Old Mutants, New Ideas: Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants #31

A column article, The Full Run by: Keith Silva


In September of 1985, Bill Sienkiewicz ended a well-noted and long-remembered thirteen-issue run as the artist of The New Mutants.



His final issue, The New Mutants #31, wraps an unremarkable story arc in which Magma and Sunspot fight, what writer Chris Claremont calls, "a hulking nightmare." Sienkiewicz conjurers up a hydrocephalic monster with a vagina dentata for a mouth, arms like sequoias and a body in the shape of an upside down triangle set atop a pair of spindly human legs. So, yeah, horrorshow about covers it. 



This child of the night is nothing more (less?) than a robot, which makes it ridiculous (who would build something like that?) and therefore more perverse. To ratchet up the drama, the X-Man next door, Kitty Pryde is trapped inside this monstrosity. Before too long, Kitty figures how to phase her way out, which causes the robot to faceplant and thus pisses off "the jaded rich" of Los Angeles who have come to see some non-robot death. 

These bloodthirsty Angelenos, however, can't be too upset because during the fighting (yes, during) Alison Blaire, The Dazzler, has been singing her heart out and treating the crowd to a light show that "overwhelms their sense far far more than any drug … for these people … no light will ever be as radiant and the most glorious hues will look dull and faded by comparison … a punishment far more sever and fitting -- than prison." For once, the robot with the penis-devouring mouthparts looks pretty good.

The hurly-burly about kaput, Magik, Rachel Summers and Sam appear to help mop up. Summers reckons a malevolent psi is controlling Dazzler, so Magik summons a demon to drag Dazzler to Limbo. The Gladiators pick up the fight and the reader learns, "as the battle rages, a crucial difference becomes apparent. The New Mutants are a team." The fight ends when like a high school kegger in the woods the cops arrive and everyone has to hightail it out of the arena.



Turns out the whole megillah has been orchestrated by a founding member of the New Mutants, Karma. Once thought dead or missing in action, Karma has been possessed by malevolent mutant entity, Amahl Farouk, the shadow King. Under Farouk's influence, Karma has been running the Gladiators. Before Farouk got in the habit of possessing petite Vietnamese mutants, he was a glutton and so Karma, a one-time "slip of a girl," has seen exponential growth. Sienkiewicz captures both Sam's surprise and Karma's gleeful "Cheshire Cat" grin when she reveals herself to her old teammates. 



After Karma escapes on a private jet (!), the story's dénouement takes place in the woods, not far from where Sam, Magik and Rachel stashed their car, because, of course. The story's penultimate page echoes two themes that have been a constant since Sienkiewicz's start: questioning authority and self-reliance. Sunspot chops down a tree and yells, "Xavier told us she was dead! He lied!!" Pryde assures him that Professor X is as prone to mistakes and overprotectiveness as the next greatest mutant mind. Sam steps up and says, "Please Kitty this is somethin' we gotta do." Cue the next story arc.

Sienkiewicz's time on the The New Mutants ends with a momentum shift in the overall narrative of the series. Dani Moonstar's leadership and initiative saves Professor X and her fellow mutants in the previous story arc (the student becomes the master). And here the teamwork and chutzpah of Sam and Magik (with a tip-in from Pryde) saves Sunspot and Magma and gives all four a sense of accomplishment, from now on, the New Mutants are "doin'" it for themselves. The issue's final image marks a triumph for mutants and for Sienkiewicz. 



I began each of the previous columns in this series with a short introduction about what I believe informs Sienkiewicz's impact on The New Mutants and his legacy on comic book art in general. As I was trying to distill my thoughts I got hung up on two phrases: "Molotov cocktail" and "thousand-year flood." I admit, it felt indulgent (Claremont-esque even) not pick one over the other, but I said the hell with it and used both because I do see Sienkiewicz as both agitator and statistical improbability.

First and foremost, Sienkiewicz approach to art reminds me of James Joyce's approach to writing, a kind of bricolage, taking everything at hand to carve out the novel, the new. If Joyce isn't your bag, think of Sienkiewicz's work as Paul's Boutique, the mixtape to end all mixtapes. His style bubbles out of an amalgam of comic book masters like Jack Kirby and Neal Adams and models of abstraction like Kandinsky and Klimt, above all he is Bill Sienkiewicz and there is no one like him, E pluribus Sienkiewicz.

Speaking of "found items," while this column was my chance to champion Sienkiewicz, it also gave me a nostalgic contact high for a time when singles cost sixty-five cents and were filled with bric-a-brac for stuff only ten-year-old boys want but don't need: rattlesnake eggs, Secret Wars II and Bonkers. It's no lime tea, no madeleine, it's an ad for Robert Bell with the faux Thor that transports me back. Godspeed.



As best I could, I tried to keep the focus on Sienkiewicz, and yet I have to acknowledge he is an interstellar traveler, a comet in the firmament of the Marvel U. Chris Claremont is a sun. Claremont continued to write The New Mutants for two more years until Louise Simonson took over as the full-time writer on The New Mutants #55. Of course, Claremont continued to shape and mutate the world of the X-Men for another six years, ending his seventeen-year run in 1991. I would go so far to argue that every creative to stake a claim with the X-Men post-Claremont only has remixed beats he created.

Sequential art remains fixed like how letters form words; it takes an action to use those letters to fashion language and instill meaning. Claremont and Sienkiewicz wrote a new language with The New Mutants, the art of the possible. 

After The New Mutants, Sienkiewicz exits into world primed for new words, new combinations, a world where Daredevil, Elektra and Stray Toasters await.




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.

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