Creator Dean Motter first brought “Mister X” to comic stands 30 years ago, establishing a world and set of characters that would prove influential across both comic books and film via X’s stories. To celebrate the anniversary, Mister X returns to Dark Horse Comics with two new stories written and drawn by Motter. The first is a one-shot collecting the three-part “Mister X: Hard Candy” story that originally appeared in “Dark Horse Presents,” on sale March 27. Motter follows that up May 1 with the all-new three-issue miniseries, “Mister X: Eviction.”
Mister X is a character in the tradition of the noir private eye — a man of mystery who clings to the shadows, who keeps his motives to himself. He lives and works in Radiant City, a city with an architecture built to twist and torment the mind, and a city he hopes to save from its own corruption.
Comic Book Resources recently spoke with Motter about stepping back into Radiant City, and the writer/artist offered up a look at the original inspirations behind the sci-fi noir, his theories on architectural history, urban design and the evolution of the dystopian narrative.
CBR News: Mister X is back! It’s been a few years since the last story delving into Mister X’s world. What’s the status quo of Radiant City at this point? How much history of the character and world should readers know?
Dean Motter: “Mister X: Eviction” continues the storyline from “Mister X: Condemned” and “Mister X: The Vanishing Breed,” from “MySpace Dark Horse Presents” volume 5.Â At the moment, the impeached mayor’s administration has been dissolved and replaced in the interim by a faceless and power-hungry public utilities department — making Mister X’s mission to repair his city and save it from destruction all the more difficult.Â Readers needn’t be at all familiar with Mister X’s pre-millennial publishing history (though I’m hoping those who are will find it all the more enjoyable.)Â 2009’s “Condemned” was designed specifically to re-launch the series for both new and old readers. Having said that, the story is told with enough background exposition that even that homework isn’t really required.
How would you describe this character, Mister X? He’s the protagonist of the narrative, but would you describe him as a hero? Who, or what, is he?
Well, therein lies the concept of the series — he’s a man of mystery. Driven yet secretive. You could say, “Who isn’t, in this genre?” Strangely, we know Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker inside out. However, can’t say the same for Sam Spade, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or even Denny Colt, for that matter. I like to think of Mister X in that way. I mean — he’s called “Mister X” for a reason. In “Eviction” he is compelled to put his self-appointed mission aside long enough to free his long-suffering ex-girlfriend, Mercedes, from the clutches of his antagonists. So, he has a heroic task at hand. But in some ways he’s really more like the Spirit in that the stories are more about the city and its residents — and I would say there’s little good vs. evil involved; just folks with varying degrees of desperation, ambition and madness.
Would you say that Radiant City is a character in its own right? What is Mister X’s relationship to the city? What compels him to try to save it, rather than simply walk away?
I’ve been asked this before, and while Radiant City was always intended to be a character in itself, I wasn’t sure what that actually meant. Lip service is often given to cities being characters in various stories — I guess, on one level, it means that the story couldn’t take place in another location very easily. That something is unique about a town that makes it central to the story in the manner that, for instance, “Oliver Twist” must take place in 1830s London. Tim Burton’s Gotham City was a “character.”Â Art director Anton Furst told me that he, Tim and screenwriter Sam Hamm envisioned an over-populated city where zoning laws were either ignored or corrupted — it was the only place that could have spawned the bizarre Batman and his adversaries. Similarly, with Mister X — he and the city mutually created one and other. They are conjoined twins. His actual identity is, of course, a mystery (if he wasn’t one the original architects or engineers, he might have been their pharmaceutical facilitator, political leader or criminal mastermind — maybe even the city’s most famous entertainer). Mister X is a product of the city and the city a product of his labors.
The aesthetic and themes of the series draw upon, in part, Soviet Constructivism and Bauhaus-modernism, and themes of utopian versus dystopian social structures. How have the themes or influences shifted for you over the years? Do you think the dystopian genre has changed between the story’s first installment in the early 1980s and now?
Mister X was originally conceived as a noir-ish pastiche of “Metropolis” and “The Maltese Falcon” (find the black bird in the upcoming miniseries!). But the imagery went from backdrop to motivation — for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being both my and the original collaborating artist, Paul Rivoche’s, fascination with urban architecture and its history.Â The retro-future I envisioned became a giant playground (“Terminal City”, “Electropolis”) for me — and remains so. It’s a way of exploring the future and the past at once. It’s comic yet ironic. I loved the late, great, Peter Bergman’s description of my city: “…a metropolis that made it into the nineties but actually stopped dead somewhere in the fifties…” It’s how the future was seen at the 1939 Worlds Fair, i.e. today: charming in its naivete, but frightening in its scale.
As far as futuristic dystopias go, back when “Mister X” was created the only example in the pop-media of any real note, aside from Orwell’s creaky “1984,” was “Blade Runner.” That model of near-future urban civilization has been extensively explored in the three decades since. From “The Matrix” to Coruscant, from Caprica to Gotham City — the number of films, TV series and comics that have come to feature such a vision is amazing to me. Back in 1980 I was reading certain stories by Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick to explore such worlds — kind of hard to casually come across at the time.
Today its de rigueur and a major challenge with “Mister X” is keeping it fresh — which is one reason I like to return to the well of vintage futurism — Deco, Bauhaus and Modernism: the last great bastions of ornamental design philosophy before industrial minimalism came to rule our architectural life once and for all. I suppose the short-lived Space Age and Googie Era could be included, but I think that is after the Industrial Revolution officially ended. As for Post-Modernism –it has always seemed to be more of a reaction rather than an actual zeitgeist to me.
