Thursday Comics Hangover: The old New Mutants

For me, the most impressive part of the Marvel Comics exhibit that was on display at MoPop's Marvel: A Universe of Super Heroes exhibit last year wasn't one of the movie costumes or a human-sized statue of a Marvel hero. No, the thing that immediately captured my imagination was a piece of art by Bill Sienkiewicz, the abstract comics illustrator who worked at Marvel in the 1980s. It was a New Mutants promotional poster from 1984, and it was a little bit like seeing a Jackson Pollock in person.

The art featured the New Mutants, a young team of X-Men understudies, and their villains in classic superhero pin-up style. But there was another dimension to the work — literally. This wasn't a flat illustration. Sienkiewicz had splattered layers of paint on the Bristol board, giving it actual depth, and he had glued actual circuit boards to the artwork, reflecting the villain of the piece — an evil technological organism from the stars called The Magus:

Standing before that Sienkiewicz art wasn't just a nostalgia trip, or an amusement-part thrill, It deepened my appreciation for an artist who meant a lot to me as a kid.

I always loved superhero comics, but the book that opened up the ideas of what comics could do as a medium was New Mutants. Written by longtime X-Men author Chris Claremont as a spin-off of the main title, the book was a mostly unexceptional series about young heroes until Sienkiewicz took over the art duties. His work, which didn't share the obsession with realism that most 80s comics artists single-mindedly pursued, pretty much exploded my young mind.

Sienkiewicz's drawings are consistently expressive and moody and surprising and energetic. Once he got onto New Mutants, Clarement began to up his scripting game to match the artwork: the stories became weirder, more interior, more full of enormous ideas that 9 out of ten comics artists couldn't begin to figure out how to illustrate. The team worked together for a couple years, and then moved on to other work.

Yesterday, as part of their ongoing 80th anniversary celebration, Marvel Comics brought Claremont and Sienkiewicz back together for a one-shot. New Mutants: War Children is a story that is intended to evoke the brilliant Sienkiewicz/Claremont run on the title. It's kind of like a greatest hits album: the story evokes many of the themes and tics of the 1980s series (fear of growing up, anxiety about friends seeing us as we really are, obsession with bodily transformation) in a self-conscious way.

Of course, no artist draws the same after a quarter century has passed, and Sienkiewicz's art is no exception. The art in War Children is a little less punk rock and a little more jazz: the story pauses for big full-page illustrations where Sienkiewicz can position characters into cool poses, and the cinematic storytelling has given way to long series of tight close-ups to show characters' emotions. It's not better or worse, just...different.

Both Claremont and Sienkiewicz are having a lot of fun here. The artist throws in a beautiful Ditko homage, and Claremont seems to be poking fun at his exposition-heavy script from way back when. The story is nothing more than a reprisal of two or three villains who menaced the New Mutants team, with a lightweight threat that gets resolved and squarely packed away in the single issue.

New readers will likely be befuddled by War Children. But for people like me, who found those New Mutants comics to be weirder and more enticing than any other books on the wire racks at the Rite Aid, it's is a magnificent reminder of what it felt like to see two disparate talents create a new magic by filtering their work through the lens of each others' gifts.