Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
X Men Noir, published between February and May 2009, was the first series set in Marvel Comics’ alternative noir continuity. It was written by Fred van Lente, of Comic Book History of Comics and Action Philosophers fame, and illustrated by Dennis Calero, whose earlier work includes Cowboys and Aliens (with van Lente).
When the noir franchise was first announced in September 2008, it promised readers that: “The Marvel Universe meets Film Noir next year in three limited series re-imagining Marvel’s most iconic characters in the roaring 30’s!” As we have already seen in our earlier review of Iron Man Noir, this was a promise that Marvel would not be able to hold themselves to, but this series only vaguely hints at that. X Men is a gritty crime story, following crusading avenger Tom Halloway as he searches for a group of youngsters who call themselves the “X Men,” in order to enlist them in his fight against the city’s corrupt Chief of Detectives. The X Men work as criminal free agents after their former leader and mentor, Charles Xavier, went to prison when it was discovered that he had been training them to better at breaking the law. When the story begins, one of these youngsters, their grifter Jean Grey, is found murdered.
From there, the story progresses through dark streets and into shady places, dive bars, and dark back rooms. Halloway, it turns out, knows the art of card tricks, lock picking, and other tricks of the criminal trade he learned from crooks in the prison his father ran. All the way to its end, the main storyline keeps close to the sleuthing conventions and the double-crosses that noir cinema is so well-known for. Thus, X Men was a promising start for the franchise. But by the second half of the first issue, the protagonist dons a cape (literally) – which should come as no surprise to the reader well versed in comics history, who knows that the original Thomas Halloway was Marvel’s predecessor Timely Comics’ crime-fighting Angel – thus also taking the series into the domain of adventure pulps and Golden Age comics. By the end of the third issue, Halloway is diving out of an airplane in full superhero get-up to stop an assassination at the top of the Empire State Building. The cover of the final issue suggests a momentary break from classic noir; it is certainly soft-lit and dark, but it has moved from low-key noirness to the grandiose, with just a hint of art deco, although this is not too deeply reflected by the contents.
Visually, the series has that classic noir style. The graphics frequently take readers to dingy streets or dark alleys, onto bridges or rooftops, or into warehouses, all visually dominated by thick chiaroscuro shading. Halloway’s drop from the skies has none of that, but is rather more in the vein of his own original adventures, moving the series away from its advertised style for the briefest of moments. Some of the series’ wide-angle shots of the city are beautiful, while others look strangely unfinished. But such establishing shots are rare, making the city not only confining, but also mostly anonymous. In issue three’s first scene, however, knowledge of New York geography briefly becomes an important plot point, when the protagonist rules out a murder suspect because, as he puts it: “I find it hard to believe a man with any nautical experience would dump a body just north of Welfare Island,” knowing that the currents would just spit it up “in the ‘Hell Gate,’ where the East and Harlem Rivers meet”. Narratively and graphically, then, part of the series does seem to truly make New York into something more than just a backdrop.
As in Iron Man Noir, the series transplants a large number of characters from mainstream continuity: the first scene introduces us to Detective Dukes (aka Fred Dukes, aka the Blob) and Peter Magnus (aka Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver), who are called to examine the body of a dead redhead (aka Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, aka the Phoenix). The second scene introduces Peter’s sister (aka Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch), Remy le Beau (aka Gambit), and Bishop (aka Bishop). But instead of being mere carbon copies in fedoras, these characters have their more outlandish traits removed and are dominated instead by their personalities, which in turn are fitted to their new role and context. The creative team does not fully resist the temptation to insert other styles and genres from the period they’re representing, resulting in, for example, the inclusion of a pulpy four-part eugenics-permeated science fiction story titled “The Sentinels,” by Bolivar Trask. A quaint wink to the creator of the mutant hunting robots of that name in standard continuity that does not intrude too much.
All in all, X Men Noir is an interesting and enjoyable read that mixes – at times very well – elements of many styles and genres, projecting the X-Men back into the world of 1930s and 1940s pop culture, while keeping the promised noir in thematic and stylistic dominance thoughout most of the run.