Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dani Moonstar, the Early Years 4! The UnBEARable Lightness of Being Dani

Then came the Second Golden Age of the Dani Moonstar.  And yet it was a dark age, as well.  With the addition of Bill Sienkiewicz on art-- a guy who combined Neal Adams and Ralph Steadman in almost equal measures-- The New Mutants became one of Marvel's most visually distinctive books.  Chris Claremont's writing took a great leap forward stylistically as well, the language becoming ornate and the plots ever more complex, with characterizations to match.  Finally, Dani Moonstar would have a story worthy of her, albeit one where she'd spend a good portion of it in a coma while her new friend Magik did the heavy lifting.

It kicks off in The New Mutants #18 (August 1984) with a painted Sienkiewicz cover that wastes no time announcing the book is something special.  Not the one you've been used to and slightly disappointed by for the last six months or so.  The Sienkiewicz Dani gazes intently at the reader, with a face recognizable as the Bob McLeod character, but now with thin-lipped determination and more culture-specific accessorizing (the forehead X is especially clever).  Behind her, however, the fangs of discord.  Danger in the snow.  Sienkiewicz brings a painterly approach with a strong design sense as well.

If you'll remember, way back in the first issue, Dani told Rahne a little bit about herself and the story of how her parents vanished while possibly fighting a mystical bear.  It was one of Dani's earliest moves towards becoming the book's standout character.  Then, in the third issue, we got to see the bear itself.  Kind of.  It was more than likely a mind-game the Brood-infected Professor X was playing on Dani, drawing out her worst fears.  Then the book went off on a Team America-Romans-living-in-South-America-Magik tangent and no one mentioned Dani's magic bear for a while.

Well, readers might have forgotten the exact details, but rest assured, Claremont did not.  A master of the slowly developing subplot, Claremont returned to this little biographical tidbit and spun it into a unique tale as psychological as it was action-packed, a genre-stretcher that took the kids out of their cozy heroic adventure home and tossed them into the deep, dark woods we like to call horror.  If this had been a DC book and Vertigo had existed in 1984, "The Demon Bear Saga" with its dripping blood and ever-shifting dreamscapes would have been a perfect fit.  And Seinkeiwicz, who must have bought india ink by the tanker truck-full, was just the guy to illustrate it.

Why a bear?  What am I, a cultural anthropologist?  What little I know about Native American culture comes from a single university folklore class, reading a few histories and novels like Tom Berger's novel Little Big Man and the essay  They Have Not Spoken:  American Indians in Films by Dan Georgakas.  In short, I know just enough to make an ass of myself.  To make matters worse, I'm going to rely on the Internet.  Apparently, bears are very powerful animals.  Magically powerful.  There's a wonderful story in which a great bear chased some girls (perhaps Lakota, not Cheyenne, but many tribes tell variants of this one), who took refuge on a rock.  They prayed that the rock would grow and save them from the bear.  It did and they took to the sky as the Pleiades (also known in Greek myth as the "Seven Sisters").  The bear in its hunger and rage clawed the sides of the rock, leaving it scarred.  Today we know this rock as the Devils Tower, Wyoming.

The point is, bears figure in a lot of myths and stories, so a bear makes an excellent choice for Dani's spirit antagonist.

One aspect of Marvel's mutant books is how mutant powers and the reactions of those manifesting them and by society at large as a response to these powers can be read as an allegory on race, gender, sexuality, or any kind of "othering."  The sexuality reading has ascendancy these days, especially in light of its treatment in the X-Men films, where Iceman's parents ask him if he's tried not being a mutant (X2: X-Men United, 2003)  and where Mystique anachronistically tells Beast to be "mutant and proud" in 1962 (X-Men: First Class, 2011).  The scene where Beast has his mutant status inadvertently revealed is especially evocative of an outing.  Reinforcing this is the trope within the comics themselves that mutant powers typically manifest at puberty.

Appropriately, “The Demon Bear Saga” is a story rife with sexual symbolism, no doubt resulting from a happy synergy between Claremont, operating at the utmost of his considerable skills as a writer and an insightful artist in Sienkeiwicz, one open to expanding the literary vocabulary of superhero comics through experimental techniques.  In the opening splash page, Dani cowers in bed while Claremont has her narrate her plight and Sienkeiwicz and colorist Glynis Wein cover her in a red sheet imprinted with a dream image of the demon bear.  It’s a shocking image, our favorite mutant swaddled in what appear to be blood-soaked sheets and the red motif would recur, reappearing with the bear imagery as Dani thinks about her most recent dreams involving her foe in a later scene and again when Dani ritualistically paints her face as she prepares for the climactic confrontation.

Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

Significantly, the bear enters Dani’s life at the same time her mutant powers appear, roughly around puberty as per Marvel's mutant mythology—one of her first acts as a full-fledged mutant is to show her parents their apparent deaths at the bear’s claws, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In the real world, there is another power, another type of becoming, of a great and personal change, that fulfills itself at puberty through blood.  You can find it providing one subtextual reading of the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood" and horror authors and creators before Claremont and since have used it more overtly to add resonance to their works.  Steven King and Brian DePalma used this theme to great effect in both the novel Carrie (1974) and its classic film adaptation (1976).  More recently, screenwriter Karen Walton explored these associations in the werewolf film Ginger Snaps (2001), directed by John Fawcett.  Dani’s horrified response to developing a power she lacks the experience and understanding to control, and one that causes her parents’ deaths is ultimately a signifier of her ambivalent response to having matured sexually in a patriarchal society that marginalizes her as a woman.  Dani's real struggle is to overcome this ambivalence and the shame and self-loathing that results.

Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

Unfortunately for Dani, her parents were unable to protect her at a time when these changes were at their most intense.  In fact, the root of Dani's guilt is that this maturation, this physical change, visited in her desires or thoughts she equates with the bear's utter destruction of her parents.  Feeling betrayed by her body, she has taken responsibility at having violated the nuclear family.  But because she is essentially a strong, brave young woman, after an initial period of understandable dread, she will attempt to attack the problem head-on.  It won't be easy, and requires an elaborately ritualistic preparatory regimen. 

Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

In preparing herself to contest the bear, Dani turns not to her chaste and inexperienced friend Rahne, but to the wiser-- and therefore, no longer innocent-- Magik.  Magik, having spent her formative years in Limbo, is an enigmatic figure, and an outsider.  She is also symbolically corrupt in the same way Dani believes herself to be.  Not quite human, not quite mutant, not quite demon.  Dani reveals through her narration that she's not even particularly close to Magik-- Illyana is best friends with Kitty Pryde-- so this makes her choice of confidante all the more telling.  But such is Dani's confused acquiescence to the cultural idea there is shame and uncleanliness in having become fertile that she is unable to tell even Magik her true motivation.  The more experienced Magik provides Dani an outlet for exploration and experimentation as she seeks to understand the nature of her new-found desires and physically ability to feel and act upon them.

Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

Bears are largely masculine figures, and in order to confront hers, and with Magik playing the role of sexual agent, Dani must cross genders (at one point she jokes with Magik, "You should see the other guy," guy being sometimes gender neutral, but generally a masculine noun; Dani clearly identifies herself here as a guy at least in a symbolic sense), or at least add male characteristics to her own innate female identity.  In the Cheyenne tradition, men acted as hunters and warriors, but one might reject this path and begin living as a woman.  Dani subverts, or rather, inverts this by taking on the role of hunter-warrior, but not without symbolically daubing herself with her own menstrual blood (I'm also reminded of the scene in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, where her protagonist, Esther, bloodies the nose of her attempted-rapist and he similarly paints her face with it), represented as red war paint.  Only then is she prepared to do more than cower in bed or react in fear.  Thus cloaked in the accouterments of maleness, Dani is free to act, to slay the bear.  

