So Andy’s great review of The Demon Bear Saga for Chris Claremont’s The New Mutants book inspired me to post up something of my own- though his X-Men are rightfully legendary, I actually find his teen-themed book to be the better, more mature of the two books.
THE NEW MUTANTS:
Mutants As Metaphor:
-The idea that Mutants were a perfect metaphor for one’s Teen Years came to me a little late. Early on, it was a simple metaphor for prejudice- using a fictional minority to show the absurdities and horrors of man’s inhumanity for “the others” among them. And of course, it WORKS for that, and will pretty much always stay relevant so long as there is more than one person remaining on the Earth. But eventually, it was like someone went “oh yeah- powers tend to activate in late adolescence” and everything came together on the OTHER metaphor. So like… you’re thirteen years old, you suddenly undergo this great physical change, and suddenly you don’t know how to control yourself, everyone seems against you, you feel like rebelling against everything, the world no longer makes sense… oh, and there’s a whole group of people just like you, so you can belong with THEM. I mean, how is that NOT perfect? Teens going through puberty both dread feeling like outcasts, and yet they both crave and REVEL in being outcasts (so long as there are others like them), so the idea of things like the New Mutants (or the subsequent 900 knock-offs) is beyond perfect. They want to belong… but they also want to go “f*ck you, society- I don’t WANT your conformity!”
Possibly Claremont’s Finest Work:
What can be said about this series? In about 2005 or so, I managed to get almost the entire run (missing about 8-10 issues total, which I eventually found) in one go at a local comic shop for around 100 bucks, and MAN was it worth it. It’s hard to describe just what made this book so great. Debuting in the early 1980s, during the peak of the X-books’ creativity, they were the brainchild of Chris Claremont, who basically was forced (says John Byrne) by Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter to “make Xavier’s a school again”. Chris did his best to avoid having Wolverine & Storm handing in tests and homework by turning that idea into a NEW batch of students, this time straight-up teenagers (way younger than even the early X-Men of the ‘60s).
Re-using the “Team From Around the World” concept, Claremont introduced (in Marvel’s Graphic Novel series) Sunspot (a Brazilian wannabe lothario), Danielle Moonstar (a smart-mouthed Cheyenne with the stereotypical look but WAY more attitude), Wolfsbane (a good little Christian girl at conflict with her mutancy, her body and her emotions), Cannonball (a good-old Southern Boy who was rather bright and responsible), and Karma (a young girl introduced in Marvel Team-Up a while before- a Vietnamese girl with an evil uncle and two siblings to take care of).
Rookie Heroes Done Right:
Notice how I didn’t even list their powers there? That’s because their personalities were so much more important to the series. Everyone played against each other PERFECTLY, and is probably the closest comics have ever come to truly capturing the emotions and mental states of teenagers. It had all the self-doubt, angst and random crushes that typify teenager interaction. Fans wrote in early on about how it was PERFECT teen-based storytelling, capturing the real doubts and fears of kids, rather than making them catchphrase-spouting mall-going imbeciles like most books did (and like this book would, sadly, later become). Compare Johnny Storm in the ’60s to these guys (or, God forbid, the “Jive-Talking” Teen Titans of the ’60s)- I don’t think the sheer suckiness of going through puberty has ever been done any better than right here.
Not that their powers weren’t handled very well- what I loved about this book is that their powers SUCKED at first. I mean, this was the worst superhero team in history- Sunspot was super-strong, but only for minutes at a time. Cannonball was near-invulnerable but couldn’t aim to save his life, and his flying was ludicrously bad (he could only travel in one direction). Moonstar could barely control her Fear-Images. Karma could possess only one person at a time. Even Magma (who was added later, as the book got weird immediately by giving us a geokinetic girl from a long-lost Ancient Roman civilization… in Brazil) couldn’t handle her powers well. Compare that to the 2000s-take on the New Mutants with the New X-Men: Academy X kids. Every freaking one of them was basically an elite superhero right out of the gate, doing awesome power stunts and having great control over their powers. You had Wind Dancer using funky Power Feats, Wallflower developing Pheromone control ultra-fast, Prodigy having great strategy in their first fight, etc. Almost no limits or drawbacks at all. The original New Mutants were so bad that common thugs were a danger.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! KILL IT!!! KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!!!!!!!!
