander disappears to the streets.
When I'd only read the first book I wondered about the wisdom of Vertigo adapting Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as the first volume didn't seem to do enough to entice the non-comics reader to follow this series over two or three years. I still believe that; however, it equally seems to me that if a reader did return for the second book, they'll probably be enticed to get the third. Hopefully Vertigo plans a long game for these collections, released as individual volumes and then as larger collections or omnibuses (a collection of volumes one and two would be wise just before the third single volume comes out) -- the better reading experience is certainly in reading the two books together, getting the build-up and the resolution all together.
UPDATE: DC/Vertigo has changed their plans and the next book, Girl Who Played with Fire, will be released in May 2014 as one volume, not two. I think that makes a collected version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Vol. 1 and 2 even more likely.