Mister M: A Career Retrospective with Dean Motter
Dean Motter is best known for his award-winning book and album cover designs but is perhaps most famous as the creator of the ’80s comic book sensation Mister X. He also wrote and illustrated The Prisoner graphic novel Shattered Visage for DC Comics, based on the cult favorite ’60s British television series. In his three decades in the comics business, he’s garnered praise and awards for his acclaimed work, including Terminal City, Aerial Graffiti, Batman: Nine Lives, and Electropolis. His work has also appeared in comics such as Batman, Grendel, Hellblazer, Superman Adventures, and Star Wars Tales. His graphic novel Unique, from Platinum Studios, has been optioned by Touchstone Pictures. And his acclaimed collection of Alice in Wonderland illustrations, Through a Glass Darkly, has been issued by lulu.com.
Recently, Dark Horse released Mister X Archives to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Mister X’s first appearance. An all-new Mister X series, Mister X: Condemned, is currently in production. Here, Motter talks about his life in comics and the work that he’s been involved with, as well as the inspirations behind them.
When did you first begin reading comic books? What initially drew you into the world of comic books?
It must have been when I was about 8 or 9. Maybe younger. The earliest I remember were Batman, Superman, Jimmy Olsen, World’s Finest, and the presuperhero Marvel monster books. I not only loved the genre (since I also devoured vintage horror/science fiction films on TV, especially when the folks let my brother and me watch Ghoulardi on Friday nights or sent us to the Saturday matinee at the local theatre), but I loved to draw. And the books fascinated me while giving me something to copy endlessly.
If I ask you to define the origins of the comic book industry, what names come immediately to your mind and why?
So much has been written on the subject, and while on staff at DC I had to become a bit of an industrial historian on the topic. But, scholarship aside, I’ll tell you the visionaries who instantly come to my mind—the ones who saw and loved the kind of unique entertainment that sequential panel art could and would be capable of—have to be Windsor McKay, Simon & Kirby, Will Eisner, Al Williamson, and Hal Foster. Later on, it was Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman. After that, folks were following their lead, or at least building on what they had created. They, in my mind, were the originals. And the most sophisticated.
Tell me about The Sacred and the Profane (1983-1984).What inspired this work?
Ken Steacy and I had met and found we were kindred spirits. We wanted to collaborate, but since we both wrote and drew, it was a puzzle on how to merge our talents. But Ken’s style was more developed, and my writing was a bit more informed. Mind you, we were both pretentious young upstarts with grand ambitions and a fierce love of the medium. So we decided I would write and he would draw—with the caveat that I would art-direct and he would contribute to the story. As to the influences, this was pre -Star Wars, so our best space opera influences were Kubrick’s 2001 and TV’s Star Trek (a nexus many other comic book creators were also trying wrap their efforts around at that time). But we also loved Ken Russell’s films and cribbed shamelessly from The Devils. There’s also a good chunk of Poseidon Adventure in there. In the end, so many elements from our scenario appeared in Star Wars, Alien, Apocalypse Now,and on and on—it seems we were simply tapping into a collective appetite.
When did you first come up with the idea for Mister X? Do you remember the moment? Did the idea and concept come to you all at once or evolve over a period of time?
Mister X came from a single illustration. I was doing an airbrush exercise, which eventually became the LP cover for the Canadian release of Patrick Cowley’s Megatron Man. I was very fixated on deco skyscraper style at the time, notably Hugh Ferris, the WPA, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
When I finished the illustration, I thought to myself that this mysterious character had a story behind him and saw a kind of Raymond Chandler character living in that Teutonic vision of the future. A bit like Alphaville meets The Maltese Falcon. I decided to develop it as a series.
Please share your thoughts and reflections on the themes you explored within Mister X.
As I fleshed it out, I began discussing a collaboration with another studio mate, Paul Rivoche. His aspirations had more to do with Europeans like Moebius and Cheland. We both revered Eisner’s work, The Spirit. And we discussed it and our philosophy of comic book storytelling and drawing in general and—well, the whole thing snowballed to the point where a local publisher took interest in it and offered to pump money into it to develop for the burgeoning direct market.
