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Old Mutants, New Ideas: Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants #26

A column article, The Full Run by: Keith Silva

In August of 1984, Bill Sienkiewicz starts a thirteen-issue run as the artist of The New Mutants. Equal parts Molotov cocktail and thousand-year flood, Sienkiewicz's style represents the art of the possible, remakes the superhero comic and blazes a trail for others to (try to) follow.

This column is an attempt to find out if there is still some "Magik" in that pulpy paper with its ads for the Rocket Raccoon limited series, Rom Spaceknight #65 and a new bimonthly Cloak and Dagger comic -- all of them written by Bill Mantlo. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.

 

 

From the start of his run, Bill Sienkiewicz provided one page pin-ups of the New Mutants as a bit of back matter under the headings "From the private journal of Charles Xavier" or "Muir Isle Research Center -- Moira MacTaggert -- Notes…" Each one allows Chris Claremont to fill in some backstory and foreshadow misfortunes to come. David Charles Haller defines such a catastrophe. 

Haller's pin-up appears in The New Mutants #25 and is considered his first appearance. It's got to be the first time a character is introduced in a back-matter pin-up. That's progressive, editorially dumb, and awkward. Haller's hair isn't at Kid and Play high top fade height (yet); however, all the eeriness and menace his alias, Legion, implies is plain to see and see and see because as Sienkiewicz scrawls inside of a frame inside of a frame inside of a frame, "there's three of us in here." 

 

 

 

Legion is a hell of a name for a fiction. The New Mutants #26 arrives with a smart new logo and a new iteration (mutation?) on familiar refrains: guilt, possession and unchecked id. The character of David Haller introduces a topsy-turvy element to the X-verse that challenges the otherwise flawless leadership of the world's most brilliant mutant mind, Professor X. Seems ol' Charles Xavier ain't so super smart after all and didn't "wrap that rascal" when he and Gabriella Haller were an item. He fucked up and now that chuck fuck up has come to collect.

In a brilliant bit of stagecraft, Claremont takes the reader into his confidence and explains that Haller's father is Charles Xavier and that MacTaggert and Gabriella, have kept this secret from the baby-daddy. This insider knowledge destabilizes Professor X's role as the all-knowing adult and by doing so gives the reader agency to question his authority. If Professor X doesn't know about his bastard son, what else about him is dubious? Xavier is The New Mutants Gandalf. To see him laid low unsettles the narrative. It's like the teacher has left the classroom and he's not coming back. It's a marvelous punk.

Unknown paternity ranks as one of the more soapy tropes in any narrative. What The New Mutants #26 lacks in originality, it makes up for in "only-in-a-comic-book" subplots both involving May-December romances. In one, Empath -- aka the-mutant-with-the-longest-name-not-named-Illyana-Nikolievna-Rasputina -- i.e. Manuel Alfonso Rodrigo de la Rocha gets a good tolchok from Emma Frost after he tries to psychically (and physically) put the moves on her. Silly boy. While the other thread finds Magneto having sex outside (in a bed) with Aleytys Forrester while perched on an "ancient seawall." Yeah. 

 

 

Meanwhile, on Muir Island, Professor X, Rahne, Dani, Doug Ramsey, Warlock, and Sean Cassidy (?!?) show up in the SR-71 Blackbird to sort out some trouble MacTaggert is having with a patient, Haller. In an odd bit of re-introduction, Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander (them?) have (apparently) been living out their days in northernmost Scotland and are now (maybe) dead, again. After meeting James Madrox, the Multiple Man, the gang gets introduced to the schizophrenic (pin-up boy) David Haller. Xavier stays behind while the kids go off to do some sightseeing.

Later that same night, once her gal pal and roomie is asleep, Rahne, in uniform (!), tiptoes out of her room and slinks off under the cover of a full moon to visit her stepmother, MacTaggert. Since Sienkiewicz's start, Claremont has at least one character, usually Rahne, sneak out in the middle of the night, it never goes well. Oh, New Mutants, you and your monkeyshines, when will you learn.

 

 

These starts and silly subplots fade into the wings when Haller takes center stage. Sienkiewicz drafts a panel both beautiful and austere, an intricate black-and-white brick wall made all the more impenetrable because it is devoid of Glynis Wein's colors except for a bluish Dr. Manhattan-like Xavier floating in the far left-hand corner. Like the wall itself, it's an image that's constructed with layers of meaning and metaphor. 

Having Professor X's "spirit self" inside in a bubble makes perfect narrative sense because the scene is supposed to occur in some ostensible astral plane. When he doesn't use arrows or broken lines, Sienkiewicz uses circles as visual motifs to draw a reader's attention to a character or an action almost as a bull's-eye. Here the circle sequesters Xavier and acts less like a signpost and more as a protective structure -- Xavier is the proverbial professor in the bubble. I also read this circle as a kind of concealment that allows for a curious juxtaposition between it and the wall itself, another metaphor to keep people out (or in). The wall and the bubble echo the insularity of the three personalities trapped inside Haller as well.

 

 

The New Mutants #26 offers a kind of amuse-bouche of what's to come, stylistically-speaking, from Sienkiewicz. In his later work -- Elektra: Assassin and the Marvel graphic novel, Daredevil: Love and War -- Sienkiewicz establishes his reputation as an experimental and expressionistic artist who is unafraid to use mixed media like oils, ink and collage to tell a story. Here Sienkiewicz superimposes a mimeographed face on (or inside?) the brick surface as Xavier comes face to face with the wall of Haller's psyche. The face erupts in a scream as Sienkiewicz (in a much smaller panel) pulls off a Gerald Scarfe face that fires Xavier's ass out of the astral plane, back into his body and then through the observation glass and out of Haller's room. Mind powers, ay' see, mind powers.

 

 

Sienkiewicz composes this page with the figure of Haller outside the panels showing what happens to Xavier. Like that demon of old, Haller's mad laughter fills the bottom panel and resonates across his body. Haller sits outside of the narrative, unframed (a part) and apart from what is going on. Sienkiewicz reframes the story to show Haller's power -- he is so powerful, in fact, that he towers over trivial trifles like plot and panel composition.  

Haller is a tough nut to crack, a problem child par excellence. His introduction in The New Mutants #26 marks a sea change in Marvel's merry band of mutants that still reverberates (like his laughter) thirty years later. Oh, kids. Oh, kids. "Legio mihi nomen est, quia multi sumus"

 


 

Although tall for his age, eleven-year-old Keith Silva did not possesses the prescience to imagine that one day he would have a Twitter (@keithpmsilva) or a blog (Interested in Sophisticated Fun?) or write for Comics Bulletin -- halcyon days indeed.

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