When someone's been labeled a criminal, the world is against them. Regardless of their redemptive actions, the masses judge these people based on that label, and their associates are usually composed of fellow members of the criminal underground. This is something the X-Men know a lot about. This December, Marvel's mutant underworld becomes a criminal one in the four-issue miniseries, "X Men Noir." CBR News spoke with writer Fred Van Lente ("Incredible Hercules") and artist Dennis Calero ("X-Factor") about the project, which re-imagines the iconic X-Men characters as inhabitants of a morally murky Manhattan in the 1930s.
"The X-Men in this book are not superheroes," Fred Van Lente told CBR News, "This is a crime series."
"We wanted to use these iconic characters to tell a real noir genre-style story like the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and classic films like 'Chinatown,'" Dennis Calero added. "The way we approached it was, 'What if these characters had been created in the Timely [Marvel Comics' early predecessor] age of the late '30s and '40s instead of the Marvel age of the '60s?' What if they were conceived as pulp action characters rather than superheroes?"
Like their Marvel Universe counterparts, the characters in "X Men Noir" have ties to a school, but it's one that takes in a very different group of youngsters. "The X-Men went to the Xavier School for Wayward Youth, which is a reform school in upstate New York," Van Lente explained. "It's run by Professor Xavier, a so-called Professor of Crime. They're opposed by Eric Magnus, the chief of Detectives of New York City, who has a little side group going. It's a sort of police within the police, that he calls The Brotherhood."
Over the past few months, Marvel has been rolling out mysterious advertisements that introduced readers to some of the cast of "X Men Noir." In one ad, the Noir incarnation of Cyclops proclaims, "Nobody is on our side." A second ad featured an analogue of Rogue saying, "I want to be good." A third featured corrupt cop Eric Magnus holding a badge and stating, "Laws only work on the law abiding." And a fourth ad featured a man who appeared to be the Noir version of Gambit asking, "Have I ever heard of Jean Grey?"
"In the first issue, we have primarily the Lee-Kirby era cast, and than we start adding characters from the different X-Men incarnations," Van Lente said. "So we start out with Cyclops, Warren Worthington, Iceman, Beast and Jean Grey; then Magnus, his son Peter Magnus, and his daughter Wanda. And the Brotherhood cops are Dukes, Wyngarde, and Toynbee."
The cast of "X Men Noir" may not have their familiar mutant powers, but the creative team says they're still the same characters, essentially. "Their personalities are all still intact," Calero stated. "You can still argue that Cyclops is a bit of a wet blanket. The Beast is still sort of an erudite guy who's monstrous appearance is ironic when compared to his intellect and the way he presents himself. Magnus is still an evil bastard. Everyone is basically themselves, just different in terms of being transported in time and not having powers. These characters are, ideally, not defined by their powers. They're defined by their personalities. We did try to create analogues with the characters that reflect what their powers were. I think that will become clear when the book actually comes out. For example, Iceman is a guy who fences diamonds."
In addition to a group of core leads, "X Men Noir" will also feature a huge cast of supporting characters. "Fred has peppered the story with numerous hidden X-Men Easter Egg references as well as side characters that don't take real precedence in the story, but they're still there and they still represent analogues," Calero said.
"My love for Alpha Flight is well documented and I managed to cram an Alpha Flight reference into 'X Men Noir,'" Van Lente laughed. "I'm very proud of it and I was very proud of Dennis's impressive characterization. The character is on the cover to issue #3. And this is a story about political corruption and secret societies, so there's one secret society in the X-Men universe that you know will be making an appearance. They play a central part in the book."
Another central character in "X Men Noir" is the city of New York. "We traveled all over the city taking photographs," Calero revealed. "We spent a long afternoon waiting in line to go to the top of the Empire State Building."
"We also had meetings with various historical societies," Van Lente added. "One of the major settings in the book is Roosevelt Island, once known as Welfare Island, which is in the East River. Comic fans will most remember Roosevelt Island as the scene of the fight between Spider-Man and Green Goblin at the end of the first Spider-Man movie. It's a major setting in the book."
Real New York historical events also play a role in "X Men Noir," with a number of plot elements inspired by or loosely based on actual incidents. "The major plot of the villains is something that actually happened in New York City," Van Lente revealed. "Also, one of the major events in the story is a raid on the prison on Roosevelt Island. The reason for the raid on the prison actually happened in 1924, I think."
The inciting incident of "X Men Noir" is a murder. Van Lente confirmed, "The central thrust of the miniseries is Who Killed Jean Grey?"
"Any noir story has to start with a girl," Calero said.
"And often a dead one," Van Lente agreed.