This is where it took a turn. Paul had worked primarily in animation and is a very methodical craftsman. He, I, and the publisher all had different internal calendars with regards to this sort of project. And while this led to a protracted debut, it did give me more time to examine the character in terms of his originality and divest him of as many cliché qualities as I could. In the end, he ended up more like a cross between Doctor Jeckyll, Rotwang, the Invisible Man, and Nosferatu and less like the Shadow, Philip Marlowe, Doc Savage, or Sam Spade.
But my vision, and my (at the time) “Stan Lee-style” writing technique clashed with Paul’s vision and his methodical approach. We parted ways on the project and other talent was enlisted to retrofit the title to their own brilliant tastes. You’ve heard of them; the Hernandez brothers.
What about the overall visual style and look?
My “day job” was designing album and magazine covers. So I was keenly aware of the current trends in New Wave ’80s design. Wet magazine, Neville Brody’s work on Face magazine, Peter Savilles’ covers for OMD, Joy Division, Factory Records, and the like. Much of that school of design referred back to Russian Construvism, German Expressionism, Bauhaus, etc. It was a revival of sorts. An unplundered junkyard of aesthetics to play with. And we all made the most of the oh-sointellectual, very contemporary pop design rarefied atmosphere with a prewar avante garde sensibility. You see, my pretentiousness never left me. I just try my best to live up to it.
Any other influences?
The one person unmentioned, maybe more influential than any other, has to be [Jim] Steranko. Designer and artist, writer, publisher, magician, with a singular, bold iconoclastic style. Mister X owes as much to his Chandler graphic novel as anything. And I idolized his 20th-century Renaissance man approach to his craft and passion for the pulps and film noir.
You published Mister X with Vortex Comics. How come? Had you run the series by Marvel or DC beforehand?
Vortex was literally on my doorstep. Waiting there with checkbook in hand. I knew I could probably get Archie Goodwin (my editor on S+P when it was recreated for Marvel), but the appetite there was still more sword and sorcery, fantasy, and space opera. Along the lines of Heavy Metal. DC was still regarded as old-school, and their seminal experiment in postmodern comic books, Ronin, had only just been announced.
How did Ty Templeton and Paul Rivoche come to work on the series?
Paul Rivoche and I shared a studio (with Ken Steacy and some other artists) in the then-bohemian district of Toronto, Queen Street West. He had also done work for me when I edited the science fiction independent comic book Andromeda. As for Ty, he was already in the Vortex stable with his Divine Comedy pastiche Stig’s Inferno. By then I was art director for the company, so he was tapped when the Hernandez Brothers left. However, we only got one issue out of him and collaborator Klaus Schoenfeld before their enthusiasm and momentum took them in their own direction with Kelvin Mace. Ty, by the way, remains (in my opinion) a vastly underappreciated genius. As does Paul.
The series has achieved much critical acclaim and garnered ongoing interest from comic book fans, old and new alike, over the course of the two decades since it was first published in North America. What are your thoughts on the enormous popularity the work continues to enjoy?
I gotta say he is a bit of a Rorschach blot. He was popular with mystery and detective fans because he looked like a sleuth. With New Wave party animals because he looked like Bowie/Byrne/Nomi. With pre-Goth vampire wannabes, with fans of Metropolis and noir movies and fans of Blade Runner—all for obvious visual reasons. Somehow, he hit the rare harmonic. Today people come up and tell me they read Mister X when they were younger. I’m flattered, but back in ’85, I used to hear the same thing—he was so archetypal that folks thought they must have read him. Perhaps they were remembering the Phantom Stranger, Dr. Strange, the Spirit, or the Shadow—any grim reaper doppelganger. I don’t think they were remembering Professor Xavier. In the words of Tom Wolfe, “If God (or Superman, Batman, or the Hulk) didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.”
Do fans of the series often contact you still today?
Indeed. At conventions I am often presented with items to autograph that I myself haven’t any copies of.
