Friday, February 28, 2014

Now, call me foolish, call me irresponsible, but it seems to me that there's a new Jack Kirby community on Facebook...

I joined the newest Jack Kirby fan page on Facebook.  It's called simply "Jack Kirby!" and so far, so good.  I'm a little hesitant to engage fully because of my bad experience with the last Jack Kirby fan page I joined.  This one has a lot of big name professionals actively posting there and so far I've learned a great deal about page sizes and blue line pencils versus graphite.

Okay, I already knew a lot about page sizes and pencils, but it's exactly this kind of shop talk I crave.  You know, rather than a lot of insults and guys tenaciously and even furiously arguing minutia as if they were part of the UN Security Council and the Soviets had just put nuclear missiles in Cuba.  I don't know, maybe some people crave exactly that kind of interaction, but for me that stuff smells of locker rooms and sausage parties.  No thanks.

The brief on this page promises "no BS," and I hope that holds.  I want to look at Jack Kirby's art and glean a positive vibe from people discussing its merits-- or even the occasional mistake or odd element-- in a spirit of fun.  And I want to learn of the craft from people who know what they're talking about.  I can get more than my fill of ignorance right here, reading my own blog!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Uncanny X-Men #172 and #173: Bad News Mutants in Breaking Training So They Can Go To Japan... Yet Again!

As anyone who's read this blog knows, I live in Japan and I love American comics with this country as their setting.  Imagine my delight when Comixology delivered up Uncanny X-Men #172 (August 1983) and #173 (September 1983), a couple of thrill-filled Nihon-centric issues originally delivered right to the mailbox of my childhood home and featuring a glimpse of my current home, Marvel-style.

Come to think of it, Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont may be one of the reasons I moved here.  If so, I owe him a huge debt of thanks not just for the entertainment his writing provided me when I was kid about Dani Moonstar's age, but also because here in Japan, I live a life every bit as exciting as Wolverine's.  Okay, not really.  I'm boring.  I've only fought ninja or Yakuza thugs on rare occasions, and only once did I love and have my heart broken by someone as regal and unattainable as Lady Mariko.  I'd love to tell you all about it, but we have important things such as comics to discuss!

It's been years since I last read these two issues.  I plan to give them my full literary attention someday, but for now we're going to confine our discussion to Smith's images of Japan and bits of narration and dialogue in the pages I chose to illustrate this blog entry.  Just from looking at these very pretty pictures, I can tell this story is a direct sequel to 1982's four-issue Wolverine miniseries by Claremont and Frank Miller.  Wolverine Miller's influence runs all throughout their visuals, so much so the cover to #172 features the invitation Wolverine sent his friends at the end of Wolverine #4.  Paul Smith recreates Miller's original image, and even includes the cute handwritten little note from Wolverine to Nightcrawler about bringing beer.

"His Imperial Majesty Hirohito, Emperor of Japan."  He is now referred to as the Emperor Showa, and if you want to place this book within its era here in Japan it would be the Showa 58, the 58th year of the Showa Era.  Imagine receiving an invite from an emperor!  That is one heavy-duty invitation.  Lady Mariko, Wolverine's fiancée, is from a powerful family, apparently.  I love the fanciful Miller-designed attire the loving couple wear in the photo, too.

By the way, beer is readily available in Japan and has been for quite some time, so either Wolverine means bring any decent local brand Nightcrawler can pick up at a convenience store on the way to the ceremony or else pack in his suitcase some favored Canadian label he can't get there.

For this story, Claremont and Smith don't waste any time with flights or airports.  They immediately open with a "widescreen" cityscape and tell us it's Tokyo.  Certainly looks like Tokyo to this ex-pat.  Smith appears to have used a high-contrast photo paste-up to create this image, so what we have is a very convincing night view of the huge concrete and steel electrified wonderland we call Tokyo.

Then we zoom in for a closer view to establish exactly where in...

Uncanny X-Men #172 (August 1983), script: Chris Claremont, pencils: Paul Smith, inks: Bob Wiacek

And there it is!  That telephone-topped building again!  Frank Miller used it in Wolverine, Jim Aparo followed suit in Batman and the Outsiders.  Al Milgrom would also draw it in Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, yet another sequel to or continuation of this storyline.  In this issue, we get to see Smith's super-clean rendering of same. 

Was this telephone an actual Tokyo landmark?  I've been researching this online, but either it wasn't so special people have memorialized it or else it's a figment of Miller's imagination.  Even if this is the case, I think a Tokyo building with a big telephone on top is much more plausible than the existence of a Frank Miller movie that doesn't make Ed Wood weep the tears of artistic validation.  Tokyo is the place for all kinds of outdoor advertisement.  I don't know of any building currently topped with an old-fashioned telephone, but I do know of one topped with what the locals refer to as the "Golden Shit."  It's supposed to be a droplet of beer.  I have to agree with its more scatological nickname.

