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...


Richard Bensam said...

I dunno...they name a character something as cool as Danielle Moonstar, then saddle her with a bland code name like Psyche or Mirage? If she'd just been called "Moonstar" that would have been half the battle won right there.

(In fact, she could have explicitly rejected a code name, Xavier could have argued over it, then he could say something Claremontian like "I should have realized...aliases and secret identities can mean nothing to one who forever conceals her true identity from herself!")

Joel Bryan said...

"Professor Xavier is an Anglo! How could one such as he ever provide the daughter of the Cheyenne people with an appellation worthy of that heritage?"

Hm. I'm straying into Roy Thomas territory there...

Robert said...

"Arguably the greatest comic book character ever created..."

Well, that's a bit OTT but actually I'm a huge fan. Thanks for giving this great gal some love. Look forward to reading more about one of my all time favourites...

(With the exception of her horrible characterisation at the hands of Marc Guggenheim on Young X-Men, of course)


Joel Bryan said...

Robert-- Thanks for the comment. Yeah, Dani is (obviously) one of my all time faves as well. There's at least one more post in this series coming up, but it's taking forever to write because it requires actual research and cohesion.

But only a "bit OTT?" OTT is a specialty around here!

Joel Bryan said...

Fantastic Daredevil blog, by the way! I'm definitely adding that to the blog sidebar so I can keep up with it.