For this, Dani uses a weapon associated with Native Americans by history and custom, the bow and arrow.  The arrow is phallic.  It penetrates and Dani has made herself expert in its use thanks to her training sessions with Magik.  And yet Dani is also reminiscent of Diana of Roman myth, from the similar names, to the choice of weapon, to the time at which she forces this confrontation-- that is, night time.  Diana has associations with the moon.  She is also the goddess of the hunt.  And of chastity.  It's worth noting, too, that Artemis, the Greek version of Diana, is goddess of childbirth as well.  In order to battle the bear, Dani requires herself to embody both sides of the gender dichotomy.  In this way she becomes both her own father and mother.
Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

The confrontation with this male presence occurs in snowy woods.  The snow, of course, is white.  This can be seen as purity, but snow may also be representative of death.  Woods hide mysteries and figure in many fairy tales as places where terrible things may happen to children.  Here, Dani-- drawn by Sienkiewicz as a silhouette, all her sexual characteristics blotted out or hidden-- calls out the bear as "butcher of innocents," which we can also understand as "butcher of innocence."  The dialogue here is artificial and lacks the voice of a teenage girl.  It's more in the epic tradition, something Beowulf might say to Grendel in translation.  The bear then appears, and Wein colors it various shades of purple, representing pain or bruising, while on the next page it's a more naturalistic brown as it has fully manifested before Dani.  Its threat is no longer confined to the subjective space of Dani's dreams but rather has become real and potent. 

Dani first uses her mutant power-- which she has always found problematic-- to attack the creature with its greatest fear.  Which turns out to be Dani herself.  The masculine power fears the feminine one.  The basis of gender relationships in Western culture is an unequal power dichotomy in which female strength is denied and negated in favor of the male out of fear and loathing, which includes a belief that menstruating women are somehow unclean.  Here, using her innate strength, Dani comes closest to achieving victory.  Dani, however, does not attempt to derive any deeper understanding of why the bear fears her as much as she fears it.  Instead, she reverts to using the phallic arrow, striking the bear harmlessly in the neck, though she describes it as a "killing shot."  If she intends to use the patriarchy's weapons against it, this proves to be a fatal decision.  The bear easily sweeps the bow from her hands and batters Dani.  She's able to injure the bear with a handheld arrow and earn a brief respite.

Escaping the bear's clutches, Dani retrieves her bow and fires another phallus into the one vulnerable opening the bear presents-- its mouth.  Here, having penetrated the bear at last, she achieves a false victory and turns from her foe in premature triumph.  In relying on a substitute penis, and denying herself the use of her own power-- despite its tantalizing glimpse of deeper wisdom-- Dani has not dealt fully with her own ambivalence towards her sexual maturation and gender role.  As she walks away into the night, the bear's eyes open. 

Chris Claremont, scipt/Bill Sienkiewicz, art/Glynis Wein, colors (The New Mutants #18,  August 1984)

And, importantly, it's the virginal Rahne (Sienkiewicz clothes her in a prim, ruffled nightgown and places a cross behind her) who senses the danger and alerts the others.  Dani has been struck down by the complexities and ambiguities of adulthood, but it's the most child-like of the New Mutants who reacts, having felt it psychically.  Dani's friends run to help her-- Sam, the oldest boy, carries yet another phallus, what appears to be a shotgun-- and find Dani's gutted body staining white the snow of innocence with the red of her secret knowledge, which she is now in no shape to parse.

Not to equivocate, but simply as a response to the richness of Claremont’s writing, I want to offer some alternate readings to the “Demon Bear Saga.”  The jumbled mess above—no more than a B- effort if I were to turn it in to one of my old lit professors—is just one way of reading the subtext.  Here are some others, probably equally as confused.

Hm.  That is equivocation.  Oops!

In another reading, the bear isn’t a stand-in for the patriarchy, but rather Dani’s rage at the patriarchy and her enforced role within a system devised to limit her choices.  Just as Dani’s mutant power allows her to call forth the images of anyone’s greatest fears, her mutation allows her to project her rage as a monstrous, destructive creature.  This is supported by her guilt pangs at having to carry the weight of her parents’ deaths.  Why would Dani’s rage have struck them down?  Because they were—however protective they meant it—participating in Dani’s diminution, the limiting of her spirit. 

Let’s also consider the bear as representing Dani’s sexual maturation in another way.  At some point, Dani violated the incest taboo by involving her parents—one or the other, or both—in a masturbatory fantasy.  Remember—she lives in guilt because of transgression against her parents, not the other way around.  She had what was essentially a fleeting, blameless thought, one that’s probably quite common at the onset of sexual yearnings, but one fraught with shame, and was perhaps caught by her parents during the act.  Humiliated, and with no one to turn to, Dani becomes confused and self-loathing.  Hence the bear, a stern, punishing father figure she creates in reaction to these negative feelings.  In this reading we can view Dani’s Danger Room preparations also as a form of masturbation.  The X-Men use the unreal world of the Danger Room to rehearse real world scenarios in much the same way we prepare ourselves sexually by self-exploration and fantasization.  To this end, as we’ve already discussed, Dani seeks the counsel of the (sexually) experienced Magik.

In a related reading, the bear is sexual maturation itself as loss of innocence.  Corruption of an innocent is a recurring Claremont theme—Magik is the prime example, so much so he wrote an entire miniseries about just that.  In Uncanny X-Men #160 (August 1982) and the Magik (December 1983-March 1984) series, the devilish Belasco abducts child Illyana into Limbo where she literally loses her soul by gaining premature knowledge of the world.  Her innocence becomes corrupted by this knowledge—one cover by John Buscema shows what’s essentially an underwear-clad Illyana given diabolic aspect complete with horns and a phallic knife—and she literally loses her soul.  As a result, Illyana instantly returns to the real world miraculously the immediately post-pubertal age of thirteen years old.  It’s hard to think of another genre story that examines these themes so overtly.

And not just Illyana.  For whatever reason, Claremont visits this theme most frequently (but not exclusively… it just seems that way sometimes) upon female characters.  Jean Grey becomes Dark Phoenix, Illyana becomes Magik, Selene attempts to seduce Dani into becoming her evil sorcerer’s apprentice, super-innocent Rahne turns into a nearly mindless avatar of light under the influence of drugs in a story involving adult predators victimizing teen runaways, Storm from a powerful yet naïve goddess into the worldly punk-look leader of the Morlocks, Madelyn Pryor becoming the Goblin Queen, Dani again in Asgard going from high-flying Valkyrie to evil, skeletal Odin-slaying version thanks to Hela.  And those are just the ones I know by heart.  We can approach the bear as another version of this theme, with Dani’s war against it a struggle of innocence versus knowledge, supported by the use of Magik as her teacher/helper, the red versus white color scheme and the setting of the main confrontation within snowy woods.

