Hey out there in Interwebs Land! It’s your old pal, Andy Larson, back with another exciting read pile entry. For those of you that haven’t been paying attention for the past month, I’ve been showcasing comic books with a horror, mystical, or supernatural bent to them in this column, and to finish this month out, I thought I’d take a stab at reviewing a book that many have done before, probably much better than I am going to attempt to do now. It’s the Demon Bear Saga, which appeared in issues #18-20 of the original New Mutants comic book released in the hallowed year of 1984.
A crazy year in which Atari released Marble Maddess to Arcades, V, Miami Vice, and The Transformers all debuted on our airwaves and incredible films like Ghostbusters, Temple of Doom, and the Karate Kid all graced our movie screens. I was all of 5 years old, so I wasn’t reading New Mutants at the time. My normal pick ups were Marvel Tales featuring Spider-man or the Marvel Star Wars comic.
But I will say my older brother, Dave, was reading New Mutants and he has commented on many times about the electricity generated when Bill Sienkiewicz took over for a GotS favorite of ours, Sal Busecma. Similar to his role in transforming Doug Moench’s Moon Knight into a must read title, Bill’s run on New Mutants is now fondly remembered for bring a darker, avant garde style to the book which allowed Chris Claremont the ability to explore themes and concepts with this younger version of the X-men than he could with the more established grown up squad.
I mean from the teaser poster alone that signaled a change in direction for the book starting with part 1 of “Demon Bear”, you can see that punk rock, almost anarchistic chip on your shoulder, which should be the focal point about a team of young kids growing up in the early 80s. This is all MTV. This is all edge and glam and dangerous. You can see why it instantly connected with an audience.
However, I have never been much of an X-men fan so even after I came of age as it were, I never got around to reading this groundbreaking 3 parter that caused such a tidal shift in the direction of the book. Weirder still is I did read some of the issues leading up to this event, as my brother accidentally left some of those behind when he moved. It was mainly the issues in the lost Amazonian city, New Rome, where the Mutants fight old Hellfire Club cronie, Selene aka the Black Queen. Plus those are the issues in which Magma is introduced and joins up. I actually have fond memories of those issues. I guess it didn’t hurt that Magma and Danielle Moonstar run around in bikinis for chunks of it.
I’m getting off topic. The point is after a recent podcast we did in which I had difficulty naming a lot of great comics starring teenagers and the New Mutants was suggested by our fans, I thought it might be a great opportunity to check out this story finally. I mean I had been told and read so many things about how great it is that it seemed silly that I shouldn’t actually have my own opinion on it. Also, this story is evidently the direction that the upcoming movie “The New Mutants” will take in terms of a story, so I might as well school myself before hand.
On the surface, Demon Bear seems to be the culmination of just another one of the multitude of Claremont subplots he constantly was introducing in his X-men books. This particular one was surrounding Danielle Moonstar who had hunted by a mystical creature called the Demon Bear that had murdered her parents years before and was after Danielle to finish the job. Despite her pleads to her teammates that threat was real, they all sort of dismissed it, most stating it was to fantastical to believe honestly. It seemed too much like superstition, some magic based hocus pocus story created to scare children into eating their vegetables.
But given the beast killed her parents, Danielle knows how real the issue is and spends a ridiculously large amount of time in the Danger Room training and prepping for this particular encounter. But eventually the confrontation must take place, and Danielle decides to do it alone. Maybe it’s out of pride or determination to face her own demons, maybe it’s because of self doubt that her teammates would dismiss her pleads for help again, but whatever the reason, she’s the only that ventures out on the cold winter night to slay the ungodly behemoth.
That’s the one thing that’s been said so many times about the true effect of Sienkiewicz’s art on this particular story is how fierce, imposing and deadly the Demon Bear becomes under his hand. Prior stories might have alluded to the Demon Bear as something sinister for sure, but Sienkiewicz’s Demon Bear, that’s a true monster. A hulking blood thirsty animistic predator who has one goal in life: To end Danielle Moonstar’s.
