Thursday, January 7, 2016
X-amining New Mutants
Thought there's technically still one more New Mutants issue to review (the series' seventh annual), it seems as good a time as any to look back on the series that was, starting with some overall thoughts and then delving into some specific favorites. Please sounds off with some of your personal favorites in the comments (and I'm planning on doing a similar retrospect for the original iteration of X-Factor in a few months' time)!
On the one hand, New Mutants can be considered something of a failure. Intended to fill a specific void in the world of the X-Men, it launched with a very clear mandate to tell stories about kids with superpowers who weren't, first and foremost, superheroes. But it was a mandate doomed to failure by the needs of the genre and its role as a spinoff of a tremendously popular (and big selling) action-adventure series. As noble as series creators Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod's intentions may have been, before long, the New Mutants were fighting super-villains and getting caught up in tremendous adventures.
When Louise Simonson took over the series from Claremont, she and her initial collaborator Bret Blevins did so with an additional mandate to make the characters act more like teens, to, seemingly, return the series to its original concept. At times, they succeeded. At other times, they went too far, portraying the kids not as teens, but as petulant eight-year-olds. And for the most part, they remained superheroes first, students second. By the time the book was cancelled, most of the original characters were gone, and everyone left was fully positioned to act as the kind of "in-your-face" superheroes the 90s seemed to demand, the concept of anyone in the series learning anything long gone.
On the other hand, New Mutants was a resounding success. It proved that the X-Men could sustain a spin-off, opening the door to an entire franchise of mutant-related books and even additional X-Men titles. Claremont's all-too-brief collaboration with artist Bill Sienkiewicz garnered the series critical acclaim, still to this day. While it was technically cancelled at the one hundred issue mark, it's sales were always high, and it effectively lived on as X-Force, a series which ran for an additional 129 issues (and remains, along with "New Mutants" itself, a title that Marvel routinely trots out for new series), the first issue of which, for a time, was the highest selling comic book of all time. In Rob Liefeld, it launched the career of one of the 90s' biggest artists and one of the industries most infamous creators. In Cable, it launched a character who has headlined multiple series since his inception, and in Deadpool, it launched arguably Marvel's most popular solo character, in terms of sales and fan fervor, of today.
Even beyond Cable, Deadpool and Rob Liefeld (almost a character himself at this point), the series introduced a number of new everlasting characters, characters who have remained a continued presence in both the various permutations of New Mutants/X-Force as well as other X-books and the Marvel Universe as a whole. Cannonball eventually joined the X-Men. Both he and Sunspot are Avengers, as well. Wolfsbane became as much a part of X-Factor (as well, for a time, Excalibur) as the New Mutants. Illyana, who eventually came back into the X-books to suffer one of the series most poignant deaths, then came back from the dead but older again, has been a fixture in one X-book or another since her return.
New Mutants never quite managed to achieve its intended goal; few series that try to position characters as students first rarely do. But it nevertheless succeeded in expanding the world of the X-Men and creating new, memorable and lasting characters for that world (to the point that, even today, I tend to think of them more by their real names - Sam, Dani, Rahne, etc. - than I do their codenames, in a way I don't even with some of the most longstanding X-Men). The series' relatively short run (for the time) and its status as the incubator of Rob Liefeld tend to overshadow its legitimate successes and obscure it's legacy. But it deserves to be remembered for what is is: first, in numerous ways, among the X-Men spin-offs.
Five Favorite New Mutants Characters
5. The Hellions
The Hellions (yes, technically a group of characters and not just one) are easily the New Mutants' best antagonists because they speak so directly to the book's "students first!" approach while still acknowledging the conventions of the genre. As much a group of students from a rival school as a team of budding super-villains, confrontations between the two groups always gained something from the fact that members on both sides probably would have benefited from switching teams, highlighting the fact that while their respective mentors may have been enemies, the kids themselves aren't too far apart. The Hellions were used far too sparingly in the course of the series - less Spyder & Gossamyr, more Hellions! - and then mostly killed off shortly after New Mutants wraps, but perhaps that sparse usage helps their appeal.
4. Doug Ramsey
Poor Dead Doug. He's cool (and memorable) because he's the one mutant with an uncool, flashy power, albeit one with potential for great power when used in non-conventional ways. Claremont tapped into that a bit before he left the book (such as Doug's ability to understand Lila's Dyson sphere, or read body language at the poker table), but unfortunately, Weezie decided to call many fans' bluffs and kill him off before his full potential was realized (and then Weezie left the series/the series left itself before she could execute her plan for bringing him back). Which is a shame, because the X-books can always benefit from more characters who can do more than just blast, punch or slash at stuff.
3. Sam Guthrie
Known for being nigh invulnerable while blastin', I love me my straight-laced leader types, and Sam is probably the squarest such type after Cyclops. He's also the somewhat surprising backbone of New Mutants, there from the beginning, there until the end, developing strong and varied relationships (friendly, brotherly, romantic) with several characters along the way. Plus, the development of his mutant abilities, from its initial out-of-control raw power to his ability to fly stealthily and expand his blast shield like a force field at the end, makes the strongest case for New Mutants as a series where the characters actually do learn to control their powers over time.
2. Illyana Rasputin
You can't love Claremont and not love at least some of his ridiculously-powerful and well-developed female characters. But unlike Dani, who lost a little something once Claremont left the series, Illyana remained a central figure in the book under Simonson, her struggle to control both her darker side and her demonic kingdom remaining a running thread throughout the series before it all blew up in "Inferno". A rare comic book character who received something of an ending to her story arc (at least in the pages of New Mutants), Illyana's journey from freaky outsider to coolly-efficient badass to overwhelmed powerhouse to, finally, noble sacrifice really is the central arc of New Mutants from her first appearance in the series through her last.
