Old Mutants, New Ideas: Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants #27A 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 How to Breakdance, Texas rattlesnake eggs and Reese's Pieces. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
The New Mutants #27 is a head trip. Save the slightly deceptive cover, the most physical exertion in this issue occurs when Warlock repositions the slumped bodies of his teammates who have gone inside David Haller's brain to try to save him or at least to discover why laboratories on Muir Island keep exploding into flame. It is one thing to project a world, to give shape and form to a mental landscape; The New Mutants #27 takes it several steps further and multiplies everything by three.
Think Inception meets Fantastic Voyage except instead of Raquel Welch in a skintight white bodysuit and JGL with his loaded six-sided die you get a bald professor (who doesn't know Haller is his son) with bristle broom eyebrows, a few of his students and two of his ex-lovers.
All of this becomes even trippier because Haller possesses a tripartite personality: a telekinetic, a pyrotic and a telepath and to eschew obfuscation even further the telepath part of his personality is the mental essence of an assassin who tried to kill Haller when he was a boy. "Imagine," as one part of this mental trinity says at Professor X, "bin' killed and then reborn as part of the consciousness of your intended victim. Ironic, huh?" "Ironic" is one word to use, "bugnuts" is another. "Only in a comic book," is also apt.
Chris Claremont usually saves pan-dimensional showdowns and long-term astral plane layovers for the end of a story arc, but stakes are high. And when the life of the mind resembles a "crazy-quilt synthesis of Paris and Beirut … supernal beauty scarred by total war," why wait.
The soul of the X-Men is egalitarian. Its heart, however, beats with action and adventure. For all his Claremont-ness, all his "supernal(s)" and his "ensorcelled(s)," dude knows how to write action. Sienkiewicz's short time on The New Mutants establishes him in the pantheon of Claremont collaborators alongside John Byrne, Dave Cockrum and Jim Lee. "Flaming genius Gods" all, to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon, who know how to translate words into deeds of daring-do and make it look cool.
Because The New Mutants #27 takes place inside a schizophrenic's wonderwall, Sienkiewicz indulges his instincts for non-conformity and lets his you-ain't-seen-anything-like-this-shit-before imagination run amok. Cheshire-grin gun-ships? Sure! Robot-headed tanks with arms, hands and fingers? Of course! Pickelhaube-headed goons with needle-like knives for mouths? Why not!
Amidst all the astral selves and insane malefactors, The New Mutants #27 draws clear distinctions between thought and deed; and like any entertainment, comic books are best when brain and brawn combine their Wonder Twin powers. Who then is better to bridge the gap between muscle and mind than the man who self-identifies as "the strongest telepath on Earth," Professor X?
With Dani Moonstar, Doug Ramsey and Gabriella Haller (David's mother) in tow -- well, their psychic projections at least -- Xavier makes likes a future East German in der November of 1989 and tears down the wall that not so long ago (last issue -- ed.) stood between him and the inner-Haller.
Xavier strikes at the wall, "as I would the deadliest super-villain," and Haller lets out a panel-ripping scream followed by a column of flame that erupts from his mouth as he shouts: "Father!". The penny drops and Xavier puts one and one together and gets one: "David Haller is my son!" For the reader, knowing Haller's paternity as far back as The New Mutants #25 takes the starch out of the reveal. What was a mission of mercy, however, now turns personal and (once again) Claremont sets his protagonist, on the Hero's Journey. Cue the supernatural aid(s).
If you're trapped in the mind of a schizophrenic who only moments ago you learn is your son and then you are saved by the telekinetic manifestation of your son's splintered psyche, you want that psychic projection to be Jack Wayne.
Jack (don't call me John) Wayne rocks more than a porn 'stache and devil-may-care pompadour. He is also a rung or two down on the Sienkiewicz-as-artist evolutionary ladder from Elektra paramour, John Garrett. Frank Miller and Sienkiewicz publish Elektra: Assassin in the summer of 1986, so Wayne's appearance in the pages of The New Mutants might be a bit of a test pressing for the obsessed lovesick cyborg Garrett who waits in the wings of Siekiewicz's imagination.
Another Elektra affectation, the red bandana, presents itself wrapped around the pyrotic part of Haller's personality, the criminally named "Cyndi" (really … really?) who wears her headband as if she is out for first blood. Cyndi is a cliché stuffed into a dickey with huge shoulder pads. She seems little more than from central casting's stock of surly teens except she can blow things up with a snap of her fingers.
Cyndi and Wayne's world owes much of its grimness to Glynis Wein's smoky grays and dun yellows. Wein's work is never splashy and when it's yoked with Sienkiewicz's frenzied lines the art of The New Mutants achieves a steady balance that fits Claremont's classic storytelling rhythms.
All three elements come together on the last page of the issue as Xavier and Wayne take a powder before these dear friends return "once more unto the breach." Wayne brandishes an odd knife that looks as surgical as it does alien and tells Xavier (and I'm paraphrasing here) in order to do a great right, do a little wrong.
Xavier takes the high road and says, "I'm a teacher, Jack -- a healer -- I don't kill." Wayne demurs, explains the Arab's advantage and then gives this Xavier-like declaration: "Your world's grey and ambiguous dealing mostly in maybes, might-have-beens, what-ifs, half-truths -- because everything you see and do is in the mind! This is different."
The exchange appears cinematic as Sienkiewicz cuts from Wayne's hand proffering the blade to a close-up of Xavier's head (he's a thinking man, after all) and back to a close-up of the exchange of the blade. Wein uses a monochromatic blue-violet in the blank backgrounds of the two bookend panels to color the weight of the moment. The rest of the page shows Xavier's head and hand (his sword arm) as he holds up the knife and says: "Let's go." Wein washes everything in grey -- the color of Xavier's world.
What if Xavier kills? What if Xavier kills to save his son? What if? What if? With so much ambiguity, it's no wonder The New Mutants #27 is not so black and white.
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.