M

By Jon J Muth
Based on the screenplay by Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Lang
192 pages, color
Published by Abrams Books

I remember when the first issue of Jon J Muth’s adaptation of Fritz Lang’s film M was originally published as a joint venture by Arcane Comics and Eclipse Comics, back in 1990. I was instantly taken by the strange style of painted art—something that is much more common now, but wasn’t at the time—and was intrigued by the idea that it had adapted a film that I’d heard of but never seen. And then, inexplicably, I never bought any of the four-issue adaptation. Fast forward to the present, and the original had long gone out of print, but was rescued a few years ago in a new hardback collection. Picking it up, I found myself wondering if those glimpses that I’d long held in my head could compare to the reality of what I was about to finally buy and read.

M, if you’ve never seen it, is the story of a hunt for a murderer of children. As the police continue to circle, gathering evidence and trying to find the killer, the city is turned upside down in the hunt for the predator. And so, in an attempt to bring the city back to normal, the criminal underground decides to conduct their own manhunt. They will find and try the killer, and get the police off of their backs. It’s a strange story, and it translates generally intact into Muth’s adaptation of the book.

What’s different is that this isn’t a comic where Muth tried to capture the likenesses of the original actors. Rather (as he explains in the afterword of the collection), he staged the entire film himself in his hometown of Cleveland, where he took a series of photographs using stand-ins for characters and shot the entire book. Then, he took those photographs and used them to create drawings that he then painted over, resulting in the reality-based look of M. While other painted comics existed at the time—both by Muth and other creators—the books generally veered towards the more fantastic. This was something quite different.

Now? It’s interesting to look at it with almost a quarter century having passed. It’s still a visually interesting book, but the initial "this is different" luster is gone, letting you examine it a bit more clinically. Knowing it’s based off of a series of photographs, I have to give Muth credit that this rarely looks stiff or staged, which so often goes hand-in-hand. In some ways it almost feels like a series of excerpted film stills that have been blown up and arranged on the page, with an extremely strong sense of place within the story. Some of the transitions are a little rough, though, and while no one comes across stiff it’s hard to keep from noticing that when there’s an action sequence (which is rare), it can be a little hard to follow; it feels like there are missing transition panels that would’ve had the comic flow a bit more smoothly.

There are a handful of paintings which are especially striking, though. When Beckert is looking in the store window and sees the reflection of the girl within it, it’s the panel right beforehand as he takes pause that is perfect. The green apple held up to his mouth, that sudden look of surprise and sense of an overpowering urge is just starting to flash across his face, and it’s the sort of moment that reminds you that Muth has been a master of his craft for quite some time. Likewise, Beckert’s pleading that he can’t stop himself when he’s on trial makes him so distraught and pitiful that you almost forget that this is a murderer of children; the end result is an uneasy, unsettling moment when you look at the pages.

Muth painted M in a very washed out, low-color style. There are some colors throughout the book (the balloons stand out in particular), but there are a lot of pale yellows and blacks dragged across the page. It’s an odd decision; at first it puts you in mind of a black and white film, but when the colors do show up it shattered that illusion. Instead it makes the world of M feel extremely dreary and lifeless. While that’s certainly the state of the city once the children start dying, it’s the sort of look that at times ends up feeling distracting rather than freeing. I’m also extremely unimpressed with the lettering; why it wasn’t redone for this new edition of M is a bit of a mystery. (Surely even if all they had to go on were scans of the original comics, computer technology is good enough to lay in new lettering over the old.) It’s a harsh type face, one that feels not only clinical but also out of synch with the rest of the comic. For a book that is drawn (deliberately) to evoke an old-fashioned life, the lettering is a huge mistake in its modern look and feel.

M is a book that I’m glad I finally read, if only to satisfy my curiosity. Is it an amazing adaptation of the film? Honestly, no. It’s really a showcase for Muth’s art, and that’s the reason to buy M if you’re a fan. I do think that the original 4-issue edition of M actually had one thing going for it that this collection doesn’t, though; by doling it out in bite-sized chunks, it keeps you from getting a sense that the art is a little too washed out because of the sheer volume of it all. Definitely read M one chapter at a time, and you’ll better appreciate Muth’s skills as a painter. But if you’ve never seen M before? Honestly, rent the DVD first. Then come back to this collection; you should get the story from the original film, and approach this as its own special art object. Because that art, as I’ve said before, sure is beautiful.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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