By Tem Adams, Mark Torres, and Tomi Varga
Ascribing a genesis point to ideas in pop culture is a tricky business. A lot of the time this just comes down to questions of definition and a multitude of contenders for the title of originator, like the ongoing question of whether Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Black Christmas was the first Slasher film. In the realm of shrinking stories however, Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man is the undoubted progenitor of all others. Published in 1956 and adapted as The Incredible Shrinking Man one year later, Matheson’s story is the first ever tale in the modern cultural vernacular to revolve around human characters getting smaller. However, being first doesn’t always mean being the most enduring and even now most folks are probably more familiar with Fantastic Voyage as the forefather of this particular genre. This is mainly because shrinking stories don’t hold much culture purchase. Thanks to the recent success of Ant-Man audiences, shrinking is suddenly cool again and IDW has chosen to adapt the Matheson story into comic format.
The Shrinking Man is an odd story in that it actually eschews most of the standard shrinking conventions. It doesn’t indulge in the more comedy oriented high jinks of Honey I Shrunk the Kids or Inner Space and lacks the kind of adventure and spectacle inherent to Fantastic Voyage or Ant-Man (for the curious, those are in fact all the shrinking films of note in cinema history.) Instead, The Shrinking Man is an incredibly harsh dressing down of man’s insignificance in the universe and fragile nature, utilizing the shrinking gimmick as a literalized sci-fi metaphor.
The comic book adaptation is almost a scene for scene recreation of the classic story, which ultimately ends up the comic’s undoing. The technical elements of the story are very strong, the pacing is even, the characterization compelling, and the people all react like real humans would under these circumstances. As befits the era of its inception this is more of a B-Movie horror story than it is an action adventure tale with a lot of heavy similarities drawn from The Fly and Man With The X-Ray Eyes. The problem is that the story is only being translated between mediums instead of adapted between eras.
What we’re ultimately left with is a very good recreation of the classic tale in comic format that in no way address how the issues the original story raised might translate to a modern audience. The issue’s of man’s insignificance in the world was initially fueled by fears of the atom bomb and nuclear war, but now those same fears are more furrowed into things like global climate disasters like Hurricane Sandy, infectious diseases like Ebola, or economic instability like in Greece. Any of those subjects could’ve worked their way into the central metaphor here, but they don’t; the emphasis is still on weird science gone wrong though, thankfully without any tedious “evil scientist” claptrap. The story isn’t even set in the modern era as a way of exploring how current medical science might combat someone shrinking or how modern technology might be used on a miniscule scale.
The static subtext wouldn’t be such a problem if the tone were more enjoyable, but the somber and serious attitudes of the book coupled with its out of touch subtext leaves the whole experience far less enjoyable than it could be. A big part of this is actually that the artwork by Mark Torres and Tomi Varga is a little too sleek and stylish. The aesthetic design is reminiscent of something like Inception or Transcendence only set in the 1950s, with a lot of well-used shadows and streamlined visuals. It’s actually very good art in its own right, it’s just that it contributes to the unappealing, dreary nature of the comic overall. If the artwork had been schlockier in nature the story’s harsher tone might’ve worked as context to the lighter visuals, but when they’re both so dreary and serious without offering much in return it’s very disappointing.
The closest point of comparison one could make with The Shrinking Man comic is last year’s Interstellar. The visuals are stunning and stylish and the craftsmanship and technical skill is thoroughly impressive, but the tone and subtext completely clash in terms of offering a truly nourishing narrative experience. If you’re a big fan of the original Matheson story than this might be an enjoyable read, but for anyone more familiar with the film adaptation or just looking for an enjoyable shrinking story, there are better options open.