The Darkest Damn Comic Ever:
The book was also EXTREMELY dark and mature for a comic book, especially one that featured mainly young children. One issue had a secretly-mutant kid get teased by others for being a “Mutie” (they didn’t even know he WAS one- they were just bugging him by using a popular minority to hate- the equivalent of teen boys calling each other “gay” today)- instead of having a happy ending, we see him befriend the New Mutants, accidentally piss them off by sharing some “funny” Anti-Mutie humor to break the ice, and then COMMIT FREAKING SUICIDE after being taunted a little too far by his tormentors. This led to an ultra-sad funeral scene, where the New Mutants discover that he WAS a Mutant all along, allowing Kitty to list off the entire roster of racial & homophobic slurs she knew (a weird recurring trend in the X-books if you read them for long enough) during a eulogy about hate.
In another issue, the kids thought Karma was killed (she was written out of the book- Put On A Bus- probably because her character was rather boring, and seemingly designed to PREVENT the “let’s run off straight into danger” dynamics due to her maturity and foresight). You had divorce, child abuse, drug abuse, etc. all dealt with, back when that wasn’t as forced as it tends to be today. Later, Dani gains the “Death Sight” of a Valkyrie, and has to engage in an argument with Death, who had come for her childhood friend (a boy she once humiliated by accidentally showing everyone his heart’s desire- his & Dani’s wedding day). How many other Teen Hero books feature mature, drawn-out debates with Death? “Tell me child, and I so terrible?” “You CAUSE PAIN!” “And end it.”
Very few comics have ever had a villain do something this bad- with a casual gesture, Empath forced two X-Mansion employees to rape each other for weeks, leaving them broken people.
Which doesn’t even get into their Secret Wars II crossover. In which The Beyonder, trying to comprehend humanity, casually decides to murder the entire team, one after the other. He does so out of piqued curiosity, and immediately resurrects them, satisfied with whatever he’s learned. Except he LEFT THEM WITH THE MEMORIES OF THEIR DEATHS. This led to several horrifically-dark issues in which the kids were at their wit’s end, so depressed and shattered they won’t react emotionally to anything around them (even the strictest discipline from Magneto was treated with a “yessir” disregard for the consequences), leading the teachers of both the New Mutants AND the Hellions to join forces and try to repair their frayed psyches. Even the White Queen was stunned at how beaten they were. This remains quite possibly the most evil thing I’ve ever seen a writer to do their characters. To YOUNG TEENS.
Bill Seinkewicz, who took over quite early on the art, was brilliant, even though he tended to use the “Electro-Shock” hair look on too many people (Cannonball, Warlock & Legion especially). It’s the darkest and oddest art I’ve ever seen used regularly in comics, and stands out particularly on a book that featured a roster of kids. In effect, it was rather perfect, as these weird, quirky outsiders now had the bizarre appearances to really show how “off” they were. While other Teen Books were brightly-lit, happy-fun-adventures; these hyper-shaded, too-skinny kids looked borderline inhuman and strange, and yet photorealistic at the same time. Never mind how he drew a certain ursine bad guy.
My GOD this is beautiful. It is inconceivable that we could ever live in a world where there existed a better comic book cover.
New Mutants Timeline:
The Early Years:
The early years of the book felt a bit different, as the art was more typical, with more standard artists (Bob McLeod & Sal Buscema were both capable, but not spectacular, craftsmen). Things got weird almost right away when the kids went on a trip to visit Roberto’s parents in Brazil, only to find a long-lost ROMAN CIVILIZATION in the Amazon Jungle, thus earning them a new teammate and an Ancient Unkillable Witch for an enemy (Selene- the Black Queen). Pretty quickly, Karma was thought killed and vanished from the book. The book went off-the-wall crazy with Warlock, a shape-shifting goofball alien who hid massive firepower, and we got Cypher, who proved once and for all that not every mutant power was awesome- while also proving that the lowest-powered guy on the team will usually be the one to save the day (an old Marvel stand-by). Plus of course Magik, who was a horribly psychotic and possibly-evil little girl with vast Satanic magical powers. Did I mention that kids revel in being outcasts, while at the same time dreading it? Well guess who ended up being the book’s most popular character?
