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 Risk, The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role Playing Game, and Star Comics. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
Words. Words. Words.
In one of his old Come in Alone columns for Comic Book Resources, Warren Ellis wrote:
"There's a rule-of-thumb for dialogue writing you might want to try. Stan Lee used it, Alan Moore uses it. An average-sized panel can stand about twenty-eight words of dialogue. Try it for a while, before you go your own way; no more than twenty-eight words in each panel."
As if Fleetwood Mac were his own personal house band, Chris Claremont goes his own way. Claremont ain't Stan Lee or Alan Moore and he sure as shit ain't keeping to 28 words per panel. The New Mutants #25 might be the perfect example of what some refer to as "Claremontese." Behold!
I count 317 words shared between these six panels. The thought bubbles bunch in the middle as Bill Sienkiewicz draws Xavier's head twisting and turning to mirror the path of the character's own meandering story. Ty needs a lot of convincing and Claremont means to do it. The script tasks even an old hand like legendary letterer Tom Orzechowski who brings in L. Lois Buhails to help pen this tale.
Claremont overwrites. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So what? What did Sienkiewicz or John Byrne or Brent Anderson (God Loves, Man Kills) think when they saw a Claremont script? Comic books are supposed to be a team sport; The New Mutants #25 shows writer and artist at odds, in competition for attention.
Cartooning conversations has got to get old fast, not to mention illustrating internal and external dialogues, monologues and inter-dimensional quips. Sienkiewicz has to do it all in The New Mutants #25 before he opens up an eldritch can of Magik brand whoopass towards the end.
A big bolus of narrative continuity (the resolution the last three issues have been slouching towards) gets digested in this issue. In short, Ty and Tandy become Cloak and Dagger, again, and Rahne and Roberto are cured. The New Mutants #21 through #25 makes a good case for the (dismissive) argument that comic books are soap operas for dudes. If it's about the journey, so be it, but I'd like to think Claremont does more here than (only) service continuity in the Marvel Universe.
The title of this issue, "The Only Thing To Fear…" serves as a thesis statement, a phobophobic riff on the well-worn web-slinger maxim about great power vis-à-vis great responsibility. As any Joe (Campbell) knows, overcoming fear leads to self-confidence (and eventually power).
In case there's any confusion or if Professor X's fireside chat didn't make it clear, Claremont re-emphasizes the moral of the story in a speech by the team's resident flat-head, Sam, who points a finger Ty-ward and trumpets:
"That's the point you dope! Ah was scared stiff every second ah worked in the mines, but I kept on. Job hadda be done. Ah had people contain' on me. Still do, in a way — only it's the mutants 'stead of my blood kin. You can't let fear run your life, that's the real shadow, Ty — that's what'll shrivel your soul if you let it."
For those of you scoring at home, that's a 65 to 1 ratio (not counting Ty's response), to hell with you Warren Ellis! I would add "doubt" to Sam's litany of "real shadow(s)," but let's not let equivocation undo the task at hand.
Professor X presses Magik into service and the whole caboodle (including Father Mike) teleports to Limbo to let the healing commence, but not before Dani drops in a Star Wars quote because there's not enough going on in this panel. Claremont sure has a thing for resolving story arcs with visits to various planes of existence.
Once the hurly-burly's done, Dagger née Tandy Bowen takes center stage and explains why hero's save lives, travel to other dimensions and take up crime fighting. Sienkiewicz draws Dagger in a panel-less background-less close-up as if she were a news anchor delivering tonight's top story. To borrow from 1982 Don Henley, Dagger "can tell you 'bout plane crash with a gleam in her eye," instead, she's come to monologue. You can hear the strings and the brass build as she delivers her invocation:
"We have the power, professor, we have to help. Who knows, when there's no more need — when all the runaways, those hurting lost souls — are able to live happily ever after – we can turn to you. For now, though, we can't."
Truth, justice and naïve runaways, it's something worth fighting for in this damned dirty world.
Dagger's direct address puts a bow on The New Mutants #25, if only (there's also an epilogue). Claremont does a bit of lampshade hanging with Magik and Sienkiewicz has some fun showing the reader (again!) what's already been shown (and said). As her teammates fall asleep around her, Magik interrupts the adults (Mike and Chuck) to say:
"Hey, this wasn't so special. I mean, we New Mutants — yawn, 'schuss me — meet people and pull off capers like this — yawwwwn — alla time! You want worlds or souls saved, we're the ones … to do … it …"
Sienkiewicz adds the requiste z's in the third panel; poor little demonic priestess, all tuckered out, she's had a long day.
Sienkiewicz breaks up Magik's dialogue so the words don't hang so heavy which makes the word count per panel more manageable. This is Claremont at his self-deprecating best and I'm sure Sienkiewicz was the envy of his peers as he got to draw how superheroes need sleep too. How he and Frank Miller must have laughed and laughed.
"The Only Thing To Fear…" ties up the largest loose ends of this arc and restores balance to the team. This is a Claremont-centric issue in which Sienkiewicz is kept on short leash except in Limbo where he gets to let his freak flag for German Expressionism fly and even then those pesky words still get in the way. So, Sienkiewicz and Claremont are less simpatico in this issue, so what, sometimes when two heavyweights get in the ring, it's a dance, sometimes it's one-sided and other times, it's a draw.
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.