Comic Book Review – New Mutants: The Demon Bear Saga

New Mutants Epic Collection: The Demon Bear Saga
Reprints New Mutants #13-31, Annual #1
Written by Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema, Bob McLeod, & Bill Sienkiewicz

Calling this volume “The Demon Bear Saga” feels a slight bit disingenuous as the conflict with the titular entity takes up about four issues in this collection. A more apt title would reference the stye transition brought to New Mutants by the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz. The switch in issue 18 from Sal Buscema fairly standard art to Sienkiewicz dynamic and kinetic style is jarring in all the best ways. There are quite a few story arcs and subplots running through this collection, so it’s not as much about one singular narrative as it is New Mutants differentiating itself from its sister title at the time The Uncanny X-Men.

The New Mutants are likely unfamiliar to the general non-comic book reading population. They were a spin-off of the X-Men launched in 1982, a group of actual students at Professor Xavier’s school. The X-Men were grown adults, save Kitty Pryde, so the school wasn’t feeling very scholarly. The original roster included:

  • Cannonball, a Kentucky boy who could propel himself with thermo-chemical energy
  • Karma, a Vietnamese girl, the original leader of the team who can possess the bodies of others
  • Mirage, a Cheyenne Native American girl who could manifest a person’s greatest fear
  • Sunspot, A Brazilian boy who could use solar energy as energy bolts or to strengthen himself
  • Wolfsbane, a Scottish girl who could transform into a wolf or werewolf-like creature. 

By the time we get to this collection, Karma has been killed off, and two new members are on the team:

  • Magma, a girl from a lost Roman colony who can control lava
  • Magik, a Russian girl & sister to Colossus who can teleport herself and others, as well as possess the Soulsword, an occult item of power

This was an extraordinary team when you look at the suite of powers, very much intended to not be X-Men, Junior. I am also impressed with the diversity of the group, especially for the time. Only two male members with five female members, three members being non-white. Writer Chris Claremont leans into Mirage’s Cheyenne heritage in some smart ways and others that feel clunky and definitely written by a white guy. Mirage is often depicted in braids and with a feather in the back of her hair, which walks the line between the character remaining in touch with her heritage but also making her look like a stereotype of a Native person.

The tone of the series became much darker and angstier than X-Men, especially in this collection. Sienkiewicz’s art style lent itself to bleak, psychological examinations of the characters almost looking like a horror title at some points. It’s no wonder that the upcoming New Mutants film has fully embraced its identity as a superhero horror movie. There were other genres thrown into the mix, a strong science fiction vein present in this book. New member Warlock is introduced in these pages; he’s a techno-organic being that becomes a long-running part of the group. At one point, the New Mutants get caught up in rock star Lila Cheney’s plan to sell the Earth to an alien consortium. But then you also had typical comic book stories like the New Mutants’ beginning a rivalry with Emma Frost’s counter team the Hellions.

As I read through this Epic Collection I found so much essential Marvel lore being brought out, I was slightly astonished at how crucial these issues were to establishing so many core concepts of the X-Men today. Magik first manifests her demonic armor, and the seeds of the Inferno storyline begin to be planted in these pages. We’re introduced to Guido Carosella, who would join X-Factor in the 1990s as Strong Guy. We get the introduction of Warlock and a glimpse of his father, Magus. Magneto first feels the pull of taking a leadership role in Xavier’s school. We get the debut of the Hellions. And most important, we have the first appearance of David Haller, aka Legion, aka Professor Xavier’s disturbed son. A lot of X-history was made in these stories.

The moment Sienkiewicz’s art hits the whole book shifts and becomes much more deeply engrossing. His layout choices from page one are hypnotic and surprise you with every turn of the page. I got the feeling the art made Claremont want to experiment more with different types of stories. Claremont already had the highest selling Marvel title with X-Men, so he had the clout to play with narratives in New Mutants. The Demon Bear as a villain is pretty blank in terms of personality, he’s more of a force of nature, he cannot be reasoned with he exists to destroy and consume. Things fizzle out when we get to the final storyline of the collection, a scenario where Sunspot and Magma have been kidnapped by the Gladiators. They are a Los Angeles-based criminal organization that pits mutants against each other in battles to the death. The big hook here is that Dazzler returns, a character Marvel was really pushing hard at the time. 

There are some uncomfortable moments throughout. The Demon Bear transforms two Caucasian characters into Native Americans, including stereotypical clothing, as mentioned above with Mirage. They remain in this state at the story’s conclusion, and there’s never time to even exploring what this might do to them. I was reminded of Claremont’s other, more famous race swap character Psylocke and how that just seemed to be taken at face value at the time. It’s mentioned that Legion is on the autism spectrum, but it’s not clear if Claremont fully understood what that meant. Legion is portrayed as having multiple personalities and being schizophrenic, neither of which are commonly associated with autism. I get the sense Claremont wanted to be progressive with topics brought up in New Mutants but didn’t do the research or call in advice for things that were outside of his purview. 

The Demon Bear Saga is a lengthy read but a beautiful slice of what the early 80s Marvel landscape looked like in one particular corner. DC’s New Teen Titans were booming at the time, itself a strong mimic of Claremont’s X-Men. I definitely think Claremont created New Mutants as a response to DC and has a more mature level of writing and psychology given to its characters. A figure like Wolfsbane is an interesting mix of elements from Beast Boy and Raven. The darkness here feels genuinely foreboding as opposed to New Teen Titans, where things often felt silly. If you want to prep yourself before April’s New Mutants release or want to read up on some core history in the Marvel Universe, this one won’t disappoint.

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