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 attempts to find out if there is still some "magik" in that pulpy paper with its ads for Frogger II: Threedeep!, The Get Along Gang and the Secret Wars Secret Decoding Shield. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
I'm a gull for a good first line. Give me a screaming from across the sky, a confession about an early bedtime or gaps formed from fences and flowers and I'm yours. The alchemy of import and edginess in a first sentence of anything is, for me, a goddamn thrill.
Even though Bill Sienkiewicz does not write the opening to The New Mutants #22, he knows how to pen a tale and how to show to tell. The words may belong to Chris Claremont, but everything else comes courtesy of Sienkiewicz. In the pages of a comic book, writers (only) write, the artists do the rest.
The gymnast, (presumably) high above the ground, is everyone's favorite blue Bavarian orphan, Nightcrawler née Kurt Wagner as he engages in a Socratic dialogue with the offstage drawl of Sam "Cannonball" Guthrie. Sienkiewicz fills the upper-half of the page with moments of preparation: legs akimbo and upright, hands flex and grip, a prehensile forked tail lolls at the ready — teachable moments all. Inset at the four corners of these preparatory panels stands a fifth smaller and narrower frame Sienkiewicz uses to convey anticipation, action and emotion. The panel itself is stretched; Nightcrawler's feet take up a near first position as he (now) stands at-the-ready, his body unlocked, poised. Anything outside the frame relies on implicit imagination; the reader becomes the fill-in artist. Kurt's tail, two legs and four toes express his mind, his body and his mood in one shot, one frame and one panel.
In X-world (and as an effect) "BAMF" plays Oates to "SNIKT's" Hall. Sienkiewicz teases out the sound of Nightcrawler and his particular talent in the lower-half of the page as three now-you-see-him-now-you-don't panels perfect for a furry teleporting demon. Colorist Glynis Wein kindles yellow into oranges and one can almost smell the brimstone. Kurt remains all arms, legs and tail; he is always on the edge and almost out of sight, but not. Sienkiewicz compresses the middle panel — the penultimate penultimate second — and allows the bookend panels to expand the elasticity of the moment before it (and Kurt) swings from potential to kinetic. One page, eight instances and so it begins.
The hydrogen and stardust of the Marvel universe comes from having relatable characters that, only by happenstance, have superpowers — the everyday and the gifted go hand in hand. Claremont might as well have called this issue "A Day in the Life" or (if he were a seer like Rahne Sinclair) "Lazy Sunday." Nightcrawler's opening aerobatics create a vacuum in which action becomes absent from the rest of the story. The first half of the issue follows Rahne as she pads through that most venerable of mansions on the shore of Breakstone Lake. She comes across Dani on the phone with her parents, Moira MacTaggert and Professor Xavier running tests on Warlock in a lab and Sunspot and Cannonball working out, all that's missing is Wolverine separating darks and lights; another (not so) tricky day on Graymalkin Lane. The most menace The New Mutants #22 dredges up is its title: "The Shadow Within," which, let's face it, could be the title for every issue of The New Mutants.
In Claremont's soothing and predictable lub dub rhythm there is an economic two-page cutaway to fetish enthusiast (cosplayer?), Dakota North lookalike and mysterious bon vivant Selena as she visits an upscale Park Avenue boutique. On the (stiletto) heels of her appearance, the story then secrets itself amongst shenanigans afoot at the Hellfire Club where one Emmanuel DaCosta, a/k/a Sunspot's daddy, steels himself for initiation. All of that business remains in shadow, another tale for another day.
As the sun sets on Salem Center, Roberto and Amara go for a dip in the pool while Rahne, away in her garret, broods, doodles arrow -pierced hearts and pens the story of Princess Alystraea. Thoughts turn to fantasies and panel borders balloon with analogues and imaginings. Unlike Dani's demon-bear dreams, Rahne's reveries are filled with lovable woodland creatures that look like they stepped out of a Rankin and Bass holiday special. This is Sienkiewicz at his most adaptive as if he were killing time alongside Hamilton Luske in 1937 to earn a paycheck so he could work on his art in some Wilshire BLVD Bungalow. In keeping with the issue's quotidian obsessions, Rahne imagines her fairy princess on washday.
When Prince Duncan — who has Roberto's hair, but (oddly) not his complexion — smashes in the door and claims a "Silver Sorceress" has possessed his soul, Princess Alystraea/Rahne goes full-on lupine and travels to the place she most fears … "the city." There she runs into
a taxi who talks like Brooklyn (what is Claremont's obsession with accents?!?) and looks like Warlock. Stereotypes aside, this interaction leads to the issue's funniest line: "The taxi was right, she hadn't a prayer."
Alystraes/Rahne finds said Silver Sorceress alongside "her champion," the Black Baron. Even the most junior member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society at the time would recognize these two as everyone's favorite teenage runaways, Cloak and Dagger. The issue ends with something about a life force, tender mercies neither given nor received and a set of Sienkiewicz's signature sharp teeth — all the better to eat you with.
The more time I spend with these mid-eighties mutants, the more symmetry I find between Sienkiewicz's sawed off lines and Claremont's rock steady rhythms. From issue to issue, each creator, like their subjects, continues to develop and discover their own powers and what they can achieve as a team. It's as if The New Mutants allows each creator (and the reader) to see with new eyes.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.