Becoming John McClane: Reshaping an American Icon in ‘Die Hard: Year One’

[29 November 2010]

By James Orbesen

Comicbooks are inundated with origin stories. Every good character, scratch that, every character comes equipped with an entire five- or six-issue long origin story that divulges the nitty gritty. The old tag line of “who he is and how he came to be” is one that is applied to almost every character. This is due to the insistence on pointing out an individual’s origins and identity. Knowing a person’s roots makes them far more identifiable. Perhaps this is the impetus behind BOOM! Studio’s Die Hard: Year One.

The Year One phenomenon, decades after its introduction, is alive and well in American comicbooks today. Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One began the modern trend of revisionist origin stories. Before this origin stories were integral to a character but were often an afterthought, clearly regarded but mostly undisturbed. Miller, in giving the world one of comics’ best origin stories, opened up the field to a bevy of imitators and emulators. Each artist sought to redefine the essence of a comic book character.

Original comic book origin stories were highly compressed affairs that lasted only pages. Peter Parker’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15 was only a handful of panels. Writer Brian Michael Bendis famously transformed this dense tale into the multiple issue long saga in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. Modern comics rely on a continual series of updates and reinventions to redefine characters for a contemporary audience. One need look no further than Green Lantern: Rebirth, The Flash: Rebirth and Superman: Secret Origin as evidence of modern comics’ continued obsession with identity and origin.

Into this mix steps a highly unlikely candidate for a similar graphic novel redefinition. John McClane is an American icon that is near and dear to many. The exploits of the quintessential wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time are as applauded as any comic book hero. Who else can garner applause through the timely application of the ever poignant “yippe-kai-yay motherfucker” than Officer John McClane?

Boom! Studio’s Die Hard: Year One attempts to cash in on the comic origin story craze by subjecting McClane to a drawn out and detailed origin tale. Written by Howard Chaykin, the story follows McClane’s time as a rookie beat cop on the mean streets of New York mid 1970s. The character does what he does best by being the perpetual wrench in the works of criminals, terrorists and general ne’er-do-wells.

It’s interesting to compare a pivotal scene in the first Die Hard to the efforts of Boom! on Die Hard: Year One. McClane, arguably, is in the position of greatest strength in Nakatomi Plaza while he is unknown. The hero is able to strike with relative impunity against the legions of Hans Gruber, portrayed by Alan Rickman, when his identity is unrevealed. Only after his cover is blown and Gruber is able to begin honing in on McClane, striking against him the deepest in the film’s climax by taking his faux-wife Holly hostage, does the odds against the officer begin to multiply.

Fiction characters can afford the luxury of being unknown and unidentified. Actual people are unable to escape society’s impulses that goad people into divulging and living their origin stories. It’s fitting really. Being able to identify with a person is partially due to understanding where he or she is coming from. However, certain fictional characters thrive on having an un-established origin story. Is Wolverine truly better off as a character after countless miniseries, an ongoing comic and a movie that have examined his origins? Would the Joker be complete if he was given a definite origin story? Moving beyond comics, do the Star Wars prequels really enhance the character of Anakin Skywalker, or is the tragedy of Darth Vader trivialized due to Hayden Christensen’s portrayal?

Die Hard: Year One falls into this similar quandary by delving into the back story of John McClane. The tale seems to diminish the character rather than enhance him. Chaykin’s tale is workable at best but unintentionally harms the character through this piece of continuity lying.

The mystery of McClane’s origins are removed and replaced with a yarn that seems uninspired and pedestrian. Instead of enhancing the renown of this hero cop the story does little more than leave the reader quizzically wondering how this man could defeat a cohort of West German revolutionaries. The wonder and persona created by filmmakers around John McClane become diminished when hard facts and origins stories start to crop up.

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