In 1989/1990, you designed, cowrote, and illustrated The Prisoner for DC Comics. This work was published as four prestige books and has since been collected in trade paperback format. How did this project come about initially?
On the heels of Mister X, my star was in its ascendancy. During a visit to New York City, I met with DC art director Richard Bruning (subsequently my partner, best friend, and psychic Sancho Panza). He wanted me to do something (Dark Knight was steamrolling through the industry and changing the face of comics publishing forever; I was thought to be a candidate for further efforts in that direction). He suggested The Prisoner. I was aware of Kirby’s aborted attempt and didn’t see how I could touch the work of the King.
But Richard insisted I sleep on it. I went back to the Waverly and hit the hay. By morning, I realized the key was that it had been over 20 years since the show aired (that in itself was 20 years ago—40 years now) and came up with a Village-as-ghost-town sequel. I liked it and offered it up. They said yes, and so I embarked on another fabulous project.
What was it about the concept of The Prisoner that most attracted you?
In immediate terms, Number 6’s similarity to Mr. X was irresistible: man of mystery. No name, just a designation trapped in an architectural monstrosity. Missing only the chrome dome and shades, he was the ultimate misfit and possibly even the key to the whole place.
Truth is, I was mesmerized by the show while in high school. Maybe it even subliminally influenced the creation of Somonpolis. In any case, it was hard to pass up, and since I had finished my work on Mister X, I sought greener pastures.
How did you approach this work, in terms of adapting it for the comic book format?
There were three things I concentrated on. First was the faithfulness to the original series. It meant multiple viewings of the shows, studying the books, immersing myself. Visiting the actual Village, Portmerion, Wales. I knew Prisoner fans were every bit as obsessive as Trekkies, perhaps even more so. And I wanted to be one of them, in effect. This was the authorized sequel, after all. I went to lengths. But I also wanted to be original, true to my own muse. Second was making it accessible for someone who hadn’t seen or remembered the series. It had to be contemporary and stand on its own. Third was the same tenet that I observed with Mister X: creating comics for folks who didn’t usually read comics.
Did you envision the work as four separate issues or as one unified graphic novel while plotting, cowriting, and illustrating it?
I knew it would be both. But the miniseries always has the most jazz. The anthology, that’s a legacy item. Nothing compared to the mouthwatering wait between issues of The Watchmen or Dark Knight. I wanted a piece of that. I remember the thrill of having a couple high-profile artists stopping me in the halls at DC to ask me—demand—what would happen in the next issue. Or even postulate what should happen. Kinda like Lost…
What was the division of labor with your cowriter, Mark Askwith?
Mark was a dear friend and expert in many things concerning science fiction and mass media. I enlisted him as my researcher/advisor/jailer. He stepped up to the plate with some key story ideas and I insisted he and I coauthor it. We conferred over lunch, dinner, drinks, and my conference table until we had an extremely detailed, point-by-point outline for each issue. He would return with the first cut, which I would rework, polish, cut and paste, and rewrite until it was ready for the editor. Mark, aside from being a brilliant writer in his own right, was the perfect wingman.
Looking back on the work now, what are your thoughts?
I still love the book. My favorite anecdote remains this: Patrick McGoohan was contractually obligated to approve the work via a contract with ITC. So pages were run over to his apartment near the UN building, on the East River, with each issue for signature. Never heard a word until the whole series was completed and the message came back to me that “He didn’t hate it.” Anyone knowing the curmudgeonly McGoohan (and how solicitous he was about The Prisoner) knew that was high praise indeed. Later I was shown a note from Leo McKern [an actor who had played Number Two in the series], who had likeness approval, stating that he had never been a comic book villain before and thoroughly enjoyed it—especially in that it involved no effort on his part.
Please tell me about Terminal City—published by DC Comics/Vertigo throughout 1996–1998. What inspired the concept and story? What themes did you want to address here?
