The small smokey room was lit by dust encrusted lamps. In one corner some dame sits with her beau, they’re laughing, giggling and kissing one another. Both of them ignoring the wedding ring on his finger. At the bar stands a rogues gallery of lowlifes, scum, drunks and bastards. Everyone of them one of New York’s finest. I pulled the trench coat tightly round me, turning the collar up and adjusted the brim of my hat. I couldn’t help but fumble with the lighter in my hand, the packet of cigarettes calling to me like a siren song. Whisky. Sweet whisky. Better than a kiss from any broad. I step through from the doorway, no one bats an eyelid at me and I head towards the dark shadowy enclave that is this places apparent library. There, on the shelves is a book, a single book. It’s black and white cover with a sliver of moonlight and a shadowy silhouette on it struck a chord. “I know that S.O.B on the cover” I muttered to myself as the racy couple giggled away. I looked a little closer. Bug eyes, lithe build, swinging on a web. It was that mug Spider-Man but something was different. As if he was a man out of time. Then Humphrey Bogart tapped me on the shoulder, told me to play it again Sam and I sat bolt upright in bed. It had been a dream. A film-noir dream, but something from the dream remained, and that something was the sublime Spider-Man Noir.
Co-Written by David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, with Carmine Di Giandomenico providing the wonderful artwork, Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without A Face is where I started, which was a backwards way of reading them as it’s the second one, however at the time I was reading a Panini Marvel reprint of Astonishing Spider-Man and one of the stories in those pages was Eyes Without a Face #1. I can honestly say I was left quite speechless. As regular readers know, myself and my fiancee are avid Spider-Man fans and to see the characters in a darker, grittier, more harsh environment acting differently to how you would imagine them doing was a shock, but coupled with the story that Sapolsky and Hine intricately wove throughout, it was the most pleasant shock I think I’ve experienced reading a comic book.
With Otto Octavious performing Eugenics experiments on the black population of New York from a base on Ellis Island, Sandman being an enforcer for the newly emerged boss of the criminal underworld, The Crime Master and Felica Hardy as the owner of “The Black Cat” speakeasy club which caters to the most corrupt and powerful players in 30′s New York. She is also Peter’s major love interest in the story. In the original series of Spider-Man Noir, Hine and Sapolsky use minor characters from the seedy underbelly of Marvel’s back catalogue to great effect, such as Ox, Fancy Dan, Montana and Hammerhead as enforcers for The Goblin, the leader of New York’s crime underworld. They also use Vulture as a sideshow freak with a taste for human meat (perhaps Albert Fish was an influence here) and the Chameleon. So what they do is utilize Spidey’s huge Rogues gallery and play around with the characters, and it works so well. To see Aunt May as an outspoken socialist, borderline communist is a most definite eye opener, and although Uncle Ben is mentioned, it’s a different Ben that gives Peter Parker his rites of passage. Ben Urich (Normally one of Daredevils stable of characters) appears here as a grizzled and experienced reporter for the Daily Bugle who takes Peter under his wing. So it’s Spider-Man, but not as we know it!
Fortunately, I was very lucky to be able to chat with both Fabrice and David about the creation and conception of Spider-Man Noir, they’re a great pair of guys who have been nothing but accommodating and friendly. Fabrice is currently writing One Hit Wonder and David has written many different titles, such as Marvel’s Civil War X-Men, Daredevil Redepmtion, Inhumans: Silent War, X-men the 198 and for DC Detective Comics #864 – 870, The Brave and the Bold #19 – 22, Faces of Evil: Deathstroke and The Joker’s Asylum: Two Face. I wanted to get to know about the whole process of writing such a damn cool book, and if there were any problems they faced along the way:
ME: Firstly, the story is a lot edgier than normal Spider-Man stories and from a fans point of view it is great to see familiar characters being written in a new and intriguing way, so was the opportunity to do that with such well established characters one of the reasons you wrote it?
