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Thursday, October 10, 2013

X-amining New Mutants #45

"We Were Only Foolin'"
November 1986

In a Nutshell
The New Mutants deal with the suicide of a young mutant. 

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Jackson Guice
Inker: Kyle Baker
Letterers: Buhalis & Orzechowski
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
Creators: Chris Claremont & Bob McLeod

Plot
The New Mutants and Kitty Pryde are invited to the spring dance at the local high school. Though the New Mutants generally have a good time, Kitty is less excited until the principal introduces her to Larry Bodine, a recent transfer student. Though Larry is geeky and a little awkward, he and Kitty hit it off. However, Larry is secretly a mutant, and a group of kids, ignorant of this, bully him by threatening to call X-Factor, scaring him. After the dance, the New Mutants, Kitty and Larry go to Harry's Hideaway, and Larry, desperate to fit in, tells some of the latest mutant jokes he heard at the dance. Not surprisingly, Kitty and the New Mutants turn cold towards Larry, and call it a night. Returning home, Larry discovers an X-Factor flier the other kids stuck into his jacket, scaring him further. Unbeknownst to him, however, Rahne has followed him home, suspecting his anti-mutant jokes were part of an act, and she watches as Larry uses his mutant power to create hard light sculptures.


The next morning, Rahne is delighted to tell her friends the truth about Larry, but is interrupted by Magneto, who grimly announces that overnight, Larry committed suicide. The New Mutants deal with this news each in their own ways, while a saddened Kitty sneaks into Larry's house to discover his sculptures. Rahne picks up the scent of Larry's bullies off the X-Factor flier, and tracks them to the local mall. Hoping to exact vengeance on them, she is stopped by Dani, Sam and Kitty, who tell her they need to be better than vengeance, though all agree something needs to be done. At Larry's memorial service, Kitty takes the podium and delivers a speech about prejudice, telling the crowd that, like, Larry, she is many things, but using labels to define anyone can have terrible consequences, and that all people are more than their labels.

Firsts and Other Notables
The existence of X-Factor looms large over this story, as the threat of getting "caught" by X-Factor is the centerpiece of the prank played on Larry and the ultimate impetus of his suicide (he fears they will somehow take away his power, and doesn't want to live without them). However misguided the mutant hunter ruse seems in the pages of X-Factor's own book, as much as the idea that the for all the good they're doing, they're also inflaming anti-mutant prejudice, nothing brings that idea home more than this story, which makes X-Factor indirectly responsible for at least one death. 


The cover of this issue features the Marvel 25th Anniversary frame/center head shot layout, celebrating twenty-five years since the publication of Fantastic Four #1. All issues cover-dated November 1986 feature this same design, but because New Mutants has, for most of its history, been on sale a month ahead of the other X-books with the same cover date, we get its anniversary cover before the X-Men and X-Factor covers.

This issue is included in the Chris Claremont Visionaries hardcover collection.

The Chronology Corner
This issue takes place after New Mutants Annual #2, which we'll look at next week.

A Work in Progress
Hey, remember when Kitty was somewhat inappropriately angsting about getting glasses in X-Men? Well, she got them, and wears them for the first time in this issue.


Claremontisms
Larry refers to himself as a "a body", a favorite neologism of Claremont's.

Young Love
Warlock references Doug's feelings for Kitty, though Doug declares they are just friends, and he's fine with that.


Kitty is later despondent when she realizes most of the boys at the dance are just dancing with her in order to get to Illyana.

Human/Mutant Relations
Dani compares a bumper sticker she sees lauding X-Factor to ones she saw in Colorado professing the same thing about "redskins" instead of mutants.


The "cool kids" at Larry's school tell mutant jokes. 


The issue ends with a speech given by Kitty, in which she makes it clear that "mutant" is just another label used to define people, that labels can hurt, and that ultimately, everyone, even mutants, are more than their labels.

\

Teebore's Take
The final standalone issue in this little mini-run leading up to "Mutant Massacre", this story is essentially a "very special episode" of the comic. The "very special" moniker carries with it a certain stigma, as often times these kinds of stories are painfully earnest, and more of a lecture than an actual story. This issue is certainly earnest, but it's also an effective one-issue examination of the metaphor that lies at the heart of the X-Men to tell a story about the consequences of prejudice, fear and hatred.

