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

James Orbesen
On The Day Before: Acclaimed comics writer Howard Chaykin tells the story that starts John McClane on the road to becoming the hero of the Die Hard movies.

Origin stories offer amazing insights of characterization. What was the hero or villain like, taking those first steps? In Die Hard: Year One legendary comics writer Howard Chaykin tests his mettle against the iconic John McClane

Die Hard: Year One

Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Length: 113 pages
Writer: Howard Chaykin
Publication Date: 2010-09

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.