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Mister X: Condemned #1

Posted: Monday, December 22, 2008
By: Thom Young

Dean Motter
Dean Motter
Dark Horse
Editor's Note: Mister X: Condemned #1 arrives in stores on December 24. This is an early review.

“The Necrolith”

Back in 1983, writer and graphic designer Dean Motter envisioned a comic book series set in a dystopian city with buildings that evoked The Bauhaus style of architecture. Finally, 25 years later, Motter is bringing his original concept to fruition as both writer and illustrator of Mister X: Condemned--though this is not the first Mister X series that Motter has produced.

The first Mister X series appeared just one year after Motter began to develop the concept--and that fact leads me to thoughts that I want to express before I express my thoughts about this first issue of Motter’s new series. In other words, I want to re-live the past for a few paragraphs.

Back in 1984, I was a student who was into (among other things, and in no particular order): Punk rock, comic books, and science fiction (especially dystopian fiction). Those interests were what initially drew me to the works of the Hernandez Brothers (Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario) and their groundbreaking comic Love and Rockets--which I began reading in 1983 with the fifth issue of the series (the first to be published by Fantagraphics, though they reprinted the initial four as well).

In the early issues of Love and Rockets, Jaime Hernandez’s “Hoppers 13” characters originally appeared in science fiction stories. If I remember correctly (it being 25 years since I read those initial stories), these were tales set in a sort-of utopian future of flying cars and interstellar space flight--and Jaime had his Hoppers 13 characters appearing as bohemians who hobnobbed with the “jet set” (or the “rocket set,” as it were).

Additionally, some of the people populating Jaime’s mostly bright future were (if I remember correctly) genetically engineered to possess superpowers, so it wasn’t uncommon to see a character in the background flying through the air and shooting electricity from his or her eyes.

However, like his brother Gilbert before him, Jaime eventually moved away from stories set in a science fiction future. His Hoppers 13 characters began inhabiting a barrio in the Los Angeles area where they frequented punk shows and generally lived the mid-1980s punk lifestyle.

Someday I plan on writing an article about the transitional story in which Jaime had his characters move from the early futuristic setting to their 1980s barrio setting. However, this review is about Dean Motter’s Mister X--so why am I going on and on about the Hernandez Brothers?

Because back in 1984, the Hernandez Brothers (all three of them) began working for Motter (as editor) on the first Mister X series (which was published by Vortex Comics in Toronto). I immediately picked it up for two reasons.

First, I had heard about Motter’s concept for the series in 1983 even before I knew the Hernandez Brothers were going to be involved. Motter was going to design and write the series, and Paul Rivoche was going to do all of the art (Rivoche eventually just colored the first issue.

Based on the description (I don’t recall where I read of it), I knew Motter and Rivoche’s Mister X was exactly the type of comic book series I would enjoy (if done well, of course). It was purportedly going to be a cross between such Fritz Lang films as Metropolis & M and such film noir works as Alphaville & The Naked City.

I waited eagerly for the series to appear . . . and I waited . . . and I waited . . . and . . . let’s move on to my second reason for picking up Mister X #1 in 1984.

Second, I heard it was finally going to be published, but it was now going to be written by Gilbert Hernandez and drawn by Jaime (with plot and dialog assistance from Mario). Instead of writing the series, Motter became its editor. Upon learning of the involvement of the Hernandez Brothers, I was certain Mister X was right for me.

However, after the first four issues, the Hernandez Brothers left the series--presumably because of late payments from Vortex’s publisher. Unfortunately, I also left the series with that fourth issue--but not because I necessarily wanted to.

The series was sporadically published--coming out about every four months rather than every two. Considering the publishing schedule of a current series like All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, the type of delays experienced by Vortex in publishing Mister X don’t sound so bad now. However, in those days, delays of that nature were very rare and would have undoubtedly hurt sales.

I don’t remember why I didn’t pick up the fifth issue. Perhaps I never realized it had come out--or perhaps the owner of the shop I frequented back then didn’t order it for me. Whatever the reason, the first four issues of the 1984 Mister X series is something I’ve always treasured (though I hadn’t re-read the issues in the past 24 years).

Due to financial concerns, I’ve sold well over a thousand (perhaps well over two thousand) comic books from my collection in the last two decades--getting rid of several series I wish I had been able to keep. However, I’ve always kept those first four issues of Mister X (as well as all of my issues of Love and Rockets and the Hernandez Brothers’ other works).

After getting my review copy of Motter’s first issue of the current series, I pulled those 24-year-old comics out and finally re-read them after all this time. They’re still good. I enjoyed them just as much now as I did in 1984.

However, Motter’s re-boot of his concept in Condemned is even better.

Despite how good Gilbert is in writing dialog and how good Jaime is in his draftsmanship, it’s now obvious to me that the Hernandez Brothers were not bringing Motter’s vision of Mister X to print. Their Mister X seemed to live in the same world as the characters appearing in their Love and Rockets stories.

In fact, Gilbert’s character Luba (who appeared in “BEM” in the first issue of Love and Rockets dressed as a Mohawk-sporting voodoo Earth priestess who danced a seductive mambo to drive away a monstrous caterpillar, or something like that) was introduced to Mister X himself during a party at his ex-wife’s house.