And he damn near succeeds, as the resulting battle is pretty much as lopsided as you can get, and despite all that training, the New Mutants find Danielle bloody, battered and near death on that harsh unforgiving snow. This is a course in “Pumping the Tires of your Villain” 101. The Demon Bear is more than a credible threat to the team now. He has the capability of ending them…in the most violent and unpleasant ways possible.
And thus the remainder of the 2 issues of this arc are simply a survival story. The survival of Danielle Moonstar as doctors and surgeons try desperately to keep her alive with a crushed spine and massive internal bleeding. The survival of the New Mutants has they have to deal with this monster coming back to finish the job, and knowing that they are all that stands in the way of life and death for their friend. It’s definitely gripping stuff.
But then it gets even more strange when after failing to succeed in the hospital, thanks in large part to a magic barrier erected by the newcomer to the team, Magik, the Demon Bear pulls the team into some otherworldly grassy plain of a dimension for their final battle. There it hopes to enslave or kill any that try to stand its way of it’s ultimate goal. And it’s with this issue that Sienkiewicz’s art really steals the show.
To be honest, under another artist’s hand, this whole exchange could have been botched. It could have come across hokey and forced, instead of the visual, metaphorical powerhouse. At the heart, the Demon Bear is the living embodiment of the suffering inflicted upon the Native Americans. A cancer created from rage, disillusionment, and pain. It wants it’s pound of flesh in retribution for all that heartache, and it’s damn sure going to try to take it by force. Sienkiewicz relates that psychotic anger so well with the raw emotion counterpointed by the peace and tranquility of the landscape. It fits my cancer analogy well, especially when you view the grid like representation of the demon bear from the skies, what with its dark splotches on a pristine white background seemingly to look like disease infecting a healthy organism.
From there, the New Mutants are in a battle of life and death and need to trust in each other to come out the other side unscathed. The problem with that is mainly the distrust the group currently has for Magik, despite thus far, her seemingly to be the MVP of this battle given its a magic based threat and her powers are all equally magically based. It’s not completely unfounded mistrust given Magik received most of her powers from the demon Belasco, who for Marvel fans is pretty much like “Diet Mephisto”.
Still though, when the chips are down, the group rallies and after a spiritual conference between a dying Danielle Moonstone and Wolfsbane reveals that Magik’s eldritch blade is the key to defeating the beast, the New Mutants start firing on all cylinders. In reading it I’m reminded of how thrilling X books can be when done right. The whole series is about outcasts coming together as a group to make each other better. You don’t need Wolverine to tell that. Or Storm. Or Cyclops. I feel like so often with modern day X books they lose sight of that powerful concept and instead just cram the book with characters that may not really work together, but are there to sell the franchise. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been much of an X-men fan. Maybe it’s because I’ve become jaded by years of throwing the same old characters at me year after year, that when I finally read something with a young team of relative “nobodies” that work together well as a team and are given credible threats to showcase that teamwork against, it’s so refreshing to behold. And this final battle with Demon Bear with all the emotion and incredible imagery, it warms this old comic book heart of mine, and makes me want to read more of the particular series.
In closing, Did the Demon Bear Saga live up to those lofty expectations set down by comic fans everywhere including my older brother, Dave? It did. It did so in spades. I really feel like the only thing that kept this story from being an A+ book is the ending in which Danielle Moonstar’s resulting paraplegic condition from the Demon Bear attack, is resolved almost Deus Ex Machina style by the timely intervention of the Morlock mutant, The Healer, who was brought to assist by special guest star, Storm.
It’s a cop out to bring things back to the status quo and I for one was outraged. It was corny, cheesy, and totally deflated the Demon Bear as a villain after so many great issues of building it up. Battles of this magnitude should have consequences. It’s almost like if Claremont had gone with his original idea of letting Jean Gray live after the Dark Phoniex saga. Some things are so epic and character defining that they should stick around permanently. Maybe the paraplegic condition could be eventually resolved, but make Danielle work for it. Suffer and persevere to overcome it. That would have been a much more fitting ending for a story that’s all about a new direction for the New Mutants.
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: A-