Fred Van Lente & Dennis Calero on X Men Noir

WWC: Marvel 2009 Teaser, 2

Last week at the Diamond Comic Distributors’ retail summit, Marvel Comics announced the launch of Marvel Noir—a new line of books which will utilize the characters of the Marvel Universe by injecting them into a period-piece Noir-style environment—starting with Marvel’s X-Men. Marvel linked this new line to a series of teaser images featuring what appeared to be various X-Men characters that had started leaking onto the internet and into print ads over the past summer. The first project, X Men Noir (note the lack of a hyphen) will be written by Fred Van Lente with artwork provided by Dennis Calero.

Newsarama contacted Van Lente and Calero to talk about X Men Noir and about bringing a new line of books to life at Marvel Comics.

Newsarama: First off, how did this concept come about? What's the premise for X Men Noir?

Fred Van Lente: X Men Noir is a complete re-imagining of the X-Men franchise from the ground-up, not as a superhero series but as a gritty urban crime series--set, very loosely, in the golden era of film noir, the period directly following World War II through the early 1950's.

I say "very loosely" because readers will immediately notice that there are plenty of alternate reality touches to the Noirverse that didn't exist historically. The Noirverse is very much its own pocket reality, with radical deviations both from Marvel Universe history and the history of our own world.

Dennis and I had wanted to do a noir project since we met and became friends while signing at the Marvel booth in Wizard World Philly a couple years ago. The genre had always been one of our favorites. It was Dennis, in fact, who came up with the original concept, which originally involved another Marvel character--I won't say which one, since we still have hopes of doing that project in the future--and as things often happen in mainstream comics, once we brought idea to the editorial board it morphed and changed a bit to meet Marvel's publishing needs. It was actually X-Editor Axel Alonso who suggested we run with the X-Men, and I'm glad he did--it very quickly became its own entity, and, as the cliché goes, "wrote itself."

Dennis Calero: Right, and the only thing I can add is that it definitely felt like one of those creative situations you had to go the long way around to find the one missing piece that would make it all work, and Nate, as well as the rest of the editorial staff, were key to making that happen. And for letting us run pretty wild once the basic parameters were set up.

NRAMA: Just the term "Noir" itself is a pretty hefty concept by itself--what are the two of you attempting to evoke by injecting the X-Men into this hard-boiled genre?

FVL: Not sound too terribly pretentious (too late, har-har), but we're deconstructing all the things that make the X-Men tick by looking at them through the conventions of this completely different genre. There are no super powers here, no mutants. Instead we're in a world of cops, private investigators and gangsters.

But in another way, it's not really all that different. Back in early 20th century, a lot of people believed that eugenics--heredity--determined whether you were a criminal or not. So to make the X Men lovable crooks and rogues instead of mutants isn't all that of a stretch--you're dealing with a lot of those same issues of evolution and genetics. The Noirverse's Charles Xavier, the so-called "professor of crime," has some very ... unique theories about what separates the criminal from the normal mind. He ran his Xavier School for Wayward Youth in upstate New York to perfect those theories--until the mysterious death of one of his students forced the Law to shut it down, and now his "X Men" are in the wind, freelance operators pulling high-stakes jobs all over the City...

DC: For me, Noir, especially period Noir, is ultimately about individuals, often heroic ones, trying hard not to get crushed by the at-large social structure as well as trying to get a little justice in a world that's often not conducive to fairness...our own world! Upon reflection, what Marvel characters fit that theme more securely than the X-Men?

NRAMA: Who are your key players in this story? How does the nature of this period piece alter the natures of these characters stylistically?

FVL: At the heart of X Men Noir is a murder mystery, which plunges our detective-hero into a dark world of corruption, vice and greed, in which the heroic rogues known as the X Men have taken it upon themselves to oppose the corrupt forces of Chief of Detectives Eric Magnus's police-within-the-police, The Brotherhood.

We start, as the Marvel Unvierse X-Men do, with the Lee/Kirby cast--Professor X's "first class" of students--but very shortly plenty of X-characters from other X-eras filter in there...a certain demonic club, for example. My love for Alpha Flight is well-documented and exercised here.

The main character, however, is our most mysterious one, and I won't tell you who it is. It should come as a surprise. You won't be able to guess who he is. No, trust me, you won't.

But that doesn't mean he's not a new character...

DC: My inspiration is the same as Fred's and vice versa...our favorite Noir films and books, pulp magazines and comics. As an artist on a comic book, the challenge is to know where to draw the line, so to speak, between serving the story and yet still have the actual graphic nature of the art be interesting...but not so interesting that it's distracting...but not so understated that the book is boring to look at...etcetera.

But in this case, that was an easy place to find for us because Noir is naturally as much about the visual as the narrative components.

It's about mood as much as anything else. And I would say that mood for than anything helped to define the characters visually as anything else.

It's not an approach that works for every book but in this case...

NRAMA: How closely have the two of you worked on creating the unique design elements and atmospheric nature of this book?

FVL: Very, very closely. This is actually the closest I've worked with the artist creating a mainstream comic--I came from the indy world, where this level of collaboration is typical. It's very rewarding to achieve this synergy between writer and artist on a book coming out from a big publisher. In many ways, X Men Noir is the most personal and most rewarding project I've ever been involved with at Marvel.

