Free Comic Book Day 2016 Postmortem #1: New Mutants Volume 1, 71-73

I have read a lot of X-Men comics.  As a child of the ’90s, I was at that ideal age where I was smitten enough with the cartoon that I wanted to learn more about the characters in the comics.  When I graduated college, I finally got to do that in a truly satisfying way as I was given a huge backlog of X-Men comics by a coworker at my first white collar job.  My favorite of the early stuff was easily The New Mutants, which continues to be one of my favorite super teams in the entire Marvel universe.  Probably my hands down favorite character of the team is Danielle Moonstar (thirty years later she’s still kicking butt as a de-powered member of the team’s most recent incarnation), but a very close second is Illyana Rasputin, the little sister of the X-Men’s most famous strongman character Colossus.

I’ve been taken with Illyana ever since I read Chris Claremont’s Magik miniseries about how she survives for eight years in the demonic dimension of Limbo by becoming a sorceror and gradually losing small parts of her soul in desperate bids just to survive.  This origin story sets up Illyana’s core concept of a child who had to grow up too quickly while being forced to make a series of morally dubious choices that left her doubting her own ability to do good in the world.  Illyana became a regular member of the New Mutants shortly after she first returned from Limbo, and she always offered an incredibly poignant counterpoint to the much more naive perspective of her teammates who frequently assumed that because they were children they were generally safe from serious consequences (this attitude is constantly undercut in the original run of New Mutants as all kinds of messed up stuff happens to the team; even though they were the junior team to the adult X-Men, the New Mutants often had much darker adventures than their counterparts).  Where everyone else generally assumed they would be okay at the end of any given day, Illyana was the character who had already come out the other end really damaged by her experiences.

In the original New Mutants, Illyana’s arc began with her being haunted by her childhood, and her power set (being able to teleport through space and time by way of Limbo and being able to use the dark magic she was taught by her captor while she was trapped there) made it impossible for her to ever move beyond her history; some of her teammates, particularly Rahne Sinclair and Roberto DaCosta, never fully trusted her because of her association with Limbo.  In a book filled with tragic moments, Illyana was the classic tragic character.

The cover of #73 kind of gives the end away, but it’s also sort of an homage to the death of Supergirl, so that’s okay. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Illyana’s story is heavily threaded throughout the majority of the original New Mutants run, and it all culminates in the 1989 X-Men crossover event Inferno.  Because of the manipulations of two demons from Limbo, S’ym and N’astirh, Illyana is tricked into opening a giant portal over Manhattan that allows demons to pour out from Limbo and invade Earth.  In the collection of comics I got from my coworker, I never got to read this story; it was missing from an otherwise highly comprehensive library of back issues.  I had to skip ahead, and I found in the issues following the event that Illyana had somehow reverted back to being six years old, effectively removing her from the New Mutants (this narrative move coincides in my mind with the decline of the first volume’s quality; it happened about a year before Rob Liefeld joined the creative team and began to push Louise Simonson out; that one of the last arcs of Simonson’s run without Liefeld’s input ended with Dani Moonstar leaving the team as well was pretty much the end of New Mutants as the book that I loved).  The version of Illyana that’s featured in New Mutants volume 1 doesn’t reappear again outside of a miniseries from 2009 called X-Infernus, which if I remember right didn’t really go anywhere.  The version who’s been running around in the 2010s is from a slightly different timeline, which is narratively interesting because she has moments where she has to remind her teammates that she’s not the same Illyana that they remember (usually just before she does something that looks like a betrayal because like all versions of Illyana, she has her own motives for just about everything).

Anyhow, the point of all this background is to say that one of my purchases on Free Comic Book Day this year was back issues of New Mutants #71-73 (also #70, but that issue’s part of the previous story arc, and I only picked it up because the shop was doing a buy 3 get 1 free deal).  These issues were recently covered by Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men (Jay’s explication of the gender politics surrounding the Inferno event, which focuses heavily on the culmination of Illyana and Madelyne Pryor’s stories in the X-books they respectively appear in, is excellent stuff so you should go listen to the episodes about it right now), and with the occasion of Free Comic Book Day to hit up the comic shop, I decided to get the back issues I’d missed.

It’s been more than a few years since I’ve read comics of the ’80s (I don’t really count Sandman because Gaiman’s style is distinctly literary with heavy doses of pseudorealistic dialogue, as contrasted with the high melodrama and hyperdeclamatory dialogue of mainstream superhero books of the time), and it’s a very different experience from more contemporary fare.  The narration isn’t as over-the-top as what Claremont did at the height of his run on the X-books, but caption boxes, when they appear, are pretty sizable, and all the characters feel the need to explain what they’re doing in-panel pretty regularly.  It’s unfortunate that I’m having to read this arc divorced from its context (again, it’s been years since I read through the original New Mutants), but seeing the characters that I enjoyed so much is really satisfying, and leaves me with a vague desire to pull out my archives and read the old comics again.

So Fox is Making a New Mutants Movie

Fox is making a New Mutants movie.

Fox is making a New Mutants movie.

Fox is making a New Mutants movie.

This cover’s almost a perfect team lineup (except it doesn’t have Dani). (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I’m not sure what else there is to say about this news right now other than I really hope they don’t screw it up.  I’m not entirely sure how they could screw it up (perhaps by making a stealth X-Force movie, though given the concept Fox is apparently going to explore, that strikes me as unlikely), but for all of Fox’s recent success with the last few X-Men movies, I’m still weary about their vision for this movie.  I mean, the New Mutants are kind of a big deal in the X-Men franchise, since they’re the most enduring spin-off team that Marvel ever created in relation to the primary X-Men team (they also originated a perennial tradition of introducing a new team of teenage mutants every decade who eventually graduate to being full-fledged X-men, assuming they acquire a significant enough fanbase).

Though this is just announced and the whole thing is probably several years away from actually being completed, I’m already wondering about things like what the character lineup will be, and what story Fox will adapt.  The quintessential New Mutants includes a roster of nine characters, which seems like a bit much for a single movie (it’s kind of amazing that Chris Claremont balanced such a large regular cast in a monthly book without making anyone ever feel like they were underwritten), and at the same time I can’t help wondering who could possibly be cut.  I feel like Danielle Moonstar and Sam Guthrie are must haves, since they’re the obvious team leaders (and also a couple of my favorite New Mutants characters), and then there’s Illyana Rasputin, who is one of the best tragic characters that ever emerged from the X-Men franchise.  Of course, if I go down the roster, I can see a good reason to include everyone, which isn’t very helpful for figuring out who to build a story around.

As for story, well there’s plenty to choose from.  My personal hope is that if they include Dani (and seriously, why the heck wouldn’t they?) they go for the “Demon Bear Saga” (it’s a landmark story for the series both visually and in terms of character, and I would love a big screen story that’s centered on a woman which doesn’t involve any sexual angst or trauma).  Of course, that’s a story that didn’t happen until after the series had been going for over a year, meaning readers were pretty well acquainted with the characters, so maybe there would be a bit too much groundwork to lay to make the story really resonate (of course, I’m not a screenwriter, so maybe it’s possible).

Nonetheless, this is one of those superhero movies that’s been on my wishlist for a while now, and I’m honestly both really excited and worried about how it will turn out.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In Praise of Creators

I’ve devoted a good chunk of time this summer to writing about the work of a lot of writers and artists.  Some of my commentary has been very positive, and some of it hasn’t.  A lot of that has depended on my personal taste, although I’ve also tried to write from the perspective of someone who wants to understand what objectively makes a good story.

The cover of New Mutants (vol. 1) #87 featurin...

Even though this is objectively awful, someone still put themselves into it.  The cover of New Mutants (vol. 1) #87 featuring the first appearance of Cable. Art by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several weeks ago, back when I was in the middle of writing my series on Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men story “She Lies with Angels” I was reading through my feeder when I came across this article by Shauna Niequist on being a creator.  Her first two pieces of advice are useful for anyone who is an artist in that they offer some guidelines for how to approach criticism.  Her third point is also addressed to creators, but I think it’s valuable advice for anyone:

Be on the side of the creator.

As Niequist points out, once you’ve actually put in the time and energy to make something of your own, you begin to understand how difficult creation is.  You wonder if your work is worthwhile, if you can pull it off so that other people will enjoy it, if it’s really just a waste of time and you should give up.

Creation is a deeply personal experience.

And not only is it personal, it’s also vulnerable.  You expose yourself whenever you create something and then dare to show it to another person.

So, yeah, I really don’t like Chuck Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men.  It feels out of place in that canon, and I think that the writing and plotting were weak.  In spite of that, I don’t dislike Chuck Austen.  His work is not to my taste, but I can’t deny that he is a professional writer, which means that on a very regular basis he produces his own work and submits it to the public for approval.

