Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground review

I discovered Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novels back in 2012. In early 2013, I wrote reviews of all three comics that were out at the time. It wasn’t enough. I got hooked. Parker was such an interesting character. He’s as close to existential as possible while still maintaining and incredible amount of depth. I also fell in love with Stark’s writing still. It’s terse and it cuts you like tiny shards of broken glass but I enjoy it tremendously because the world Parker and the other characters live isn’t a place for a soft approach. You have to be hard as nails to survive and even harder to come out of the game with a little spending cash. I took a bit of a break from the novels, not because I didn’t enjoy them any longer but great novels, like candy or too much popcorn, can give you a sore stomach. I wanted to be able to walk away knowing I would return rather than be forced to quit because I had spoiled my appetite.

The only way 2013, my personal Year of Parker, could get any better was with new Parker material. Lucky me, there was a new movie but more importantly a new Cooke comic was published! The excited was short lived because I wasn’t very impressed. Needless to say, my initial reaction after reading Parker: Slayground is one of disappointment.

I was looking forward to Parker: Slayground in great part because of the reasons stated above. In addition to this, it would have been the first time I read the novel before the comic. I read the comic versions of The Hunter, The Outfit and The Score before reading the novels. It’s the other way around for Slayground. The interesting with the novel of the first three comics is that they were still excellent even though I was very familiar with the story. I was curious to know if it would work well the other way around. It turns out it wasn’t. Reading Parker: Slayground (the comic) made Slayground (the novel) that much more impressive to me.

Reading a story I’m already familiar with in a different medium made me realize that the story of Slayground seems to be much better suited to a novel than to a comic. There isn’t a whole lot of plot. The story is very good but it’s also very simple and Stark had to make it engaging by using a variety of techniques. In order to talk about why I think the story suits one medium more than the other I have to rely, once again, on the structure of a Parker story. I appreciate that Slayground follows the Parker formula while simultaneously trying to test the boundaries of the formula. Raymond Chandler once said:  “To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” Chandler said that in reference to his career writing in pulp magazines but Stark had a clearly defined structure for his Parker novels and Slayground is but one of his many attempts to exceed the limits of the structure without breaking it.  In my review of The Hunter I establish the five main elements of the formula:

1) Parker alone or with a crew prepares to pull a heist,
2) They do the job,
3) There is a double cross or a serious complication, 
4) Parker fixes the problem (for himself at least), and
5) Parker does everything he can to get his portion of the take. 

Slayground sticks to the formula but it shows then slightly out of order and some parts are only dealt with in the sequel (presumable, as I haven’t read it). The novel begins with part 2) and it immediately leads to part 3). The novel then takes a brief moment to present part 1) in a flashback. More of the novel then concerns itself with what happens between part 3) and part 4). The ending of the novel, and I’m not spoiling anything here, ends with part 4) which Parker getting clear of the mess. The comic does the same thing because the plot is closely related to the formula but it does so without adding much story. The comic gives us parts 2) and 3) in just a few pages and it ends with part 4), just like the novel. What doesn’t work is everything in between the complication and Parker fixing the problem isn’t interesting in the comic. It’s extremely well done, especially considering it’s mostly absent of caption boxes and speech bubbles. That’s also the problem. What made Slayground a good novel for me was spending so much time in Parker’s head and the growing tension that Stark was building before the confrontation with Parker and the crooks. The novel is tense because of all the waiting and the preparation Parker has to do.

Parker: Slayground isn’t Cooke’s best comic adaptation but it serves well as another example of Cooke’s mastery of comic book storytelling. In the same volume, Cooke includes what I can only surmise is condensed adaptation of another Parker novel: The Seventh. The Seventh is one of the novels I haven’t read and I’m pretty convinced that it’s an eleven page comic book adaptation included to make Parker: Slayground seem a little less thin. I for one am glad it was included because I enjoyed those 11 pages immensely. It’s different than his other Parker adaptation, primarily because of its length but Cooke effectively proves that not every adaptation needs to be of equal or similar length as the original story.

I’m far more critical of this Parker comic than I was the first three and that’s ok. Not every comic can be great but even so, I did enjoy Parker: Slayground quite a bit. Certain differences between the novel and the comic were a bit jarring. The physical confrontations are good examples of those differences. In the novel they are quick burst intercut by slow and suspenseful preparation but in the comic, they’re also quick but it all feels very impersonal. It’s too easy for Parker. In the novel he struggles to survive and every man he beats down or kills was the result of extensive preparation, utmost stubbornness and physical prowess on Parker’s part.

There will be another Parker comic in 2015. I have more than a year to wait and that’s ok because I hope this will give Cooke enough time to create something as gripping and intelligent as the first three comic adaptations. However, if I find the wait to be too long I can always continue reading the novels by Stark. That’s something I planned on doing anyway and you should too.

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