Friday, February 20, 2009

And Then Dani Went All Weird On Us...

With the new... The New Mutants series forthcoming and a pre-order in with Amazon Japan for The New Mutants Classic volume four, I'm on sort of a Dani Moonstar kick again these days. The New Mutants was one awesome-ass series in its day, and it's still a fun read now, twenty-five or so years later. Dani was my favorite mutant then, and she remains so to this day. But now I want to broach a serious... perhaps even delicate... topic relating to her.

Why the hell did they keep changing her powers?

Take the events in The New Mutants Annual #4, for example. I'm not ready to blame writer Louise Simonson. Chris Claremont had already added a layer of ridiculous to Dani Moonstar, our Favorite Mutant, by pointlessly turning her into a valkyrie in The New Mutants Special Edition #1. This left Dani able to see a "death glow" above those in mortal peril and gave her as a pet Brightwind, a winged white stallion with a mohawk. Quite a bizarre turn of events for a Native American teen from a Colorado reservation, a kind of cross-cultural fusion that fizzled.

And the X-editorial group still wasn't satisfied. Because as a result of the so-called "Evolutionary War," Dani's powers take an even stranger turn. And it starts with a cover pulling the "ol' bait and switch." Or, as Waylon Jennings might have said while narrating an episode of the Dukes of Hazard, a little "shuckin' n' jivin'."

Purple rain... purple rain... I just wanna see Amara screaming in the purple rain...

Well, the cover copy is correct: a New Mutant is changed forever. But it's not Amara. Her appearance is just a clever deception. So sneaky! But this cover is ugly. Ugly! It's so unbearably purple I'm looking around for a little bald kid with a crayon. And if he didn't do the colors, who did? Prince? Yellow, red and various shades of lavender and purple, and some kind of green dentist tool dangling there in the middle. Prince after eating about five pounds of habanero-laced guacamole.

June Brigman is generally a fine artist. But here? This cover is kind of slick, the open spaces and lack of contrast make her figures look weirdly hollow and the poses aren't very dynamic. But the real problem is the design team didn't do her any favors by weighing it down with that massive title and text block above. How could any self-respecting artist pull off any kind of interesting composition when space is so cramped and badly cropped?

This is Marvel's late 80's look at its worst. Brigman's interior art, inked by New Mutants artist emeritus Bob McLeod, is much better. There she gets to showcase a deft touch with body language, facial expressions, and youthful characters. She and McLeod are the perfect art team for a New Mutants story.

The story inside is fairly standard, a mix of characterization and fight scenes. And people with dumb names like "Purge," foreshadowing some of the worst Image character codenames. But then what of Marvel in the '80s-- specifically the X-books-- didn't prefigure Image in the '90s?

Louise Simonson gives us reams of dialogue and a plethora of cutesy teen character business in the Chris Claremont style, and it's pretty decent stuff for its time. She was following the Great X-Creator, after all. Her dialogue is still overly awkward and largely expository ("In truth, I am more sickened by these humans' persecution than I am the hazardous waste which surrounds our domicile" and the examples in the illustrations I chose for this blog), but no more so than usual during its era, and not nearly as stilted or pretentiously poesy as Claremont's got on this title.

But lord, Simonson foreshadows like nobody's business.

As the story opens, there's some comedic relief where Dani's powers cause Sam to crashland while he's cannonballing around, and then the other kids interrupt, setting up this Magneto lecture:

Poor Dani. Magneto is pretty harsh with her here. While the art's "press box" composition looks a bit ridiculous (just how short are Magneto's legs anyway?), and there's a bad tangent where the upper panel border meets Dani's hair, Brigman puts the girl front and center where we can see and feel every bit of the awkwardness as Magneto calls her weak and worthless in front of her friends, followed by Warlock's innocently dismissive, "Bye..." making Dani's teen years just a little more traumatic.

But what's really happening with this sequence is Simonson giving us our first story clue after the cover's misdirection ploy. At this point, you still think something really terrible's going to happen to Amara. The kids discuss her repeatedly, worry about her plight (her dad's got her back in Nova Roma, the archaic Roman civilization hidden away in the Andes, where he's betrothed her to someone politically advantageous and she's in love with a guy may or may not have brainwashed her), and soon the scene shifts to Nova Roma itself where Amara's causing earthquakes and shooting lava in her anger.

And sure enough, some generic-looking armored assholes kidnap Amara. They're part of a plot to strip her and all mutankind of their powers. One mutant at a time. Evidently, their boss, the High Evolutionary (the purple armored geek on the cover), has some sort of schedule and if you're not on it, you just have to wait your turn. When the baddies snatch Amara, they leave her boyfriend Empath... because he's not on the list. With the way mutants were proliferating on Marvel-Earth in those days, going about their plan this way seems akin to trying to sweep the waves back into the sea with a pushbroom.