Anyway, you know you're in 1980s comic book Tokyo if you see the giant telephone.  You know you're in today's real Tokyo if you see a big, gilded turd.

Meguro, as Claremont informs us here, in the voice of his character Wolverine, is indeed an upper class district.  Celebrities and the like live there in expensive high-rise apartments.  It's just the place Mariko's family, the Yashidas, might maintain in Tokyo for their visits there.

Since this is an adventure comic, most of the outdoor scenes take place on the rooftops of those apartments, at night.  That's where the ninja sneak around so they can disrupt wedding plans when they take a notion to do so.  Wolverine and his pal Nightcrawler are pretty good at sneaking around up there, too.  As is Wolverine's erstwhile lover, the thrill-crazed Yukio.

Well, kind of...

Uncanny X-Men #172, Claremont, Smith, Wiacek

"I slipped!"  That would have been a pretty stupid way for Yukio to die, huh?  Lucky for her, Storm was out flying around.

As you can see from this page, Smith constructs his buildings very simply.  Even so, he and inker Bob Wiacek toss enough katakana or hiragana up and down their sides to make things convincing.  His kimono-clad women are the real visual draw in this story.  There's something about the Smith-Wiacek clean-line look, with things pared down to sleek minimalism that goes well with traditional Japanese clothing.  It also helps that Smith and Wiacek draw amazingly beautiful women.  Unfortunately, they also tend to draw them so they resemble each other, except for Yukio and her punk-rock hair.  Smith and Wiacek give her a face with more sharply defined cheekbones and it individualizes her.

The fun extends to the next issue where Wolverine reluctantly teams up with new team member Rogue to fight the villains.  As I've said, I haven't re-read these in detail, so all I know about the plot is the Silver Samurai and Viper want to stop Lady Mariko from marrying Wolverine.  And Storm debuts her Mohawk after hanging out with Yukio.  No doubt spending any amount of time with someone as uninhibited as Yukio would inspire you to drastic style changes.  We'll get into all of this in the future, but for now you don't really need to know the specifics to enjoy our Claremont-Smith travelogue.

Uncanny X-Men #173, the story starts in "the Ginza."  Claremont has Wolverine tell us guide books recommend "the Ginza" for a "good time."  Wolverine's idea of a good time is getting drunk and into a bar fight.  So that's where we find him. 

I really think Wolverine has read the wrong guide books, because Ginza (minus the definite article) is more a shopping area.  And not just any shopping area.  Ginza is where the rich go to drop the big money on Rolex watches, Chanel and Louis Vuitton couture and bags and other luxury goods, many of which cost more each than I make in a month.  There may have been dive bars there in the 1980s.  There may be now.  But I doubt it.  I rather think Wolverine's destination of choice would be the wilder, woolier environs of Golden Gai in Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho neighborhood.

That's where I went when I wanted to pretend to be Wolverine and act all tough.  Whenever I told people I hung out in Kabuki-cho, they'd smile and shake their heads and tell me, "Don't go there!  It's dangerous!"  Dangerous to the tune of the thousands of yen you blow in the kinds of bars Wolverine would more than likely spend his nights. 

No one has ever said anything like that to me about Ginza.  They just told me to go to this famous chocolate shop, which I could never find the one time I tried, way back in 2008.  I did find a toney toy store selling Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull actions figures, the ones with amblyopia.  Some Wolverine, huh?

If you take a closer look at that first vertical panel, notice how Smith includes a puddle in the gutter.  Nice work on the reflections there.  It rains a lot in Japan, so that's a little detail that goes a long way to establishing the setting's bona fides as well.  That image has an impressive sense of place.  That's the Tokyo I've seen with my own eyes.

Uncanny X-Men #173 (September 1983), Claremont, Smith, Wiacek

I'm not too certain about those guys Wolverine's launched through the window.  He does a lot of stuff like that whenever he's in Japan.  Things like this may or may not happen here.  I have a feeling if a foreigner started tossing locals through bar windows, we'd hear about it on the NHK news.  Even more so in the early 80s when we were a rarer breed.  If I had to guess, I'd say this is a more likely to happen in Okinawa where the US military always seems to be stirring things up and causing trouble.  But then, as I've already proven, I'm not Wolverine. 

The worst incident I've ever been involved with was having a guy repeatedly scream, "Pearl Harbor say 'Fuck you!'" at our little drinking group until the bar-owner kicked us out for causing trouble.  I don't blame her.  He was a regular and we were just passing through.  I still wonder what set him off, though.  He approached us in what we thought was a friendly way.  We made small talk in Japanese and tried to use the little abdomen exercise wheel when he asked.  Maybe he felt patronized, or someone said something to offend him when I wasn't paying attention to the conversation.  Perhaps he just hated whitey.  I still don't know what was in his heart.  But I do know he was drunk.

