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Thursday, February 7, 2013

X-amining New Mutants #20

"Badlands"
October 1984

In a Nutshell
The New Mutants defeat the Demon Bear.

the writer: Chris Claremont
the artist: Bill Seinkiewicz
the letterer: Tom Orzechowski
the colorist: Glynis Wein
the editor: Ann Nocenti
the editor who is much taller, and coincidentally, Chief: Jim Shooter

Plot
In the Demon Bear's domain, a dimension which resembles an untainted American West, the New Mutants watch as the bear transforms Officer Tom Corsi and Nurse Sharon Friedlander into American Indian demons. As the New Mutants battle the demons, the bear attempts to pierce Illyana's wards protecting the doctors operating on Dani back in the real world. As the battle rages, the bear grows more powerful and his corruption fills the land. Amara saves Roberto from one of the demons, leaving her open for an attack by the bear, which transforms her into a demon as well. Illyana uses her Soulsword to fight off the bear, then plunges it into the possessed Amara. Believing Illyana has been consumed by her dark side and killed Amara, Sam attacks her, but a restored Amara admonishes Sam, telling him Illyana saved her. As the New Mutants regroup and debate their next move, Illyana convinces Rahne to re-establish her rapport with Dani so they can learn why the bear fears her. As the bear continues to attack Illyana's wards, she uses her Soulsword to destroy the demons possessing Tom and Sharon.


Rahne learns from Dani that Illyana's sword is the key. As Amara distracts the Demon Bear with fire, Sam flies Illyana towards it, where she plunges the Soulsword into the monster's skull, splitting it in two. The bear fades away as two people appear from inside it. Suddenly everyone is back at the hospital. Rahne notices that though freed from demonic possession, Tom and Sharon are still stuck as American Indians, while the two people who emerged from the bear introduce themselves as Dani's parents. Just then, the doctor emerges from surgery, declaring that Dani will survive, but she'll be totally paralyzed. However, back at the mansion, Storm calls on the Morlock Healer to help Dani, and though her recovery will be long and difficult, she will eventually regain full movement. Dani is then reunited with her parents, who explain that they were enslaved and transformed into the Demon Bear by a malevolent entity and forced to hunt down their daughter. Professor Xavier muses that he may need to consult with Dr. Strange on the matter, then expresses how proud he is of the New Mutants.  

Firsts and Other Notables
Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander are transformed into American Indian demons in this issue, and though Illyana purges them of the demon possessing, they will remain American Indians. 


They're not exactly significant characters, but this issue marks the first non-Demon Bear appearance of Dani's parents, William and Peg Lonestar (not Moonstar, for some reason; presumably an oversight), following the revelation that they were magically transformed into the bear.
 

It's never made clear exactly who the entity which enslaved Dani's parents and transformed them into the Demon Bear, though a response to a letter in a future issue will pin it on the Advesary, the mystical antagonist of the "Fall of the Mutants" crossover, whose future machinations were hinted at in Uncanny X-Men #184.

Chronologically, the entirety of "The Demon Bear Saga", including this issue, occurs prior to the events of Uncanny X-Men #184.

A Work in Progress
Rahne continues to be uneasy around Illyana, referring to her as a witch and expressing distrust of her motivations.  


When attacked, Illyana once again manifests protective armor, and this time there's considerably more of it.


Storm calls on the services of the Morlock Healer to help Dani. 


 Dani's parents mention that Dani's grandfather cast a protective spell over her which lasted until his death in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, explaining why the bear didn't come after her until she'd come to Xavier's school.


I Love the 80s
Fighting in the bear's extradimensional home, Magma can cut loose with volcanoes without us worrying about the larger implications of such a power. 



Claremontisms
Sam is thankful that he's invulnerable while blasting, while we're reminded that Illyana's Soulsword is the "ultimate expression" of her magical abilities. 