Do you see the events taking place in Radiant City as a sort of reflection of events taking place in American cities?
It wasn’t quite that editorially intentioned, but I suppose there is something to that. With few exceptions society has abandoned architecture as a factor in its noblest ambitions and salvation. Visionary architecture has all but disappeared, with the exception of Dubai, the UAE or Singapore. Certainly here in the west functionality and utilitarianism has supplanted societal inspiration. Walt Disney’s grand optimistic vision now seems quaint and even antiquated. I don’t mean simply in terms of aesthetics — things just haven’t gone quite as planned. Is it simply that we’ve outgrown our bank account? Is it that New York’s tallest modern skyscrapers were brought down by men with knives waging a 16th century holy war? Or was it more predictable? Did McLuhan, Tom Wolfe and Buckminster Fuller warn us of its coming? That is certainly the central theme of the Radiant City story.
I’m glad you brought up Philip K. Dick — this idea of an authoritarian regime utilizing “psychetecture” to control its citizens struck me as very Dick-ian. Can you talk a bit about what this idea of psychetecture is, and the inspiration behind it?
It came from a number of sources. Mostly, personal observations — I was fascinated by Disneyland’s use of forced perspective on Main Street and the Magic Castle, or the deceptive lack of right angles in the Haunted Mansion. My thought was that its benign purpose was to channel people’s moods toward happiness and contentment. That would’ve been the ’39 World’s Fair ideal. But unscrupulous politicians might use such capability to control people — or perhaps the structural theories had subliminal math errors — or the contractors took shortcuts that altered its function. In the final chapter of “Mister X: Nightclubs and Daydreams,” and later in “Condemned,” I introduced the idea of “psychetecture’s” counterpart, “kinetecture”: structures that change shape, height and even orientation depending on the purpose, weather and time of day. Somehow the machinery froze in “dark and stormy night” mode. This exacerbated the already twisted psychology of the populace and this confluence helped turn the “city of dreams” into the “city of nightmares.” The power-hungry authorities — who are as unhinged as any other Radiant Citizen — then seize the opportunity and exploit the situation. They pretend to correct things with an ambitious urban renovation program — the current plotline — but actually double down on using the city’s structures to rule its residents.
A lot of modernist architecture, I’m thinking particularly about brutalism, began as an effort to achieve a sort of social-utopian design but has come to be more readily associated with authoritarian structure. What are your thoughts around the link between architecture, or urban planning, and psychology or social health?
Well, to paraphrase the “General Hospital” actor: “I’mÂ no architect, but I play one in the comics.” I think there’s a whole thesis here. In short, I don’t believe it’s the aesthetics — it’s the cultural, technological and generational evolution. While architects try to predict the society wherein their completed buildings will function, it is unpredictable by definition. Even entire communities that were built from the ground up, such as Brazilia or Celebration (nee EPCOT), with an ever-open eye to the future, have suffered vandalism, murder, suicide and criminal residents — not to mention unforeseen technical revolutions. So, if the inclination to construct social perfection doesn’t result in our living in Levin’s Stepford or “The Prisoner’s” Village, we find ourselves in J.G. Ballard’s “High-Rise.” As someone once said, “It’s always April 14, 1912 somewhere.”
As the Industrial Revolution progressed we began to look at factories, buildings and even cities themselves as immense machines, and thus we looked for engineering — that is to say architectural and infrastructural — solutions to sociological problems, with the ultimate goal being a mechanical efficiency with as few moving parts as an iPhone and the only kinetic aspect being the information — or, the citizenry — that it houses.
Like the last foray to Radiant City, you’re writing and penciling this book yourself. What challenges are there to handling both duties? What do you feel the book gains by this?
I’m inclined to let the audience be the judge of how, or if, the book gains. I will say that it allows me to continually finesse the words and pictures as I go along, right up until I upload my final files to Dark Horse — sorry, Dave [Marshall]. These days software allows me to do all this as well as color and letter the book (I still have flashbacks of a “Mister X” consisting of paste-ups, artboards and Letraset — of cutting amberlith, frisket and Letrafilm — of wearing a “gasmask” and ordering tanks of nitrogen to power my airbrush — of typewriter ribbons and whiteout. It all seems like some weird David Lynch dream.)Â It’s challenging in terms of the solitary, work-intensive, physically sedentary man-hours, but being a working insomniac doesn’t hurt. I could proclaim that it preserves the truest vision of “Mister X.” Mike Richardson, Diana Schutz and Dave Marshall have surely provided me with the welcome opportunity to make “Mister X” this auteur’s dream. That said, I have to confess I love a good collaboration. My work with Michael Lark on “Terminal City” and “Batman: Nine Lives” was some of my best, and most enjoyable, for me — as were recent projects with Greg Scott (“Dominic Fortune” and “Wolverine”) and Paul Rivoche (“The Spirit”). Certainly, “Mister X” wouldn’t be what it is without Rivoche’s original visualizations of my words and napkin drawings.
2013 marks Mister X’s XXXth year since his first comic book appearance. There are some commemorative projects on the drawing board, but the occasion really gives me the opportunity to reach the readers in a particular way. Just as Eisner’s later Spirit stories were the best of that oeuvre, I’m working with the hope that these new “Mister X” tales might one day be regarded similarly.
The “Mister X: Hard Candy” one-shot goes on sale March 27, and the three-issue “Mister X: Eviction” miniseries begins May 1.