Too Dead to Die

Too Dead to Die

Marc Guggenheim, Howard Chaykin, Yen Nitro, Ken Bruzenak & Dave Johnson

Image Comics


176 pages

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Collaboration is a hell of a thing. Despite the pointless artist vs. writer wars that break out periodically on social media, some of the best comics–the best of almost all artforms–have been the products of close and fruitful collaboration between sympathetic creators. Even when the collaborators aren’t close colleagues, or have fundamental creative differences, they can produce great art; the early history of Marvel Comics tells that story well enough. Francis Ford Coppola, the anti-war radical, and John Milius, the pro-war hawk, agreed on almost nothing, and, at times during the filming of Apocalypse Now, seemed as if they were making two different movies. But the result was a masterpiece.

So, what are we to make of Too Dead to Die, “A Simon Cross Thriller” that was birthed from the curious collaboration between writer Marc Guggenheim and artist Howard Chaykin? I don’t know much about how it came to be; I don’t know about their professional or personal relationship. Maybe they’re the best of friends and their creative process was simpatico all the way. But I do know the result, and it’s a mess. I don’t know why it exists, what it’s trying to accomplish, or why it had to be told at all, let alone by these two people.

It's easy enough to summarize Too Dead to Die, which is written in that kind of assumed cultural media res where we’re supposed to pretend we already know all about the main character, as if he’s an existing pop-culture icon. And, in a way, he is: Simon Cross is James Bond, but old and American. That’s pretty much all there is to it! Almost 40 years removed from his golden age as the CIA’s number-one super-spy, he’s gotten old and out of shape, and has to settle for bedding the cougar next door instead of a bevy of international hotties. But then… something happens that brings him out of retirement!

You can probably guess what that thing is, because Too Dead to Die is painfully formulaic. Who is A.X.I.S., the evil organization with the skull logo that wants to take over the world? Who knows? Why do they resurface as an international corporation that employs brilliant environmental scientists, only to twist their research into a vaguely defined earthquake bomb? Who cares. Why is Simon Cross old, tired and incompetent with computers in one scene, and an expert hacker, full of vim and vigor, and able to fight off legions of trained attackers in the next? Because the script requires it.

That script is by Guggenheim, who has his fingers in a lot of comic property pies but is now probably most famous for being a co-creator on the superhero television shows Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. I’m not a fan of Arrow, but Legends is not without charm. Either way, any given episode of any show Guggenheim has ever worked on is better than this thing, which doesn’t work as–and doesn’t really seem to be intended as–a parody, a satire, an homage, or any recognizable form of deconstruction or reinvention. It’s not even really that campy, though it tries to be with characters sporting names like “Liberty Nuance” and “Olivia Goodlay”. Generally speaking, female characters exist to break balls, get fucked, and get killed, more or less in that order.

Howard Chaykin used to do this sort of thing right, which is why he’s a comic book legend. It’s not that he ever eschewed this sort of action-thriller framework; far from it, he thrived on it. But Chaykin always found a way to twist the story, to put his own imprimatur on it: he kept all the trappings of square-jawed, hyper-competent, utterly masculine heroes and the sassy, brassy women who loved them, but managed to make them funny, or surreal, or subversive, or just deeply weird. In projects like American Flagg!, Blackhawk, The Shadow, Dominic Fortune, and Black Kiss, he provided endlessly entertaining variations on the same basic theme. His art–marked by the dynamic motion and unforgettable facial expressions he learned from Gil Kane, and his own unique ability to imbue objects with detail and energy–has lost a step; he’s 72, after all, and has started to rely on some cheap tricks that lessen the laborious effort it requires to produce comic art. But he’s still Howard Chaykin, and that still means something.

Hence this collaboration. It’s not their first, but it is their worst. Guggenheim and Chaykin worked together for a year on Blade for Marvel, and it was superior in every way: it had a sense of energy, and a closer understanding of camp and subversion than can be found anywhere in Too Dead to Die. The plot is as thin as rice paper, the dialogue tries to be clever but just ends up being completely forgettable, and the motivations and backstory are essentially nonexistent. This might be okay if Simon Cross were an established property and we could fill in the empty space he occupies on the page with previously existing elements, but since he’s a new character whose through-line is ‘Derek Flint with IKEA jokes’, there’s just no there there.

Too Dead to Die, for all the star power behind its creators, is a collaboration where neither side brings their best. Guggenheim’s fondness for characters, sense of fun, and experience with the form is nowhere to be found, and Chaykin’s boundless energy, perfect eye for detail, and subversive storytelling techniques are either muted or absent. Its quips are empty, its references are corny, and it never delivers any tension or stakes. What remains is a lunkheaded, half-formed iteration of a genre whose time is long past, without the originality of the characters it’s trying to evoke or any new elements that might refresh them or show them in a new light. None of it sticks, in the mind or to the ribs. Its closing declaration that “Simon Cross Always Returns” should be read more as a threat than a promise.