You might read worse stories from other ex-pats here and there around Japan.  Some people attract negativity and bad scenes.  I suppose I've been very lucky in all my years here.  Despite the occasional run-in with Sunfire, mine has been a smooth, laid-back kind of life.  But once again, I don't have adamantium-coated bones or a mutant healing factor.

Marvel Japan is a pretty fun place to visit, isn't it?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Uncanny X-Men #168 (April 1983): My first subscription comic!

Did you ever love a comic so much you subscribed to it?  Sure, people have "pull lists" these days.  We had those back in the antediluvian days of comic book fandom, too.  I mean, my antediluvian days, which were the early 1980s.  I had a pull list at two different comic book shops, but both of them went out of business fast.  There were not enough people like me to support them in our small southern town.  So to primitive me, subscribing to a comic for a year and getting issues in the mail was the sign of true love.  Like offering a sweater or a ring to that special someone.  My special someone was Uncanny X-Men.  And Uncanny X-Men #168 (April 1983) was the first issue that came straight from Marvel to my mailbox.  What a day that was!  I was always the first person home, so my responsibilities included running out and checking the mail.  And there was a brown wrapper with a battle-damaged Kitty Pryde inside.

"PROFESSOR XAVIER IS A JERK!" Kitty exclaims in the splash panel, pointing accusingly back at the readers as if we don't believe her. 

I remember this as a shocking moment, a new, upstart character badmouthing an old school stalwart.  Apparently, others felt the same about it because Joss Whedon and John Cassaday would recreate it as a Kitty memory when she returns to the mansion during the first moments of their initial Astonishing X-Men story arc.  What had Xavier done to piss off Kitty?  He refused to let her be an X-Man because it was too dangerous.  To add insult to injury, he also forced her to join the New Mutants trainee team, which is like being demoted from the Majors to low A ball in the middle of the season.

Uncanny X-Men #168 (April 1983), Script: Chris Claremont, Pencils: Paul Smith, Inks: Bob Wiacek

Kitty does her best to prove Xavier wrong throughout the issue, but at first, her attitude is pretty much what you'd expect from a disappointed fourteen year old.  She flips.  Her calmer, cooler friend Illyana immediately calls her out for acting like the child Xavier already thinks she is.  And Illyana should be the one to show maturity.  She and Kitty are roughly the same age, but Illyana is also the demon queen of the Limbo dimension.  Being a demon queen gives one a more advanced perspective. 

Ah, the art!  There is some excellent acting throughout this book and it's all just so clean, so slick, so easy on the eyes.  Paul Smith took over Uncanny X-Men after Dave Cockrum left the book for a second time to write and draw his own property, The Futurians. While I really dug his return, Smith immediately piqued my interest with his ultra-sleek linear style.  With Bob Wiacek finishes, practically everything in the book seems made of polished metal.  Okay, I'm exaggerating, but Kitty's hair certainly has a metallic look.  And good portions of the story take place in the X-Mansion's lower levels where the walls actually are polished metal.  The Smith-Wiacek team is my third art team on this book and the last to capture my imagination.  I copied their Kitty-hair and style of drawing noses for months, but the Smith-Wiacek Storm is the character at her most goddess-like.  Absolutely beautiful.  Then they gave her a Mohawk.

Dubious fashion choices aside, the father-daughter dynamic Chris Claremont works in this issue is a lot of fun.  Professor Xavier has the dad role, of course, and Kitty is the typical teen who wants to prove to her parents she's grown up enough to make her own choices about risk taking.  For most of Kitty's contemporaries, this would mean going un-chaperoned to a Duran Duran or Michael Jackson concert.  Everyone else is going!  Why can't I?  Since Illyana is apparently Kitty's only age-appropriate friend and the rest of the people she hangs out with rarely attend pop concerts but instead have superpowers and enjoy dressing in colorful leotards to launch into space and fight insectoids, that's what she wants to do.

After she realizes throwing a tantrum isn't going to help, Kitty calms down and puts her intellect to work on the problem.  She tries various strategies to change the Professor's mind, from whipping him at chess while explaining her considerable advantages to shouting to shameless brown-nosing.  The progression Claremont presents is just so believable.  Who hasn't tried each of these with parents?

Then, unlike those of us who never got to see the Go-Gos or the Replacements until we were out of the house and in college, Kitty gets lucky, because some space cockroaches who shoot magenta ray beams from their eyes have infiltrated the mansion's creepy-crawly basement.  This is all very reminiscent of the time Kitty faced off against a N'Garai demon by herself, but provides another, very convenient way for Kitty to present her case.  And out of all the things Kitty's tried, it's the most effective, because she gets to showcase a number of her intrinsic capabilities and all those extra things she's learned so far from people like Xavier, Cyclops, Storm and even Wolverine.  Yeah, as if Wolverine knows anything about fighting.

