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The Comix World of Mister X


Michael Crilly

If you are one of the generation that enjoyed the likes of Dan Dare and Roy of the Rovers when you were younger then you may be surprised at how sophisticated the modern pulp comic has become in comparison, Over the last 20 years or so, a new wave of comics has emerged from the UK, North America and Japan to cater for an increasingly selective and older readership.

The modern form of the comic can be considered almost exclusively part of the popular urban culture of developed nations. Within this growing subculture, it has evolved from its early history, as a form of escapism to the world of superheroes, into its current role as an outlet for individual expression and social comment. Even though the mass of the comic book genre are for the most part concerned with futuristic views and settings for society, inevitably the topical concerns of the day are addressed. 'The future is a kind of mirror in which we can show only ourselves, though it seems to us a window, through which we may see things to come'(A. Danto, 1986). What we actually read are predictions, not of an imaginary society, but of our own society.

As the medium is part of an urban subculture, it is dominated by views and visions of how people understand the workings of the city and human interaction within it. In comics, current social problems are exaggerated and taken to their extreme - the city becomes the battleground between good and evil; commonly personified by the range of superheroes and supervillains. This age old theme is, however, becoming quite complex with the depth of characterisation and the use of symbols - bringing it closer to real life and blurring the sharp distinction between the traditional 'goodies' and 'baddies'. A wealth of artistic creativity has grown out of storylines centred on crime, unemployment, housing, architecture and even urban renewal. Themes of approaching Armageddon are also common and suggest that the city as a 'melting pot' is starting to boil over. Futuristic storylines are often borrowed from historical references and new utopian futures are invented and investigated. I believe these utopian visions are more than just individual dreams, they are interpretations and more often criticisms of contemporary society. The writers and artists are providing their answers to urban problems through this medium.

Many of these overlapping urban design themes are addressed in 'Mister X', a bold attempt at using Corbusier's 'Radiant City' utopia as a setting for a comic book story. It is best to understand this comic (and many others) within its overall context as a subset of popular culture with interchangeable themes and cross-references. It borrows references from both music and cinema as well as architectural fashion. In direct contrast to the trend of our current decade where Hollywood has been producing a spate of comic inspired movies for the big screen (Batman, Judge Dread, The Punisher), the concept owes a lot to the genre of film noire, particularly Fritz Lang's 1926 'Metropolis', '1984'and 'Brave New World'- all films investigating the power relations within the city and the actions of a paternalistic government seeking to control the masses. It is this artistic and sociological background which gives Mister X an easily recognisable context and makes it of serious relevance to urban designers.

Mister X emerged from (according to the words of Dean Motter, his creator)'...obsessions with sleep disorders, urban decay and drug abuse combined with a fascination with the antiquated predictions of architecture, art deco & modernism and genre fiction'. His exact origins are clouded in obscurity and a high degree of trivia. A sinister character called Mr X did put in an appearance on an early 1980s song by Ultravox and the precursor to the comic character later appeared on a Canadian rock album cover. In 1983 he became the subject of his own comic book published by Vortex Comics in Toronto. It has been suggested that Mister X was published at that time in reaction to the epidemic of increasingly bland superhero comics. Radical in its day and a brave experiment for the writers in capturing part of the competitive pocket-money market, or creating their own niche within the disposable income of the new twenty somethings. However, a cynic might point out that its publication at that time also had more than a passing coincidence with the decline of vinyl records together with its cover art and the need for a particular set of illustrators to find new gainful employment.

Mister X... the designer of Radiant City, the new five storey radiant icon... His designs will shape what already is being referred to as New Radiant City. ...It could be you.

In Mister X, there is a strong central vision and theme throughout the run of the series. The narrative is generated by the physical and social problems arising out of populating the city, This storyline borrows from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead , where a young talented architect attempts to protect his professional and creative integrity after his designs have been sabotaged. Mister X is an architect in a similar vein but with problems on a much larger scale.'Radiant city was built to be the dream city. A vast and beautiful metropolis, designed to fulfil the grandest aesthetic, and architectural ideals, it now moulders in dilapidation. Its citizens are afflicted with sleep disorders, opium addiction, and a surfeit of perversions. It is a place as corrupt as the decadent upper class that rules it, and the human parasites that prey upon them. Stranded in this somnopolis is the mysterious Mr. X. His past shrouded in mystery, he makes his meagre living as a private investigator. While probing other people's darkest secrets, he must protect his own...'(Motter, 1986). Motter builds a fantastic storyline around this central theme of a city riddled with commercialism and vice where the designer is deluded by his own arrogance into believing his work is the sole cause of the city's ills. However, although Mister X is set up in this scenario as the antihero (at least within his own mind), he is still concerned with nothing less than the salvation of the city and you could describe his private investigator activities as an act of redemption for his past professional sins. It's a wonderful illustration of how one man's dream of utopia can become another man's nightmare. The further arrogance of.the individual in his sense of self importance in becoming the city's saviour suggests a character with questionable sanity. He lives and operates on the fringes of society, using his knowledge of secret passageways within the city design to move undetected. His work is never ceasing and so important that sleep restricting drugs are used to keep him awake 24 hours a day. Anyone who has worked overnight to meet a crit deadline will have some idea of the hell in which he is constantly living.

One of the key recurring themes in the series is the idea that 'psychetecture' (psychetecturism being the conceptual 'ism' in which the city is constructed) could evoke a mental stimulus and later people's sanity. A fine idea for anthropologists to write about as a deterministic theory but very different when the illustrators have to convey this mood through their graphics. By its very nature the artwork has to become very personal and powerful visually as it forms part of a narrative. I feel they have been very successful in doing this by the use of long dark shadows and lurking background figures (very DeChirico), strong contrasts between the black and white, vivid reds and blues giving a feeling of impending doom. The art is a bizarre mix of Art Deco, modernist and expressionist styles gripping and mysterious creating a genre almost unto itself.

Where the modernist may be inclined to look upon 'Radiant City' or 'Somnopolis' as a wonderful achievement, the metropolis acting as some sort of monument to mankind, the view from the street is closer to it being a monument to the arrogance of the individual. In its views of modern social architecture and its effects on our urban culture, I believe it shares the view of Lewis Mumford who once called Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, 'Yesterday's City of Tomorrow' (Mumford 1968). This all speaks against dominant individualism and in favour of participative democracy and empowerment over the paternalistic 'big brother' attitudes to power relations and control within society.

It may seem slightly ironic that such an innocuous medium as the pulp comic is being used to address such significant political and professional issues. And it would be easy to dismiss these views on the grounds that it is only speaking to members of its own subculture. However, I do not believe you have to actually enter into this urban underground to fully comprehend its effect - making people think about places, where people lose their humanity, their identities and where the strongest ride against the weak. The presence of irony does not diminish the truth contained within its pages and eventually professionals have to ask themselves the same questions of why the popular images of the future city are all so negative?

It is my hope that pulp comics as part of popular culture (Mister X being the supreme example) will not be overlooked as a source for urban designers - inspiring visions, taking on board constructive criticism and noting what the 'prophets of doom'are saying about today's cities. Mister X is only one source among many pulp comics which explores areas and issues which are of professional interest to the urban designer. Whether the views of this Mister X are representative of the views of today's Generation X is a question I'll leave for further debate within the comics' letter pages.#


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