And isn't it comically easy to kidnap or disable the New Mutants? This is like the fouth annual in a row where one or more of them has been captured or held prisoner. That's a The New Mutants formula- they're easily defeated in the story's opening, then overcome all odds as a team in its conclusion. Kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon where the Globetrotters invariably lose in the first half, then score 100 points in the second to win.

No matter. The target is Amara, not Empath. Only it's Dani, during the rescue mission, who ends up falling onto the "power removal machine" (as it's actually called). I'm no geneticist, but it seems unlikely anyone could develop a machine to remove characteristics imparted to you by your DNA. At least not with this kind of lightshow:

It seems like extracting DNA-based powers would involve radically rewriting a person on practically a molecular level. It's like trying to change your height or remove your Dutch heritage. The short explanation is-- it's magic! Mutant powers are a kind of magical energy mutants possess, and that energy can be drained by other forms of magic. Science content of this annual? Zero!

Some plug-ugly muscle guy named Bulk breathes his last turning the power-removal lever back to the opposite setting. How convenient. You make a machine to remove mutant powers that also has a setting to amplify them. Dani comes forth with her former image-projecting abilities enhanced to the point where she can make those images solid and "real." But she can only make one thing at a time. Make another wish and the first object disappears. The best she can come up with on short notice is a spear she calls her "spirit lance.

Since the spirit lance is the embodiment of her power, she feels she has to tote it around everywhere on the off chance she'll need to fight evil or protect herself. This leads to a scene where she's bummed because it'll be a hassle dragging it to parties. And to clear her mind and forget her troubles, she hops on her living My Little Pony from Asgard and takes a flight in a lovely splash image:

The big red block letters frighteningly conflict with the otherwise dreamy atmosphere, but the soft sunrise (or sunset) and the bold sweep of Brightwind's wings, plus Dani's beatific expression give this image a lot of soul. A little adjustment and this might've made a better cover than that purple monstrosity I've already abused. While frolicking across a sky of pastel pinks and golds, Brightwind spots an available female horse and bucks Dani off, causing her to fall 1000 feet and... No more to use the sky forever but live with famine/And pain a few days...

Actually, she only sprains her ankle; Dani has supple bones. Not knowing where Brightwind is, and needing a way back to the X-Mansion, she changes her spirit lance into a sweet sportscar:

It would've been much cooler and more appropriate to the series if this car had been an exact replica of Thomas Magnum's Ferrari 308 GTS. Dani hops into the driver's seat and goes tear-assing down the road, and a cop pulls her over. Since she's out in the countryside, the cop is a stereotypical smokey-bear hatted oaf. Unfortunately, Dani doesn't have a driver's license. Wait! With her new powers, that's no problem. She can just summon one out of thin air:

Oops! Now the cop (I think it's Sheriff J.W. Pepper, on loan from the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die) believes Dani's an alien and drags her to his patrol car. And then salvation arrives in the form of Brightwind the Horny Horse, back from making sweet sweet love to his lady friend. As if disappearing sports cars weren't enough to send him reeling, the sight of a winged horse causes the cop to freak out. Dani escapes into the sky once again:

And the driver's license incident has taught her that she doesn't need to carry around a giant spear. She can wear a cute little one around her neck. I'm not sure if all of this spear/lance/winged horse stuff is some sort of phallic/sexual metaphor. Actually, I am sure and I'm preparing a ten thousand word blog entry analyzing it, for which this is merely a preview.

As we fade out, big daddy Magneto finally has some kind words for worthless, useless, not very helpful Dani-- he likes her new necklace:


And exactly what we want most is more Dani Moonstar! And I think we're gonna get it!


D Shannon said...

It became clear that by keeping a magical Indian Valkyrie with a flying horse around in a group calling themselves the New Mutants, they were obviously desperate to fill their minority quotas...

Joel Bryan said...

If only Dani were also Dutch... Someone really ought to create a character combining as many comic book ethnic stereotypes and shallow cultural tropes as possible.

A Russian Japanese Scottish German Native American cossack samurai bagpipe playing beer brewing sausage-eater who's really in touch with the natural world. And then have him or her become a valkyrie or a pirate. The dialogue alone would be enough to brain-damage the readers before they even finish the splash page!

D Shannon said...

I could see it now: EMO (Ivan Saburo McKlaus Running Bear), American mutant, child to Cossack hippies and possessor of the spirit of an extradimensional Viking pirate, possesses the ability to create angst-ridden expositional speech bubbles large enough to incapacitate anyone else in the panel...

Joel Bryan said...

Absolute genius!