Battaglia’s Drawing Board: ‘The Killer’, Martin Scorsese, And A Fantasy Frog Adventure
Before we begin, an introduction is in order.
For those who don’t know me, my name is Matt Battaglia, I’m an independent comic book illustrator, and I’d like to welcome you to the first installment of Battaglia’s Drawing Board.
Thanks to this new partnership with Bounding Into Comics, I’ve been allowed this new column as a means through which to share my thoughts on various topics with our audience, primarily focusing on one ‘big topic’ at the top and closing everything out with an assortment of my thoughts on various pop-culture-related topics.
Today, I’m going to try working out some feelings about The Killer (both the comic books and the movie) before offering my take on a few comics that I’m either currently or just finished reading.
It’s likely going to be a bit stream of consciousness, so buckle up.
The Original The Killer Comic Book Took Me By Surprise…
This writing is a hair late but both the book and the movie are pretty easily accessible so consider it evergreen. David Fincher ‘adapted’ the Matz/Jacoben series The Killer into film, adding to the ‘lonely assassin starts to lose it’ genre. Matz’s writing was previously adapted into film in the Stallone vehicle directed by Walter Hill Bullet to the Head which, if memory serves, shared little with the book.
Matz’s The Killer and Bullet to the Head were both early experiences for me with bande dessinée (fancy French word for comics) — Archaia had picked up the Killer and put it into a nice hard back and Bullet to the Head was put out in floppies by Dynamite.
When I first read these comics, one of the things that stood out to me was the sheer density of their releases — to say that these books have a high panel count would be an understatement. Further, I was also taken aback by its unique art style.
At the time of release, US comics were going deep into the Hitch Ultimate — everything needed to be realistic. We still are deep in that vein as far as superhero comics are concerned, so finding these cartooned, yet still detailed panels — brimming with lush backgrounds and locations — was eye opening for me.
The Killer, the book I’m ostensibly here to talk about, is narrated by our eponymous Killer; a guy with a dark sense of humor in need of an audience to boast to about how smart he is (that’s you, the reader). While waiting on a victim to arrive at home, the Killer walks us through his backstory, how he got to be a contract killer (his first job comes from a nude co-ed, naturally), and some of his first hits.
As he waits he gets impatient and begins to crack. The comic handles this with broken panels — strips of panels are skewed so as to distort the illustrations. It’s a nice visual touch that emphasizes that, no matter how cool and collected this hitman presents himself as being in both his own narration and through Jacoben’s drawings of him, things are not truly in control.
The illustrations in the book are lush, colorful, and filled with exotic locales. It oozes sex and style, it certainly shares DNA with Le Samurai (Melville and Delon film). Of course, it being French, The Killer features no shortage of sex and nudity — two elements which, outside of an explicit T&A offering or a Chaykin novel, you don’t see much of in American books.
...The Killer Film Adaptation, Less So
The movie adaptation of The Killer strips much of that style away. Fassbender’s near mute portrayal of the story’s dark protagonist, mixed with his flat reading of the Killer’s narration, makes the movie slog along.
The aesthetics of the film are perfect in that Fincher way; muted color, controlled camera movements, deliberate framing, beautiful lighting and the staging of the films’ one big fight scene is thrilling. However the locations feel drab and underutilized.
The book does well by being a travelogue of sorts by propelling you through exotic locations, all while the film adaptation does take you to France and the Dominican Republic (I think? It’s an island and, you know what? There’s nothing particularly specific shown to make it memorable).
The jaunt to New Orleans lacks any location specificity, and the Killer’s trip to New York eschews Manhattan for Upstate, which is fine, but essentially he just sits down for a chat with Tilda Swinton (who has the meatiest role in the film).
The final act in Chicago is also just a trip up and down a skyscraper and to a fancy gym. The scenes in Florida felt the most specific outside the opening in France, and it works well because of that.
The film’s trailer used some stylish sound design on the narration to give you the impression of Fassbender slipping up and losing it, the comic does this by having panels sliced up, but the film loses any kind of stylistic tell for his mental state, instead having Fassbender dryly read his mantra over and over.
Yes, while his mantra and his actions are out of sync, it all feels so clinical it’s hard to care.
The source material at least gives you something of a character to hold onto throughout the story. He has relationships, he’s humorous, and it’s generally established that he’s a bad guy killing other bad guys, so you don’t feel too bad about rooting for him.
Also, the cartooning and the overall style of the book is sexy and colorful. The movie stripped out all the sex and color, leaving you with a short scene with a battered revenge-plot-device of a girlfriend and a completely pulse-less movie.
It’s George Clooney’s The American without any passion, John Wick minus the wall-to-wall action. The final act of the movie does finally land on something that works and stands out; they do a great job showing you how the Killer plans and executes his final assignment, crafting a great sequence with some stylish overlays of screens. It’s at this moment that the movie feels like it’s finally working and putting things together. And then it ends.
When I left the theater, though, I was left ultimately disappointed.
