New Mutants #62 (1988, April)
Follow me on Twitter (@XMenXPert). Today, by Simonson, Jon Muth, Oliver and Orzechowski, “To Build A Fire.”
So you know how the last couple issues have been really emotional stuff? Lots of tragedy, lots of strong emotional stuff? This issue cuts away from all that. It starts with the Mutants being angsty. Then Sam comes in with a scroll sent by Amara, saying she’s in Nova Roma with Empath and having a wonderful time. So now we get her story!
At the Massachusetts Academy, the Hellions are having a training session, teaming up against Magma. She handles herself well against them, since, you know, she’s a walking volcano. Empath eventually uses his power to calm her down, but she ends up resisting. Tarot taunts him for having feelings for Amara, and he tells her off and makes her love him. And once again, Simonson screws this up. Tarot’s not the team bitch, Roulette is. Tarot was actually pretty sweet. Anyway, Amara gets pissed at Empath for using his power on Tarot, and starts to run out of the room until Emma stops her. Emma also tells Empath to stop being such a dick.
Emma has a letter for Amara, from her father, asking her to return home. Emma pulls Empath aside to ask why he didn’t make a greater effort to control Amara, and he says she wouldn’t like it, and he wouldn’t humiliate her like that. Tarot, apparently, does like being controlled. Which is odd. Either way, this is our first glimpse at the idea that Empath might have some decency in him; we’ll see more of that throughout the issue. Emma sends Empath to nova Roma with Amara.
A few days later, they’re on a small plane flying through bad weather towards Nova Roma. Which means, naturally, it gets hit by lightning. Of course it does. It’s a small plane flying through bad weather. There was no way it wasn’t going to go down. So now the two are lost in the jungle. Which is full of crocodiles, and jerk monkeys.
That night, Empath moans in his sleep, enough to wake up Amara. There’s a bat drinking his blood. Are . . . are there actually bats who do that? I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing that really happens. Come on, Weezie, you couldn’t have done some research on vampire bats? They almost never attack humans! Anyway, as she treats his wound, he reveals that his power lets him feel what the people around him feel. Which is a new but logical extension of his power. It’s reasonable that, in order to influence the emotions of others, he would first need to be able to sense them.
The next day, he goes into the woods to take a dump, and sees some orchids. He figures he’ll grab them for Amara. But a jaguar spots him. Amara scares it off with a spear she’s whittled, though she takes a scratch to her leg. She reveals that the reason she’s been recalled to Nova Roma is because her father wants to marry her off to some guy she hasn’t even met. Empath suggests she just say no, but she says it doesn’t work like that, and he gets angry at her for risking their lives over it, and tries to force her to create a volcano to call for help, but she resists and bitchslaps him.
They fight some more, with Empath continuing to try to get a reaction out of her. The reaction ends up being kissing him. And also creating an earthquake and mini-volcano that gets a fire going. Oops. As a nice touch, Empath isn’t sure if Amara kissed because she wanted to, or because he wanted her to.
I’ll talk in a minute about all this. Finishing off the recap, a few days later, Amara’s father finds them.
OK. So. This issue. As a story, it’s not bad. A fairly straightforward surviving-a-jungle story, but presented well. That aspect worked. As an Amara issue, well, it’s an Amara issue. How often have we gotten those? So it’s nice to see her get a bit of a spotlight. And she’s handled well here. She’s strong-willed but still vulnerable. I liked seeing her survival skills highlighted so much. She did spend some time living in the jungle, after all, so of course she knows how to handle it, and she really comes across as being in her element. Actually, if the X-office ever remembers that Amara exists, it might be fun if she got to do this sort of thing more often. Maybe she’s on a team that goes into the rainforest (or another jungle), and she takes the lead because she has the most experience with it. Ooh! She could take a trainee team to the Savage Land! That’d be neat.
But the other part of the story is Empath. And he’s arguably the central focus of the story, as the issue is about exploring who he is and why he is who he is. This is Simonson trying to make Empath sympathetic. And that is something where the premise almost matters more than the execution. Prior to this, he was always presented as a monster. Just an absolutely horrible human being who saw people as playthings. So I think a lot of people probably didn’t want him to be presented as sympathetic. Actually, I wonder if this might tie into larger views of rapists. A lot of people look at rape as being one of the ultimate evils, and that anyone who does it is a monstrous human being. To them, it’s not something that someone who’s normal would do. The idea that they could actually be friends with a rapist is simply beyond belief.
The thing is, though, the vast majority of rapists don’t look like rapists. They don’t act like rapists. They don’t even think of themselves as rapists. Most rapists actually are totally normal people. Which is something that no one really wants to hear. So having someone in fiction who commits a form of rape – and Empath’s emotional manipulation is definitely creepy and abuse-y – be presented as sympathetic, it’s something that’ll make a lot of people uncomfortable. So someone like Empath, they want to believe he’s just a monster. That there’s nothing more to him than that. And then being told, no, he’s a complicated person with reasons for why he is the way he is, and who does have a good side – a certain segment of readers aren’t going to accept that.
For my own part, I prefer complicated villains. I’m not sure I’m completely sold here. Truthfully, he seems a little too self-aware at times. I’m probably just nitpicking, because my gut reaction is to want him to be a monster. But my head prefers he be complicated, and be someone who can grow up to be a better person. He’s still a teenager, after all. He’s just a kid. I think I’m willing to give him more slack because of that. Compare him to someone like the Purple Man, who’s a full-grown adult who chooses to see people as playthings. Purple Man is an absolute monster. Empath is just a dumb kid who needs to be taught why he’s wrong.
And as far as the execution of this sympathetic turn goes, it’s good. Simonson does a solid job with it. He’s still an ass throughout the issue, because he’s a pampered rich boy lost in the Amazon rain forest, being rained on, pelted with coconuts by monkeys, bitten by bats and attacked by jaguars. So, you know, not a fun trip. So his petulance makes sense. But the explanations of how his power works, and how it affects him, make sense. They’re logical extensions of his power, with logical consequences, and pretty reasonable reactions for how a pampered rich boy handles it. It does work to make him more sympathetic.
The art is good. Muth didn’t do a lot of work for Marvel. This, a couple issues of Silver Surfer and an issue of the Havok/Wolverine Meltdown mini. It’s a pretty cool style. A bit of a darker style. Not just Oliver’s colours, but the lines and the inks. His work doesn’t blow me away, and there’s not a particularly wide range of expressiveness. But it’s good, and it works pretty well for this issue. I wouldn’t have minded seeing him do more Marvel stuff.
So, overall, a pretty good issue. The biggest problem is its placement. There was some intense crap going on, and then this happens. It feels like a distraction from some very important matters. I suppose, given what came last issue, and what’s coming up after the next issue, having a break between them might have been necessary to prevent mass deaths from dehydration as a result of people crying themselves to death.