So Dani responds negatively to this knowledge, which, as it did with Magik, comes much too soon.  Unready or unwilling, she rejects it, literally and figuratively fights against it.  Through this struggle, she comes to terms with it and assimilates it within her healing psyche thanks to the intervention of guide Magik and the others.  This saves Dani and reaffirms her friendships, but as many do to gain wisdom, Dani pays a heavy price—as do others; this is a transformative wisdom in a literal sense—and temporarily loses the ability to walk.

Then there’s the matter Dani’s gendering.  While Dani may or may not be transgender, she does have an ambivalent response to her biological gender.  When we first see her in Marvel Graphic Novel #4:  The New Mutants, she’s a solitary figure, free from the misperceptions of others and, thus, allowed to clad herself in attire that codes as male or, at most, ambiguously female.  Throughout the subsequent comics, Dani frequently wields her grandfather’s knife (a specific provenance it’s important to note, as well as the knife’s phallic nature) and invokes the Cheyenne warrior tradition and Claremont gives her clipped, militaristic speech at times.  As she frequently casts off her clothes, she is casting off the coding of the gender role in which she’s largely perceived by her friends and the larger society in which she operates.  In The New Mutants #5 (July 1983), Dani essentially becomes a man when, under the influence of the exclusively male gestalt Team America, she transforms into Dark Rider, with a firm and powerful machine between her legs.  Motorcycles traditionally code as male, both in movies and in literature.  For a woman to ride one is seen as transgressive and empowering, tropes exploited by B-movies and genre TV shows like James Cameron’s Dark Angel.  

In the biker world, women are largely constrained to the subsidiary role of “mama,” and the spot behind the motorcycle’s rider is colloquially and dismissively referred to as the “bitch seat.”  But Dani becomes neither supporting player, nor domme a la Russ Meyer.  She's the Dark Rider and so characters see Dani as a man.  It’s not until she tumbles from the motorcycle-- suffered a figurative castration-- that they can strip away the male disguise and reveal her true gender.  Which is also a matter of perception in absence of any definitive identification by Dani herself.  And yet we must ask ourselves, why did this male gestalt power single out Dani among the thousands of people attending the Team America performance, including the biologically male members of the New Mutants and bystanders?

As we’ve already seen, in the “The Demon Bear Saga,” Dani symbolically genders herself largely male—albeit with elements of the female-- in order to fight the bear.  Once again, the menstrual imagery comes into play as Dani struggles to come to terms with her sexual maturation as a biologically functioning woman, a limiting of options and something she dreads and fears in the same way young transmen and transwomen struggle with their own unwelcome bodily changes and processes.  If we accept her Danger Room sessions as symbolic masturbation, then we read the arrow as a phallus and Magik as her fantasy-partner as Dani assumes the masculine, if not outright male, role.  While there are plenty of story elements suggesting a largely heterosexual female identification for Dani, Claremont introduces enough ambiguity to suggest Dani may not occupy any definitive place within the gender or sexuality spectrum and the struggle with the bear is a struggle with either herself or with society at large to establish her own gender and sexual identity, free from all these imposed concepts.

And all this is without even getting into Dani’s frequent association with horses and horse imagery and symbolism!  That’s a term paper unto itself.

While supporting multiple readings and interpretations-- the psychological, the mythic, as a gender critique and the literary-- this story also functions as a straightforward action narrative.  Because this is a comic book, the bear isn't just a manifestation of Dani's psyche.  It's also a very real external threat.  What makes "The Demon Bear Saga" such a rich work (even though it does have a few of those terse Claremontian couplets in the narration-- "The bear misses.  I don't."-- that lend themselves so easily to parody) is how well it assimilates all these aspects of storytelling while presenting a compelling and genuinely frightening read.   While Marvel made good use of Claremont's "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" storylines, and similarly considered important enough for a graphic novel collected edition to call its very own, I rank this particular tale ahead of them because it digs deeper for its themes and motivations than simply "absolute power corrupts absolutely" or "prejudice is a bad thing."

And we're talking largely about the first half of the story.  The second can no doubt be mined for just as much meaning.  It takes place largely within a dreamscape and features the transformation of two minor characters into Native Americans.  What can we make of this?  Well, we'll just have to think about it for a while and see what we come up with.  

Time to turn our gaze towards the future and another of my favorite characters...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dani Moonstar, the Early Years 3! Mutants in Rivalry

By the time the first year of The New Mutants drew to a close, Dani Moonstar had assumed leadership of the team.  Co-leadership, but come on, obviously Sam Guthrie was a mere figurehead, there to rubberstamp Dani's decisions and give the others a sense of false security that they were in anything other than a benevolent dictatorship headed by the Coolest Comic Character Ever Created.

Unfortunately, the comic itself had become lethargic, with lackluster plots and art to match.  While it had once promised to become the platonic ideal of a Chris Claremont book-- ostensibly empowered teen girls repeatedly finding themselves bound and gagged and forced to wear skimpy costumes, a couple well-meaning but vaguely dim-witted dudes, all of them awash in a frothy mix of soap opera-ish personal drama, mundane daily events and superheroic adventure complete with overwrought dialogue filling each panel with dense word-walls-- The New Mutants had become simply generic, a timid tag-along to its older, wiser sibling, Uncanny X-Men.

Dani had earned her starring role in what was supposed to be an ensemble book by defeating all comers-- her creators, teammates, the Hellfire Club, an alien insect, a space empress, a Mr. T rip-off, holdovers from the Roman Empire, some kind of soul-sucking witch who wanted to adopt her as an apprentice.  All had challenged Dani's supremacy and all had fallen before her strength of character and force of will.  While writer Claremont made a few efforts to re-establish the team dynamic, Dani was having none of it.  Until Claremont presented her with her most dangerous foe.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Tom Mandrake, art (The New Mutants #14,  April 1984)

Illyana "Magik" Rasputin had been around for a few years as a minor X-Men character, little sister to metal man Colossus.  In fact, she made her first, albeit nameless, appearance in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (April 1975), the legendary issue that showed the world international stereotypes could be forged into a top-selling comic book fighting force.  The first time we see Illyana, she's practically an infant, and Soviet agricultural technology being what it was at the height of the Cold War, her big bro has to use his mutant powers to save her from a runaway tractor on their collective farm.  This could not have happened at a privately-owned farm here in the Free World.  Our tractors are the flawless product of a capitalist system, where the invisible hand of the free market has already weighed and rejected any farm machinery that doesn't work exactly as advertised.  Illyana survives her brush with the ineptly-manufactured product of a flawed, atheistic political system only to grow up into a young woman best described as...


Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Tom Mandrake, art (The New Mutants #14,  April 1984)

Claremont's crafty plan to undermine Dani and wrest control of his comic from her originates in Uncanny X-Men #160 (August 1982), where Claremont and art team Brent Anderson and Bob Wiacek have a demon named Belasco spirit the child away to a timeless limbo called, conveniently if unimaginatively, Limbo.  At the end of the issue, Illyana pops back in, only now she's thirteen years old and she's not only a mutant, but also a demonic sorcerous with a magical sword that manifests itself from time to time.  Flash-forward two years and, with Dani putting pressure on editor Louise Jones to have her book re-named Moonstar and the Other Mutants, Claremont knew it was time to take decisive action.  He tossed Illyana, now code-named Magik, into The New Mutants and instantly changed the book's power structure.

