When Words Collide: Revisiting the New Mutants

Tue, July 5th, 2011 at 11:58am PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
24

EVERYTHING I THOUGHT I KNEW WAS WRONG: THE NEW MUTANTS

A contender for the first comic Tim Callahan ever read

We took a trip a couple of weeks ago, the family and I, on a ship headed north. For nine days I had no internet access and plenty of time to read some comics each night, after the kids were asleep. I brought a few things with me that I'd never read -- a couple of Rebellion 2000 AD collections (like Alan Moore and Ian Gibson's "The Ballad of Halo Jones," which is dreadful stuff, honestly, and Pat Mills and Friends' "ABC Warriors, Volume 1," which is brilliant stuff, comparatively), and one of those Dark Horse "Indiana Jones Adventures" omnibus paperbacks, with the old Marvel reprints, though I never had a chance to crack that open. I also bought a big stack of comics that I sort of thought I had read, but never sequentially. 100 issues (plus a few Annuals and Specials) of a series that captured the comic book zeitgeist as the 1980s evolved into the Modern Era and turned into the pre-Image Comics launch pad of the early 1990s.

Yes, I'm talking about the 100 issues of the first volume of "The New Mutants," a series that begins in an oversized (self-proclaimed) Graphic Novel from 1982 and ends in an oversized issue #100 which kicked off Rob Liefeld's short-lived but nonetheless inspirational (to Robert Kirkman, at least) take on "X-Force."

You might go on vacation, and, I don't know, go swimming.

I bring a knee-high stack of Marvel comics from 20-30 years ago and say, "I will read all of them."

I thought I had read most of the issues of the series before. I knew I had missed most of the Bill Sienkiewicz issues when they came out, but I had tracked them down over the years, and read them out of order. Or, looked at them. I'm not sure I ever read the words.

But I vividly remember so much from the series -- the cast of New Mutants themselves, the zany Warlock, the space-faring adventures with the Starjammers, or multi-dimensional demonic threats from Belasco, the days of Rusty and Skids and Bret Blevins. Rob Liefeld. Cable. Deadpool. Shatterstar. I grew up on this stuff.

I was 10 when I bought my first issue of the series, and I read the final issue when I was 19. Those 100 issues of "The New Mutants" not only tracked the development of a group of young heroes from childhood to maturity, from innocence to experience, but they reflected my own progress from youth to adulthood. There's no other series from that era that so closely paralleled my own growing up.

But when I sat down with these 100 issues (plus the Annuals and Specials), I realized that I hadn't actually read most of the issues originally. Not at all. Maybe I glanced through them, but out of the 100 issues of "The New Mutants," it turns out that I had only read about 20. I definitely read issue #2 when it first came out, and that may be the first comic I bought (I have about half a dozen possible "first comics" in my mind, and someday I'll take the time to check the dates and see which one was probably my actual "first," but I'm not too concerned about that right now). I definitely read issue #51, with the New Mutants in space. And I read a few issues between then and Rob Liefeld's debut with issue #86. I read most of the issues after that. But I was shocked to realize that even with all of these familiar covers lined up in front of me -- comics I had owned for most of my life -- it turned out that I never read most of "The New Mutants" issues at all until I sat down to read them on the trip over the last two weeks.

How could that have happened? And why did I have so many memories of Sunspot and Wolfsbane and Cannonball and the rest of the original line-up if I hadn't read more than a few of the pre-Cable, pre-Rob Liefeld issues of the series?

Here's my theory: when we were kids, my brother (this would be Television's Ryan Callahan, of internet fame) and I used to split our purchases and wish-lists so we could maximize our haul of geek goods. Like, he'd always ask for the G. I. Joe figures and accessories for Christmas and birthdays, and I'd ask for Cobra stuff. When it came to comics, he would use his allowance to buy Marvel comics, I'd buy the DC issues (along with anything else that looked good from other cool companies like First and Eclipse and Comico) and we would read each others' comics, but I would read more of his than he'd read of mine. He was younger than me. And therefore kind of an idiot. Through no fault of his own.

When he later "grew out" of comics (even if he's grown back into them in recent years), he sold all his Marvel comics to me for -- I don't even remember. Probably $100. He was a teenager, and he needed the money to buy blank VHS tapes so he could record late-night wrestling or something like that. I have no idea.

But somehow I ended up with his Marvel comics, almost all of which I had read (or thought I had read). So that would explain how I could have such an extensive run of "The New Mutants" (even before going back and picking up cheap back issues to complete the run over the years) and have a familiarity with so many cover images without the in-depth knowledge of what was inside the covers that I thought I had.