FABRICE: It didn’t really happen the “traditional way”. I mean, when a publisher/editor has an idea and finds the best possible creative team to give life to the project. Spider-Man Noir started as a dream I had back in December 2006. I just had the opening sequence of the first issue. A Spider-Man dressed in black kneeled on a very dead JJJ’s desk, with the title : “Who killed Jonah Jameson” and above that the series title, “Spider-Man Noir”. I was in London when that happened. And the next morning, I was to meet my friend David Hine, in Kensington for breakfast. After a croissant and a cappuccino, I pitched my idea to Dave. He didn’t like it very much to say the least (laughs). He said: “No, that’s not gonna work”. Dave was the pro, and I was just a journalist with a comic book concept. So I took my train back to Paris (where I lived) and didn’t think about it. When I came back, I opened my computer and saw a very long email from David. He gave my idea another shot. Added his own ideas in the mix. And we decided to pitch it to Marvel. A month later, I was in New York. I had lunch with Marvel’s Marketing and PR director, Jim McCann at the time (now Jim is a full time writer and you should check his work, he’s amazing). I pitched Spider-Man Noir to Jim. He said : “I didn’t tell you anything, but you should email Joe Quesada very quickly. An hour later, I called up Dave in London and told him that we had to finish our pitch as soon as possible.
A week after that, we pitched. Then another week after, Joe Q. answered he liked it and said he would present it to the other editors at Marvel. Then Warren Simmons (who now is Valiant’s EIC) sent us an email and the rest is history.
Now, getting back to your question. I think, as a writer, you have to always look at established characters and find ways to keep them interesting and fresh. Writing comics isn’t that different to writing books. There are numerous versions of the Three Musketeers or Romeo & Juliet. Marvel had “What If? ” for a long time. But when we came up with Spider-Man Noir, “What If?” was not an option. Actually, we had more DC’s alternate reality series “Elseworlds” in mind. I always loved those comics. And I wanted to do something Marvel with that. Now, regarding Spider-Man, more specifically, of course, he’s one of my favorite characters in comics. It wasn’t conscious at first, but developing the series with Dave, it became clear that we wanted to re-interpret Peter Parker’s universe, transpose it in another era, and see how it could impact him.
Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man in a relatively happy period. The early 1960s. Peter is a shy guy who overcomes his nature by running around as Spider-Man and using humor. The 1930s were a very different period. It was rough. You could die for nothing. There was a terrible economic crisis. Corruption. Mafia. Violence. So the question was… How would have been Peter Parker if he had been raised in a violent era? We address that in the first mini-series. He would have been like others of his time. He would have overcome shyness with violence. Now, Dave was really the one who brought all the social background and pulp elements. And that was brilliant. Finally, I would add that having a British and a French writer on board, the final product had to be very different. We didn’t do it on purpose for the sake of writing different. It just came out that way.
DAVE: Fabrice is right to say I was initially skeptical about re-working Spider-Man as a pulp book, but on the way home I found the seeds he had planted were taking root and the story was already taking on a life of its own. As a kid, Spider-Man was way out there as my favourite Marvel hero. I loved the fact that he was a loner, a loser who was always screwing up his relationships, and most of all, that he wasn’t part of some semi-militaristic group of masked vigilantes like the Avengers. I liked that he was an outsider, I liked that he was mistrusted and misrepresented by the media. Ditko worked wonders with the character, locating him on rooftops, abandoned warehouses and riverside docks, where mobsters were always meeting to plot dastardly deeds. It was so much more down to earth than most of the other Marvel books, with the exception perhaps of Daredevil, who was my second-favourite character.
The Depression era was the perfect setting for the book. It had to be within the period of Prohibition and setting it in that time when Roosevelt had been elected and was looking to turn things around made the story come alive. It didn’t take too much manipulation of the character to make this a really dark noir story. We concentrated on the earlier villains. I think we both loved the Lee/Ditko books above all the other interpretations of Spider-Man, so the villains had to be drawn from those early years. The link with carnival freaks was an obvious one too. All these elements came up naturally and played to my interests in edgy black-and-white movies and pulp crime novels. I love film noir and early horror movies. Todd Browning’s Freaks is up there with the best and the Vulture in particular seemed a perfect fit as an ex-carny geek. You can imagine him biting the heads off live chickens. The difference is that the Vulture acquired the taste for human meat. I think that whole cannibalism element pushed the plot into a different sphere, but worked perfectly as a metaphor for capitalism and the exploitation of the workers.