Artistic Achievements
There's a neat bit on a handful of pages in which a grid in the upper left corner depicts the layout of the land, marking the areas where the Demon Bear's corruption has spread, with each grid showing more and more dark areas as the issue progresses. 


Young Love
Sam flies into a rage and attacks Magik when he thinks she's killed Magma.


Chris Claremont on the reaction to Bill Sienkiewicz's art
"One of the major benefits of Bill coming on The New Mutants, for example, was that, up until that point, what we had was a book where the letters, the reader reaction was, 'it's very nice.' 'I like it.' 'I don't like it.' 'It's okay.' Whereas after Bill took over, 'I love Bill's stuff.' 'I hate Bill's stuff.'  'He is God's gift to art.' 'When are you going to sharpen his pencil?' 'What you have is a true artist.' 'Why is it that everybody in this book looks like Bill the Cat?' The response got much more extreme. But people got passionately involved in the book. They cared about it. They loved it or they hated it, but everybody talked about it. Everybody was aware of it. And to my mind that's what we are in large measure there to do. Books that people care about, that get them excited and interested, and willing to come back next month to see what happens. A book that someone likes is a book that someone can put down and walk away from. And that's fatal in any publishing form."

Thompson, Kim. "Chris Claremont." Amazing Heroes July 1985: p48

Teebore's Take
"The Demon Bear Saga" wraps up, somewhat perfunctorily, as Claremont replaces the atmosphere and mounting tension of last issue with more traditional (and admittedly somewhat requisite) fist-punching superheroics. The payoff to the "Demon Bear fears Dani" subplot also comes up short, as the notion of using Illyana's Soulsword against the creature isn't something all that intrinsic to Dani while, frankly, Illyana shouldn't have needed Dani's help to come up with that idea. It falls to Sienkiewicz then, to livens things up, and he's more than up to the task, taking advantage of the surreal setting to turn in some stunning double page spreads that make great use of open space. He also does a magnificent job in depicting the demonically-possessed Tom and Sharon, rendering them not as traditional reptilian demons but as surreal and genuinely creepy figures in a manner that would only work in a comic book. And while the action sequences are, plot-wise, relatively standard, Sienkiewicz imbues them with enough energy to make them seem fresh and exciting (Amara's volcanoes are particularly impressive). The end result shows that, even when Claremont may falter, Sienkiewicz can elevate the material all on his own.  

Next Issue
Claremont and Barry Windsor Smith bring us "Life Death" in Uncanny X-Men #186, while the New Mutants have a slumber party in New Mutants #21. 

7 comments:

Matt said...

Okay, I just noticed that your Uncanny posts have the issue cover on the right side with the text on the left, and your New Mutants posts are the opposite. Nice touch! I guess the next evolution is that if/when you start X-Factor, the cover should be right in the middle, breaking every line of text in half.

"Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander are transformed into American Indian demons in this issue..."

Such a weird thing to do. I really wonder if he wanted to go someplace with this, or if it was just for the heck of it.

Also, do we ever find out how Tom and Sharon dealt with this? Did they try to explain it to their friends and family, or did they just immediately sever all contact with the rest of the world? Sometimes it seems the latter, since they basically live at Xavier's from now on. But that seems so weird. I can only hope Claremont had planned to do more with these two that he never got around to, because otherwise, what's the point?

"Storm calls on the services of the Morlock Healer to help Dani."

I will probably mention this every time he shows up, but... that's still the coolest ever design for a throw-away character in comic book history.

Teebore said...

@Matt: I guess the next evolution is that if/when you start X-Factor, the cover should be right in the middle, breaking every line of text in half.

Ha! Actually, the right/left pattern is just born of me wanting to alternate the layout of the posts so that if anyone was to scroll through the list it would look better than just having all the pics on one side. I'm just anal retentive like that (when/if we post something with a left-aligned picture at the top prior to an Uncanny post, the Uncanny pic would be on the right and New Mutants on the left).

So when it gets to be X-Factor time, its cover will usually end up on the left, following the right-aligned New Mutants cover.