And I guess the reason that I had so many memories of the characters was that issue #2 stuck with me, since it was such an early exposure to anykind of Marvel comic. Everything was new, from the main characters to the Sentinels to the creepy mystery of what was wrong with Professor X, who may have been knew to me as well, at that point. Because in reading all 100 issues, I found that the "classic" New Mutant team -- the one that so many people still seem to have such nostalgia for, and the team that occasionally gets revived in some new incarnation every decade or so -- that "classic" team didn't really last all that long.

Those innocent young heroes, trying to make their way in a world filled with conflict? Those junior X-Men? That's the Graphic Novel and issues #1-17 of the series. After that, things go crazy and never get back to normal again. "The New Mutants" is a weird, often compelling, sometimes absolutely terrible, comic book series about a group of superheroes existing in the corners of the Marvel Universe. But it's certainly not a typical superhero book. And it's certainly not years and years of Professor X and his young trainees, learning how to use their powers and trying to figure out how to live as heroes, as mutants, in a world that fears them. It's never about that, really. Because even the formation of the team is a sham. A cruel trick. A deadly one.

I'll get to that in a minute.

Because what I want to do, to frame my thoughts after reading 100 issues of "The New Mutants" in the span of just a few days during my vacation, and to keep myself from rambling about the series for three consecutive weeks in this column, is to present to you:

THE 10 THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING 100 ISSUES OF THE NEW MUTANTS

1. Young Heroes -- Learning to Use their Powers, Learning Teamwork -- That's Good Stuff.

Joe Casey mentioned this when I talked to him about the upcoming "Vengeance" series, pointing out how few young hero teams have actually appeared in the Marvel Universe, and how strong that concept can be. The first year-and-a-half of "The New Mutants" proves how potent the formula is, when it's done with just the most basic level of characterization and clean storytelling.

Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod don't do anything fancy with the comic book form (and, soon after the series launched, McLeod didn't even pencil the series, though he did provide finishes that keep the look consistent), but they gave each character a distinctive back story that gave symbolic heft to their power. Cannonball was a human rocket, flying through the air without any control, which was an ironic contrast to his history working below ground, in a coal mine. Wolfsbane was raised in an uptight, hyper-religious region, yet her power displayed her wild, feral side. Karma could control minds, in contrast to her eternal victimhood in Vietnam. Psyche could create illusions that tap into others' wildest fantasies or fears, while she was stuck with the harsh reality of Native American life in the late 20th century. Sunspot was a prep school kid, a businessman's son who literally becomes a black spot on his father's reputation.

These characters work as protagonists in a comic book series because though their powers aren't shockingly original, they mean something within the context of their own stories, and they are visually interesting on the page. And showing young heroes learning how to cope with their immense power, and how to adapt to working with others, in a Marvel Universe that is populated with giant robots programmed to kill mutants, well, that's the recipe for a compelling serial. Reading those first dozen-and-a-half issues now, the drama and the conflict still hold up. There's something at stake in these stories, an emotional undercurrent, and a feeling that these characters are tremendously vulnerable, in every possible way.

It's surprising that more superhero comics don't tap into that same energy. It's damn effective.

2. Sometimes an Alien Mommy Just Wants to Get With You.

Yeah, so that big lie I mentioned earlier? That's the reason for the formation of the New Mutants. It's not that Professor X wanted to train a young team of mutants to eventually grow into New X-Men. Nope. Because when the series begins, Professor X is already acting weird, and we soon find out that he's been controlled by the Brood Queen all along, and the New Mutants were drafted to Xavier's mansion because they would make ideal hosts for the little Brood babies.

Let me restate: the entire purpose of the New Mutants was a sham to get young bodies that could be impregnated with alien monster eggs.

That's harsh.

And to make matters worse, when Xavier does return, in his non-Brood-controlled form, he basically tells the kids, and I'm paraphrasing, but it's not far off: "I never wanted a team of young mutants. That was an evil plan to impregnate you. You can stick around or not, I don't care one bit."

Also harsh.

Once again, that is the very foundation of the team. The supposedly innocent young mutants. Lied to. Nearly used as alien baby mama breeding factories. Then ignored.

No wonder they don't run screaming from sadistic Emma Frost in her Frederick's of Hollywood attire.

3. Too Many Teenagers. That's a Problem.

Okay, while a group of young super-powered characters may make for compelling protagonists, and while it may be accepted comic book wisdom that every hero needs a kind of mirror image villain, it's not true that doubling the amount of teenagers in the comic is a good idea, ever.

