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.

Reading New Mutants #17

If there’s an underlying tension to all the subplots in this issue, it’s related to questions around passing privilege and bodily presentation norms. In the two main threads of this issue, Ayala makes explicit the sense of dysphoria many of their young characters are experiencing with their mutant bodies, both as internal and external pressures. Gabby’s conversation with Victor about why he and the other kids are experimenting with body swapping underscores how these kids are personally unhappy with their non-human looking bodies, and Dani’s conversation with Josh the Jersey Devil in Otherworld looks at dysphoria that’s being induced by social pressures. Besides those questions, the issue also spends some time moving Rahne’s plot along to its next natural step: looking for support from any corner when her closest friends have failed to make time for her.

Cover of New Mutants #17 by Christian Ward, title design by Tom Muller

When The Shadow King Starts To Make Sense

The issue begins with a two page sequence of a conversation Rahne has with Amahl Farouk when after she’s learned Dani has apparently abandoned her again. The conversation centers on Rahne’s anguish about her son and Farouk proposing that she might be able to offer some specific comfort to the kids who are gravitating towards him because of her own experiences. Farouk notes that he’s only experienced trauma in a parent-child relationship as a child, but Rahne knows both sides of that particular experience.

I am convinced this is Farouk being genuinely vulnerable with Rahne. Doesn’t change the fact he’s manipulating her as well. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Given what we know about the Shadow King at this point in the story, it’s easy to see that this is likely a play to pull Rahne into the fold and use her to expand his influence among the children on Krakoa. The fact that Rahne has historically been a catastrophic mentor/parent figure would probably give the reader pause with this particular plan, but it’s the Shadow King, and we can assume he’s not exactly looking out for the best interests of his charges. What’s confounding here is that Farouk uses his experiences as a child missing his father to persuade Rahne to give him a chance, and Reis’s art generally avoids presenting Farouk as sinister in this sequence compared with previous issues where there was always at least one moment that made it clear he has ill intent. Certainly, there are moments where he looms over Rahne, but part of that is unavoidable because of his design as a large, fat man; what’s different here is that Farouk’s facial expressions are purely sympathetic. He doesn’t sneer or smirk, and we know from what we’ve seen of his backstory that his feelings about his father are genuine. It’s easy to dismiss this as simple manipulation since that’s what the Shadow King does, but I think that textually speaking, we’re supposed to read this as a moment of vulnerability from Farouk. Given how this whole plot will resolve, I think it’s essential to take this moment as a point of genuine connection between Rahne and Farouk. Yeah, he’s working toward nefarious purposes, but the empathy on display here is real.

When You Don’t Like Your Body

Yeah, that’s pretty real. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Moving on to the children, this issue furthers their subplot with the body swapping by establishing that they’d like to try doing it with a dead body to see if their minds can animate something that developed to have human motion. It’s not explicitly said here, but the core appeal of the body swapping practice seems to be for the kids to find alternative bodies for themselves to use without having to take a body from its current owner. What is explicit though is that Anole, Cosmar, Rain Boy, and No-Girl, who all have highly visible mutations (or in No-Girl’s case, a complete lack of a body) want to have some way to make themselves appear more human. Anole, while visiting with Gabby to ask her to help them get access to the decomposition farm at the Boneyard so they can experiment with some corpses, rages at her for not caring enough about the pain they’re all experiencing with their bodies because she can pass for human by hiding her claws. It’s a good moment because Anole, in his genuine angst, completely misses the clues that even though Gabby isn’t on board with the body swapping thing, she’s also dealing with her own feelings of abandonment. I think this is an under-appreciated part of Ayala’s writing that these heated moments between characters are almost always designed to present nuanced perspectives on the issues that they’re discussing. Gabby’s response to Anole’s pain is genuine sympathy and an attempt to affirm the value of his body as it is, but she’s not really in the right position to be supportive in the way that he and the other kids need, just like they’re not in a position to effectively support Gabby’s apparent depression while she deals with Laura’s absence and Akihiro’s neglect. Farouk’s earlier observation that these kids need a parent figure who can empathize with what they’re going through resonates. Rahne would absolutely get these kids if she had the supports in place to deal with her own stuff effectively.

