Thursday, December 16, 2010

New Mutants #18: A Review!

New Mutants #18
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Script: Zeb Wells
Art: Leonard Kirk
Colors: Guru eFX

As history has shown us, Dani Moonstar and Xi’an Coy Manh are my two most beloved comic characters. It was hard not to love Dani—writer Chris Claremont let her take over as her book's de facto lead character and many of their adventures were told largely from her point of view, at least until Claremont’s pet character Magik (she appears to have touched on many of the underlying BDSM elements in his writing more effectively than Dani ever could) joined and supplanted her.

Why did I like Xi'an? Because if ever a character needed reader support, it was her.
Poor Xi’an barely got a chance to do much of anything beyond being kind of awkwardly formal before Claremont blew her up in a castle. The kids mourned her for about half the next issue and then it was Carnival time in Rio. Sic transit Xi'an. it wasn’t until she returned to the book years later that I really began to appreciate her thoughtful, nurturing nature and the hidden coil of steel inside.

When Marvel announced they were bringing back the original team for a regular ongoing, it was like a nostalgia fan’s dream-come-true. Writer Zeb Wells showed a deft touch with the characterization early on—his New Mutants are older, somewhat wiser but still with recognizable personalities. Dani is still tempestuously angry, Sam is still a nice guy to a fault, Xi’an is still responsible and caring… but with a few darker elements to round out her personality. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where a monthly comic stands on its on, and all too often the team’s story got lost in X-Book crossovers, some of which resulted in the main characters being reduced to mere cameos in their own book. For shame, Marvel.

Now Wells and artist Leonard Kirk are telling their own self-contained epic, its name a callback to a “classic” storyline from my wilderness years when I abandoned superhero comics for novels and short stories. I have no idea how the new story relates to the old, but I do know the re-cap on the first page sets a new record for the use of the word “Limbo.” This is apparently where some evil (is there ever any other kind in comics?) United States scientific/military organization has turned kid mutants into scarred, tattooed killers and it seems to be at least partially the New Mutants’ fault. Kirk goes nuts with the double-page spreads while our heroes fight these post-Goth freaks—one doesn’t have a face, just what appears to be a large stoplight in its place and another is covered with disgusting red scabs; so much so, his name actually is Scab.

Wells and Kirkman manage to keep readers on track even with all those modern storytelling quirks like flashbacks that jumpcut to present time (when I was a child, comics usually relied on funny-bordered panels to do this) and the endless fighting. Punch, kick, stab, blast. Almost the entire book is one big fight scene in some kind of hell world reminiscent of some of the weaker Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.

You know, when that dork Riley Finn was hanging around and the main villain was a Frankenstein’s monster made from dead soldiers, demons and robot parts, but the even mainer villain was something called “The Initiative,” which functioned similarly to Wells’s “Project Purgatory.” In short, I hate stories about military guys mixing it up with demons and other such nonsense. Didn’t do much for me on Buffy, doesn’t impress me here.

Mainly because it's so damned ugly. Not Kirk's art; it's rock solid. The setting. The mood. While I’m sure if there’s a hell, it would also be ugly but that doesn’t mean I particularly want to spend any time there with a bunch of stock mad scientists and stalwart military men doing the ol’ “the end justifies the means” routine. Especially when it also involves specifically trying to push my gross-out buttons with scenes of surgical mutilation and lunatic doctors covered with gore.

But what does impress is how-- despite the reliance on wall-to-wall mayhem and self-consciously edgy story elements-- Wells manages to keep up his strong characterization. Especially of Dani.

There’s a moment where Dani’s tough-chick fa├žade threatens to give way and it’s a startlingly real reaction for someone trapped in such a hellish scenario. It's a well-observed moment that finds the secret cause of Dani's hard-ass stance, and shows Wells knows his cast inside and out (I just don't want to see their insides quite so often)-- it's one that hearkens back to the first few issues of the original series. Wells's choice adds layers to an already enjoyable character.

That’s the kind of stuff that made me read the original New Mutants despite its frequent descent into silliness and/or barely-concealed sexual fetishism and keeps me reading the new version even with all the blood and guts and plot encroachment from other books.

As for Xi’an? She doesn’t get to do much here. And in a universe where Professor X can receive a brand-new clone body and completely human-looking androids and cyborgs frequent their local Starbucks, just what in the hell kind of justification is there to stick Xi’an with some kind of Robocop-inspired bird claw thingy for a leg? Either design her something that doesn't look like it weighs 500 pounds or get that woman some bionics… STAT!

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