In the same vein, though I utterly despise Rob Liefeld’s artwork and what he did with New Mutants and then X-Force, I try to keep that separate from any personal animosity.  He’s a creator.  Though I think he can improve his work, I don’t begrudge him for making a living by being creative.

All of this is to say that it’s fun to be a critic of other people’s work, especially in a space like the internet where you’re safe from having to look them in the eye while you do it.  Austen and Liefeld also provide easy targets, because they’re rather unpopular creators in the comics industry.  So, I thought it would be good to remember that despite whatever flaws we find in other artists’ work, they are still struggling and fighting to produce these things that they then release into the world to stand on their own merits.

It’s an act of love, and whatever else, I can’t criticize that.

Superhero Role Models: Danielle Moonstar

There’s a fine tradition in superhero teams (particularly X-Men teams, since that’s my primary expertise) of having a squad that’s made up of people with really nifty powers led by someone with really crap powers.  I’d call it a running joke, but I enjoy the storytelling dynamic it introduces (Leaders are not the most powerful heroes, they are just the ones who are most skilled at leading).

In the X-Men alone, we’ve gotten such distinguished leaders as Cyclops, Storm, Cable (for all the hate I pour on his version of X-Force, I actually think Cable became a pretty good character after Rob Liefeld stopped writing him), Jamie Madrox, Angel (okay, he’s not really a good leader, but he does lead during Chuck Austen’s run and his powers suck), and Danielle Moonstar.

What all of these characters have in common is that they’ve been field leaders for different teams, and they are objectively some of the weakest members of their teams while holding that position (Storm and Dani have both been made field leaders during periods when they were in fact depowered).  You can make arguments about how Cyclops has a ton of force behind his eyebeams and Cable’s actually a powerful telekinetic, but they’re both powers that have limited application.  Cyclops can knock things down; that’s about it.  Cable’s powers have waxed and waned so often that he’s never heavily relied on them; usually they’re just there to keep his metal cancer from spreading while he focuses on using guns.  Madrox’s powers are pretty cool, especially in the hands of Peter David, but when you boil it down, what he essentially does is make a bunch of normal guys to help him beat stuff up (also, he’s extremely prone to dying; sometimes I think he should change his codename to the Mortal Man).

That’s a tangent; I’m supposed to be telling you about Dani Moonstar and what makes her a great role model.

Dani, who has almost always been associated with my favorite X-Men team the New Mutants, belongs to the wonderful stable of characters who were created in the ’70s and ’80s to help diversify superheroes.  She’s part of the distinguished ranks of X-Men who hale from Native American backgrounds including John and James Proudstar, and Forge.

It’s kind of a short list.

Yes, she is aiming a bow with her foot. What else should she do with a broken arm? (Image credit: comicvine.com)

I bring this up, because one of Dani’s defining features in her early appearances is the pride she takes in her heritage.  She was co-created by Chris Claremont (big surprise), who obviously had as part of his ongoing agenda the goal of creating as many distinctive female superheroes as possible.  To that effect, Claremont went to a lot of trouble to make sure that while Dani strongly identified as Cheyenne, this was not the only aspect of her personality.

Besides having a strong cultural heritage, Dani’s also kind of stubborn.  Like, the kind of stubborn that makes you wonder if she’s really strong willed or really stupid or really both sometimes.  Usually it’s the former, which I can’t help but find admirable.  It’s the same sort of admiration I have for runners who can make themselves keep going despite all the inherent aches and pains you get from going for more than a mile.  Dani’s the kind of character who if you told her she had to run a marathon without any prior training, she’d first curse you for not giving a good reason, and then do it anyway because she’s not a wimp.

And that’s what makes Dani a good role model.  No matter what’s going on, she’ll do what needs to be done.  When she has a task in front of her, she accomplishes it regardless of her own discomfort.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 6)

No, Wolverine doesn’t do a whole lot in this issue. Why do you ask? Art by Salvador Larroca. (Image credit: comicvine.com)

(Part 5 here)

Alright, I now bring you the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the end of this review series!  We’re finishing off “She Lies with Angels” with Uncanny X-Men #441.

We open with a splash page that makes entirely the wrong kind of sense if you think about it too hard.  Paige and Warren, who just worked out their issues in front of the rest of the team and Paige’s mother, are joining the Mile High Club without the aid of an aircraft.  A single speech bubble erupts from the lower corner screaming, “Joooshuaaa! NOOOO!”

Maybe I just have a twisted mind, but I read this panel and think, “Warren’s an angel mutant; Josh’s an angel mutant.  What if Paige got confused about which angel mutant she just flew into the sky with?”  After you let the feeling of ick wear off, just remember that even though this isn’t her brother, it’s still kind of creepy.