1. Dani Moonstar
Coming to New Mutants first from X-Force, Cannonball was, initially, my touchstone character. Of the original X-Force crew, he was the one who received the biggest character arc (at the time of my reading) and, Sam having been there since the beginning and sticking around to the end, I very much read New Mutants from the perspective of him being its central character my first time through.
But as I got older, as X-Force became less and less relevant, it became more and more clear that Sam, while a solid, reliable character, was never intended to be the main character of the series. Instead, that role belongs to his ostensible co-leader, Dani Moonstar (ostensible because really, Dani is the team leader and Sam just pitches in when she can't). Reading these issues again for X-aminations in particular underlined just how much Dani is Claremont's favorite character and his go-to POV character throughout his tenure on the book, and it's hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm for her.
While her power is, from the beginning, deeply nebulous (and by the time Simonson is done with her, patently ridiculous) her characterization more than makes up for it. Also, aside from probably Illyana (and maybe Rahne), she experiences the biggest character arc over the course of her tenure, going from a bratty teen distrustful of authority (because she's just an angsty teen) to someone cautiously willing to accept authority at the same time that she finally receives some herself, from a reluctant leader to an accomplished one, from something of a loner to the glue that holds the group together. It's telling that Dani leaves right before Cable arrives; the two characters could hardly have co-existed without blowing up the series (Dani's return in X-Force, not surprisingly, also coincides with a prolonged Cable absence), and Dani was simply a far too nuanced character to work with the book's new, Liefeld-inspired aesthetic. New Mutants outlasted Dani, and eventually, Dani would return, outside its pages. But New Mutants, especially Claremont's New Mutants, really is her series.
Five Favorite New Mutants Covers
5. New Mutants #65
Somewhat surprisingly, the New Mutants ended up fighting Freedom Force a lot - after the events of "Fall of the Mutants", before and during their second Asgardian adventure, and then via Cable during his debut storyline. The teal background on this one is pretty bad, but otherwise, it's a strong action-orientated cover that uses the massive Blob as a pivot point around which all the other characters turn (I also really like the perspective work, with Stonewall's fist coming out at the reader. And I'm a sucker for Freedom Force).
4. New Mutants #17
Simple and effective. The blast streams draw the eyes from the logo to the two central figures, poised in mid-action, while the corner box is used to make the central image look bigger and inject a little character into the cover.
3. New Mutants #19
Sienkiewicz's first cover, for issue #18, usually gets singled out, but I like this one better. It's a team shot (#18 only features Dani) is a little more action-packed, and really sells the idea of the Demon Bear as this huge, monstrous thing.
2. New Mutants #38
Along similar lines as the classic cover to X-Men #141, this a a creepy, macabre, attention grabbing image, the kind of thing that would catch the eye of a potential buyer and motivate a pick up. But it also teases the story inside, right down to Dani's role as the one member of the team who wasn't killed by the Beyonder.
1. New Mutants #28
The best of Sienkiewicz's many strong covers. Others might prefer his more abstract stuff, but like the cover to #19, this one strikes the right balance between the surreal and the straightforward, contrasting the smooth, polished figures of Professor X (wearing a New Mutants uniform!) and Wolfsbane with the more jagged, twisted soldiers above them, thus representing both the scale (massive) and style (chaotic) of the threat facing the characters inside the issue. As with issue #17, image also leads the eyes from the logo to the figures, with the cover roughly divided into three pieces (the logo and black background, the soldiers, the heroes) that all come together to form one strong, central image.
Five Favorite New Mutants Issues
5. New Mutants #54
The best of the various New Mutants/Hellions clashes (and the last regular Claremont-penned issue), this issue finds the two teams competing in a way that isn't that far removed from what two non-superpowered rival schools would do, and thus, is the best use of the two team's antagonism for each other. It also features a number of strong character moments from members of both teams.
4. New Mutants #45
Yes, Kitty's speech at the end is a bit heavy-handed, and it's a shame one of the book's regular cast couldn't have given it (especially since Kitty was on a bit of tear when it came to making heavy-handed speeches around this time) but this is nevertheless a gut-punch of an issue, one that highlights the central metaphor at the heart of the X-books, as well as both the price of intolerance and the power of comics in highlighting that price.
3. New Mutants #40
Arguably the best use of Reformed Magneto in the series, as he takes on a pretty stacked Avengers lineup (who still think he's an out-and-out bad guy) in order to rescue his students, who have been ensnared by the White Queen. Magneto is desperate to get to the New Mutants but also unwilling to cause legitimate harm to the Avengers, and that tension makes this issue standout.
2. New Mutants Special Edition #1
While this issue does little to further the themes of New Mutants, it's nevertheless a gorgeously illustrated, character-driven issue in which every member of the team gets time in the spotlight. But most of all, it's simply a lot of fun. If issue #45 highlights the ability of comics to teach and inspire, this one highlights comics' ability to be grinning-ear-to-ear entertaining.
1. New Mutants #21
This is probably the best example of what New Mutants wanted to be as a series. A done-in-one story, it features a fairly straight-forward slumber party involving the female New Mutants and some girls from the local school alongside plenty of action and super-power usage (albeit none of it in the service of a traditional super-hero/super-villain confrontation), while also introducing both Warlock and Doug to the team (and thus filling out the series' most classic roster of characters). Occurring in the midst of Bill Sienkiewicz's run on the series, his surrealistic style pairs nicely with the relatively mundane setting, bringing energy and excitement even when the action is as low key as slumber party shenanigans. It's doubtful that a comic book series in the mid 80s could do this sort of thing regularly (or do it regularly while doing it this well), but this issue stands as a shining example of the series at its best.