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Sun, March 23rd, 2008 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

THE RISE OF THE NEW MUTANTS:


A CONVERSATION WITH BOB McLEOD

Marvel Graphic Novel No. 4: "The New Mutants" by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod. The memorable first adventure that united Rahne, Roberto, Sam, Dani and Xi'an as The New Mutants in 1982
It is almost inconceivable today to imagine that there was once a time when there was only one monthly X-Men title – but that was exactly the case at the beginning of the Eighties. Around this time, "The Uncanny X-Men" was already starting to acquire a cult of passionate fans and steady sales due to the synergy of the now classic creative trio of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin. Excluding the reprints of early Sixties X-Men stories in fourteen issues of "Amazing Adventures" and occasional guest-appearances in other titles, "X-Men" still had a lot to prove in sales before they could expand into a franchise line of books. Nevertheless, expansion was on the brain as the 1980s "Art of John Byrne" book has the earliest mention that Claremont and Byrne were brainstorming about a new team of younger mutants, which would have possibly included Kitty Pryde and Karma (from "Marvel Team-Up" #100), amongst others. The next year, John Byrne would leave behind the X-Men characters to take over the creative reins on "Fantastic Four."

In an interview for the magazine "Comic Book Profiles" #8 [edited by Matthew Poslusny] in 1999, Jim Shooter explained, "When I was editor-in-chief at Marvel, pretty much every day, the upstairs management would tell me, 'The 'X-Men' sells so well – let's make six more titles just like it.' And every day, I would say, 'No, the thing that makes 'The X-Men' so good is that it has this great group of people working on it, and you can't clone them.' I steadfastly resisted any proliferation of the X-Men franchise, unless Chris wanted to do it. And then when Chris started coming to me saying, 'Hey, I've got an idea, we'll do a book that about the kids,' it was pretty hard to argue with him. Generally speaking, Chris initiated the proliferation of the X-Men franchise, with the exception of "X-Factor," which was kind of rammed down his throat."

Bob McLeod's lively pencils to the opening splash page from "New Mutants" #1.
By late 1981, Claremont and his editor, Louise Simonson (then Louise Jones), finally pitched their idea for a new team of teenaged mutants to Shooter – due mostly to a little pressure mounting from a submitted book proposal from Mark Gruenwald that focused on the surviving original X-Men line-up (except Cyclops). With Shooter's approval of their project, the writer and editor approached artist Bob McLeod to artistically design The New Mutants and render their stories. The illustrator had earned their admiration and loyalty for his solid work as a last minute art savior on "Uncanny X-Men" #151 and #152; quickly, he became someone that they were eagerly keen on working with again. In McLeod, Claremont also felt that he had an artist that could help deliver the brand of engaging storytelling and visuals that X-Men fans had come to expect.

"I heard they really liked the job I did on ['Uncanny X-Men'] #151," McLeod remembered, "which is what led to the next issue, #152. And they liked the job that I did on #152, and, at that time, they were between artists on 'The X-Men' and needed a new penciler. And they actually offered me the job of penciling 'The X-Men' or starting this new title, 'The New Mutants.' And, of course, it seemed more exciting to be part of a new series starting up, so I jumped on that."

Ironically, the Floridian artist had some X-Men roots as the embellisher of Dave Cockrum's pencils on "TheAll-New, All-Different X-Men" #94, the first regular issue of the new X-Men roster (and a very early gig for the young McLeod). During the Seventies, he had worked in Marvel's production department and also gained a ton of experience from his time at Neal Adam's Continuity Studios, penciling and inking an assortment of freelance assignments. As time went on, he developed a strong reputation as a quality inker (primarily for his inks on John Buscema's pencils on "Conan") or the always dependable penciler for the occasional issue or short story at Marvel or DC. With the offer of "The New Mutants" in-hand, McLeod felt ready because the timing was right to finally helm his own title after nearly a decade spent learning from his experiences.

The cover to "New Mutants" #1 from late 1982 - The first true spin-off of the X-Men franchise. The series lasted exactly one-hundred issues.
"The first I had heard of it [The New Mutants]," McLeod told Pop!, "was when they asked me to come on board, but Chris had already been developing the series, I guess with Louise, the editor, and he had some names for the characters, and some abilities. It was still kind of in the works, but he had a lot of that stuff nailed down already, and what they mainly wanted me to do was visualize the characters and make other various decisions. Like, we weren't sure how many people to have in the group, or what the mix would be, and I suggested I'd like to have more females than males, just because every other group had more males than females. And Sunspot was originally going to be this real big, Hulky guy, and we ended up making him smaller. Same thing, like, Cannonball, it was my idea to make him kind of lanky and gawky-looking."

