Tuesday, 22 July 2014
NMU #34: "With A Little Bit Of Luck!"
("In my experience, there's no such thing as luck.")
The next few entries are going to involve some jumping around since the December issue of UXM takes place after October's New Mutants: Special Edition and Uncanny X-Men Annual 9, both of which follow on from this issue of New Mutants.
At last, after six issues, we come to the end of the Shadow Karma arc. My feelings on the degree to which it was worth stretching out this story so far are well known at this point, so we'll just focus on how good a job this issue does of wrapping things up. Really, that comes in two parts; how well does issue #34 wrap up the events kicked off in #29, and how well does it resolve the Illyana-is-evil plot set up the previous month.
The answer to the first question really hinges on how successful one views the revelation that Karma has been possessed by the Shadow King. From a historical perspective, there's a low ceiling to this; six issues to be presented with a reveal you already knew was coming just feels vastly too long. But that's precisely the wrong way to look at it. Criticising a slow reveal because you know what's going to be revealed anyway is far from fair. The only relevant question here is whether the revelation could have been worth it for readers at the time.
Even here, though, I have my doubts. The problem here is that the very surprise of the Shadow King's return works against the story. Farouk's return from the dead will certainly be surprising for those who remember who he is, but since he'd appeared in just one issue of a different title one month shy of seven years earlier, it's hard to believe there could be more than one in a hundred fans who recognised who he was - a fact rather underlined by Claremont finding it necessary to have Magik travel back in time to watch Xavier's seemingly kill Farouk back in the '60s. Really then all we learn is that Karma isn't actually Karma (something mentioned before in the story in any case) , and as I've argued before, the nature of comic convention is such that this is actually the most plausible explanation possible. Only the reveal that Karma is entirely herself would actually surprising here, and of course we don't get that.
The entirely unsurprising nature of a New Mutant not being evil is a good segue into talking about Illyana. As I mentioned last time, there must have been essentially zero readers at the time willing to believe Illyana had actually sold out Storm and the New Mutants to Shadow Karma. The cliffhanger wasn't over whether or not she'd turned her heel, but how giving Dani, Rahne and Ororo to SK might sensibly form part of a plan for the villain's ultimate defeat.
Here we learn the answer, and much as it did last time around, the success of the move depends entirely on how fully you're willing to buy into the idea that Claremont is deliberately writing Illyana as having heroic intentions but being sufficiently compromised by her time as Darkchilde that her plans are almost wilfully unpleasant and deceitful. A surface reading here does the comic few favours; Illyana's plan turns out to be to use the goodwill she generated with SK to get Warlock (disguised as herself) in close to the villain to keep him distracted whilst she 'ports out everyone else.
It's perhaps not the most impressive plan to cap off a six-issue story, but the bigger problem is that it offers no explanation as to why Magik believed she needed to sell Ororo out. Giving SK Dani or returning Wolfsbane should have been enough; SK was offering her an alliance from the very start, and even after Illyana gives everyone she can to the villain, he still plans to double-cross her, so it's not like she's actually gotten anything extra from the deal.
Or maybe she has. Maybe offering all three mutants instead of just one did increase the odds somehow. If we use the "malicious hero" reading, then this suddenly makes total sense: Illyana in her current iteration should be entirely happy to subject her friends to humiliation and degradation purely because it stacks the odds in her favour a little more. What does it matter how Ororo and Dani suffer? All that counts is that Illyana has the greatest chance of rescuing them all.
The biggest reason to doubt this describes Claremont's intentions is Illyana's behaviour at the beginning of the issue, where she faces Warlock down after he attacks her for seemingly betraying their friends. Not only does she refuse to fight him (betting on him not being able to murder her in cold blood), but she gives him a stirring pep talk about how awesome he is and how much she needs him, and how she's still a friend. This really doesn't come across as the behaviour of a scheming, cold-blooded manipulator. Even here, though, the alternative reading has weight. Illyana knows she needs Warlock for her plan, and that means she'll say anything to keep him on-side and ready for action. Viewed that way, and her comments stop being heartfelt reassurances that all is well, and cynical manipulation in order to get what she wants.
It's not a perfect fit (we see Illyana fretting about Storm's suffering, which doesn't really make sense), but it's an interesting enough angle for me to not particularly mind that. It's certainly the best spin I can put on this issue. Even using this approach, though, things fall apart at the end. Illyana's rallying of the New Mutants quickly leads to Farouk's defeat, and though he tries to hide out in Cypher, an awakened and apoplectic Kama tears him out and tosses him away as flames consume his Cairo nightclub. It would seem that this is a happy ending, Karma's unfortunate condition notwithstanding.
Except of course that it shouldn't be. Yes, the Shadow King has been defeated, but it took the mental enslavement and subsequent abuse of three women to do it. Karma is obviously terribly damaged both physically and psychologically by what's happened, but it was just yesterday that Dani, Rahne and Ororo were seemingly betrayed by Illyana and forced into psychic slavery. Don't anyone of them want to point this out? Don't anyone of them want to argue that Illyana's plan doesn't become acceptable merely because it worked? You would think there would be more than one awkward and urgent conversation to be had, but instead Ororo just suggests they all head for a holiday on Kirinos and the story comes to an end.
Perhaps there will be some space in the 64 pages of New Mutants: Special Edition to go through some of this in depth (for that matter, we still haven't dealt with the fact that under the Shadow King's compulsion some of the team carried out several brutal murders). For now, though, this is that most frustrating of storylines, an overlong and bloated tale that still manages to end up feeling rushed.
 Technically I suppose it's also heavily implied that the mutant that attacked Karma's mind in NMU #6 - still more than four years earlier - was not a new threat but an old one. It also gives us a plausible explanation as to why she was never found after the Hydra base in Big Sur exploded - she was already possessed and headed off to cause mischief. None of this is so much as mentioned in the actual script, which seems odd to me, but I suppose if Claremont has decided to assume his audience can remember the specifics of events from books he wrote years before, he might as well go all in.
This story follows on directly from NMU #33, and takes place over the course of a few minutes.
Tuesday 22nd January, 1985.
It's the one week anniversary of Israel pulling out of South Lebanon, which is ironic since over in El Salvador Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez is enacting his "Israeli Solution" during the sixth year of that country's civil war. This consisted of 12 "free-fire" zones in which any person not identified by the military was assumed to be an insurgent and subjected to "indiscriminate bombing".
"Query: FriendIllyana approves of self's disguise?"
"Welll -- 'E.T.'s' was better..."
It's hard work disguising aliens.