It's not perfect, though, and most of the problems stem from the involvement of Kitty. It makes sense that Kitty has become the character most often confronting prejudice head-on in these types of stories, but after doing so in "God Loves, Man Kills", then again in the infamous N-word scene in Uncanny X-Men #196, and AGAIN this very same month, in X-Men #210, it starts to lose some of its impact, and this story suffers a bit, through no fault of its own, as a result. There's also something to be said for the big speech at the climax of the issue coming from Kitty, who isn't even a regular character in this book. Again, it makes sense why Kitty gets used in this fashion, but does she really need to usurp the stars of the book?

But these are minor quibbles. This is a moving, effective bit of storytelling that speaks to the potential inherent to the comic book form, to use brightly colored sci-fi and action-adventure stories to illuminate universal truths and, perhaps, force people to question their behavior. If you wanted to hand someone one single comic that perfectly encapsulates what the X-Men are about, in thematic terms, this one would be up for consideration.

Next Issue
More build-up to the "Mutant Massacre" in X-Factor #9, followed next week by New Mutants Annual #2 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #10. 

13 comments:

  1. I don't know. This isn't the first or last place in media fiction that this will be done but introducing a character for one episode/issue just so that character can commit suicide in that episode/issue always feels a bit cheap. I think it lessens the impact to the reader by using a character they really don't care about nor will miss. (And, really, once the initial shock wears off, would the characters even "miss" him?)

    Approaching suicide this way oversimplifies a very complicated issue. It shows just the final pages of a very intricate story.

    On the surface, you could say that Larry committed suicide because of X-Factor's existence. But, if this story is to be taken realistically, there should be multiple factors that lead up to Larry's suicide. No one thing will cause someone to kill themselves. It's a cumulative affect of many different things (including generally suffering from depression). In other words, assuming Larry never got help with his depression, if it X-Factor didn't exist then something else most likely would've pushed him over the edge.

    This is all a long way of saying that there are complex parts of a complex issue that are missed when you have a one-off character commit suicide in a one-off story.

    Anyway, did Magneto even know of Larry? How did he hear about the suicide? How did he know the kids even knew him?

    Also, is there anyone else out there capable of giving an impassioned speech against mutant prejudice BESIDES Kitty?

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  2. @Dr. Bitz: Approaching suicide this way oversimplifies a very complicated issue. It shows just the final pages of a very intricate story.

    Definitely. And in my following attempts to defend this story, know that I don't at all disagree with that sentiment.

    But, if this story is to be taken realistically, there should be multiple factors that lead up to Larry's suicide. No one thing will cause someone to kill themselves. It's a cumulative affect of many different things (including generally suffering from depression).

    My point about X-Factor being responsible is, perhaps, an oversimplification that doesn't do the story justice.

    It is by no means thorough, especially given the space constraints, but there is a larger sense that Larry is suffering from more comprehensive depression in the story. He's introduced as a recent transfer student, alone at the dance, without friends, and is bullied by the cool kids throughout the story.

    When he returns home after the dance, he's alone, as his parents are away on what he's been told is an important business trip, and not to call unless its an emergency. He contemplates calling his dad, but doesn't think he'll consider "I'm really sad" as a good enough reason to be interrupted. The general sense isn't that his parents are awful or anything, but largely distant.

    So he's alone, isolated from friends and family, and the only thing that brings him pleasure is his mutant power which, he believes, if X-Factor catches him, will be taken away.

    Again, it's by no means a complex, measured portrayal of the character or the issue of depression/suicide, but there is more complexity to the situation than perhaps my summary suggested, and it's definitely more than just "oh, X-Factor is coming to get me. I better kill myself".

    This is all a long way of saying that there are complex parts of a complex issue that are missed when you have a one-off character commit suicide in a one-off story.

    All that said, yeah, having a long-running character readers actually know about ahead of time commit suicide would be much more impactful. Then again, if even one person reading this story thinks twice about bullying someone as a result, I'd argue that it's worth the telling, even if it isn't the most original or nuanced story.

    Anyway, did Magneto even know of Larry? How did he hear about the suicide? How did he know the kids even knew him?