Shelly Bond, nee Roeberg, who was my office mate while on staff at DC and a very savvy Mister X aficionado, prodded me into it. It was really an appeal to replicate Mister X without any licensing problems. It didn’t take much. Her erudite conversation, those anime eyes, and the appeal to my ego, combined with my secret weapon—Michael Lark (an illustrator I had worked with while helming Byron Preiss’s Raymond Chandler graphic novel series). We were meant to be! I dusted off some of my Radiant City scenarios, powered them up, and eureka! I still think Terminal City is my best work. Almost entirely due to Ms. Roeberg. Period. End of sentence.
What influenced the unique design and look of the series?
Basically the same elements as Mister X, except that I extended my retro vision of the future from the ’30s to include the ’40s and ’50s. Still vintage. Still naïve. Still out of date and anachronistic. But suddenly the work of Raymond Loewy, Richard Neutra, and especially Norman Bel Geddes were available to swipe from. The future was now envisioned by Hugo Gernsback and Buckminster Fuller, not just George Orwell. In the words of Lene Lovich: “New toys—oh-ay-oh!”
Just offhand, do you know how many awards the series has been nominated for?
The series—if you include Michael’s new talent trophies and the not-such-a-sequel—I think five majors altogether, including Eisners and Kurtzmans.
You returned to the retro-future once again in Electropolis,published by Image Comics in 2002. A mystery, a detective novel, and a femme fatale—looking back on the work now, what are the first things that come to your mind?
Electropolis was more of a burlesque, while still in continuity. If Mister X was Frankenstein. Terminal City was House of Frankenstein, this was the Abbott and Costello entry. True to continuity, but completely self-referential—self-parody. I liked illustrating it myself—but, honestly, I wish someone else had done it. The people I have had the joy to work with, from Ken to Paul to Michael, have all had an effortless quality to their work. I look at mine and remember every tortured effort in every panel. It’s stiff. It’s curious. I studied each nuance that I observed in my collaborators’ native skills and tried to replicate them. I was usually somewhat successful, but it wasn’t my best art. However, it was my most earnest. In the words of Patrick McGoohan, I didn’t hate it.
You teamed up with Michael Lark once again for Batman: Nine Lives, published as a deluxe hardcover graphic novel by DC Comics in 2002. How did this project come about, and what can you tell me about the dynamic between yourself and Michael Lark on this project and on Electropolis?
A window opened. There was an appetite for a film noir Elseworlds Batman. Lark was anointed as artist, but I was poised to go up against Ed Brubaker—perhaps the most talented practitioner in this peculiar genre of comics. I can’t get enough of him, but damn it, I had worked with Michael. My love for both the character and the noir genre was well known. I lobbied hard. I have to say, without kissing ass, my editor, Joey Cavalieri, put the air (and some expertise) under everyone’s wings.
Ed and I tease each other about it when we meet. Ed did get my previous collaborator, Sean Phillips (The Heart of the Beast), to do his noir version. I still think mine was better. And the two of them continue to dazzle with their Marvel/Icon series Criminal. Me? Jealous as can be.
Are you interested in writing Batman again?
I am and I have. I did a short Batman Black and White story, which I hope to expand into a entire graphic novel, The Gargoyles of Gotham, centering on those ubiquitous sculptures the Dark Knight just loves to pose with. I have three folders of research. It’s gotta pay off one day.
Your work within the medium is singularly unique, and the graphic design striking, throughout your entire body of work. What sustains your interest in the medium? What possibilities do comic books afford, creatively, that other media do not, in your view?
I would have answered that 10 years ago completely differently. Thoughtfully, in an educated manner. I studied with McLuhan. I exchanged with the Firesign Theatre and the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Listened carefully to what I was personally told by Isaac Asimov, Harvey Kurtzman, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Steranko, William Stout, and Wayne Barlowe. I often attended the comics cognoscenti version of the Algonquin round table with Mignola, Baker, Badger, Byrne, Wagner, and Miller.
