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 Garcia Fishing Rods, The Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game and Swords of the Swashbucklers. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
As a product of catholic school education — thirteen years of catholic school education to be exact — I love a good nun joke. Halfway through New Mutants #24, one of Father Michael Bowen's wards at St. Anne's Church, Nga, says she didn't know "the reverend sisters were allowed to have a sense of humor." Bowen quips, "On occasion Nga … miracles do happen." Classic Mike.
The three nuns at my elementary school were all funny in their own way, but only in the most parochial definition of the word. Yuks were at a premium; however, visions of hell and the many ways to endanger one's soul, well, the Sisters of Mercy sold that shit wholesale. I imagine the stern stare I would receive (then and now) from Sister Margretta (for using the word "shit" and) for not seeing the sulfurous forest for the bat-winged trees.
The New Mutants, under Messrs. Sienkiewicz and Claremont, always traffics in demons. Always. When a team keeps a semi-demonic sorceress on retainer it stands to reason that things can turn a bit devilish from time to time. As with many 1980s mutants, the real demons in this series are often more personal — imps of perverse like insecurity and self-doubt. To the delight of continuity wonks the world over, The New Mutants #24 offers mutants in agony by the barrelful.
For reasons both shrewd and apparent, Rahne and Roberto end up in Bowen's care at St. Anne's. Rahne continues to manifest "unimaginable — perhaps ultimate" degrees of energy and Roberto might be (probably) possessed by an outside entity, nobody knows for sure. In a separate plotline, no less than the "Master of Magnetism," Magneto, makes an appearance. He's holed up on some kind of secret island — a shameless lift from Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" — after being saved from a shark attack (what!?!) by '80's mutant arm candy, Ms. Aleytys "Lee" Forrester. Magneto gets down off his damn high horse (for once), apologizes for his actions* and leads Forrester to think there's some humanity left in the old boy.
Colossus remains trapped inside his own head inside a "Cloak-like-world," now known as DeCosta's domain of despair, which, for former farmer Piotr Nikolievitch Rasputin, looks like a desert. In this barren abode, Kitty Pryde materializes to save her true love. Moments later, Zsaji, the silver-haired healer and Piotr's Secret Wars shorty, appears as well. The same fate gets visited on both as each crumbles into nothingness and Piotr shrinks further into glum gloom. Rahne/Dagger finds/rescues Piotr/Colossus, in all this darkness, and returns him to reality, to the church.
Although he drew more pointed teeth and sharp claws than any of his fellow illustrators during both Reagan administrations, Bill Sienkiewicz's skill at drawing out emotions of characters is nonpareil. From the primal to the understated, the anguish on the faces of Magneto and Piotr feels palpable. Maybe it's the way Sienkiewicz uses thick lines to draw their eyebrows that fires such passions or the hasty-looking inky scrawls in the backgrounds that makes the agony plain. It hurts all the same.
Sienkiewicz can draw less identifiable emotions too, like the mask of uneasiness Magik wears as she stews and waits with her teammates in a parlor (I guess?) of St. Anne's. How do you describe the look on her face as she casts an over-the-shoulder glance at the cross on the wall? Fretful? Tense? Barely-bottled demonic rage at being forced to hang on hallowed ground?
Each look roots in fear and loss. These cats are scared. Comics ride on the broad shoulders of sensation. When one wants emotion, call for a close-up. I can't say with any quantitative fact that Sienkiewicz uses more close-ups in this issue than any of the others I've discussed so far, but The New Mutants #24 could be a John Cassavetes picture, maybe even a Carl Dreyer. Sienkiewicz knows faces, knows passion.
The most aggrieved of all is poor Ty. As of this moment, he remains Cloak-free. Honor, duty and the shit end of the stick (again, sorry Sister Margretta) have Ty in denial. Sienkiewicz composes a widescreen cinematic angle with Ty in the foreground on the right and Tandy, smaller, and to the left of the frame; each one the other's opposite. These complements stare off the page and into the void. Tandy, the only bright spot in Ty's darkening world, shines a light on the inevitable: "If being Cloak was such a curse for you, how can you wish it on anyone else?" Sometimes that great responsibility that comes from great power costs nothing less than one's soul and worse, maybe, one's self. As Ty says, "some choice." When it comes to these demons, the only exorcist is oneself.
The final panel in this issue portends a Christ-like sacrifice, resurrection and salvation. Maybe those austere Sisters of Mercy, those old habits, had it right: the ability to recognize your demons means a stopover at church, be it St. Anne's or Our Lady of Lourdes. Regardless of Magik's reservations, imps, devils and demons are all regular churchgoers. Where else do the faithful go when they want to lay down such personal burdens? Well played, Chris Claremont, well played.
*The New Mutants #23
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.