    He was at the dance with the New Mutants chaperoning, and was talking with the other principal when she introduced Larry to Kitty. He then presumably saw them spending time together after the dance, and knew that he accompanied the New Mutants to Harry's Hideway afterwards. And its specifically mentioned that the principal contacted Magneto when she learned about Larry (who was discovered by the cleaning lady, because his parents were out of town), because she knew Magneto's students had been hanging out with him.

    Also, is there anyone else out there capable of giving an impassioned speech against mutant prejudice BESIDES Kitty?

    Apparently not. Which is my big problem with the issue, but that's more the fault of Claremont (who has his mouthpiece character give an impassioned speech against prejudice in two comics in the same month) than the story itself.

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  3. "My point about X-Factor being responsible is, perhaps, an oversimplification that doesn't do the story justice."

    Yes, and I suppose I'm just saying that's the danger of one-off stories like this. While some people may understand the underlying complexities some people could come away focused on the one issue and see a simple solution to a complex problem.

    Now, obviously I haven't read this story so I'm not trying to disparage it. I'm simply pointing out the broader issues with doing a story like this with a one-off character.

    This certainly may be a story that handles this very well and I don't doubt it does. I'm simply saying that, despite being good, it could probably have been done better and with greater impact.

    I suppose another issue with the one-off approach is that it doesn't give the protagonists any ability to help the situation. The New Mutants came in too late to have an affect. In other words, no lessons were learned on how to help someone who is in Larry's situation. It only really teaches what NOT to do. (Don't bully, be prejudice, etc. A worthy lesson to learn, no doubt, but not very useful to those who didn't need to learn it.)

    There's no exploration of warning signs nor how a friend can try and help someone who shows signs of depression/suicidal tendencies. The signs can be something the characters learn about and learn how to handle in the future or maybe it's a story where the New Mutants do recognize the warning signs and attempt to help Larry but it just doesn't work out. Either way, it certainly can't be addressed (realistically) in a one-off story especially when they're all meeting the character for the first time.

    I guess this all folds back into the question of what the author's intent of this story was. Does he have any sort of responsibility of teaching the reader about these things? Responsibility is probably too strong of term.

    Again, by all accounts this story handles the subject rather well. I'm more or less just thinking about the possibilities of a story arc that is carried out through several issues (it wouldn't need to be the main focus of every issue).

    And yeah, I know the whole Kitty thing is just a hang up of Claremont's. It doesn't mean his obvious favoritism towards Kitty doesn't bother me. Especially when he uses her to headline a book she's usually not in.

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  4. While Dr. Bitz is right in pointing out the many flaws this issue has when held up to the light (especially the oversimplification of suicide), you are very right about this being a mission statement issue. This and the annual where Doug & Warlock rescue the team from Mojo were the first New Mutants stories I read, and I can testify that an imprssionable 12-year-old reading this would find it pretty moving. When you grow up in a fairly comfortable if isolated environment, seeing a dramatization of "this is where prejudice can lead and why it must be stopped" IS a wake-up call to realities that you might be sheltered from otherwise.

    Also, thanks to this issue, I spent many years thinking of the team as Kitty's classmates. Which they should've been.

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  5. The BWS cover drawing of Illyana is stunning. Absolutely love it.

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  6. In my 2003 discuss-a-thon on Google, someone mentioned BWS' Illyana looking like Sarah Polley. I also asked about if the bullies ever changed their ways. The answer I got was that most of them either joined The Right or Friends of Humanity.

    I did a fanfic that attempted to put together the continuity of these issues with X-Men. From what I've heard, a spring mixer would happen on a Saturday, which would put this story a week before the Sunday of the Morlock Massacre. (This fanfic was also a crossover with the anime series TENCHI MUYO, with its title character making friends with the group and being made an honorary member, resulting in a week of inter-universal anime crossovers. I never finished the story, although I do often contemplate a crossover between the NM and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST BROTHERHOOD, with Amara having a different POV about Envy's fate...).