When Society Runs On Paternalism

When this issue first came out last year, I noted that I thought the conversation Dani has with Josh the Jersey Devil was a really interesting examination of the aggressive communalism of Krakoan life as it pertains to the background characters who are just getting swept up in the soap opera that the big players are carrying out in the X-Books during this period. Given the limitations of commercial comics publishing, you have to give resources to stories that you think people will want to read, but it does leave this massive gap in information about the more nitty gritty details of Krakoa’s social fabric. Xavier’s assertion that mutants will no longer be lost at the midpoint of House of X just before the revelation about Krakoan resurrection comes from a place of deep angst about the repeated genocides mutants have suffered in the history of the X-Men books, and the resurrection reveal is a genuine celebratory moment (setting aside epistemological questions about the soul and identity), but there’s a weird turn that happens after X of Swords when the mutants learn that Otherworld’s magic messes with the resurrection protocols. The powers that be are alarmed by the existence of a way for unique mutant identities to be permanently altered, if not lost outright, and they institute this policy of not allowing mutants to go to Otherworld if they don’t have official business there. This all plays out mostly in the background because we’re focusing on heroes and outside of the Excalibur team most mutants don’t even have a reason to go to Otherworld. The existence of Josh, an underage mutant who wants to hang out in Otherworld because he isn’t treated as strange there, creates an interesting kink in this bit of narrative fabric.

Josh goes in the opposite direction of Anole and the others; he wants to live someplace where everyone is weird so no one is weird. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

One of the delightful tensions that arises when you’re an adult working with teenagers is finding the appropriate balance of giving support and allowing them space to figure things out on their own. Josh’s adventure running off to Otherworld presents a special challenge because he’s asserting his right to live where he likes, especially after his biological family rejected him, but he’s also still a child who’s prone to making ill -considered decisions. Dani’s experience as a school teacher helps her negotiate this specific situation pretty well, settling on a compromise of monitored independence. It’s a solid recognition of some weird factors in this question, particularly as it relates to Krakoan society. With the resurrection protocols in place, all mutants are effectively immortal, give or take the processing time that has been kept deliberately vague to allow characters important to the story to get back into the action as quickly as needed. This is a massive sociological shift that Si Spurrier touches on in his Way of X miniseries, although that book assumes basically instant turnaround on resurrection for everyone. It exacerbates the youthful recklessness that’s typical of teens, but it’s all done in the context of what’s essentially a very, very big walled garden where life and death consequences are now moot.

Except in Otherworld.

The irony that I see in this plot thread, and which I think Ayala is aware of when writing this scene between Dani and Josh, is that the freedom afforded to the children is incredibly expansive, but it’s only predicated on their inability to experience permanent bodily harm. Xavier wants no more dead mutants, but he and the rest of the Council are more or less blind to the realities of children left to languish in directionless boredom. Dani and the other New Mutants are trying to deal with that exact problem, and they’re finding just how challenging it is to approach after even a short time of kids being left exclusively to their own immature devices. They’re being damaged by neglect, but that’s irrelevant to the Council’s concern about maintaining population numbers. Dani, operating as the intermediary, recognizes that Josh’s bid to live in Otherworld is more about his need to feel like he belongs in a place than his need to be one of the deathless Krakoans. She compromises with him because it’s the best workable option for him that doesn’t undermine the larger Krakoan project. That seems to be Dani’s primary role in this book at the moment: to find the workable solutions to larger abstract principles that don’t mesh with the realities mutant children are facing.

When Crucible Is Needed

Of course, then we get the issue’s resolution where Dani and Xi’an, having finally confirmed that the white rabbit is a psychic manifestation of Xi’an’s twin brother Tran, discuss the possibility of Xi’an doing Crucible so she and her brother can be separated into their own individual bodies. It’s a sweet moment, and once again it plays like Dani is romantically entwined with all of her female friends, but the thing that I find myself perseverating on with this re-read is that Dani just said no to using the Crucible for making body adjustments to a fully powered mutant a couple issues ago citing reasons of body positivity and the cultural importance of the ritual. Yes, there are obvious major differences between Cosmar’s petition and Xi’an’s request, not the least of which is the fact that if Tran is conscious within Xi’an’s body, then he’s alive and should be restored to a body of his own. It’s not a re-empowerment specifically that Xi’an’s proposing, but it is a form of restoration, which is what Crucible’s meant to do for mutants who go through it.

Reading New Mutants #16

The relatively breezy pace of the first two issues of Ayala’s run has to go by the wayside in this issue as we get a ton of very rapid setup for the plot that, if I remember right, is going to take precedence for the next few issues: Dani and Xi’an’s adventures in Otherworld trying to track down a lost mutant. Ayala did some work in New Mutants #14 to establish where Dani and Xi’an are as friends ahead of the actual start of this plot since it will have some major ramifications for Xi’an’s character going forward.

Cover of New Mutants #16 by Christian Ward, title design by Tom Muller.

Back in that inaugural issue, Xi’an explains to Dani that their last visit to Otherworld during the climax of the X of Swords event left her feeling a little out of sorts and that she’s been having some recurring nightmares whose origins she can’t quite place. We’ll eventually learn that it’s because Xi’an’s twin brother Tran, whose soul she absorbed back in her first appearance in a Spider-Man/Fantastic Four crossover, has been stirred up by Otherworld’s magic. There’s also a bit of a nod here to the pre-Krakoa miniseries New Mutants: Dead Souls where Xi’an was actually being directly manipulated by her brother to do some evil stuff from inside her body. That plot got dropped for a bit because of the House of X reboot, but Ayala continues to show they are a writer who loves to dig into character history to inform current plot lines.

