An "X-Force" To Be Reckoned With - Marvel's Mutant Militia Turns 25
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont (writer), Bill Sienkiewicz (artist), Glynis Wein/Oliver (colorist), Tom Orzechowski (letterer, issues #18-28), L. Lois Buhalis (letterer, issues #21, 24-25), and Joe Rosen (letterer, issues #29-31).
Marvel, 14 issues (volume 1, #18-31), cover dated August 1984 – September 1985.
SPOILERS below. Not too many, but I guess I spoil the final arc. These comics are 25 years old. That’s just the way it is!
If we accept the proposition that 65-75 per cent of the “goodness” of comics is the artwork (I think we can agree on that, right?), then it stands to reason that good art should outweigh good writing, and that superb art should overcome mediocre writing. Some writers have such a strong authorial voice that they can reverse this axiom to an extent, but for the vast majority of comic book writers, the artwork can enhance their writing to the point where readers can forgive its excesses. With perhaps no writer over the past 35 years in comics is this more evident than with Chris Claremont, whose writing rarely changes but is looked at differently based on which artist is illustrating him. And in no instance is this more evident, perhaps, than with New Mutants #18-31, the brief stint when Bill Sienkiewicz, of all artists, was taking Claremont’s scripts and visualizing them. Claremont had worked with great artists before this run and would again, but none were as avant-garde as Sienkiewicz was, which makes this slightly-longer-than-a-year run on the junior mutant book a somewhat awkward and even ramshackle masterpiece, with more tension between writing and art than almost any other mainstream comic book has ever seen. It makes reading these issues a strange experience and makes us appreciate far more the way an artist translates scripts and turns words into pictures. It’s a skill that is often unappreciated by readers and also, sadly, by editors, but is something we should all try to understand if we want to read comics to their fullest.
Sienkiewicz was still firmly entrenched in the world of superheroes when he started drawing New Mutants, even as his style moved beyond what many people considered (and still consider) standard superhero art. His final issue of Moon Knight, the series that made him a star, was in early 1983, and the next step in his artistic evolution was this series, which is in some ways more experimental than Moon Knight but in some ways is an attempt by Sienkiewicz to fit into a more standard superhero book. Moon Knight wasn’t a superhero, he was a vigilante, and Sienkiewicz wasn’t called upon to draw too much in the way of superpowers (even though he showed he could do it, if he had to). With New Mutants, he was. And, unsurprisingly, he excelled. Not only that, but he was able to balance both the wonder of superpowers with their necessary dark side, without bludgeoning the readers over the head with it. Sienkiewicz’s mutants were kids, learning how to use their powers, not always in smart or effective ways. Many artists have tried this over the years, but because of Sienkiewicz’s style, he was able to do it almost effortlessly and therefore in a more disturbing fashion.
The tone of the series shifts noticeably in Sienkiewicz’s first issue, which begins a three-part story about Danielle Moonstar’s search for the Demon Bear that killed her parents. The bear had been part of New Mutants mythology from the beginning, and I have to believe that Claremont finally addressed it because of Sienkiewicz coming on the book. Here are a few drawings of the bear, pre-Sienkiewicz (Bob McLeod, from issue #3; Sal Buscema, from issue #17):
Here’s how Sienkiewicz first shows the bear, plus Dani’s brief battle with it:
The difference is almost unfair to McLeod and Buscema, but it signals a huge paradigm shift in the way artists could show superheroic adventures, even more than when Sienkiewicz was drawing Moon Knight. That title was a Direct Market experiment, never terribly popular, while the mid-1980s was when Claremont’s mutants were on top of the comic book world, even if this was the junior title. Sienkiewicz turned a cartoony and non-threatening bear into a terrifying mythological creature, haunting Dani’s nightmares far better than it had, as we see from the famous first page of New Mutants #18:
The Demon Bear arc is unsettling because Claremont gives Sienkiewicz a plot that is far darker than what we had seen previously on the book. When Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander are attacked by the bear, Sienkiewicz simply gives us a panel with giant teeth, two terrified faces, and horrified shrieking (with Wein providing the necessary red coloring to give it a greater impact; see above). We don’t see what happens to Corsi and Friedlander, but we don’t need to – Sienkiewicz provides the bare bones and lets our imagination run wild. The final issue of the arc, “Badlands,” goes even further into the insanity of Sienkiewicz’s art, as the mutants battle the bear in an alternate dimension, with Tom and Sharon transformed into hellish avatars and Dani’s life hanging in the balance. Those readers who thought Sienkiewicz couldn’t handle a battle royale in the fine, superhero tradition were wrong – he gives us a fight that is fluid and dynamic but also twisted and perverse, climaxing with the return of Dani’s parents, who had been transformed into the bear (by a mysterious force that Claremont, typically, doesn’t explain). In this arc, Sienkiewicz shows that his skill at creating larger-than-life monsters is as strong as ever, but he also shows that, like on Moon Knight, he can excel at the quieter moments, too. Interestingly enough, his New Mutants look more like teenagers than they had before, even if we wouldn’t necessarily believe Sienkiewicz could be as subtle as that. He does a good job showing how awkward the teenaged years could be, as the kids often look their age even as they try to pretend they’re grown-ups. This adds to the tension of the book, something that is often lacking with the other artists on the book, who go too far in one or the other direction. The only place Sienkiewicz falters in this regard is with David Haller – Legion – who’s supposed to be a teenager himself. Claremont never quite explains David’s predicament – we get a bit about his childlike mind being trapped in an older body, but it seems that refers to his autism and his “mental” age not corresponding with his actual age, which is of a teenager, rather than some weird, mutant-y explanation. Either way, no artist is ever terribly comfortable with Legion (partly because no one dares mess with Sienkiewicz’s hair style, for some unknown reason), and Sienkiewicz does what he can with him.
Sienkiewicz, of course, is notable for his amazing design work, and that’s abundant in this run. Obviously, the bear is impressive enough, but issue #18 also introduces Warlock, the “techno-organic” alien whose presence in the X-books had long-ranging and occasionally idiotic consequences. Sienkiewicz’s Warlock is a true alien being, part machine and part organism, and it’s rare that the artists that followed him were able to blend those two aspects as well as he did. When Claremont leads into the Cloak and Dagger story in issues #23-25, we get, in issue #22, Rahne dreaming a fairy-tale dream in which those two characters appear, albeit in altered forms – Cloak is in black armor, while Dagger is almost ethereal. The opening splash page of issue #24, while not as famous as the one that begins the run, is as effective – Roberto, corrupted by Cloak’s power, is simply a black blot with a horrifying face, looming over Moira MacTaggart and an unconscious Charles Xavier. Colossus, who was absorbed into Roberto’s cloak, faces Kitty Pryde and the woman he fell in love with in Secret Wars (the book remained anchored to Marvel continuity despite its look), and both dramatically turn to dust in eerie fashion. Legion’s mindscape, with its amalgam of Beirut and Paris, is a tour-de-force of comics art, an astonishing mix of some multimedia presentation, excellent attention to detail, Duo-Shade, and nauseating coloring (in the best way possible) by Oliver. Even the final arc, which is hampered by a tie-in to Secret Wars II and looks a bit rushed, features the grotesquerie that Karma has become and some stunning visuals. Sienkiewicz creates characters that look real and then sets them in a world gone mad, which heightens the horror of what they’re experiencing. This is most evident, of course, during the Legion arc, when Xavier and his charges must enter David’s mind, but Sienkiewicz does this throughout, with panel-breaking and reshaping, sound effects that become part of the drawing and occasionally feel like nails on a chalkboard (notably when Warlock screams in issue #21, which we can almost hear), and Oliver’s splashes of brightness to jar the mood (Dani’s thoughts of the bear in issue #18 are colored bright red; the first appearance of David’s multiple personalities are bright orange). Even when Sienkiewicz is drawing some “normal” scenes, such as the slumber party in issue #21, he manages to infuse it with his own sensibilities. The panel where the older teens are about to jump on Rahne to put make-up on her is a nice example of this – Illyana and the non-mutant girls are packed together on the left side of the panel, looming largely in the foreground, while Rahne sits, small and mouse-like, on a sofa on the right side of the panel, a bit further away from the reader, perspective-wise. Between these two opposing forces is white space, emphasizing the “conflict” about to erupt. Sienkiewicz takes chances in the art, even more than just his iconoclastic pencilling. In issue #26, he draws Emma Frost with little hearts floating around her face when Empath tries to manipulate her emotions. It’s silly, but it works. Throughout the run, we get touches like this that make the art more expressive than your usual superhero art, pushing the storytelling further than readers had seen in mainstream comics before this and rarely see even today.
And then there’s Claremont. I have a feeling that many reviews of mutant books for a two-decade period could focus a great deal on the art and then move on to the writing with the phrase “and then there’s Claremont.” Claremont is a polarizing figure in the world of superhero comics, mainly because under his stewardship, the X-Men became the dominant seller in comics for a decade or so. Claremont’s achievements are impressive, but that doesn’t change the fact that reading his comics from a distance of years and all at once is a bit torturous, and no one would blame readers for skipping some chunks of it. If you’re a new reader, Claremont gets you up to speed in almost every issue with what the characters can do and what their position within the vast universe is, but that becomes oppressive when you read more than five or six Claremont issues in a row. His dialogue is stilted and far too expository, his characterization tics are fairly stereotypical (usually in a positive way, but still stereotypical), and his love of subplots often gets out of hand. (In one of the funniest out-of-control subplots in mutant history, Illyana shows up to fight Warlock in issue #21 after teleporting away earlier in the issue, and she’s dressed in a spacesuit and clutching a strange rifle. Claremont gets around to explaining this in issue #63, after he had left the comic as writer. Marvel needed to bring him back as guest writer to tell readers why on earth Illyana showed up that way.) The fact that he changes Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander into actual Native Americans is oddly insulting, and while giving us a character with autism is interesting in 1985, before it became a widely-known affliction, the fact that he seems to lack basic knowledge about autism, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder (implying that all three are the same) is annoying. On the other hand, Claremont can plot exceptionally well, and while he often overwrites, he also gets out of the way of his artists, allowing them to go nuts a bit. The issue-by-issue scripting of any Claremont book tends to be a bit of a slog, but he gives us a tense story about Danielle confronting her personal demons (issues #18-20), a slumber party and a new character, Warlock (issue #21), an overly long but gripping story about two young people wrestling with a terrible choice (issues #22-25, in which Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen must decide whether to become Cloak and Dagger again), a terrific psychological drama in which Charles Xavier must face Legion, the son he didn’t know he had (issues #26-28), and the confrontation with their lost teammate, Karma (issues #29-31). Plus, there’s the continuing subplot of Magneto and Lee Forrester, which leads to Magneto taking over as headmaster of Xavier’s school. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of good content, and if the details are occasionally mediocre, Claremont packs a lot of plot and interpersonal relationships into these comics. In that age of “compressed” comics, this kind of stuff wasn’t unusual, but Claremont’s trademark was to heighten the soap opera without backing off on the action, and these issues hum along. I mentioned the tension between the writing and art above, and this is where it comes in – with many other artists, as talented as they might be, Claremont’s scripts almost pushed the reader along, putting the art completely in the service of the soap opera. He tries that with Sienkiewicz, but Sienkiewicz forces the reader to stop and consider the individual panels, because there’s so much going on beyond the basic machinations of the plot. That becomes a problem because it’s then that readers will notice Claremont’s writing a bit more, which is not always a good thing.
One thing Claremont was always very good at was moving the plot along to new places – he didn’t keep the characters running in place. This was a time when comics could still indulge in the “illusion of change” that is so necessary for their success, before readers became cynical and “knew” characters would come back from the dead, and it’s also before the companies became so terrified of change, as well. Claremont was very good at allowing his characters to grow and change, and when it came to the New Mutants, this was even more in evidence, as they were teenagers, who change rapidly anyway. It’s not in evidence as much in these 14 issues as it is in others, but Claremont changes Corsi and Friedlander (for the worse, it’s true, but still – the changes remained part of the new status quo), brings back Dani’s parents, introduces Warlock, introduces Legion (he first refers to David in issue #1, but these issues first show him in all his flourishing power), allows Magneto to grow more “human,” and even changes Alison Blaire’s status quo a bit. In later issues, the New Mutants would change even more (first when Claremont was writing them, and then after Louise Simonson took over), but part of Claremont’s focus on plotting means figuring out ways to keep things fresh. He did this by forcing his characters to change, and it’s oddly refreshing re-reading these comics years later, knowing that these kids are constantly being challenged and that those challenges will help mold them into different people. It’s Claremont’s enduring legacy – he loved changing his characters, and even though they didn’t always work, they make reading his comics in chunks (if we can ignore the heavy-handed scripting) weirdly exciting.
Sienkiewicz decided to leave after issue #31 (he inked a few issues not long after, but that was the end of his involvement with the book), as he moved on to his next masterpiece, Elektra: Assassin. Claremont continued writing the book for a while before giving way to Simonson, and the book continued pleasantly along its way, never again reaching the artistic heights of Sienkiewicz’s run but never becoming less than an enjoyable comic. A succession of artists followed Sienkiewicz, from Steve Leialoha to Jackson Guice to Bret Blevins, before issue #86 came along with its artistic stylings of Rob Liefeld. So there’s that. I’ll take Sienkiewicz. Marvel has released this run in two trade paperbacks, the “classic” volumes #3 and 4 (the second one contains the Karma story from issues #32-34, which are a nice coda but which I haven’t included here because you only need to own them if you really, really need to find out what happened to Shan), the first of which contains the first annual, which I haven’t read. I honestly don’t know if the single issues are cheaper to get, but the Classic volumes are printed on nicer paper, although I don’t know how well Sienkiewicz’s art transfers (I’d say well, but I don’t know, do I?). If you’re wondering exactly what the hell was going on when the stylized art of Bill Sienkiewicz was paired up with the meat-and-potatoes scripting of Chris Claremont, New Mutants #18-31 shows you. It’s a weird but wonderful brew!
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