Saturday, June 21, 2008

"New Mutants Classic Volume Three:" A Comic Review!

New Mutants Classic Volume 3
Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: Bill Sienkiewicz, Bob McLeod, Tom Palmer

Danielle Moonstar picks up her bow and arrows, daubs warpaint on her face and sets out in the snow on a ritualistic hunt for the demon bear that killed her parents. Cheyenne or not, what chance does a teenaged girl have against a 10-foot ursine spirit made of pure evil?

That she spends the next couple of issues in surgery answers that question. Meanwhile, her pals in the New Mutants use every weapon at their disposal to protect her and defeat ol’ Mr. Bear. Mr. Bear… he’s not tryin’ to hurt anyone. He’s just hungry. Pickin’s have been slim up there on Bear Mountain and with the comin’ of winter, the big bear’s gotta move down into the city to forage for…

Sometimes my past life as a folksy nature film narrator intrudes on the present. But you don’t need me to tell you that the worst kind of bear is the demon bear. As human developments (golf courses, shopping malls) encroach more and more on demon bear ranges, these types of encounters will become more frequent and soon we’ll all be painting our faces and taking vision quests to extradimensional virgin Americas, “untouched by the white invaders from across the sea.”

In its day, “The Demon Bear Saga” (as its friends call it) represented a sort of New Mutants renaissance. After a year’s worth of dull artwork, guest appearances by non-starters Team America and disengaged storytelling on Chris Claremont’s part, suddenly The New Mutants was a book worth reading again. The bear itself is a novel villain, inspired no doubt by Claremont’s habitual late-night whippet binges and repeated viewings of Betamax tapes of the 1979 environmental horror flick, Prophecy. Thanks to pollution, in the future all bears will come in hairless, demonic form to attack Talia Shire. Also, Frankenstein girls will seem strangely sexy, but that’s not relevant to Dani Moonstar’s story.

Libelous statements aside, it seems what must have really stoked Claremont’s creative fires was the chance to work with Bill Sienkiewicz, an artist of the Neal Adams school who suddenly decided to add a lot of Ralph Steadman inky splatters, scribbles and cross-hatching to his work and came up with an expressionistic style perfectly suited to Chris Claremont’s Native American fantasia. And with characters like IllyanaMagik” Rasputin on the team, the Sienkiewicz art- heavy on shadows- is the perfect fit.

Sienkiwicz' moody art prevents a total twee breakdown, particularly in the story where a horde of giddy teenybopper girls descend on the mansion to giggle over Tom Selleck (Selleck-obsession was a running sub-theme throughout the series), John Travolta and Michael Jackson, who’s breathlessly declared “the absolute living end, a dreamboat of a hunk and the crown prince of rock’n’roll” by some minor character named Diana who appears to have been modeled on a photograph of someone both Claremont and Sienkiewicz knew. Wrong, kid. He was the “King of Pop.” But that was before the… er… you know.

Actually, I have a theory most of the party guests are based on real people, at least the nice ones. Because there are some suspicious bitchy girls in the mix who don’t get static portrait shots that look like they were drawn from Polaroids.

This story once again proves Claremont's X-people- even the kids- are certainly fond of emotional exposition. A Claremont character never had a feeling he or she couldn’t express either in thought or conversation. What creates dissonance is the reliance on comic book-speak rather than naturalistic dialogue, especially when the character is a non-native English speaker. Bobby DaCosta, I'm looking at you! The hotheaded, charming, womanizing, add-other-cliche-of the-Latin-lover Bobby uses overly ornate language to underscore his foreignness. Maybe that's better than the painful Claremont attempts at dialect whenever Sam or Rahne join the conversations. Och, yui poor wee bairns!

Then again, maybe teachers at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters stock every thesaurus ever printed and emphasize prep for the SAT verbal section. But it strikes me as odd that a teenaged girl raised on a reservation would say something like, “I’d prefer being out of this chair as well. That music’s infectious—I want to boogie,” while her friend, a Russian who spent half her life in a magical limbo schooled by an evil sorcerer would reply, “Give it time, Chief—you’re lucky to simply be alive. You’ve been through too much—fought too darn hard—to muck things up now” and then suddenly gush about “cowboys and buffalo and stuff like that.”

Claremont’s clumsy attempts at capturing 80s youth culture aside, he ably intersperses the makeovers and secondary characters on loan from Judy Blume with the New Mutants’ tense battle with Warlock, a biomechanical space entity making his comics debut. During this era, New Mutants' cast rapidly expanded. In the previous issues we met Amara, the Nova Roman pyrokene, Illyana and now, Warlock. Finally, Doug Ramsey, erstwhile Kitty Pryde love interest, learns his pals are freaky-ass superheroes and joins the team. Doug Ramsey, whose mutant power is… he understands languages.

