One of the gems of early 1980s independent comics, Mister X was a trailblazing book in several ways. Mister X sported impeccable design, lavish production values, and a creative line-up of artists who would later be known as masters of the medium, including Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Seth, Ty Templeton and Dave McKean. The Mister X Archives hardcover collection is set to release on 11/26 from Dark Horse and an all-new Mister X limited-series, Mister X: Condemned, by series creator Dean Motterwill premiere in December, also from Dark Horse. Motter spoke withPWCW about the book's history and future.
PWCW: The Archives edition looks gorgeous. How did the collection come about, and what led you to publish this material with Dark Horse?
Dean Motter: It was actually the result of a conversation with Diana Schutz at Dark Horse. I wanted to launch a new series, but Diana and I both thought an archive edition would be a good way to re-establish the franchise. The "bricks" (hardbound archives) were doing well in the book chains at the time, and the previous collections by the now defunct ibooks were flawed by inferior scans of the original comics and mistakes in the pagination. It meant there was a place for a proper collection. This edition has much larger reproductions, painstakingly restored. Dark Horse's production staff did a beautiful job. We feel that this book would provide enough visibility for the character to have a chance to relaunch. I have worked with Dark Horse over the years- some Star Wars stories, Grendel, the 9/11 book. And I appreciate the way they treated auteur-driven books like The Goon and Hellboy.
PWCW: How might you describe Mister X to someone who may have yet to read the original series?
DM: It is a noir tale set in the futuristic present as envisioned in 1939. It concerns a city, designed to be a utopia, but its subliminal design flaws are driving its citizenry insane. Mister X is one of the creators of the city, who has returned from exile to repair the city and in doing so goes up against a corrupt government, the mob and other antagonists. He is cursed with an addiction to a drug which keeps him awake 24 hours a day. All the while his ex-girlfriend struggles with her feelings for him.
PWCW: Why might Mister X appeal to people who don’t typically read comic books?
DM: I could say because it is a mystery book and not heroic fantasy/adventure, but I'm not sure that's accurate. There is no story of good vs. evil or even a quest for justice. It's about obsession, desperation, deception, damnation, redemption. And I try to work with archetypes that readers instinctively understand. Having said all that I try to do it somewhat tongue-in-cheek so we don't get too grim. I look to Will Eisner's The Spirit tales as the zenith of the medium. They remain my model of comics for non-comics readers.
PWCW: Give us a "Director’s Cut" behind-the-scenes take on how the original concept and visual designs for Mister X initially came about.
DM: Initially I was trying to create a combination of the films Metropolis, The Third Man, Alphaville and The Maltese Falcon. I was especially interested in modernist architecture and industrial design so that really opened up the 1939 Worlds Fair vision of the coming century. Once I was comfortable with the retro-future setting I returned the noir/expressionist film world for influence, and especially the comics of Eisner. I was lucky enough to share a studio with illustrator Paul Rivoche who was interested in similar subjects. So we spent a year developing the imagery for the series. This was back in 1983. The imagery has stood up well and is key in the new mini-series.
PWCW: What themes and ideas were you most interested in exploring and what were you striving to achieve artistically?
DM: The main theme is that of organized chaos of the city, a very expressionistic image from the '30s. I'm hoping to portray some modern urban life by using its vintage counterpart. The internet is represented by switchboard operators and pneumatic tubes. The video phones have rotary dials. Public transit consists of monorails and zeppelins. The flying cars are based on coupes, sedans and jet age concept cars. But it's the architecture itself that represents the dark interior mechanics of society, much like a circuit board mirrors the modern day metropolis.
PWCW: What elements have changed most between then and now in relation to your approach to the new series, Mister X: Condemned?