Within McLeod's work, the readers were going to witness a 110% effort from the meticulous artist who wanted to impress readers with his rich characterizations and attention to detail on his debut – and, I feel, he's one of the few in the industry that could accurately render children and teenagers without a drop of sweat. Add in Claremont's trademark for rich written dramas and captivating characterizations, and "The New Mutants" was going to be a uniquely different comic from the other Marvel team books. McLeod shared this little insight into his approach. "I first got into comics from reading 'Mad' magazine. My favorite artist in there was Mort Drucker, and Drucker would caricaturize the whole body rather than just the face. So, when I got into comics, I liked drawing individual body types. A lot of comic artists draw a generic body type, and just change the hair and the facial features in some way, but all of their characters have a general body type to them, and that just wasn't me at all. I always liked making every character very individual, so I had Dani kind of flat-chested and thin and I had Rahne real short and full-figured, that kind of thing."

Following the success of "The Death of Captain Marvel" graphic novel, the Marvel brass decided that The New Mutants would debut as an installment of the very same over-sized, $4.95 full length Marvel Graphic Novel series. So there was a little pressure for the creators to make sure that the fans were getting their value in this story. The artist said, "Yeah, there was a little bit of that, but not really. They [graphic novels] were just starting, and nobody even had a good sense of what a graphic novel was, at that time. To them, it was basically just a longer comic book, and it was going to have full color instead of the flat color, and that's as far as the idea had taken them at that time. As I was working on the book, things got more and more firmed up as they were assigning different graphic novels to different artists. I just wish that I had had more time on it and wasn't… I mean, you don't realize how rushed I was on that job. I was just really flying through that with no time to think. The first thing that came to my head I would put down on the paper. I really wish I could have put more thought into it and made it more mature and sophisticated in the art as well as the story."

A power-packed New Mutants commission by Bob McLeod. This piece is based on the story within "New Mutants" #2.
The meticulous McLeod continued, "When we started out, the first issue was going to be a regular comic, and then they were just starting up the graphic novel line at that time, and after I had already gotten a script and started drawing it, they decided to make that first issue into a graphic novel, which had a different - the graphic novels were printed on a different schedule than the regular comics, so all of a sudden we were behind schedule, and I had to just work through that fifty pages, I forget how long it was, around fifty pages [the printed novel had 47 story pages], as fast as I could possibly draw and ink.And then I had to jump right onto the first issue of the comic after that, and the next issue.I mean, it was just coming so fast, and since that was my first series, I just wasn't up to that level of speed to be able to knock out a book a month. I tried my best, and details and subtle stuff are important to me, so I wasn't good at just banging out pages. It took me so much time to draw every page. I had never done storytelling to any extent before, so I was trying to figure out storytelling technique as well as just getting the drawing to look good."

Without any assistance, shortcuts or way out, the artist did his best to get to the finish line without a nervous breakdown on this daunting project. Also, he decided to ink his own pencils despite the manic deadline and lack of sleep. As if the story within the book itself wasn't an intense enough experience, the process of illustrating this lengthy book was an educational preview into the feel of the daunting monthly grind in turning out a new comic every thirty days. "I redrew a few pages, moved panels around," admitted the artist. "I had only done a few pages when they decided to make it into a graphic novel, so I didn't have to redo much, but I redid some pages. And, basically, Chris just expanded his ideas. I mean, Chris is that type of writer; he's got way more ideas than he can use. You have to weed through his plots to narrow them down to a regular comic length, because he gives you way more than you need."

Always a perfectionist, the artist only sees the flaws and the spots that he could have made better – at the end of the day though, the classic graphic novel is regarded in fan circles as an impressive entry for readers that weren't prepared to embrace a new team of mutants into their hearts. Regardless of the artist's personal opinions, the art in the novel was beautiful, but it was his unique sense of compelling sequential narrative that provided a real bond between the audience and these young heroes. With Claremont's writing, we felt that we were already acquainted with these new characters from page one; with McLeod's art, the New Mutants came to life as if they were three-dimensional characters as each had their own little personal traits and distinctive charm. Within this title, both creators would also bring back the sense that Professor X's school was back in business as a true school, as these teenagers were more into learning about themselves and superpowers than tussling with bad guys on a monthly basis.

"New Mutants" #10 cover by Bob McLeod. His last contribution as part of the regular team on the title that he helped start.
By the end of 1982 (and only months after the graphic novel release), the first issue of "The New Mutants" arrived as it was hyped as "Professor X's all-new band teen-age heroes. They're young, unsure of their powers – and of their reason for being together." The intention was that the book would be more character-driven and allow the creators to develop them, by literally having them grow from their life lessons. "That's what I liked about the book," McLeod affirmed, "and that's what our original intent was. And there are so many things that interfere with your original idea. The editor-in-chief wanted us to do certain things like put Team America in there. They're always trying to mix it with other books. Like I say, Chris has a thousand ideas, and a lot of times he'll forget his original idea and go in another direction. So I think they ended up straying from what I think really worked well was just this group of kids in school, in a similar way as they strayed from Spider-Man being in high school, being an awkward kid in high school, and ended up going in all kinds of directions with him. Over time, they end up getting away from the core idea."

