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Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scarface Lives | You can't keep a crazy gangster down

Seattle Times staff reporter

Midway through this interview, John Layman's cat pukes.

They're sensitive animals, mang, and you might gag a little, too, if you were listening to Layman gleefully describe one of the stomach-turning murders in his new comic book, "Scarface: Scarred for Life" (IDW Publishing, for mature readers, $3.99). The Seattle writer's grotesquely funny resurrection of Tony Montana is the latest in a pop-culture renaissance of Al Pacino's Cuban gangster that stretches from hip-hop to video games and beyond.

With the wild, graffiti-stylized illustrations of Dave Crosland, Layman's story picks up where Brian de Palma's 1983 epic film "Scarface" left off — except Tony survives the monumental climactic shootout. (See: "Say hello to my little friend!") This is no small feat, as Tony, fueled by a nosedive into a "Close Encounters"-sized mountain of cocaine, gets perforated by mucho bullets before a shotgun blast in the back finally puts him down.

"There's a huge suspension of disbelief for the readers that this guy ended up surviving 25 bullets or whatever," Layman says, "and we don't gloss over the fact that he's really messed up."

He likens "Scarface" to a "Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, with guns, with coke, with bikini girls in Miami, set in the '80s with cheesy '80s soundtrack." Tony comes across in the 1980 Mariel boat lift and pulls himself up by his bootstraps. But he's one of the numerous violent felons among the 125,000 refugees and does so by knocking off scores of people.

In Layman's five-issue series — whose first issue is on sale now — Tony lies in a coma recovering for months on end, then wakes up to find his Miami drug empire gone. "Thematically, it's the same as the movie, in that he's got to fight and kill his way to the top again. And this is a guy with a self-destructive streak, so chances are that once he gets to the top, he's going to get knocked off," Layman says.

But Tony's in no danger of taking a dirt nap in popular culture. Other recent "Scarface" revivals include:

• The Vivendi Universal video game, "Scarface: The World Is Yours" (the motto on the globe in Tony's mansion), featuring a "blind rage" mode and a button for taunting people. There's also a Sony PSP game, "Scarface: Money. Power. Respect."

• A double-disc "Scarface Platinum Edition" DVD from Universal, which includes onscreen counters for the prodigious number of "F-bombs" uttered and shots fired. The tally: 223 and 2,049, respectively.

• A prequel novel, "Scarface: The Beginning," by L.A. Banks (DH Press), chronicling Tony and best friend Manny's exploits in Cuba's criminal underworld.

• A "Scarface" calendar.

• Not to mention the innumerable references and homages from gangsta rappers who idolize Tony Montana.

Why all this for an over-the-top Al Pacino character (See: "mang" as in "man," and "I bury those cock-a-roaches!") in a dated '80s remake of a 1932 gangster flick? Written by an admittedly coke-addicted Oliver Stone, the nearly three-hour movie was hardly hailed as a masterpiece at the time, but rappers were quick to key into Tony's attributes.

He's crazy-brave, defiantly so in the face of death. After watching enemies horrifically chainsaw his friend to death in a drug deal gone bad, Tony doesn't beg for his life like a punk. In fact, he coolly tells Mr. Chainsaw to — well, he racks up that F-bomb count.

Related: Tony goes out in a way that would have made macho "Wild Bunch" director Sam Peckinpah wonder if he should run himself a bubble bath and sip a General Foods International Coffee — taking scores of attackers with him.

And even though he's a vicious criminal, he lives by a Code. "I never [expletive] anybody over in my life didn't have it coming to them," Tony informs Bolivian heavy Sosa, "All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don't break them for no one."

"He's honorable in a weird way," Layman explains. "He's ambitious, he's ruthless, he will kill. But he doesn't go and mow down innocents indiscriminately. Even some of the characters on 'The Sopranos' will kill a waiter without giving it a second thought. He's like Omar in 'The Wire,' only going after people who are in the game."

Fans will remember that Tony's demise results from his refusal to blow up an enemy's car while the man's wife and kids are in it.

(There's also the fact that he's a homicidal, rage-oholic drug dealer, but why get nit-picky?)

Layman, 39, has taken on well-established characters before, including Marvel's "X-Men" spinoff, "Gambit," "Thundercats," "Xena Warrior Princess" and, incongruously, a comic adaptation of the religious "Left Behind" novels. His upcoming work includes the fanboy-geek project "Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness," pitting Bruce Campbell's Ash hero from "The Evil Dead" movies against ravenous infected superheroes. Layman's breakout work was the 2003 original story, "Puffed," a very funny tale of a theme park worker's dangerous crosstown odyssey, while stuck in a dinosaur suit — and after a bout of diarrhea.

But Layman doesn't feel burdened with the kind of reverence that's made some other revivals something less than a rush. In fact, he says, "It hasn't aged well, so there's kind of an element of camp to the movie now, especially when you compare it to 'Miami Vice' or [the video game] 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City' " — both of which were arguably influenced by "Scarface."

"At the time it was released it had a shocking amount of gore and profanity, but now it seems kind of cute and quaint," Layman says. In fact, filmmakers fought — and narrowly avoided — an "X" rating because of the violence. Along with the chainsaw murder, the mayhem includes a character thrown from a helicopter with a noose around his neck.

Likewise, the comic isn't for kids, unless decades of follow-up counseling are planned. One-upping the filmmakers, Layman's creatively revolting premiere issue has what must be a first in comics — or anywhere: a murder by colostomy bag.

Clearly tickled by this, Layman says, "There's an element of black humor, but you have to top yourself. So each issue has a more outrageous death."

There's no reason to assume cats understand English, but they're perceptive. Layman has to set down the phone while he deals with the mess.

Mark Rahner: mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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