Earlier today I had the pleasure of finally finishing the last issue (above) of Canadian book cover artist Dean Motter’s meisterwerk Mister X. Mister X, holds a particular fondness for me in that it absorbed many hours for me when I first discovered the collected issues of the first series bound into a single volume called Mister X: The Archives in the graphic novels section of the Vancouver Public Library. It arrived in my life at just the time when I needed some huge source of distraction from everyday woes.
In a nutshell and without giving away too many spoilers, the story is about a mysterious stranger trying to repair the psychological aspects of a city’s architecture that he helped design because it (the city) is now driving its inhabitants mad.
Dean Motter’s Mister X is a brilliant rambling, labyrinthine plot with the noirish sensibility of Borgart’s Marlow, a sinister Citizen Kane-ian atmosphere, coupled with the modern, but oppressive Buck Rogers (the Buster Crabb version)/Metropolis cityscape conveying a sense of foreboding that permeates the meandering, red-herring saturated plot. Unlike stylistically similar movies, such as the aforementioned Citizen Kane, the densely woven plot stretches its muscular grip purposefully, but the denouement is always just slightly out of reach. Luckily, the sheer weird charm of the protagonist and an engaging supporting cast prevent the narrative turning into a dreary soap. This hero, and I really think that he is a hero despite his anti-hero persona and appearance; is a bald, pale, drug addicted enigmatic, madman, perpetually veiled in impenetrable, goggle-like sunglasses.
Before I carry on with this endless praise of Mister X, there are some problems I should mention. First, the Hernandez brothers, of Love and Rockets fame, were commissioned to produce the issues, dropped out of the project at issue 4. Now, ordinarily this should not have been a problem. However, oh come now, you knew they’d have to be a “however” at some point, these guys were so damned good at the work they produced, that when they left, it seemed as of the whole bottom had fallen out of the series. Eventually, under the auspices of other artists and later various guest teams the series rallied, but I can’t help wondering what direction the series might have taken if the excellent ‘Los Bros Hernandez’ had remained.
With the noir, brutal architecture of this study of German Expressionism etched into the urban environment that the story is set in and the very nature of the eponymous hero, we begin to see that the genius of this comic book is that it manages to hit almost every imaginable retro-futuristic trope imaginable, including, but not limited to- steampunk airships and goggles, monumental streamline moderne architecture, 1940s era power-dressing, wall sized cathode ray televisions, flying cars and Forbidden Planet/Lost in Space type Robbie-the-robots. The extent to which this graphic novel touches so many familiar nerves transforms it into a dreamlike work tapping into a particular nostalgic collective unconscious that many people, despite varying ages and backgrounds, seem to share; judging by other reviews I have read.
I have also noticed that in reproducing the retro-futuristic facade of the city, the series has also tapped into some of the less tasteful political ideologies of the historical futurism movements, such as Nazism and Fascism. For example in Mister X: Condemned, issue 3, the Architecture Annex of the Ninth Academy hospital/prison/think-tank has a distinctly Nazi looking flag draped over the entrance . Maybe I’m reading to much into this particular scene, but you also have to take into account the names of some of the characters, for example- Eichman and Reich. Though, perhaps, the prevalence of Germanic names and imagery with rather Nazi connotations serves the purpose of lending a sinister, European, Fritz Langian 1930s feel to what is, after-all, a North American city (an alternative New York I think). And maybe allegory forms a part of the story too. The top-level strata of the real historical Nazi regime saw itself as architects of the Reich; building a huge, malign, human-crushing edifice, in much the same way as the architects of Radiant city’s plan for a utopian polis is perverted into the dystopian hell of Somnompolis that Mister X strives to reverse.
Whatever the case may be, Mister X is a vastly entertaining and thoroughly recommended series and its influence even extends to other media and can be seen in many films such as Dark City and the Matrix.
I do wonder whether Motter was channeling all this stuff quite unconsciously, which would make him something of a savant, or if it was all planned out in advance- making him a disturbing evil genius. Either way it is an impressive work of comic book fiction without superheroes and yet, of gravitas and I can live with Motter as an artistic supervillain.
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