This is one of my most treasured comic books: New Mutants #18, by Chris Claremont and the superhumanly bad-ass artist Bill Sienkiewicz. The copy I own today is the same one I picked up from a comic shop in Bellevue, WA back in 1984, and like all of my Important Comics, I have read, looked at, and smelled my beat-up copy countless times.
Part one of the two-part Demon Bear storyline, this issue focuses on young Danielle Moonstar, a mutant student at Xavier’s School whose dreams are haunted by the demon bear that killed her parents. Danielle prepares for an inevitable, fateful confrontation with the bear in the physical realm – and meets her destiny in the snowy woods outside Xavier’s one night.
This comic book blew my 15 year old mind.
I had never before seen art like this in a monthly comic book. Sienkiewicz’s work on this comic and all of his New Mutants work really broadened my perception of the possibilities inherent in the medium, of what comics could be. Here, printed on the same crappy newsprint as the issue of Micronauts I no doubt picked up at the same time, is a little masterpiece of technique and design disguised as disposable children’s entertainment.
I can’t overstate how revolutionary Bill Sienkiewicz’s art seemed at the time. This run made me a lifelong fan of his work, particularly Elektra: Assassin, which is just an insane acid-trip of a comic. I credit Sienkiewicz with opening doors in the comic industry for more progressive artists like Dave McKean and David Mack. It seems to me that Sienkiewicz’s work on New Mutants changed everyone’s perceptions about the limits of comic book art in a monthly format. Okay, I may be overselling his influence – I am prone to fits of hyperbole every know and then – but I really feel like Bill Sienkiewicz was a revolutionary figure in comic books. He was with me, anyway.
Sienkiewiecz's art really elevates Claremont's story, which is bogged down a little by the subplots and mannered dialogue that he is so known for today. This issue just goes to show what a collaborative form comic books really are. The New Mutants series started out with rather conventional comic book art illustrating Claremont's scripts (check out the upper left corner of the cover, above, to see what the characters looked like prior to Sienkiewicz) but soon made a sharp left turn into magic mushroom land when Bill S came on board. The writing had not changed, but the change in artists had a profound and positive effect on the book, and everybody wins.
Check out these panels, below. Sienciewicz takes what in script form may seem like a pretty straightforward sequence - Dani walks outside, challenges the Demon Bear to show himself - and transforms it into something special, something mythic and foreboding:
On one level it’s a pity that this beautiful art is printed on this twenty-two year old pulp paper – you can tell by these scans that the production and material aren’t equal to the art itself. It’s sort of a shame because I think it needs to be reprinted on paper that is equal to its radness. Have they ever reprinted these books? Anybody? Dan Coyle?
But on another level, I like having the original comic that Young Dave read over and over in 1984 and in all the years after. It’s a little imperfect relic from my youth, from those early days of discovery and hope before I grew up and was seized by an existential terror, before I realized that only the cold void, the black and unimaginable emptiness of death awaits us. Nothingness – that is our destiny and birthright as mortals. The void calls all of us.
Woah! Hello, Sylvia Plath? Somebody’s stealing your routine! I don’t know what that was about; sometimes the meds wear off and I just write shit.
Right, back to the comic. Here's the big full-page money shot of Dani facing the Demon Bear:
Anyway, New Mutants #18 is one of the Important Comics in my collection because of its sentimental value and because it opened my puny mind to the possibilities available to comic creators when they stop letting the conventions of the media dictate what they can and cannot put on the page. The possibilities, man…