Friday 20 January 2012

Comic Book Review | Stephen King's N.

Even before it was published in its original nested text format, Marvel had bought the rights to adapt Stephen King's 'N.' and put the project to a dream-team of comic book and television talent, including Marc Guggenheim - co-creator of the sadly short-lived series Eli Stone - on script duties, with art by the notorious Brian Michael Bendis collaborator Alex Maleev, whose greatest claim to fame has to be his long run on Daredevil.

What resulted - a half-hour motion comic released in 25 miniscule installments to mobile phone owners and certain internet users - was one of the very first instances of a format that's come to some prominence in the years since. I do not say regrettably; I've never been able to see the appeal myself - to me, the motion comic feels like a halfway house between one medium and another, consistently cheap if only intermittently cheerful - but this form of faux-animation has its fans, and that's fine.

In any case, I lost interest in the webisodes quickly. Not because they weren't winningly written, or brilliantly illustrated - to the best of my recollection they were indeed all that - but because I have a moth's memory, and these things were so brief and broken-up I kept forgetting what in God's name was going on. I never revisited the aforementioned motion comic thereafter, but I did see this deliciously twisted tale through eventually -- by way of the originating short story, which was one of the highlights of Stephen King's terrific 2008 collection Just After Sunset.

Whether rendered in words or pictures, or some eldrich accumulation of the pair, 'N.' concerns a journalist, Charlie, who hears from a long-lost friend about the strange suicide of her husband, the psychoanalyst John Bonsaint. Bonsaint, we soon learn, was driven to despair and inevitably death in the selfsame way as his last patient: a man with debilitating OCD, known only as N. as per the doctor's notes. For his part, N. had become obsessed with a circle of standing stones in Ackerman's Field, in rural Motton, Maine, which he was convinced acted as a doorway to another world, from where something wicked - namely the helmet-headed Lovecraftian creature Cthun - will this way come.

Unless someone takes it upon themselves to stop it, that is.

N. does, and dies, and I need not add that his terrible obsession does not end with him. Far from it. Like a virus, it spreads to Bonsaint. Then the doctor's wife catches the bug from her husband, and she, in turn, passes it on to a reporter who becomes fixated on investigating these curious claims. That'd be Charlie, in whose company 'N.' both begins and ends.

Several years later, however, I'd forgotten almost all of the story beats above - a blessing and a curse if ever there was one - so when I heard Marvel had pulled the team behind the webisodes together again, to adapt their own adaptation into a proper comic book, at long last, well... I got my wallet out.

Now I've made some terrible decisions in my time. Once, I voted for Tony Blair, and on another occasion, I bet against Apple, because I couldn't begin to imagine a world without the Walkman. More fool me.

On the other hand, buying into N. again may be one of the best decisions I've made in recent memory, because readers... it's incredible. Without a doubt, Stephen King's N. is the most discomfiting graphic narrative I've encountered since coming back to comic books; it's a real creepshow, chilling and sinister in equal measure.

In the first, that's thanks to Marc Guggenheim: a very fine writer indeed. There's little room in this story for the light touch he's become known for - Stephen King's N. is not sweet but sour - yet herein Guggenheim demonstrates himself equally adept at the darker half of the author's art. Admittedly, some of his script is lifted verbatim from King's short story, but the larger part of it is original, and I would go so far as to say the changes Guggenheim makes add far more to the narrative than they subtract. The pacing is certainly better; the plot, so literal before, comes across more naturally; and the characters - more than names on pages in the originating fiction, but not much more - seem alive at long last.

Nested texts often come across as exercises in look-at-me literary trickery - more about the performance than the performed - and though 'N.' in its first form is an excellent example of said mode of storytelling, I think the beats of its harrowing narrative are rather better served herein than anywhere else. By expanding on the strictly epistolary short with naturalistic flashbacks and a focus on showing instead of telling, Guggenheim fleshes out the bare bones of the original story more to my satisfaction than Stephen King could.

Meanwhile, Alex Maleev. I've never been the biggest fan of his sketchy pencils, but they serve the story so incredibly well in Stephen King's N. that it'd be mean-spirited of me to do anything less than champion Maleev's contribution to this collection's manifest success. Specifically I should applaud his impeccable sense of composition, and his striking use of colour, as illustrated in the images above: of rich reds and warm oranges receding before a palette of clinical blues and greens and greys. It's exemplary stuff.

Though the narrative of 'N.' has gone from nested text to motion comic to graphic novel, Stephen King's N. as adapted by Marc Guggenheim and Alex Maleev is not some admission of defeat. Rather, it is a pitch perfect sequential rendering of a story which remains every bit as thrilling, gripping and magnificently sinister as it was four years ago. In short, I'd still recommend the original short... but I'd recommend this comic book more.


  1. Marvel has really done King justice. The Dark Tower series has been amazing, and while I didn't think there was anything that could be done to add to the story, The Stand has been solid as well.

    You've convinced me to add this to the reading queue next.

  2. @Bob - Happy to hear it; it's a terrific thing, this comic.

    Also a relief to hear you singing The Dark Tower's praises, good sir. I haven't yet taken the plunge on that adaptation yet, but I've certainly been sorely tempted, and between N., the first TPB of The Stand - which I was really pleased with - and now your recommendation... why I think this might just be the moment!