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Saturday, August 29, 2020

To Better Know a Team: The New Mutants


After a laughable number of starts, stops, and reschedules, the New Mutants movie is finally in theaters (at least whichever ones are open). And while I in no way advocate going to see it (for various reasons, including the fact that I doubt any movie is worth risking your life to see, but am certain that if there is one, it's not New Mutants), that doesn't mean we can't take the opportunity to spend some time talking about Marvel's first comic book X-Men spinoff.

I wrote a retrospective on the series back when my reviews of it ended (upon the book's cancellation & relaunching as X-Force), which can be found here; in that article, I hit some of the obvious points (like my favorite covers and favorite New Mutants), most of which remain true today. So here are some different/deeper dives into the world of New Mutants. The movie might suck, but we'll always have the comics.

Top 5 Graduation Costumes


In X-Men Annual #10, Mojo brainwashes the X-Men and the New Mutants have to "graduate" to battle (and free) the senior team. To do so, they don new costumes, which they will return to a few more times after their initial appearance. They're generally...not great, but here's the top five ranked.

5. Warlock - the techno-organic mutant transforms himself into a buff Superman-esque figure with a cape. Nothing groundbreaking, but still better than four other costumes.

4. Cannonball - Ditch the helmet (in general, all these costumes suffer from an excess of...stuff) and this goes up a few notches. The color and Rocketeer-esque flight-suit design would be repeated in his last New Mutants/first X-Force costume.

3. Magma - Giving the girl with fire powers an orange fiery costume is a no-brainer, but it stands out for its relative simplicity, and helps underscore her powers without having her running around naked & Human Torch-esque when powered up.

2. Sunspot - The deep V gives it something of a dated look, but the white costume especially pops against Roberto's coal black powered up form.

1. Magik - The clear standout of the bunch and the one I wish became her default look, it perfectly conveys her abilities as a sword-wielding sorceress, with the raised hood giving her a reserved, aloof appearance that matches her personality at the time.

Top 5 New Mutants Annuals
5. New Mutants Annual #5 


Annual #7 is more of an X-Force story than a New Mutants one, and Annual #4 is pretty terrible (it features Dani's nonsensical power upgrade and the whole team acting like brats). So this Rob Liefeld-drawn installment of "Atlantis Attacks" makes it into the top 5 more or less by default.

4. New Mutants Annual #6


An issue which is better for being less connected to the larger "Days of Future Present" story of which it's (confusingly) the second part, but still only mostly okay.

3. New Mutants Annual #1


The first genuinely good New Mutants annual, this one features a rocking Bill Sienkiewicz cover, a return engagement for series co-creator Bob McLeod on interiors, the first appearance of Lila Cheney, and the New Mutants first dalliance with more overtly sci-fi stories.

2. New Mutants Annual #3


Alan Davis' art makes enjoyable a goofy Warlock vs. the Impossible Man story (also making this the best of the various "Impossible Man" X-annuals).

1. New Mutants Annual #2


Another Alan Davis joint, this issue introduces Psylocke to an American audience and puts Doug Ramsey front and center, to great effect.

Top 5 Lamest Villains
Ostensibly meant to be students, not superheroes, that didn't stop the New Mutants from fighting their fair share of super-villains. Including some especially lame ones.

5. Gideon


He'd go on to bigger things (sort of) in X-Force, but during his brief introductory tenure in New Mutants, he was little more than a collection of vague mysteries & Liefeldian tropes.

4. Axe


I pity the fool who has to read about this warmed over Mr. T knock-off.

3. Raek


An intergalactic jewel thief targeting Lila Cheney who engages in a ham-fisted drug PSA with Cannonball.

2. Spyder - Basically Raek, but hanging around for more than one issue and foisting Gosamyr on the team (who only avoids the title of "Worst New Mutants" thanks to the existence of Bird Boy).


1. The Animator


Notable for killing Doug Ramsey, this whacked out anti-mutant scientist in a leopard skin shawl doesn't deserve the notoriety that act gives him.

Top 5 New Mutants Stories
In my series retrospective, I highlighted the top five single issues of the series. Here, then, are the book's five best multi-part stories.

5. An Evening at the Hellfire Club - New Mutants #53-54


Chris Claremont's final regular New Mutants story is packed with great character moments (Doug getting drunk, Karma quitting the team to track down her missing siblings) and low-key action as the title characters attend a party at the Hellfire Club and get drawn into a competition with the Hellions. It's the series' best use of the New Mutants' villainous opposites, casting the two groups as the super-powered rival schools they always were at their core.

4. Death of the New Mutants - New Mutants #37-40


Making the most out of the lackluster company wide Secret Wars II event, Chris Claremont uses the omnipotent Beyonder's destruction of the New Mutants (and their subsequent rebirth) as a vehicle to explore the series' new status quo in the wake of Professor Xavier's departure & Magneto's arrival as their new headmaster. The end result is a bleak, harrowing story in which the New Mutants grapple with their mortality & the mental ramifications of experiencing death & rebirth while the White Queen takes advantage of the situation to coerce Magneto into briefly turning his charges over to her, culminating in a tons-of-fun issue in which a reformed Magneto must battle the Avengers.

