Stories about stories within stories...
Marvel Comics and Stephen King have a pretty solid relationship. They might even be “bros”. Apart from a one-off with Del Rey for The Talisman, King has worked exclusively with Marvel for the adaptations of his work, namely the Dark Tower series and the recent graphic version of The Stand. I’m pretty sure this partnership is profitable and beneficial for both parties.
Yet for readers, the King name topping the masthead of a Marvel book is a stamp of quality. For the Dark Tower books, Marvel has hired top-notch writers and artists, and has even enlisted Robin Furth, King’s research assistant and scribe of The Dark Tower: A Complete Concordance, to co-plot arc and advise creators. To all works, King acts as a kind of executive producer, overseeing the story and offering input and insight as needed.
The Marvel creators know they are working with a storytelling icon. Single issues and collections feature writers and artists sharing their joy and, often, anxiety, about working with King. At times it’s as if King’s work is one of the few things that Marvel seems to treat carefully, making sure that the market is not flooded with spin-offs and one-shots, and writing and art quality is high.
So when I visited my local comic shop and saw Stephen King’s N. #1 (yes, King’s name is part of the title—it’s the brand, remember?) on the shelves, it was a no-brainer. A four issue mini-series, Stephen King’s N. is penned by Green Lantern screenwriter Marc Guggenheim (TV’s Brothers & Sisters, Marvel’s Web of Spider-man) with art from Alex Maleev (Daredevil, Spider-woman). Together this team carves up a compelling tale that relies on a formula of mystery, suspense, and psychological horror.
The plot (no pun intended) revolves around a field in rural Maine with Stonehenge-like markers in the center, some psychiatrists and their patients, characters with bouts of extreme obsessive compulsive disorder, and the possibility of a small tear in reality that leads to a demonic world existing. Sound interesting? It is!
Even more interesting are the mutli-modal ways this story has been told. Before the print comic, Guggenheim and Maleev created a digital motion comic version of the King tale in 25 one-to-two minute “mobisodes” intended for quick, digital consumption. Interestingly, the motion comic was actually released prior to the release short story itself, and the “mobisodes” were used as a tactic to lure new readers to King’s upcoming collection. See kids, this story is also told in one of those books without the pictures, too! It turned out to be a great little marketing campaign and, more importantly, a fascinating and successful exercise in storytelling across mediums.
To get the root of the story, N. began as a piece of short fiction King wrote in 2007 and later collected in 2008’s Just After Sunset. PopMatters gave King’s Just After Sunset collection a 9 out of 10 and placed the book on its ‘Best of Books of 2008’ fiction list. Reviewer Steven T. Boltz wrote of the book, “Read this collection and you will be scared—but you will be scared in a more sophisticated manner than you were from King’s stories of earlier years”.
Boltz’s comments ring true in regard to the four issue print comic version of N. Guggenheim’s script retains much of the emotional and psychological heart of the short story. Although the threat of real evil lurking beyond some invisible plane is a constant concern for the characters, the real terror is in the presentation of the characters’ fear, not the object of that fear. Like King, Guggenheim employs the power of suggestion and the centers on the real horror of watching a life slip between one’s fingers. Given that King’s story treads novella territory in terms of length, Guggenheim omits certain plot elements. Having read both versions, I applaud his restructuring. The original text is told in the epistolary style, through detailed letters and other primary documents. Guggenheim’s comic possesses the feel of the original but shifts to a method of storytelling conducive to a visual medium.
Despite their recent partnership, Guggenheim and Maleev work like an old dance couple, moving in sync with each other’s personality and style. Some of Maleev’s compositions are remarkably frightful. Where Guggenheim pares down the script and omits parts of the short story, Maleev tells the missing pieces visually. You can see them in the characters’ eyes. The sleepless nights. The countless counting. The awake-at-night fear that slowly consumes the human mind.
However, visually, Maleev’s art, which is adapted from the web series, seems inappropriate for the static nature of a print comic. In the digital episodes, the lightboxed-looking images were genuinely creepy. Like some evil realm lurking just beyond ours, his photo-enhanced images existed in a strange place between reality and fiction. In the print comic, without the motion, voiceover and score, the art is a little jarring. Without the other sensory details, the photorealistic images fall a little flat, and I would have preferred an approach akin to his dark painting style on Daredevil and Spider-woman.
My criticisms should not overshadow the fact that immediately after reading the comic, I bought the 25-part mobisode version as well as King’s Just After Sunset. The print version also includes new, original plot devices found neither in King’s story nor the web series. The comic books also boast some nice little extras like script-to-storyboard notes and sketches. Stephen King’s N. is a must-read in any medium and a prime example of how to adapt a work to the comics medium.