Claremont, Smith, Wiacek

And that brings us back to the cover, because fighting these bugs is how Kitty ended up in the bruised, ripped and still defiant pose I first saw after slipping the comic out of the wrapper.  Colossus turns up just in time to save our gutsy Kitty, but she's finally made her point.  Professor X puts her back on the team, with a probationary proviso which Kitty sensibly agrees to.  She also gets a pet dragon, which is like the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy.  Imagine for a moment what it's like to be Kitty Pryde.  You're young, you're a genius, you're spunky and heroic, you've got hair so shiny people in shampoo commercials turn weepy with envy, you get your fondest wish... and you get to have the coolest pet ever.

As an added bonus, you also get your own fan page:

Uncanny X-Men #168 (April 1983):  Alliteration sometimes leads to adverse accidental acronyms

Nobody did all that for me when I was 14!  Oh well, shoot, after all that, she deserves it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day! Here are some of my favorite love pairs in comics...

1. Superman and Lois Lane.  No, not Superman and Wonder Woman.  Superman and Lois Lane are the couple of comic book record and trying to change that is stupid.  There is no greater comic book pairing than these two.  The demigod with the human heart and the kick ass intrepid reporter.

2. Big Barda and Mr. Miracle.  I love these two together.  Mr. Miracle is the gentle soul, Barda is the iron-willed warrior who seeks to protect him, an inversion of the expected gender roles.  However the thing I like most about these two is when they're written and drawn by Jack Kirby they have one of the most genuine loves depicted in comics.  It's warm and organic and they have a lot of chemistry.  There's is one of the few truly adult relationships depicted in superhero comics.

3. Terra and Changeling.  These two are a couple of freaks and their love is strange and wrong.  That's what makes it so fun to read about.

4. Cyclops and Phoenix.  Classic doomed pair.  Well, one of them was doomed.  Which means their love was doomed.  Who doesn't love reading about doomed love?  Even Dr. Doom loves doomed love.

5. Maggie and Hopey.  This is one that makes for some amazing reading.  I can't decide if I like them better together or apart.  Either way, good stuff.

6. Nexus and Sundra.  Another very adult relationship.  They've gone through a lot together and we've watched them grow and develop over many long years.

7. Reed Richards and Sue Storm Richards.  This is one of those relationships that-- at least in the early Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years-- is mostly what little boys think love and all that gooey junk is all about.  There's this stalwart, relatively emotionless guy who needs to get some work done and there's the flighty, childish, super-moody girl who always demands his attention.  Sue would put on a pouty scene and Reed would turn to his pal Ben Grimm and say something like, "Women.  Even with all my scientific knowledge, there's no understanding their mysteries!"  Ben would say, "They sure smell nice, though."  And Reed would conclude, "They do, old pal.  I suppose all we men can do is give up trying to figure out women and simply protect them and their silly little fantasies from the harsh realities of the multiverse."  Cut to a close-up of Sue getting a manicure or trying on a wig.

8. Buddy and Lisa.  The unfortunate pair from Hate, the perfect comic.  Buddy is kind of an asshole and Lisa is a complete mess.  Together, they're a disaster.  No wonder they got married and had a kid.

And with that, I give up!  Go read about your own favorites and leave me alone!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

New Mutants #29-34: Xi'an Coy Manh returns from beyond(er)!

We all remember the tragic moment at the end of New Mutants #6 (August 1983) when Xi'an Coy Manh experienced a moment of terror and then everyone exploded and fell into the sea.  It reminds me of what happened to poor Josie Packard on Twin Peaks.  Sure, Josie wasn't as innocent or nice as she initially led us to believe, but she died similarly afraid, on an episode that aired almost eight years after "Road Warriors!" hit the newsstands and comic shops around the world.  Or else she turned into a wooden knob on a piece of furniture.  We can never be completely sure.  Xi'an's fate is equally strange and even involves what appears to be a Packard-like heel-turn or betrayal. 

And at first exactly what happened to her is also every bit as mysterious as Josie Packard's final moments.  After the smoke clears and her friends sort themselves out, Xi'an is nowhere to be found, so everyone reasonably assumes she drowned when her friend and teammate Roberto DaCosta lost her in the undertow.  But what about that mysterious, last-moment voice in her mind?  Why was Xi'an screaming in Vietnamese and cowering, apparently at nothing, just before the explosion?

New Mutants #6 (August 1983), script: Chris Claremont, pencils: Sal Buscema, inks: Armando Gil

Writer Chris Claremont chose to leave these questions unanswered for a time.  The kids mourned Xi'an, then jetted south to the Amazon for new adventures and new teammates.  And so the New Mutants went on for several years with lead character Dani Moonstar becoming a comic book legend, easily the equal of Spider-Man, Batman, the Crypt-Keeper or Herbie Popnecker, and Xi'an shrinking to little more than a tragic footnote.  

