Saturday, February 21, 2009

Let's Celebrate Xi'an Coy Manh Why Don't We?

Karma. Besides being the thing that snaps back on you when you do bad things and controls the fate of Earl J. Hickey on My Name is Earl, Karma is the codename of that nearly forgotten yet quintessential New Mutant, Xi'an (Shan) Coy Manh. She is older than the other New Mutants, a bit uptight, and with her dumpy bob style, has the group’s third worst haircut… next to Rahne’s pre-Sinead buzzcut and Sam's yokel... er... buzzcut.

Shan's hair was so central to her character concept,
Chris Claremont has the team's ballet teacher Stevie
Hunter spend the first two pages of issue 1 giving her
a haircut and washing her hair while all the other kids
watch and make fun.

I think subconsciously, Claremont must’ve hated Shan. Which is why we must love her.

Along with Dani Moonstar, Shan generally gets the worst of Chris Claremont’s dialogue. But while Dani says exciting and stilted things like, “Oh, Black Eagle, why didn't you tell me?! We could have faced them together! Whoever they are, I will make them pay for your life. I will have vengeance," Shan says dull and yet equally stilted things like, “All this sounds wonderful, Professor, but I have a problem. I must care for my brother and sister. Between my job and your school, I shall have no time left for them.”

Significantly, we never actually see her brother or sister, or anything of Shan's life outside the team. For all we know, her siblings don't even exist and are just an excuse for her to get the hell away from Chris Claremont from time to time.

A typical Dani moment. In his 1980s prime,
Chris Claremont thought 14-year-old Native
American girls talked like this. Well, to be fair,
Claremont thought everyone talked like this...
except hicks and foreigners.

Even in his best stories (and he wrote some dandy ones back in the day), Chris Claremont’s characters are forever making pretentious self-justifying speeches-- or laboriously describing themselves and their recent histories in internal monologues-- that bear little or no relationship to things an actual human being would say in similar circumstances. There's no such thing as a "simple answer" in a Chris Claremont story.

Typical Shan moment. Look at Rahne's reaction. Even she can't believe
Chris Claremont is forcing Shan say all this in one panel. And "There's a
great deal she isn't telling us?" What the hell's left to tell? Well, it later
turns out there's one thing...

The only time they seem to have a voice apart from Claremont’s, or even each other’s, is when they’re from one a’ them funny-talkin’ countries in Europe and Asia. Like Nightcrawler, who speaks standard Claremontese but when startled exclaims things like “Unglaublich!” or “Mein Gott!” and Colossus, who goes around calling people “tovarisch,” and shouting “Lenin’s ghost!” Or Sam, who speaks in Claremont's idea of Southern redneck dialect... er... Appalachian English.

If they actually speak in a language other than English, they get less-than and greater-than signs around their dialogue… which is again in standard Claremontese… and an asterisk leading to a small caption where an editor informs the readers “*Dialogue translated from Japanese.” Saves money on translators and Cyrillic or katakana/kanji typefaces, I guess.

However, in Shan's case, when she speaks Vietnamese, they do away with the word balloons and mathematical symbols altogether and just have her pal Roberto say, "She's speaking Vietnamese-- I can't understand her!" I'm not kidding. That's how Claremont handles it.

Way to spectate Shan!

Almost... almost... come on, Shan! You can do it! She's either going to
possess that guy or pass a canteloupe trying!

Screw it! A machine gun is much more direct and effective than psychic
possession powers.

Or not.

Claremont allows Dani to expound on her Cheyenne heritage and possible vengeance against whitey; she just never does it in the Cheyenne language. Poor Shan appears to have learned English just to discuss her many responsibilities as a surrogate parent or to advocate "caution." With contrasting takes like that, Dani is so obviously the most interesting character, the one with the most personality, she quickly takes over New Mutants and pushes Shan to the side.

Probably because Claremont found Dani fascinating and Shan and her maturity boring, which is exactly how he wrote both of them.

Dani gets a cool subplot where she thinks
she's going crazy and Professor X is trying
to kill her. Shan gets a subplot about misplacing
her car keys.

I always think it’s funny when a writer complains about the boring characters they create. For example, Stan "The Man" Lee always compares Gwen Stacy unfavorably to Mary Jane Watson and apologetically concludes, “We just couldn’t make Gwen Stacy interesting.” Yeah... because that would require writing. But I pick on Mr. "The Man" because that’s the only example of this phenomenon I can come up with now, on the fly, without buying every back issue of Comic Scene magazine or The Comics Journal.

But there's really no objective proof Claremont ever felt this way about Shan; I’m just projecting unfairly because she seems so underserved as a character.

Yeah, Claremont features her prominently in the opening pages of #6,
but by the end of the issue some mysterious voice in her mind tells her,
"I have come to claim you, body and soul!" and she gets blown to hell
when Silver Samurai pushes a button on a festively colored death yacht.

No shit, Charlie! You ARE a psychic!