Of course, the whole point of this splash page is to establish that Paige and Warren are in the air, so they can conveniently spot the Cabots coming to kill the Guthries (which, alternatively, could have been achieved by Warren just, y’know, flying on patrol seeing as how his team’s still on a mission).  In the whole scene’s defense, it does give Austen an excuse to have Paige do an aerial dive bomb as she turns into stone to increase her terminal velocity.  As an action set piece, I think it’s fun.  I just regret that the setup had to be two of our heroes having sex in the air when there’s imminent danger and all.

Setting aside that faint bit of praise, we have in this issue a whole slew of senseless death and destruction.  Ironically, all the victims are human, and with one exception they all belong to the Cabot side of the feud.  Generally I don’t mind when a character dies in the course of a story.  It can either be meaningful or it can be random and pointless.  Both approaches typically tug on the heartstrings of the audience.  Of course, I say that with the caveat that it should fit the tone of your story.  In something that’s supposed to generally be light and optimistic (like superheroes!) senseless deaths are cheap and smack of audience manipulation.  Especially when it’s the deaths of side characters who were clearly only introduced to help score moral victory points for the heroes instead of being filled out into fully realized characters.

Like Ray.

You guys remember Ray, right?

If not, I’ll sum up what he does in this story arc.  He’s a friend of the Guthries whose son is involved in the fight where Jeb gets shot.  He and his son Ray, Jr. stay with the Guthries for support while the X-Men wait for something to happen with the Cabots.  Also, Ray is Lucinda’s boyfriend.  Then he dies in the fight between the Cabots and the X-Men.

Also, Ray is black.

This may be cynical of me, but I get the impression that Ray was introduced just so that it could be shown that the Guthries are not bigots and then killed off to give Lucinda a little extra pathos (she’s already got a dead husband, why not add a dead boyfriend?) and to avoid the pesky business of keeping up with the continuity of minor characters we’ll rarely, if ever, see again.

Besides Ray, Chester Cabot and Sheriff Pete bite it in the fighting; specifically, Pete has his redemption moment where he turns on Chester and shoots him in the head, then promptly dies when Chester shoots him in the stomach at the same time.  His last words are to ask Lucinda out on a date again.

I’m sorry, Pete, but no.  When will you learn that shooting people in the face is not how you make women like you?

Predictably, the X-Men prevail and everything’s sunshine and daisies (except for all the dead people).

Meanwhile, Austen doesn’t want us to forget that we still have the unresolved plot of Julia and the apparently dead Josh.  At this point, the one thing you need to know in order to understand how this is all going to work out for the worst is this: In the last major story arc before this one, “The Draco,” Chuck Austen introduced the concept of mutant bloodlines, specifically demonic and angelic ones.  It was supposed to be an in-universe explanation for why some apparently unrelated mutants had similar powers.  If you haven’t guess by now, Warren and Josh have near identical power sets.  Warren doesn’t have the super voice, but he does have magical healing properties in his blood.  Naturally, so does Josh.  Only no one’s told him that might happen (mostly because he never actually interacts with the rest of his family through this whole story, but someone who knows Josh’s mutation might have asked some questions upon seeing Warren).

So Josh is dead and Julia, in her fit of despair that’s supposed to mirror Romeo’s takes Josh’s smoking, perforated body with her into the pond where they first fell in love, intending to drown herself in his arms.  The fact that this is more shades of Ophelia rather than Romeo seems lost on Austen.

You can guess how this goes, right?

Julia drowns and Josh’s wounds wait until after she’s dead to start healing, so that when he wakes there’s no chance of saving her.  The next logical step in the Stations of the Doomed Lovers is for Josh to kill himself.

That doesn’t work out so well for him, what with the super healing powers, so he pointlessly impales himself multiple times, which is how Warren finds him after the fighting’s over.  From there we close with a monologue from the now-dead Julia talking about how Josh will heal with time and move on.

This whole ending setup just baffles me.  Every time Austen does something to draw attention to the fact that he based this story on Romeo & Juliet, I cringe because it’s so ham-fisted.  Julia died and Josh wants to kill himself, but he can’t because he’s a mutant.  What a tragedy.

I don’t buy it.

Yes, it is awful that Julia commits suicide.  As much as I dislike the character, I think that’s a poor end for anyone, especially a teenager.  Yes, Josh has good reason to grieve.  Even if he didn’t know Julia very well, he still cared about her, and he’s going to have to grieve.  As far as not being able to kill himself, I’d say that’s a pretty sweet deal.  He’s protected from making a very serious mistake.

