GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "N", page 1

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The New Gods
see Jack Kirby's Fourth World section


New Mutants: Back to School 2005 (SC TPB) 148 pages.

cover by MiddletonWritten by Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir. Pencils by Keron Grant, Mark A. Robinson, with Joshua Middleton. Inks by various.
Colours: Dan Kemp, Ian Hannin. Letters: various. Editor: C.B. Cebulski.

Reprinting: New Mutants #1-6 (2nd monthly series) 2003 - with covers

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Feb. 2011

Published by Marvel Comics

The New Mutants was essentially the first X-Men spin-off (hard to believe now-a-days when it seems like a third of Marvel's comics are in some way connected to the X-Men), telling tales of a young, novice team of mutants. The title enjoyed a decent first run, though then was dragged in a more testosterone-fueled direction, eventually morphing into the series X-Force. The name and characters have, however, enjoyed periodic attempts at revival.

This 2003 revival seems a bit like the creative impulses were dragging it in different directions.

On one hand, it sort of wants to nostalgically re-unite some of the core characters, although the early issues seem to focus mainly on founding member, Danielle Moonstar. When news of a teenage mutant catches Dani's attention, she takes it upon herself to shepherd the girl to Dani's old Alma Matter -- the mutant haven, Xavier's Institute. Once there, Professor Xavier offers Dani a position as teacher and recruiter. Eventually, Dani reunites with fellow New Mutant Shan, a.k.a. Karma. But that's pretty much it as far as the old gang is concerned (Magma makes an appearance...but she's comatose, and Wolfsbane, though referenced on the back cover, is nowhere around).

That may be because co-writers Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir also saw this as a chance to return to the series' core premise of being about novice, "new" mutants...something the now-experienced original New Mutants no longer were. So over these few issues, Dani (and Shan) recruit a few new characters who quickly form the core of a regular recurring cast. Perhaps the writers saw this as their chance to do for the New Mutants what Len Wein and Dave Cockrum did long ago when they revived the X-Men by overhauling the team with a bunch of new members.

And whether that's what the audience was looking for in a "New Mutants" comic is questionable, as this run only lasted thirteen issues and, I believe, started returning more of the original cast in later issues (issues never collected in a TPB -- despite this volume featuring a "volume 1" on its spine).

The other way the series may have defied expectations is that it isn't really a super hero comic.

In many respects, you could see this more intended as a teen drama -- Degrassi High with super powers. Throughout the first few issues, there are no arch foes or super villains -- the few action scenes just involve bullies and bigots. The different issues introduce the new students, and their stories and personal tragedies, as Dani sets out to save them from a word that doesn't accept them.

Such an approach is not without its potential, and is certainly lofty and ambitious. But it's in the execution that it maybe falters. That is, the storytelling here is perfectly okay -- nothing for the creators to be ashamed of. But sometimes okay...isn't good enough.

Because the approach of focusing on the characters, on telling the series as a human drama, isn't really significantly different from the original New Mutants, which was also very much about the characters, their angst and slice-of-life dilemmas...except back then such scenes were liberally mixed up with the super villains and high octane adventure scenes. As such this new series doesn't really seem as though they've added something to the mix -- character exploration and human drama -- so much as they've just left out stuff -- the adventure. Things only really seem to move in a more super hero direction in the final two issues, when a kind of human supremacist group targets some of the new students, though even then, it's resolved near the beginning of the second issue of the two parter, and the rest is back to the characters standing around, talking.

The collection begins with a short intro piece drawn by Joshua Middleton (who also provided the series' covers, reproduced inside). Middleton has an artistic, beautiful style, if a little overly produced (abusing the "roll focus" technique). The first four issues are drawn by Keron Grant, whose style is decent enough, conveying what needs conveying, but not much more. There's a definite magna influence, with everyone having rather elf-like features, and the bodies somewhat long and stiff. The final two issues are by Mark A. Robinson who has a more dynamic style, appropriate given the more action plot, with a vague hint of someone like Walt Simonson...but it's also rather rough and hasty looking.

The art is, therefore, okay, but not really great, and doesn't really speak to the more low-key, human drama tone the writers clearly are aiming at, save for Middleton who, as mentioned, only contributes four pages!

