Thursday, 31 July 2014
NMU Special Edition #1: "Home Is Where The Heart Is"
New Mutants Special Edition was, to say the least, an interesting choice as a follow-up to the six part "Shadow Karma" storyline. After wading through that story over six months, two phases, and three continents, the question of "what next" was one worth thinking about, and this is something of an unexpected result, at least in part. Swapping out the overwrought melodrama for something a little more frothy certainly seems like a solid move, but 64 pages? After six full issues battling Karma/Farouk, do we really need essentially three more on the team's travails in Thor's homeland? Couldn't we just, you know, chill?
One interesting difference between this story and its predecessor is that our team is rapidly separated and forced to deal with their situation individually. The set-up for this is fairly brief: Loki, like apparently every other major supervillain in the MU, wants Storm as a concubine/love object and, due to the events of the X-Men/Alpha Flight crossover a little way back, wants the rest of the X-Men tortured to death. Both tasks are given the Enchantress to carry out. Unfortunately for the New Mutants, their proximity to Storm leads the Enchantress to assume they are the team Loki mentioned, and so all are kidnapped. Ororo is delivered to Loki for some mind-control (because Odin knows there hasn't been enough of that in New Mutants lately...) and a last-minute attempt at escape by Magik leaves her alone with the Enchantress whilst her friends are scattered randomly across Asgard and Hel.
This in effect reduces forty or so pages into nine vignettes as we follow the protagonists through a wide variety of situations. The overall effect is beneficial in some ways, since it prevents any one section or idea from dragging on for too long. On the other hand, creating a satisfactory four or five page comic strip isn't actually a trivial task, and having to do it nine times (ten times if we include Storm's story here of "be controlled by Loki and get turned into a bird") is a real stretch. Claremont's approach here is entirely unsurprising, he just finds eight backwaters of Norse myths (the ninth story being Illyana's tribulations in the hands of the Enchantress) for a bit of whimsy. By now my feelings on this approach have been exhaustively detailed, but I wonder whether even those much happier than I to read Claremont in this mode feel enthused by the idea of so many minor variations on it in one book.
Still, at least this approach lets me talk about the story in a different manner to usual. Here, ordered in ascending degree of how much they annoyed me, are the nine subplots of NMU Special Edition:
Definitely my favourite story of the group. If you're going to just throw things together to see what works you can do far worse than werewolves and giants. Especially if the wolves then fall in love. Via wolf prince Hrimhari we get to see Rahne enjoying herself more than usual, as well as growing as a character, and her dilemma between staying with him and finding her possibly endangered friends makes for a nice change from the usual fretting over life not matching up to her ultra-strict Protestant upbringing.
In fact, this is one the few story strands in this issue that I really wish had been stretched out. There's a whole issue here about young lycanthropes in love, but instead Rahne just gets a page of two of dithering before Illyana's evil made manifest (we'll get to this in a moment) abducts her.
Illyana's story is the engine driving this entire plot. It's also pretty grim, featuring as it does the Enchantress tearing out the elements of Magik's Darkchilde persona and cobbling into a vicious servant. Which would be bad enough, but in addition any damage incurred by the simulacrum instead affects Illyana. It's all quite vicious, a sprinkling of sharp spice in an otherwise mostly bland dish. For the rest of the book, the Illyana-shade stalks the land possessing people, and each hit she takes in the process we know is being directed somewhere else. The most cynical amongst us might see this as poetic justice for her throwing Ororo, Rahne and Dani to the Shadow King recently, but personally I'm far too busy squirming at Illyana's agony to want to approach that argument.
Some people get all the luck. Berto finds himself in an Asgardian hostelry, and quickly makes a name for himself by punching letches through the nearest available wall. This earns him the thanks of the innkeeper and, rather more importantly, no small number of the local womenfolk, which basically lands him the gig of bouncer/chief lady-seducer.
Which is basically the stereotypical hormone-charged adolescent boy's dream. Show up somewhere where you have super-powers which you can use to beat up people who harass hot women, and by doing so impress hot women. Hell, given the culture he's been dropped in, they'll probably be happy to pay him in mead. Everything's coming up Sunspot!
This kind of wish fulfilment quickly gets boring, of course, but for a few short pages it's a nice way to essentially take the fact that superhero comic books are male wish-fulfilment anyway (every man has super powers and a ludicrous mega-titted sassy hourglass to grind against - there's even a joke here about how Sunspot is even more strong here because he reacts to Valhalla's sunlight the way Superman reacts to Earth's) and take it to the extreme. Especially since here the extreme involves Volstagg, by far the most awesome character Marvel's Asgard has thus far offered. Observe his glory as he challenges Sunspot to pick him off the ground:
Hah! "Hast thou begun yet lad?", indeed! Of course the nature of this section as "Roberto's daydream" means that ultimately Sunspot succeeds (though he knackers his back in the process), but this is still my single favourite moment amongst these 64 pages. Just imagine what hilarious scrapes DaCosta could get up to following the Warriors Three around.