Bullies, Emergencies, And Manipulations

Besides the Dani/Xi’an plot, this issue carries on with several other subplots that have been set in motion earlier. Cosmar, feeling pretty raw from the very public rejection of her request for Dani to partner with her in the Crucible, retreats to the Shadow King’s lair where he invites her and the other kids to experiment with some body swapping as a condolence. She can’t get a new body of her own, but by forming a mutant circuit with No-Girl, the Shadow King thinks he can let her and the others experience what it’s like to inhabit someone else’s body. The experiment works well enough until things grow unstable and the alien consciousnesses start to burn the kids’ bodies out, and Gabby decides she’s not down with this kind of thing, especially since it could get them all killed. Gabby’s insecurities about whether she would qualify for resurrection given her clone status definitely drive her decision here, but she also makes it clear that she thinks it’s irresponsible to be so reckless with potential harm even if death can be mitigated.

Really wish someone else had caught up with Cosmar, but at least her friends are checking in with her. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Rahne, meanwhile, learns from X-Factor that her son Tier can’t be resurrected because he’s apparently not dead. Additionally, something about his Cerebro backups is off, and they don’t know the cause. For Rahne, knowing that Tier is alive but that she can’t find him is awful, to say the least. There’s a lot of history bound up in Rahne’s feelings here because she initially abandoned her son before deciding to take care of him after all, just in time to see him murdered by one of her friends. Finding out Tier is technically alive but knowing nothing else about his status is really not good news for Rahne.

In the book’s lighter segments, a subplot carried over from #15 sees Illyana deal with some teenage mutants who have been bullying the youngest kids living on the island by trashing their habitat. I didn’t touch on this plot in my write up for #15 primarily because it’s a very minor scene within the larger context of the issue. Here, with Illyana’s aggressive intervention, the bullies are made to do repairs on the kids’ habitat manually as a way of learning about societal responsibility. It’s all quickly resolved, but it illustrates some key character beats for Illyana as well as the recurring motifs around trauma: kids should be protected, and people have an obligation to try to be better than the people who hurt them. These ideas both entwine deeply with Illyana’s personal history as a victim of abuse when she was a young child, and they underline the mission statement for the elder New Mutants. It’s a lovely character moment for Illyana, who I’ve felt since the beginning of the Krakoan era had up to this point been characterized primarily as a shallow jock.

I mean, when she’s right, she’s right. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Also worth noting, because it proceeds primarily in the data pages, is the ongoing subplot where Jimmy is busy figuring out how to do effective self reflection so he can be a better mentor to the kids. Although he hasn’t really reappeared since #14, Jimmy’s arc is consistent and delightful. I really enjoy it as a professional educator, because this kind of internalization of why you do what you do for the children is a major part of teacher education and development. It’s a hard job with relatively few tangible rewards, and seeing Jimmy go through the very familiar work of figuring out why he’s sticking with it makes me feel seen as a reader.

The Dani Of It All

Returning to the central plot of the issue, Dani and Xi’an spend a couple of beautifully rendered pages questing through Otherworld to try to find the lost mutant kid. They have some deep conversations about how Xi’an has been feeling, and she notes that in Otherworld she feels much less weighed down than she had back on Krakoa. Coincidentally, the pair have around this time spotted and begun following a white rabit that seems very intent on getting their attention. There’s a lot of nice, gentle banter here that highlights Dani and Xi’an’s longstanding friendship, and it all has a slightly romantic edge to it. Of course, Ayala writes Dani as so caring and engaged with whomever she’s speaking to that I think she honestly gives off romantic vibes in every conversation she has in this run. Danielle Moonstar: in love with everyone, unable to commit to anyone.

Dani writes a very thoughtful apology note and then doesn’t make any arrangements for Rahne’s care while she’s gone. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

That’s a joke, obviously, but it does underline an aspect of Dani’s characterization in this run that I think warrants some deeper consideration, particularly since it will take a fair bit of time before anything that’s set up in these first few issues gets resolved. Ayala’s version of Dani leans heavily into her role as the surrogate mother figure of the group, which is a relatively soft take on the character. In the original New Mutants Dani was one of the team’s co-leaders, but she was much more about taking charge when everyone was in trouble and less the person people confided in about their problems (Rahne and Illyana, whom Dani had seen at their worst pretty early on, are longstanding exceptions). Because Dani’s powers allow her to immediately conjure images of a person’s deepest wants and fears, she spent a long time in her teen years figuring out how not to get overwhelmed by such raw exposure to people’s feelings. She felt things deeply, but she wasn’t really at a level of emotional maturity that made her excited about diving into everyone’s emotional baggage. Ayala’s Dani is clearly someone who’s spent some time getting accustomed to this aspect of her powers and has decided to turn them towards a therapeutic application when she isn’t on dangerous missions. It’s totally logical, but I can’t help feeling like this version of Dani is at a point where she’s really excited to be able to take on this new empathetic role with people, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to balance all the demands that are coming from offering this new level of emotional support. She clearly understands the importance of managing expectations, but through to this issue, Ayala seems to be portraying her as failing to recognize when she’s stretched too thin.

