Where does one draw the line between homage and rip-off? Ask Cole Caudle, but only if you wanna risk getting shot in the face...
Charley Varrick really was right up my alley. Just as my Good Friend insisted it would be. The hard-boiled tough guy themes playing out before my eyes were a scene to behold. And Good was right on another count: Vernon’s character certainly does explain to an underling that he may possibly be on the business end of “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Predating Quentin Tarantino's phenomenally successful Pulp Fiction, where that same image was used to a different effect, Charley Varrick proves to be inspirational to one of the most popular filmmakers of the '90s and on. It was hard not to admire Tarantino's homage to his precursor.
But honestly, deep-down, Pulp Fiction began to feel like a rip-off.
Reading Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer’s original graphic novel, Last of the Independents, one has pretty much the same reaction -- here is another riff on the now seminal Charley Varrick. Charley Varrick itself runs like a masterpiece theater of small-time crime. Much like Jim Thompson's New Noir style, but nowhere near as psychologically demanding. In the movie, Walter Matthau plays the title character, a small-time crop-duster/bank-heister, who accidentally steals money belonging to the Mafia, and he spends the rest of the movie outwitting the cops, his partner, and the mob alike.
Last of the Independents pretty much lifts this entire premise, as well as a few other plot elements. But upon a second viewing of the film and a second reading of the comic, the difference between homage and outright rip-off becomes evident in the body of the work itself.
Composer John Oswald’s Plunderphonics is a clear analogy. Oswald takes entire songs and -- for lack of a better word -- remixes them. But that simple term has become too frequent in the popular lexicon, and using it here undermines the complexity of Oswald’s work. Oswald does not create new versions of popular songs, but new songs entirely out of the whole cloth of the originals. A personal favorite track, “Mother,” is an exquisite mash-up of the MC5’s brilliant Kick Out the Jams record, capturing all the energy and power of that album in just about 120 seconds.
With similar skill and passion, Fraction and Dwyer's Last of the Independents captures the energy and power of Charley Varrick in just about 104 pages.
The narrative is almost a mirror reflection of Charley Varrick. In Last of the Independents, Cole Caudle is a small-time crop-duster/bank-heister. Along with his wife Justine and good friend and man-child Billy, Cole knocks over a backwater bank. Unfortunately, the Vegas mob was using this bank as a weigh station for laundered money. Now Cole and company have much more to worry about than just having to escape the long arm of the law.
Cole, like his counterparts in Charley Varrick, Point Blank, Walking Tall, and other similarly-genred movies of late 20th century Americana, personifies the Blue-Collar Guy. He’s not greedy; he’s just out for his slice of the American dream. And when gangster thugs come a-calling to Cole’s (a decrepit amusement park in the middle of nowhere) their slick urban business ethics are of little use against Cole’s down-home, plain ol’ thinking-on-his-feet.
Cole perseveres and overcomes his enemies by relying on his quick wit and an amount of sheer fearlessness. Fraction’s short-clipped, punchy dialogue captures this mindset perfectly. Every line is best uttered with a lit cigarette perched between the lips. Not only is Dwyer’s art at his personal best, but the subtle presentation of the book itself adds to the variety of tribute in use here. Each page is done in a sepia-toned stain. This leaves readers with the strong impression of a grainy film strip, a perfect visual, but also emotional sense for the story. The book itself is presented landscape rather than portrait. With the reader having to hold the book as it is lengthened horizontally, a further dimension of silver screen-ness is added to the over-all work.
While Last of the Independents does share many striking similarities to Charley Varrick, it is very much its own work. Just as Oswald might take songs and effectively “play” them to create new tracks, so too do Fraction and Dwyer take Charley Varrick and its '70s tough-guy flick brethren and create a new work. This is a fine comicbook crime-drama, and is supported by a great and original comics scheme.