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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!

I wish my blanket had that print on it!

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!

15 Comments

Great idea for a daily feature, Greg! I’m terrible at criticizing art on a comic (I usually describe it as “uhh, pretty” and “not pretty”) and tend to focus on the writing, but this is a very interesting way to discuss the subject.

A great idea for a new feature, and a great choice for the first post. This is a fantastic example of how to use a splash page to set up the story and draw people in, and it’s also from an amazing story.

This issue could be used in a masterclass of comic book art in terms of design, storytelling, and pacing, and it’s all evident right there on the first page.

Looking forward to reading more of your posts in this new feature, Greg!

God bless Bill Sienkiewicz. If only more artists took as many risks as him.

Love Sienkiewicz’ run on this book! Nice kick off for this series and bonus points for the Marillion lyrics!

Pedro: I think I’ve gotten better at writing about art, but this should (I hope) help!

Jason: I figured if Brian can use Bob Dylan lyrics for all his stuff, I can use Marillion!

I have this comic (found it at Half Price Books), and I’m planning on having Bill Sienkiewicz himself autograph it in its sleeve. Not the first time I’ve done that, that honor belongs to my copies of Superman (vol. 2) #75 (autographed by Dan Jurgens) and Green Lantern (vol. 3) #51 (by Ron Marz). Marz was also nice enough to autograph my extra Total Justice Kyle Rayner figure.

Looking forward to this fever of confession, Greg. Hopefully it’s not a catalogue of crime.

This page is the beginning of modern comic art. It was the first time that a completely non-”traditional super-hero house style” was shown to a mass newsstand audience. Billy had pushed boundaries on Moon Knight before this, but not nearly as much, and to a much smaller audience. An of course other artists had done innovative, out of the box work prior to this, but not to the same degree.

Nice way to start off a new column, Greg. Very intriguing. And as I said on the DC52 post, your writing on the art there was very nice and insightful, as was this.

You named off 4 of the top letterers.

Other great letterers: Ben Oda. That machine/mechanical thing that did the EC lettering. Dave Sim. art spiegelman.

The fact that I can name off and argue about great comic book lettering is either really cool on my part, or really really dorky.

Travis; re lettering
On a post on a comic blog? Supercool!
In real life? Not so cool

@Travis Pelkie. I agree with Blair. It might be dorky in real life, but here I’m just in awe of your knowledge. :-)

This issue contains not only one of the best first pages, but one of the best last pages as well. The splash page of the giant, deranged demon bear towering over Dani is unforgettable.

Your new column is off to a great start, Greg.

[...] Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 1: New Mutants #18Comic Book Resourcesby Greg Burgas 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 … [...]

Wow! So good Greg. i hope that you can do this every day, but if not, i’ll take all that you can give us.
This is a great topic, especially as i don’t critique things very well. Thanks again!

I know I’m late, but I’d like to add a name to the great letterers, Ken Bruzenak. What I love about his work is that he tries to incorporate the font of the particular language that was spoken. Best example would be American Flagg.

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