Monday, March 16, 2009

X-Men Noir

"X Men Noir"
Writer: Fred van Lente
Artist: Dennis Calero
Letterer: Nate Piekos
Editor: Nathan Cosby

Well, I gave it four issues, and I still haven't got a clue what the point of the "noir-verse" is.

If you haven't seen any of these books, the various Noir titles are noir stories with a cast loosely inspired by characters drawn from the Marvel Universe. Crucially, we're not talking about noir stories with superpowers here. There are no powers; it's just conventional noir stories inspired by old superhero comics.

Which begs the question: why, for god's sake? We've seen something vaguely along these lines before, with X-Men: Fairy Tales and its assorted sequels, in which old folk stories were re-told with modified versions of superheroes in the lead role. Why? Who knows? At best, they seem to be an expression of creative frustration: a belief that the only way to stretch Marvel's output is to produce increasingly contrived variations on the established franchises.

But transplanting characters from one genre to another isn't an idea, unless you're doing it for some purpose. Compare, if you will, "Kitty's Fairy Tale" from Uncanny X-Men #153, which is an entire issue of Kitty telling a little girl a bedtime story based loosely on the X-Men. And it works. Why? Well, partly because it's a cute gimmick. But also because it reveals how Kitty sees the rest of the team; and also because we get to see the team's reaction; and most importantly, because the story was designed as a wistful alternative happy ending to the relatively-recent Dark Phoenix Saga. And that's why it's more than just a time-killing gimmick.

X-Men Noir is as good as something like this is going to get. Dennis Calero's art always suited the noir influence on Peter David's Madrox and X-Factor stories, with great use of light and shadow rather than the usual pseudo-moody grit that so many artists use. And Fred van Lente writes a well-constructed story with some neat twists that, on re-reading, are subtly foreshadowed. (One of them is also a homage to an obscure continuity patch, which tells you what we're dealing with here.)

But what does any of this have to do with the X-Men? Well, not a great deal. In theory, the idea is that Professor Xavier has been running a reform school where he's been testing out his pet theory that sociopaths are predators perfectly adapted to the modern environment, and therefore the next stage in human evolution. It's a cute idea, but never really goes anywhere; for the most part, the X-Men don't seem to be sociopaths, so much as survivors.

Of course, they're not really heroes either - it's a noir story, after all - so Van Lente takes the interesting step of plugging in Golden Age hero the Angel as a brightly-coloured acrobat to drive the plot in their stead. Here, Angel seems to loosely symbolise the brighter and more morally certain world that lies ahead, once superhero comics displace the pulp genre - but at the same time, he's a character from the distant past, surrounded by more modern characters whose moral ambiguity would generally be seen as an improvement on his rudimentary simplicity.

So is Van Lente saying that comics have come full circle? That after sixty years of development we've finally recaptured the level of sophistication in a 1930s pulp? All a bit gloomy, surely.

The big problem with this book, though, is that the characters don't map terribly well to the X-Men, and the analogies generally seem forced and contrived. Xavier fits quite neatly; but Scott, Hank and Bobby have little in common besides superficial traits. The plot requires Jean to be completely reinvented. Magneto ends up playing the corrupt man who works the system to protect those he loves - but with nothing to underpin it, he's just a random antagonist who happens to have been labelled Magneto because that's what the X-Men's main villain is called. Some minor gangsters are made Irish so that they can be assigned the names of Sean and Tom Cassidy. The X-Men's school has a training room with a big sign on the door saying "Danger", even though nothing inside actually looks particularly dangerous. And so on.

The only X-Men character who would really be at home in a noir story is Wolverine, but he's only given a minor role here (presumably because they're saving him for a miniseries of his own). Otherwise, we have a noir story, decent enough in itself, which keeps trying to awkwardly map itself to an utterly unrelated concept. The point escapes me.

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