REVIEW: New Mutants #18: On a Precipice

A three panel sequence from New Mutants #18, art by Rod Reis, writing by Vita Ayala, Marvel, 2021. The top panel is Karma and Moonstar in the arena for the Crucible, their word balloons half cut off. The bottom left panel is a close up on Karma's face as she say, "I'm counting on you." Dani responds in the next panel, saying "I won't let you down."

There’s something looming ahead in the distance for the denizens of Krakoa, and it’s not just the Hellfire Gala — the Shadow King’s intentions hang over everything and remain unrevealed. This issue doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding his aims; instead, this issue continues to use the mutants as a metaphor of dysphoria, explicitly invoking language like “passing” in ways that suggest both race and gender. The mutant homeland, a paradise and refuge, becomes a place to explore the barely-subtextual comparisons, a combination that invites friction for the reader and the characters.

New Mutants #18

Vita Ayala (writer), VC’s Travis Lanham (letterer), Tom Muller (Design), Rod Reis (artist), Christian Ward (cover)
Marvel
May 26, 2021

Cover of New Mutants #18, art by Christian Ward. Karma stands in a fighting post, her fists up. Her eyes are bloodshot and her face is shadowed. Surrounding her in a psychadelic background are repeating white rabbits, just their heads, ears, and red eyes visable. Marvel, 2021.

New Mutants #18 is uncomfortable — and in many ways, I think that’s intentional. It’s full of that stomach-churning anxiety when you know something bad is going to happen, you’re just not sure what it’ll be yet. It’s the feeling that Gabby has, knowing her friends are friendly with the Shadow King. It’s the feeling I had watching Rahne lead Gabby to the Shadow King, and how I felt watching Cosmar watch Dani fight Xi’an in the Crucible.

Vita Ayala continues to hammer home the idea that Krakoa’s existence doesn’t erase the effects of human society on its citizens, and that they have brought with them both internalized or externalized prejudices and problems.  Krakoa doesn’t erase the sins of the past (at least, not in this book). But as I read this I keep hoping for a deeper insight into what the four mutants are struggling with, what is motivating them to go all the way to corpse manipulation. And I think Rod Reis is an artist who could uniquely capture those emotions — he perfectly illustrates Cosmar’s anger in a sequence that has the (ironically) perfect bodies around her screaming with her rage. Leaning more on his unique talents would, I think, keep things from sounding repetitive.

Instead, this issue rehashes Anole and Gabby’s fight in issue #17, now with Cosmar. Gabby’s warnings about the Shadow King being bad news are ignored in favor of another reminder that she can only sympathize, not empathize, with the dysphoria brought on by their mutations or trauma. With so many characters and plotlines in the air, rehashing so Gabby can learn about Cosmar’s feelings — already know to the readers — feels like a missed opportunity to move the story.

However, I do understand the desire to underline the themes in this story arc (and the way New Mutants has been resonating with readers). And Ayala makes that desire to experience other ways of looking and being understandable to a lay reader. But the trust and loyalty the kids have in the Shadow King still feels unearned, especially when considering Anole’s time in the field and No-Girl’s past. No-Girl’s time under Xorn alone makes it far more likely she’d be suspicious of Shadow King’s intentions, rather than joining in. I also would love to actually hear (or read a journal entry) from No-Girl herself! Cosmar tells Gabby she doesn’t make decisions for them, that No-Girl is left behind despite her lack of body not even being a mutation. But as well as this issue handles disability in terms of Karma’s cybernetic leg (she keeps it after her post-Crucible resurrection), I think No-Girl is left behind by the narrative as an unexamined example of disability on Krakoa.

The conflict between the younger mutants, and even Gabby’s discussion with Warpath, feel very stuck in a power hierarchy that makes sense in Xavier’s Academy but feels almost out of place in the sprawl of the island. Anole dares Gabby to “tattle” on them, but to who? And Gabby herself doesn’t want to spill their secrets to Warpath in the first place, but is he imbued with any more authority beyond teaching classes? Can you get detention on Krakoa or is trouble a fake idea? Just their associating with the Shadow King feels dangerous, but Anole is right — his crew isn’t breaking any of the three laws. And what would Warpath do? Why are characters like Gabby deferring to authority in this way, beyond being adrift without Laura?

There’s hope, at least, to break out of the hierarchical mindset imposed on mutant students at past institutions. One of the issue’s highlights is a pointed letter to the Quiet Council from Magik, saying that “we” were wrong for thinking about how to raise and teach young mutants in the same terms that the New Mutants were raised. There’s no need for child soldiers in a world with Krakoa, so they’ll have to devise a new way to be. A new way to teach. A new way to be.

Rahne herself insists that this is a clean slate, a second chance even for mutants with histories as dark as Amahl Farouk’s. But she herself has a spotted history as a teacher, and that imbues her encouragement of the Shadow King’s students with another layer of uncomfortable wrongness. The sheer amount of malice in Reis’ depiction of the Shadow King, from his colors to his smile, makes Rahne’s proclamation of new beginnings feel hollow.

We get to see how Krakoa feels like an empty promise to Rahne, to Cosmar, to Anole, and No-Girl. But I want to see more of that new way of being! I understand the need to grapple with dysphoria even on the island but I also want to know that at least some non-normative mutants are finding peace as intended. I really wish there were more instances of non-normative mutants experiencing some kind of euphoria on Krakoa as well — there are many thorns in this current era but as a reader, I would like some roses!

Which of course leads to Dani and Xi’an, flirting at the end of a dramatic, no-powers battle in the Crucible. I’m really hoping this culminates in a real romance — I love a slow burn but there are years before this round of meaningful looks and handholding to draw on. Reis helps, encircling Moonstar in a golden halo, the last thing Karma sees before her equally golden resurrection.

Reis’ watercolors (or digital equivalent) continue to be perfect, creating the translucent phantom of Tran and the glow of Karma’s powers. He continues to paint phantoms around our characters as they allude to their trauma, their ghosts spilling out around them. And his colors continue to drive home the emotions of the story — bright red echoing the violence of the Crucible, bright pink as energy and anger. His art creates the whole character of the Shadow King and the stormy skies he brings to Krakoa — so I hope the bright white between he and Gabby in the forest means a clearer sky ahead.

 

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.

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