In the end, it all comes down to the words of one Mister R. Crumb: It’s just lines on paper, folks! Sounded camp, coy, and ironic when I first read them. Sarcastic. Flip. Arrogant. Beatnik. Anarchist. But he was right. Crumb and Warhol, in my mind, still have the most honest perspective when it comes to creating graphic amusements in the current epoch. It all has to do with an honest juxtaposition of cynicism and humility. Of being alone with one’s sketchpad and without one’s pretensions—or ambitions. But that’s what it is. A love of narrative drawing. An uncontrollable urge to tell a story. A love of drawing pictures. And the union of the two.
That’s the vernacular: pictures…a sequence of drawn pictures. You gotta think like Crumb, Steranko, Wood, and McKay. You gotta pay the rent with your sweat and ink. And you gotta love it. Just acknowledging it doesn’t cut it, even in this financially sophisticated day and age.
What motivates and inspires the types of concepts and ideas that drive your work as a writer?
As a writer, I guess it’s all about contrasts. Allegory. Simile. Irony. McLuhan’s observational instructions (or instructional observations) continue to guide me in telling a story. I have tried writing slice-of-life, observational vignettes. It amuses me, but few others. I have tried mythic gigantic Tolkien-esque heroic fantasies and have been slightly more bored by it than my readers.
If I aspire, I aspire to the efforts of Rod Serling, J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, and Thomas Berger. I’m not actually sure what they have in common (aside from genre) other than being able to simultaneously engage both the analytical and entertainment lobes of my brain as I read their stories. Wow! and How?at the same moment.
Following from this, then, how has your graphic design background impacted your approach as an illustrator and designer?
My most important rule is cribbed from Esquire art director George Lois: Make the pictures do the talking. My “design” style, such as it is, is actually rather sparse, even minimal. Design licks, to me, are like architectural filigree to Corbusier. Pretty. Useless. Pretty useless.
I write in pictures. I draw for prose. I’m not sure my audience truly understands that distinction, and I’m not sure it’s important that they do. It’s only important that they are attentive. That’s the best I can hope for. On a good day.
What does the phrase “comic book culture” mean to you? What images and/or metaphors does it instantly evoke, to your mind?
Jinkies. I have around three decades in the biz, and that phrase describes many different snapshots at different times. There’s the nerds. There’s the Hollywood hopefuls. There’s the academic anthropologists. There’s pop art ironicists. I don’t actually know what comic book culture is. It may actually be best historically described in [Michael Chabon’s novel] The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But aside from simply saying it’s a part of pop culture (what’s that?), I think it’s as visible and tangible as Tinkerbelle’s wake.
The most important comic book or story arc published over the past 20 years, in your view, is . . .
Watchmen. Can’t be argued.
What are your thoughts on the future of the comic book medium and/or industry?
It’s been said for years, by those more articulate than I (especially Señor Scott McLoud), that the electronic era of publishing is transformative.
I don’t like it. I like the idea of drawing on paper, scratching and smearing ink on paper—and then printing and publishing on paper. But this photonic era, the one McLuhan so calmly, so nonchalantly forecasted, makes my craft obsolete—that is to say “quaint.” But jeepers, I don’t wanna be quaint. So, unless I am to be considered some kind of terminal souvenir merchant, I have to agree to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new media (a miserable but exciting process that has tortured me for the past three decades). What about my friend the inkpot? Mr. T-square? Sir Rapidograph? Herr Letrraset? An entire ark of tactile tools of the trade with its histories of skills and techniques set off to burn like some weird Viking funeral? What do I get in return? A Logitech trackball? A Waccom digital tablet?
Hardly seems fair… Oops. Time for my meds.
One last question for you, and it’s a two-part question. Looking back on the work you’ve done within the medium to date, what is your own personal favorite title/story arc/character? And, in terms of your future work, what’s next for you? What types of themes, concepts, and/or designs might you wish to explore within the medium in the months and years to come?
As much as I love Mister X and Co., Cosmo Quinn and B.B. still make knees weak. There’s a whole ’nother series or two there. I’ll say it again: As clever as my original notion was, it was the editrix who got it to sing. I hope it comes time for all of them again.
The future? Look to lulu.com for exclusive projects. My website for others.