The big indicator for this flaw in Dani is Rahne’s ongoing plot line with the mystery of what happened to Tier. Dani and Rahne have a close bond because of Dani’s animal empathy powers (something that gets de-emphasized in most modern comics because it’s painfully stereotypical as a power for an indigenous superhero), so it makes sense that Dani would be the person Rahne would most want to help her through this crisis. However, two issues in a row now Dani has realized that she has other responsibilities that have to take precedence, so she leaves Rahne hanging. It’s a bad look for Dani, and while it might be mitigating to show that she knows she’s not giving Rahne the attention she needs, Dani fails to call in literally anyone else to make sure Rahne is okay while she’s busy. Of course, I think this character beat is actually really interesting because it establishes some interpersonal conflict in a way that’s more nuanced than one person being totally right while the other is totally wrong. Dani’s making mistakes, but she’s not being malicious, which I think is something Ayala wants to avoid in any of these characters outside the Shadow King, who’s obviously the central bad actor of the book at the moment.

Weekly Upload 06/04/22

I learned yesterday that my language arts co-teacher of four years is getting reassigned to a new class next year, so I’ll be starting with a new co-teacher in the fall. It’s still pretty fresh news, and I’m honestly really upset about it, but I’m trying to take the weekend to process things and end the last two weeks of the school year with some sense of personal pride in my work. I’m mostly angry that this decision was made without even consulting me; if I’d been included in the conversation I think I’d have been pretty understanding about the scheduling needs next year, but because I’m not a member of the ELA department, I found out about all this after the fact only because my co-teacher felt the need to tell me about what was happening. I’ve tried to cultivate an attitude of acceptance about being in special education because these sorts of things happened to me all the time in the first few years of my career, but I’m feeling particularly overlooked in this case. It’s pretty normal for special education to be an afterthought in decision making, and I gripe about that a lot with my colleagues in the department, but this time hurts because it affects me specifically rather than everyone in my department. Anyway, onward to other stuff.


I only did one piece this work, and I freely admit there’s a lot about it that I don’t love. Between the two figures, one is supposed to have realistic proportions while the other’s are deliberately exaggerated, but this difference in physiology created some awkwardness with the posing. It’s hidden behind the giant head, but the arm on Cosmar’s shoulder feels far too long, and the faces feel a little off to me. Crying’s a hard expression that I don’t go to very often, so I think it’s likely just a lack of experience on my part with how to draw it. I guess I need to draw more sad people (eyeroll). For the sake of not just criticizing my own work, I do think I got some nice texture in Rahne’s hair when I was painting. I also tried some new things to make the texture on her arm fur feel more integrated with her skin. I don’t think it totally works, but experimentation is always fun.


The last issue of Step By Bloody Step came out this week, and it was a very solid ending to a very solid silent miniseries. I think it might be one of those series that I’d like to own in trade. I also enjoyed the second issue of Knights of X quite a bit. It’s been fun to work on re-reading Vita Ayala’s run on New Mutants and remember that the whole war with Merlin thing was being telegraphed a while before Excalibur concluded.

Video Games

I finished both BugSnax and Spider-Man: Miles Morales last weekend, so I’ve moved on to take a very thorough brain break with some fighting games. I have never been good at fighting games, but I have a soft spot for the Street Fighter series, so I picked up a couple titles for cheap when they were on sale recently. My current distraction is Marvel Vs Capcom: Infinite, which I can honestly say is not a great game, but it does offer some fun button mashing. If I’m still itching to punch things, I picked up some version of Street Fighter V, which should be fun for a few days. Summer’s coming, and it’s about time for me to start thinking about what big games I’d like to focus on. Maybe I’ll go back to finish Persona 5 Royal.


We haven’t finished watching the new episodes of Stranger Things yet, but Rachael and I are generally enjoying the vibe of this season. There are some jarring things, like being asked to believe that there’s only been a six month gap since the last season when the actors clearly all look much more like high school seniors than 9th graders, but it’s forgiveable what with the pandemic and all.

The movie of the week was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which is remarkably progressive for a 2004 stoner comedy in some ways and extremely of its time in many others. Neal Patrick Harris plays a straight parody of himself that’s pretty fun in hindsight, although it only serves to highlight the extreme, pervasive, and casual homophobia of the movie.