DM: Well, when I think approach, there are three things—the first is the arrival of the 21st century. The long-anticipated future has now arrived. Those of us who grew up in the '50s and '60s know of what I speak. Disney promoted it every week on TV. Magazines and toys helped us acquaint ourselves with the transition between the Jet Age and the Space Age and coming New Age. It's not exactly as advertised, but the wait is over. We have household robots, space stations, video phones and the grandiose architecture. The second is the generational acceptance and sophistication of the comic book milieu in general. Stories, art, production and the public's appetite for the subject matter (movies like Dark Knight, Iron Man, TV shows such as Smallville, Heroes, etc.) It makes working in the medium that much more exciting. When Mister X debuted there were only a handful of us trying to make comics "respectable". Miller, Moore, Chaykin, Heavy Metal, Byron Preiss. Today's comic book creators are standing on our shoulders in effect, and it makes for a challenge. Third is 9/11 which, while transforming the world at large, in one respect it affected the way we live with gigantic architecture. It changed the way we look at skyscrapers, the symbols of financial ego, imagination, heroic engineering; the basis of our image of the city.
PWCW: What’s the central motivation of the new series?
DM: In Condemned Radiant City's administration has decided on a course of urban renewal for the sectors of the city that are particularly afflicted with the architectural qualities that are driving the residents mad. Mister X, one of the founding architects, has returned to stop the demolition of his creation by repairing it. But just as his ex- sweetheart seems to be the only sane person in tow, he seems to be the maddest. In the midst of a troubled mayoral election he faces city hall and the criminal underworld as well as quasi-Masonic order of architects who have their own agendas. This premise is described in a prequel of sorts at Dark Horse's online MySpace anthology site.
PWCW: What else can you tell me about the Mister X Archives?
DM: The book is 384 pages, hard-bound with a foil stamped case binding and a two-color embossed/spot varnished dust jacket. The new scans are larger and vastly superior to the ibooks version. The book collects the color run of the 1984-1988 series (Hernandez Bros., Ty Templeton, Seth, covers by Rivoche, Chaykin, Kaluta, McKean, Vellikoop, and myself) my own newly written/ illustrated finale, sketches, posters and short features by Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Paul Rivoche and Bill Sienkiewicz. It is very much a treasury. Even the paper is gorgeous.
PWCW: In the past you’ve cited Steranko as being a major influence. Who else?
DM: In terms of draftsmanship Eisner, Frazetta, Wood and Neal Adams were my major comic book influences since adolescence. But Steranko opened my eyes with respect to comics being about graphic design. Before I discovered his work it was always about just drawing sequential pictures. He made it about composition, printmaking techniques, cinematography. It was via Steranko that I looked at the others with new eyes. And over the years I've had the chance to study and even occasionally work with others whose work I admired. Of course growing up there were other illustrators I pored over like Rockwell, Leyendecker, Wyeth, Bonestell, Rackham.
PWCW: In terms of the publishing end of the spectrum, I’m interested in the challenges you may have faced initially compared to the new challenges, of today’s marketplace.
DM: Right now there is a wealth of quality publications in this medium. When we were starting out the competition was sparse. The majors have embraced the market of cutting edge books for years now. Mister X along with Dark Knight Returns, American Flagg, Love & Rockets, The Rocketeer, Maus and Watchmen were all hallmarks of the 80s new wave of comics, when the term 'graphic novel' was re-introduced. I hope that Mister X: The Archives will be seen as a good legacy edition as well as a classy piece of '80s memorabilia, like a newly remastered box set of Joy Division or a blue ray DVD of Blade Runner.
The talent pool is so enormous and diverse now, that jockeying for room onstage is the biggest challenge. I'd cite Alex Ross, Art Spiegleman, Chris Ware, Jim Lee, and Darwyn Cooke as examples of just how diverse it is. But even that list is dated. The economy is a big concern. But I think of how comics did in the Depression and I don't worry as much.
PWCW: What does the future hold in store for Mister X, and for Dean Motter?
DM: At the moment I'm designing the Tim Hamilton graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. I just finished the layout and contributing editorial duties on Vanguard's The Definitive Frazetta Reference. I have a serial featuring Chaykin's Dominic Fortune character over at Marvel being illustrated by Greg Scott, which is scheduled to launch in Astonishing Tales next July. Other irons are in the fire which I will announce at my website as I am able. As for Mister X, one can get a sneak peak in the November and December issues of Art Review. If Condemned is at all successful there will be more Radiant City intrigue from Dark Horse.
[Jeffery Klaehn is a widely published author and cultural commentator. He is the editor of and main contributor to Inside the World of Comic Books (2006) and maintains a comic-related blog at http://jefferyklaehn.blogspot.com/]