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 Montezuma's Revenge, Fruit Chewy Newtons Cookies and the G.I. Jason Club. Pop in a "cassingle," pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
As an 11-year-old, one of the many gaps in my knowledge was what to wear to an S&M fetish club. Fortunate for me, I had comic books. I had access to the mind of Bill Sienkiewicz; which, in turn, meant my entry into The Hellfire Club. Bless the toothless Comics Code Authority and its years of benign neglect. Without the greasy kid's stuff of comic books, a black leather-clad seductress toting a riding crop was not something a suburban kid like me was going to find heel-toeing her way along the quiet streets of my hometown in the mid '80s. Strange days indeed, I know.
The opening page of The New Mutants #23 is game of "One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)." There's the said riding-crop-accessorizing dominatrix, "the lady Selene," to her right is a dude with an atomic orange Annie Lennox buzz cut who wears a leather bodice (a custom job fersure) and sunglasses (indoors). On the far left hand side of Mr. Annie is a woman in a sleeveless black leather catsuit who sports a flip hairstyle with bangs more Marlo Thomas than Diane Rigg. Last there's the guy next to Selene who looks like he got off shift at Old Sturbridge Village and forgot to change his clothes. He's the one, my eleven-year-old mind identifies with because he, at least, looks … normal.
Comic books create strong and lasting impressions on the pre-, post- and (especially) adolescent mind, hence Wertham and his torch bearing mob of censors who made the CCA stand for so long. Outside of Barbet Schroeder movie, a Paris fashion runway (look at the ruching on Selene's collar!) or a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog, a woman like the future Black Queen only exists as a fantasy. Her superpower is to arrest development. To this end, Sebastian Shaw's words in the scene are prophetic: "With Selene, I must forever be on my guard. The slightest misstep, I've no doubt, will be my last." I can no better explain what the ecstatic Selene is sitting on (a table, I guess?) than I can begin to justify why her head cocks back, her eyes close and her legs lie open in this panel. Hash tag: sarcasm
There's a kink, a sleaze chromosome, in comic book DNA; a taboo that tells you you're seeing something you're not supposed to see even when you are desperate to outright stare — the male gaze starter kit. It's this same sexual curiosity that, if you had cable in the '80s, you, or a friend, would diddle the back of the cable set top box with a paper clip to watch late night soft core porn on "Skinemax." For the less deviant soul there was GLOW* or the Headbanger's Ball on MTV. For pre-teen me, comic books, Stephen King novels and every hair metal band, ever, furthered my confusion about sex and did little to present realistic depictions of women. It takes time to exorcise these demons and the deprogramming is a bear. As Peasant #3 in Monty Python and the Holy Grail sheepishly admits after he claims the witch turned him into a newt: "I got better.'
The New Mutants adds a similar flavor the mix of roiling adolescence. The teenage or (almost) teenage reader can relate to Sam, Roberto, Amara, Dani, Rahne, Illyana and Warlock, none of them are in control of their bodies or their powers. Nor are they adept at managing the urges they feel to use those bodies, those powers. Like the teens they are, the New Mutants are in constant states of anxiety, about being mutants, heroes and teenagers; it's teenage wish fulfillment, yeah, but stepped on, cut with angst, doubt and confusion.
Chris Claremont uses New Mutants #23 to lay out porterhouse chunks of continuity (almost) as impervious as Colossus' organic metal armor. In short, Roberto and Rahne are exhibiting new powers or mutations and nobody, including Professor X, knows why. When Dani and Sam find a familiar-looking necklace in Rahne's room, they start to play detective. Remember the "Silver Sorceress" and "Black Baron" from Rahne's dreams in issue #22? Yep, it was Rahne who attacked an (apparently) depowered Cloak and Dagger — damn (!) these X-Babies go on some nocturnal hikes — who have gone back to being Tandy and Tyrone. Sometime previous, the drugs that turned the two "T's" into "hood heroes were also injected into Roberto and Rahne. They were cured, but not anymore and R&R are freakin" the freak out.
Sienkiewicz's sexy staccato lines and Claremont's emphasis on permanence comes together on page six when Colossus raises the psychic alarm. Sienkiewicz sends Sunspot into smeary scratchy blotch of drug-fueled rage at the top of the page. In the middle panels, Professor X awakens Sam and Dani and directs them to save their teammate. Earth's mightiest mutant mind has never looked more conceptual. Sienkiewicz draws Charles Xavier as a stack of primary shapes: trapezoids, spheres and parallelograms.
By placing shapely Professor X in the center square, Sienkiewicz draws the eye down to Sam in the smallest panel on the page. Sam half-covers his eyes as he walks in on Dani as she dresses to leave. Sam says, "Oh wow, oh geez, oh, Dani — Hey, ah'm real sorry." Sam isn't sorry. Sam's sorry he got caught. Sienkiewicz's choice to draw Sam with his fingers splayed apart enough to sneak a peek speaks to Sam's own sexual curiosity. Dani is no Selene; however, the aspect is same. Like the image of Selene and her leather club cohorts, Sam sees something he knows he shouldn't see, but he looks anyway. Sam is us.
Comic books offer formative experiences for both good and ill. To take a "Full Run" at The New Mutants gives me 20/10 vision, a backward glance to take stock in the distance I've covered in my own life; and if all this amounts to is navel-gazing bullshit, at least I (we) now know how to dress for the Hellfire Club: wear something black … and tight.
*The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, duh?
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.