Review: Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest graphic novel (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Monday, August 10, 2015

More than anything else, the scope of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" astounds, that what started as a whodunit involving a missing heiress has come to this, an investigation of government corruption at the highest levels. Larsson's volumes -- as adapted for comics by Denise Mina, Andrea Mutti, and Antonio Fuso -- have been murder mystery and thriller, and the third volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, emerges as a surprisingly bloodless (for the most part) legal drama. It is assuredly an important coda for the other two books, especially the second, Girl Who Played with Fire; at the same time, it is markedly quiet, with Fire being the most action-packed climax and Hornet's being a somewhat elongated epilogue. That's odd but not bad per se, with the focus mostly (and perhaps, finally) on the circumstances of the characters themselves.

I have not read Larsson's originals, only Mina's Vertigo adaptations, and I can say that Mina's adaptations do succeed in whetting my appetite for reading Larsson himself and (you can tell me if this is blasphemy) the David Lagercrantz continuation (which maybe Vertigo would also adapt?). Still, previous difficulties as to too-subtle scenes and too-similar-looking characters continue here; I have routinely found Mina's adaptations more comprehensible in the re-read, but with Hornet's Nest I felt I had more trouble than with any of the previous volumes (even if I was better prepared this time).

[Review contains spoilers]

Girl Who Played with Fire picked up some weeks or months after Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and though there was some continuation of characters, these were mainly two (seemingly) separate stories with the same protagonists. In contrast, Hornet's Nest starts almost immediately after the end of Fire, and again, it is the extended denouement to Fire's build-up. Of the three, then, Dragon Tattoo emerges as the odd-man-out; while certainly containing important events, Tattoo's A-plot, the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, is all but forgotten by Hornet's Nest, and it's instead the "B-plot" (so to speak) -- Nils Bjurman's rape of hacker Lisbeth Salander and her subsequent revenge, the general themes of violence against woman -- that affects Hornet's Nest the most.

There's a convincing argument to be made that Tattoo's story of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander working together under "normal" circumstances informs the relationships of Fire and Hornet's Nest. Yet, for Tattoo to be so disconnected from the other books perhaps suggests some narrative unevenness; the books work as a "series" but not really as a "trilogy," a knot that's impossible to untie with Larsson's death.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hornet's Nest -- whether as an intentional conclusion or not -- is how many of the other two books' metaphorical chickens come home to roost here. Just about every event that's taken place unbeknownst to other characters comes to light here, and swiftly, including Bjurman's rape and Salander's recording of it, the abuse Salander suffered at the hands of Dr. Teleborian, Lisbeth attacking and tattooing Bjurman's body, even Blomkvist's paramour Erika Berger's plans to leave the Millennium magazine. Even as everyone knows everything, however, the lynchpin -- and perhaps the book's greatest non-physical struggle -- is Salander finally being able to articulate herself what's been done to her, and even then, Larsson and Mina demonstrate what a struggle this is: that Salandar has been so mistreated that she can't even speak the truth, but has to write it and show it through video instead.

There's also the way in which, in the conclusion of this un-trilogy, Larsson deconstructs the very "superheroic" ideas on which the first two books are built (one wiser than I might consider if Mina, with the benefit of hindsight, adapts the books in a greater trilological structure than they originally offered). Salander and Blomkvist, at their roots, are the archetypical investigator, the hard-boiled detective, and the superhero, in Salander's extra-normal hacking and detecting abilities and both of their penchant for getting out of scrapes. Each have committed violence, even facilitating or intending murder, but by no stretch do we consider them villains because we know their intentions and the extenuating circumstances, and/or their vengeance is always on the side of the angels.

Quickly in Hornet's Nest, however, cowboy justice collides with the real world, essentially. Never mind that Salander's father Alexander "Zala" Zalachenko has been trying to have her captured and killed, Salander still went to Zala's farmhouse without immediate threat of danger, stalked him, and hit him in the face with an axe; that's comic book justice, but the police in the book see it as assault. Similarly, when Blomkvist very earnestly solicits extra-lawful help for Salander from Dragan Armansky, her security-firm boss, he nearly laughs Blomkvist out of his office. These are characters used to playing by their own rules, but again when all the chickens come home to roost, they're confronted with the way that they've been living, here at the "end" of the story, is itself a kind of heroic fiction.

Larsson and Mina don't reserve this rude awakening just for the good guys, however. In a string of scenes throughout the book (so many, after well making the point, that I could hardly keep up with the characters) the police arrest various corrupt government officials, the government official makes a familiar threat along the lines of "Don't you know who I am," and the officers laugh it off. These are threats that, in the course of a usual police procedural, often work, but fail so miserably here as to suggest a kind of post-Hornet's Nest utopia in which all corruption has been eradicated. Among the unfortunate aspects of Larsson's passing is that we don't get to see how he would have created drama in a world where, to a great extent, the police have brought peace and neither bad guys nor good guys have the privilege of extremity any longer. Hornet's Nest works as a strange conclusion in this way in that there's no one in the end left to fight, nor anyone but "regular joes" to do the fighting.

Mina rightly reserves the last pages for a final conversation between Salander and Blomkvist, who haven't really seen each other since the end of Tattoo. As is appropriate, Blomkvist has let go their sexual tension, and his "can't we be friends" is where he should have started initially, much the same as we see Lisbeth finally warming to the idea of friendship.

That we get this scene is somewhat fortuitous, however, because quite aside from the A-plot of securing Salander's freedom, one senses so much of the book ending up on the cutting room floor -- among other things, again, the identities of the umpteen characters arrested at the end; whatever happens to Dr. Jonasson, among the few people in positions of authority to treat Salander with respect; and that ladies man Blomkvist falls in love (supposedly for real this time) with a government spy, an important part of Blomkvist's arc relegated to a handful of panels. It is also at times repetitive, as in multiple hospital scenes of Zala professing his innocence. As well, while artists Mutti and Fuso offer dramatic work with good use of shadows, still as in the other books it's tough to tell the difference between some characters (Bjurman, Teleborian, and Jonasson all being men with goatees and glasses, for instance), and this is especially problematic with this book's almost unending army of supporting characters.

Of Denise Mina's three "Millennium Trilogy" adaptations, Girl Who Played with Fire was a better read at least for this uninitiated reader, but again, I don't discount the dramatic weight of Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. You might need a pad of paper next to you to write down and keep track of all the characters, but taken as a whole Vertigo's series of adaptations are good, and acquits Larsson's books well.

[Includes art and sketches]
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