This is where "The New Mutants" begins to fall apart, in year two, after a strong start. The Hellions (Emma Frost's Massachusetts Academy kind-of-evil version of the New Mutants) might seem like a good idea, and as a concept, I can see the appeal, but Claremont can't juggle all the New Mutants and all their kind-of-evil counterparts at the same time, even if he tries to put in overlapping subplots and turn the whole thing into a massive superhero soap opera, or what the WB would, years later, call "Smallville."

I know Claremont pioneered the contemporary superhero soap opera with Cockrum and Byrne in "Uncanny X-Men," years before, but it's too much. Maybe I just don't like the Hellions costumes. That's possible, too.

4. Storytelling › Style.

I never thought I would believe this, because I'm the guy who, whenever somebody writes about the importance of clear storytelling over stylistic flourishes, always wants to write 2000 word posts about how style trumps storytelling in a visual medium, every time, but in the case of "The New Mutants:" storytelling trumps style.

Because when Bill Sienkiewicz comes in as artist, the series becomes practically unreadable. And I love Bill Sienkiewicz. Would he be in my All-Time Top 5? Probably. He's definitely in my All-Time Top 10. I don't have a lot of original art, but I own a Bill Sienkiewicz page. And it's hanging on a wall in my house. And it's a "New Mutants" page.

His issues of "The New Mutants," after he comes in with issue #18, look amazing. The color gets wonky near the end when Marvel goes with that new printing approach that turned all of their comics into neon waste dumps for a few months, but if you're looking for visually astonishing comics, his "New Mutants" issues leap out and demand to be noticed.

But the stories are terrible. Claremont shifts up his style to a more caption-heavy, ponderous approach, presumably to fit the more "mature" take on the series brought by Sienkiewicz's art, losing everything that made it compelling and emotionally engaging and it becomes a series of static images about characters who are barely recognizable in appearance or action.

If the 100 issues of "The New Mutants" symbolize the move from innocence to experience, the Bill Sienkiewicz issues represent early adolescence, trying to be cool and edgy and different, but mostly ending up as loud and annoying and repellant.

I know, I know. I can't believe that was my reaction, either. But you try reading the first 30 issues of the series and tell me the narrative doesn't stop dead when Sienkiewicz comes on board.

5. Jar-Jar Binks is Made of Metal.

Maybe I just don't like Warlock. I have no idea if the character was a Claremont creation drawn first by Sienkiewicz or a Sienkiewicz sketch that ended up becoming a central character, but Warlock is the Jar Jar Binks of 1980s Marvel.

Think about it. He plays exactly the same role as the deservedly-reviled Binks. Warlock speaks funny, he bumbles around, he doesn't really understand what's going on around him but he sometimes saves the day. He's a comic relief character who could be erased from the story and the comic would be better for it.

Sorry Warlock fans. But Jar Jar Binks has fans, too. You guys can hang out.

6. Kevin Nowlan Heals.

My fondness for "The New Mutants" probably gets a boost because one of the issues I actually did read, way back when, (as opposed to the issues I imagined I read), was the amazing issue #51, the only issue drawn by Kevin Nowlan. Forget the smooth storytelling of Bob McCleod and friends. Forget the manic expressiveness of Bill Sienkiewicz. Forget everything that came after. The Kevin Nowlan issue is the best-looking issue of the entire series. I loved it then, and I love it now. It's gorgeous. It shows that storytelling and stylistic expression are not mutually exclusive. Nowlan doesn't even do anything flashy in the issue, he just draws the hell out of it. And that's enough.

7. Jar Jar Binks Also Has Feathers.

After Claremont leaves and Louise Simonson comes in as writer, she shakes things up even more than Claremont already had. She turns the series from a weird superhero soap opera, and turns it into an action-adventure sitcom. Bret Blevins provides the artistic accompaniment for most of her issues, and his impish style only accentuates the cartoonish characterizations and goofy humor of the series. It reads as if she wanted to provide a counterbalance for her operatic "X-Factor" run by doing a wacky comedy with the younger mutant set.

The worst part, is that even though she gets rid of Warlock (or maybe Claremont got rid of him before she came in, I try to push all Warlock-related memories aside, honestly), she brings in her version of Jar Jar Binks: a feathered freak actually called Bird-Brain.

He squawks and prances around and smacks into things and just generally takes anything potentially charming about any issues he's in and turns them into a big black hole of terribleness.

Bird-Brain fans, I would say there's room for you at the Jar Jar and Warlock meet-ups, but there's no way Bird-Brain fans possibly exist. The character is the worst.

8. Style > Storytelling.

Aha! I told you. This is my game. This is where I feel comfortable. Style does trump storytelling. And you can clearly see it when -- Rob -- Liefeld -- starts drawing the series? Wait, is that right? I'm using Bill Sienkiewicz as an example of how style can derail the story and Rob Liefeld as an example of how style can save the story? Is this for real?