While no scheme or villain the increasingly desperate creative team could devise would force Dani completely into the background, she would now have to learn to share the spotlight with Magik, who appears to have been especially beloved by Claremont, possibly because she embodied a number of his characteristic tropes of this era-- a young girl with vaguely BDSM leanings, a penchant for transformations and inner turmoil lending itself to verbose internal monologues.  Plus frequent opportunities to indulge himself in baroque adjectives like "eldritch" and the creation of portmanteau words like "Darkchild" and "Soulsword."

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Tom Mandrake, art (The New Mutants #14,  April 1984)

Not one to underestimate Dani, Claremont and Jones knew they had to do more than simply foist Magik off on the New Mutants.  They had to further enhance Magik's position as prime Dani-challenger.  Rather than dole out Illyana's Limbo experience through the occasional flashback or multi-panel thought bubble reverie, Claremont teamed with artists John Buscema, Ron Frenz, Sal Buscema and Tom Palmer to produce Storm and Illyana: Magik, a four-issue mini-series, from December 1983 to March 1984.  Wow, Marvel was really pushing Magik on their readers, weren't they?  What Dani did organically by inhabiting the book with her own innate awesomeness, Magik would do through corporate strategy.  Top that, Dani!

In fact, under the aegis of Claremont and with the approval of Marvel's upper echelon-- specifically, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who feared Dani might supplant the Amazing Spider-Man as the company's flagship character and force them to produce a whole slew of new promotional materials as well as wreck their deal with toy manufacturer Mattel (the company licensing Marvel's heroes for a line of action figures and play-sets based on Shooter's Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars title, due to hit the shelves in May of that year)-- Magik gets to do something Dani never could: she actually narrates her very first The New Mutants issue, #14 (April 1984), in a story called "Do You Believe in Magik?" (Marvel certainly did!) which is all about how her twisted minions journey to Xavier's school to steal her back. Claremont and Sal Buscema even gift Magik with those solo pages once accorded to Dani.  Oh, you know Dani felt the sting.

So, how did Dani handle this upstart?  Actually, the career-savvy Dani was smart enough to cozy up to Magik almost from the start, quickly becoming her partner in crime.  Mild crimes, like planning a party for Professor X and trying to figure out how to surprise a guy who can read your merest thoughts.  And adding Magik to the group proved to be a move of pure Claremontian genius, because it was at this point The New Mutants began to develop its own voice, becoming darker and more mysterious.

Much as the artistic tension between Paul McCartney and John Lennon fueled some of the Beatles' finest albums, the strange dichotomy between the straight-forward Dani and the shadow-motivated Magik recharged Claremont's creative batteries.  The first pairing between these visual and philosophical opposites comes during the Mutants' multi-part battle with Emma Frost's Hellion team (caused by that snobby Kitty Pryde) in The New Mutants #15-17 (May-July 1984).  While this kind of story-- where the stakes are nothing more than deciding which fake philosophy will triumph while people wearing different-colored clothes clash meaninglessly-- never impressed me, it does provide us with a glimpse of better things to come when Magik takes Dani to her personal hell-dimension and introduces her to leather vest and ass-less chaps.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Tom Mandrake, art (The New Mutants #16,  June 1984)

Oh, and S'ym, one of those Claremont touches where he pays homage to whatever comic book he happened to be a fan of at the time because the world of comics in the Eighties was just one big, happy family of like-minded creatives making fabulous art.  So you'd see a poster featuring certain properties hanging in Kitty Pryde's room, or one of Dani's friends would gushingly mention a sci-fi/fantasy writer you just know Claremont had dinner with on a regular basis or at least hung out with after hours at some comic convention or another and you'd go, "Wow!  Even though I'm a dork, I'm validated because a fictional teen who has amazing adventures across space and time also likes the same weird things I love that everyone in my real life thinks are a waste of time!"

I mock, but I really have to thank Claremont sincerely for that because it did keep me going during those lonely, masturbatory years.

What point was I making?  Oh yeah.  S'ym.  S'ym is Magik's demon assistant, but his name is curiously similar to a particular Canadian independent comic book creator's and he just happens to somewhat resemble that creator's famous aardvarkian-barbarian creation right down to his vest.  His lurid interest in "amusing" Dani is probably reminiscent as well, but it's been years since I last read anything about earth pigs.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Kim DeMulder, art (The New Mutants #17,  July 1984)

Well, whatever his inspirations, the now fully-engaged Claremont has both girls work together to save the team this time (from a nasty future in which they've become Hellions) for almost two full issues.  And throughout, Dani refrained from plunging her knife into Magik's semi-evil heart and Magik didn't transform Dani into a toadstool and sit on her.  Progress of a sort, I guess.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Kim DeMulder, art (The New Mutants #17,  July 1984)

 Speaking of progress, the success of the Magik-gambit led Claremont to inaugurate phase two of his plan.  This involved the arrival of Bill Sienkiewicz on art duties, and would see The New Mutants become more consistently interesting and genre-expanding than the book it spun-off from.  Which in turn benefitted Dani, because without Magik giving Claremont the impetus to start experimenting and moving away from stale Uncanny X-Men cast-off plots and toy line team-ups, Dani might not have achieved her greatest victory, over a plot element introduced way back in the very first issue and all but forgotten since.

Which would very nearly prove Dani's untimely death, leaving Magik the undisputed lead character.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema, Kim DeMulder, art (The New Mutants #17,  July 1984)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dani Moonstar, the Early Years 2! The Era of Continued Dominance

After almost turning The New Mutants monthly into Marvel Presents Dani Moonstar and Some Largely Useless Goobers, writer Chris Claremont seems to have tried his best to prevent The House of Idea's Greatest Character from completely overshadowing the other players in what was ostensibly a team book.  Having Professor X-- himself one of the Marvel universe's premiere minds-- mentally dominated by a Brood creature to draw these kids together and then torture poor Dani pretty much negates some of his more emotive writing in Marvel Graphic Novel #4:  The New Mutants (at least to those of us obsessed with all things X), but Claremont never let consistency of characterization or motivation get in the way of telling a ripping tale.

A ripping tale in which Dani refuses to play by Professor X's-- and by extension, Claremont's-- rules.

Chris Claremont, script/Sal Buscema and Bob McLeod, art (New Mutants #4, June 1983)

The Brood are Claremont's homage to Ridley Scott's nightmare-inducing Geiger-designed "xenomorph" from the film Alien (this was before James Cameron's expansion of the idea in Aliens and way before the travesty of the later sequels and dimbulb involvement with the Predator franchise).  Claremont and co-plotter/artist John Byrne had already relied heavily on Alien for a Kitty Pryde story in Uncanny X-Men #143 (March 1981) and like all the greats, they knew to steal from the best.  When the xeno-Brood inside Professor X failed to drive Dani insane or turn her into a host for its spoor, Claremont turned to a completely new storyline, one that promised to take the book in a more earthbound direction.  In The New Mutants #4 (June 1983), Dani and the rest tackle a more mundane menace.  Someone is stalking their dance teacher, Stevie Hunter.

I remember excitedly reading "Who's Scaring Stevie?"* in study hall at good ol' Albany Junior High and hoping Claremont and company were taking the book in a less superheroic direction, one that would see the team using their powers less and dealing with teen concerns and social issues more.  Or investigating haunted houses and breaking up smuggling rings dealing in old pirate gold a la Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  With the older, more powerful X-Men back, I didn't see any reason why a bunch of kids my age needed to fight aliens or save the world when there were so many smaller threats around few comics at the time addressed but were the central stuff of many S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume books-- not to forget J.D. Salinger, William Golding or even Anthony Burgess, for pretention's sake.  As a junior high schooler with "outsider" status much like the New Mutants themselves (largely caused by reading comic books in study hall), I wanted stories that used the superheroic genre to comment directly on real-life concerns of the kinds my friends and I dealt with every day.