The Hellions were awesome as well. Linked to Emma Frost (back then, an evil Hellfire Club agent), they were a classic “Rival School”, except with super-powers, and their initially-violent feud with the Mutants later turned to more casual rivalry, with contests, snark and mutual respect (and mutual hatred of Empath, the dickiest dick who ever dicked it up in comics, who was a Hellion).
Not enough can be said about the first fifty-some issues of this book (though by the Gods, that three-parter with Cloak & Dagger was and remains a chore to get through). The big #50 issue, where the team confronts The Magus, Warlock’s evil father, and uses a bunch of low-level, barely-capable powers to battle a borderline Cosmic Being star-killing menace, while under Professor X’s guidance in outer space is one of the most underrated books I’ve ever read (seriously, I’ve never heard much praise for it at all). Naturally, DOUG RAMSEY uses his powers of “Can Understand Languages” to score the final blow.
And then when Magneto takes over the school, we get a whole different side of him as he’s forced to deal with kids WAY younger than he has any comfort level talking to, yet he takes the job absolutely seriously. Magneto in The New Mutants was even better when he was leading the X-Men- watching the merciless Master of Magnetism suddenly have to deal with trying to reassure young teens? And sometimes SUCCEEDING? Awesome stuff. There’s a fun one where some brutes rough up and nearly sexually assault Dani. The kids plot some sweet, sweet revenge, only to be prevented from doing so by their heartless, uncool teacher. So they sneak over to the frathouse or whatever, hide out… and watch Magneto tear the place apart, putting the fear of God into those assholes.
One of my favorite conversations is when Magneto is trying to confer with Illyana over her dark nature- Magneto confesses to sometimes wanting to give in and become the monster humanity thinks he is. Illyana talks about wanting to be good… while the art shows a horrible, inhuman smile creeping across her shadow-ridden face. It’s mature, thoughtful, and points out that it’s natural to want to just give in and lash out sometimes.
The infamous Bird-Brain
Louise Simonson took over:
And then the book started to suck. Bret Blevins on art made everyone look like they were thirteen again, all the dialogue was infantile, Magneto was often out of character (I can’t imagine someone with his grandeur ever stating “What the heck was that!?”), and they started REALLY over-using the “no, let’s not tell the grown-ups and go sneak off to save the day ourselves and get in over our heads” trope to the point of ridiculousness. I mean, in the early issues, the Mutants’ first reaction to EVERY threat was to call the Prof, the X-Men, The Avengers or the FF- but now several arcs in a row featured the kids gallivanting off by themselves.
The “Bird Brain” story was EPIC in its suck- I remember first getting onto the internet (when the X-fandom was basically contained to two webpages), and even THEN the “Bird-Brain” stuff was considered horrific. First off we had way too many drawn-out issues of a gangly “Scrappy-Doo meets Jar-Jar Binks” imbecilic clumsy animal-man teaming up with the Mutants, and then we had a WAY TOO LONG arc featuring the kids on some island with an old, scrawny lumpy man with a Dr. Moreau rip-off concept and really crappy “I’m a crazy villain!” vibe to him. And finally, they killed off Cypher, who was apparently unpopular, but the fans later felt bad about this decision. But seriously… Bird-Brain is even more worthy of being despised than Jar-Jar OR Scrappy. Imagine all of their attention-grabbing annoying behavior in a stupider-looking body that could barely speak English and instead did a lot of squawking. He’s THAT BAD.
The crap started flowing freely by this point. Magik was de-powered back into Young Illyana Rasputin during Inferno, to the fans’ outright HORROR (she was easily among the most popular mutants- there’s a reason why she was the first victim of the Legacy Virus years later- fans had been BEGGING for a return of Magik as soon as she was gone, and hadn’t let up). Moonstar picked up some REALLY lame powers that allowed her to physically bring all of her wishes into the real-world (a massive Game-Breaker that led to some horrible story plot-points, like her creating a giant ice-machine to salve her wounds at one point). The team got their own costumes, which are easily among the worst EVER designed, and should never have made it past the drawing board. Magma left to hook up with Empath, who still hadn’t been made to look any more likable (seriously, when a modern comic had her go on a date with MEPHISTO of all people, I was like “well that’s technically a step up”). And then we got the X-Terminators kids hooking up with the Mutants, bringing four REALLY lame characters in Rictor, Boom-Boom, Skids and Rusty to a previously-established “all good characters” squad. Finally, even MOONSTAR left, going to Asgard permanently. Remember what I said about fans loving the non-Mall-going stereotypes? Well guess what half the team was NOW? The very embodiment of “Stupid Teen Sitcom” material. We basically went from Degrassi to Sweet Valley High.