Additionally, other characters from Love and Rockets could be seen as “extras” in those first four issues of Mister X in sporadic panels--such as the appearance of Errata Stigmata in the foreground of one panel (looking almost exactly as she looks on the cover of Love and Rockets #11).

Back then, I had the distinct impression that Mister X was simply a character who had emigrated from Love and Rockets and was now living “up north” after having spent a few years in a Hoppers flat just down the block from where Jaime’s Hopey and Maggie lived--or perhaps he rented a shack just on the outskirts of Palomar where Sheriff Chelo kept a suspicious eye on him.

However, that’s not the case with the Mister X appearing in Motter’s Condemned. This Mister X may look the same as his “parallel Earth” counterpart from 24 years ago, but he lives in the same world as the characters appearing in Motter’s Terminal City (for Vertigo-DC) and Electropolis (for Image Comics). In fact, one of the characters in Mister X: Condemned states that he’s going to move to Terminal City.

I have Motter’s two Terminal City miniseries, but I’ve yet to read them. However, I’m now inclined to add them to my ever-growing stack of book to get to (and I may just have to seek out Electropolis, too).

While the premise in Motter’s Mister X new series is essentially the same as it was in 1984, the execution is different. Gilbert and Jaime had title character appear on the first page as he emerged from the sewers of Radiant City. In contrast, Motter doesn’t show us Mister X until the final page of the first issue of Condemned--and rather than emerge from the sewer, he stands silhouetted against a window late at night and with minimal light around him.

Up to that revelation of the title character on the final page of the issue, Motter presents a story with little exposition save what can be construed from characters who speak to each other about subjects as if they know that the other characters know what is being discussed. No attempt is made by Motter to help the reader figure things out faster by giving the characters unnatural expository speeches to recite to each other--and that approach suits me just fine.

What also suits me are the numerous allusions Motter includes to various things in which I have long had a scholarly interest. For instance, the city planner of Radiant City is named Roark. I immediately thought of the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead--but I wondered if I might be pushing it to think that Motter was alluding to Rand’s architect in that novel.

However, 10 pages later, the name of the mayor of Radiant City (for whom City Planner Roark works) is revealed to be . . . Ian Rand. At this point in the story, though, I don’t see anything about either Roark or Mayor Rand that indicates they are Objectivist characters in the tradition of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Too, Motter has Roark work in a building (which he, presumably, designed) that is constructed in The Bauhaus style, which led to the International Style of architecture that Rand seemed to favor. However, Frank Lloyd Wright, on whom Rand based the character of Howard Roark (at least in part), outright rejected that style of architecture.

At this point, I’m not certain Motter knows what he’s doing with these characters that allude to Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued enough by the allusions to want to read more of this story so that I can see how it plays out.

Additionally, Motter makes allusions to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984--two works in which I have a longstanding intererst.

Then there is the apartment building in which Mister X’s girlfriend, Mercedes, lives--The Bradbury in downtown Los Angeles. Obviously, it’s not intended to be the real Bradbury Building in the story. However, the interior space is clearly that of the Los Angeles architectural landmark that is named for Lewis Bradbury--a 19th century millionaire who commissioned its construction in the 1890s.

The Bradbury Building has often used as a locale in hardboiled noir films--such as Double Indemnity, D.O.A., Chinatown, and the 1951 American version of M (not the original Fritz Lang version, obviously). It was also the building in which nearly the entire Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand" was filmed (written by Harlan Ellison) and in which the climactic scenes of Blade Runner took place.

It’s great to see that The Bradbury has a twin in Radiant City!

Speaking of architecture (and that is a major motif in Mister X), what I’m most interested in is Motter’s allusions to the ideas of Le Corbusier--ideas that were also present in the initial series from 24 years ago, but which I did not know anything about at the time and so did not see.

Le Corbusier was a French architect (among other things) who worked in the International Style. He developed the theory that rational architectural structures would influence the development of rational thinking in the minds of the people who inhabited them (actually, there’s more to it than that, but I don’t have my book on Le Corbusier with me at the moment).

For instance, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin of 1925 for redesigning Paris would have demolished most of Paris north of the Seine River to be replaced by 18 identical housing project buildings 60 stories high. The buildings would have been “rational living spaces” reinforced by the geometry of the structures and living areas. Le Corbusier believed the impoverished people who would be housed in such “rational structures” would become more rational in their thinking and in their lifestyles--and so would be able to better themselves within society.

His Voisin Plan was never built, but he expanded and revised his ideas on rational urbanism and published them in his 1935 book La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City). Thus, it’s no coincidence that Motter named the city in Mister X “Radiant City.”

Like Le Corbusier, Mister X (in his earlier life as the architectural designer of Radiant City) apparently designed the metropolis to influence the citizenry to think and live rationally--but something went wrong. Instead, the city’s design has been driving the residents into insanity and/or depravity.

However, Mister X might be able to discover what went wrong and then correct the problem. On the final page, he stands in the shadows, silhouetted against the window, and simply tells Mercedes, “I came for the plans.”

Motter has certainly loaded this first issue with just about everything that interests me academically--a dystopian society, allusions to great dystopian novels, allusions to Ayn Rand (who was not a great thinker or writer, but was interesting nonetheless), and the Modern architectural theories of Le Corbusier. Now I just have to see if he can pull all of these elements together into a great comic book.

Time will tell, but he’s off to a good start.



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