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Jun
14
2018

Nearly Ten Thoughts on the Bill Sienkiewicz New Mutants Run

Or, more acurately: the Chris Claremont, Bill Sienkiewicz, Glynis Wein/Oliver, Tom Orzechowski (and L. Louis Buhalis & Joe Rosen) New Mutants run.

I recently re-read this run (issues #18 – #31) in the form of this very beautiful IDW reprint edition that I got at SDCC a few years ago. Here’re a few thoughts on the series (and note that the cruddy pictures here are from scans of the individual issues, not the gorgeous IDW edition–no way am I gonna slap that thing on my scanner and crack its spine!):

It’s all about the art – There’s a reason that people refer to this as the “Bill Sienkiewicz New Mutants run.” The artwork here is what makes this series notable; it’s why we’re still talking about it now. His cubist-Neal Adams-inked-by-Ralph Steadman style of art was unlike pretty much anything that came before it and is still a high-water mark for superhero comics. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Claremont’s writing here. It’s solid 80s-era Claremont. That said, there really isn’t a standout story along the lines of Dark Phoenix or  Days of Future Past that came out of this run. The closest would probably be the initial big story arc, the Demon Bear Saga or the Legion story, but even those aren’t really in the same league as Claremont’s X-Men work. In fact, it’s the less expansive stories–usually single issues–that are the most solid story-wise in this run: the slumber party issue, for example, is maybe my favorite single issue of the whole run. And the tail end of the series–a long arc that combines a super-powered gladiator ring, The Beyonder (ugh), and a Magneto plot that never really goes anywhere–would frankly be a real chore without Sienkiewicz’s artwork.

Everyone hated the art!!! – It’s conventional wisdom that people at the time reacted poorly to Sienkiewicz’s artwork, but I’m not sure how true that really is. After my re-read I dug through my original single issues of the series, looking for nasty letters in the letters column and couldn’t find much. The first issue with letters responding to Sienkiewicz’s debut issue is #23 and all three letters printed there that mention the art praise it in no uncertain terms. An issue or two later, I found a single example of someone complaining about the art:

That’s not to say that people weren’t complaining about it (I can certainly see why the book’s own letter column wouldn’t be the venue where these complaints would surface) and there’s of course the story relayed in Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics The Untold Story about a letter sent to Jim Shooter (in orange crayon, no less) that read, “GET RID OF HIM JIMMY BEFORE HE RUINS EVERYTHING.” And when I mentioned this on Twitter I got this response with a hilarious anecdote:

 

 

I am curious though about how much of the “everyone hated it” bit is genuine and how much is myth-making in hindsight. 

Cringey stuff – There’s definitely some stuff here that reads a lot differently 2018 than it likely did in the mid-80s, most notably the two characters in the Demon Bear story who get “transformed” into Native Americans. There are a few other instances as well. None are Ebony-level weapons grade cringe, but definitely things that stood out to me on this re-read: Legion is supposedly autistic, but it’s pretty clear Claremont didn’t really have much of a handle on what autism actually is. And speaking of Legion, the character in the Legion arc who’s from the mid-east is referred to throughout just as, “the Arab”and he is–of course–a terrorist. A lot of Cloak’s “urban”dialog is ready-made for a translation from Barbara Billingsly. That said, none of this stuff mars the work in a way that makes it inapproachable (looking at you, turn-of-the century American newspaper comics!), but it’s something that’ll likely stick out to you if you read the series. 

Only Sienkiewicz could draw these characters – There are several characters that are introduced in this run that just can’t be drawn by any other artist and look right. The main one is of course Warlock. The others that come to mind are Legion (no one else can seem to figure out what to do with that haircut) and Strong Guy (who usually looks like a different character when drawn by anyone else). I think in all of these cases, the difference is that Sienkiewicz’s drawings are drawings. Full stop. Not drawings of things. If you try to render a character like Warlock as if he’s something other than a drawing on a sheet of paper–as if he’s got some 3-D referent in the real world–it’s just not going to look like Warlock. 

Circles = magic – It’s funny how things you read when you’re young just sort of embed themselves into your psyche, even to the point that you forget about where they came from. I realized while re-reading this that I most certainly got my own penchant for using circles to depict magic directly from Sienkiewicz. Here’s a panel from Oyster War and one from New Mutants

Craftint! – In the Legion story arc, Sienkiewicz cleverly uses an even then nearly-forgotten drawing tool, Craftint Doubletone drawing board, to differentiate the real world (drawn normally) and the world of Legion’s psyche (drawn on Craftint board).  You can learn more about this Craftint stuff here if you really want to, but in short: it’s a type of board that produces two different crosshatch patterns when brushed with different types of solutions.

Doubletone examples SCREENER

Comics fans probably know it best from Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs comic:

Here it is in action in New Mutants #27:

Maybe someone dumped a pile of the stuff at the Marvel offices or something? David Mazzucchelli was doing some experimenting with Craftint board at around this same time. 

References! – People make a lot of hay about the 80s references in this run, particularly Sunspot’s idolization of Tom Selleck. See here, from the slumber party issue–with, obviously, a few other pop culture luminaries of the period:

My favorite pop culture reference in the series, though, is not from the 80s, but from the 60s:

This is, of course, a reference to the Star Trek TOS, episode, The Menagerie.

So. Many. Words – Taking potshots at Claremont’s excessive verbiage is maybe only a slight rung above Vince Colletta-bashing, but man there’re a lot of words in New Mutants. Especially in the later issues it’s really out of hand. Reading the end of this run I kept thinking back to an old Rachel and Miles Explain the X-Men podcast where they refer to Tom Orzechowski as Chris Claremont’s “enabler.” Look at this stuff. There’s probably some really pretty Sienkiewicz art under all that rambling. 

Corner boxes – And, finally: even the corner boxes are awesome. I miss corner boxes. 

1 comment

  1. @misterjayem says:

    I hate the art — but I was wrong.

    — MrJM

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