Also, do we ever find out how Tom and Sharon dealt with this?

Not really, no. Near as I remember, they pretty much, as you said, just live at Xavier's from now on. They hang around in the background for awhile, Empath tries to make them sex each other to death, then pretty much disappear until the 90s (when Tom dies, if memory serves).

It seems like Claremont made the change to underline the point at the end of this story about how no matter how good/successful your good intentions/actions, innocents can still get caught in the crossfire, but it seems like an awfully radical change just to underscore that point, and a waste of that change to really do nothing else with it.

Matt said...

Teebore -- "Actually, the right/left pattern is just born of me wanting to alternate the layout of the posts..."

Ohh, okay. That probably explains why I never really noticed it till now.

Teebore -- "(when Tom dies, if memory serves)"

Actually it's Sharon who dies, killed by the Acolytes in one of the Uncanny issues leading up to "Fatal Attractions". Tom briefly holds his own against the Acolytes with a shotgun or something, until the X-Men show up to save him (that was one of the earlier Uncanny issues I recall buying, so it's seared into my memory).

I distinctly recall that I thought they were throwaway characters created for that issue, until I later learned about their past appearances. Then I got a little sad because, as John Byrne has said in reference to Candy Southern, Sharon didn't seem important enough to be killed off!

As I recall from my readings of Not Blog X, Tom later surfaced teaching at the Massachusetts Academy during Jay Faerber's run on Generation X.

Anonymous said...

As much as I love Sienkiewicz's art, I must admit that he can leave storytelling behind in favor of imagery. Claremont should have done a better job explaining the creation of the Demon Bear, but Sienkiewicz might have been the one who dropped the plot regarding why the bear feared Dani. My guess is that the bear feared hurting Dani, rather that her power or skill.

Still, the fight is very well executed. The bear's claws going through characters and, as noted, the demon designs are effectively creepy. I love the panel in which the bear's claws tear through reality and a doctor operating on Dani gets a glimpse of the battle. The bear's face as Magik cuts it open, and the inky mass giving way to Dani's parents work beautifully. Also, Storm has never looked better than she did when Sienkiewicz drew her by Dani's bedside.

Claremont describing readers' reactions to the Sienkiewicz New Mutants is great. The closest modern equivalent is the uproar that greeted the Milligan/ Allred X-Force. I agree with Claremont: invigoratingly risky outdoes stately and professional.

- Mike Loughlin

Blam said...


I don't know that this needs explicit mention, but it's Sienkiewicz who lettered the credits, title, and stuff on the double-page splash below the first appearance of that chart. His title appears to have been statted for reuse on the cover as well because it's an exact match.

You're right that the finale comes up a little short — both the last chapter in general, although as you say it is after all still a mainstream monthly superhero title, and for me especially the last couple of pages. The very end wasn't quite as abrupt as Marvel Fanfare #4's epilogue, but it still felt a little stilted. While I suspect that the transition from Dani asking her father who turned them into the demon bear to, in the next panel, Xavier answering the same question from Roberto was meant to be a neat trick, it instead felt somewhat more clumsy and done out of necessity than it did elegant.

And you're right, too, that Sienkiewicz's rendering of it all is a fine consolation prize. It's completely true what you say about his use of open space and, in fact, that's sort-of a metaphor (or maybe not a metaphor or even an analogy but an indication of some kind) for what I like in his work at this stage. Not only do we get the tension between everyday, contained figures or objects and the crazy-ass radiating lines, ink splatter, etc.; what really grabs me is how he takes almost photorealistic things and people, squares off what would usually be round edges, and, getting back to what you say about the external open spaces, leaves vast blank areas where other artists would noodle in all kinds of detail. "Less is more" would hardly be a phrase you'd think to apply to Sienkiewicz, and it's not that exactly, but I really enjoy the judicious tension between the fussiness and that open space.