Coffee Shops

I have not been to a coffe shop this week. I did, however, buy a milkshake from the Starbucks stand at the grocery store next to my workplace one day when I was on my prep period. I’d just spent an hour standing outside with kids doing a lab on solar power, and I really, really wanted a cold drink.

Reading New Mutants # 15

It would be totally expected for the second issue of the run to be a little more workmanlike than the first issue was; we have our core cast and we know the basics of the foreseeable future’s central conflicts: it’s time to start the plotball rolling. What I appreciate here, and what will become apparent as we progress through this run, is that Vita Ayala is not a writer that rushes their stories. Their work here runs very counter to the contemporary serial comics model, particularly from Marvel, where writers are pressured to write to the trade, structuring plots that neatly wrap up (or at least hit a downbeat) every five or six issues with little room for the meandering slice-of-life bits that certain readers (me) eat up. Ayala is doing something that feels distinctly like a callback to the Chris Claremont X-Men comics of the ‘80s where there definitely were plot arcs, but they were so tightly tangled with interpersonal drama that it could often be difficult to find a clean entry or exit point on everything happening in the series at a given time.

Cover of New Mutants #15 by Rod Reis, logo design by Tom Muller

Sad Girl Boogie

We see this soap opera structure developing in this issue, which for the most part is a quiet follow up to some of the larger events happening across the line at the time. The centerpiece of the issue is the wedding reception for Doug Ramsey and his large wife Bei the Bloodmoon, although they are themselves only bit players here. In the lead up to the event, Dani is trying to support Rahne, who is dealing with the news that her son who was murdered towards the end of the Peter David X-Factor series cannot be resurrected until there is proof that he’s dead. Dani’s all in on helping Rahne with this crisis until Xi’an reminds her that she promised to give a speech at Doug and Bei’s reception. Dani’s apologetic and Rahne’s understanding, but neither of them are really happy with their obligations.

Meanwhile, Gabby is feeling lonely since her big sister Laura is presently off Wolverining in the Vault, so she tries to spend some time with her brother Akihiro. He’s happy to see Gabby, but he’s busy fostering his new romance with Aurora who has her own issues that require some support, so he can’t hang out with her at the moment. Later at training, Gabby tries unsuccessfully to reconnect with a group of teen mutants she met in prison when most of the X-Men were trapped in a pocket dimension by Nate Grey, the hippie mutant Jesus version of Cable from the Age of Apocalypse. The cool teens don’t remember Gabby because most of the X-Men didn’t retain their memories from that whole thing.

Gabby is good at quick explanations for complicated things. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Meanwhile meanwhile, Natashia Repina (called Cosmar) the young mutant reality warper who the New Mutants recently rescued when her powers first manifested, is training hard with her friends Carl (Rain Boy), Victor (Anole), and Martha (No-Girl) to prepare for doing the Crucible, the Krakoan ritual of death by combat to earn resurrection into a new body. Cosmar’s powers warped her body when they first manifested, and she’s frustrated that she can’t revert to her pre-mutation appearance, so she wants to do the Crucible to get a new, non-warped body. Encouraging this project is the Shadow King, clearly (to the reader) up to no good. This subplot is relatively minor within the issue beyond furthering the reader’s understanding that the Shadow King is manipulating the children for some nefarious purpose, but it made a relatively big splash when the issue came out because of the way Dani reacts to Cosmar’s request to do Crucible.

Rod Reis creates some moments that really nail the emotional landscape of the characters he’s illustrating. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

At the center of all these subplots is a woman asking someone she cares about to give her some support with a difficult situation followed by some kind of rejection. The rejection isn’t always intentional; in fact, pretty much every instance of this dynamic that plays out in the issue also makes clear that the other person regrets not being able to do more. Nonetheless, the rejections happen, and they all serve to push our three spotlight characters into situations where they feel more isolated.

Sometimes No One’s At Fault

Thematically speaking, I think this issue underlines a core belief that Ayala includes in much of their writing: because life is complicated and messy even at the best of times, people sometimes get hurt by the ones they’re closest to by accident. Yes, there are often bad actors present in complex social dynamics, but things also often get messed up between people who genuinely care for each other through no one’s fault. It’s a refreshing perspective on social drama that runs counter to the nature of the soap opera genre where every betrayal has to have a clearly delineated motivation that explains why one character backstabs another. Part of that works with the grandiose and melodramatic nature of soap opera, but Ayala seems more interested in reflecting relatively grounded models of social interaction. If you strip away the fantastical elements, the conflicts in this issue revolve around a woman asking her best friend (or “best friend” depending on how you read Dani and Rahne’s relationship) for emotional support while she processes her grief, a kid feeling lonely and looking for someone to pay attention to her while her primary adult isn’t around, and a different kid plucking up the courage to ask a mentor figure for a favor involving some very sensitive self disclosure that might not be within the bounds of their existing relationship. In each case, the person who lets them down has a valid reason: Dani is incredibly busy being the emotional support person for pretty much everyone; Akihiro is preoccupied with his new relationship with Aurora, who’s been through some traumatic stuff herself very recently; Dani, again, is apparently everyone’s emotional support person, and she sees Cosmar’s request to do Crucible as founded in a misunderstanding about what the process is for.

