As Dark Horse Comics continues to expand its roster of superheroes, readers are seeing the re-emergence of characters who have been missing from comics for years, and in some cases decades. On May 8, Dark Horse will release “X” #1, the first of a four-issue miniseries written by Duane Swierczynski and featuring art by Eric Nguyen. Featuring the return of the deadly masked vigilante X to the festering city of Arcadia, Swierczynski’s take on the character will stay true to past iterations while finding inspiration, or cause, in contemporary America.
As the series opens, X has dispatched the criminal organization of Arcadia known as the Three Pigs. Now, the vigilante is going after an even tougher target, a villain of grand proportions, Berkshire. The title character of the series, however, remains something of a mystery.
“The identity of X is unknown,” Swierczynski told CBR News. “All we know is that he’s a man (presumably!) who dresses up in a one-eyed mask, sealed with a lock, and targets the criminal element in the city of Arcadia. His targets receive one warning: their own photo with a single slash through it. Make him warn you again, and he’s going to come after you — you pretty much won’t live to pose for another photograph.”
The true hero of the story, though, may not be the killer vigilante, but someone of more humble persuasions: an out-of-work journalist investigating the masked killer. Though their tactics may be wildly different, Swierczynski says the two are working, ultimately, toward the same cause.
“This arc reintroduces [X] through the eyes of a journalist named Leigh Ferguson,” said Swierczynski. “Until recently she was an investigative reporter at the last newspaper in Arcadia, but then it folded, forcing Leigh to take her column online under the nom de plume of ‘The Last Muckraker.’ At first Leigh thinks X is simply a serial killer, but then their paths cross and her story becomes a lot more complicated.”
The character of Leigh Ferguson presents an opportunity to ground the story in the real world: a protagonist without a mask, balancing out the extreme tactics X may take. Like X, Ferguson is working to save her city from rampant corruption and violence.
“Journalists are supposed to be the ones looking out for all of this corruption, but in Arcadia, the last newspaper has folded,” Swierczynski explained. “Which means nobody’s looking out for guys like Berkshire — except one ‘last muckraker,’ as she calls herself. She wants to save the city, too, and refuses to stop just because she’s no longer receiving a paycheck. Her mission and X’s mission are two sides of the same coin.”
Berkshire is the man at the top, the villain Swierczynski describes as the literal “big bad.” The villain is inspired, in part, by political trends both recent and long past — a monopolizing crime lord with his hands in every bucket — and is also inspired by some more unexpected sources.
“Berkshire is the porcine face of the much-loathed one percent, an old-school political boss who takes a big bite out of every deal in Arcadia, legal or otherwise,” said the writer. “If the fix is in, he’s the one who fixed it. He was inspired by both real-life political fat cats — my hometown, Philly, has had its share of them over the last century — as well as an exhibit by a German performance artist I caught last fall. To say more would spoil things, but let’s just say that Berkshire’s first encounter with X leaves him… transformed.”
In his fight against corruption, X finds himself without many allies. While Ferguson is working toward the same cause, their motivations and methods don’t quite align, so calling her an ally might be a stretch.
“There’s no love for X in the city of Arcadia, especially among the elite, who are controlled by a political fixer — the aforementioned Berkshire — who has many of the politicians and police brass in his pocket,” said Swierczynski. “Don’t get me wrong; there are good people in Arcadia. X believes the city can be brought back from the brink. But it’s going to be a little while before they feel comfortable sticking their necks out.”
Swierczynski is taking a number of cues from the original Dark Horse series, which began in 1994 and ran for 25 issues. The original “X” was dark and bloody, and, as Swierczynski describes it, rife with urban despair. In re-introducing X as a contemporary character, Swierczynski drew, to a large extent, on current and recent events.
“I’m just transplanting it to our time, which has plenty of despair to go around,” said Swierczynski. “Violent crime may have dropped in some cities, but there’s still a lot of unease and desperation on the streets. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the game is hopelessly rigged in the favor of ‘the few.’ X was born to target these ‘few,’ as well as those who do their bidding — he sees them as cancerous tumors on the city, and surgery is the only option.”
“The fun of ‘X’ is balancing the reality with the pulp revenge fantasy,” continued Swierczynski. “X is trying to get the city’s attention, just like Eric [Nguyen] and I are trying to get the reader’s attention. X is calling out all of the people who are strangling his city to death — just like greedy bastards do all the time in real-life American cities — and showing them the grisly, over-the-top consequences of their actions. I see ‘X’ as a cautionary tale, a parable and a grindhouse flick all rolled up in one.”
Series artist Eric Nguyen is doing his part to up the ante as well. His visual representation of X and the city of Arcadia is more realistic and, if possible, darker in tone than previous incarnations. Swierczynski and Nguyen play well off each other, with the writer and artist constantly pushing one another to go further.
“Eric blows me away with every page,” Swierczynski said of his collaborator. “I feel like script pages hint at these nightmarish, violent images — and then Eric’s art brings them to hellish life. I think we’re both inspiring each other to go darker and weirder than we may have in other projects. Wait until you meet Berkshire… Eric brought him to life in a way that still freaks me out.”
During his presence at Dark Horse in the ’90s, X managed to cross paths with other superhero characters in the publisher’s stable. At that time, the popular character, Ghost, was also based in the fictional city of Arcadia, and the two heroes crossed paths on more than one occasion. With Dark Horse Comics re-invigorating their pool of superhero characters, and updating many of their past heroes, including Ghost, the possibility for a fluid and integrated superhero universe is there. Luckily, fans of these characters don’t have too long to wait to see them cross paths.
“I’ve just finished scripting a five issue mini-series crossover starring X, Ghost and Captain Midnight!” said Swierczynski. “It won’t be available for quite a while yet, so in the meantime, it’s best to follow these guys in their individual books, knowing that eventually they’re going to butt heads — and I mean that literally.”
“X” #1 by Swierczynski & Nguyen is on sale May 8.