All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
Debuting in 1983, The New Mutants was the very first ongoing X-Men spin-off. Focusing on a group of teenagers as they attempted to navigate the increasingly bonkers world of the X-Men, the book was filled with stories of a ragtag group learning to control their powers, making huge personal discoveries, and gradually distancing themselves from the myriad untrustworthy adults in their lives.
Although the overall quality of X-Books is a rollercoaster of many highs and lows, New Mutants was consistently great, and as a result has always been a favorite of X-Fans. While initially based around inexperienced teens, this is one book that ultimately produced some of the most interesting warrior women of the Marvel universe.
Introducing Danielle Moonstar
Perhaps the most important character of the first several New Mutants story arcs was Danielle Moonstar, a young Cheyenne woman who had lost her parents to a mysterious entity known as Demon Bear. In the early days, their mentor Professor Xavier was being controlled by the malicious aliens known as the Brood, and he specifically focused on the hyper-aware Moonstar, gaslighting and harassing her while clearly fearing the edge her heightened awareness gave her. In her early days, Dani struggled to trust her classmates, but they also struggled to accept her. Dani's powers were uniquely focused on pulling images of people's greatest hopes and fears from their minds, and she alienated her teammate Karma by forcing her to relive images of trauma. The combination of vastly different backgrounds and Dani's unstable, upsetting power set distanced her from her teammates, but her bravery and loyalty to them led to her eventually becoming the co-leader of the team.
Importantly, despite her awareness of Professor Xavier and later the Demon Bear's maliciousness, the other New Mutants didn’t believe Dani when she told them of the danger she was in. Thus, she experienced the gaslighting that many Indigenous people face when they speak of generational trauma. For Dani, the threat it posed was real and immediate. When no one would take her fears seriously, she refused to run and hide and instead took the fight directly to the bear. She was dwarfed by the monstrous entity, and despite her bravery, she quickly fell. The rest of the team took up the fight against the demon while Dani struggled to survive in the hospital, ultimately returning to strength and triumphing over the bear.
The Demon Bear Saga is generally regarded as the best New Mutants story, and that might be true, but it was only the introduction to Dani as a warrior, and her character continued to evolve throughout the series. Not long after, the team ended up stranded on Asgard, and Dani discovered a winged horse named Brightwind stuck in the mud. She saved Brightwind, and Brightwind chose Dani as her Valkyrie. Thus, Dani very randomly became a Valkyrie of Hel, gaining the ability to see Death before it struck. This turned out to be much more a curse than a blessing in the long run, but it was around this time that Dani became truly epic, arriving on the back of Brightwind and wielding psychic weapons.
Dani Squares Off Against Death
In New Mutants #41, we catch up with Dani Moonstar, who had left the New Mutants when a despairing Magneto felt at his wit’s end and unable to help the students cope with their sudden awareness of their own mortality brought on by an encounter with an omnipotent villain known as The Beyonder. He believed he was powerless to help them and left the students in custody of Emma Frost, then a notorious supervillain. Dani had strongly disagreed with the decision and had gone to spend time with her parents and clear her head. Although she needed the space, she questions the choice to leave her friends when they needed her most and is wracked with guilt for it throughout the issue.
Her parents are in the middle of dealing with a minor crisis and don’t have time to spend with her, so she goes to the mall to unwind on her own time. There she runs into a childhood friend who has apparently developed an incredible amount of hatred toward Dani since she saw him last. He refers to her with racist terms and tries to provoke her into a fight. Dani sees the specter of Death over him. Later, when he drunkenly crashes his car, she refuses to let Death take him. We discover that she had traumatized him in front of his parents when they were young and had run away without ever offering an explanation or reconciliation. Dani holds herself to a high moral standard and believes that in some way she herself helped foster his antipathy for her. Although the level of forgiveness given by Dani here is more than what was deserved by a white man spouting racial slurs because his feelings were hurt, this is yet another indicator of how incredibly seriously Dani takes her moral compass.
Death appears as a cowboy, adding an element of horror to the encounter. Dani shoots him down, but her former friend slips into a coma from which he will never awaken. In the hospital, Death takes the form of an elderly woman, discussing the subject with Dani, urging her to let go. While the story is tragic, she goes home and is finally able to spend time with her parents. “Some battles aren’t meant to be won, only fought,” says her mother.
This story would likely play out differently today, as the amount of tolerance expected from all people of color toward racial hatred is being seen as the unreasonable request that it always was. Her stubborn insistence on working to save her old friend's life was consistent with the character, but she went well above the call of duty by putting her own soul on the line to do so. Still, it is an important lesson for Dani to see that, while her willingness to stare Death in the eye for her friends is admirable, it can't solve every problem. As warriors go, Dani has always had a specific understanding of the fact that fighting won't solve everything, and that knowledge was earned over dozens of issues of character development.
The New Mutants disbanded and became X-Force, and Dani vanished off to have adventures in Hel that we never find out much about, although there was a brief storyline in which the Cheyenne deity Hotamitanio traveled to Asgard to retrieve her and she refused to return. After a few years of absence, Dani appeared again secretly working with SHIELD to infiltrate the Mutant Liberation Front, ultimately reuniting with and joining X-Force. Although she temporarily seemed to lose her powers as a Valkyrie, she seems to have more or less regained them. The level at which that is the case has proven to be mostly story-specific.
The Importance of Danielle Moonstar's Heritage In Her Life
One of the strengths of the character in her early appearances was her intentional embrace of reflecting her cultural identity. While she did don the standard New Mutants uniform, she flourished it with a beaded necklace and moccasins. Consistently, she would refer to her heritage in thought balloons and in casual conversation with her peers. Even in the beginning, Dani’s parents were gone, but she thought about them and her mentor Black Eagle constantly. Of all the X-Men spin-offs, the complexity of the New Mutants’ relationships with their mentors and families produced some of the most interesting characters to appear in mainstream superhero comics. Dani was no different, and she struggled with her occasionally conflicting lives as a mutant, a Cheyenne woman, a daughter, a student, and a leader.
Writer James Leask has commented at length on the problematic nature of Marvel temporarily removing Dani’s powers during M-Day, noting that her cultural link with her powers vanishing while her abilities as a Valkyrie remained was another subtle way of whitewashing the character. Leask is careful to note that no single story has been specifically guilty of de-emphasizing Dani’s heritage, but that over years the end result has been a gradual decline in her connection to that part of herself. While many of Dani’s powers could read as Native stereotypes, such as communicating with animals and empathic connections with others, suddenly they were just another power set removed from just another mutant. The specificity of Dani’s case went overall unaddressed.
The relationship of Indigenous people across the globe with empathy and how it affects their lives is a complicated topic. Today, in the United States, Indigenous people are constantly asked to show empathy for colonizers above their own personal interest and before acknowledging their own cultural identities. Citing Dani’s empathic abilities as specifically an aftereffect of her mutant powers leaves a lot of questions, but the topic is generally brushed to the side. As is typical with X-Men comics, all cultural identities are treated as secondary to that of Mutant, a tactic which can limit character growth in characters like Dani. Since The New Mutants ended, there has been comparatively little commentary or emphasis on Dani’s identity as a Cheyenne woman.
With the New Mutants movie on the horizon, Dani has been the topic of conversation more often than perhaps ever before, and she is an important character for many reasons. Her fierce and proud independence coupled with her deeply felt empathy and loyalty to her friends creates a compelling, likable hero. Her insistence on honoring her culture while refusing to let certain aspects of it define her creates an interesting personality that has intrigued and won over many fans. Watching her grow from her early days as a terrified young girl who couldn’t control her powers to a confident and self-assured leader by the time of New Mutants Volume 2 has been a long journey, ultimately worth it despite long hiatuses from the pages.
Still, no matter how the character changes over time and through the eyes of new creators, arguably her most defining characteristic is that of a scrapper who sticks to her guns regardless of what other people think. Although her kindness and patience led to her being one of the best teachers at the Xavier Institute, in most alternate reality appearances she is a hardened fighter. Merging these two seemingly conflicting elements of her nature hasn't always been the easiest thing for writers to pull off, but when they do she is easily one of the most inspiring characters in comics. Dani has always been the one who was the most willing to throw herself into the fray, come what may, and that makes her a warrior of the highest order.