Seriously, SOMEBODY ALLOWED THIS TO HAPPEN.
The Liefeld Era:
It was at this point, with Magneto back to being a bad guy and the school being emptied, that Rob Liefeld took over on art, and eventually began co-plotting. And you know what? For all we say about him NOWADAYS, he brought a ton of new life to that horribly-dying series. Sure it looks lame nowadays, but at least stuff was HAPPENING again. I’d rather have entertainingly-shitty storytelling than BORINGLY-shitty storytelling any day.
The fur started flying on the book immediately, and in some pretty bad ways- especially for long-term fans. Cable joined the roster as a new Mentor Character type, since the old ones had all gone, after the X-Editors had seen some Liefeldian scribbles of the guy and been fascinated by the proto-’90s Cyborg dude. The X-Tinction Agenda, which in addition to having the worst comic book art I’ve ever seen published in the X-Factor parts (no exaggeration- go see if you don’t believe me- Jon Bogdanove’s art made Liefeld’s look like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling) and being way too damn long, was particularly nasty to this team. Warlock was casually killed off early on, being killed by Cameron Hodge, one of the least-enjoyable villains in history. Then Wolfsbane was brainwashed and forced into wolf-form permanently, and shipped off to the new X-Factor book.
The next batch of issues was pretty ugly. Rusty & Skids got “Put On A Bus” to the backburner when they were freed from jail by the Mutant Liberation Front, a group of guys basically scribbled in power & personality by Liefeld on the back of a napkin (where I began using the term “Sketchpad Characters” for such poorly-thought-out goofs with distinctive outfits). Rictor quit to go find Wolfsbane (with a later reason added in after-the-fact that he’d seen Cable kill his father). Boom-Boom and Cannonball hooked up after the beloved Sam & Lila relationship died down (seriously, he went from an intergalactic punk rock star to Proto-Jubilee). The Hellions were casually murdered in the largest single waste of good potential characters in COMIC BOOK HISTORY (not an exaggeration either) during Trevor Fitzroy’s debut in comics in another book.
Finally even SUNSPOT left, leaving Sam as the sole member of the original students left on the book, while we got FOUR new members of the team in succession. Three of them were Liefeldian napkin-sketches: Domino, Shatterstar & Feral (who’d already sorta had her design used for Wildside of the MLF), and the Hellions’ Thunderbird came on as “Warpath”. And thus began X-Force.
The Book’s Legacy:
-The New Mutants is rarely spoken of in the same sense as Claremont’s X-Men, and I think that’s a shame. It’s not as “big” a book, so it’s not as Event-prone, which probably lessens it to some. It has a lot of “quieter” moments, and is a lot more introspective, which is rare and pretty neat for comics. It’s pretty well thought-of, but has few “really famous moments”- there’s some infamous ones, though (Bird-Brain, Liefeld art, etc.).
The book lasted for one-hundred issues, ending and turning into X-Force with pretty much an all-new roster- the original characters other than Cannonball had left. Sunspot would rejoin in just under two years, but most of the others would NOT have a good decade in the 1990s- Moonstar went into X-Limbo, returning as a villain and then as the leader of a book that was WAY on Marvel’s bottom tier at that point. Karma & Magma disappeared. Magik wouldn’t return, and Illyana would in fact DIE- a victim of the Legacy Virus. Wolfsbane was on the lower-selling X-Factor book, and wouldn’t do well without Peter David being around. The post-2000 era has been much better, at least, with multiple characters getting numerous chances- a new New Mutants series came about in the 2010s, and was actually REALLY fantastic in parts- Zeb Wells did a very good job, though I felt it lost steam badly near the end. Dani Moonstar showed up in The Fearless Defenders (a short-lived “All Girls” Title). Karma was on a low-tier X-Men book. Magik got a pretty big role in one of the two big X-Men titles, under Bendis. Cannonball & Sunspot became Avengers, then Sunspot became the central character of Al Ewing’s Avengers title, taking over A.I.M. and turning it good. Warlock & Cypher returned, but remain minor characters. The gang are still well below many characters that debuted as X-Men… but they’re more important than most people who debuted before 1983.