And though the writing is perfectly okay, the dialogue decent enough, it doesn't really step up its game to the point where it seems more insightful than your usual super hero comic...only without the excitement of the super heroing. All the scenes of the kids dealing with being outcasts, or facing prejudice, can basically be found in any old X-Men related comic. Though I do appreciate when comics occasionally write up to their readers, and draw upon the real world, such as a scene where they reference Thomas Szasz and I, curious if he was made up, a recurring Marvel Comics' character, or a real person, googled him...and found some interesting articles on the real life Dr. Thomas Szasz -- and who says ya can't learn from comics?

But in general, the emotional aspects are fairly broadly presented, the characters pretty obvious, all told in the modern style, without thought balloons, or other internalization. The original New Mutants succeeded because the characters were endearing, while this new cast, though not terrible, doesn't click as readily. There's nothing that surprising about the new characters, or their powers (admittedly, after decades of super hero comics, and hundreds of super heroes, it's hard to come up with anything truly original in the powers department). When we first meet one character, it's just after he has inadvertently killed his own father with his uncontrollable powers...yet though he is a bit glum and withdrawn later, he doesn't really convince as someone carrying such a monumental guilt on his shoulders.

And when some of the emotional stuff comes to a head toward the end of this collection, it's not all that convincing. The above mentioned boy decides to leave the school until he can properly control his powers but, um, isn't that the point of the school, to teach the kids how to control their powers? (That'd be like a kid refusing to go to school...until he's first mastered the curriculum) And Dani, feeling she's failed in her job, considers leaving...but she's only been at it a few days (as near as we can tell). Having self-doubts is one thing, threatening to pack up and quit when she's still learning the job just seems flaky.

Still, as a collection, the six issues do form an arc, building to a satisfying resolution. But ultimately, this revival of The New Mutants (or at least the name) doesn't have enough action and adventure to make it a fun romp, without quite succeeding as a sophisticated, emotionally rewarding human drama about normal teens with abnormal abilities.

Cover price: $19.99 USA.


The New Mutants Classic, vol. 1 2006 (SC TPB) 240 pages.

cover by McLeodWritten by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Bob McLeod, Sal Buscema. Inks by Mike Gustovich, Bob McLeod, with Armando Gil, John Tartag.
Colours: Glynis Wein, with George Roussos. Letters: Tom Orzechowski, with Janice Chiang. Editor: Louise Jones.

Reprinting: Marvel Graphic Novel #5, The New Mutants #1-7, Uncanny X-Men #167 (1983)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

These days with the X-Men fractured off into various concurrent comics (distinguished by their adjectives -- Uncanny, Astonishing, X-treme), retro series, spin-offs, mini-series, one-shots and who knows what else...it's hard to imagine a time when doing an X-Men spin-off might've been seen as a risky experiment. But when the New Mutants came along, it was the first X-spin off. And presumably part of the thinking was to create a series that would bring the concept back to its roots of being about misunderstood teens struggling with their powers.

The premise, introduced in The New Mutants graphic novel (at a time when Marvel had only just begun experimenting with that format) was that professor Xavier decides to recruit a new generation of mutants now that the regular team had long since out grown the "School for Gifted Youngsters" concept. He recruits a younger, multi-ethnic cast, even putting them in the old black and yellow suits.

And the results were pretty good. Claremont, who was of course scripting the regular X-Men comic, seemed to be getting a fresh boost from the new cast and arrangement, so that even though it basically covers a lot of the same ground (Sentinels even crop up early) it seems a little more alive and textured than his concurrent X-Men scripts. Claremont even keeps the focus on the kids and their point of view, so that even though Professor X is the more familiar character, he remains distant and enigmatic, so that we feel the kids' sense of alienation and read the scenes from their point of view, as strangers to this new and mysterious life.

And by having truly teenage heroes, the patented angst and brooding introspection that Claremont liked to write actually worked better, as it seemed more natural for teenagers to think and feel that way than adults. And their lack of experience, as fighters, and even with their powers, added an extra excitement and suspense to the action -- the fights are genuine struggles for victory. In fact the New Mutants did a better job of evoking awkward, youthful heroes than did DC's then-hit New Teen Titans series. And the plots reflect a nice variety, from the aforementioned big battle with a Sentinel...to a more low-key one involving an unknown person harassing non-mutant teacher Stevie Hunter.