Years later, I'd write a letter to Image asking that they do something similar with Gen13 (why waste a chance to explore the dichotomy between being a super-being and a party-crazed college student by blatantly rehashing The New Mutants plots?) and they nicely told me to keep my stupid ideas to myself.

In setting up this story, Claremont tries valiantly to re-establish The New Mutants as an ensemble piece.  Gone are the extended solo Dani sequences as Claremont and new penciller Sal Buscema reduce her "screen" time and plump up the roles of Roberto, Sam, the Other One and Whatsherface.   After a playful romp in the snow where Dani treats poor, naive Rahne like a canine pet and Sam once again displays his winning propensity for spectacular power failures, the kids have to report to Professor X for a heart-to-heart.

Claremont, Buscema, McLeod (New Mutants #4, June 1983)

But Claremont can't help giving rebellious Dani the best lines and most memorable moments.  On the way to the Professor's study, Dani refuses to back down-- giving Claremont a chance to use some of his classic arch dialogue to make Dani sound more like Scott "Cyclops" Summers or one of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos than any teen we've ever encountered, fictional or real-- from Lilandra, the pointy-headed empress of a vast space empire.  That's right.  Dani sasses a SPACE EMPRESS, which earns her Lilandra's (and this reader's) admiration in the process.  As a follow-up, Dani then presumes to speak for the entire team without even taking a moment to do something democratic like listen to their opinions.  Buscema and inker Bob McLeod give Professor X a brilliant close-up panel where the look on his face registers sheer horror and dismay at Dani's obvious power play.  The world's most powerful psychic is scared shitless of this pig-tailed girl and her red t-shirt.

Claremont, Buscema, McLeod (New Mutants #4, June 1983)

And while Xi'an does her expository best to get the plot rolling, Dani has other ideas-- she turns this scene into a moratorium on Professor X's leadership which ends with the poor exasperated guy practically begging her to stop making his life miserable and get with the program, please.

Claremont, Buscema, McLeod (New Mutants #4, June 1983)

While the rest of the story is given over to the team as a whole investigating Stevie's stalker, it's Dani who makes the strongest impact.  Again.  She won't shut up, won't back down, won't take guff from anyone.  Oh yeah, and when they find the kid, it's Dani who reduces him to a sniveling wreck by blasting the shit out of him with her powers.  She tells Xi'an she can't help it, but we suspect the real reason is she's taking out her frustration at not getting the center spot on this issue's cover or a double-page spread all her own where she interacts with squirrels and chipmunks while plotting Professor X's ultimate downfall and renaming his school Danielle Moonstar's Academy of Ass-Kicking.

Then my hoped-for emphasis on well-meaning kids solving their peers' social issues turned into a Saturday morning TV commercial for Ideal Toys.  I'm not sure how this happened-- it smacks of editorial interference in an attempt to create synergy for a licensed product-- but in The New Mutants #5 (July1983), the team suddenly finds itself involved with Team America.  Not those delightfully profane marionettes who savaged both Bush-era jingoism and Hollywood liberalism in equal measures but the motorcycle riding dullards you could buy at K-Mart if you didn't have the simple human decency to collect G.I. Joe.

Incredibly, this spins itself into a two-issue tussle with Hydra and, even more nonsensically, the Silver Samurai where even Claremont can't generate enough enthusiasm to do more than phone in the rotest of rote plots.  Yes, Hydra had its glory moments in quite a few stories, but here their involvement smacks of "Well, we need some bad-guys and Hydra doesn't take much effort: they're always doing crazy world-domination shit."  And what the heck does Hydra have to do with the New Mutants anyway?  Then there's the art.  Oh brother, the art!

In this era, most pencillers didn't do the completely finished drawings they do these days and inkers usually played a more important role in maintaining a book's consistent look.  If a penciller felt concerned about how an inker might interpret the pages, then he or she might render things more completely, or "tightly."  But these tight pencils took time and time was something many of these deadline-oriented books could not spare.  Some pencillers would simply do layouts, which were just roughly blocked-in panels with figures in outline or quickly sketched; these could go either to another penciller for clean-up and finish and then to an inker, or simply to an inker.  Masters like John Buscema drew loosely and it was up to the inkers to clean things up and actually draw in ink.

Bob McLeod is one of those inkers who flat-out knows how to draw.  On The New Mutants, if I'm remembering what he told us on Facebook correctly, McLeod was knocking himself out with tight pencils to try to control the book's look (after all, he co-created these characters), but couldn't maintain the brutal pace and keep up the quality.  So they brought in John's brother Sal Buscema because he could provide clean-reading pages for McLeod to work over.  It worked beautifully in The New Mutants #4, which looks more or less like a McLeod solo job.  But what happened here?  Armando Gil excelled at inking Michael Golden on The 'Nam, but he and Buscema are a lethal mix.  The art in the book's latter stages is as ugly and slapdash as its plot.

Anyway, Team America.  Oh, they turn out to be mutants.  How convenient!  This half-assed connection is enough for the kids to get themselves entangled with these motorcycle stunt riders (led by a guy with the admittedly awesome name R.U. Reddy).  And it's here where Dani begins to take things into her own hands.

Claremont, Buscema, and probably Armando Gil (New Mutants #5, July 1983)

Some fictional characters take on a life of their own.  Their mass within the plot tends to deform narratives much in the way gravity bends lightwaves.  At this point, with Claremont seemingly phoning in these issues and the art going wonky, Dani makes her move.  Whose headstrong nature finds her kidnapped and dressed in a green catsuit?  Who is the vessel for the manifestation of Team America's gestalt mutant power and gets to tear-ass around on a dirtbike as the Dark Rider?  Of course it's Sam Guth-- no.

Dani Moonstar.

Claremont, Buscema, probably Gil (New Mutants #5, July 1983)

As we've seen through five issues, anything interesting is happening in any given The New Mutants, it's happening to Dani.  Well, until Xi'an finally gets a storyline in #6 (August 1983).  But even that is mostly an excuse to bump her off so Dani can assume leadership of the team.  Claremont hedges his bets by having her share the honors with Sam, but we all know who's the weaker in their partnership.  There's no way Sam's good-natured country boy manner can stand up against Dani's hotheaded ways.

Claremont, Buscema, definitely Armando Gil (New Mutants #5, July 1983)

Notice, too, that even though they're ostensibly mourning the loss of Xi'an, the true reason for the kids' detour to Rio de Janeiro in The New Mutants #7 (September 1983)  is so Dani can indulge herself in the wearing of a skimpy Carnival outfit.  I've already written at length about Dani's clothing-optional lifestyle so I won't go into that here.  Suffice it to say, Dani is at home in her skin and thinks nothing of flaunting it.

And why not?  She's Dani Moonstar, for cripes' sake!  She's defeated the Hellfire Club, Professor X, the Brood, Hydra and Chris Claremont.

Soon, however, she would face her greatest challenge.

