Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kevin Nowlan's The New Mutants #51... and a Digression Regarding the Previous Issue

I don’t know what’s more surprising—that people sent hate mail to Marvel about Kevin Nowlan’s art for The New Mutants #51… or that Nowlan has apparently kept all of it! Taking a look at the book, I can see some of the issues people had with Nowlan’s work, especially since angry fan David Snyder helpfully included a point-by-point list of all the objectionables, which I’ll reproduce here complete with his unique grammar and spelling:

1) The cover, Cannonball looks like Jughead from Archie.
2) The cover, I didn’t even recognize Magma.
3) Pg 3 panel 4, That does not look like Lilandra
4) Pg 8 panel 3, What happened to Magneto, he looks like a cross between Dick Tracy and Superman.
5) Pg 13 panel 3, Did Mirage gain weight since last issue, she looked a little pudgy?
6) Pg 14, panel 2, What happened to Illyanas lips, they look bloated.
7) Pg 15 panel 1, Come on Professor X would never have an expression like that.
8) Pg 22 panel 3, Has Magneto been sipping into the booze lately?I mean the man has a terrible beer belly.
9) It seems like everybody got a haircut in SPACE since last issue, get real.

I guess people just weren't ready for Nowlan in 1987, despite Marvel putting stylists like Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Leialoha and Rick Leonardi on the book (the Keith Pollard/Dell Barras issue #39 is particularly pretty, by the way). I wonder how much hate mail their issues generated? I wasn't reading The New Mutants at this time, but I wish I had been. Nowlan's cover looks downright Tothian-- that's the adjective form of "Alex Toth"-- and the interior art is a fun mix of solid figurative realism with peculiar little touches, like extra-sharp nostrils and vanishing eyeballs. Dani in particular seems to have obsidian shards in place of eyeballs, but it works.

David Snyder's first bit of criticism, however, couldn't be aimed at Nowlan's work: “Also just about every time I pick up an issue nobody looks the right age.”

I feel certain he was actually expressing his displeasure with the previous issue, with art by Jackson Guice and John Beatty. Their Dani looks a lot like Patti Smith at times. Now, Patti Smith is awesome, don’t get me wrong. She’s someone I definitely idolize and one of our greatest living Americans. But in this story Dani can’t be any older than 18, so there’s no reason for her to resemble Patti Smith at 41. Physically; we—Dani included-- should all try to be more like Patti Smith, if at all possible.

"Because the Night."

Still, that's nothing compared to what happens elsewhere in The New Mutants #50. While the characters' ages is in question, I really hope beyond hope Illyana’s at least 18, because there's a completely gratuitous scene were a talking space ape attempts to sell her at auction after ripping her X-uniform in such a way Lady Gaga would blush (George Lucas circa 1982 applauds appreciatively, though). And when Illyana objects, space-ape zaps her with some kind of ograzmo-ray that gives her an expression of pure sexual bliss while he fondles her half-naked body and decribes how easy it would be to "condition" her. Yikes!

And Claremont is in such a hurry to get to this sequence, he doesn't bother to show us how Illyana got there. All we know is she teleported looking for Professor X.

This is one aspect of Chris Claremont's work that always disturbs me-- you just never know when a story where the New Mutants kids having a slumber party or visiting the mall will suddenly take on BDSM subtext, or even text. For a writer with a reputation for creating strong female characters, Claremont seems to revel in putting them into bondage situations with barely restrained sexual overtones. There's nothing that isn't gratuitious in this scene. Claremont could just as easily have had Illyana being chased, or fighting city guards and in need of Professor X's help. She didn't need to be groveling, her costume didn't need to be torn and the addition of the pleasure ray is just completely bizarre.

Strangely enough, for writer also known for text heavy panels full of character-building dialogue or internal monologues-- and there are some doozies later in this story where the word balloons look like a badly-erected big top collapsing on circus performers-- Claremont completely tosses out everything we know about Illyana up to this point, too. Remember, Illyana is a character who routinely bosses around demons, casts spells, has magic "soul sword and eldritch armor" and has faced down the end of the world as we know it dozens of times without flinching.

He gifts Illyana with an "objecting delightfully, oh so helpless damsel" characterization right out a spicy pulp tale or barbarian fantasy and makes sure she can manage no more than a shrill, ineffective protest. On her hands and knees. But no real fighting back allowed, once-and-future Queen of Limbo. And this is before the slave trader zaps her with the pleasure ray.

At least she's not tied up, I guess.

There are probably a lot of barely-suppressed fetishes and sexual hang-ups inherent in most superhero stories. They are, after all, largely power fantasies involving impossibly idealized physiques in various stages of undress. But here it's like Claremont's suggesting a parallel scenario for the reader where Professor X doesn't show up and Guice's dull but adequate art gives way to Guido Crepax's spectacular decadence. Especially when Xavier points out later how Illyana, under the ray's influence, is "aware of all that is happening. But she doesn't care." More Gor than Story of O.

If anything, Nowlan’s issue is an improvement in every way over #50. His Dani, Xi’an and Illyana look age-appropriate—in fact, they’re downright cute throughout-- and, amazingly, Claremont’s script is, too. No bizarre teen girl bondage scenarios, thank Kirby. In fact, Nowlan's Mutants look so young, I'm not sure the Comics Code would have passed it otherwise. What does Claremont give us instead?


Just good old fashioned cultural stereotyping! Who could possibly object to that? Under stress, Xi'an reverts to French-- apparently because Vietnamese is too hard-- and Dani talks in rodeo metaphors before concluding, "Heck, it's almost fun!" All that's missing is a leprechaun saying, "Aye, lassie, t'be sure, faith an' Begorah!"

PS-- Thanks to the always entertaining Not Blog X for providing the original link, and Kevin Nowlan for saving his hate mail!


Lanz said...

Claremont doesn't write "strong women characters." He writes the same woman character over and over and over and over and over . . .
Oh, and tossing carefully established characterization at the drop of the hat was/is also one of his stock-in-trades. Just grab a year's worth of X-Men or New Mutants or Spider Woman from back in the day and read it straight thru . . . it's an incoherent mess. Claremont is probably one of the most over-rated writers to ever work in comics.

Joel Bryan said...

I canna argue with ye... Oops. Sorry, I was still in character as the Claremont leprechaun.

Joel Bryan said...

I remember reading an interview with John Byrne about that very thing, too-- the inconsistent characterization problem in Claremont's writing. Byrne said Claremont often would "go for the gag" given the opportunity rather than write true for the character which apparently irked Byrne to no end. I'd never seen it used for such a squeamish purpose before now, though.

I've also noticed Claremont's characters tend to all talk in the same basic voice, too. The teens get to say things like "OBOY!" occasionally, but almost everyone adopts the same sort of quasi-regal tone he usually wrote for Storm.

When he wasn't turning her into a child or having her tied up and helpless, that is. Or both.

pyh852003 said...

Illyana being the "damsel in distress" can be argued because in issue's #50, and #51 of NM classic, she lost her Darkchilde persona for the time being. She becomes a different person in personality and sometimes appearance because of the demonic influence inside her if she let's it consume her, which gives her more of a bad-ass edge.