Believe it or not, Doug's communicative facility comes in handy, because he quickly uses it under dire circumstances in the title's first annual, a would-be sci-fi rock epic in the mold of other would-be sci-fi rock epics, such as Streets of Fire and Rock’n’Rule. Sci-fi and rock are two elements that should never be mixed outside of the highly-controlled experimental laboratory of early Love & Rockets issues or perhaps the camp overkill that was and still is the Queen-infused Flash Gordon flick. "The Cosmic Cannonball Caper" (the cover copy calls it "Steal This Planet," a nod to Abbie Hoffman that makes for a much cooler title but was a couple of rock eras out of date even in the mid-1980s) is no exception, despite the potential inherent in its concept- a space rocker attempts to teleport the earth in order to sell it and everyone on it to a villainous scumbag from another world. Sam Guthrie, the gawky self-doubting Mutant, falls for Lila Cheney, Claremont’s idea of a punk rock goddess… imagine Patti Smith combined with Pat Benatar with an overlay of Olivia Newton-John from Xanadu.

New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod returns for this annual, but it’s a disappointing reunion. He provides some rushed-looking art with generic settings, strangely empty crowd scenes and the story never fully gels. The space vistas seem lifeless, even Lila’s Dyson Sphere home and Warlock’s ability to become a spaceship in order to save his new pals when Dani Moonstar’s poorly-planned attempt at bridging space and time leaves them gasping for air in the interstellar void.

In the second half of the book, Claremont’s increasingly intricate storytelling leads to our teen heroes practically disappearing in their own title. Storylines from the other X-titles intrude, so we end up spending part of each chapter with Magneto on his Lovecraftian island hideaway. In "The Shadow Within," there's an introductory sequence starring X-Men Colossus and Nightcrawler before we even get to the meat of the narrative where Rahne tries to work out her crush on the oblivious Sam via another recurring Claremont fixation: teens telling goopy fantasy tales with equal parts Cinderella and Robert E. Howard.

Didn’t Kitty already do this in Uncanny X-Men? Some bright person out there tell me- did Jubilee also do this a few years later? Or did teens in the mid-80s indulge in Disneyesque fantasy lives all the time and I was too busy listening to Tom Petty and REM to notice?

This time out, Claremont pushes things into a darker realm, with Sienkiewicz' art transforming from Sleeping Beauty saccharine to Ralph Bakshi seediness to mirror Rahne's increasingly troubled mental state. But the story itself primarily involves Colossus, Professor X, Illyana and teen duo Cloak and Dagger, with the other New Mutants serving almost as supporting characters.

One thing this book proves is you can count on Chris Claremont for subplots galore (also hints of Moonstar nakedness… at one point Sam catches her changing clothes in this volume!). Looking back, this must be one of the reasons we loved this stuff so much- Claremont proves himself a master of introducing new story elements, letting them bubble on behind the main narrative, then explode into two or three issues packed with enough action and text for any 6 lesser comics. If Sunspot mopes about his damaged relationship with his dad, you can be sure Pop Sunspot will show up a few issues down the line with his Hellfire Club (a secret group of would-be world dominators who have it in for the New Mutants) compatriots to cause all sorts of colorful comic book mayhem.

It’s just too bad for Dani Moonstar her little bear tale proves to be her high water mark as the series’ de facto lead and she's generally squeezed out by all the new characters and guest stars in its aftermath. Busy with physical therapy, I suppose. Still, this is Claremont doing some of his best work, tossing out compelling characterizations and situations, ripping through in 2 or 3 issues what writers today can’t seem to do in 12. And with Sienkiewicz splattering ink all over the place, these are some of the most artistically distinctive 80s era stories and easily the most visually interesting of the three New Mutants Classic collections.

Certainly the most essential. But... more Moonstar, please!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Boy, Does the LA Times Ever Have It Wrong!

I just got Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 2 and on the back is a blurb from the LA Times:

"The work presented here shows why Kirby, who died in 1994, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Will Eisner, say, or Alan Moore and Frank Miller."

Wrong-O! What they obviously meant is:

"Alan Moore and Frank Miller deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby."

You compare the offspring to the parent, baby, not the other way around. It's Kirby, Kirby, KIRBY, then Kirby. With Jack Kirby.

Also, thank the New Gods this volume has Funky Flashman in it. Funky Flashman! Hot damn, I love that story. The angry, bitter lampooning of Stan Lee (who I still like, so don't send any letter bombs my way, True Believers) and the totally unfair swipe at Roy Thomas are hilarious. Here's how Kirby describes him in a "next issue" blurb:

You know him!! I know him!! Everbody gets to know -a "Funky Flashman" The question is --- "Do we need him?" This can become a desperate issue - if a "Funky Flashman" can decide your fate!!! Watch Mister Miracle get taken!!! --- By the con's con-man!! - The Funkiest Agent of them All!!!

We do all get to know a Funky Flashman at some point or other. In some cases, several. What's your worldview? Do Funkys outnumber Kirbys or are you optimistic enough to believe it's the other way around? Find your Kirby wherever you may and love and protect him or her as best you can. That's what Scott Free would do. I'm no pessimist but I have a feeling we're all more Funky inside than Scott Free. That's why we have to cherish our Kirbys all the more.

Oh yeah, Funky Flashman, the conclusion to the infamous Don Rickles/Goody Rickels story, the first appearance of Big Barda and the awesome epic "The Glory Boat," all in one hefty, hardcover volume that's infinitely more fun and more creative than all the monthlies DC has put out in the past 15 years or so... combined! Is this the greatest archival hardcover ever released?

If not, I'd love to know what is!