New Mutants: Dead Souls #4
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Adam Gorham and Michael Garland
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
How many times have you heard someone say that death in comic books is meaningless? It’s not entirely untrue, of course, especially when it comes to Big Two superhero comic books - it stems from their soap-opera nature, their perpetual second-act state so they can potentially be relaunched and reset in the future. But the effect of the death itself has become minimized over the years, the characters who live on carry an emotional burden of their own, even when those reading have the lurking thought that the departed will be back sooner or later - and based on this issue of New Mutants: Dead Souls, Matthew Rosenberg seems astutely aware of this, but threads the needle nicely as the team ends up having to mourn one of their own.
This issue picks up just a short distance away from a plane crash - with Rictor and Illyana still inside when it went down. Dread hangs over the sequence as the team rushes to find any survivors, as Guido rushes into the wreckage while Rahne picks up a scent, with Rosenberg’s script moving quickly and operating on numerous levels across its 20 pages. As such, it’s difficult to properly discuss the issue’s story for fear of giving the game away, but it can be said that Rahne’s nose is what leads them to find Illyana... but no Rictor.
With that striking image, the issue transitions to the Xavier Institute in order to conduct a funeral service. Adam Gorham achieves this with a transition from a wider panel, where the landscape around a curled-up Illyana is far more prominent than her, and a close-up on the following page, where all she can ask is, “Please help me.” It’s a far smaller panel, with the once-verdant background consumed by an expanse of black, while Illyana’s eyes face forward, in a way that that ensures she doesn’t actually look at someone.
Dread becomes melancholy as locations shift. Colorist Michael Garland’s execution of the plane crash sees the natural, earthy colors become gradually consumed by shadow. The plume of black smoke billowing from the tail-end of the aircraft soon becomes the defining colour of the funeral service. As Shatterstar delivers a eulogy, the tension between these various traits and the void created by the conglomeration of funeral wear best illustrates the dichotomy of the issue; as Rosenberg oscillates between the singular and collective grief of the X-Men family. They’ve come together, but all grieve in their own ways, and even if they’re so used to people dying and coming back somewhere down the line, that’s never a certainty at that point in-story. All they know is that they’ve lost one of their own again. It never gets easier.
The optics of this are by no means stellar, to callously off a queer character in the middle of Pride Month would be remarkably misguided. Luckily, Rosenberg is a caring writer who both treats this with the proper amount of respect and time - dedicating an issue to the fallout is indication that this is not an off-hand choice - but is also smart enough with his plotting decision to avoid this being yet another example to add to TV Tropes’ “Bury Your Gays” page. Limited series can often feel inconsequential, a result of only having an arc’s worth of space to tell a story rather than time to build out a larger saga, but Rosenberg makes it all mean something rather than settling for frivolous and perfunctory.
His efforts are aided by Gorham and Garland. The issue is character-focused rather than action-oriented, and so their attention is directed towards the many players. Gorham’s environments can be scratchy - impressionistic in a way that ensures you know what you’re looking at even if every inch of it isn’t detailed - but his blocking and understanding of character posture is strong. His faces can have a degree of stylization to them, but the close-ups are devastating all the same. In one, tears drip from Illyana’s eyes, her head tilted slightly as if she’s perpetually ready to just sigh and let it drop so she can just stare at the ground for the rest of eternity. Contrasted with Kitty, standing just inches away, their body language could not be more different. When they hug, Kitty’s the one bringing Illyana in, who can barely muster to bring her arms up.
Even if superhero comic books can never truly end, this issue is exemplary of how they’re still capable of showing how far some characters have come and how they’re affected by those who didn’t make it that far. It’s an issue much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body”, so calibrated on every wavelength to understanding the harshness of what leads to grief, how differently it can manifest in everyone. That’s a weighty goal, some media properties can dedicate their entire existence to exploring it, but Rosenberg, Gorham, Garland, and Clayton Cowles –– whose work here shifts the space between balloons into uncomfortable silence - offer a succinct summation on the nature of it.