To be sure, there are problematic elements at play in the social dynamics Ayala is writing in this issue. Dani’s role as the person everyone leans on feels unsustainable, and after her conversation with Xi’an in the last issue and the comments about her promising to do something for Doug’s wedding reception, there’s a sense that Dani has a bad habit of overcommitting herself when it comes to her closest friends. Akihiro, for all his concern about Aurora’s wellbeing, is failing to recognize that Gabby’s needs might be urgent and that while she’s certainly precocious, she’s still a child.

Many times Gabby’s drawn to look even younger than she’s been historically, which I think is a deliberate choice in this issue to remind us she’s operating here as a peer for the other students. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Dani and Cosmar

The exchange between Dani and Cosmar deserves special consideration because it’s a highly loaded scene with a lot of real world parallels at play. The fundamental one that’s easiest to grok is the teacher-student relationship. Cosmar feels like Dani is an adult she can trust, so she decides to ask her for help, while Dani sees Cosmar as one of many students she’s helping to train. There are necessary boundaries in the relationship that Dani has to enforce as the adult, but which Cosmar may not always be aware of. There’s a fundamental asymmetry to the relationship that makes Cosmar’s request really difficult to make, particularly in such a public setting. I think the implication of it happening at the reception with the Shadow King watching is that he pressured Cosmar into asking Dani’s help publicly so that the inevitable rejection would be much more painful.

Beyond the obvious teacher-student dynamic, the content of the conversation revolves around questions of bodily autonomy and body dysphoria. Cosmar doesn’t feel comfortable in her body, which changed against her will when her powers manifested, and she wants to find relief for that discomfort. Her chosen method of relief isn’t appropriate, and Dani explains that pretty clearly and kindly. Where Dani missteps is in trying to give Cosmar a lecture about mutant body positivity; Dani’s powers have never physically altered her body, so she’s speaking out of turn, a thing that Rahne picks up on right away. It’s a devastating thing to say to Cosmar when she’s being so publicly vulnerable about her own dissatisfaction with her body.

Wrong move, Dani. (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

This scene, which closes the issue, highlights a core concern about Dani’s particular role as confidant to everyone: she’s acting with the best of intentions, but her overcommitment is doing inadvertant damage to some of the people around her. If we come back to Ayala’s core assertion for the book, that sometimes people hurt others purely by accident, this makes total sense. It does, however, highlight an essential caveat that I think will be important to remember going forward: accidental harm is still harm, and everyone has a responsibility to repair the harm they cause as well as learn how to minimize it in the future. Dani’s good intentions only matter in the sense that they signal she would probably try to make reparations once she knows she’s hurt someone. They don’t absolve her of her responsibility to consider how she can be a better friend and mentor.

Rahne and Gabby

Having said so much about Dani, who is a major character in this issue but not the focal character, it’s necessary to spend some time talking about Rahne and Gabby, the actual central characters here.

All the stuff on this page happened in one of the worst periods of Rahne’s history, and Ayala completely owns that it’s part of who Rahne is now. It’s a different vibe from Jonathan Hickman’s original approach of “don’t worry about it.” (Artwork by Rod Reis, letters by Travis Lanham)

Rahne is a character with a deeply complicated history; she began as a sheltered teenage girl who had a deep sense of self loathing because of her fundamentalist religious upbringing, and then over the course of thirty-something years of publication, she was put through the wringer by a parade of writers who seemed invested in compounding her suffering with some very bad personal decisions. To recount the whole character history would be too much to do here, but suffice it to say that Rahne has both had it rough and been undeniably awful to a lot of people herself in response to her trauma. When the current New Mutants series began, there was a moment with Rahne that seemed to declare a soft reset on the character: forget about everything bad that ever happened from the ’90s forward and just focus on who she was at her peak in the ’80s. Now that Ayala’s taken over the book, that approach appears to be out the window beginning with this issue. Her core problem here is that she can’t get help figuring out what happened to her son, a character who appeared at the tail end of the Peter David X-Factor series and who absolutely no other writer has cared about since. It’s a callback steeped in some of the worst parts of Rahne’s character history, and Ayala centers it as Rahne’s core motivation for the decisions she’s going to make in this arc going forward. There’s a data page in this issue detailing a response from Elixir, one of the Five who helps with the resurrection protocols, and a former student of Rahne’s that she dated while she was teaching at the Xavier Academy (I know, it’s bad). Ayala does a lot of work here to acknowledge Rahne’s problematic history and then pose a question about how this much residual damage might impede a person’s ability to move forward with their life. Rahne’s an excellent case study because she’s done some terrible things and had some terrible things done to her, but she’s still meant to be an essential sympathetic character. It’s a strong contrast with Amahl Farouk, who given his new origin is now a distinct person from the Shadow King who has done terrible things through malicious manipulation by an outside force. On a metatextual level, the writers who put Rahne through hell are her own version of the Shadow King, but we still have to contend with the fact that she did that stuff.