DC: As you can tell, Fred and I have no problem answering questions that are "directed" at each other because though Fred did write a brilliant set of scripts and I did my best on the art, we, and that we includes Nate, all had a say in everything. Further, unlike most books, we had the time and space on X Men Noir to go back and revise and read and change and look again and decide, should the lettering be moved or should the art be changed, what's best overall for the reading experience.

NRAMA: You both have indicated that the project will contain a great deal of "Easter Egg" material for X-book fans. How obscure are we talking?

FVL: Well... I think some of them are pretty obscure, but if I've learned one thing from writing comic books it's never try and claim you have superior knowledge to the fans. I'll let the X-book fans themselves judge their merit, then they can praise and/or pillory me as they see fit.

I just thought it was cool that we created this entire alternate universe, in a completely different genre, using 95% pure X-Men references. Just from the point of pure world construction, I think that's one of the coolest things about the whole book.

NRAMA: Fred, were there any obstacles to overcome in regards to shaping "superhero material" into these darker, pulp-like archetypes?

FVL: It was a challenge creatively, but a fun and exciting one. Each character shares affinities with his or her super hero counterpart. Scarlet Witch's hex bolts alter probability, for example. So our Wanda Magnus is a compulsive gambler--at Remy Le Beau's (Gambit's) nightclub. Cyclops is a crack-shot--though with a sniper rifle, not eyebeams.

Others are a little more obvious. Detective Fred (Blob) Dukes is really, really fat. Didn't take me too long to come up with that one. Beast is an Olympic level acrobat--that makes him the X Men's second story man, and so on.

NRAMA: Let's talk a little bit about the teaser images that have been released over the past few months--what do some of these messages mean?

FVL: I don't think I'll give anything away by saying they're all lines of dialogue from the book. I believe each one is from the first issue... except one.

As for what the lines mean in context, readers will have to wait to find that out when they read the book itself, of course.

DC: I've just drawn from the best scripts I've ever had to work with and done what I think is some of my best and most interesting work, and I learned a lot, which is always a nice bonus. And there's a real nice mix of character work and action that's always fun.

The teaser images began as something I did privately to sort of get myself psyched and to provide a sort of keystone for the visual look of the series. Nate saw it and basically loved it and saw a way to get others excited about this series. And it worked. It was fun watching the internet fans try to figure out if I was Frank Miller or Jae Lee, either of which is praise of the highest order. Now if I could only get their page rates...

NRAMA: Would you like to explore other genres by imposing iconic Marvel characters into other areas--could there be more permutations of this sort of project? Victorian Era Avengers? 17th Century Wilderness Exploration fiction Alpha Flight?

FVL: The challenge in doing this kind of project is to avoid falling into a cookie-cutter paint-by-numbers trap where you're just plugging in holes in other genres with Marvel characters and concepts. Dennis, Nate and I spent well over year and a half crafting X Men Noir and we put a lot of care and thought into it. I would want to do the same with any other project of that nature.

That said, I wouldn't mind doing a Lovecraft-style cosmic horror book. That would fit well into the noir/pulp period wouldn't it, and I could exercise all my old Call of Cthulhu muscles. God, I used to love that game...

DC: Yes, we are dorks, but cute ones! Cthulu was an awesome game and that milieu could be a very interesting one to explore. But my dream project is to have Spider-Ham meet the Muppets' Pigs in Space. It's a 144 page graphic novel, rated Mature and Spider-Ham and Miss Piggy...

NRAMA: Do you think that mainstream comics would benefit from a forced reversion to more genre-specific work like Action/ Adventure, Sci-Fi, Horror, Noir, Romance--does the construct of the "superhero" genre sort of encapsulate all of those ideas under one big red cape?

DC: I don't think you can "force" the market to do anything. You're not going to make comic shop owners stock their shelves with stuff they don't want. No, you have to build the audience first for the market to expand and that happens slowly. With the King comic books and graphic novels on bookstore shelves and a higher general awareness of comic book properties, its possible we're at the beginning of a new golden age of comics. Or not.

FVL: It is the "New Golden Age of Comics" because it's the era when Dennis Calero is working in it. Or at least that's what I hear scientists from the future will say.

DC: Fred only thinks this because I showed up at his house one time in a lab coat with a insect mask on telling him how awesome everyone in "the year 2000" thinks I am. Forgetting of course it was 2007.

NRAMA: Have superhero comics dominated the market for so long that these other genres can only survive in small pockets?

DC: Right now, superhero comics is a redundant term. Superheros ARE comics. It's a genre ideally suited for comics, a medium that has been in various stages of "dying" for decades. But with the overall health of the art comes the oppurtunity to expand the horizons of the medium and slowly introduce current readers to genres that were once overwhelmingly popular.

FVL: Superheroes do dominate comics to an unusual degree, but it's not like that's that radically different from other markets. Cop shows have long dominated prime-time T.V. Mysteries and crime, likewise, are arguably the most popular single prose genre (next to romance, I guess). But most of the people who buy other genres of comics are also superhero fans; it happens to be the genre most of us grew up reading.

Historically speaking (as you can see if you read me and Ryan Dunlavey's comics history comic Comic Book Comics -- plug! plug!), superheroes have always dominated American comics, except for a brief period between the end of World War II and the launch of Sputnik. Whether not that will ever change is hard to say, but with the sheer diversity of titles and readership today, even with the dominance of superheroes in the direct market, there's certainly no better chance of it happening than in the era we happen to be living in right now.

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