I like to poke a lot of fun at them, but I seriously believe the first four issues of The New Mutants are carved from a solid block of frozen amazing floated down from the Arctic amazing fields at great personal risk by wildcat amazing miners. Unfortunately, around issues #5 or #6, after the resolution of Dani's psychotic reaction plot, things grind to a halt with bizarre and lame-ass guest stars like Team America taking over the stories.

And, soon enough, what to do with drab ol' Shan-- at 19 she's already a legal adult and therefore not as exciting to undress... er... write about as the other New Mutants-- is solved handily when the secret villain base she's inside blows up real good, James Bond-style. Everyone mourns her for half the next issue before jetting off to Brazil so Dani can wear a sexy carnivale outfit… kind of odd and more than creepy considering her friend has just died a day or two before and Dani herself is maybe 15 at the time.

Her New Mutant friends mourn
Shan's tragic loss.

Then The New Mutants seemed to into a dull holding pattern with mediocre art and uninspiring storylines. I briefly dropped the title, feeling a sad for poor Shan and a little fannishly betrayed. Suddenly, fracturing my mind the way an exploding Mount St. Helens tore apart the earth's crust, Bill Sienkiewicz signed on as artist, reigniting my interest.

Splashing pints of black ink as if he were a brush-wielding Sweeney Todd, Sienkiewicz helps a reinvigorated Claremont send Dani into dreamland to kill a demon bear while Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance. The stories become darker, with plots about black magic, drug abuse and teen runaways, insane kids with multiple personalties and-- in a sudden burst of cross-cultural confusion-- Dani becomes a valkyrie in Asgard because of her mystical, Native American connection to the animal kingdom (all Native Americans have mystical connections to nature, especially wolves and horses and winged faery folk... just ask the fine people at The Bradford Exchange)...

Dammit! Dani’s even taking over this blog entry! Shan! Come back, Shan!

Okay, deep breath and let's get back on chronological track to just before all the valkyrie junk happens...

Through the early Sienkiewicz issues, the voice in Shan's head remains unexplained, a completely fogotten subplot lost in a bubbling magical cauldron of dark Illyana-Dani team-up weirdness until the long-awaited The New Mutants #31, where Shan makes her triumphant return as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:

What a fantastic cover. Interesting color palette, striking symbolism
of the story's plot, a little bit of Gustav Klimt thrown in to increase the
graphic interest... But wow! Isn't that the nastiest, cruelest caricature
possible? Shan looks horrible. She saw this and cried for days. The slanty
eyes and buck-teeth really disturb me. I think you can guess why.

It turns out poor, forgotten Shan has spent the intervening years as the psychic host for this nasty scumbag guy, who apparently used her body for a new lease on life. And to eat. To humiliate, confuse and complicate her even further, and maybe undo the physical damage, her friend Illyana accidentally teleports Shan to some kind of desert where she walks off her weight using the Jared Subway plan of one 6-inch sand lizard sub a day and some light aerobics.

Karma during the phase when her powers consisted solely of writing
Buffyverse Angel/Spike slash fic.

I’m not sure in what issue she had all the loose flesh surgically removed, but at the end of the process it was as if none of it had ever happened. Oh yeah, years later, she comes out as a lesbian, but I haven't actually read that story yet.

Evidently, at one point she suddenly also has pink hair and a devil-may-care attitude. While that might arguably be more interesting than how Claremont wrote her in The New Mutants, it seems pretty arbitrary and contrary to her original personality. Why couldn't they just acknowledge her timid past and write her as a smart, serious, sensible young gay woman... who is also interesting... and leave out the "dork-ass comic writer tries to understand hipster subculture" bullshit? Mainstream comics are never so uncool as when they self-consciously try to be cool.

She remains an underused character, and one undeservedly neglected even in the stories in which she appears. Maybe her new writer, Zeb Wells, will give her a little more of the spotlight she deserves. I don't know, but I hope so. All I know is, Dani's been depowered and Shan hasn't, but beyond that she's elusive and opaque, because info on Shan is difficult to come by.

Xi'an Coy Manh, Karma, as she currently appears pending the arrival
of the new The New Mutants series.

In fact, I probably more than trebled it just by writing this blog entry about her. Wherever you are, and in whatever form you return, Xi'an "Shan" Coy Manh… the forgotten mutant… we salute you!

Now, let's get back to talking about Dani…


Todd Brown said...

Hey Joel, Would it be possible for me to get your email address? I'm moving to Hamamatsu in April and had a few questions I would like to ask if its ok. Or if you don't want to post it here could you mail me at

Thanks! -Todd

Joel Bryan said...

Hey Todd- No problem! I'll email you. Ask me anything and I'll try my best to answer! I think you'll dig living in Hamamatsu.

D Shannon said...

I thought her best appearance was her first one, in Marvel Team Up, when she was centre stage and had nuances to her character and mysteries about her power (like when she somehow and inexplicably absorbed her criminal brother's body and mind - was that ever explained?
She was lost among the immature New Mutants, and the various writers fell back on the Golden Rule: when you have a character you don't know how to handle, put them through Hell...

Joel Bryan said...

D- I've never read Shan's very first appearance. I really need to find that! She did seem to get lost in the shuffle, didn't she?