I really enjoyed the obvious political line we took, with Peter Parker and Aunt May portrayed as communists. That ruffled a few feathers, but in the thirties socialism was a very powerful force in America and it was clear that the Parker family would be drawn to the kind of political activism that we showed. I’m not sure that we played up the political angle in our pitch. Probably not. It was more along the lines of cool imagery and the noir style. We didn’t know it at the time, but Marvel were already being pitched ideas for noir books. Our original pitch was Pulp rather that Noir and we threw in ideas for half-a-dozen stories, featuring pulp versions of the X-Men, Iron Man, Fantastic Four. One idea was to set each of the stories in a different decade from the 30’s through the 80’s.
The pitch hit its target. We got the book, though Pulp Spider-Man had become Spider-Man Noir. There were a couple of pulp elements that made it through, not least the grotesque Vulture and the partly mystical transformation of Spider-Man with his vision of an African Insect God. That was straight out of Weird Tales, and was perhaps the one story element that jarred a little with the rest of the Noir line.
ME: Was it difficult dealing with the subject material throughout the story, since you touch on racism, Nazism, eugenics and slavery? Where did you draw inspiration for that side of the story?
FABRICE: It may seem odd, but no. When we were doing the first mini, we thought, at one point, Marvel would stop us. But they didn’t. Come on, we started with Uncle Ben and Aunt May as members of the Communist party. Then with a drug-using Ben Urich and many other edgy stuff I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read the series. Regarding “Eyes Without a Face”, more specifically, we didn’t really have time to think twice.
Spider-Man Noir #1 came out in the States mid-december 2008 and about two months later, Dave and I went to visit our editors, Warren Simmons and Alejandro Arbona, at Marvel. They were quite happy with the sales figures. And they immediately said : “We want you to start working on a second series right now. Not in six months, NOW.” They explained to us that the market was really tough and that in six months who knows if they’d had the budget to finance this second series. They wanted a pitch a week later. We started to throw ideas with them at this meeting, but we weren’t really convinced. They talked about Venom, but Dave and I wanted Octopus, without really talking about this before. We came out of that happy and stressed at the same time. The next morning we had breakfast together and tried to figure out something. Octopus came first. I wanted a very crippled guy, somebody with strong ties to Germany, which made sense in the 1930s, but I have to credit Dave 100% for coming up with this memorable description: “a devil with the face of an angel”. Our Octavius had to be blonde. He had to be a Dr Mengele-like character. From Octopus, the story started to unfold and we introduced Robbie Robertson as a black journalist.
We did all kinds of researches about the era. About the Friends of Germany. About how the blacks were treated and perceived in the 1930s. David loves politics, and so do I. He discovered that in those times, the Republicans were more supportive of blacks than the Democrats. And it gave us many ideas.
Spider-Man Noir, maybe more than any other Marvel book, considering its very nature, is full of social and political references. This is something we loved. And Marvel loved it too. They gave us a lot of freedom. I can think of two moments where we had disagreements with them, but in the end, it didn’t change our vision.
DAVE: We were optimistic from the start that we would get a second series. Our editor Alejandro Arbona was really enthusiastic from the outset and the book had a great reception. So we were already planting the seeds for the follow-up. If you look at the last page of series one, you will see a newspaper headline about the Nazis gaining power in Germany alongside a report referring to Doctor Otto Octavius leaving on an expedition to explore the ocean depths. If I remember rightly we originally planned on having him bring back some weird life-form that was essentially Venom. But we dropped that idea as too science-fiction. Too Pulp!
