Old Mutants, New Ideas: Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants #21

A column article, The Full Run by: Keith Silva


In August of 1984, Bill Sienkiewicz starts a 13-issue run as the artist of The New Mutants. Equal parts Molotov cocktail and thousand-year flood, Sienkiewicz's style represents the art of the possible as he remakes the superhero comic and blazes a trail for others to (try to) follow.

This column is an attempt to find out if there is still some "magik" in that pulpy paper with its ads for Marvel Graphic Novel #12 (Dazzler: The Movie), TSR's Endless Quest books and Atari's Mario Bros. Pop in a cassingle, pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.



Gag me with a spoon. The New Mutants #21 makes for a bitchin' time capsule of the 1980s. Artist Bill Sienkiewicz and writer Chris Claremont allow their charges to "get a life" in this issue and show what teenagers are "like" like or were like or at least what Claremont and Sienkiewicz thought teens were "like" like. The "cultural currency" these creators amass dates New Mutants #21; it's the exact opposite effect of what makes the previous story arc, The Demon Bear, a bona fide classic. Amidst the kitsch -- the "Mount Rushmore" of '80s male heartthrobs is worthy of one eye roll, at least -- the series continues to morph in its uniqueness with the introduction of a most "comic book" comic book character. 



A "deadly double-sized issue," the plot of The New Mutants #21 hangs together like Frankenstein's monster -- disparate, but somehow functional. The issue's mix of the tragically ludicrous, or ludicrously tragic with madcap science fiction makes it quintessential The New Mutants of the 1980s. As the tone pinballs between louds and softs, Claremont finds the right voice each time. For his part, Sienkiewicz metes the abstract amongst the mundane. Claremont's words and Sienkiewicz's images at times compete for space as each one attempts to outdo the other. By the time Professor X walks in on the penultimate page, the fusion of Sienkiewicz's rawness with Claremont's refinement hybridizes to form something current, modern and futuristic.  

First, it's time to party like its 1984. The girls (Amara, Illyana, Dani and Rayne) invite some of their non-mutant powered peers over to the Professor Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters for a gnarly cliché-ridden slumber party one tickle fight from being high camp. Here are some things Claremont imagines take place during an all-girls slumber party at the X-mansion: pillow fights, balloons, popcorn, video karaoke, a get-her!-surprise-make-over (spoiler alert, it's Rahne) and a séance in which Lockheed acts as Illyana's hat, the Matt Dillon of headwear. How clueless does Claremont think these Westchester County townies are anyway? Answer: really.



With the skirts sequestered in the attic, Sam and Roberto -- on their way back from a 27-inning (!!!) Yankee game -- have little to do than to brood, smash boulders and reenact the end of the Trojan War, which may explain why Sam spends the second-half of the issue in only a towel. While nightswimming, Sam sights a meteor land in the lake and decides to test his "blastin" powers underwater, as one does. Sam discovers that the "interplanet janet" turns out to be an almost obelisk (more like a giant Olmec stone head), so he brings it to the surface and then he and Roberto march it into the mansion and leave it in the lab for the professor. Of course. Sam thinks it could be a satellite that burned up on re-entry. As the two dupes (dopes) depart, Roberto asks how Sam knows so much about meteors. Sam says he reads a lot of science-fiction, he adds, "Heinlein's my favorite. Ah'm readin' Door Into Shadow.* Alone and in the dark, life breaks free.  



In three panels stacked top to bottom like an industrial filing cabinet, Sienkiewicz taps into his inner-Wassily to achieve sentience for his sentinel of the spaceways. Enter Warlock. Even to the least gimlet-eyed observer, Sienkiewicz's design for Warlock plays as an homage to the modern art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky's use of circles, sinuous lines and geometric shapes; Warlock is a "Kandinsky" brought to life. 



Sienkiewicz and Claremont are both credited with Warlock's creation. Imagined as a "techno-organic" being, it's this joie de hybridization that makes Warlock an impeccable complement of text and image. Warlock's use of the personal pronoun "self" marks a brilliant stroke of grammatical post-modernism and predates superstar athletes who refer to themselves in the third person. Claremont's clunky dialogue in the sitcomish slumber party sequences stands in stark contrast to the slurred words and bizarre sentence constructions that emanate out of Warlock. It's like Yoda-speak crossed with instructions from a technical manual: "'Must recharge before entire self is rendered inert'" and "'… guardians most tenacious … did not wish … destroy them … nexus … energy source … far below, deep within planetary crust … too weak to reach it.'"       



Warlock "in full" occurs at the half-way point of The New Mutants #21. The Beach Party groove of the first-half transforms into an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon-cum-can-we-keep-'em-please-professor plot that ends in a lesson about how it's our differences that make us all the same. Amid the "fight fight fight," Sienkiewicz draws a circle around his influences and develops a character that looks like he/she/it could only come from a comic book.

Sienkiewicz and Claremont understand that Warlock's arrival steers their story in a new direction; a banner, similar to the one that announced Warlock’s arrival in The New Mutants #18, appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the last page to point the way forward.



*There is no such beast as "Door Into Shadow" by Robert Heinlein. What Claremont meant to reference was Heinlein's Door into Summer (bad on you, editor, Ann Nocenti) which is about time travel (I guess) and A LOT of other hard sci-fi ideas which are better explained here.




Although tall for his age, eleven-year-old Keith Silva did not possesses the prescience to imagine that one day he would have a Twitter (@keithpmsilva) or a blog (Interested in Sophisticated Fun?) or write for Comics Bulletin -- halcyon days indeed.

Community Discussion