M by Jon J. Muth

[5 May 2008]

By Erik Hinton

This is one of those graphic novels that you see from afar in your local comic book store and you just know you are going to be compelled to like it. Swaddled in its enigmatic cover blazoned with a rough “M”, it is impossible to escape the feeling that you are gazing upon some sacred text. By the time that your eyes scan down and read the fine print that the relic upon which you are fixated is, indeed, an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s canonical film of the same name, you are all but assured that you are going to have to love and respect this volume; coronated by both powerful print design and the weight of film history, how could you not genuflect to this tome?

I must admit as I giddily shredded the UPS sheath that held this book—and I am always school-girl giddy to receive books—I felt that I was holding a profound piece of pop culture history in hands before I even broached the cover. However, the sensation quickly wore off as I pressed on, and a deep disappointment set in. It is not that John Muth’s M is a bad graphic novel, let me dispel any suggestions towards that opinion forthright. Rather, the book is fitful, sandwiching incredible elements with god-awful ones, and then refusing to account for its transgressions.

Consider the artwork. Muth labored two years on the photo-real and breathtaking paintings that grace the pages of this novel. Combining broad strokes of dynamism with incredible tonal control and precious-few dabs of color, Muth not only captures the fog of noir which sets over Lang’s original, he actually improves upon it. Muth is able to tint the furtive, dark elements of the film with a certain Kafkaesque surrealism. The whole book feels like an intoxicating nightmare but one that never loses touch with the reality of its audience.

However, these panels are dignified with no less than the most atrocious dialogue balloons ever to be committed to paper. Seemingly, someone suggested that instead of hand-drawn or traditional comic book lettering the book should feature clip-art speech bubbles and Times New Roman. Somewhere between the impersonal, computer generated serifs and the awkwardly geometrical outlines of the balloons, the quality of novel begins to rapidly depreciate. If this sounds exaggerated and picayune, I ask you to recall the last scab you have had that you could not stop scratching. What starts out as a small blemish becomes a host for staph-infection and the whole enterprise goes belly-up. Similarly, these balloons continually steal your attention from the beautiful frames upon which they are splayed until you can only think of the book as awfully flawed.

The actual story is similarly dualistic. On one hand, Muth successfully translates the film language into short, effective dialogue and his panels have well-tempered flow. Muth even manages to evoke pathos for his serial killer while wonderfully conjuring the imposing and horrific ethos of the society in which the killer is persecuted. However, all of this is compromised by the fact that one cannot escape the sensation that the novel is more of a companion to the film than a standalone piece. Muth does not necessarily leave out any essential plot point, but the perverse-reverie and jet-dark aesthetic of the book often make it difficult to determine exactly what is occurring and where. Films may safely be shot in low-key chiaroscuro because they present 24 frames in which to orient the viewer every second. With but a few panels to every scene, an obscured detail in the comic format quickly becomes an overlooked detail, and the monotone, dirty environments meld into a single ambiguous stage.

Ultimately, though, what keeps me from being perfectly divided on this book is the timeliness of the subject matter. That Muth realized M was relevant today is perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Just as Lang’s film was, Muth’s novel is a stark monument to man’s inhumanity. As vigilantism quickly disintegrates into mindless, seething demonism, we are asked to re-examine the moral imperative by which actions on the world-stage are increasingly justified. How different really are the armies of “freedom” from the faceless mob which foams at the mouth to rip the serial killer apart? Muth’s novel magnifies this dynamic even in comparison to Lang’s original. This is where M truly finds its legs.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/m-by-jon-j-muth/