The cop and nurse being left as Native Americans really is weird. So help out a long-ago-lapsed reader here, who actually knows Betsy Braddock from the Moore & Davis Captain Britain more than from a few intermittent glimpses of Psylocke in X-Men: Is a demon bear what turned her into a purple-haired Asian woman?

We've hit a tipping point, by the way, methinks. I had more to say about The New Mutants this week than Uncanny X-Men. And I'm not surprised. If I'm reading your writeups right, you're more interested in New Mutants than you had been, too, although not yet (and maybe not ever) more interested in New Mutants than in X-Men. I guess that for a while, and maybe always, X-Men will have more in the way of firsts and notables to spark continuity/history discussion, but for me at least I think the proportions of meat on the bone in each series has switched.

Claremont: 'Why is it that everybody in this book looks like Bill the Cat?'

That is fantastic. And I actually remember reading it now that I see it again.

Blam said...


@Matt: that's still the coolest ever design for a throw-away character

What I love is that he is still just a 20th-century human mutant, so that costume — and maybe even his affected speech — is purely for kicks. It's like Morlock all-the-time cosplay, which admittedly makes more sense when you actually have superpowers. "I live in the sewers, my good man, not Kentucky."

@Teebore: Near as I remember, they pretty much, as you said, just live at Xavier's from now on.

I still have 20 issues' worth of Uncanny X-Men to go before we hit where I dropped it, by the way, and I have no memory of these characters moving into the mansion like you and Matt say.

@Teebore: They hang around in the background for awhile, Empath tries to make them sex each other to death

What the what?!?

@Mike: I love the panel in which the bear's claws tear through reality and a doctor operating on Dani gets a glimpse of the battle. The bear's face as Magik cuts it open, and the inky mass giving way to Dani's parents work beautifully. Also, Storm has never looked better than she did when Sienkiewicz drew her by Dani's bedside.

I agree with all of that, very much so.

Teebore said...

@Matt: Actually it's Sharon who dies, killed by the Acolytes in one of the Uncanny issues leading up to "Fatal Attractions".

Ah, yeah, I'd gotten them mixed up. I remember Tom with the shotgun, I just misremembered that he was killed shortly thereafter.

@Mike: Claremont should have done a better job explaining the creation of the Demon Bear, but Sienkiewicz might have been the one who dropped the plot regarding why the bear feared Dani.

Could be. Something seems to have gotten dropped, in any case.

Also, Storm has never looked better than she did when Sienkiewicz drew her by Dani's bedside.

Agreed.

@Blam: ...in the next panel, Xavier answering the same question from Roberto was meant to be a neat trick, it instead felt somewhat more clumsy and done out of necessity than it did elegant.

It definitely read as clumsy to me.

I really enjoy the judicious tension between the fussiness and that open space.

Well said, there and throughout your analysis.

Is a demon bear what turned her into a purple-haired Asian woman?

Nope, that was the Mandarin. With a little help from the Siege Perilous.

If I'm reading your writeups right, you're more interested in New Mutants than you had been, too, although not yet (and maybe not ever) more interested in New Mutants than in X-Men.

This is definitely the point at which my affection for New Mutants kicks into gear, as I've never been a big fan of the pre-Sienkiewicz stuff. But it also helps that, with Sienkiewicz aboard, there's more to talk about, both in terms of his art directly and the stuff that comes about from his apparent re-energizing of Claremont.

As you say, X-Men will probably always be the dominate book, even if there are times when I personally favor one of the other books over it (for example, when Claremont is doing all his post-"Dissolution and Rebirth"/non team stuff prior to Jim Lee's arrival, I much prefer the more soap opera-y X-Factor).

I still have 20 issues' worth of Uncanny X-Men to go before we hit where I dropped it, by the way, and I have no memory of these characters moving into the mansion like you and Matt say.

They pop up exclusively in New Mutants. I'm fairly certain that never even appear in Uncanny until #298.

What the what?!?

You'll see. :)