So no, this is not a great tragedy on par with Romeo & Juliet.  If Austen really wanted to go for that, I would have preferred if he’d inflicted more damage to both the Cabots and the Guthries.  The essential tragedy of the original play is that these two families literally tear each other apart because they can’t stop fighting.  They have no future.  The only children of both the Capulets and the Montagues are dead when the curtain draws.  Though we don’t see it, this is the end of both houses.  “All are punish’d.”

To be truly honest, I think the story would have been better served with Josh staying dead.  His healing powers feel like a cop out, and on a meta-level, I can’t help feeling that this story line just served to establish a new Angel clone for the New Mutants series that launched in July 2004, a couple months after “She Lies with Angels” concluded.  Josh went over to that book immediately following his introduction here, with all the emotional baggage that having a dead girlfriend grants a character in a series that revolves around high school drama.

To be fair, I thought that Josh was much better written in that series, and I didn’t cringe every time I saw him pining over a picture of the girl he knew for two days.  Eventually he was killed off as they wound that series down, and it was kind of a sucky end for him.  Maybe in another post I’ll discuss that story someday.  But for now, just know that “She Lies with Angels” is over.  We can move on with our lives and it can never hurt us again.

Man, it sucked.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 1)

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to read through all the X-Men comics that had ever been published.  I think this desire arose because I hated picking up a comic and having no idea who half the characters were.  It kind of turned into a pathological need to see things from the beginning.  As a result, there are a lot of series with really crappy early parts that I’ve suffered through because I didn’t feel like I could skip over them to the good stuff.

I got better, though I definitely still prefer to view a series chronologically if there’s not a good reason to skip ahead.

That’s a tangent.  After I graduated from college, I finally found I had the means to make my dream of reading all the X-Men comics printed come true.  So I did.  I’m all caught up now, with only about a year’s delay on new comics (I can’t afford to buy them new, so I pick my comics up secondhand).  And I’ve learned something from reading all of those comics that span now 50 years of publishing history.

Some parts of the X-Men canon are freaking terrible.

New X-Men #114, 2001. The start of Grant Morri...

This was not a terrible era for the X-Men.  New X-Men #114, 2001. The start of Grant Morrison’s run.  Art by Frank Quitely. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not going to complain about the Chris Claremont era, nor do I have a problem with Scott Lobdell‘s run in the ’90s.  I loved New Mutants‘s entire first volume until Rob Liefeld came along and brutally wrecked my favorite series and transformed it into the travesty that was the original X-Force.

I hated X-Force while Liefeld was on the creative team.  I despise his art, and the direction that he took the characters was gratingly bad.  But I read every issue of its original run too.

Uncanny X-Men, the flagship title of the X-Men franchise has typically been well done.  Though there were different periods in continuity when it wasn’t my favorite book, I found that I could reliably count on it to be a solid story.  Of course, that all went down the drain when Chuck Austen had his run on the series back in the early 2000s, concurrent with Grant Morrison’s famous run on New X-Men.  Where I thought that Morrison’s run was practically sublime (I’ve yet to read a story by Morrison that I didn’t think was complete insanity and total joy at the same time), I groaned every time I read one of Austen’s arcs.

Nightcrawler's tail was mainly computer-genera...

The next Pope?  Really? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He had the infamous plotline where Nightcrawler took holy orders to become a Catholic priest, which was actually a sham ordination enacted by some religious extremists who wanted to set him up as the new Pope and thereby bring about the End Times because a mutant who looks like a demon being the head of the Catholic Church must be equivalent to the antichrist, right?

Take a moment and just gape in awe at the sheer amount of stupidity contained in that plot summary.  I don’t know what to say to it.

Maybe someday I’ll take a look at that particular travesty when I can figure out how to heap enough scorn on it, but for now I’m going to examine another arc that Austen wrote called “She Lies with Angels.”  All you need to know for right now is that it’s a “tribute” to Romeo & Juliet.  Set in Kentucky.  With bigots.  And kids who’ve not seen each other in nearly a decade, but have held a candle for the romance they had for a few weeks at a watering hole when they were ten.  It’s not as stupid as Nightcrawler the mutant Pope, but there’s a lot to say about it, so for once, I’m actually going to break this up into two six posts (other content will be running this week as well, if comic book rants are not your thing).  Tune in for the next part when I get into what exactly was wrong with it.