The ‘80s were a strange time over at the House of Ideas. At the time the first stories excerpted in this thin volume were originally released, Marvel’s mutant mania stage was just starting to settle in; the X-Men were so successful that it only made sense to capitalize on their popularity with a string of spin-offs, of which The New Mutants was the first. The dopey literalness of the title aside, The New Mutants was a pretty exciting book in its early stages; writer Chris Claremont, who took Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original conception of the X-Men and blasted it into high-octane soap-opera/cosmic metaphor, was still at the relative peak of his powers, and Marvel was beginning to really make use of the talents of a maverick young artist named Bill Sienkiewicz, whose intense, ink-splattered compositions were both daring and technically brilliant and looked like nothing else in mainstream comics at the time.
By the early 1990s, though, the writing was on the wall. Claremont had become a parody of himself, and the expansion of the X-Men brand had become so extensive and overdone that mutants threatened to take over the entire storytelling multiverse. Over the next few years, the New Mutants, no longer new, had to yield the stage to X-Forces, X-Factors, Generation Xs, Alpha Flights, and Excaliburs, not to mention a flood-tide of solo books, limited series, and crossovers. The marketing fatigue and collector’s-market burnout born of the era took its toll and it began to be doctoral-level work to keep track of story arcs and continuity. By the time The New Mutants were cancelled in 1991, yielding to the more ‘grown-up’ but less interesting X-Force (brought to you by Rob Liefeld, the anti-Bill Sienkiewicz), there were five ongoing X-books and seven mini-series, an already bloated number that would reach total oversaturation by the end of the decade. This became a familiar problem, and one that it’s fair to say Marvel has yet to solve.
The New Mutants: Demon Bear is an interesting collection (beg your pardon, “trilogy of terror”) insofar as it bridges three crucial eras in the history of X-books: the early era of The New Mutants, when things weren’t yet out of control and the creators still had interesting things to say (even if they weren’t saying them in a particularly inventive framework); the early 1990s, when the deluge of X-books was out of hand and the cracks in the concept were a lot easier to notice; and the late 2000s, when a cycle of boom and bust would have taught a smarter company some valuable lessons and a whole new generation of creators – most of them raised on the work of the creators of the previous excerpts – were attempting to make their mark on the characters. Demon Bear focuses on Danielle Moonstar, alias Mirage, a young Cheyenne teenager whose ability to pluck highly realistic illusions out of dreams (and nightmares) was a perpetual source of angst and terror as much as it was an aid in battle.
The opening pages are vintage Claremont. Though he wasn’t especially keen to work on The New Mutants, he also wanted to protect his paycheck, and he and stalwart penciler Bob McLeod came through with a team of generally interesting, if not always well-handed, characters who were surprisingly diverse for the early ‘80s. The focus in these excerpts is on Dani Moonstar, whose power had manifested at a young age and done nothing for her but foreshadow the death of her parents – which, we learn through these pages, was actually the work of a malevolent animal spirit called, uh, “Demon Bear”. Hey, folks, Claremont had to come up with like 35 new characters a month, they can’t all be winners. Demon Bear didn’t have much conceptual oomph, and didn’t seem all that menacing, and talked in cod-Biblical argot – all ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s – that seemed pretty ridiculous for a creature drawn from Native American mythology, but it’s also the only real villain we have in this book, so we’re pretty much stuck with it.
By the time the next excerpt comes along, a tectonic shift has occurred in the form of Bill Sienkiewicz. His art is simply magnificent, and he’s frankly the only reason to buy this book. In a way, Bob McLeod was a better choice to illustrate The New Mutants; his quotidian, workmanlike pencils were more suited to the narrative, and let Claremont’s writing, which made up for its flaws (massive overuse of exposition, corny dialogue, and showing instead of telling) with copious strengths (a good sense of narrative, strong characterization, and a gift for drawing out adolescent angst and passion), do all the heavy lifting. By the time Sienkiewicz came along, there was little Claremont could do to compete with his breathtaking visuals, and while he learned to dial it back a little and let his artist strut, he never really found the language to match the visuals. Sienkiewicz is just stunning at every turn: vast swaths of fearsome black ink, sharp corners and edges, inventive compositions in even the most ordinary panels, and streaks and angles sharp enough to cut yourself on. When the Demon Bear appears again with his hand providing the visual, it really does look terrifying, a thing of black pools and blood and claws. He’d only get better from here.
Flash forward to 1998, when John Francis Moore and Jim Cheung were given care of the X-Force book and, faced with declining sales and a demand to abandon their original concept for the title in favor of yet another reboot, decided to resurrect the Demon Bear as an adversary. Moore’s writing is a bit more natural and less histrionic than Claremont’s, though he’s still way too heavy on exposition – and, frankly, this is a book that kind of demands histrionics. Cheung’s art isn’t bad; it’s much more cartoonish, and he makes all the characters look like they’re in their early teens. Some of the color and composition is pretty inventive, and the layout isn’t as chaotic and overly busy as a lot of the Marvel books of the time. Still, he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Sienkiewicz, and the Demon Bear itself, which was never much of an adversary, seems pretty tame now, especially in the absence of all the pseudo-mystical trappings and sense of dread Claremont somehow managed to imbue it with.
The last story is from a decade later, drawn from a three-issue run of X-Force in a reboot focused on typical dark, violent, moody ‘adult’ storytelling of the time. The narrative and dialogue, courtesy of writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, is downright minimalist in comparison to the other stories in the volume, and while it’s still over the top at times, it’s a nice relief, especially when Ghost Rider shows up. (It’s always fun when Ghost Rider shows up, like when the party is about to die down and someone suggest doing shots of Jack.) Mike Choi’s art is also quite good (if, again, not a patch on Sienkiewicz), stark and effective without being too moody and laid out with direct and comprehensible lines of action. But it’s all pretty rote at this point, and the Demon Bear has gone from phantom terror to generic demonic threat without ever developing into anything memorable. Like a lot of movie sequels, this one has pretty much run out of gas by the third installment.
The New Mutants: Demon Bear isn’t much as an actual collection of stories. The wheat-to-chaff ratio is completely off balance, and there’s plenty of pages in the excerpts that refer to subplots and storylines that don’t have anything to do with the Demon Bear. Take out this stuff, which is likely to baffle most readers, and all the variant covers and sketches, and the book would probably have been half as long. Still, a lot of that extra material is illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, and he set a standard for visual brilliance in the early goings that has rarely been equaled in superhero comics, so if you have twenty bucks burning a hole in your pocket, it’s probably worth it for that. Otherwise, this one is deeply inessential.