The title of the series may be "X Men Noir," but like most noir stories it's ultimately about the struggle of one lone individual. "We recognized that early on in the process," Calero remarked. "Fred's managed to craft a rich story that balances a team of characters that we're familiar with, and yet still give us a couple of characters to focus on that you might not expect, especially when you start reading the book."
"Our lone hero is the most mysterious character in the book," Van Lente revealed.
Noir stories of course feature an amount of sex and more often than a liberal dose of violence, and Van Lente and Calero did not shy aware from either element when crafting "X Men Noir." "We had more free reign here than on almost any other book I've ever worked on except maybe '28 Weeks Later,'" Calero said. "But regardless of that and our rating, we decided we weren't going to be gratuitous -- the movies we loved didn't need to be. We weren't going to hold back, either."
"There's a difference between action and violence. In the movies and comics you have ACTION! Action doesn't exist in the real world. In the real world we have violence," Van Lente explained. "And it's bloody. There are serious consequences and a lot of times you don't walk away from it."
Added Calero, "We didn't have to make sure that the world and the characters are in the same place at the end of the story as the beginning. Most of them are in wildly different places and some of those places are six feet underground."
The creators of "X Men Noir" feel their cast of characters are extremely conducive to the trappings of noir. "At the heart of noir are people trying to save people who don't want to be saved, or people saving people and they're not lauded as heroes but as villains," Calero said. "There's nobody more like that in the Marvel Universe than the X-Men."
Calero is penciling, inking and coloring "X Men Noir," and he hopes the synthesis of all those visual elements will give the series a distinct look and feel, but that's also faithful to his beloved noir influences. "If the book was black and white, it would be very cut and abstract, but to color it with these muted tones and grainy colors is to hearken back to some actual noir films," he said. "'Touch of Evil' wasn't super-high-contrast. They had all kinds of shades of gray and I think noir is all about shades of gray. So everything in this story is muted, even when stuff is colorful it's very muted down.
"To be technical, when I drew the book in black and white, it looked very much like those promotional ads and posters and when I colored it, I let the colors finish off edges and forms. I let the colors speak as well as the lines. The timber of the art is a little different."
Calero and Van Lente each had extensive input on the character designs in "X Men Noir." "We were creating something from scratch and I was certainly open to redrawing a figure to get a costume right," the artist said. "That was really the biggest challenge, no superhero costumes. How do you identify characters when they're tiny on the page without a costume? There are different styles of suits and we used color-coding as well. For example, Cyclops has his red glasses and he's always wearing a blue suit. So that's a distinct signal as to who he is. Quicksilver's suits always have this kind of blue and green that he wears in his costume. Wanda always wears red and Magneto always wears purple. So it's a world that's larger than life because I don't think you'd see a police officer in the '30s with a bright purple overcoat. So there are shades of 'Dick Tracy' -- not in terms of the story but in the iconography of the characters, which I wanted to keep intact as much as possible."
Calero's favorite character design in "X Men Noir" is that of Toad. "He's wearing this orange foppish suit and he's got this distorted and distended face," the artist explained. "Not like a mutant but a guy who's been ravaged by the times. I love that character."
Fred Van Lente's "X Men Noir" scripts were a pleasure for Calero to read both as an artist and as a fan. "Fred wrote a moment in one of the issues that caused me to exclaim rather loudly when I was reading it on a plane," Calero confessed. "I've never been as shocked and surprised by a moment in a comic. Fred brings an understanding of what the noir genre is about and the ability to take a complex plot, make it easy follow, and yet not make the story about the plot but about the people."
Van Lente and Calero conceived the idea for "X Men Noir" when they first met at the Wizard World Philadelphia convention a few years ago, and now the writer can't imagine anybody else brining to life his scripts. "He's just the perfect choice," Van Lente said. "Dennis is the complete package. Since he's penciling, inking and coloring the book just has a beautiful unified look.
"We also want to give a shout out to our letter Nate Piekos," Van Lente added. "He's lettering in a completely different style so the entire visual element of this book is so striking and so unlike anything else Marvel is publishing, that I think it's just going to pop off the stands."
"X Men Noir" is only a four-issue limited series, but Van Lente and Calero hope fans respond to it, because they'd love to revisit the characters some day. "It's an entire world that we've created in this story," Calero stated. "We set our demons loose on a new planet and we'd love to come back to them and see what they're doing in a little while. Everyone involved in this book, including our editor Nate Cosby, got on board in terms of this wasn't going to be just another job. We've been getting lettered books back and reading them and everyone is going over them and asking themselves questions like 'could that panel be clearer?' 'Do we need to change the lettering or the art here?' It's that willingness to revise that you don't often get to do when you're doing an ongoing monthly book that gives us options and makes this book the great book I think it is."
Van Lente agreed. "This has just been a wonderful project and it's one of the most personal and rewarding things I've ever done at Marvel."