Mister X has always been a striking figure. His simple and elegant design — bald, round sunglasses, tie, black overcoat — embodies his role in the various “Mister X” comics perfectly. He’s mysterious, sharp, and so emblematic as to be almost insubstantial as a personality. It’s not who Mister X is that matters. It’s what he does, and how he does it.
As far as I know, I’ve read every “Mister X” comic in existence. When my copy of “Mister X: The Archives” arrived last year, I flipped through the book and said, again and again, “yup, I’ve got that issue. And that one. Yup. And that one.” I used to doodle little tiny Mister Xs (he’s really easy to draw!) in the margins of my high school notebooks, and I’ve been a fan of Dean Motter’s unique brand of Architecture Noir for decades.
But I still find Mister X to be a cipher.
We know things about him, and “Mister X: Condemned” has reminded us about some of those things, but he’s still an enigmatic figure, even when the comic bares his name. Because when you’re dealing with a Dean Motter “Mister X” story, you’re dealing with an emphasis that’s more about the characters scurrying around inside the maze of Radiant City than about the characters themselves. It’s the scurrying that matters, and the maze itself. It’s not a literal maze, of course, but it’s the peculiar “psychetecture” of the city that gives the setting its unique flavor. The setting is the character here, and that’s not unusual for Motter.
“Mister X: Condemned” also features a detective story, with a search for a killer and all the usual tropes that you might expect. The detective wears a fedora, and you can basically imagine the beats that follow, straight out of the hard-boiled tradition, but filtered through Motter’s design-oriented, schematic visuals. If you’ve never seen Motter’s art before, picture late-era Matt Wagner but with a better graphic sensibility and more rigidly drawn characters. It’s striking work, but not flamboyantly so.
Issue #3 is certainly not the best place to jump into “Mister X: Condemned.” With only one more issue to go before the series wraps up, we mostly get transitional material here. We find out more about the “Ninth Academy,” the training ground for strange (and divisive) architects, and we move closer to solving the detective mystery. It’s a solid installment in a series that could work as a gateway for new readers into the cerebral “Mister X” universe, but it’s certainly not an issue that has a lot of meaning on its own.
“Mister X: Condemned” demonstrates that Motter’s style has aged well. Actually, it seems ageless, probably because “Mister X” has always existed outside the comings and goings of each decade’s comic book trends. It’s a classic story with a classic look. Motter has created his own off-beat, stylized cityscape, and even when it engages with contemporary culture (as in issue #3’s introduction of the “Internette,” a row of female telephone operators who find the answer to any question posed to them) it does so in it’s own unique way.