Funnybook Babylon

January 3, 2009

Noir vs. Noir

After reading X-Men Noir, I wondered why Marvel would want to publish a four part noir re-imagining of super hero comic. I had low expectations for Spider-Man Noir, but I discovered myself engaged in the book in a similar way to how I engage with a trashy but competent noir film, let’s say Out of the Past. Both Marvel Noir books are by competent creative teams, so why should one feel satisfying and the other feel like it exists as an excuse for art of well known characters skulking around in trench coats and fedoras?

Why does X-Men Noir fail? The core idea of the X-Men was to use super-powers as the stand-in for a variety of allegories. Whether they are used as an allegory for the civil rights movement, the oppression of a minority group, or the alienation/sexual awakening of puberty, the X-Men allow these ideas to play out in splash panels with eye-blasts and adamantium claws. The characters, by necessity of that structure, become defined by their powers. It’s to the point that in the world of the X-Men, the choosing of a “mutant name” has become a familiar trope. The identities of the characters are tied to their powers inexorably, so their names mutate, they become something else.

To trade bright mutant powers for the murky world of crime denies the primary thing that makes the X-Men unique. X-Men Noir internalizes the powers into noir tropes: criminals instead of mutants, guns and shadows instead of powers. The problem is that the powers and costumes of X-Men, whether the brightly colored garb or New X-Men leather, were already externalizations of internal themes and characterizations.

So why does Spider-Man Noir succeed? It doesn’t alienate the whole concept of Spider-Man in the first issue. The first panel set the stage: this is the same Spider-Man, but this is the 1930s. It’s easy to translate the story of an orphan boy whose uncle is murdered and feels responsible to almost any narrative, but a large part of the Spider-Man mythology is about a young boy on the verge of adulthood trying to right the wrongs of an adult world. Sticking to the core of the classic Spider-Man story, it’s easier to bring more noir tropes in to the book, starting with a flashback and a (possibly unreliable) narrator. We also get a tour of Great Depression era New York and a few interesting character choices such as May Parker, Union Organizer. The horrible conditions of the oppressed poor in a corrupt 1930s New York make a vigilante figure denounced by the establishment so much more plausible than the usual excuses for the need for caped justice.

I think it boils down to the fact that Peter Parker is a character defined by a specific family tragedy and a sense of responsibility to become a force for justice, while the X-Men are characters defined by their extraordinary powers, and the effect of those powers on their relationship with themselves and the world around them. You take being mutants away from the X-Men, they cease being the X-Men.

Spider-Man Noir is nothing that transcends a good “What If?” or Elseworlds story, but it serves as an interesting comparison to X-Men Noir which utterly failed to hit its mark.


  1. Out of the Past is trashy but competent? The fuck is wrong with you?

    Comment by Matt — January 3, 2009 @ 4:21 am

  2. How do you feel about the conflation of “noir” (a heavily Freudian post-war genre about individualism & outsiders, w/ lotsa moral greyness) with “pulp” (pre-war social commentary w/ b/w morality)? I can’t decide whether I’m being fastidious or whether it’s an instance of the sloppiness that’s annoying me about this project generally.

    Comment by Aaron Strange — January 3, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  3. First, Out of the Past, is shot beatifully, and fun, but it’s not a great film. It’s no Double Indemnity. It’s not even Pickup on South Street. I will agree that Trashy may have been strong language.

    Aaron, I think you’re onto something there. I was just reading the backmatter in Incognito, and that outlined the strong connection that pulp series ‘The Shadow’ had on comics. Could that Spider-Man Noir went straight for pulp sensibilities make it easier for itself?

    Personally, I think it would probably more apt to call it “X-Men Noir” and “Spider-Man Pulp” from the first issues of each. But, I think the pre-war – post-war distinction is probably more important than the ‘Noir’ or ‘Pulp’ moniker. Just like I think whether something was made in the late seventies or mid eighties is more important to the context of the work than whether it’s “Punk” or “Pop-Punk” or “Post-Punk”.

    Comment by Joseph Mastantuono — January 3, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

  4. Out of the Past is one of my all-time favorite movies! It’s certainly one of the best films noir ever made.
    “trashy but competent?” Yeesh.

    Comment by John Foley — January 3, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  5. I thought Pulp was print and Noir was Film. Things can cross over between the two, but the dividing line was the medium, not the category.

    Comment by gary ancheta — January 3, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

  6. The terms originally refered to the media (you’d properly say that a Raymond Chandler novel is a “roman noir”). But since the 1960s the definitions have broadened to refer to the genres.

    Joseph, yeah, Spider-Man is riffing more on the Shadow than anything else. But both that & X-Men riff noirish on collusion betw. government & organized crime — that grey morality. Also, both have the lone man discovering how deep the rot goes (Peters Parker & Magnus).

    But then the X-Men’s shadowy gang of criminals is pulpy. Not incidentally, it’s my favorite bit in the comic. This sloppiness gets at what really bugs me about the Noir series so far: there’s no real insight into the era. The only idea I’ve cottoned to so far is the socialist sympathies that the Parker family show. It’s both in-character & straight from 1932.

    (Coincidentally, I just listened to a few radio episodes of the Shadow starring Orson Welles, & man, Bob Kane straight-up ripped off the Shadow! I mean, did the man create anything himself?)

    (And I agree with the rest of the gang: Out of the Past may not be great filmmaking, but its sheer cynicism & perfs by Mitchum & Douglas make it top-notch noir.)

    Comment by Aaron Strange — January 4, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  7. I’ve never commented here before, but felt the need to speak up for Out of the Past (though it looks like everyone beat me to it). Out of the Past might be trashy, but calling it merely “competent” is doing it a great disservice.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course…unless their opinion is that Out of the Past is anything less than brilliant filmmaking (no matter what the genre) ;)

    Comment by Isley — January 6, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress