Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 1: New Mutants #18
I was going to do something for an entire year, and I still might, but for now, we’ll see how doing it for a month goes!
So when I decided to do something insane like this, I couldn’t think of what to do. Our own Bill Reed already did 365 reasons to love comics (which remains incomplete, but it’s close enough), and Our Dread Lord and Master has done years of cool comic moments as well as cool comics in general. Plus, Brian does those monthly things, too. So where did that leave little old me? Well, while I was reading all those DC 52s and thinking about the way artists did the “first impressions” of the characters, I had an idea. I would look at the first pages of comic books and see what the writer and/or artist was trying to do on those pages. That might be fun. I decided to do these pretty much at random, except for this first one, which is one of my five favorite first pages in comics history. After this, though, it’s going to be pretty much random, unless I decide on a theme for a while. So let’s dive right in with New Mutants #18, possibly the biggest paradigm shift, artistically, in mainstream comics history!
Look at that gorgeous page. Soak it all in. Let’s break it down!
First, the title: “Death-Hunt.” Not the actual title, which is melodramatic in the finest Claremontian and Mighty Marvel Manner, but Tom Orzechowski’s lettering of said title. Orzechowski is one of the best letterers in comics history (off the top of my head, I can think of three others who come close: Workman, Klein, and Starkings), and he does two interesting things with the title. First, the slight raggedness of the letters is reminiscent of the old horror comics of the 1950s (Tales From the Crypt, Shock, and The Haunt of Fear are only some examples), and given that this issue is as close to horror as Marvel got in 1984, it’s a nice touch. Second, the coloring of the letters (which was either Orzechowski’s or Glynis Wein’s doing) and the same raggedness evoke a vague feeling of the frontier, and given that this story is about a Native American demon and one of the issues (#20) is called “Badlands,” it’s another nice choice by Orzechowski (and/or Wein).
Next are Chris Claremont’s words, which often threaten to overwhelm the art of his collaborators. Not here, as he gives us only 14 words on the page: “He’s out there, the demon bear that murdered my parents. Watching. Waiting. For me.” We don’t need to know who Dani Moonstar is or what her role in the New Mutants is. All Claremont gives us, and we need, is that a demon bear murdered her parents and now it’s coming for her. It’s a remarkably restrained introduction for Claremont (he makes up for it, believe me), and it’s a tremendous hook. We need nothing else to get us into the story with the crucial knowledge required to follow along.
The reason for the massive paradigm shift, however, is Bill Sienkiewicz’s art on the title. Claremont might have been able to pull off a Demon Bear story arc with Sal Buscema drawing it, but given Buscema’s version of the bear, it’s unlikely. Sienkiewicz gives us a harrowing first image of this issue. Dani’s hands clutch her head, which is covered in a blanket. In the center of the circle described by her hands and her head, we see the moon-like sliver of her sclera, with her cornea larger than normal. She looks over her shoulder, hoping the bear is not coming through her bedroom window. Sienkiewicz draws her braid, implying Dani’s Native ancestry even before Claremont gets around to mentioning it. And, of course, Sienkiewicz turns the blanket into the bear, stalking Dani through her dreams. The checkerboard of the blanket is a smart choice, because it allows Sienkiewicz and Wein to turn a homey, comforting pattern – we think of checked tablecloths on a summer’s day – into the horror of the bear, and the red-and-white to bleed to full red with black shadows. Wein uses red well throughout this arc, and this is the first example of it. Dani’s body curls right into the bear’s left eye – her calf lies directly between the bear’s eyes, if you use your imagination. The fact that Wein never completely abandons the checkerboard pattern makes the bear’s implied presence even more disturbing – it’s truly haunting Dani, and she knows she can’t escape.
The splash page is a wonderful introduction to the Claremont/Sienkiewicz collaboration, of which the “Demon Bear Saga” is the highlight. This is what a splash page should do: give us enough information to want to continue, but also evoke the tone of the comic. Sienkiewicz and Claremont nail it with this, and give the reader a nice taste of what’s to come.
Next: Channeling Grant Morrison is one way to make the critics love your comic!