At times there's a lightness to the series that is effective, eschewing the over-indulgent doom and gloom angst that was coming to characterize the X-Men comic...without sliding into being too cloying or cutesy. The New Mutants are youngsters, so they goof around a bit. At the same time, if the point was to create a (slightly) kinder, gentler X-series, other aspects seem to jar with that, and not in a good way. The implication (un-said but pretty explicit) that member Karma had been raped once seems just a little inappropriate...especially given the age of the character.

Above all, though, you like the characters, feet of clay and all. They were well rounded and had a genuine humanity and vulnerability and plausibility that the regular X-Men were maybe starting to lose -- and something that would buoy the series for a while to come (having read even later New Mutants comics that still maintained that same likeability).

A big appeal to the series was artist Bob McLeod who, supposedly, had been given the choice of taking over the X-Men, or working on this new series...and opted for the new title. McLeod (probably better known as an inker) has a wonderful realist style that helps root the series, and gives real humanity -- and individuality -- to the characters. And he draws Professor X much older looking than he appeared in the X-Men comic...which nicely emphasized the youth of the New Mutants. McLeod pencils some issues, inked by others, while other issues he inks over Sal Buscema's pencils, but it maintains a consistent tone and style to the series. How much McLeod brings to the series becomes apparent on issues where he is entirely absent, and Sal Buscema is inked by others and his more cartoony, "super hero" art, and tendency to draw characters a bit like marionettes (a description I saw someone else use and thought nicely descriptive) with yawning jaws and out-flung limbs, undermines the human tone of the characters and serves to make the New Mutants just a little bit more like, well, any other super hero comic.

Ironically, though this was a new series, introducing a new cast of characters, we can already see the over-reliance on continuity and crossover plots that, one might argue, threaten to strangle modern comics (and the X-Men especially). A whole multi-issue arc guest stars Team America...obscure stars of another (cancelled) Marvel Comic! Fortunately, it's reasonably comprehensible to the novice reader, with needed info explained as you go. A sub-plot involving Professor X acting oddly ties in to then on-going X-Men comics -- but, fortunately, this collection includes the climax of that sub-plot from an X-Men issue.

And reading that X-Men comic nestled in among these New Mutant issues just makes you appreciate the New Mutants all the more, because that X-Men comic is ridiculously top-heavy with continuity references, and the characters seem less "real" than the New Mutants, the plotting less innovative.

Of course, these early issues weren't intended to form an arc, per se. This collection doesn't end on a cliff hanger, but it definitely stops with sub-plots dangling (subsequent "classic" volumes have been released). But still, if taken as just a run of early New Mutants comics, before the X-Men franchise had become a morass of over-marketing, even today it still boasts what made it a success at the time: appealing protagonists, attractive art and some eclectic plotting.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$24.99 USA.


The New Mutants Classic, vol. 3 2008 (SC TPB) 256 pages.

cover by SienkiewiczWritten by Chris Claremont. Art by Bill Sienkiewicz, with Bob McLeod.
Colours: Glynis Wein, Bob Sharen. Letters: Tom Orzechowski, with Bob McLeod. Editor: Ann Nocenti.

Reprinting: The New Mutants #18-25, The New Mutants Annual #1 (1984-1985)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some more)

Published by Marvel Comics

This third volume reprinting the 1980s issues of the New Mutants begins with the addition of Bill Sienkiewicz as artist. Sienkiewicz is an artist whose style has evolved dramatically over the years, and the early issues here may well reflect his peak period, marrying his early Neal Adams inspired super heroes and an increasing photo-realism (photoreferenced one suspects at times), with moody shadows and his increasingly experimental and eccentric style and off beat panel compositions. His joining the New Mutants might seem like an odd pairing, but in a way, the realism of his art harkens back to New Mutants co-creator, Bob McLeod, even as it's married with a brooding, spookier tone.

And it doesn't subtract from the essential appeal of the team -- that these are teens, struggling both with their powers and their very normal insecurities and aspirations. In shifting his patented introspection that he used on the X-Men to these younger protagonists, writer Chris Claremont seems to find a more comfortable forum for it, as the age of the characters seems more appropriate for such heavy self-analysis -- the characters are teenagers first, super heroes second. They're likeable, but with feet of clay, capable of mistakes or being petty or unthinking, making for a cast you can enjoy hanging out with.

Which is good, because Claremont spends a lot of time just with the characters, their interaction, or even with light-hearted sub-plots. There's action and villains, fighting and violence, but sometimes it can take a bit to get to it!

Unfortunately, the overall success of these run of issues is mixed.