All the way until 1985, that is.  July of that year brought to the increasingly Dani-centric Marvel universe New Mutants #29, which begins with Sam Guthrie and Illyana Rasputin, inappropriately dressed in swimsuits, blasting their way into the terminal of a snowed-in airport in pursuit of unseen thugs who have kidnapped teammates Roberto DaCosta and Amara Aquilla right out from under their noses.  You can imagine how upset they are.  Not only have they lost two friends, but, boy oh boy, is Dani ever going to be pissed at them.!

Illyana and Sam end up in Los Angeles thanks to an errant teleportation spell and have to ask Sam's lover, fabulous insterstellar rock star Lila Cheney, for help.  This brings Dazzler into the story, and she's just ever so coincidentally recently gotten herself out of a tangled mess involving the very same kidnappers.  The heroes track down the villains to an underground gladiatorial contest the likes of which makes Bloodsport look like cricket.  Even for a place as decadent as the story's take on LaLa-Land, I'm not sure I buy all this.  The logistics for putting on such a show and keeping it secret strain my suspension of disbelief, especially when the guy who hires the support team is a surly talking horse who doesn't seem to do anything to hide his unusual appearance.  Things like that tend to attract unwanted attention to your murder sprees.    Still, we're barely into the plot and Claremont may have one heck of an explanation waiting for us.

Unfortunately, New Mutants #30 (August 1985) is a mess.  In it, Roberto and Amara gloomily agree to do something against their morals because an evil hologram says they must or he'll injure some children.  The hologram certainly doesn't volunteer any proof and the kids neglect to demand any.  This seems questionable judgment on their part at best.  But even characters acting like dopes isn't as catastrophic to the narrative as would be, say, the creative team being forced to tie it all into a completely unrelated and god-awful massive crossover event.

Which is exactly what happened.  As a result, the issue starts abruptly with the resolution of a moment from a comic called Secret Wars II #1 (I don't feel like looking up the date for this).  The splash page positively groans under the weight of expository narrative captions referencing events in other books we couldn't care less about.  There's suddenly an extra character in the mix who looks alarmingly and confusingly like series regular Rahne Sinclair.  And there are also totally static moments interrupting the ongoing action where characters discuss the theological implications of the Beyonder, who seems to be a real cosmic asshole.  You know, one of those Star Trek-style godlike beings who like to change reality on a whim for reasons that in hindsight turn out to a huge pile of shallow Introduction to Philosophy (PH 100 A1 at Boston University in case you're interested in signing up and learning more about the Beyonder) horseshit and who are completely unstoppable until stopped.

In some other book.  Which we'll never read.

Why do I get the feeling this is a dig at the boss?

These moments do nothing to advance either the New Mutants or the Secret Wars II story, but do allow us to think, "Yeah, that's exactly what good ol' Sam Guthrie would think about some poorly-planned and executed nonsense."

Most damagingly, after having devoted so many pages to boneheaded Secret Wars II miscellany, Claremont must then dispose of his own story matters with a few dialogue exchanges so brief you might even miss them after trying to fast forward out of the truly useless crossover parts.  Instead of showing us fun adventuresome stuff like Kitty's detective work (after she takes the trouble of infiltrating the hologram's business), the book just has her explain things on the run:  "Oh, before I forget, here's the scoop on the hologram and those hostage kids, guys..."  There's even a subplot about whether or not Dazzler can break her addiction to fame that gets shafted as well.  Damn you, daddy Beyonder dearest.

With Robin Williams (that's who artist Bill Sienkiewicz makes the Beyonder look like, Williams in one of his patented "holy fool" roles) finally out of the picture (mostly), and our story in grave danger of turning into a summary of Kitty's apparently mad intuitive leaps, we eventually find out it's not the evil hologram but instead a shadowy blob who runs the whole shebang, all the horse-headed weirdos and Frankenstein's monsters and evil holograms and Dazzler solves her problems in a diary entry and the show must go on. 

And with that realization comes a shocking revelation in New Mutants #31 (September 1985), which should have, Beyonder-less, happened as a cliffhanger ending to the previous issue--

New Mutants #31 (September 1985), script: Claremont, art: Bill Sienkiewicz

It's Xi'an Coy Manh!  Welcome back, Xi'an!  We're all glad to see you again.  But now you're huge.  And evil!  What the heck happened to you?  Somehow she's even ruined her formerly pristine teeth.  I don't remember Bob McLeod or Sal Buscema drawing Xi'an with gigantic rat-like gnashers like those.  I also don't remember her having a chin-cleft in a big Jay Leno-sized mandible, but there it is.

