1990: M

M (1990) #1-4 by Jon J Muth.

Eclipse had hit upon a new winning formula: Fully-painted “prestige format” squarebound 48 page comics adaptations of famous stuff: The Hobbit, the Clive Barker Books, James Bond… So why not the Fritz Lang version of Thea von Harbou’s M? It’s public domain, even, so Eclipse didn’t even have to pay for the rights.

That’s what I assumed, but I think I’m somewhat wrong in my cynicism:

Because this has all the hallmarks of being a passion project: Reading this, I get a strong feeling that this adaptation was initiated by Muth, and not by Eclipse.

Jon J Muth was, at the time, a “name” artist who had mostly worked at Marvel Comics, and is perhaps most fondly remembered for his collaboration with J. M. DeMatteis. Muth hadn’t previously published anything through Eclipse, but given the subject matter and where Eclipse was at at the time, it makes sense.

There’s even a flexi assembled by Muth combining Lang whistling and an orchestra playing the Grieg leitmotif from the film.

I’m listening to it now (and the Steve Niles assemblage on the back), and it’s… It’s not bad. A bit hokey, perhaps.

However… passion project or not… Muth’s approach to this seems to be to take photos and then… treating them? Somehow? Or has he just painted over pictures? When he goes all washed-out here it looks rather nice. Like one of the paintings from Edvard Munch’s sickly period. But way, way stiffer.

The decision to keep everything grey/sepia, with just the slightest hint of colours on some pages, can’t have been designed for optimal commercial success. But I guess it might perhaps give it more of a respectability in a bookstore context… if it ever got collected.

Because reading this, it’s mostly like looking at Italian fumetti. The angles in these panels aren’t anything that any person would ever draw by themselves given any choice: They look like badly framed snaps somehow painterised.

Brian Bolten contextualises M and Fritz Lang.

Aha! On the credits page we get a “field recording advisor” and “studio recording engineer”… “2nd unit photographer”… And they feel the need to state that the work is based on photos (duh) but that no photographs are reproduced here. So I’m guessing that my reaction to this was common enough.

But how did Muth do this, then? Painted over the photos on semi-transparent paper? A very lightboxy lightbox? It doesn’t say.

It’s mostly a pretty quick read, but Muth throws in the odd page where the characters explain everything. I don’t actually recall much from seeing M some years back, but perhaps the film had choppy, uneven pacing, too. I kinda doubt it.

And I can’t recall at all that the film dropped “interesting” factoids here and there.

Hey! That’s a pretty good imitation of the iconic shot from the Lang film.

The actor’s no Peter Lorre, though.

Whatever you may feel about the artwork, Muth somehow manages to drain the scenes of all the drama and excitement. The middle section, where the villains chase Lorre, I mean that other guy here, is just a seemingly endless back and forth without any development.

The actors Muth faithfully paints over (or whatever he’s doing) are just downright awful. They ham it up the best they can, I guess, but … they can’t.

Abrams somehow decided to publish a collected hardback edition in 2008, and Bill Randall had this to say about it in The Comics Journal 294:

Unfortunately, Muth’s style distracts from the story. The detail in his paintings overwhelms the panel-to-panel flow. Worse, the intrusive typeset captions and word balloons make M a sterile hybrid, not unlike the comics version of a mule. Reading it offers little pleasure. I can’t imagine imitating it. Other artists, like Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, have shown more fruitfully how to integrate painting with the idioms of comics. Muth’s M seems an artistic cul-de-sac.

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