Fred Van Lente & Dennis Calero: The Noir Mark of Van Lente and CaleroA comics interview article by: Alex Rodrik
With the success of X-Men Noir and the fresh release of X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain #1, writer Fred Van Lente and artist Dennis Calero took time out of their hectic schedules to chat with me about the series and noir.
-Alex Rodrik, Features and Interview Editor
Alex Rodrik: What does the genre of noir mean to you and what about it attracted each of you to the idea of adapting the beloved X-Men into a noir title?
Fred Van Lente: I think I first got into noir through the HBO Philip Marlowe series starring Powers Boothe. I remember really loving those when I was a kid, and that introduced me to Raymond Chandler. I devoured all of his books, and that led to love of a lot of other similar writers like [Dashiell] Hammett.
Then I just rented the HBO show on Netflix the other day, and it was goddamn awful. It’s amazing how the essence of the stuff just seizes you when you’re young and encountering it for the first time and the particulars just become completely irrelevant. Then you try to enjoy it when you’re older, and… Yeesh. You can’t go home again.
X-Men Noir, as we’ve said in a couple interviews, morphed from a completely different project Dennis had wanted to do originally with a completely different editor. But I think what we ultimately came up with was far superior to our original conception… I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes when I say that, Dennis…
Dennis Calero: I think it is. And I actually can still enjoy that Powers Boothe series, but what got me as a young man was The Third Man. It was actually more Orson Welles himself, as a person and discovering Citizen Kane, which is amazing of course, but then discovering his other films including Touch of Evil.
It was a mood, a sense of right and wrong lost in a maze of desire and temptation. But then somehow found again, even if sometimes it's found too late.
Horror and noir, my favorite genres, are linked and are often linked in the manner in which they often fail: sometimes creators get so lost in the miasma of darkness they forgot that it's there to contrast with light. The best horror films, such as The Exorcist, have an unassailable element of good, that won't give up, and that is willing to sacrifice everything to keep evil at bay.
Crime fiction is the same.
AR: With the success of the original run of X-Men Noir, what new pressures did you face when tackling this latest installment in the noir line?
FVL: Unlike some other things I’ve done, I actually came up with the basic idea for Mark of Cain about halfway through the original series, so when Marvel asked us to do a sequel we were able to deploy it pretty quickly and naturally.
DC: We've already got a pretty good idea of what we'd like to do for part three.
For me, artistically, it was to open things up a bit. In a way, stylistically, this is very different than any kind of art being done in comics now and different than work I had done previously, and with it came some pretty basic problems that “standard” comic art was very very good at addressing.
AR: Tell us a bit about X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain.
FVL: Mark of Cain picks up six months or so from the end of the first series. Angel, Cap’n Logan & Co. are hiding out in Madripoor once the heat from the bloodbath at the end of X-Men Noir I cools off. They’ve wound up working for the mercenary Cain Marko, who’s on the trail of the fabled Crimson Gem of Cyttorak. When he winds up murdered, however, Angel has a new mystery to solve… one that leads him back on the trail of the infamous Charles Xavier, the “Professor of Crime.”
DC: Fred has done something that can be very difficult to accomplish, which is to create a story that stands totally on its own but also works hand in hand with the tale that came before. He's pretty good.
AR: Noir characters are very tormented and broken characters. When crafting the new edge of the X-Men were there ever any moments where you felt you had taken a character too far to the dark-side and you had to reel them back in? This applies to both design and characterization.
FVL: Not really. If anything, a couple of the characters, Wolverine in particular, are a little bit lighter than their original incarnations. Wanda Magnus, the Scarlet Witch, is definitely more overtly villainous here than in 616. But characters are a function of the plot, embodied in what they do. In a tightly plotted genre like a mystery they rarely are able to wander off on their own.
DC: I don't think Noir characters are necessarily damaged. Think of Heston's Mexican in Touch of Evil. He's a pretty straight up cop, going to be married, has a bright future to look forward to, when almost by providence he's dragged into the muck and mire of corruption.
In fact, in detective fiction, it's a staple for the gumshoe to start his case very dispassionately, he's working for a client, that's all, and then for some reason, the case becomes personal.
AR: When developing the look of the characters, how closely did the two of you work together on the character design?
DC: We all (Fred, Nate and I) worked together very closely on conceptual designs and backgrounds for “our” X-men.
AR: What were the new challenges in the production of this new installment of X-Men Noir? How did the creative process evolve between the two of you since the first mini?
FVL: Actually, our back-and-forth have evolved to the point, where the first time ever, on the last two issues we’re actually doing it “Marvel style,” where I just give Dennis a loose plot, he does layouts and final art, and I do the dialogue fresh from the art. I’ve never worked this way before, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.
DC: It's a very interesting process for me as well as I've never really worked without a pretty detailed script or at least a very finished plot, with all the scenes and beats pretty fleshed out. Except for a few pages at the start, Mark of Cain #3 will be me defining a lot of the specifics of how scenes play out.
Being a primarily visual person, I found myself gravitating to telling key bits of business in a very deft visual shorthand, expanding on that when I think Fred is going to need more for dialogue. I'm very aware that comics really have to work as BOTH a visual and literary medium.
And I think the way to do that is simply to sometimes let the visuals tell the story and sometimes let dialogue do it. Both basic approaches have their place, and sometimes, reading a comic, it can be so wordy I just feel, why bother doing it as a comic? Clearly the writer intends this to read like a book, albeit an illustrated one.
And it can go the other way. I don't really think a purely visually driven comic works that well either. It can read too fast, and for whatever reason, we just aren't trained to linger on pictures and words sometimes can act as speed bumps.
Then you can get into the concept of picture detail being akin to the number of words used to describe something, but that's for another longer article...
AR: What character do you find yourself identifying with the most in this new mini? Why?
FVL: I still like Angel the best, the original Golden Age conception of him as this guy who learned all these criminal skills and various other schools of knowledge and uses them to solve mysteries. I think as a natural bookworm I’d like to think all that store housing of facts would come in useful one day, even though… My rational mind knows probably not.
DC: Well the character I find most interesting is Nightcrawler, and we get to see a lot of why in issue 3. He's just crazy. And we get to explore why in Weapon X Noir online, which is not going to be what it sounds like.
In terms of identification, I guess Cyclops.
AR: In issue #1 we got a taste of the new incarnations of more of our favorite characters. Who are some of the new faces we’ll get to see in Mark of Cain and what can fans expect from our newly adapted friends and foes?
FVL: Well, Cain Marko, the Juggernaut, obviously. Emma Frost. A lot of familiar All-New, All-Different faces from the Claremont/Byrne run, from Germany, Cairo and Russia… and a few surprises I’ll leave up our sleeve(s).
AR: In both minis you discuss the sociopath as the new evolution/mutation of man. Of all the known psychological conditions why did you feel that the sociopath was the way to go?
FVL: Because obsessive-compulsives can’t stop washing their damn hands.
DC: It would, 22 pages of stats of Cyclops washing his hands, with a little blood at the end. Freak.
AR: What else should our readers look out from you guys coming in 2010?
FVL: I’m continuing my work on Amazing Spider-Man and launching the new IM on-going, Iron Man Legacy, in April. And Hercules will be going through some massive changes in ’10 that are very exciting.
DC: I'll be writing more for Marvel in 2010 and in the first half of the year, I'll be doing a very sunny character for another publisher, but will hopefully be back towards the fall at Marvel to draw X-Men Noir III.