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...

Semi-evil.

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)

2 comments:

David Pulver said...

Hilarious but engaging commentary!

Joel Bryan said...

Thank you, sir! I wanted to take this one WAY over the top. Looks like I succeeded!