And because I'm a big fan of his, Sienkiewicz's interior art here doesn't really help.  His covers are incredibly compelling and creative-- I especially like the one with the marionettes.  But inside the two issues he draws, he's wildly inconsistent.  Even for someone with an real expressionist touch.  His "Neal Adams-inked-by-Ralph-Steadman" style reinvigorated the series at first, but in New Mutants #31, he pushes the experimentation and stylistic distortions to the point where they actively fight reader engagement.  Unless Sam Guthrie's head being shaped like a large slice of pizza appeals to you.  Much of the action takes place within featureless voids and even the crowd scenes seem under-populated, with a few circles here and there representing the screaming audience in the gladiator sequences.  Claremont lays on the dense prose to make things clear, but that's no happy joining of prose and visuals in the manner we learned to expect from this team when they had the kids fighting demon bears and evil drug dealers.

Ah, but are the New Mutants really up against Xi'an herself turned evil?   Illyana thinks so, no doubt inspired by everyone's stories of Xi'an's bad seed brother Tran Coy Manh and equally dastardly uncle General Nguyen Ngoc Coy (who makes a non sequitor cameo here that has to be explained in a later issue, yet another plot-casualty of Shooter... I mean... Secret Wars II).  The people who love Xi'an best are not convinced, so the next, vastly improved part of the story involves their investigation into how someone so right could have gone so wrong.

It starts in New Mutants #32 (October 1985) with a flashback covering the events of New Mutants #6.  In this telling, Claremont places the burden of a guilty conscience on Roberto, who ends up acting very much the hothead the rest of the way, even to the point of daring to disapprovingly compare Dani to Professor X.  Roberto's anger-- largely the outward manifestation of self-directed frustration and troubled conscience-- is set up by this very effective sequence, well-drawn by Leialoha, who inherits the book from Sienkiewicz to finish the arc.  Leiahola's self-inked linework at times pleasingly recalls the Swamp Thing team of Steve Bissette and John Totleben, but more angular and less organic.  Sometimes it conjures Sienkiewicz at his most controlled.  Sequentially, it's refreshingly clear and direct.  Just little things like formal perspective and being able to tell where the characters are in relation to each other and the world around them help a lot.  And also the kids looking more or less human throughout.

New Mutants #32 (October 1985), script: Claremont, art: Steve Leialoha

Led now by Dani, and receiving a huge intelligence boost as a result, the team jets (on a really amazing 747 complete with sleeping compartments!) across the world looking for Xi'an while Doug uses "various computer networks" to track Xi'an's path of global hedonism to Pharaoh, her giant Egyptian casino.  Doug's computer work strikes me as genius moment of prescience by Claremont, the kind of thing Secret Wars II prevented in the previous arc.  Nowadays, every second comic out there features a scene where some brainiac Googles a solution to everyone's problems. Well, Claremont has Doug doing his little version of this a decade before there was even a Google!

It turns out a really nasty guy named Amahl Farouk abducted Xi'an immediately after the big explosion everyone thought claimed her life.  And by "abducted," I mean he stole her body and imprisoned her inside it with himself in the driver's seat.  Besides being a psychic body-snatcher and all-around scumbag, Farouk is also a glutton, both for people's souls and for food. You know, the high life.  Once in possession of Xi'an's lithe body, he parties it up and starts a big time entertainment business-- while dominating all manner of humans and superhumans with is psychic powers.

So starting with New Mutants #33 (November 1985), we get a great deal of that kinky corrupting-the-innocent and bondage-type stuff, with the New Mutants falling under Farouk's spell and in New Mutants #34 (December 1985) the antics even come to include an ostensibly experienced and strong-willed adult, the punkishly mohawked Storm.  We even get one of those patented "Will you become my groveling slave and gladly do things your ordinary self would find repulsive and degrading?" moments with Storm struggling at first-- literally crawling on her belly and forced to kiss Xi'an foot as a guy in the crowd begs to go next.  Then Xi'an demands more of Storm as the former demi-goddess resists-- before giving in and exclaiming in orgasmic ecstasy, "Oh, yes!  YES!  YES!"

Also in New Mutants #34, after seemingly betraying her friends, Illyana traipses to the past with Warlock, the team's comedic relief, a kind-hearted "techo-organic" creature from outer space who's sort of a mix between Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data and the earlier, funnier, more manic Robin Williams circa Mork and Mindy.

This by itself is a huge boost to the story because we actually get to watch Illyana in action, complete with an adventuresome cameo by li'l Ororo, the once-and-future Storm.  Cleverly concealing herself behind a wall, Illyana sees a young Charles Xavier going into a bar in Cairo and emerging with a big scorch-mark.   On the back of his safari jacket, for the scatalogically inclined out there.  Using her own arcane powers and Warlock's sensors, Illyana realizes Xavier's been in a psychic battle and walked away the winner.  And the loser was Farouk, hence this whole narrative.