3. Legion - New Mutants #26-28


The second-best Bill Sienkiewicz-drawn New Mutants story, this one introduces Professor Xavier's unknown (to him) son, Legion, a massively-powerful mutant suffering from multiple-personality disorder. In the course of trying to help his son, Xavier and a contingent of New Mutants are pulled into Legion's fractured mind, allowing Sienkiewicz to pull out all the stops in depicting the surreal, metaphoric landscapes that need not follow the laws of physics. It's only held back on this list for the fact that the New Mutants themselves are largely incidental to the story (they're in it, but don't really drive it).

2. Inferno - New Mutants #71-73


"Inferno", the culmination of several years' worth of X-stories, spread out to encompass nearly the entirety of the Marvel Universe, is a sprawling story with multiple threads & characters driving the action, but one of those is the tale of Illyana Rasputin. Though she didn't join the series as a regular until issue #16 (and this story more or less ends her involvement in the series, a dozen or so issues before the book itself ends), New Mutants, as whole, could very much be read as the story of Illyana's rise & fall, her attempts to come to terms with her demonic upbringing, and her struggle for the control of Limbo, the arcane realm she rules (and whose invasion of Earth serves as the backdrop for the crossover). In these three issues, written by Claremont's successor on the series, Louise Simonson, and drawn by Brett Blevins, whose more cartoony style contrasts effectively with the darker, arcane trappings of the story, Illyana reaches her lowest point as she loses control of Limbo and is consumed by darkness, only to battle back enough to sacrifice herself in order to spare her younger self from the traumatic events which shaped her.

1. The Demon Bear Saga - New Mutants #18-20


Essentially the New Mutants "Dark Phoenix Saga", in which all the various facets of the creative process come together & fire on all cylinders, there's no surprise this is the New Mutants story chosen to adapt into film. It heralds the arrival of Bill Sienkiewicz on the series, and with it, a more mature take, both in terms of the art, the characterization, and the plot, as Chris Claremont leans into the strengths of his artistic collaborator (house ads released around this time, featuring Sienkiewicz art, insisted readers couldn't call the New Mutants "X-Babies" anymore). Though a team book, in its first year-and-a-half of existence, it had become clear that Dani Moonstar was the series' de facto lead, and she takes center stage in this story, leading her classmates against a demonic figure from her past, the mystical Demon Bear who (seemingly) slew her parents. Filled with sweeping moments of grand heroism, quieter characterization beats, and eye-popping visuals on nearly every page (as well as the first appearance of future New Mutant Warlock & the arrival in the present day of future Phoenix Rachel Summers, as well as some...questionable physical changes for a pair of supporting characters), "Demon Bear" is the gold standard of New Mutants tales.

11 comments:

  1. I'd like to point out that Rob Liefeld once said in an interview that "The key word in X-Force is 'New' ". That always struck me as sort of absurd, since the key word in 'New Mutants' was "New". It's in the title, Rob.
    Speaking of Liefeld, big props to somehow confusing the Cable situation by aping Cypher's "Too many pouches" in UXM Annual # 10. That was a cute fan theory while it lasted. Also Magik's graduation suit predates Final Fantasy's white mage by a couple years and yet looks fittingly amazing.

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  2. It is only during lockdown that I have gone and read the inital run for the first time.

    I agree with everything you have said. Its a very tight and solid run. Definitely made me excited (good or bad) for the movie.

    It also made me love Illyana for the first time.

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  3. I've always found a striking resemblance between Cannonball's graduation costume and the Sci-Fi G.I.Joe action figure. The helmet, at least, is quite similar.

    https://www.yojoe.com/action/86/scifi.shtml

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    1. I was going to say the exact same thing! I've seen that resemblance for years, too.

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    2. I was about to say there's some Robocop influence there too, but I think that issue may pre-date the movie.

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  4. I may be metaphorically dying to get back to a movie theater but that doesn’t mean I’m actually going to risk my life to do so. And given that I’ve been living in a literally toxic environment the past few years that’s resulted in severe respiratory issues, CoViD-19 is likely to leave me in quite dire straits. So despite a decades-long tradition of doing my best to see comics-related films when they open, dating back to when midnight premieres were a big, often promotional / exclusive / premium kind of deal, New Mutants is going to have to sink or swim without me; I’m almost relieved that the choice isn’t really down to my druthers, honestly, since I now don’t need to pit my fannish curiosity against revulsion over McLeod’s treatment and the apparent general travesty on display.

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  5. Looking at your New Mutants retrospective, I followed the link to New Mutants #54 (the fifth in the "Five favourite New Mutants issues list") and noticed that in NM #54 Mirage's graduation costume has pants (https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-mv45TN02BSs/Us7rzT3cxkI/AAAAAAAATRs/FS7QuQKTo_I/s1600/uniforms.jpg), whilst in X-Men Annual #10, her costume didn't cover her legs.

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  6. Also, I just noticed that in NM #54, Magik's graduation costume is red instead of white!

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  7. Didn’t she complain about walking in bare legs in the snow?

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    1. Yes! He says: "When this caper's done, someone remind me to add some pants to my outfit"! Maybe she is supposed to be wearing leggins?

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  8. Now that I’ve seen it, I feel like the buildup worked against the movie. The reshoots, done to make the film scarier after the first trailer in 2017 was well-received for its horror elements, didn’t improve the poor critical reception. I wish I knew what exactly was reshot, but maybe I’ll never know.

    Read my full review of the movie on my blog:
    https://www.brianbeneventi.com/new-blog/2020/9/13/the-new-mutants-suffers-under-a-confusing-underwhelming-script-and-characters

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