*The answer to that question-- if you care-- is Peter Bristow.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dani Moonstar, the Early Years! A Look at How Moonstar Stole the Spotlight in the First Issues of The New Mutants

Arguably the greatest comic book character ever created, Dani Moonstar just made her debut as a team member in Fearless Defenders, having survived the cancellation of the most recent New Mutants series. It's not luck.  She demands to be in books.  Created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, Dani Moonstar has been flying around the Marvel universe on her magical winged horse for more than thirty years now and no matter how they change her-- new powers, no powers-- she just keeps on doing her thing.  With sheer grit and determination, she elbows others aside and takes over entire narratives.  The other characters in Fearless Defenders had better watch out lest they find themselves mere sidekicks to Dani Moonstar.  It's been so from the very beginning, and I will prove it.  Mathematically.  Scientifically.  Magically.

Chris Claremont, script/Bob McLeod, art (Marvel Graphic Novel #4, October 1982)

Our girl Dani debuted in Marvel Graphic Novel #4:  The New Mutants, way back in October of 1982, the fourth of the new... er... mutants in order of appearance, but first by far in order of kick-assness.  Her first moment in the book sees her chilling out on a mountainside after essentially reducing herself to a recluse because her mutant power of drawing out a person's worse fears has alienated her from her peers.  Yeah, as if Dani has peers.  A Native American of the Cheyenne people, pre-heroic Dani likes to sport some kind of deerskin outfit that's probably more comic book than real world, but with her black hair in braids, it's enough to visually imprint the idea of her cultural origins.  Chris Claremont's economical narrative captions serve only to emphasize what Bob McLeod's art has already made obvious, but in those days, at the height of his creative powers, Claremont excelled at adding depth and shading to characters that are essentially stereotypes, drawing in readers with his sympathetic take on their personalities.  Like with Dani.

In a graphic novel full of introductions and kind of crowded with incident and scene changes-- the locale shifts from Scotland to Brazil to the United States to Brazil again before returning to the good ol' US of A to wrap things up-- Dani's volcanic temper, rebelliousness and single-minded quest for vengeance set her apart from the other characters.  While Rahne is shy, Roberto kind of stiff, Sam dopey and X'ian a bit uptight, Dani emerges as the most well-defined and charismatic.

Chris Claremont, script/Bob McLeod and Mike Gustovich, art (The New Mutants #1, March 1983)

Claremont and McLeod must have known they were on to something, because Dani becomes the star almost immediately in The New Mutants monthly comic, repeatedly getting solo spotlight moments while the other kids are out at the mall or practicing their moves.  Look at it this way-- in the first three issues, she gets the central position on a cover, 12 and a half solo pages-- two of them title page splashes-- and fifteen story pages devoted either to her problems or actions in which she's the main participant in some way.

No one else comes close.  Roberto gets a nice double-page spread at one point.  Sam and Rahne get one solo page each.  Poor Xi'an gets zero, and her most dramatic story moments relate to something Dani did to her.  Out of sixty-six interior pages over one-third of them-- slightly more than one complete comic-- are Dani-centric.  When the story features the other kids, they're usually sublimating their individuality to the group dynamic.

Chris Claremont, script/Bob McLeod and Mike Gustovich, art (The New Mutants #2, April 1983)

Not Dani.  She's all about the awesomeness of being Dani.  Humiliated by her cowardly failure to confront the Danger Room the first time in The New Mutants #1 (March 1983), she takes it on all by her lonesome and ends up stalked through a jungle landscape by a fabulous creature out of McLeod's imagination in #2 (April 1983).

One underappreciated aspect of McLeod's long comic book career is his ability to draw really cool jungle environments.  Look at all those strange fronds and bizarre polyps sprouting all over the place, plus that crazy bird in the foreground that seems as frightened of Dani as she is of that three-horned behemoth-- so powerful it can knock down fully-mature trees-- coming up behind her.  Run, Dani, run!

McLeod takes advantage of the Danger Room's holographic capabilities to go absolutely nuts with the forest primeval, which leads directly to one of Claremont's own specialties-- the development of the hints and intimations of a mysterious subplot into an action-and-dialogue packed main plot.  An unknown miscreant is manipulating Dani's emotions for some nefarious end.  And attempting to murder her.

Claremont tells us a great deal about Dani during this period, more so than of any of the other characters other than perhaps Xi'an (again, only because Dani draws out a lot of this info).  For example, not only is she full of self-reproachment for failing to live up to her own standards (she calls herself a coward), but she also tells Rahne about her parents' apparently supernatural death and that her father was Horse Clan and her mother was Eagle Clan.  While Claremont never elaborates on the meaning of these clan affilitions, Dani's parents play an important role in a later storyline that wraps up this aspect of her history.  By contrast, we haven't learned Rahne's parents' names at this point (I still don't know them!), and all we know about Sam's family is they're a bunch of Kentucky coal miners and he should be writing sad honky-tonk songs about them instead of wasting his time trying to learn how to change directions in mid-air while blasting fire out of his ass like a human rocket.

Chris Claremont, script/Bob McLeod and Mike Gustovich, art (The New Mutants #3, May 1983)

We also learn there's a chance Dani might be mentally ill.  This is a lot for readers to absorb about a single character in what's supposed to be an ensemble this early in a series, and it renders the book more or less Dani Moonstar and Her Amazing Friends!  Screw Sam, Rahne and the rest-- this is Dani's book and they're merely supporting players.

In The New Mutants #3 (May 1983), Dani gets another dramatic solo moment as she dreams of the demon bear that she believes killed her parents and the deaths of her new friends.  In the aftermath-- and while clutching a wicked-looking knife-- Dani overhears Professor X himself on the phone telling Moira McTaggart the incident represents a psychotic break, that's it's nothing more than paranoia, symptomatic of schizophrenia.  I think the proper medical term is "losing her shit."  She doesn't take it well.  I mean, what thirteen-year-old girl wants to be diagnosed as schizophrenic by a seemingly all-knowing authority figure?  Dani's young mind conflates having a mental health issue with being broken and unworthy, confirming her growing tendency towards self-loathing.  Her thoughts turn towards the suicidal.

Okay, stop and think about how genius this is.  At this point, having shown us all of Dani's fears-- that Xi'an wants to kill her, that her cowardice is out of character, that she's being persecuted by some strange dream-like figure, that her powers are somehow some manifestation of inner evil-- and having no reason to doubt the usually reliable Professor X, Claremont makes us doubt her sanity.  Just enough.  Claremont's obviously building to something here-- either the demonic creature is real or we're going to have a very dramatic storyline about a teen losing her hold on reality.

Chris Claremont, script/Bob McLeod and Mike Gustovich, art (The New Mutants #3, May 1983)

And McLeod reinforces very distinct possibility it's the latter by posing Dani-- her hair unkempt, wearing only a sleep shirt that's a signifier of dream-states and other levels of consciousness, or perhaps even a hospital gown one might wear at a mental health facility-- with the business end of her knife ominously towards her own heart.  Out of all the characters in this book, of course it's Dani who's the most at-risk.  A cliff-hanging end to issue #3, with the entire direction the series in the balance... and it's all about Dani Moonstar.

For now, let's leave young Dani slumped against Professor X's office door out of respect and come visit her again when she's feeling better...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Teen Titans versus the New Mutants-- reactions to authority in contrast

Bob Haney-script/Nick Cardy-art, Teen Titans #3 (May/June 1966)

Many years ago, before you and I were even born, the US government needed someone to help with school drop-outs.  So they turned to DC's premiere group of costumed teens (most of whom were sidekicks, wards or protégés of similarly-themed adult characters).  Calling Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl to Washington, D.C., concerned officials charge them with journeying to the middle American heartland and confronting their age-peers.  "Stay in school," the Teen Titans preach, "the United States government wishes it!"

