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.

No comments: