by Kevin Czap
As I slowly get myself back into the habit of doing this Cube thing, I wanna talk about kids. I really love reading, watching and hearing about the life stories of teenagers. There’s something excruciatingly sentimental (in a good way) about this particular age where human beings are caught up with negotiating their place in this bizarre animal society we’ve constructed around ourselves. I have such a strong place in my heart for the bildungsroman – the truer the better. This all springs to mind because I’ve been in the process of collecting Bill Scienkiewicz’ mid-80s run on The New Mutants. These stories combine the wildness and beauty of The Sink’s drawing, his layouts, and his punky character designs with Chris Claremont’s melodramatic method acting and eagerness to expand the palette of representation in mainstream American comics. All to show us a bunch of kids trying to figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do.
I can’t quite pinpoint the reason I started hunting these down, but it’s largely to do with my fascination with Sienkiewicz’ work. I tracked down both issues of Big Numbers, got Stray Toasters and yet I don’t have much interest in his Moon Knight stuff. I grew up an X-Men kid, and was always more intrigued by the younger, new characters. At the time that would have been Generation X, but following that trend eventually led me back to the New Mutants (I really didn’t have much interest in X-Force). In many ways, the New Mutants came to embody how, if at all, these X-Men comics should be done – namely, don’t just retread the same shit over and over again for decades. Of course, that’s kind of what ended up happening anyway, but in the first iteration there was something fresh. The reiteration of the original Kirby concepts (super-powered teenagers in school) is handled in a different enough way while still paying tribute to the roots. The story goes that the intended name for the X-Men comic was simply The Mutants, and I heard a rumor at some point that Kirby had wanted to make the costumes black and white, rather than blue and yellow, which is met somewhere in the middle by the kids’ uniforms. (I’ve never been able to substantiate this though. Anybody else heard this?). This all creates the impression for me that Claremont and McLoed (the team’s co-creator) went about the project with the appropriate degree of care and thought. Most importantly, it’s a comic that features original stories with original characters (yes, Xavier and Magneto are hanging around from the old days, but by and large, Claremont is working with his own creations).
Major kudos to Claremont for making the world of mutants so diverse. The team he and Bob McLoed put together was majority female, with backgrounds in Scotland, Brazil, Russia, Greece, Vietnam, the Cheyenne people and the hills of Kentucky. Danielle Moonstar has become one of my favorite comics characters over time, acting as leader of the New Mutants here, even while recovering from severe injuries. This leads me to another aspect that I admire so much about these stories – the characters are fragile, unsure, self-conscious… you know, human. There’s some amount of hormones and eye-candy flying around, which is to be expected since we’re dealing with puberty here, but it’s all internal – Sienkiewicz’ style is raw and weird, more interested in showing the physicality of a body than in any kind of titillation.
The stories themselves are intriguing and psychologically focused, which feels right to me given the age of the protagonists. I know for myself, that time felt like the darkest period of my life. The issues I have at the moment span the Demon Bear fight, the Cloak and Dagger cross-over, the battle for Legion’s mind and then a couple other issues that I haven’t really gotten to read yet, I think they’re about trying to get Karma back. In so many of these we’re dealing with wars being fought in the mind or within one’s own body. Again, perfect territory for teenagers to explore. But really, my favorite parts are when the kids are interacting with each other. Of particular note is the big sleepover issue, which devotes most of its pages to the experience of being a teenage girl in the 80s (Michael Jackson posters!). Or what about that time when Professor X lectures Sam Guthrie about his punk rock outfit? That Lila Cheney shirt is on my list of shirts to make when I get myself a silkscreening kit.
The other aspect that fascinates me about these comics is their role as historical artefacts. I went through a bit of an 80s phase not too long ago, watching all the Brat Pack movies (St. Elmo’s Fire was pretty great and Less Than Zero is almost too insane to believe, in terms of opulence) and digging into David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. This kind of cocaine dusted era was always something I dismissed, feeling pretty repulsed by everything it stood for and the parts being emulated during its comeback. The other side of things, the punk and hardcore, anti-aesthetic side interests me much more. And yet there’s something interesting about the phony plastic side as well. There’s a bit of realness in there somewhere. In terms of the comics, I mean, this was a watershed time period, it’s hard to argue against that. Sienkiewicz seems to embody so much of that energy and power, even though he probably wasn’t the most revolutionary creator in terms of politics at the time. What he brings to New Mutants is a mixture of the jazzy airbrush and the rough-cut safety-pinned seriousness of the time.
I have this idea in my head of the 80s and, by extension, early 90s as almost the last time that real anti-consumerist and radical ideas had any kind of presence in a mainstream way. The New Mutants represent this to me in a small way. Even more so, perhaps, is their 90s retread, Generation X. Whereas Sienkiewicz turned up the weirdo for his run on the teen mutants, the cast of Generation X were purposefully gross and outcast, a reflection of their namesake. Bachalo, like Sienkiewicz, has(had) a style that was particularly suited to depicting the awkward state of adolescence. And yet… this was the era of the shopping mall. These kids are alienated and out of place, but at the same time, there’s less distance between them and consumer culture. Jonothan Starsmore may be dark, brooding and have half of his face blown off, but he’s still a pretty sexy kid, in that Oasis sort of way. The characters in this book are a mix of mallrats, goths, surfers and gangstas, caught in the middle of a cultural shift. There also feels like more of a top-down approach to this book – as if the name wasn’t trying hard enough for you, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that this is a second take on the New Mutants concept, with about half the originality. We even have Sam Guthrie’s younger sister on the team, worrying herself over the same kind of issues Sam did back in the day. As fondly as I feel towards these kids, I have to concede that the whole thing is not as pure as its predecessor (if purity is something we can even mention when talking about corporate super heroes).
We see this trend continue with the next iteration of the New Mutants in the early Aughts. All the teenagers are pretty and visually-acceptable, drawn in a glossy Amerimanga style. This version of the young X-Men (and really, the fact the there’s another version of young X-Men kind of goes against what I liked about them in the first place) is similar to Degrassi High: The Next Generation. So much of the grittiness and doofy awkwardness has been bleached out, replaced by high production values and a surface sheen (not to mention all the grown-up kids from the previous series just happen to still be hanging around). Of course, this is all a reflection of the time it was made in as well. It’s probably clear where my biases and tastes lay. I did appreciate Morrison’s take on the concept in New X-Men, again giving us a range of weird, well-adjusted or grotesque mutants which felt truer to life than any take on the theme since. Unfortunately, like most of the great ideas from his run, these new characters were either discarded or cleaned up after Morrison left (I guess the pale, maladjusted Quentin Quire is a lot prettier these days, drawn by Chris Bachalo, no less).
These comics feel distinctly different from almost any other iteration of the X-Men. Even though the New Mutants are ultimately derivative of Kirby’s original work in terms of central concept, Claremont’s execution is worlds apart. This radical change in focus is enough to keep the book fresh, since with each reiteration of the same thing, we see the concept lose power the farther it moves away from its source. The real saving grace of this books, and why I’m even tracking them down, however, is the art. In the issues before and after I can’t stand to read anything but the Sienkiewicz run. Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants takes the cake for me, a bunch of fresh and at times unsettling stories that have a group of believable teenagers at their heart.
images by Bill Sienkiewicz, Glynis Oliver, Tom Orzenchowski, L. Lois Buhalis, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Richard Starkings and Brian Buccellato.