Instead, alas, the Illyana-shade arrives and takes over his mind. Because mind-control isn't something we ever see in New Mutants stories, obviously...
This feels a little like a wasted opportunity, actually. Sam finds himself in the tunnels of a group of dwarves, but not once does Claremont link this to Sam's own experiences in the mine-shafts of Kentucky following his father's death. There's such a rich vein (pun very much intended) of material that could be used here; Sam's conflicted view of mining as the manner by which his town survived but his dad was killed. The fact that whilst underground his power essentially lets him create tunnels, but always with a risk of collapse. Sam is the potential rewards and dangers of mining,
So bringing him in contact with delving dwarves - who actually go so far as to ask him to help out - only for him to end up battling trolls and dark elves seems like a tremendous waste of potential. It's not that we get a bad story here - I'm putting it above Cypher's because at least here our protagonist gets something to do - it's just so far short of what it obviously could have been. Admittedly, as with Rahne's tale, you'd need far more space than is offered here, but that just underlines the problem with this issue, you have two stories that could have easily supported an issue each, and seven more that are somewhere between mildly diverting and utterly throwaway.
Sam's tale ends when Loki makes a brief appearance to cause trouble (along with Storm, who he's transformed into a hawk to hide her from the dwarves - why he didn't just not bring her is left unexplained), annoying the head dwarf enough that he tells Sam where to find his friends, hoping the New Mutants can upset the God of Mischief with a little chaos of their own.
Our resident translator finds himself in a Viking mead hall surrounded by drunken warriors. Not particularly where a scraggly teenager wants to be, though Doug comforts himself with the knowledge that at least his abilities mean language is no barrier. This is actually pretty funny, since precisely zero of his friends have any problem understanding the natives either - well, that dragon might've been telling Warlock she came in peace, I guess - which rather underlines the fact that Doug's power set is rather rendered impotent by basic narrative convention.
Which may or may not be why no matter how good he is with the Viking subjunctive clause, his unwilling hosts make him into their mead-bitch when he demonstrates he can't even beat up a woman. This unfortunate state of affairs lasts until Illyana's demonic twin arrives to kidnap him, only for Doug to be saved at the last minute by Warlock.
Which isn't really much of a story. It does function as a mirror to Sunspot's tale, though; offering us the flip-side to waking up surrounded by legendary warriors; this time without the strength to get your own way. One hesitates under the circumstances to call this the "realistic" option, but it's certainly a reminder of how far short of our daydreams life invariably proves to be. There's an alternate universe version of this pairing in which this would be the better, more interesting story, actually, but in Claremont's hands it just functions as an impediment to the jolly muckarounds he likes to write.
Still, Doug doesn't let that stop him shoving a Viking for being a dick, which I suppose is cathartic for all those of us who spent our adolescence being bullied by ale-swigging Scandinavian brawlers.
Warlock meets a dragon who he eats, since he's running on fumes, and then meets Hela, who he runs from because a) he needs to find his friends and b) he's not an idiot.
So ends the saga of Warlock. For the rest of the story he's just a literal vehicle for gathering characters for the final showdown. Which I guess someone had to do, but that doesn't make this thread any more interesting.
(There is at least a fourth wall-breaking sight-gag here, whereby Warlock shifts into the form of Longshot - because that's what finding his friends is - despite the two never having met. Instead the link between them is that this issue was pencilled by Arthur Adams, who co-created Longshot and drew the Longshot mini that was running whilst this was released. I wouldn't call it a funny joke, still less a clever one, but as a nod to those behind the curtain it's certainly preferable to, say, the X-Men invading Marvel HQ on a scavenger hunt.)
I've complained already about Claremont relying on the "mental control" plot twice in a row with respect to the Illyana-shade taking people over. Magma's story manages to be even more irritating by taking this mind-control plot following directly on from another mind-control plot and putting a mind-control plot inside it. Come to think of it, the last time Claremont took our heroes and threw them into what's basically a fantasy role-playing adventure, everyone had their minds wiped by Kulan Gath.
In short, this is all getting desperately tiring. Moreover, Magma is tremendously badly served here. She wakes up, accepts food and drink from the locals, and finds herself immediately taken over by villainous dark elves. She's then moulded to look like her captors and pressed into their war against the dwarves looking after Cannonball, which means Amara's own storyline is entirely subsumed within Sam's, with her becoming a mere background character to be saved and then cared for when she's finally freed of elven influence. When Warlock left his plot line (along with Magik, only he and Magma don't see a return to their stories in this issue; everyone else is checked in with at least twice) he at least got to operate as the wheels. Magma and Magik just have to wait for someone else to rescue them.
