Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire graphic novel (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, June 05, 2014

There's a bit too much coincidence here for it to be coincidence.

That's what I thought as I read the climactic last pages of Denise Mina's graphic novel adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire from DC/Vertigo. The book is filled with credulity-bending coincidences, including characters who barely know one another having all the same friends and, apparently, many of the same enemies. But it comes to a head when a major bad guy is defeated just by a stroke of right place, right time luck; at that point, it becomes clear the amount of fortuity in the book is not accidental.

The Played with Fire graphic novel is intriguing and thrilling and best of all, long. This and Paul Dini's Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell don't necessarily play to the same audiences, but as DC Comics's two most recent original graphic novel releases, Fire is about double Bloodspell's size (and Bloodspell is even shorter if you take away the extras). This is to say that Fire really feels like a graphic novel, something you can sink your teeth into, and I applaud that DC released it as one whole volume instead of two parts like Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. That helps the readability a lot.

However, while I liked this book and would happily read the third volume, some difficulties with the graphic novel adaptation of the first book still apply here. As I've said before, I have not read Larsson's original novels (though these adaptations do make me eager to do so), and it continues to feel to me like Mina adapts these books in favor of someone who's already read the novels and wants a supplemental experience, not someone coming to the books fresh. I can't fault Mina for subtlety, but at times I found sequences too subtle, and the artists didn't do a sufficient job conveying to me what Lisbeth Salander and others were thinking through expressions alone.

The art was perhaps more consistent in this volume than in Tattoo, where Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti each did well, but their styles differed so much that it was jarring when the artist sometimes changed from page to page. There's no good list of which artist does what in either book, but it seems to me here that Manco bows out fairly early and that Mutti and Antonio Fuso share the rest, and their styles blend perfectly. The only catch -- and this goes again to at what audience the book is directed -- is that there's two or three men with short-cut, blond hair and also a couple of men with goatees, and it's often tough to tell them apart (I read an entire scene thinking one of the bad guys was hero Mikael Blomkvist).

The only other stumbling block in Girl Who Played with Fire is an odd bit of perspective-shifting in the second act -- not wrong necessarily, but unusual -- that I as an unenlightened reader couldn't tell if this was part of Larsson's original design or Mina's fiat.

[Review contains spoilers]

Larsson and Mina do well by a sequel to Tattoo, in that the first book was a somewhat straight whodunit but the second book is a more traditional thriller. We have the same characters and the same tone, but an entirely different set of circumstances, which keeps it fresh. Compare, ludicrously, to the Mission Impossible movies, where they never complete missions so much as every time it seems the spy organization has crumbled and the agents are on their own; in contrast, in the first book, Larsson actually gave us the characters doing their jobs, such that in the second book the characters can be the targets this time and the adventure feels fresh, not re-hashed.

The authors also engage in some world-building here, appropriate for a second volume. Setting aside for a moment the entire cast of police officers introduced, here we actually learn the names of characters like Blomkvist's sister and Salander's girlfriend, and we meet Paulo Roberto, who's both Blomkvist and Salander's boxing instructor. This is just one of the book's many coincidences; on one hand, the authors expand this world but also keep it tightly knit by tying many characters to both Blomkvist and Salander separately, but on the other hand, given all the investigating Salander did of Blomkvist last time, it's hard to believe said connection wouldn't have come out earlier.

The coincidences become harder to believe from there: that Gunnar Bjork, whom Salander's abusive guardian Nils Bjurman contacts about killing Salander, also happens to be a key source in an expose that Blomkvist's Millennium magazine just happens to be writing about at that moment; that Ronald Niederman arrives to kill Bjurman just at the very moment Bjurman has received a random phone call from a Millennium staff member; that at least twice characters happen to travel by when other characters are being assaulted or abducted; that the man that Millennium is hunting just happens to turn out to be Salander's father; and most pointedly, at the end, that Blomkvist, driving around lost, happens to hit Niederman with his car.

This last one, which more than the rest really works in the book as "luck," solidified for me that all of these coincidences are, if not random, then at least the product of authorial intention. To an extent, what the authors try to say in this book is that nothing is coincidence; Salander believes herself to be the victim of a number of unlucky turns of the law, but what we come to find is that many of the bad things that happened to Salander are by design of her father pulling the strings behind the scenes. In presenting a series of too-easy coincidences, the book actually invites a certain paranoia -- what if they actually are out to get you, just the same as they actually are out to get Salander? All of this makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read, including the number of levels on which Larsson's Girl Who Played with Fire title resonates.

As regards those police officers, Mina and company devote a "who's who" kind of page smack in the middle of the book to introducing them by name, even as the same has never been done for the Millennium staff or the Milton Security staff where Salander works. It's almost as thought you're watching Bourne Identity and then an episode of Law & Order starts half-way in, complete with credits, plays through, and then Bourne picks up again. I liked it, I'll admit, sucker as I am for police procedurals (and whatever artist handles it evokes police procedural artist extraordinaire Michael Lark [Gotham Central]), but it's a bizarre left-turn from the already-established characters. If, perhaps, these police characters reappear in the third volume, maybe their over-the-top introduction makes sense, but I couldn't tell if this choice was Mina's or from Larsson's original, and frankly there were plenty other characters I could have used an introduction page for aside from the police.

In all, however, Denise Mina's second adaptation of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy," The Girl Who Played with Fire, is plenty enjoyable, and seems to use the graphic novel format better than the first volume(s) -- more characters, more subplots, more of a general winding narrative that feels less rushed and more like someone telling a story. I felt iffy at times reading the first volume(s), but the second definitely whetted my appetite for the third.
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