People had youth on the brain back in the 1960s.  While adults and kids have always had their differences, the post-WWII baby boom expanded what they used to call the "generation gap" to almost revolutionary levels.  It started in the 1950s, but intensified the following decade due to the continued pressures of an unpopular war, struggles for racial and gender equality, new forms of musical, artistic and self-expression, the Sexual Revolution and even the cynical media exploitation of this huge, new-- and relatively affluent-- demographic.  With even a cursory reading of history, we can, just as people did back in the 1960s, divide these opposing forces into the establishment and the anti-establishment.

When "The Revolt at Harrison High" in Teen Titans #3 -- with its heroes optimistically working for the establishment writer Bob Haney (himself a self-described socialist and pacifist) characterizes as largely benign-- hit the newsstands in the summer of 1966, the anti-war movement was already in full swing.  Young people had already burned draft cards, various groups had successfully staged several large scale anti-war rallies (Haney had participated in some by this time as well) and a number of veterans had attempted to return their medals to the White House.

The next year, 1967, witnessed the Summer of Love and the Beatles' psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Colorful Utopian dreams seemed within reach if the young simply turned their eyes to the sky in search of diamonds and tuned their sitars to the cosmic.

Then, in 1968, the world erupted, with the Tet Offensive rocking America's confidence in its military's ability to defeat a technologically-inferior foe, two major assassinations at home, racial violence, student violence, police violence in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, a Soviet invasion of a liberalized Czechoslovakia, tyranny stamping its iron boot on the human face forever.  

Things fractured further.  That year, American International Pictures released Wild in the Streets, in which a 24-year-old rock star becomes president of the United States and throws people over 35 into concentration camps where they’re dosed with LSD.  Coming years would see more war protests, the watershed music festival Woodstock giving way to legendary bummer Altamont, the Tate-LaBianca Murders (via the demonic influence of Charles Manson-- the perfect hippie bugbear to chill the spines of parents everywhere), the invasion of Cambodia and the 1970 Kent State shootings—an event preceded by the Ohio governor angrily denouncing anti-war protesters on campus as a “militant, revolutionary group.”

Then came further betrayals.  The crushing loss of George McGovern in the 1972 election to Richard Nixon.  Watergate.  The energy crisis.  Recession.  Malaise.  Cities like New York suffering from collapsing infrastructure.  No wonder youth culture curdled into the nihilism and anarchy of punk rock on one hand and the mindless hedonism of disco on the other.

Chris Claremont-script/Bob McLeod-art, Marvel Graphic Novel #4 (October 1982)

Which might be why just a generation after the Titans marched proudly out of Washington filled with the evangelical furor and a hopeful message for high school drop-outs everywhere, Dani Moonstar of the New Mutants, Marvel’s premiere group for costumed young people (none of whom were sidekicks, wards or protégés of similarly-themed adult characters) responds with open rebelliousness to Professor X’s demand for uniformity among his pupils.  And also why the Professor himself decides not to quash her individualism.

Bob Haney-script/Nick Cardy-art, Teen Titans #3 (May/June 1966)

The two teams take different tactics when interacting with their peers, too.  In "Harrison High," the Titans act as establishment mouthpieces, which renders their attempts at talking frankly with their age-peers awkward and forced.  They fail because few people enjoy being talked down to, especially by others their own age.  This approach pays no dividends, as the Titans learn here.  Later they take a different tactic-- strangely enough, involving violence-- and find positive results.

Chris Claremont-script/Bob McLeod, Mike Gustovich-art, New Mutants #2 (April 1983)

The New Mutants, on the other hand, have no ulterior motives-- certainly none that are government-directed-- and relate to people in their age demographic more or less as equals, so their interaction, while a bit contentious, is comfortingly naturalistic.  Within moments, the mutant students and the townies have forged the bonds of friendship despite their socio-economic, cultural and genetic differences.

But don't let me give you the idea the Titans didn't learn to swing.  It wasn't long before they got with their times and began questioning authority.  They'd drop their self-righteous pro-establishment stance and come into conflict with their mentors and the adult world at large.  That's an essay for another time.  But just think about this-- today Robin is a grandfather and Dani is my age and they're both just as confused and troubled by today’s kids as the grown-ups of yesteryear.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Free is the best price point!

Did you manage to score any of those free Marvel #1 comics?  Marvel offered 700 first issues through Comixology and apparently inspired demand so great Comixology's servers couldn't handle it.  While most of the offerings held little to no interest for me-- Marvel Ultimates, Marvel Zombies, Marvel Now, Avengers vs. X-Men and stuff like that-- I did find 84 comics both old and new I loaded into my digital shopping cart.  Then I couldn't complete the transaction because Comixology wouldn't let me sign in.

The shopping process went as usual.  Maybe a little more slowly, but not so much it taxed my patience.  Then the sign-in stage and nothing but a blank screen.  I left it for a while, watched a little Japanese television-- celebrities who graduated from the top universities here taking a kanji quiz while dressed in high school uniforms-- then came back to find that same blank screen.  I turned off my computer and picked up an actual book.  I'll try again tomorrow, I thought.

Now Marvel and Comixology have suspended the offer so I'm out in the cold.  I'm a little disappointed, but those are the breaks in this digital age.  Fortunately, I'd previously bought a few of the number ones offered-- New Mutants, Fantastic Four and some others from the good ol' days.  

But there were some oddball choices (for me) I was really looking forward to having in my Comixology library.  Wolverine and Jubilee, for example.  Young Avengers.  The first Joss Whedon Astonishing X-Men and the Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men with Kitty Pryde riding the giant space bullet into apparent oblivion.  Some updated Dracula story.  FF, a new Fantastic Four book with a different cast and Mike Allred art.  Not stuff I'd cover here where my focus is on comics from the last century, but things I wanted to read nevertheless.

Well, maybe they'll take the lessons learned from this event and do something similar in the future.  I still think Comixology is a wonderful site, especially for a person living overseas where it's difficult and expensive to come by print issues of various comics.  And, after all, free is my favorite price point.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

X-Men #12: Kirby and Toth, two great tastes that don't taste great together!

Jack Kirby and Alex Toth are tops of the pops as far as I’m concerned.  When I found out Alex Toth penciled X-Men #12 (July 1965), I had to track it down.  When I read he did this over Kirby layouts, I grew a little concerned.

You know, the two artists had almost diametrically opposed approaches to the page.  Toth practiced an elegant minimalism, with poses largely naturalistic.  Heavy black-spotting, cinematic.  Kirby drew in a more expressionistic way, his figures displaying emotions and actions at their most extreme.  Statue-like figures surrounded by crackling force fields and radiating forces, as if their struggles produce an energy that threatens to consume the paper they’re printed on.  

But then I thought, why not combine Toth and Kirby?  This kind of artistic dissonance can produce in collaboration an energy of its own, like unstable two radioactive molecules exchanging electrons and we get an artistic nuclear reaction producing a startling, never-before-thought-of beauty.  Or, in this case, X-Men #12, a comic book China syndrome.  A Three Mile Island in print.