The first three issues involve Dani's Demon Bear -- a supernatural creature who killed her parents and has finally come looking for her. It's an effective enough arc, with a slow, moody build up, and nice scenes of suspense and tension made more effective by the team's lack of experience (such as the middle issue where they stand vigil by Dani's hospital room during a snow storm, knowing the creature will come sooner or later). But the climactic issue is a bit bland and the whole Demon Bear concept can seem a bit vague and airy, relying on a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo where, even by the end, we aren't really sure what was going on.

This collection's high points are two over-sized issues. #21 (which along with #18-20 had previously been collected as The Demon Bear Saga). Though building on a sub-plot threaded through the Demon Bear issues, it's still a really enjoyable stand alone issue that captures the various flavours of the comic as the heroes have some neighbourhood kids over for a slumber party even as the extraterrestrial Warlock crashes in the near by woods. There's whimsical humour, plenty of character scenes, and enough action and suspense, all beautifully, moodily rendered by Sienkiewicz.

For Annual #1, artist Bob McLeod returns to the team he helped create, and the result is, again, an eminently enjoyable adventure, nicely self-contained that gives most of the characters their moments. Granted, there's a certain vaguness to some of the plot, where you're kind of waiting for the end scene where someone clears up the lingering ambiguity -- but no one does.

Unfortunately, as Claremont was also writing the parent comic, The X-Men, he clearly saw the two series as two halves of the same coin. Although the basic plots are contained in these issues, sub-plots seem to veer back and forth. So we have a scene where Rachel Summers appears (last seen in the classic X-Men #142) but not fully explained, then disappears again, her story continued in the X-Men comic. Or a mystical evil sorceress crops up with very little explanation in a couple of cutaway scenes, then too seems to fade from the pages -- again, with her impact more significant in X-Men comics of the time.

It means that picking up this collection now, two decades or so after they first were published, you can find it vaguely unsatisfying, with scenes and references that you can't be entirely sure whether they relate to a previous New Mutants comic, a concurrent X-Men comic, or are foreshadowing a story yet to come (in one series or another).

This becomes particularly problematic in the final four-parter (#22-25) in which the characters become embroiled with fellow teen heroes, Cloak and Dagger. They already had a backstory with the duo (thanks to a Marvel Team-Up Annual) so it's one of those stories where you aren't quite sure how much you're expected to know about that and about Cloak and Dagger in general (at least I knew who they were). For example when the New Mutants go to a priest whom they seem to know, and then he turns out to be Dagger's uncle...well, you aren't sure if you're supposed to know all this or what.

The story involves Rahne and Roberto finding themselves being possessed by Cloak and Dagger's abilities, while Cloak and Dagger find themselves free of powers they regarded as a curse. It's all a bit vague -- kind of like the Demon Bear arc (partly because, even by the end, the source of the powers are not explained). And at four issues feels stretched, and with Claremont's verbosity starting to get away from him, as characters and their motives are more explained than portrayed -- and repetitiously so. Claremont's dialogue can run hot and cold, sometimes being unconvincing (in one early issue, two different character say "Explain yourself!" -- not exactly a colloquial phrasing) and there's more of that toward the final issues.

As well, a lot of the dramatic/character focus shifts to Cloak and Dagger at the expense of the regulars, without the two being well enough portrayed to compensate. Presumably this was part of an editorial edict to promote the duo, these issues originally published just prior to the start of their regular monthly comic, with even a concurrently published issue of the anthology comic, Marvel Fanfare, being devoted to them. (Funnily enough, the first New Mutants Classic volume also had a multi-part story wherein the Mutants were pushed aside a little to feature characters from another series -- I guess teen mutants can't get no respect).

And towards the end of this collection, Sienkiewicz's art is moving more toward the eclectic and stylized at the expense of the realism.

This is a decent collection, with likeable heroes and often gorgeous art, but starts to lose steam toward the end, with both the writing and art (seeming) to lack the passion and effectiveness that the first few issues here evinced. And because it is just a run of issues, there's little sense of cohesion that some other collections -- however coincidentally -- can have. Sub-plots are introduced, but not necessarily developed, let alone brought to fruition.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$24.99 USA.



The New Mutants: The Demon Bear Saga
this collects issues #18-21 which are covered in my review of New Mutants Classic, vol. 3



New Mutants: The Return of Legion
is reviewed on the next page.

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