Vertigo released Book 1 of its THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO graphic novel adaptation of the award-winning posthumously published Millennium Series novels by Stieg Larsson in 2012 in hardback, begging the question: do we really need a graphic novel of a series so popular that the novels fly off the shelves and two film adaptations (both Swedish and American) have already been made? But it’s more a question of what the comics format has to offer to the concept that the film versions haven’t done or can’t do in quite the same way. The choices that filmmakers have made in adapting the series also leave a great deal of room for alternative formats to bring out elements of the books that have been neglected or understated.
[*Spoilers for Book 1 but not for Book 2 ahead]
Firstly, there’s the English-language title, which Vertigo maintains, though the original Swedish title is, of course, Men Who Hate Women. The graphic novel series, more than the American film version, and perhaps more than the Swedish film series, emphasizes this theme with great consistency. In Book 1 from Vertigo, the narrative chapters are interspersed with what takes the place of single-issue covers or splash-pages in the form of artfully presented statistics about crimes against women in Sweden. The figures are sobering, and sometimes shocking, making American readers wonder how these stats compare to the USA. It’s a grounding in non-fictional reality that keeps reigning the story back into the society it depicts, reminding readers that the plot elements of DRAGON TATTOO may not be as fanciful as your average murder-mystery. Within the narrative of Book 1, also, smaller elements of characterization, setting, and back-story reinforce this theme even more fully than either film version. There’s a tension in the graphic novel between this overarching theme, which could well be the primary “message” of the story, and the massive gravitational pull of the appealing character, now pop culture icon, Lisbeth Salander. She steals the show at every turn. Hailed as a “super hero for grownups” by Vogue Magazine, getting sucked into her story becomes an experience of this abuse, but it’s easy to get caught up in her remarkable abilities and achievements and allow her origins in violence and trauma to fall by the wayside.
Book 2 of DRAGON TATTOO (set to be released May 7th 2013) shows the same focus, laudably, as Larsson’s series itself, and shows no signs of letting up as an investigation of gender-based crimes. Book 2 continues to cover ground contained in the first volume of the Millennium Series of books, the American film version (2011) and the two part Swedish film version of the first book, tracing the arrival of Lisbeth on the island to help shamed journalist Mikael Blomkvist piece together clues in the disappearance of another possibly wronged woman, Harriet Vanger 40 years previously. The grisly murders they investigate after deciphering coded information in Harriet’s journal reinforce the ongoing theme of the societal prevalence of violence against women.
While all of the essential plot elements that deal with violence against Lisbeth (at the hands of her state-appointed guardian), and the murder cases she investigates are present in the film adaptations, Denise Mina, who adapts the graphic novels, and Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti, who handle the artwork, decompress the narrative enough to give equal focus to violence against women as to action sequences and romantic encounters. This changes the feel of the storytelling and alters the reader’s sense of what the story is really “about”. It is certainly a story about a hero, Lisbeth, and a crusader, Mikael Blomkvist, but it also a story about society, a story that is essentially “ugly”, as it was branded when it first reached American readers. To be fair, the Swedish film version comes closer to giving this theme more space to breathe than the American film version, but the graphic novel trumps them both in this regard.
The graphic novel has another ace up its sleeve in terms of format in comparison to film: readers can control their own narrative pacing. But Book 1 goes beyond that allowance by including visual detail and more minor linking scenes in both Lisbeth’s and Mikael’s life that can provide more of a sense of the world that they inhabit. Manco and Mutti do an excellent job of loading panels with atmospheric elements that go beyond the utilitarian basics of storytelling. The Venger mansion is a relic loaded to the rafters with remnants of a past way of life, a kind of gracious opulence that can quickly turn into a sinister reminder of even worse times for social injustice. Giullia Brusco and Patricia Mulvihill’s colors on the graphic novel in Books 1 and 2 deserve special attention for contributing to this sense of differing social settings, from the more brash hues of Mikael’s life in the city, and later at the Venger mansion, to the more muted and moody world that Lisbeth inhabits. Brusco and Mulvihill’s wise decision to color code flashback sequences according to character works well, from Mikael’s sepia memories to Henrik Vanger’s blue-washed narratives of past events.
The tour de force, though, in colors, and also in lettering by Steve Wands, comes in Volume 2 when Lisbeth’s own flashbacks to recent traumatic events are depicted in a disjointed but overwhelming psychedelic repeat of phrases and images from her life, set in punk colors on a black background. Book 2 shows the same strengths as Book 1 in its unrushed pacing, attention to detail in setting, and also its commitment to establishing the psychology of its characters through preserving as much realistic minutiae as possible.
[Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film version]
Though Manco and Mutti’s artwork is fastidious throughout Books 1 and 2, it feels most confident when depicting Lisbeth. This may be because of Manco’s “dark and gritty” style, Volume 1 touts, established through working on comics such as HELLBLAZER, is given full reign. It provides the character with quite a wow factor, boosting the sense that she’s a form of superhero, since the art style that surrounds her often stands in contrast to the more staid (but nevertheless threatening) environments she moves through. She frequently seems to explode onto the scene, even when walking quietly, and is depicted in a heroic lower than eye-level perspective. Her qualities, suggested and emphasized by the artwork, are even more apparent once she reaches the Venger estate. It’s as if her personality, and visually the art-style surrounding her, disturbs and undermines the heavily ornamented, and static, world of the past. While this visual contrast is established in Book 1, it’s even more apparent, and even more effective in Book 2 because of changing environments.
[American film version poster]
Book 1 of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was promising, setting up a lot of potential for telling a story in a way distinct from film versions that have been made, and though Book 2 by nature doesn’t have the same introductory force of Book 1, it does form a remarkably seamless development on the best features of the earlier volume from emphasizing violence against women as a governing, haunting theme, to including more detail about the lives of its characters than film versions have allowed. Book 2 also preserves and enhances Lisbeth’s hero status visually and narratively while guiding the reader deeper into the mysteries surrounding Harriet Vanger’s disappearance. If the prevailing sense created by the same team in Book 1 is “this could all be real”, Book 2 explores the implications of that assumption and so has the potential to be even more disturbing and more compelling in its revelations. If readers want realism that comes closer to the original novels by Larsson than the film versions, the graphic novels provide that alternative while still capturing the larger than life elements of the characters that have made the story such a phenomenon in the first place.
Title: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Book 2/Publisher: DC Vertigo/Creative Team: Adapted by Denise Mina, Art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti/Colors by Giulia Brusco and Patricia Mulvihill/Letters by Steve Wands
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.