New Mutants #34 (December 1985), script: Claremont, art: Leialoha

While mind control is a recurring X-Men/New Mutants theme, so is redemption.  We don't talk about this one as much because it's not so easy to poke fun at as all those bondage/humiliation scenarios.  But Banshee in the early issues of Uncanny X-Men, Jean Grey in the penultimate moment of her life, Sam himself, Illyana (endlessly), Magneto, Rogue.  Claremont is always giving his characters a second or third chance and changing their lives for the better, no matter how far they'd fallen.  Adding complexity and richness to their inner lives in the process.  At the climactic moment of New Mutants #34, Xi'an seeks her redemption by fighting Farouk on the astral plane.  Solo, which is fitting.  At first, she's helpless before him, but eventually her psychic-self breaks free of her bloated imago, and looks just like her old, athletic self, complete with bobbed haircut.  She mentally kicks Farouk's mental ass and returns to our reality free of corruption.  Her mind may be free, but the physical damage of Farouk's possession of her body remains.

New Mutants #34 (December 1985), script: Claremont, art: Leialoha

The little text blurbs at the bottom promise more action to come, this time all the way in Asgard itself, the mystical realm of the Norse gods and homeland of the mighty Thor himself.  There Xi'an goes through a long desert ordeal where she sheds the excess pounds and just a year later, when Jackson Guice and Kyle Baker come aboard to provide guest art in New Mutants #46 (December 1986), she's right back with the team and looks like this:

New Mutants #46 (December 1986), script: Claremont, pencils: Jackson Guice, inks: Kyle Baker

Even her teeth and chinbone have shrunk back to the way they once were.

And  that's the story of how Xi'an Coy Manh climbed waaay up to the forty-fourth floor of the Hudsucker Building, and then fell all the way down but didn't quite squish herself. You know, they say there was a mutant who jumped from the forty-fifth floor?

But that's another story.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Monday, February 3, 2014

Hell's Angel: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw New Mutants and the Time They Adopted Bird Brain

From the vantage point of our current mass media, where its characters permeate the zeitgeist, it may seem ridiculous, even the stuff of lunacy, but there came a time in the late 1980s when America's comics-hungry masses turned away from New Mutants.  As interest in the comic fell and sales flagged and talking heads hit the airwaves to postulate almost hysterically on the reasons-- anxiety over the ending of the Reagan era? Pre-millennial jitters?-- series star Dani Moonstar phoned the home office and demanded someone at Marvel do something. The Marvel solution as scripted by Louise Simonson was to honor that most wonderful and time-tested of sitcom traditions with the addition of a cute tagalong to the familiar cast.

In the human world, this new character would most likely be a baby or even Ted McGinley (already having done sterling work on Happy Days, The Love Boat and at the time coming off a stint revitalizing Dynasty as Clay Fallmont on his way to achieving legendary status as Jefferson D'Arcy on Married With Children).  Or a bespectacled blond-headed moon-faced boy susceptible to both pies in the face and Bobby Brady's ridiculous detective schemes.  In the world of teen mutant super-beings, the ideal Cousin Oliver proved to be a hideous feathered freak, the very antithesis of the almost supernaturally handsome McGinley.

And while The Brady Bunch failed to escape the event horizon of its particular ratings black hole, adding Bird Brain to the cast gave New Mutants enough of a lift to carry on for a few more years.  Bird Brain, the lovable weirdo.  Bird Brain, who made Gonzo the Great look like Cary Grant and the Chicken Lady from Kids in the Hall resemble his To Catch a Thief co-star Grace Kelly.  Bird Brain, who ate fish and probably smelled something awful. 

New Mutants #55 (September 1987), script: Louise Simonson, pencils: Bret Blevins, inks: Terry Austin

Online sources list New Mutants #55 (September 1987) as Bird Brain’s first appearance, and that's technically correct, although it's a mere cameo.  We do feel his presence throughout, starting early in the issue when the kids learn about Bird Brain from a radio news story.  Remember radio?  Artist Bret Blevins reminds of what this obsolete technology looks like with a highly detailed rendering that will no doubt become useful for future historians and archeologists as they try to recreate our late 20th century society. 

To you, highly advanced people of the future:  Yes, we primitives once used these devices to listen to music and learn about the world around us. 

Later, Rahne urges her friends to do something about Bird Brain's plight, and Bird Brain himself appears in an insert panel soon afterwards.  All we see is his beaked face.  Most of the story involves Sam Guthrie taking drugs at a party to impress his sometimes lover Lila Cheney, a space-thief who spends her down time rocking earth as a kind of Patti Smith/Pat Benatar/Joan Jett stand-in. 

For the record, I would fully support a Lila Cheney solo series.