When the series started, McLeod communicated less with Claremont since he had moved back to Florida, and any interaction would usually be through the editor, if he needed to discuss the plot. As he was still recovering from the prior crunch, young inker Mike Gustovich was brought in to add blacks to Bob's pencils and lighten the burden, but the demanding penciler wasn't too thrilled with some of the results. McLeod said, "I actually inked a lot of stuff in the second and third issue. I would ink sometimes whole figures; I don't know if I did entire panels. Maybe. But I was doing a lot of inking, going over some of his inking, trying to steer him in the direction that I wanted him to go, and it just wasn't working. So I finally decided I'd rather ink the book and make it look the way I want it to look in the inks, instead of trying to pencil it and have him give it the look I wanted. I just thought I could control the art more if I was inking it, so that's why I switched over to inking it."

"New Mutants" #4
As the schedule got tighter and tighter, McLeod saw his art getting far looser than he was comfortable with seeing."I would have had to either take a break or let somebody pencil a fill-in or something," McLeod said. "I was so far behind at that point, is why I jumped onto the inking and just decided it wasn't worth it, as hard as I was working, to turn out work I wasn't happy with. Now, if I could have had the whole book look like those covers, because I was happy with those covers. If the inside could have looked as good as the covers, I would have been glad to stay on, but it just didn't work out."

Eventually, the inevitable happened, the artist eventually left penciling the title that he helped launch. McLeod said, "Weezie [Louise Simonson] kept telling me I should stay on the penciling at all costs, and was telling me I was crazy to leave the penciling. And I just was so miserable and so unhappy, I just couldn't keep doing it." By issue four, editor Louise Simonson kept Bob aboard doing covers and inking the pencils of Sal Buscema in an effort to keep the overall flavor the same.

McLeod added, "Well, after Sal started penciling it, I was inking.I did a few issues, and, to me, it was like my pet project, and, to Sal, it was just another book, because I think he was penciling, like, three books a month at that time. I don't mean to say that he was doing a bad job, but it just wasn't anything special to him, and so I felt the book reflected that. It was becoming just an average book, and I just didn't want to do average work, and I felt like I wasn't doing the work I wanted to be doing. I just wasn't happy with the way the book was coming out… I was just becoming Sal Buscema's inker, and it just wasn't what I wanted to do."

"New Mutants" #9
The cover to issue ten would be his last contribution as a regular artist on the series. "I don't think it was my idea to quit doing the covers," Bob explained, "I don't know if she [Weezie] didn't like the covers or if I was busy doing something else. I don't remember.I just remember suddenly I wasn't doing the covers anymore.And I think right after that I started penciling 'Star Wars.'" In subsequent years, he would reunite with the character he helped give birth to in the pages of "New Mutants Annual" #1 and his inking of John Byrne's pencils on "New Mutants" #75.

After "The New Mutants," McLeod became one of the top inkers in the industry – including inking Mike Zeck on the classic "Kraven's Last Hunt." As a penciler, he continued to illustrate on a wide variety of titles and enjoyed a popular run on "Action Comics" during the early nineties. He also wrote and illustrated a popular children's book called "Superhero ABC" for HarperCollins. And recently, you can find him teaching at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design or in the pages of "Rough Stuff" magazine (from TwoMorrows Publishing) on which the veteran artist serves the duties of editor.

What of the fate of "New Mutants" today? Well, there's no longer a title called "New Mutants" despite some impressive efforts later in the series from Bill Sienkiewicz, Bret Blevins and Rob Liefeld. Today, most of the young mutant characters have been absorbed by the X-Men line of books. To this day, the original adventures told by Claremont and McLeod remain fondly remembered comics which were finally collected into a trade paperback in 2006. The reprinting was a wonderful reminder of a much simpler time to probably the last time that readers felt a close connection to not only growing pains of a mutant, but the angst and awkwardness of just being a mere teenager.

Update: Holy Hannah! John Byrne's 1978 notes for a second team of mutants! Proof of Mr. Byrne's ties to the early development of the New Mutants. Thanks to Gerry Turnbill for reminding me of this drawing. This Kitty Pryde illo comes from the collection of Jonathan Mueller. Be sure to check out Mr. Mueller's collection on Comicartfans.com.

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