I had remembered really enjoying the book when it first came out and so I sat down to re-read it to see whether it does in fact hold up as a quality book as time has passed since my initial reading. And the answer is yes… and no.
The art is still fantastic although there are some photoshop composites that stand out way more to me now than they did on release. The print production of the book has some issues (the printing is quite dark leading to some muddiness) and while the story holds up as a action/hitman book, I’m left feeling a bit numb by it.
The Killer as a character has his charms, but he’s not a hero, he’s hardly an anti-hero, he’s a vessel for murder with a black sense of humor, and that’s about it. Eventually the book has him blackmailed into working for a cartel and… whatever.
It’s ok. The art’s fantastic. But like the movie, it’s just not necessarily what I’m looking for these days.
What Else is Out There?
On the other side of revisiting The Killer, I picked up Streets of Paris, Streets Of Murder: The Complete Graphic Noir of Manchette and Tardi during Fantagraphics’ Black Friday sale. These books feel close to The Killer, but it’s a much more readable piece and I’d recommend it. It’s crime noir with some level of humanity to it – which I think is the thing both the book and the movie of The Killer lacked, and that’s why I was left wanting.
Simply put, when I first read The Killer circa 2007 I was 19 it makes a huge amount of sense that I was into it then, but. I’m glad that sitting here at 35 it doesn’t resonate beyond an aesthetic appreciation for the art, and I suppose that’s why I’ve held onto the book over the years, but reading the book was something of a slog.
Staying in the realm of film for a little while longer, I also saw Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, both of which covered different kinds of killers but they at least elicited some amount of feeling from me.
Killers of the Flower Moon was, I think, a Scorsese crime movie about truly evil men, traditionally his criminals are crooks but they tend to only involve and hurt other crooks or people within their orbit, which — to me — doesn’t make them particularly evil. Whereas the people in Killers of the Flower Moon are murdering innocent, uninvolved victims. I thought it was a well made film and worth watching. While I’m sure some are weary of perceived politics of it, I didn’t find that to be the case; it’s worth the runtime.
Napoleon was a mixed bag of a movie — feeling both too long for its own sake but also way too short for the story it was telling, there was a lot of connective tissue that felt like it was missing. I hope that when the 4-hour cut is released the movie holds up better (similar to, say, Kingdom of Heaven).
However, it did a wonderful job of reminding the viewer of the horribleness of war and the cruel indifference of the men who send others to their death. While the war scenes were well done and impressively filmed, Ridley Scott does an impressive job of never making them feel ‘cool’ — you never lose track of the fact that are hundreds of thousands of men losing their lives in horrible ways during these scenes.
Ultimately the movie suffered from the problem of casting Joaquin Phoenix, who is obviously much older than Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine — muddying up the whole question of why she can’t have kids — and the movie lacked scenes that would have helped those who don’t have a good grasp of the history behind the Napoleonic Wars to understand why certain events were happening. For example, Phoenix’s Napoleon is shown becoming allies with Tsar Alexander and trying to marry his sister but we see him invading Russia in the following scene. It’s just narrative whiplash.
However, both of these were more human and moving than The Killer and while I’m sure Fincher didn’t want you to be moved by the film — I’d like to spend my time with things that make me feel something.
Quick Hits and Maybe Good Gifts
Council of Frogs by Matt Emmons: I just started this but it’s wonderful, the artwork is charming and done with a pencil so it has this softness to it that highlights the innocence of the lead. Emmons is a fantastic cartoonist and the book is pretty friendly for all ages, so may be a great Christmas gift for young readers who enjoy fantasy.
This book pairs well with Linnea Sterte’s A Frog in the Fall which is also a beautiful frog-based all ages book — this one may be harder to get your hands on as the publisher, PEOW, seems to be in a constant state of will they or won’t they close. But the production and art are 100% worth it. Also Linnea’s other book Stages of Rot (which looks to be, sadly, out of print) is a fantastic read as well, just absolutely beautiful art.
Moonray by Brandon Graham and Xerox G. Penalta: Full disclosure the publisher of my book (House on Fire) Living the Line is also behind this one – with that said – it’s a great book. Brandon is doing his sci-fi world building thing that was in Prophet but this time he’s almost 100% behind the art. There are some interesting themes about finding purpose, it’s a good read and likely the best printed thing Brandon’s done.
I’d also highly recommend his last book Rain Like Hammers which was something of an exploration of identity. Brandon’s a very interesting cartoonist to follow while much of his earlier work has some more “smut” in it — he’s been hitting a more thoughtful stride of late and I think is producing some of his most approachable and broadly enjoyable works yet.
Tiempos Finales by Kickliy: There are two issue out currently and they are awesome. Basically a priest-demon hunter roams around killing big demons. There’s a side story at a nunnery which closes out both issues.
Amazing cartooning and if you enjoy things like Hellboy or Baltimore — this should be right up your alley. This is the kind of comic that should be in comic shops everywhere, it’s got style to spare and damnit it’s cartooned! None of that hyper-real-3D-model-traced-digital-lifelessness.