New Mutants #55 (September 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: Blevins, inks: Austin

Anyway, Bird Brain.  New Mutants #56 (October1987) is the first comic truly to be all about his birdness and his brain.  We learn Sam has somehow inadvertently freed Bird Brain from his imprisonment in a research lab—it must have happened while he was groggily flying around trying to avoid some aliens who have it in for Lila.  For unknown reasons, we don’t actually see this happen in the story.  Just take Dani's word for it.  Or Sam’s.  Or Rahne’s.  Whether or not he's truly responsible, Sam feels so and goes to find the fugitive freak while Dani involves the entire team.  She even makes them wear their hideous “graduation uniforms,” for disguise purposes.  See, if they wore their New Mutant garb, everyone would know them, but a group of teens with identical powers and similar appearance in different clothes constitute a mystery even Reed Richards couldn’t solve.  And that guy is a genius, but obviously not as much so as Dani Moonstar. 

New Mutants #56 (October 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: June Brigman, inks: Austin
Let me just take a moment to express how much I wish June Brigman had penciled more New Mutants.  She did this issue and annual #4 (September 1988), but Marvel should have given her the monthly assignment.  She’s gold on this team, especially with Simonson's scripting.  Regular artist Blevins has an edgy, sketchy style with a lot of energy, but he makes Dani look about fifty years older than her supposed age (and kind of mean!), which is an unforgiveable lapse (although his Rahne Sinclair is cute as a button).  So while I admire Blevins' cartoony body language, with bent knock-kneed poses and dramatic gestures, I prefer Brigman's cleaner visuals and more controlled rendering.  Brigman, with the able assistance of inker Terry Austin, provides a sleek look that's a cool alternative to Blevins' more jittery work.  Her storytelling is fine, but it's the way she draws figures with lifelike proportions and impeccable facial “acting”  that grounds the book in some much-needed reality.  This gives outré characters like Bird Brain a bit more believability.  And this is without relying on the crutch of photorealism.

New Mutants #56 (October 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: Brigman, inks: Austin

Also, Louise Simonson has a way with naturalistic teen-speak that I find superior to Chris Claremont's more stilted dialogue.  Claremont crafted some dark classics during his run on the characters, particularly the "Demon Bear Saga," which received its own trade paperback collection (something that can't be said for the "Bird Brain Saga"), but Simonson's teens "sound" more like actual teens.  Especially when combined with Brigman's art, where they look like actual teens as well. 

Also, Simonson's Bird Brain certainly is a bird brain!  It doesn't take Dani and the rest long to teach him the importance of dressing well.

New Mutants #57 (November 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: Blevins, inks: Austin

And the deliciousness of fast food.

New Mutants #57 (November 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: Blevins, inks: Austin

And the wonders of modern cinema.
New Mutants #57 (November 1987), script: Simonson, pencils: Blevins, inks: Austin

At this point, I will excuse you for asking,  "Just what in the name of Bill Sienkiewicz is going on here?"  In fact, ask me that.  Right now.

I don't know!  As a minor character Bird Brain would have been slightly annoying, but Simonson spotlights him over Dani Moonstar and other, more pressing plotlines like Sam's romance with Lila, Magneto's taking over the team and Amara's love-hate for one of the Hellions and her resulting arguments with Dani.  The kids' clumsy attempts at assimilating so alien a creature into teen society are amusing, but this is also a comic co-starring a girl who's literally from Hell and characters just one mistake away from death.  And the "Bird Brain Saga" isn't just a one or two issue romp.  It lasts approximately seven issues and for most of those seems little more than slapstick sit-com fodder, a bizarre digression for the series as a whole.

Okay, actually, I do know.  Because just when you've had about all the Bird Brain you can stand, Simonson ups the dramatic stakes by adroitly shifting tonally from comedy to sci-fi horror and the plot into a Moonstar-starring H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau.  This happens in New Mutants #58 (December 1987) when the kids journey to a mysterious island to finally learn the true origin of Bird Brain.  After all, Bird Brain had to come from somewhere, so why not an island of animal-human hybrids presided over by a mad scientist with a skull for a hat?  By #59 (January 1988), the New Mutants are themselves captives and their humanity at risk.  

From there, the jeopardy growing from this development leavens the oddball comedy of the preceding issues.  The Moreau-style plotline is also particularly apt when dealing with characters on the cutting edge of human evolution.  Wells' themes--- including cruelty to animals (in Moreau, it's vivisection, in this story it's updated for the 80s to a more generalized laboratory research and then genetic splicing), which the Bird Brain story addresses obliquely from the beginning-- jibe quite well with Simonson's take on the team as concerned young people trying to make the world a better place.  By providing a classic literary explanation for this bizarre Bird Brain character, she finishes strongly, with a tragedy with lasting ramifications for the team in #60 (February 1988). 

Which I won't share with you because you owe it to yourself to read the entire Bird Brain saga in all its strangeness.   It's not exactly a "Demon Bear Saga," but on the other hand, it does feature Bird Brain.