In August of 1984, Bill Sienkiewicz starts a 13-issue run as the artist of The New Mutants. In collaboration with writer Chris Claremont, Sienkiewicz’s tenure marks both a sea change in the series and in the art of the superhero comic itself. Sienkiewicz’s angular all-knees-and-elbows aesthetic matches the awkwardness of the New Mutants themselves; however, it’s Sienkiewicz’s use of abstraction and expressionist techniques that subverts half-a-century of conventional American comic book art. Equal parts Molotov cocktail and thousand-year flood, with The New Mutants Bill Sienkiewicz becomes a pioneer, an artist who reshapes the medium and blazes a trail for others to (try to) follow.
I was all of ten years-old in August of 1984. I wouldn’t have known Kandinsky or Klimt if they had hit me over the head. I was dorky, but not that dorky or smart. I thought Sienkiewicz’s art was weird, scary and unlike anything I had seen before; I loved it. Not to mention that I also had a crush on Magik, Magma and Dani (sorry Rahne; ditto Xi’an). Now, almost 30 years later, I want to see if there is some “magik” in that pulpy paper with its ads for “Bonkers,” ElfQuest and Secret Wars II crossovers. Pop in a “cassingle,” pour some Jolt and let’s get abstract.
New Mutants #18 begins with a waking double-nightmare. Danielle Moonstar lies awake — her blanket pulled up over her head offers her neither comfort nor safety — haunted (hunted) by the demon bear that killed her parents. The opening splash page of issue #18 screams across the page — it looks like it was pulled from a dot matrix printer, a constructed image engulfed in darkness. Repetitive red and white boxes (courtesy of colorist Gylnis Wein) are set at near 90 degree angles to form a check pattern on the blanket, buried at the bottom of the image like some deep-repressed trauma is the head of a bear, and oh yes, he is a hairy bear, and, yes, he is a scary bear. The image makes a statement, a mandate that what follows is dark, dangerous and unfamiliar in extremis.
Like some Lynchian fever-dream, the bear/blanket cuts to the following page where an inset panel of a long shot of the Xavier School seconds before it’s blown up. Nowadays a similar juxtaposition would be tagged as a “WTF moment,” but we didn’t have such handy abbreviations in the 1980s. Instead, we screwed our courage to the sticking place and moved on. It’s not clear who the red-headed girl running for cover is (it’s Rachel Summers) other than the author of these terrifying events. In a top half-two-page spread on the following pages, Professor Xavier is shot through the chest (BLAM!) and we learn that this is a flashback/forward to the events that haven’t happened yet. Oh, the X-Men universe and its hermeticism, there is nothing quite like it.
Scenes like this fall into either one of two categories: utter confusion followed by benign indifference or an example of a writer who trusts the reader to figure it out — it’s a fine line to be sure. By ’83, Claremont is the Don of X-Men, having written “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past.” It’s safe to say, I think, that a reader “jumping on” with New Mutants #18 would be at loose ends, explanation or no, which is the point. Claremont and Sienkiewicz are afoot in nightmares and hallucinations, if the reader doesn’t feel unsettled something is not right.
Claremont introduces the other members* of the team (Magik, Cannonball, Magma and Sunspot) in what is the only safe place in Westchester County, New York, the Danger Room. Pause. My Illyana leanings may emanate from the fact that her blond bangs make Magik look a little Linda Blair-ey. I would not see the “Exorcist” until I was much older, but the very name held a young catholic boy like me in thrall. Where I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, Linda Blair was a staple at car shows and other “B-list-celebrity-meet-and-greets” at the time. Maybe I connected the two somehow? Twelve-year-old Catholics love the occult (know your enemy).
When Claremont needs to go farther afield and venture into alien worlds he is less obtuse, he simply opts to have Sienkiewicz unfurl a banner in the upper left corner of the frame that reads: “interlude.” It is in this interim that the reader is introduced to a character that I would argue was tailor-made for Sienkiewicz’s talents; a character originated by Sienkiewicz’s singular vision that will never be duplicated, Warlock. Unnamed in this issue (as is his father, Magus), the narrator, in only four words, describes this (previously inert) character as “‘a being. A stranger. A fugitive.‘” Sounds like a mutant, no? Warlock and Magus look like circuit boards — another constructed image — with eyes, teeth and long hair. Warlock escapes and the face of his father forms the setting of the next scene coming full circle back to the Danger Room where Dani is working out her nightmare scenario. This “first appearance” of Warlock is handled with enough detail to whet one’s interest before it (and Warlock) light out for other worlds; a moment charged with mystery, opportunity and promise.
The rest of the issue is given over to Dani and to her anxieties. Claremont and Sienkiewicz act as impresarios pulling back the covers little-by-little in the first half of the issue, enough to unnerve, but never enough to scare the reader away. Once Dani dips into the war paint, it’s on and Sienkiewicz unveils the monster within, the Demon Bear.
What makes this scary bear scary is that it doesn’t look like a bear; it looks like a mountain, its peak a tiny bear head… Bear Mountain. Sienkiewicz imagines a make-believe bear, disproportionate with incisor-like claws that cleave to the empty black void, the negative space of the bear’s girth, its size, is left up the imagination — how big are those arms, that body? — the bear-thing looms like a lord of nightmares barely contained by the page.
Sienkiewicz changes the bear’s shape as he sees fit, it is always fluid, always tangible and always out of reach of the physical world. In all this angst there is some joy. To keep its “better-to-eat-you-with” jaws at bay, Dani slams an arrow through the bear’s snout. The bear releases her and she runs away. The bear reacts like a bested cartoon villain as it covers said snout with its burly arms and oblong scalpel-like claws, one eye comically pokes out in disbelief above this nest of stilettos.
What happens to Dani happens off stage. The perspective shifts from her battle with the bear to Rahne’s reaction when she senses that something is off. The reader learns Dani’s fate alongside her teammates as her life and the story hangs in the balance and from the proverbial cliff.
‘Death-Hunt” is a hell of an issue, well threaded into the mutant mythos; no doubt challenging to a new reader, but not so dense as to put off that reader off the series. There’s no question that Sienkiewicz’s style polarizes, it’s the kind of art that’s supposed to challenge and even shock the reader. As a conjuror of nightmares Sienkiewicz is at home, coiled and ready to strike. For me, Sienkiewicz’s art represents the art of the possible — that elusive “what a comic book can be” quality that we as readers (and critics) should always pursue.
It’s not all hulking bears and brooding mutants either, in the book’s quieter moments, Sienkiewicz shows that he can impart empathy and make a reader care, so much so that an impressionable 10-year-old boy is apt to develop a crush on a certain sorceress.
[Exeunt, pursued by bear.]
*Rahne Sinclair, a.k.a Wolfsbane (the other member of the team) is left out of the Danger Room scene. She doesn’t show up in the story until the very end. Sienkiewicz’s design for Rachel Summers, smallish size and red crew-cut, is too similar to the look that Sinclair sports not to have caused some confusion for a “new reader.” It confused me. Part of it is Sienkiewicz and part of it is me and my remembrances of things past.
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.