Gabby acts as a parallel contrast to Rahne with some key differences. Her character history is much shorter, and her trauma is much more clean cut; she was cloned to be an assassin, but Laura rescued her from that life and they’ve formed a mutual support system to build something for themselves. Gabby’s also still explicitly a child, so she presents as character who has significantly less baggage to sort out if the reader is going to sympathize with her. Like Rahne, Gabby appears here at the moment of a personal crisis: her sister is away on a long-term mission, and she wants to grow more interpersonal connections with her extended family and her peers to make the loneliness easier to manage. Like Rahne, Gabby is mostly unsuccessful in her bids for support in this issue. The decisions both of these characters make going forward veers in very different directions.

Inktober 2019 Day 18

After the relatively complex last few days, I decided to do a few simple drawings.  Today’s is very straightforward, with a relatively ordinary composition of two figures facing each other in an over-the-shoulder perspective.  I’ve not drawn a lot of backs lately (funny how faces tend to be more interesting), but this one was done in a simple enough style that it didn’t strike me as particularly challenging.  Playing with the proportions to communicate that I was drawing a child were a little fun though.

The prompt for today is “Misfit,” and I thought primarily of Rahne Sinclair, one of the original members of the New Mutants who has the power to transition at will between the forms of a human girl and a wolf.  Rahne had a very strict religious upbringing in a fundamentalist Scots Presbyterian community, so she’s spent most of her life processing and extricating the internalized self loathing her religious community instilled in her for being a mutant.  Combined with that is Rahne’s early portrayal as a child whose powers manifested unusual physical traits, specifically her inability to grow long hair.  She’s an extremely feminine character (her primary fantasy as an adolescent was to be a fairy tale princess) who for a long time was denied the basic visual markers of femininity.  There’s a fair bit of text surrounding Rahne’s adolescence that codes her in ways that evoke transgender identity: the rejection by her fundamentalist community, the aspiration to explicit feminine presentation despite the limitations of her body, the euphoria she experiences in her wolf form compared with the doubts of her human mind as a stand in for body dysphoria in general.  It’s no wonder that Matthew Rosenberg chose to use her as the subject of a scene in his recent Uncanny X-Men run that carries the trappings of a trans panic murder (much has been said about the general insensitivity of the scene itself elsewhere).

That was a lot of thoughts for a simple drawing, I guess.  Sometimes I suppose the ideas end up being more complex than the execution.






Character Overview: Idie Okonkwo

A few months back I did a pretty in depth analysis (found here, here, here, and here)of the 1984 Storm and Illyana: Magik miniseries that Marvel used to explain the origins of Illyana Rasputin as a teenage mutant sorceress.  It was a pretty fun project because Illyana’s one of my favorite characters from the X-Men franchise and she serves as an excellent nexus point for exploring how trauma and cultural touchstones contemporary with their creation inform the development of characters and influence how they can be read.  Even better, Illyana is part of a long tradition of X-Men characters who come into their own in the aftermath of extensive trauma that’s centered around the intersection of their real world marginalizations with the manifestation of their powers in the context of particularly insular and controlling communities.  Within that tradition is a particular subset of characters whose origins put them in direct conflict with their faith community of origin; Illyana doesn’t precisely fit into this mold (she hails from a farm collective in Soviet Russia, so she presumably would have been raised atheist) although she acts in tension with broad American Protestant sensibilities as someone who feels thoroughly ambivalent about her connections with magic and a literal hell dimension.  Other significant characters who do fall into this subset include Kurt Wagner (although his devout Catholicism wasn’t fully developed until later, it complements his origin story as a Bavarian circus acrobat who was saved from a mob of superstitious villagers by Professor Xavier); Rahne Sinclair; and, most recently, Idie Okonkwo.  There are likely other examples that I’m forgetting, but these three come most readily to mind because a core facet of each of their characters is the rejection by their faith community of origin because their powers are viewed as demonic manifestations.  Of these three, the one that I’m most keenly interested in at the moment is Idie.

