REVIEW: New Mutants #22: Shadow King Lays It All Out

Friendship and reconciliation is the name of the game in New Mutants #22, where our plucky teens/tweens work through the awkwardness of accidentally abetting a villain who murdered your friend, and we finally learn what Shadow King’s deal is.

New Mutants #22

Vita Ayala (writer), Rod Reis (artist), VC’s Travis Lanham (Letterer), Tom Muller (design), Martin Simmonds (cover artist)
October 6, 2021

The almost silhouetted profile of the Shadow King on a red background. His head fills the whole cover except for the text New Mutants. In white silhouette, standing on the ear of his sunglasses (also white), the New Mutants fight an attacking horde of primates.

Well, we at least find out his motivations: preparing mutants for the inevitable fall of Krakoa. It’s still pretty unclear what the Shadow King’s long-term goals for the tween team were — while they certainly have powered up it’s not a crew that could take on the Quiet Council. And the leaders of Krakoa are vexing Amahl Farouk. Mutants on Krakoa will grow soft, he declares, noting that Apocalypse understood the inevitability of war, but he still abandoned them.

This is the first indication the Shadow King was engaged with the greater project of Krakoa, invested even. Previously, the one time we saw him outside of the Wild Hunt he was an ominous presence in the Green Lagoon, not a regular, it felt like an aberration in behavior. But maybe he’s been integrating himself the whole time? Or has he been following along via gossip from his students? It made me wonder if he’s just been sitting around plotting and scheming or if he’s been hanging out with some less high-profile villains bitching about the leadership this whole time. We’ll circle back to him.

The Shadow King is sitting surrounded by pillows, his hands open wide. He's wearing a caftan and a fez and he takes up three panels, across the page. iIn the panel under him, all five members of the New Mutants sit, gray scale in the bright room. Tea glasses are in the foreground. The Shadow King is saying, "Krakoa, like Constantiople, will fall, and mutants will have become too soft to survive it." Dani replies with, "So you torture us with our worst fears because we came to stop you from hurting and brainwashing our children?!"

Rod Reis is pulling out all the stops on this issue, in layouts, colors, and art. The layouts! The New Mutants begin this issue already trapped in the Shadow King’s mental webs, facing nightmares lit by bright red fires. Sentinels, AIM, Brood, and other nasties crowd the pages, and the New Mutants break into battle in portals, round panels that fall over the page.

The real world — Krakoa — is straight lines and modular panel borders, cool tones. The backgrounds are simple in comparison to the inside of the Shadow King’s mind. And when Farouk begins to lose his temper, the already-sketchy panels shatter apart, nightmares seeping into the cracks, eyes and teeth and flesh. The last few pages of Karma, Moonstar, Magik, Wolfsbane, and Warpath fighting are brilliant horror. The panels create the shape of the Shadow King’s profile on one page, each tier another insurmountable end to Krakoa, and the art grows increasingly stylized. (Sidenote: It’s nice to see Warpath hanging out with everyone — he’s been kind of a loner with regards to the other New Mutants. And I really enjoyed the details in the first battle scenes of his sling and Rahne’s bandages to convey how long the battle has raged).

Colorwise, inside the Shadow King’s head, the New Mutants are greyed out and the Shadow King himself bright like a sun, surrounded by reds and orange. Reis cranks up the backgrounds and elaborate patterns here, giving it more visual depth than reality — the hyperreal. And of course, the pinks reappear, extra effective after an issue heavy in red and orange, green and blue.

This issue is a visual feast, but the stark visual contrast between the two teams helped me finally pin down a gnawing dissonance in this title, part of which is the wholesome antics of our tweens versus the ultra-violence that grows around them. Some friction is intentional to be sure, but it also works against what seem to be broader themes in a way that feels less intentionally directed and more unfortunately inescapable.

In this case, the kids are learning about the power of forgiveness and trust. And the adults are…also learning the same thing. It’s thematically tight, but it feels mismatched for the maturity level of the action. It’s nice to see Anole be the most mature member of the younger group (but it’s also a reminder that he’s significantly older than the rest of them and might not need to learn some of this).

The platitudes don’t always sync up with the action either — when the Shadow King is adamant that Krakoa should be preparing for the inevitability of battle, our trainers push back. Magik reiterates her belief that Krakoa should be for change, that it’s about “breaking the cycle,” but most of the training we’ve seen has been combat-focused (even unintentionally, as per last issue). It’s a sprawling cast and a lot to cover, but the connective tissue that would let me fill in a few gaps is missing.

Even the Shadow King himself presents a gnarly contradiction to the ethos espoused by our youngsters struggling with their non-normative appearance. Reis makes him huge, menacing, monstrous — and it turns out he is! Rahne shouldn’t have believed in second chances, and he truly is what he’s drawn to be.

Reis fills the Shadow King’s psychic Cairo with gorgeous renderings of embroidered fabrics and the integration of geometric designs harkening back to tiles and textiles of North Africa, but even attention to specifics like a Moroccan tea service doesn’t do much to shake the orientalist design of the character. While the character is bogged down with the decades of previous canon, the character’s design can’t escape the fact that his bulk is meant to represent his monstrous appetite, his sinful nature. And that’s not merely the standard coding of a fat body but literal in earlier texts; the Shadow King’s hedonistic desires transform their hosts’ bodies.

Currently, fat heroes are few and far between, with Fred/Blob holding down the fort as a reformed baddie himself. And MENA representation among Krakoans is thin and often inconsistent, leaving Amahl Farouk living up to his stereotypical depiction in a book that’s working in part to complicate the stories of non-normative mutants. As a reviewer, I feel repetitive, but each issue it’s impossible to ignore.

The pacing in New Mutants #22 is really nice, and the action is spectacular. It felt good to see Our Heroes reunited again, and I’m always thrilled when the book leans towards horror. But while the history of these characters is what helps build the suspense, it also brings with it unintended implications that the book has yet to free itself from.

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.