By Marc Strom
How do you go about creating noir versions of your favorite Marvel heroes and villains? It all depends on the writer.
The first wave of Marvel's Noir comics, darker re-imaginings of iconic characters, reaches its conclusion next month with X MEN NOIR #4 hitting shelves on March 11, followed one
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week later by SPIDER-MAN NOIR #4 on March 18. The two series have explored different aspects of the noir genre, most commonly identified by its nihilistic worldview and rough-hewn detectives probing seedy urban underbellies.
While X MEN NOIR stars a lone investigator as he attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of Jean Grey's murder, SPIDER-MAN NOIR offers up a more traditional pulp story reminiscent of series such as "The Shadow," a difference that the writers of each series ascribe to varying influences from crime fiction.
Writer Fred Van Lente, responsible for bringing Marvel's Merry Mutants into this dangerous new world, says that classic mystery writer Raymond Chandler offered a huge influence on his series.
"A lone, noble, if tarnished hero surrounded by corruption, punished for trying to do the right thing," says Van Lente, drawing parallels between his protagonist, the Angel, and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. "The mystery itself is very 'Chandlerian' [as well], for reasons I obviously can't go into without ruining the ending."
Beyond Chandler, though, Van Lente looked to a number of other authors and directors while writing his own series.
"What I took from a movie like [director Roman] Polanski's 'Chinatown,' or a novel like Thomas Kennely's 'Empire Falls,' [is that] I wanted to expand out the socio-political story, to rope in something from history," Van Lente identifies. "So Eric Magnus and Sebastian Shaw's plan to remake the face of Manhattan is modeled after what the infamous [city planner] Robert
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Moses did after the Second World War, tearing down whole neighborhoods to build bridges, expressways and the Lincoln Center for the Arts, among many, many others.
"This being a gritty crime story, the Magnus/Shaw duo are doing it in a slightly more sinister fashion than Moses, but a lot of real families lost their homes during Moses' mania for 'urban renewal,' and while I don't think many New Yorkers would disagree he did more good than harm, it's important to remember the human cost."
One key element came with series artist Dennis Calero's contributions to the book, providing a unique aesthetic while grounding the story firmly in a Manhattan recognizable to any New Yorker.
"As Fred and I have discussed elsewhere, the first thing we did when we decided to do this project was to sit down and figure out as many things that could go wrong," remembers Calero. "There were a lot of things, but at the top of the list was that we didn't want readers to come away feeling we had done a standard, run of the mill super hero story with a thin veneer of noir painted on top. We were fans of the genre, and we wanted that to show through.
"So it was important for me to give the book a unique feel that reflected perhaps a more documentarian look. I didn't want our New York of the post-war era to be wholly a product of my imagination, but a naturalistic representation of the time and place. And that would hopefully ground the story and make the characters that we set loose in it feel more real—and dangerous."
Calero also felt that maintaining a sense of reality would further amplify the tone of the limited series.
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"In a noir tale, the city, whether it's in postwar Europe or Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, is itself a major character," the artist reasons. "There's always the feeling that these tales could only
take place in the big dark city. And like wines have different varietals, different cities offer distinct backdrops for your characters."
In order to achieve the effect of grounding their tale in a New York that closely resembles our own, the creative team did a great deal of legwork gaining visual reference from the real world Manhattan.
"[Dennis] and I and editor Nate Cosby had a ball running around New York City and taking photo reference and discussing how it would effect the look of the story, like Tudor City and Roosevelt—in our time period 'Welfare'—Island," Van Lente reveals.
"Dennis and I actually staged the fight between Angel and Peter in the uppermost tower of the Empire State Building, but not so noticeably we got thrown out by security," recounts Van Lente. "Traveling to that actual location definitely changed how that scene played out: The windows Angel crashes through, the stairs Peter travels up with the sniper rifle, all those came from reference Dennis snapped while were in the tower itself."
Writers David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky took a slightly different tact with SPIDER-MAN NOIR, giving the titular hero mystical-based powers and invoking pulp heroes such as the Shadow and Doc Savage.
"The noir movies had their roots in the pulp novels of the 20's and 30's," explains Hine. "In fact the pulps were at their peak in the early 30's, which is when SPIDER-MAN NOIR is set. I've always liked the mystical and weird elements in those stories and the bizarre, over-the-top villains that we epitomized with our version of the Vulture.
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"You had stories featuring psychics and voodoo and giant snakes. And spiders were always very popular. A lot of those pulp stories that were grounded in a grim and gritty reality were also on the edge of fantasy or science fiction and there's a direct line from those pulps to the super hero comics."
However, the series' fusion of pulp and noir has a much more practical origin.
"I think it's what happens when you have two writers with their own unique vision working together," Sapolsky divulges. "I came to Dave with the Noir concept. He came back with the pulp elements. The good thing is that we were able to blend Dave's vision and mine in one book, and I think it works really well."
Hine tells us that, while their series may have a number of differences on the surface, he still maintained a number of distinctly noir characteristics:
"The bleakness of the setting, the low-key lighting and exaggerated perspectives, the ambivalent characters, the violence and the seedy nightclub settings" were a number of elements that Hine saw as pivotal to SPIDER-MAN NOIR.
"The initial set-up of the murder of J. Jonah Jameson was also typical of film noir," he continues. "I like that 'whodunnit' element. Ben Urich is a perfect hardboiled character—a decent guy corrupted by his environment to the point where he became a blackmailer to support his junk habit. But still a good guy at heart."
Finally, the writers left off with some characteristically pessimistic predictions for their respective series' conclusions.
"I can't think of a good noir story that ends happily," Van Lente remarks. "Can you?"
Hine, for his part, promises "more twists and turns in the plot," as well as "A very dark conclusion that pays homage to a couple of classic noir films. And Spider-Man gets a severe ticking off from Aunt May."
Dive into the dark world of Marvel Noir with X MEN NOIR #4 on March 11 and SPIDER-MAN NOIR #4 on March 18.
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