Yes! When Liefeld comes in at the tail end of the Louise Simonson run, he shakes things up with his enthusiastic approach to page layout and dynamic figure drawing. He was mimicking Art Adams and swiping from Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane, but it was all filtered through his sensibility which also, years later, became the name of his company: the sensibility of Awesome with a capital A.

It's easy to mock Liefeld and to use him as a punchline. Most people who do are fools, though, and resort to criticizing his use of "anatomy" and call him out for his lack of "realism" in his rendering. You know who else gets that kind of criticism? Jack Kirby. Eric Canete. Other really good artists I can't think of right now.

Liefeld is pure energy on the page, and his "New Mutants" art is still some his best work ever. After years of Bret Blevins and Terry Shoemaker, Liefeld reinvigorated the series with his distinctive style, even if it would sometimes favor larger-than-life poses as opposed to panel-to-panel continuity. (Though his first issue, pre-Cable's-into, with Rusty Collins vs. the Vulture? That's quite a well-told story, visually. No complaints about the storytelling in that one.)

So, yes, style does trump storytelling. When it's Rob Liefeld, coming in to revive the New Mutants, and create a bit of a mini-franchise within the franchise with all the characters he added to the cast.

9. I Like Cable Now.

It's only taken me 20 years to come around to this line of thinking, but I now understand why Cable has stuck around for so long, while so many other characters have slipped into obscurity.

Cable is Han Solo meets the Terminator meets every character R. Lee Ermey has ever played. He's the tough guy, no-nonsense leader with a secret past. He has come from the future (with crazy tech) to save the present. He's the militant mutant that Professor X could never be. If Professor X is MLK and Magneto is Malcom X, Cable is a sci-fi Chuck Norris with a plan.

It may seem like I'm mocking the character, but I completely appreciate how that kind of character would have widespread appeal, and after reading these 100 issues, I can see how he works as both an inspirational figure within the story and as a wheel around which the plot can resolve.

Of course, the plot doesn't resolve at all by issue #100. We don't learn anything about why Cable is really here, or why he's assembling a team and training them for some apocalyptic endgame. We see the reveal that Stryfe looks exactly like Cable, but we don't get any answers about how that's even possible or what's going on.

Yet it works. Because the series, once Cable appears, gets a direction. A purpose. And, with Liefeld on art, a strong visual point of view. For years, basically everything after Sienkiewicz started drawing the series through the pre-Liefeld years (excepting the one genius gem by Kevin Nowlan) the series faltered. It wasn't about young heroes learning the ropes anymore. It was just a bunch of characters chasing after something or running from something, every three issues. With Cable, the series became about something, even if it was a mission filled with question marks.

10. The End is the Beginning.

The final story arc, with Fabian Nicieza on script, co-plotting with Liefeld, is literally called "The Beginning," and I do remember buying "X-Force" #1 off the shelf in the early 1990s, so it was no surprise to get to issue #100 and find out that not a single question had been answered regarding Cable's motives. To be honest, I don't even know who ended up telling the end of that storyline, in "X-Force" or wherever it ended up. Maybe it's never fully been told. I don't really care.

What I do know is that reading 100 issues of "The New Mutants" gave me a fondness for the series and the characters (with a couple of Warlock and Bird-Brain exceptions), even though nearly all the issues from the second year until the final two years were pretty clunky, off-putting, and directionless. Even the times when Jackson Guice drew the stories, inked by Kyle Baker, well, that wasn't enough to give the series the life it needed. The only time it really had that spark of vitality was in the first year or so, when it was showing the young mutants learning how to live in the Marvel Universe, and in the final year or two, when Rob Liefeld came in like a kid bringing his own candy store and threw all his sweets onto the page, even if they became sickening at times.

But as it happens, and this happened when I read all the "Daredevil" comics for my discussions with Ryan Lindsay, now that I have read all the "New Mutants" issues, I feel protective about the characters. I can see how some readers write angry emails to creators or how message board posts are born. I normally don't read comics with that mindset, that notion that the characters must be presented a certain way, the way they were in the old days, but I can feel a bit of that creeping in when I think about current incarnation of "The New Mutants." How dare they do that to Sunspot? I might now ask. Or, how could they bring Warlock back, for the love of baby Jesus?

Except, I don't really feel compelled to read any more "New Mutants" comics, ever. These 100 were enough. Now that I've actually read them.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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TAGS:  when words collide, the new mutants, marvel comics, chris claremont, bob mcleod, bill sienkiewicz, rob liefeld

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