Tuesday, September 15, 2009

X-MEN: MISFITS - Marvel Shoujo Manga: Rise or Fall?

At Chris' request, I read MARVEL's joint venture with DEL-REY to cross the world of X-MEN with the world of Shoujo (Japanese comics for girls). The result was... ambiguous.

I've actually got no problem with either the concept or the genre; I actually think it's an interesting mix and a fresh perspective that could potentially mine a very profitably demographic that MARVEL's either never had success with or even tried to target: teenage girls.

X-MEN: MISFITS' (Written by Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman, and illustrated by Anzu) premise is that Kitty Pryde, an average, maybe even below average (... thoughts on this later), girl from a simple family in Chicago. Her only standout feature is her strange ability to uncontrollably pass through solid objects. Her life changes drastically when her family is approached by a handsome middle-aged man named Eric Lensherr who has a name for what she is: "Mutant", and invites her to a private boarding school that specializes in the education and training of Mutants (sound familiar?).

Not wanting to cause her family any more trouble, and afraid of what she might do to herself if she doesn't learn how to control herself, Kitty agrees to attend 'The Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters' in Westchester, New York. Having powers made her a standout and a misfit at her school, so she secretly hopes that being at a school of Mutants will allow her to fit in and fade into the background; but she couldn't be more mistaken! Upon arrival she discovers that she's the school's only female student, and is soon in the middle of a power struggle between the schools exclusively male student body of super-hot teenage boys! What's a girl to do?

To be fair, the X-MEN have always been MARVEL's most diverse cast of characters; one of the first books to feature an international team of heroes, and really explore and showcase their respective cultures, as well as having a larger cast of female characters than most books. The decision to make Kitty Pryde the focus of a romance adventure book about an outcast girl sent away to a boarding school for Mutants, being that she was the youngest and more accessible of X-Men's female characters, and her background is pretty much unchanged in the transition from male-oriented superhero/adventure comic to girl-oriented romance/drama manga. To bad her character wasn't equally unchanged.

To me, X-MEN: MISFITS is almost too good at it's job of trying to emulate your typical Shoujo manga; it's so typically Shoujo that there's almost nothing standout about it.

What could have been a really fasinating and original take on both the characters and the genre, instead falls back on cliched troupes of the genre and character arch-types; the ditzy, underachieving heroine in Kitty Pryde, the hot-headed and slightly abusive prettyboy in Pyro, and the equally pretty "tsundere" rival in Ice-Man. It's not particularly mishandled or anything, I just don't find it particularly stand out. These characters easily fall into those arch-types, but that also leaves them without any depth... particularly Kitty Pryde.

I just don't understand why they felt the need to dumb down someone who has always been portrayed as intelligent and adventurous, and most importantly, INDEPENDENT. She called Professor X a jerk, damnit! The Kitty Pryde presented in MISFITS would never have that kind of courage. I was actually hoping for a little more HANA YORI DANGO or PEACH GIRL in her character rather than... name any other bullshit shoujo book about a ditzy girl not particularly intelligent, clever, or independent, with no particular goal to achieve. The MISFIT Kitty Pryde doesn't even decide to enter into her first relationship with Pyro; she just sort of does what she's told to by, well, everyone. My only hope for the character is that the writers have some kind of long term character arc in mind where she somehow becomes a strong and independent woman.

But even if that's the plan, it doesn't mean she has to be portrayed as an unintelligent underachiever! Plenty of Shoujo heroines are defined by their cleverness, or strong willed natures and determination to overcome their circumstances without becoming unrelatable or inaccessible. Are you telling me that the only character that would appeal and be relatable to a young girl is an underachieving, boy-obsessed, ditz?

Aside from that, I'm actually more interested in the world of MISFITS, and the choices of how to reinterpret the characters into the Shoujo dynamic. The Pyro/Iceman romantic rivalry makes sense, having been established in the movies, and it's a nice allegorical contrast, and they fit their respective arch-types. It's also veeeeeeery manga that their personalities match their powers. I just wish there was more depth to them.

