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 as he 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 "Westfield Comics," The Helen of Toy Company and the promise to turn Fig Newtons into a Spider-Man comic. Pop in a "cassingle," pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
Heroes are the pillars of the storyteller's art, ever and anon. There is a rhythm to the hero's journey, of well-worn patterns, of hale fellows well met, of temptations and of Rubicons that require fording; it's all been written down, mapped out and played out.
So, I shouldn't have been disappointed (or surprised) when Chris Claremont falls in line with every yarn-spinner and fireside bullshit-slinger who has ever told a tale. Claremont strums those well-worn third act chords: conflict, resolution and dénouement. Since New Mutants #20 is a comic book — and a 1980s X-Men comic book to boot — the last knot to get unknotted involves the return of (long-thought) long-dead parents and a Deus-ex Morlock.
The rote rote-script does have one oddball affectation that must be Sienkiewicz's doing since it's both brilliant and out-of-step with Claremont's meat-and-potatoes plot*. In the top left-hand corner of the opening splash page there is a 13X10 grid of boxes with the title "Darkness Descends" subtitled "A View from 20,000 feet" (why 20,000?). A legend explains that each box represents 1/6 of a mile which makes this "Bear's own domain … a virgin America untouched by the white invaders" about 21.6666 miles in total, that seems snug for an alternate plane of reality, but I digress.
The black blots, blobs and streaks (yeah this is totally Sienkiewicz) that appear on the grid represent "areas of land consumed by the Demon-Bear's shadow." It's a handy and (totally unnecessary way) of keeping score at home as our intrepid adventurers battle their adversary. To add to the aesthetic, Sienkiewicz apes a calligraphy style best described as Steadman-esque.
The Bear's Nosferatu-like nails come out full-on in this issue as they cleave into souls, tear at realities and pierce pure (poor) Magma. The eyes of Bear's thralls are looney cartoony circles inside circles, wild windows into the madness and anger inherent in their master. When the Bear lances Magma through her chest (ouch), Sienkiewicz encircles her eyes as she too becomes possessed and poisoned. In three crooked panels in the top right-hand corner of the page, Magma, Dani and the Bear connect like linking rings in an augury of enveloping doom; the Bear's teeth are uneven shards in an evil gap-tooth grin. Below these three panels, Magik is drawn in a forced perspective as she brandishes her soul sword. The sword (and Magik's sword arm) dwarfs the rest of her body, too big, in fact, for the panel itself. In the page's final panel, however, the Bear is on top again, its viewpoint restored as its claws surface from an inky ball of fury that makes Magik and her "eldritch blade of purest silver" look puny.
New Mutants #20 starts in another world and traipses through a tissue of clichés. Characters recite recycled heroic lines like, "We stand or fall together, sorceress, as comrades should!" and other odds and sods of dialogue that sound silly out of context, "Berto! You didn't hit your demon hard enough!" All of it is of a piece that shows a writer who treats these teens like kids, or worse, teen-like. There's a lot of whining and infighting that feels formulaic as if these "children of the Atom" are having trouble coming to a consensus about what color to paint the homecoming parade float instead of fighting a massive mound of the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered bear they've ever set eyes on. Yes, the New Mutants are teenagers and their indecision, angst and nascent teamwork shows their age. That's the point. They (of course) defeat the Bear through teamwork; each uses his or her power to the greater good and when Magik's soul sword sunders that Bear, "It Howls." Lessons learned. Reality restored.
The conclusion of the Demon Bear saga shows how the kids are alright and yet they can't be left alone; they require adult intervention to put Dani back together again. I'd forgotten about the Healer and seeing Storm letting her mohawk wave was a welcome sight.
There is a lot (A LOT) of exposition in the last two pages of this comic as Claremont ties up most of the loose ends. Dani's father, back from the brink, plainly explains that he and his wife were enslaved of by a "foul corruption of a [Native American] sacred symbol," but who monkeyed with the cosmic levers to make such a corruption happen goes unsaid. In the final three panels, Professor Xavier gives his charges their benediction and thinks about ringing up Stephen Strange which gives the reader that warm and fuzzy sense of cohesiveness inherent in the Marvel Universe.
The "Demon Bear" arc is long-remembered and well-noted because of Bill Sienkiewicz. His caprices and grotesques in this initial arc establish this world, his world, the world of the New Mutants going forward. Claremont develops a language to match Sienkiewicz's idiosyncratic style that combines both fairytales and after-school specials that mutates into something new and differ
*For those Claremont apologists/fanboys out there, I offer the word "ensorcelled" which CC uses to describe what happens to Friedlander and Corsi when they become Demon Bear's thralls.
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.