    Doug's relationship with Kitty is finally brought up after 25 issues. Although we can blame its lack of resolution on CC's habit of plot danglers, the fanwank in me would consider some other theories inside the comic universe:
    -By the time Doug joined the group, Kitty was on the rebound with Peter; probably not ready for another romance.
    -The segregation between the groups. Doug sharing Roberto's disdain about being treated like kids by the 'seniors,' with Kitty's 'X-Babies' attitude.
    -When she came back, Kitty probably tried to persuade Doug to leave the NM, seeing it as dangerous, 'danger-finding-them' and his defenseless power ("Gee, thanks Kitty."). Doug feeling cheated that Kitty never told him the truth about them being mutants or that the Massachusetts Academy was evil central ("Gee, Kitty, guess you didn't really like me enough to tell me that.").
    Of course, they remained friends, but these issues could have kept them from going forward in their relationship.

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  7. As Mela pointed out, this issue was plenty moving to a young teenager. While Dr Bitz is right that the message might be preaching to the choir ("Prejudice is bad? Whoa! Mind: blown!"), I got something different out of this comic as a kid.

    Larry was alone. He wanted to reach out but was scared to show his true self. His peers' talk indicated that they wouldn't accept him. The kids from Xavier's seemed nice, they were hitting it off, then Larry blew it by acting like his more socially adept peers at their worst. He felt more alienated then ever, felt it was all his fault, and saw no way out. I really felt for the guy.

    The New Mutants felt like they failed to save him (even if it wasn't their fault) and tried to make his death have some meaning. Kitty's speech is the capper, clumsy as it is.

    I take NM 45 as a story more than a message (although I can't deny that it is a "very special episode"). If there is a message, it might be partly aimed at the shy kid or the closeted gay kid or the kid who has to deal with problems at home or depression: you're not as alone as you think and suicide is not the answer.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  8. I think the main reason for the inclusion of Kitty is that the way Claremont had developed the team, there is no one else normal enough to give that speech. For it to have real impact, the reader (most likely a normal American teenager needs to hear it from someone just like them).

    By creating a potential love interest, he took away all the male members of the team (otherwise Cannonball is normal enough to do it). Out of the potential female romantic interests you have a Scottish girl with a huge mess of religious upbringing issues and unease at her own sexuality, a member of a secret society of Amazon rainforest Romans, an American Indian valkyrie, an older Vietnamese refugee, and an artificially aged Russian half-demon sorceress.

    I think Dani would have been the best person to use besides Kitty. She's a little older, but still a student and teens her age go through the same thing Larry did. She could have also used her own experiences as an Indian into the speech as a means to "relate" to Larry's experience. But Claremont has simply made her too weird by this point. Who can identify with a pegasus owning inductee into the Norse goddesses?

    All that points made on suicide are well taken. The issue would have had more of an impact if Larry had appeared a few times in the past six months as a subplot, and the readers could have gotten to know him and care about him, and built a real relationship with Kitty. However, I understand the needs of a one and done issue storyline, and I think it's adequate.

    - Chris

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  9. The ironically sad thing about this very well-done, moving, issue is that this issue isn't outdated the way many "Very Special Episodes" are. Hell, if this was released today, it'd have even MORE relevence (indeed this issue has something of a "spiritual successor" in Generation Hope 9)

    By the way, I think that's always been one of the main appeals of the X-Men as a team it's readership can identify with and relate to. I know much is made about the "mutants as racial/sexual metaphor", but I think the X-Men work as a stand-in for ANY person who's felt picked on, unloved, or made an outcast by society, regardless of which minority group they may or may not belong too (made even more poignant to the intended audeince by the notion that comic readers at the time tended to be stereotyped as "nerds.")

    Anyway, even with yet ANOTHER "Kitty Soapbox Speech", this issue's a classic in my book.

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  10. Magick looks exactly like Uma Thurman on the cover. It's uncanny.

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  11. @Dr. Bitz: I suppose another issue with the one-off approach is that it doesn't give the protagonists any ability to help the situation. The New Mutants came in too late to have an affect.

    That's a good point, especially when even the reactive response comes from a character outside the book's regular cast.

    @Mela: When you grow up in a fairly comfortable if isolated environment, seeing a dramatization of "this is where prejudice can lead and why it must be stopped" IS a wake-up call to realities that you might be sheltered from otherwise.