What I find fascinating about Idie is that she carries several additional markers of marginalization beyond the ones associated with Kurt and Rahne.  Although these two characters have powers that partially present as traditionally monstrous physical features (Kurt’s blue fur, tridactyl hands and feet, and prehensile tail; and Rahne’s ability to shape shift into various mixtures of a human and lupine form) they also are able to assert white eurocentric racial privilege (Kurt may or may not use an image inducer to hide his fur, but he’s never mistaken as anything other than a white German).  Idie originates from a small village in Nigeria where the manifestation of her powers is particularly volatile, causing everyone to flee and a local militia to trap her in her village’s church until she’s rescued by Ororo Munroe and Hope Summers.  On top of the dimensions of mutant identity, fundamentalist faith background, and female gender expression, Idie as a character also contends with the legacy of colonialism in Africa and racism at large.  The sheer number of intersections makes her a fascinating character to explore, but one additional feature that enhances her interest is her relative newness as a character.  The other characters discussed here have publication histories extending back at least to the ’80s, but Idie was created in 2010.  She’s appeared in less than a decade’s worth of stories, but the number of transitions and developments she’s gone through in that time are comparable to other, much more storied characters.

We meet Idie in the middle of her praying for help. (From Uncanny X-Men #528, written by Matt Fraction, pencils by Whilce Portacio, inks by Ed Tadeo, colors by Brian Reber, letters by Joe Caramagna)

From the beginning, Idie’s identity is steeped in her religious upbringing; she takes refuge in her village’s church when her powers manifest where she prays for help from Mary and her patron saint.  Immediately coupled with this core aspect of Idie’s identity is the concept that she’s also been abandoned by it; neither God nor Idie’s community will be sending her help.  Later in the issue when Ororo and Hope arrive, Hope makes a point of trying to disassociate their assistance with any sort of supernatural aid, which makes sense for Hope but likely carries some deep implications for Idie and her faith (especially considering that Hope’s connection with Idie and the rest of the Five Lights during the “Second Coming” era of X-Men was particularly strong with messianic and apostolic overtones; but that’s best explored elsewhere).  Carrying forward from this introduction, Idie develops some severe self loathing with regard to her powers.

Well then. (From Wolverine & The X-Men #1, written by Jason Aaron, pencils & colors by Chris Bachalo, inks by Jaime Mendoza, letters by Rob Steen)

By the time we reach the first issue of Wolverine & The X-Men, Idie has acclimated to life in America, but her opinion regarding herself and her classmates hasn’t improved.  While Logan and Kitty Pryde are busy trying to persuade representatives of the state board of education that their school meets all the requirements for accreditation, Idie explains matter-of-factly to the visitors that all the students at the Jean Grey School are monsters, herself included.  Idie goes on to be a regular character in this series, and her subplot revolves extensively around her exploring various aspects of her identity in some normal and not-so-normal teenage ways (she begins dating Quentin Quire and also gets involved with a pseudo-Christian cult that wants to help her with her spiritual journey “to peace and damnation”).  It’s this series where Idie develops much of the personality that makes her so endearing; in the aftermath of the cult episode (if I remember correctly, they’re connected with the Purifiers, a religious anti-mutant hate group who are frequent antagonists of the X-Men) Idie starts to explore an identity that isn’t bound so closely with her faith community.  In a lot of ways she reflects the experience of people who have been shunned by communities that they didn’t want to exit in the first place.  The resilience and rebuilding of identity that’s not centered solely on a faith resonates.

In the most recent series where Idie’s appeared (that I’ve read; I admit I’m not totally up to date on X-Men books these days), she’s arrived at an equilibrium with regard to her past and her present circumstances.  In All-New X-Men Volume 2, Idie has joined the time displaced young versions of the original five X-Men, Laura Kinney, and Evan Sabah Nur to go road trip around the country doing superhero stuff instead of being bogged down in all the turmoil between the Inhumans and mutants since the release of the Terrigen cloud.  This is an Idie who’s become more comfortable with herself, although she still carries some of the weight of her past (as if it could go any other way).  We see her embracing her fun side much more, developing a strong friendship with young Bobby Drake and helping him meet guys as he begins to explore his sexuality after coming out as gay.  Besides helping her friends though, Idie gets to have her own personal adventures, as relayed in a story about her from All-New X-Men Annual #1: she goes on a date with a boy she meets in a town where the X-Men have stopped to relax, and in the course of their date discovers that he’s a mutant who’s been infected by the Terrigen.  Idie gets to shine as someone with significant confidence and self control as she defends her date from bullies and call in Ororo to help rescue someone else whose powers have gone haywire.  The whole story’s a nice capstone on Idie’s arc since her first appearance.

Idie reflects on her date after everything’s been settled. (From All-New X-Men Annual #1, written by Sina Grace, artwork by Cory Smith, colors by Andres Mossa, letters by Cory Petit)