Monday, December 5, 2011

Oh, Dani, don't you ever change!

Which is ironic because she's already changed so often.  At first she could pull images of a person's greatest fear from his or her mind-- and she barely had control of that power-- and later she started manifesting various objects and things, became a Valkyrie, fired some kind of magical arrows, acted as some kind of double or triple agent in the war between humans and mutants, then lost her powers completely.  But to understand Dani Moonstar, you really only have to understand a few simple things.

She's got a temper.  And it's a violent temper.  She's forever threatening to stab people in their craven hearts, or to punch them.  That's when she's not actually punching them.  She does that a lot, too.  For Dani, a day without punching someone is a day without structure.  If you look at her daily planner, it's the first thing she writes for each entry:  Find someone and punch them.  Punch them HARD.  Sometimes she does her punching early in the morning, as a kind of preparatory exercise for all the hard work she has to put in the rest of the day as a non-powered team leader in the X-family.  Sometimes she schedules it as a noon release, a way to blow off a little steam.  Every once in a while, she slots a punching in just before bedtime.  It sends her off to pleasant dreams of flying horses and punching people.

But Dani's not strictly about the punching of punchable people.  She's also compassionate.  Dani cares about the folks she punches.  Whether it's Sam Guthrie and his bruised jaw or Shan and her robot bird-claw leg, Dani tries her best to nurture them.  She doesn't just go at it randomly, either.  She's as systematic about compassion as she is about punching.  Take this guy-- Gus Grim, the cognitive therapist.

  Dani's known him for a long time, and in New Mutants #28, she brings him to Utopia, the ugly and  dehumanizingly high-tech and steel-walled nightmare Marvel forces the X-people to live in, and allows him to rip her teammates apart in the interest of helping them deal with their neuroses and post-traumatic stress disorders.  Because living in an environment that resembles the latest nuclear submarine or a futuristic prison certainly isn't helping.

Another aspect of Dani's personality is her directness. She has a straightforward way of discussing things and she admires that quality in other people, as she tells Grim here.

She's a leader, which is why she might beat someone in the head, but she won't do the same around the bush.  And she's refreshingly free of self-pity.  Of all the superhero character traits, bemoaning one's status is my least favorite.  Nothing turns me off a character faster than a scene where he or she whines about wanting a normal life or just complains in general.  Writers have twisted Dani around so much her character history is the prose equivalent of that balloon animal guts thing Cowboy Gil made at Kevin Buckman's birthday party, but you don't find too many scenes where she mopes about it.  That's for us fans to do.

Dani also loves to talk to animals.  She's kind of like Dr. Dolittle, minus the racism.  I mean the original Dr. Dolittle books, not the Eddie Murphy movie version, which would be minus the CGI mouths and celebrity voice-overs.  From her early days cavorting with mountain lions in the mountains of her Colorado home to her psychic rapport with wolf-girl Rahne to this little supernatural bird-familiar in New Mutants #29, Dani has always had the uncanny ability to empathize and communicate with other species.  She would be a natural at some kind of Animal Planet show where she travels the world curing the PTSD of gorilla babies who have seen their parents poached, or maybe simply helping pet owners cope with difficult companion animals.

Writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are doing a smashing job writing Dani these days.  From the simple story of Grim (who's very Dr. Gregory House-like in his approach to healing) to the involvement of Dani in Marvel's "Fear Itself" crossover, they keep the focus on characterization.  Zeb Wells had a nice take on the team that offered continuity with the past-- I especially enjoyed the scene where he has Dani and Sam argue about whether or not Sam's a good kisser complete with a call-back to Lila Cheney, the intergalactic rock star he dallied with for a while-- but too often he had to force the team into crossovers where the action reduced them to bit players, not even appearing on their own covers.  Abnett and Lanning have a denser, more dialogue-heavy style that works wonders in making the team seem alive to the readers.

I wonder if the renewed focus on characterization has something to do with Axel Alonso as editor-in-chief.  He edited the brilliantly off-kilter X-Force/X-Statix, which for a time was the only Marvel book I read.  Putting Peter Milligan and Mike Allred on that book was an inspired decision and it led to some twisted and satirical but still characterization-oriented issues deconstructing the very idea of an X-book.  The stories didn't lack for comic book violence in the classic Marvel tradition, either.

I was a little irked at Marvel when Abnett and Lanning took the team in an intriguing new direction-- tying up the loose ends of about 30 years of ultra-convoluted storytelling in the X-books-- and then had to abandon that almost immediately in favor of "Fear Itself," but with a character-first approach, the tie-in issues won me over.  And I haven't bothered to read any of the rest of the story.  I just don't care about crossovers!  I never will!

Dave Lafuente's art impresses me, too.  The characters are recognizable, but in a way that's reminiscent of the art experiments from the first New Mutants series.  Not all of those worked.  Bill Sienkiewicz's issues were visually arresting, but some of the later art teams produced a lot of sketchy, scrawly stuff.  Lafuente has a heavily stylized look, with a little Barry Windsor-Smith, a little Paul Smith and a whole lot of Kevin O'Neill in the mix.  It's a pleasure to look at and I hope he gets more work, especially on this book.  They seriously need to find an art team and stick with them for a while to continue to build this title's identity.

Yes, I'm enjoying a superhero book.  A MARVEL X-people superhero book.


Nathaniel said...

"For Dani, a day without punching someone is a day without structure."

I've not had much interest in the X-books beyond a handful of characters, so I've just skimmed over your posts about her in the past, but I think you've just sold me on this character.

Joel Bryan said...

I had to go back an fix some grammar in that post. I need an editor! But...