Flash back to 1965.  Stan Lee, always on the hunt for artists (a number of DC regulars did Marvel jobs under assumed names back then), gave Alex Toth a call-- or mailed him a letter for all I know-- and offered him an issue of X-Men.  I'm no comic book historian, but I think Kirby was spread pretty thin at this point and dropping X-Men to concentrate on Marvel's better-selling titles.  But as to why Lee would offer this particular book to Toth in particular-- well, that's for people who know more about the inner workings at the House of Ideas.  Suffice it to say, Lee offered and Toth accepted.

So far, so good.  As so many other artists had to at Marvel, Toth went to work on pages previously laid out by Kirby, the creator of the Marvel house style.  Maybe this was meant to smooth the art transition for the readers.  Maybe Toth asked for this arrangement himself.  After all, he was used to working from full scripts, not from Stan Lee posing on his desk.  To make sure Toth's work became fully Marvel-ized, Lee then assigned inker Vince Colletta, a frequent Kirby collaborator, to...

"Fix" isn't quite the word for what Colletta did.  While Colletta certainly has his shortcomings-- a cursory Google search will come up with ample listings of them, especially in conjunction with his inks on Kirby-- nowhere are they more on display than in this ham-fisted job on top of Toth pencils.  Gone are the smooth, graceful lines of Toth and instead, we find crinkly, crabby scrawlings, wonky faces and malformed hands galore, plus trange interpretations of light and shadow that show Colletta wasn't quite sure of what Toth was getting at.  Toth was known for drawing handsome men and beautiful women.  Kirby drew them as powerhouses seemingly carved from stone or molded from steel.  The mutants on display in this book are the kind you find preserved in alcohol in dark closets in abandoned madhouses.

Joe Sinnott might have salvaged this job with his slick line, confident black-spotting and willingness actually to draw with ink and fix proportions, but it's pretty obvious Colletta just isn't up to the task.  Check this out:

Lumpy Rutherford-- NOOOO!!!  This looks like the worst comic book adaptation of a secret Leave it to Beaver episode ever.  That red-haired jerk is Cain Marko, Charles Xavier's step-brother.  They don't get along, as you can see.  While Cain has a pert Toth-style nose, his hand looks like someone shoved sausages into a latex glove.  That's neither a Toth hand nor a Kirby hand-- it's a hand no one bothered to finish drawing.

In Colletta's defense, I really doubt Toth gave him all that much to work with.  They'd team together again at DC on Hot Wheels with much better results-- although Toth might dispute that if he were still around.  The difference there might have been Toth being more engaged with the material than he is here and unencumbered by another artist's layouts.

Anyway, a few panels in this book look very Tothian, as if he took his time to really shape the image, but for whatever reason, throughout most of this book Toth appears to have largely traced Kirby's figures without adapting them to his own naturalistic proportions and scale.  While he uses a lot of those parallel ray bursts that make the characters look as though they're exploding with strange energy-- but never seems to have reconciled the Kirby approach to these kind of abstracted effects with his own minimalism and Colletta spent about two seconds puzzling them out before slapping down the ink.  There's also a chance Toth might not have drawn any of these effects and Lee, dissatisfied with too much negative space in the panels, either added those lines himself or had someone in the art department do it.

Here's another unfinished hand:

Another problem is the color reconstruction is lousy.  This comic was never meant to be printed on slick, glossy paper with modern line-screens.  Despite a growing serious fandom and popularity on college campuses and with the heads, comics in the mid-60s were still disposable rags printed on the cheapest paper.  Lee, Kirby, Toth and Colletta all knew this.  This didn't necessarily mean they hacked it out without a care, although X-Men #12 seems to stink of that.  It just means they were under no illusions of creating something of lasting impact.  They weren't dreaming history here or anticipating bloggers deconstructing every aspect of every panel on one page out of the hundreds they touched that month.  They were working to support families or pay alimony and they knew, as professionals, how to get the most out of the shoddy materials they had to work with in the time allotted-- they didn't have the luxury of blowing deadlines like superstar artists of today do-- so the end result, there on the newsstand, would be attractive enough to tempt readers into spending their twelve cents.

People didn't preserve the original artwork-- they had paste-up jobs done on them with glue that soon yellowed or browned, people used old pages to clean brushes or tossed them in files and later shredded them when the company needed more space.  I've seen some pages from this job for sale online, but I doubt Marvel spent the money necessary for full access to them in order to start from scratch.  What's more likely is they scanned decent printed copies, then used Photoshop to eliminate as much of the colors and old-timey fat line-screens-- a process which also takes away the edges of the black areas and a lot of the fine line work.  And, in the case of Colletta, serving to make an already sketchy line quality even sketchier.  Re-colored then printed slickly, or blown up on Comixology (which is where I read this), all the original flaws become glaring and a lot of new ones show up as well.

In this case, there are pages where Cain Marko's face appears a bizarre pink as if he's suffering from extreme embarrassment or some kind of disfiguring rash.  Poor guy. No wonder he went mad with power when he found the Cyttorak Ruby.

What I don't understand is why Toth took this job in the first place.  If Lee wasn't shy about expressing his artistic opinions, Toth was the original let 'em have it guy.  He must have looked at these layouts and thought, "Oh balls!"  Plus, Xavier's backstory is cliched and melodramatic (although these guys make a pretty good case for it even while pointing out Stan Lee's apparent difficulty with psychic terminology).  It's rather talky for a book so packed with characters, too.  And, as part one of two, it's all build-up and no climax.

Toth liked to draw airplanes and cars and he was aces on period pieces.  Portions of this story take place in flashback, but there's nothing setting it in any particular era visually, and just one sequence featuring a car that looks pretty contemporary to me, a mid-60s model in a scene that takes place sometime in the 1940s.  Toth preferred classic Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling heroism, but there's not a single sword-fight anywhere in this story.

My best guess is the Warren and DC jobs weren't coming frequently enough and publishers like Dell didn't pay high enough a page rate, so he gave Marvel a shot in hopes of picking up some much-needed money.   I don't know.  Who can fathom genius, especially one as mercurial as Alex Toth?

He must have had his reasons because here's Toth working over Kirby layouts.  It's not as if Toth never drew superheroes-- we have a classic Flash and Atom team-up from the year before which cuts X-Men #12 to shreds, a run on Black Canary and an often-reprinted Batman story, plus some other gems scattered throughout his bibiography.  This should have been one of those.

Anyway, if the lack of any other Toth Marvel work is any indication, Stan Lee wasn't too pleased with the outcome of his little science experiment.  Werner Roth would pencil part two, similarly working over Kirby lay-outs with happier results, as "Jay Gavin" before becoming the regular penciller under his own name.  Toth would go on to do sterling work in Warren's Blazing Combat, and for DC's horror and war titles in the 70s, but never again would he draw Marvel's heroes for comic books.  For TV, yeah.  A couple of years later, he did designs for Hanna-Barbera's Fantastic Four cartoon.  But we never got to see Toth's take on The Avengers or Doctor Strange.  I, for one, would have loved to have read a Toth Amazing Spider-Man or Daredevil.  I can't help but think if Lee had just trusted Toth to do his thing-- the way he seems to have let Gene Colan-- and come up with a plot playing to his strengths rather than trying to merge him with Kirby, we might have had a stand-out issue, an oddity nonetheless, but something really special.  Maybe it wouldn't have sold, though.  Whatever else you can say about Lee, the man knew how to move books.

Now if someone can explain to me why Cyclops's famous ruby-red eye beam is magenta.