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 Noxzema Acne 12, The Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Awards for 1984, and J&S Comics. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
William Blake — whadaya mean William Blake? I mean William Blake! — wrote about innocence and experience and in The New Mutants #28 so does Chris Claremont. Not to confuse the two, after all, each one is English, London born and works (worked), in a way, with illuminated manuscripts.
Blake believes innocence and experience should run side by side. Problems occur when the more power-hungry impulse of experience devours innocence which leads to evil and to "the Fall." Claremont gets around this bad bit of business by crafting "innocence" and "experience" as a student/teacher relationship (Dani Moonstar and Charles Xavier) to achieve a would-be Blakian-paradise; however, forces from beyond(er) ruin an otherwise salient moment in mutant history.
Whereas Blake spends his lifetime in the opposition of organized religion, Claremont draws the less envious and least glorious task of tilting at windmills like '80s money-grubbing Marvel Comics's stockholders and the editorial iron grip of Jim Shooter. Welcome to the lucrative and soulless world of event crossovers, sequels and their lead-ins.
The New Mutants #28 opens on Bill Sienkiewicz's interpretation of the would-be barrier that surrounds the pure essence of David Charles Haller — a mélange of French doors, red roof tiles and comical conical stovepipes. This "tower of Haller" stands in the way of Dani, Chuck, Rahne, Moira MacTaggert, Gabriella Haller and Doug Ramsey, all of whom remain lost in the funhouse of David Haller's brain. On cue, Rahne begins to smell something rotten in the state of Haller's mind and so does Dani.
In case the name "Jack Wayne" did not conquer images of rugged masculinity, buckaroo-ism, and old-fashioned oaters in issue #27, Dani dispels any mystery: "The creep! He reminds me of the heroes in old-time westerns — the ones that went around cheerfully massacring every Indian in sight. I suppose I shouldn't be so hard, he's the prof's pal. No accounting for taste." The New Mutants #28 marks the moment Claremont begins to establish Dani as she moves from the learner to the learned.
For all its psionics and ethnic diversity, The New Mutants tracks as a traditional school story. Although the heyday of tales told out of British boarding schools was over by the time Claremont was born in 1950, it would come as no surprise if he had some familiarity with these stories and used their themes of honor, loyalty and friendship as inspiration for The New Mutants. Claremont was either born at the wrong time or far too prescient when the school story would make its triumphant return in 1997 in the form of the bespectacled boy wizard who bears a lightning bolt scar. Regardless, authority must be challenged for a hero to rise; Dani Moonstar is that hero.
Another drum Claremont continues to beat in The New Mutants is that untutored raw power (innocence) cannot match the skills (experience) a student gains when s/he is paired with a teacher. For Xavier, the learning process is paramount to control and therefore to the mastery of one's skills (or potential). The only way Xavier believes one can gain dominion over their power(s) is through the agency of a teacher.
Sienkiewicz gets one killer action sequence in issue #28 in which the apprentice/master dichotomy gets made plain. Jemail Karami, the assassin Haller absorbed when he was attacked, stands on an I-beam, rifle (!?!) in hand and ready to defend his imaginary turf. Sienkiewicz zooms in on this lone sentinel and then cuts to a split-panel of Xavier and Dani's faces as they combine their powers to knock Karami of his perch. As he did with the unframed Haller in issue #26, Sienkiewicz breaks borders and topples Karami. Glynis Oliver uses a fire hydrant red to mark the assassin's pseudo-assassination.
Karami beat, the team turns to the other (supposed) insurmountable problem, the dome, David Haller's innermost David Haller. The pimple on the ass of progress that is Doug Ramsey recalls a Star Trek episode — "Spectre of the Gun", which reenacts the shoot-out at the O.K. corral! — where the crew of the Enterprise gets duped by some alien telepaths. With no announcement of a "spoiler warning," Doug explains, "weapons have no effect, even at full power. Thing is, the phasers worked all along … the villians, who were telepaths, wouldn't let the crew see that." And with that, problem solved. Is there anything Star Trek can't do?
After they traipse through a crystal palace of Haller's memories (some happy, others sad, one looks like a deranged bunny with crosses for eyes) Karami reappears out of a vortex of glass shards. Mama Haller takes out her white hot anger on Karami with a couple of haymakers which causes Xavier to stage in impromptu intervention: "Nobody kills, nobody dies, do you hear?! Nobody!" One page turn later Xavier screams out in pain, crashes to the ground and remains that way for the duration. Wha?
Dani calls out Wayne and uses her psi-ability to manifest his "deepest, most primal fear […] Xavier, the l
oving father and a boy who can only be the David that once was." It's at this moment she reaches for the brass ring and grasps it. Dani revives Karami — who at some moment in the chaos absorbs Ramsey's polyglot power so that he converse in English, of course — and gives Wayne a karate chop to keep him in line. Once Wayne and Karami tidy up David's mind, Dani has Karami-Haller send everyone back to their own bodies in the real world; Dani left the learner and returns the master.
All that remains is the inevitable heartfelt hug of reconciliation between father and son and promises to never leave nor ever lose one another again. On the final page, Xavier and Gabrielle share a long walk on the beach in which they decide to leave the past in the past and move on. If only Jim Shooter had possessed the same foresight and class in 1985.
Claremont writes this one-hundred-and-forty-two word thought bubble (in truth, three thought bubbles) that explains why he was knocked out during his battle with Karami and Wayne. Apparently while your astral self and those of five other people you've brought with you are in the mind of another human being, one remains tuned into the cosmos. Xavier explains it like this: "the psychic force that felled me in David's mind was my detecting the approach of our solar system of the Beyonder!"
What bullshit. A wonderful moment in which Dani asserts her authority gets somewhat diluted because Marvel's then editor-in-chief has to find a way to work a Secret Wars II prequel. Dani still saves the day, yes, but all because of some god-like being with a perm drops Chuck a psychic calling card? Pathetic.
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.