Reading New Mutants #18

The event of this issue is a fight between Xi’an and Dani. The substance of it is the question of what to do with people who have a history of harming others when trying to promote the communal value of giving everyone a fresh start and a second chance. I would say there’s some tension between the event and the substance, but I think the reality is more that Xi’an and Dani in the Crucible is the organizing setpiece for the issue’s story rather than its point. There’s a moment close to the end of the fight where Xi’an has her epiphany about why she’s holding back, which is interesting as an echo of Gabby’s conversations in this issue about nonfatal trauma, but it’s a relatively compact sequence in comparison to several pages devoted to just the action of Dani and Xi’an fighting one another.

Cover of New Mutants #18 by Christian Ward. Logo design by Tom Muller.

Dani At the Center, Again

I realize, five issues into this run, that I really like to harp on the fact that Dani serves as the epicenter for all the drama of this story arc, but I think it’s a worthwile thing to point out because this arc is very much not about Dani in any meaningful way. She’s not on a significant character arc through this story, but everyone around her has differing ideas and expectations about what she’s supposed to be to them, and its the other characters reactions to their own expectations of her that drive their stories forward. There are certainly points of criticism that one can lobby towards Dani and her position as the emotional support for everyone that she knows, but by this point in the plot it begins to feel more like a commentary on parasocial relationships than an issue with the character herself.

Dani is determined to do right by the person right in front of her. Unfortunately, a bunch of other people are standing off to the side and feeling ignored at the same time. (Art by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

At any rate, this issue manifests the dynamic that Dani has with other characters by literally placing her in the center of a ring where she’s doing a thing for a very close friend while other people who had hoped they could depend on her look on and have some feelings about that. In terms of character development, most of the stuff with Cosmar and Rahne in this issue feels like stuff you would do to remind readers about the status of everything without actually pushing forward anyone’s arcs. Cosmar especially suffers from some stagnation in this issue, as the majority of her panel time is devoted to her feeling sad and angry that Dani has decided to partner with Xi’an for the Crucible on behalf of Xi’an’s brother as well as recapitulating her previous complaints about being stuck in a mutated body that doesn’t feel like her own. I really wanted to see something fresh in her and the other kids’ conversation with Gabby, but it just kind of goes in circles with everything that Viktor told Gabby in the last issue. At least with Rahne, the reveal that she’s actually taking Gabby to speak with the Shadow King directly demonstrates a small progression. Gabby chooses to trust Rahne with her explicit concerns (something that she doesn’t do with Jimmy despite him being an apparently much more interested adult), and Rahne surprises Gabby with her mediation solution. Rahne has a history of making some poor decisions, but this one’s pretty bad. It also follows on a moment where we see Rahne walking dejectedly away from the Crucible arena, presumably because she feels abandoned by Dani. The whole thing is odd.

Gabby Gets Support

Gabby has a very informed view of trauma and its effects on a person. Too bad her friends aren’t ready to hear her. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

We can’t spend all our time analyzing the complex interpersonal dynamics of Dani and everyone who wants her time and attention, though. Cosmar and Rahne are making poor choices for many more reasons than that they feel abandoned by one person, which is especially significant when we talk about Gabby’s continuing quest to figure out how to make friends and help them. By this point in the story, Gabby’s big sister Laura is back from a prolonged away mission that she has some of her own complex feelings about, and Gabby has moved from “I can’t talk to Laura because she’s not physically here” to “I can’t talk to Laura because she just went through a thing and needs to process it.” Given the ongoing crisis with Cosmar and the other kids, Gabby’s response to missing her stable person is much healthier, though still fraught with anxious moments. This issue highlights her asking Jimmy Proudstar for advice about what to do, and Jimmy does an excellent job of listening to Gabby’s concerns, taking them seriously, and encouraging her to listen to her feelings that something is not right with the situation her friends are in. He’s open in his offer to help, but respects when Gabby declines. It’s a major contrast with all of Gabby’s previous encounters with adults through this story, who have largely been dismissive of her.

The scene with Jimmy is so good that it really underlines the sense that something’s off when she speaks with Rahne. We know from the last issue that Rahne’s been encouraged by Amahl Farouk to try to take a more active role in mentoring the kids who are dealing with unwanted physical mutations, so her intervention in the argument between Gabby and the others at first seems like a positive development, but her delivery of Gabby to Farouk alone at the end signals something much worse is going on. Of course, the nature of the story and its antagonist clue us in that this isn’t a safe resolution.

Tran, Farouk, and Second Chances

In the moments that this issue does focus in on Xi’an’s story, it devotes a large amount of panel time to her meditations on her relationship with her brother and the issue’s central question about what to do with someone who has a history of harming others without remorse. This deep reflection is necessary because Tran is such a minor character in the context of X-Men history, although he looms large as a central figure in Xi’an’s origin story. The character of Karma was introduced in a Spider-Man/Fantastic Four crossover story written by Chris Claremont where Xi’an and Tran are twins with the power to psychically possess other people who are working for their corrupt uncle as he tries to expand his criminal operations in New York City. Because Claremont has an orientalist streak in his writing, the twins symbolize the two halves of yin and yang, with Xi’an representing the good side and her brother representing evil. Xi’an doesn’t like working for her uncle, but she feels it’s her only choice because he’s family and they’re refugees from postwar Vietnam; Tran revels in his power and has no qualms about his criminal activity. In the story’s conclusion, Xi’an works with the heroes to stop her brother by absorbing his soul into her body. She adopts the codename Karma to represent her intention of balancing her brother’s evil acts by becoming a force for good in the world. From there, Tran doesn’t have many appearances that I’m aware of, and most readers could be forgiven for not knowing that Xi’an’s carrying the soul of her literal evil twin around inside her body.

Xi’an has just as many questions about the potential fallout from resurrecting Tran as anyone. She concludes that he deserves the chance to show everyone who he is now. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Ayala uses this subplot to propose questions about the potential and limits of Krakoan amnesty. On the island, all mutants are welcome and allowed a fresh start assuming that they will abide by the laws of the land that the Quiet Council has established. Tran’s history is relatively short, but demonstrated that he was unrepentant of his criminal actions when he still had a body, and Xi’an has to face her doubts about literally getting herself killed in order to resurrect him. She doesn’t know if Tran has reformed during his time riding along in her body, and she can’t know unless she finishes the Crucible. The issue shows us that Xi’an comes to peace with the uncertainty of her brother’s future and finishes the Crucible to be resurrected in a new body separate from Tran.

While this subplot is resolving, it foreshadows for us the central question of the larger plot arc that Ayala has been building with the Shadow King. Amahl Farouk is a much more prominent character than Tran, and he has a much deeper history of antagonism and outright predation on the people who fall into his orbit. Five issues into this run, he’s obviously the New Mutants’ key antagonist, but he’s been existing mostly in the background of Krakoa, not quite breaking any of the laws while doing predatory things to the mutant children who are looking for someone to mentor them. What to do with a character like him is a much more difficult question to consider, and the book isn’t going to give us an answer yet. In fact, the next issue will get into the 2021 Hellfire Gala, which is a little bit of a derailing from the ongoing plot. Still, at this midpoint in the Shadow King story, it’s clear that we as readers are supposed to be asking questions about what the New Mutants should do with Farouk once they realize what he’s been doing.

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