This is about as simple as stories can get whilst maintaining a non-trivial page count: Karma finds herself in a desert, wants to lay down and die (because of how horribly Farouk has altered her body), but finds a small girl wandering alone and resolves to see her to safety. The trip is just long and arduous enough for Shan to get her figure back, and concludes with the girl turning out to have been an agent of the Norns, who presumably have some reason to want Karma alive and/or svelte.
There's a very strong argument to be made that this is an amazingly weak wrapping-up of Karma's time as a morbidly obese survivor of abuse. Which is a fair point, but frankly this plot strand is unpleasant enough that any ending has to be considered a mercy. Becoming morbidly obese makes you want to kill yourself? As though we didn't have enough problems with superhero comics conflating overweight people with the useless and the malevolent (something we're still having to deal with today, remember when Amanda Waller looked like this?). Even if you wanted to ignore the arguable link here between Karma becoming a hero again with her shrinking waistline (which is probably a stretch), the fact that no-one sees fit to make the obvious point that heavy does not equal worthless is a major problem for me.
I don't want to oversell this, of course. My chunky status is pretty much my only window into anything even remotely approaching the world of those hated on simply for who they are (well, that and my rapidly growing bald spot). Nothing is worse than straight cis white guys complaining that they have it tough because they're chubby, or strawberry blonde, or whatever. Then again, the real damage that gets done by the anti-weight brigade is aimed at women like Karma, so I can safely be annoyed on their behalf. Especially since, as I've said, Karma's extreme weight gain was an outward manifestation of some very real and unpleasant trauma which is in danger of being swept under the carpet as quickly as her new BMI was. Again though, it's not so much that I wish Claremont would explore the angle (I'm not sure how good he could possibly do there) so much as this underlines how problematic the Shadow Karma arc was to begin with.
Ultimately Karma gets found by Warlock and Cypher, and it's off to the final battle.
Oh no. No, this won't do at all. Mirage's tale involves her finding a winged horse in a trap. Saving it, she makes the acquaintance of the Valkyrie, who ride similar steeds. Dani returns home with them, which works out just fine for a while, until she ultimately discovers that her bond with her horse means she has been chosen as a Valkyrie herself.
Which, as I've argued before, is a terrible development. The problem with overwriting - even just in part - a Native American's identity with something from European culture should be horribly obvious, but somehow that's exactly what's been begun here. One of the most obvious trapdoors white writers have to be wary of when including characters from other cultures is to avoid writing them as basically white characters with different skin colours and reference points. This has never been a strong suit of Claremont's, whose dialogue relies on various surface differences to disguise what are actually pretty similar voices, which of course here means pretty similarly white. Mirage's treatment here is a particularly unfortunate extension of this policy of starting with varied characters and then treating their developments as completely interchangeable.
In any case, Mirage is for now attempting to resist her fate, and she flies off to join her friends once she learns the truth. Which brings us at long last to the grand finale.
Once everyone is assembled, either under Nega-Illyana's sway or in opposition to her, things work out pretty fast. Karma gets to show everyone how useful she is by taking over their enemy, which immediately breaks the hold on our captured heroes. Within a few pages the Enchantress' castle has been stormed, Illyana's dark soul returned to her (which immediately heals her for absolutely no reason at all) and Xian has produced the goods once more by possessing the Enchantress just long enough for Illyana to teleport her to Limbo and hand her over to S'ym.
So all's well that ends well, except for two things. First, Storm is still Loki's prisoner. Second, Bobby and Dani are too happy, Amara too scared, Shan too curious, and Rahne too in love to actually want to leave Asgard. Both problems have the same solution, of course; time for the New Mutants to pay Loki a visit...
This story picks up with the New Mutants on the island of Kirinos, a destination suggested by Storm at the end of NMU #34. From the sound of things they've had at least a couple of days to settle in, which together with the time needed to travel from Egypt to Greece (how did they even get hold of their passports? Or did Illyana finally manage a decent group teleport?) makes me inclined to start this story three days after the Shadow King's defeat.
When it ends is impossible to judge right now, since the script is explicit that our heroes have ended up in slightly different time periods across Asgard. We'll just have to come back to this after UXM Annual #9.
Friday 25th January, 1985.
Norway launches a four-stage sounding rocket to study the Aurora Borealis over Svalbard, almost causing the Russians to launch a nuclear strike when the rocket is mistaken for an ICBM.
Absolutely nothing's going to beat "Hast thou begun yet lad?", I'm afraid.