Madripoor. A dark stinking jungle with career crooks, seedy pleasure palaces, and the mysterious Gem of Cyttorak.
Sounds like the perfect place for the all-new, all-noir X Men.
Taking a page from Chandler and Hammett just as much as Claremont and Wein, Fred Van Lente and Dennis Calero are taking the Angel, Cyclops, Cap'n Logan, and the rest of this band of anti-heroes to the East in X Men Noir: Mark of Cain.
Spinning off the original X Men Noir miniseries from earlier this year, we sat down with Van Lente and Calero and talked with them after the release of this week's first issue. Be warned -- SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. And now, without further adieu... Fred Van Lente and Dennis Calero.
Newsarama: Fred, Dennis, for those who only know their X Men having healing factors and bright yellow spandex, protecting a world that fears and hates them -- how would you describe the world of X Men: Noir?
Fred Van Lente: Our X Men aren't mutants, but sociopaths -- branded by the eugenics philosophy prevalent in the early 20th century as being "hereditary criminals," or genetically predisposed to crime. Each one has a specialty, of course -- Cyclops is a sharpshooter, Kitty Pryde can break into buildings so easily it's like she's walking through walls -- much like the X Men of the MU we know and love.
Dennis Calero: It's a darker version of our own shared past as New Yorkers and Americans and comic readers, and hopefully the X Men, tarnished but still good and brave, will shine brighter in contrast.
Nrama: When you use the term "noir," a lot of different authors and works come to mind -- The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler, This Gun for Hire... in terms of Mark of Cain, what would you say your influences were, and how they impacted this work?
Van Lente: Last time, the Chandler influence was more apparent. This time around, it's definitely Hammett and The Maltese Falcon as all parties are after the mysterious Crimson Gem of Cyttorak which was, um, liberated by our merry band of rogues who fled New York at the bloodsoaked conclusion of the first series -- the Golden Age Angel, Cyclops, Cap'n Logan and his first mate, Eugene Judd.
Calero: To reflect that, I've actually tried for a look that's less stark 1930s and more colorful 1950s.
Nrama: With the first issue on the shelves now, what's the big "wow" moment for the first issue that each of you have been dying to tell people about?
Van Lente: There are a couple for me. Angel making his get away from the top spire of Kunlun. Puck getting his hands on the gem. The introduction of the warden of Genosha Bay Prison, Emma Frost. It's fun to reintroduce X-Franchise characters to the reader in new and unexpected ways.
Nrama: In a lot of ways, no matter what the iteration, the story of the X Men is tied to that of evolution. Extrapolating off that, how would you two say you've evolved as creators and collaborators in Mark of Cain? What have you changed in terms of your process and style?
Van Lente: These oppossable thumbs have increased my productivity at least 65%...
We didn't have sound effects in the last series; we decided to add them in this one. Doesn't sound like much, but increases readibility of the story quite a bit.
Calero: I'd like to think that the sheer number of pages I do leads to being better and being better at solving the specific problems inherent in telling stories visually. You know, it's a very odd job stacking these static images on top of each other so that in the end you have an illustion of movement and sound and light and heat. When it works, it's amazing. When it doesn't, meh, it's still fun.
Nrama: The first series of X Men: Noir dealt with the murder of Jean Grey, and the X Men's conflict with the corrupt cops of the Brotherhood. Fred, where are the X Men's heads at in Mark of Cain, after the events of the first arc?
Van Lente: Our anti-heroes are on the run from the law in the States having had the firestorm of violence that ended the last series blamed on them. They've wound up in Madripoor, in the Far East, and hooked up with Angel's old pal Cain Marko, a mercenary and ne'er-do-well who sets them on the path of the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak. But when Cain is murdered, apparently by the mystic protector of the temple's secrets, the legendary "Juggernaut," Angel has a new mystery to solve. And all clues point to Cain's half-brother, Charles Xavier, the infamous Professor of Crime...
Calero: To me, this series focuses on the introduction of the all-new, all-different Noir X Men and a chance to see a bit more kick-assery.
Nrama: Last time you guys worked with X Men: Noir, you pulled out a lot of toys out of the toy box -- Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit, even the Timely Comics Angel character. Now it's looking like you're pulling out characters like Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus... anything you can tell us about them?
Van Lente: Professor X now trains his all-new, all-different X Men Noir in the extraterritorial prison at Genosha Bay, where the U.S. incarcerates criminals captured on foreign soil considered too dangerous to be mixed in with the stateside prison population. Storm, a thief, was nabbed in Egypt.... Nightcrawler, a German second story man with incredible acrobatic skills... and the Russian Colossus, though a huge bruiser, is wanted primarily for his artistic forgery skills.
Nrama: Spinning off that -- Dennis, the X Men traditionally have this association with bright colors, with crazy design choices. Yet noir is a stylish, yet ultimately more understated look. Especially with some of the more flamboyant characters, how have you straddled that line?
Calero: That was a struggle. Primarily, as I've said elsewhere, the strong iconic colors associated with super-hero costumes came about, in part, to solve the problem of making characters recognizable when they're drawn a half inch high. When everyone is wearing jackets and hats, how to do that without making it look like Dick Tracy, which is fine but not what we wanted. It's hard, because while the book has been praised, a consistent critique, which I am completely aware of, is that sometimes the action is hard to follow which to me means it's sometimes takes an extra look to figure out who's who and who's doing what to whom. It's a problem that I continue to struggle with, but most people seem to get it and sometimes that's all you can hope for.
Nrama: Something else that we were particularly interested in with this series is the return of Charles Xavier to the outside world. In many ways, he seems like such a twisted mirror image of the noble yet flawed Professor of mainstream comics -- what can we look forward to seeing from him?
Van Lente: Lot more of Charles in this series, even more than in the first one. It helps he's out of prison -- well, no longer behind bars, anyway. This whole series turns out to be an extended battle of wills and wits between Professor X and the Angel.
Let's just say Professor X subjects Angel to "Project Wide Awake." It's not what you think it is. And it's not pretty.
Calero: I think my only regret about the first mini is that Xavier was not as much of a prime mover as other characters were, particularly Magnus. This time around, as Fred has described, we're not screwing around. Two very smart people are going to try to outdo each other, and we get to watch.
Nrama: Moving along to the back-and-forth collaboration in this piece -- how has that been working with you guys? Have there been any moments of genius you guys can tell us about? Or, as you guys are friends and all, any funny "making-of" stories?
Van Lente: At Wizard World Philly last year, Dennis and I and our wives took a break from the con and headed out to Eastern State Penitentiary, this famous, crumbling prison in Philadelphia that's open to the public. Genosha is based on that prison and we spent an afternoon taking photo reference -- well, Dennis' wife Kristin did. (Thanks, Kristin!) Much of XMN #2 is based on those photographs, and it's really creepy, evocative setting -- the perfect place to put Angel through the ringer.
Nrama: One thing people might not know about this series is the fact that these X Men, in this world, don't have any powers. Has that been a challenge for you two? A blessing? In the last arc, Xavier was obsessed with the idea of the sociopath, in that the absolute freedom of choice seemed to be a stand-in for scary things like optic blasts and sonic screams. What's your take on this?
Van Lente: I like it. I don't think we've lost much by not including powers. And in the sequel, Xavier discovers he can learn just as much studying the angels of man's nature as the demons.... And one he gets The Angel in his clutches, look out..
Calero: Honestly, yeah, powers work best as a metaphor and you know what else works as a metaphor for power? Guns.
Nrama: For those who are still on the fence about this book -- for those who might not get the link between X Men and noir -- what would you tell them? Is there anything you can tease for us?
Van Lente: Beautiful art, a tantalizing mystery, a hero with a mustache... What more do you need?
Calero: A great story, guns and babes. Shut up already and buy it.
Calero: I think actually I was woefully humble about the awesomeness that is this book. Frankly, it's the only thing on Earth that matters.