Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Mutants #11: A Comic Review!

New Mutants 11
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Art: Niko Henrichon

I’m going to spend this review gushing fannishly about how the writers have been handling Dani Moonstar in the current New Mutants ongoing. Zeb Well's characterizations of all the characters were mostly wonderful, especially in scenes spotlighting my favorite New Mutants Dani, Xi’an and Sam. And now here's Kieron Gillen taking on Dani as a Valkyrie.

Let's be honest: I love Dani. I hate Dani as a Valkyrie.

Not only that, this comic also features something else I can't abide-- it's apparently part of a massive meta-arc. I live in Japan, so I can only buy comics irregularly, and even if I had access to every issue each month, I'd still avoid these humongous crossovers and storylines that expect you to buy ten or more different titles to get the complete plot. Fortunately, all I need is Marvel's inside-front cover blurb to fill me in on the story's context and I'm good to go. The kids are in Las Vegas and there's something going on in Asgard, but Asgard is in Oklahoma. Play on!

Hey, I've been to Oklahoma. It's hot and humid in the summer and frigid in the winter. The Arkansas River might have had water in it at some point, but evidently realized it was flowing through Oklahoma and committed suicide at the Colorado border. All I saw of this so-called river was a wide mud flat below giant flaming smokestacks that turned into a Blade Runner hellscape at night. The air reverberated with the sound of Oral Roberts's Bible being slammed shut repeatedly by the "Praying Hands" sculpture at his university. I took a Greyhound bus the hell out of there through a lot of rolling farmland and brick ranch-style houses with oil pumps in their backyards instead of swimming pools. No mystical Viking cities, though. I might have hung out longer had there been.

Enough digression. With Dani, it's never been about her mutant abilities; ditching them has only made her more compelling. There’s just something interesting about a character with anger issues tempered by compassion, a natural-born contrarian who somehow finds within herself a capacity to lead. She's definitely the kind of person who'd join a mutant liberation front and just as abruptly quit it; you can imagine her doing so because she believes it's the right thing to do, even without the double-agent justification.

However, out of all the Dani-alterations over the years, I’ve long thought making her into a Valkyrie was the least necessary. So, yes, I approached this issue with some trepidation. Valkyrie Dani in Oklahoma, in the midst of a multi-book storyline. Yikes! In fact, so prejudiced am I against the whole notion of flying horses and Dani doing sword-and-sorcery, I came at it moaning and preparing all kinds of mean-spirited smart-assery. If you think I'm tough on Oklahoma, wait until you get a load of me bitching about stupid Asgardian, Ren Faire, mead-drinking...

Anyway, in some comic I haven’t and won’t read, Cyclops needs more muscle on his team to deal with Ares, and being the master field commander he is and willing to make hard decisions, pulls out his New Mutants back issues, finds the Asgard storyline and says, “Hey! Let’s use Dani and her magical flying horse!” So he gets her to forge a magical contract with Hela of Hel. Not a nice person to deal with. Also, apparently, Cyclops is the kind of guy who invites friends out to dinner at fancy restaurants, orders the big ticket items on the menu and the fine after-dinner cigars, then tells everyone he must have left his wallet in his other costume. This time, it's our girl Dani who's stuck with the bill.

The perverse logic of Hela's magic-- and I don't think I've ever read a story where a writer so cleverly explains the drawbacks of magical contracts-- forces Dani to become a biker chick version of Frank Frazetta’s "Death Dealer" and off she goes to screw things up by following her heart instead of her head, in classic Dani style. Gillen makes her internal conflict palpable throughout, from her griping and attempting to argue her way out of the ordeal to the point she breathlessly admits to her... sigh... flying horse that she's missed being a Valkyrie—the power is a rush and try as she might, she can’t deny it. Instead of making me hate the whole thing, Gillen has Dani do it for me and when she finally finds herself uneasily enjoying it...

I was doing the same. Actually enjoying a Dani-Valkyrie story despite my self-programming. Only Gillen makes it easy for me to cop to a sea change in attitude.

Simply because Gillen presents fast-paced, action-heavy story spotlighting a recognizable Dani Moonstar throughout. She absolutely doesn't want to go through with this, but does it because that's the deal she's made. That's exactly the kind of thing Dani would do; her conscience demands it of her. Eventually caught up in her Asgardian persona, she lets fly with some Bruce Campbell-style badassery. And, being Dani, immediately deflates herself with a self-conscious aside. Everything occurs as the result of her choices, and her choices proceed from a Dani consistent with the one we've known for years. She's still the willful, sometimes pigheaded idealist.

And this is how you wring drama and conflict from a character—even one with so many conflicting concepts foisted upon her by other writers-- without deconstructing her in such a way as to alienate the fans. Gillen's a skilled writer who approaches his protagonists with respect, takes something as counter-intuitive as Dani-the-Valkyrie and turns it into something entertaining and heart-wrenching. And it's so seamlessly integrated with regular writer Zeb Wells's take on Dani, I had no idea Marvel had switched scripters on me until after I read the book and went back to check the credit line so I could write this review.

Another thing I've enjoyed about the current New Mutants series is how the editorial team takes some chances with the artist choices. Yes, Diogenes Neves turns in solid work in a fairly slick modern vein, lots of cross-hatching and widescreen panel layouts; it's attractive enough superhero work, very now. But editor Nick Lowe seems to like mixing things up with sports like Zachary Baldus in issue five and now Niko Henrichon's mangaesque work. This might seem like a strange choice for a foray into Tolkein fantasy-land, but by the time Dani's talking to ghosts and fighting teeth-monsters, Henrichon's created a very striking visual tableau, a little like Kojima Goseki meets Cary Nord on a Hyborian battlefield. He helps Gillen make even the nasty Hela a sympathetic figure by giving her appropriately pouty facial expressions at the proper times. John Kricfalusi likes to talk about "acting" in animated shorts; this concept holds true with static comic book art as well, and poorly-chosen facial expressions can wreck a writer's intent.

I'd like to see them push further in this direction. Keep Neves but also fill-in some stange, new talent with outlandish approaches to sequential art.

What I don't understand is why they'd go to the trouble of getting someone like Terry Dodson to draw the cover, then chop it in half for some kind of cityscape graphic and some duller-than-dull sans serif typeface. Dodson is an ace renderer, although he gives Dani the standard Dodson face and goddess body-- all lean muscle and giant boobs, approximately 6 and 1/2 feet tall; quite unlike the slender girl found inside the book. But hey, I've never been a Valkyrie. Maybe physical idealization is part of the magic.

But that's not the problem. The problem is when you have Dodson on cover duties and the image is a mighty warrior queen in a winged helmet, a M-60 machine gun set to rock-n-roll in her hand-- why crop it in half? Such a waste. Go for the epic, dammit! This could have been a poster. It demands a full-on leap into Boris Vallejo insanity, but instead we get a kind of half-assed Saul Bass.

You know, if Dani stays a Valkyrie, I'm strangely okay with that after reading Gillen's tasty version. Just so long as she stays Dani. Oh... and isn't it amusing how Dani is still elbowing her co-stars out of the center stage, just as she did back in the days when Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod were handling the stories?

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