Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
X Men Noir: Mark of Cain is writer Fred van Lente and artist Dennis Calero’s sequel to their first Marvel Noir yarn. Among the last installments of the franchise, it continues the adventures of the cast from the creative team’s previous one. The story centers on the hunt for an exotic gem, a betrayal, and a murder. As it progresses, it moves from one genre to another. While a few scenes are set in New York, the series in general is one of the least urban and noir in the franchise.
Indeed, like Iron Man, Mark of Cain first resembles a foreign adventure pulp far more than a film noir. Before the end of the first issue, we have seen the X Men trekking through a jungle in search of the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, engaged in a shootout in an “exotic” quarter of an Asian city, and the still-unflappable Angel jumping off a roof, again in full superhero get-up. Later, it turns into a story of interrogation and psychological torture. By issue four, after a brief foray into heist story territory, it toward a Cold War spy thriller/sci-fi mode with flying boats and secret government agencies.
Despite its growing distance from the grounded realism that the noir label seems to promise, Mark of Cain opens with a newsreel depicting scenes from a Senate hearing about the “inhuman conditions” in a US prison in Genosha Bay: “beatings, sleep deprivation, even water torture!” The prisoners there, as eugenics has determined, are not your run-of-the-mill criminals. The connection to Guantanamo begs to be drawn. Although this does provide a welcome commentary on contemporary politics and essentialist Islamophobia, the series’ connection to real-world matters is heavy-handed and it plays only a peripheral role in the series as a whole.
The series offers its reader a very dense intertextual web, making winks to numerous films and, most frequently, to other X-Men comics. But most of these references are passing and serve little purpose but to put a brief smile on the face of the reader in the know. Again, characters from ordinary continuity are worked into the storyline, this time introducing among others Emma Frost, Ororo Munroe (Storm), Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler), Piotr Rasputin (Colossus), and Kitty Pryde, none of whom feature long enough to leave much of an impression. The cast retained from the first X Men Noir is not developed much either.
Stylistically, the heavy chiaroscuro shading that dominated the first X Men (sometimes to the point that it hampered reading) continues, but coupled here at times with brighter colors that simultaneously makes the contrast starker and detracts from the noirish feel the franchise promises. Due to the flatness of its characterizations, its unsuccessfully contained generic sprawl, and the often too dark and plastic-looking sheen of the artwork, Mark of Cain ranks in my view at the bottom of the Marvel Noir franchise.