Storm is cast as being an older teacher, and they us the '80's mohawk Storm, which is fairly iconic, and played for some laughs. I've never really understood why various re-interpretations of the X-MEN insist on making Storm an older authority figure... I've always liked the fresh, young, unsure, Storm of the NEW X-MEN, who embraces her new surroundings with zealous curiousity, reinventing herself and adapting to her environment. Given her relationship with Kitty in the comics, I think she'd have made a better secondary character to befriend Kitty, but I digress... I guess most people focus on the more regal, strong willed and authoritarian 'Goddess' Storm that came to lead the X-MEN in later years.

The most interesting re-interpretations are really Cyclops and Havok as diametrically opposed siblings falling on different sides of the schism dividing the school (Scott's a cool and calculating Vegan who believes in the peaceful co-existance between humans and mutants, while Havok is a hot-headed and angry anti-authoritarian who solves all his problems with violence), Blob as a gentle giant who acts as comic relief, which is pretty again type for that character, and Nightcrawler as a monsterous (but still super pretty) mutant outcast who, rather than being a brooding emo-kid, is actually pretty at ease with himself and has nothing to prove to anyone, which brings comfort to Kitty who hopes to one day achieve similar self-acceptance, and finds friendship with him after being initially afraid of him because their powers are similarly non-offensive and only really good for running away.

Forge is also an interesting re-interpretation, and probably the only holdover from a more yaoi-centric storyline that Chris said had been scrapped (Forge becomes Kitty's best friend, and makes a pass as Pyro... and probably everyone else in the book), which I think is a cop-out on MARVEL's part, but am glad to see it survived at least in some respect. Hey, Scott Pilgrim has a cool, gay, friend, and it's the most popular book on the planet! How can you go wrong by giving Kitty a cool, gay, MUTANT, friend? Just saying.

Gambit also makes a quick cameo in the kitchen, though it took me a second to figure out who he was supposed to be.

For the most part, there is potential in the book; it's successful at what it does stylistically. The art and layout is a dead on emulation of Shoujo comics distinctly girlie style and troupes(though not particularly up my ally... I just prefer more solid and volumetric cartooning and line work. Though Beast is pretty fucking adorable...), such as headshots of pretty boys surrounded by flowers and sparkles, chibi-ized characters for visual gags, free-form, borderless panel layouts and collages, thin, wispy, linework, liberal use of screentone, simplified backgrounds, and fashion conscious character designs. Personally, though, I find it hard to tell the male characters apart as everyone looks alike: absurdly effeminate and pretty with no real definable facial structure. Which is, basically, how Shoujo comics are supposed to look.

The writing, for the most part, is pretty decent, and a nice blend of girly romance, mutant politics, and superhero action. They set up the premise and introduce the characters efficiently, and there are a few clever gags and affectations for Kitty, such as her wearing knee and elbow pads and a bike helmet for fear of accidentally falling through things, and some various 'cat' mannerisms which play offer her name. Characters personalities and relationships are clearly established, and there are some subtle setups of future plot points that are sure to pay off, such as the difference of opinion in the opposing philosophies of Xavier and Magneto, and Magneto's favortism towards the Hellfire Club as the schools 'Mutant Elite', and their antagonistic treatment of students that have adopted Xavier's peacenik ways.

It doesn't break any new ground with the "Mutants as an allegory for racism or alienation" theme, but it's not like X-MEN as a franchise hasn't been beating that dead horse for 40 years, and the title is X-MEN: MISFITS, so it'd be pretty weird if they weren't ostracized in some way. I'd just like to see the X-Men in a world that's at least TRYING to accept them. Why not have the human that has a cool mutant friend, or the guy that's dating the mutant girl? I think an X-World that's a little more progressive is something that we've never seen before.

Overall, I'm pretty much just ambivalent about the book. while I have my issues with choices made, overall the book is harmless fun, decently produced, and successful for what is. It's just another X-MEN book when you get down to it... not particularly great, but completely unoffensive. I do believe that there is potential, and I hope that potential can be realized, because I think there is a market for this kind of book; I just don't think that market needs another underachieving book about an underachiever, when you have a potentially strong female character at your disposal.

On a final note, I think a totally hilarious joke that could have been made would have been if Kitty Pryde had remarked, "They should have called this school, 'The Xavier Institute for Super-Hot Guys'. Yow-za!"


SuperWid said...

Hahahaha wtf??! I think it's pretty cool they're trying to go into different genres but this sounds really like a cheap way of making a buck. They literally just fused Hana Yori Dango with X-Men characters.

Where's bishonen Wolverine anyway?

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