    Yeah, there is also something to be said for the time in which this story appeared. We kind of take it for granted nowadays that fiction will tackle this kind of stuff, and have certain expectations thereof. For kids back in '86 (or even the early 90s, when I first read), it can still be a pretty effective wake-up call even if the message isn't fully formed or executed in the best way possible.

    @Anonymous: The BWS cover drawing of Illyana is stunning. Absolutely love it.

    It is quite good.

    @angmc43: The answer I got was that most of them either joined The Right or Friends of Humanity.

    Aw, that's kinda sad. And probably true. I'd like to think at least one of them (maybe one of the girls who didn't seem so into it) turned their attitudes around as a result.

    @Mike: If there is a message, it might be partly aimed at the shy kid or the closeted gay kid or the kid who has to deal with problems at home or depression: you're not as alone as you think and suicide is not the answer.

    That's a really good point as well. As much as this could be read as "don't bully" or "don't be prejudiced", there's definitely a message to the people on the other side of the equation: you're not alone, who you are is okay, suicide is not the answer.

    @Chris: I think the main reason for the inclusion of Kitty is that the way Claremont had developed the team, there is no one else normal enough to give that speech.

    That's a really good point. At the very least, it offers up a better explanation than "because she's Claremont's favorite".

    @Jonathan: The ironically sad thing about this very well-done, moving, issue is that this issue isn't outdated the way many "Very Special Episodes" are.

    Sad, but true.

    I think the X-Men work as a stand-in for ANY person who's felt picked on, unloved, or made an outcast by society, regardless of which minority group they may or may not belong too (made even more poignant to the intended audeince by the notion that comic readers at the time tended to be stereotyped as "nerds.")

    Definitely. I think one of the big appeals of the X-Men, and one of the reasons they've been and remain so popular, is that they speak to the outcast in everyone, in whatever way that may personally apply.

    @Byron: Magick looks exactly like Uma Thurman on the cover. It's uncanny.

    It really is. Especially since I don't think Uma Thurman had really broken out into anything yet at this time.

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  12. "Yes, I'm calling for Scott Summers. Summers. I know he 'works' there. Kitty Pryde. P-R-Y-D-E. Just tell him that this stupid X-Factor idea literally scared a kid to death. I do too know what 'literally' means; I am literally a genius. This kid was spooked by other kids who told him they were turning him over to X-Factor. He took his own life. Scott oughta be ashamed of himself. Also you're a real jerk."

    I'd never read this issue. Honestly, I think it's pretty good; in fact, if I had been familiar with it I might well have used it in an adjunct course I taught in college. For some reason, and with sympathy to Dr. Bitz's points, Larry's story worked for me as a one-off (poor choice of words, maybe) character in this issue in a far stronger, less hackneyed way than the early issue about the kid in Stevie's dance class who'd been abused. And the fact that the Xavier students have only just met Larry is actually pertinent.

    Kitty uses the N-word and then some in that speech, which I really wasn't prepared for. I don't mind her being the mouthpiece again, or at least not as juxtaposed with those earlier instances or even with the fact that she's not one of the New Mutants proper; for me it's a little more awkward coming straight on the heels of the end of X-Men #210. I could've done with her referencing the various backgrounds of her fellow Xavier's students though — not just that she's a Jew (and the various other words she used to describe herself) but that they have among them a half-breed Hispanic, a redneck, an Indian etc. (to use terms in the context of Kitty's would-be speech).

    I never remember that the cover face is Magik (Illyana) and not Magma (Amara), but now that I've focused on the little pentagrams and goat heads in the baubles maybe it'll stick. Also, I've always thought it looked like Uma Thurman rather than Sarah Polley, but that could be in part because Sarah Polley is a relatively newer concept to me than either Uma Thurman or this cover.

    How funny is it that the X-Men and X-Factor are side-by-side at the bottom of the border art, considering they (ridiculously) haven't crossed paths yet in-universe?

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  13. This cover is a great example of how the art of BWS is as polarizing as Bill S. I strongly dislike it, finding it muddy and ugly (frankly, I can't see why people find Uma Thurman attractive, either, so it lends credence to the reality that we're all wired to see beauty differently).

    Imagine if Claremont had grown a set and used Rahne as his cautionary tale, with all the New Mutants wondering what they personally could have done over years to help their friend and teammate. What an enormously important issue that would have been.

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