Monday, 13 May 2013
NMU #19: "Siege"
("We're here! We're queer! We don't want any more bears!")
It's a base under siege! Man, that takes me back.
So far as I can tell, the original base under siege - at least with fantastical trappings - belongs to H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, At the Mansions of Madness contains an astonishing number of fundamental sci-fi and horror tropes, presented with the kind of baffling roughness only possible when bringing something genuinely new into the world.
Lovecraft's influence is most obvious in one of the most well-known versions of the base under siege: John Carpenter's The Thing, which is probably just a few giant blind subterranean penguins away from being actionable. Terrifying remnants of ancient times haunting a remote, frozen realm? Check.
Sinister hyper-intelligent alien forces that caust us to question who and what we can trust about the nature of humanity? Check.
Oh, wait. That's not The Thing. That's Troughton era Doctor Who. Let's try again.
You get the point. Claremont is tapping into a fairly well-mined seam here. Not that is a prima facie problem, of course. It just means were going to be focusing less on what the comic does than on how it does it.
So. Dani has been taken to hospital following her mauling at the paws of a demon bear that's haunted her family for years. The New Mutants have followed along, both to see how her surgery progresses (do trauma surgeons really refuse to wait for x-rays in emergency cases? That seems insanely dangerous, though I guess I can see the counter-argument that definitely dead is worse than probably dead and maybe at a doctor's hands) and to keep watch should the bear return.
Which, obviously, it does. This is a base under siege, dammit, not a base under standard circumstances.
Let's tick our first box, then. The demon bear is a great choice for a besieging force. Its powers are unspecified but clearly considerable. Its form is familiar yet obviously "off" in significant ways. It's motives are utterly unknown (at least at first), but its objective is entirely clear and utterly murderous. All of that scores plenty of points even before we note that Sienkiewicz and Wein are both doing damn well with Claremont's script. Muted colours and deep shadows, and an abundance of red shades - it's all put together very well so as generate the right kind of atmosphere. The claustrophobia of events is increased by including plenty of tall, thin panels, often too narrow to include characters' entire faces. This also helps with Sienkiewicz's use of the demon bear, which is kept predominantly off-panel (in the sense that little is seen at any one time) far more than is necessary considering we all know what we're dealing with here. This is an exceptionally common approach in horror movies, where even when monsters have been identified they spend little time directly in shot. There of course there's also the desire to avoid special effects or cheap make-up being too obvious, but it performs an aesthetic job as well, and Sienkiewicz is savvy enough to know how it will contribute to the feeling of claustrophobia and isolation.
Hey, you know what doesn't enhance the feeling of claustrophobia and isolation? Cutting away from your tale of an isolated, besieged hospital and heading into the infinite blackness of interstellar space. It's not remotely difficult to understand why we're packed off to watch the Starjammers (along with Binary and Lilandra) encounter two organic vessels heading directly for Earth at "ultralight speeds"; clearly this is the next step in setting up Warlock's arrival. But it utterly kills the gathering atmospherics, resetting as it were the claustrophobia counter to zero. Back when these comics had no sense of aesthetics beyond making each individual panel as pretty as possible, this wouldn't have been a problem, but already here, in just the second Sienkiewicz issue, a script which doesn't focus on such issues causes real problems.
Major though it might be, this is the only real blip in the issue. Move it to one side and everything works very well, with Sienkiewicz providing an increasing sense of menace whilst Claremont gradually raises the stakes. Dani comes in horribly injured, and then is upgraded first to almost certainly dead, and then to entirely certainly paralysed. Something - presumably the close proximity of the demon bear and/or its effect upon Dani's special rapport with Rahne - is causing Wolfsbane's transformations to become erratic and misshapen. Tensions get so great that local cop Tom Corsi almost shoots Rahne (though she was a demon-twisted bipel wolf at the time, in fairness), and he's only just begun to calm himself down by chatting up a nurse named Sharon Friedlander when both of them get jumped by the bear.
And Illyana... Well. The young Russian is a little problematic here, actually. Just a little, in that she results in a step sideways from what Sienkiewicz is building rather than a step backwards. Still, this is a tale about a desperate attempt to avoid getting killed in the dead of frozen night by a seemingly unstoppable supernatural ursine. Having Illyana saved in each bear fight by the inexplicable arrival of some kind of stratified body armour sits oddly with the sense of utter helplessness explored elsewhere.
There is a third occasion in which the cramped atmosphere of the hospital is broken, but this final break is entirely deliberate. Apparently frustrated by its inability to defeat its young foes, the furry fiend decides to teleport the young mutants across time and space to a warm day somewhere out west, whilst dangling an apparently hypnotised Corsi and Friedlander in mid-air on either side of a giant red globe playing images of Dani's operation.
Shine on, you crazy bear diamond, I guess. But will this act of obvious madness claim the lives of our heroes? Tune in next time...
This story takes place over the course of some three hours. It's not clear whether or not the boundary of midnight is crossed, but I'm going to assume it has, for thematic reasons if nothing else.
Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th January, 1984.
X+5Y+329 to X+5Y+330.
"Near as we can figure, sir, she was mauled by a bear."
"In Westchester County? You gotta be kidding."
"Oh course, senhor. This is all one great, elaborate practical joke."
Damn, Corsi! You just came down with a bad case of Sunspotburn!