We also knew that we wanted to introduce Robbie Robertson in some way. Once I started doing the deep research I realized that racism was so endemic in every aspect of life in the USA that it was highly unlikely that a black person could be hired as a journalist on a white newspaper. There were a few newspapers produced by black journalists for black readers so that’s where I put Robbie. Simply introducing a black character meant the issue of racism had to be dealt with because of the segregated nature of society back then. I found the same thing when I worked on Spawn. The fact that Al Simmons and therefore Spawn, was black was rarely alluded to in the present-day storyline. I always liked that about the book. He just happened to be black. No big deal. But when I delved into the ancestry of Al Simmons, it was impossible to write the stories without dealing with the issue of race. I wanted Al’s English grandfather to fight in the trenches in World War One, but I discovered that, although black men could sign up, no black British soldiers were allowed near the combat zones, so I had to deal with that. In the Western Gunslinger Spawn story his ancestor was a Buffalo Soldier and again race automatically became an issue. That was also true of our Spider-Man story. Race became increasingly important to the storyline. We discovered through our research that the Nazis were a very vocal and influential group in the USA in the early thirties. They even held a rally in Central Park. Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6DOxtUYmbA
We really didn’t have to make this stuff up. What I found more surprising was the deep-rooted racism of the Democrats, whose support came mostly from the Southern States. The Republican Party at the time was still associated with the North and the anti-slavery movement. So the politics were complicated. It was all quite heavy, but I think we succeeded in dealing with all those serious political issues without weakening the story. We still had a great mystery thriller going on, and I really did enjoy seeing Peter Parker’s relationship with Felicia develop into a full-blown affair. We had all the elements of a good noir in there – the very realistic violence, the sexuality of the femme fatale, and the most evil mobsters you could imagine in the form of the Crime Master and the Sandman.
ME: What was the process you followed for getting in the mindset of a depression era Peter Parker?
FABRICE: As I said before, it started with the question: how different can you be when you grow up in a violent and cruel era as opposed to a more loving and peaceful one. From there, our alternate Peter had to be different. Plus, in the Marvel 616 classic version, Peter keeps referring to Uncle Ben as his role model. But in our version, he has another one, Ben Urich. And this Ben is way more twisted than his 616 counterpart. His influence on Peter makes Spider-Man Noir a very very dark character. Especially in the beginning. He’s unstoppable. He can kill. He’s not a single layered character, he’s very complex. Dave and I pretty much agreed on everything regarding Peter. We knew he had to be our Annakin Skywalker, if I may use that reference. Except, in the end, he chooses to do good.
DAVE: It’s part of the writing process to inhabit your characters – all of them, male, female, good, bad, but there are always some that are a better fit and as mentioned before, Peter Parker was always the Marvel character I most identified with. To make the character convincing within the period meant a lot of background reading and I still have a big stack of books on the early thirties in the USA that I tracked down when we were working on these scripts. I always do a lot of research but this one needed more than most. One of the first things I did when we all started out on this book was to make sure that Fabrice and our artist Carmine Di Giandomenico were looking at the photographs of Arthur Fellig, more commonly known as Weegee. He was part of the inspiration for our Ben Urich, a guy who was always on the spot to photograph the seedier side of life. Immersing ourselves in those images helped with creating the whole atmosphere of the era.
ME: I personally love the way that you had Curt Connors as Octavius’ right hand man and Sandman as a mob heavy, so would there have been another character from Spidey’s rogues gallery that you wanted to include in the story but couldn’t find an angle?
FABRICE: We had two big story lines in the second series, the Octopus one, on the one hand, the other one being with the Crime Master, Felicia and the Sandman. That one was the consequence of the first series. With the Goblin out of the picture, who’d take over the mob in New York? And that would be the Crime Master. We struggled a lot in the beginning with all those elements. But in the end, I think it all made sense and it works. That said, I always regretted that Marvel never allowed us to plan our series as 5 issue ones. I wanted to take more time for some scenes. Developing the Felicia/Peter storyline for example. But we just couldn’t.
DAVE: I seem to remember being under the impression that we had five issues, then having to cut the plot drastically when we realized we only had four. I think we included most of the characters we wanted to include, speaking for myself at least. The Chameleon and Kraven the Hunter were in there as well as all the characters we’ve already mentioned. I’m not particularly interested in the later villains like Carrion and Carnage. Electro was boring, the Rhino looked stupid. The Molten Man was cool. I guess we could have done something with him, and if we had made a third series I guess Gwen Stacy would have made an appearance along with her father.
ME: You wrote the story as a duo, was it difficult to write something together or did you bounce ideas off of one another and click as a writing pair?
FABRICE: It was really easy for me. Maybe Dave thinks differently (laughs). I owe SO MUCH to David Hine. Look, it was my first professional writing gig. I learned everything from him. I could tell you who brought what and when, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; It really is OUR book. Yes, we bounced ideas off one another but when I offered the project to Dave, I made it very clear that if we had disagreements, he would always have the final cut. I respect and trust him very much. There’s no way I’d change what has been published.
DAVE: I think the process worked well. We came at the stories from very different perspectives but in the end the result was one of the books I’m most pleased with so the chemistry was obviously there.
ME: Carmine Di Giandomenico does a fantastic job with his artwork, really capturing the tone of the writing and the feel of a gritty detective story, did his artwork have an impact on the tone of the story as you wrote it or did it instantly just compliment the story to begin with?
FABRICE: That part is funny. Marvel picked Carmine and we couldn’t talk directly with him at first. But Warren and Alejandro have really been smart to choose him. This is another factor that makes this Spider-Man series so unique. It’s one of the few, if not the only one, where none of the creators is American!
I have to confess, I wasn’t really sold when I first saw the first pages. Dave loved them immediately if I remember correctly. But as time went by, I changed my mind. And Carmine really delivered the right tone for the book.
DAVE: Yes, I loved the art from day one. It wasn’t as cinematically ‘noir’ as the other books in the Noir line but that was fine. I was really excited to be working with an artist who had a European sensibility. It looks like a European comic book, beautifully realized and very human characters, wonderfully dynamic page design and the line work is just superb. The scenes with Felicia and the cats are really sensual, the detail in settings like the old abandoned theatre is fantastic. I really have nothing but good things to say about Carmine.
ME: How did it feel seeing your creation in the video game Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions? Was that a surprise and did you make sure you got hold of a copy for yourself?
FABRICE: It was a surprise! One day, we received an email from Marvel saying that our character was to be included in a video game. We were not consulted. I think we learned about it like 3 months before it was released. Ironically, they chose a version of the costume that Dave and I rejected.
DAVE: Meh. It’s always cool to see your characters interpreted in other forms but it was really only superficially the same character and as Fabrice said, there was no consultation and of course no payment. I don’t know if we get a credit listing on the game. I’m not a huge fan of computer games and I don’t have a copy. Marvel didn’t even send us a freebie. I’m not making a big deal of it. You know what you’re getting into when you work for corporate publishers and I certainly don’t regret doing the books. They look great and we’re both very proud of them. We do get some payments off the trades and there have been a number of reprints. They sold very well in France too.
ME: Can we expect anymore from the Spider-Man Noir series? Perhaps Spidey as an OSS agent?
FABRICE: That story isn’t over. We had ideas. I have lots of ideas. At one point, we talked about it, two years ago or so. But it never materialized. At the last New York Comic Con, somebody asked the Spider-Man editor, Steve Whacker, if there would be another Spider-Man Noir project. He said “we’re thinking about it”. Well, I’ll tell it publicly, I’m ready to get back to that universe!
DAVE: I think Peter is too much of an outsider to work for the OSS. Another Spider-Man Noir series? I’m not too eager to go back to work for either Marvel or DC. It’s nothing personal. Most of the people I worked with at both companies were great, it’s just that the way the companies are run makes me uncomfortable. I prefer to work on creator-owned projects or write work-for-hire for the smaller independents, where you are more than just part of a production line. If I were to do anything for the Big 2 again, I guess Spidey Noir would be the most tempting. It’s stand-alone and not going to get tangled up with big events and the requirements of the latest Hollywood movie. Good books do come out from both companies in spite of the system. So let’s just say “Never say never.
So there we, that’s the story of making a well received, alternate take on an established Marvel character. Personally, I would love to see another episode in the Spider-Man Noir tales, as there is such a wealth of history of the character that could be taken, unwound and re-woven as a darker edged story. What about Gwen and Captain Stacy as David said earlier? To check out David and Fabrice’s stories, you can read Eye’s Without a Face in the Panini re-prints Astonishing Spider-Man and to top it all off, David Hine will be at Thought Bubble arts festival in Leeds this weekend, so if you’re there, go and say hello, whilst Fabrice will be appearing at the Paris Comics Expo the same weekend, so if you’re off to either, check the guys out and give them some appreciation!
So this is where we leave it this week, on a cliffhanger “will they, won’t they?” note…
Until next time…
For more comic views and reviews follow Robin on Twitter at @Hulksmash1985