NEW MUTANTS: THE END (1991)
Last December, I wrote about re-reading the Rob Liefeld-era “New Mutants” for the first time in twenty years. I only made it through the first few issues, though.
This week, I re-read “New Mutants” #98 — #100 because, well, why not? Why do we keep the back issues and line up the hardcover collections on our bookshelves if not to re-read them randomly? It was fun to go back to those comics that so entertained so many of us 20 years ago and look at them with fresh eyes. As usual, things tend to look a little different once you’ve put a lot more comics experience under your belt.
No, that isn’t the prelude to rip into Rob Liefeld. Just the opposite; it’s the set-up to pointing out that, yes, while there are artistic flaws throughout the issues, it’s more than made up for by the energy and the action that pours off the page. Plenty of comics from that time period aren’t taken seriously by comics fans today, most of whom are now being raised on a steady diet of serious superhero comics colored in muck, where everything has to be set in the real world. Every possible consequence must be explored. Every nut and bolt has to mean something. Superhero comics rely on a non-stop diet of so-called realism today that threatens to choke the life out of the genre. The comics that break that dreary tone are the ones that stand out. Think “Daredevil” or “Hawkeye.” Plenty of comics work well within the pseudo-realistic flavor of the day, but the momentum is in that direction and not the direction that the world of superhero comics was going around 1990.
Back then, superhero comic books were closer to fantasies. Brightly colored four-color fantasies. They had plenty of grit and painfully on-the-nose parallels to the real world, but they didn’t try quite so hard to be anything other than a roller coaster thrill ride by comparison to too many of today’s comics. Looking back today, I admire their free-wheeling nature and their energetic fun. They’re not weighed down by so many of the things that make today’s superhero comics so painful — the need to place things in the “real world” and not make allowances for the fact that these are, indeed, just comic books, after all.
Yes, kids, get off my lawn.
“New Mutants” at that time was such a comic. It was a never-ending parade of funny-looking characters with silly names to match. It existed in its own pocket of reality. It picked up and dropped off storylines like the Chris Claremont “X-Men” comics that directly inspired it. There’s rarely a set-up for the eventual pay-off. There might be a tease to introduce a cool character or a subplot to break up the main plot, but those are almost incidental to the action. There are overall themes and character arcs to be had, still, but getting to the point of something “cool” happening is a greater cause. You weren’t meant to linger on these books. Just turn the page. See what happens next.
Individual pages and panels were filled with bright characters having extreme reactions to every little thing. Subtle, it was not. But if you were a superhero-reading teenager at the time, it was all you needed.
Reading these issues today, I can see a creative tension between Rob Liefeld and the series scripter, Fabian Nicieza. I don’t mean that in the negative way, like they were fighting all the time. It’s more like an appreciation that the two creators came from slightly different schools of comics thought. Liefeld was a young enough creator then that he needed someone to back him up and patch up the cracks with a well-placed caption or line of dialogue to justify the art. Nicieza used his sense of humor in the scripts to fill in those gaps. It’s not quite as overt as what Joe Casey did in re-scripting “Youngblood,” but you can read between the lines and see how Nicieza had fun letting the comic be self-referential and not full of itself. When something happened that might jar a reader — like Cable suddenly wearing reading glasses and a vest while studying a hardcover tome — a character steps up to be the voice for the reader with a disbelieving thought. With that quick quip to echo the reader’s thought, the reader’s initial “What the heck?” became a giggle and everyone could move on.
It feels like some of that tapered off even just over the course of these three issues. As the two had more experience working together, there’s a natural comfort level that followed. Nicieza didn’t need to step forward so much or, when he did, it was to add something to the story, not just as a patch. The dialogue became more married to the art instead of working so hard to keep things so logical. And maybe, just maybe, Liefeld was learning fast enough on the job that there were less rough edges. Fewer of those moments that seemed to come out of nowhere.
This isn’t to say Nicieza was just there as a patch man, sent in to cover up any of the comic’s shortcomings. I don’t know how much back and forth there was between him and Liefeld in creating these comics, but Nicieza also carried through the overall mission statement of the series at every chance he had. Cable was creating a team to be more pro-active. It’s a move many teams have made since then, most dramatically with “The Authority,” perhaps, but then again with the recent reincarnation of “X-Force” or even the Guardians of the Globe in the most recent “Invincible Universe.” Each character had their own self-interest that motivated them, which just happened to intersect with Cable’s, for the time being.
Nicieza’s sense of humor was a big help in carrying “X-Force” along. The dialogue was fast-paced throughout the series, even though most people might only remember the big visuals in the series. The one-liners and interplay between the characters is what helped sell the series to the faithful readers. New characters had memorable voices, who were often able to spout the necessary expository dialogue in a playful way. There was a history between the characters we weren’t in on at first, but the character interplay showed it to us, leaving us wanting more, coming back month after month.
Of course, it also helped to realign the title so it could be relaunched as the first “X-Force.” Cable’s war meant less babysitting and more tough love. The New Mutants characters were, by design, younger. They were used to a more nurturing environment, even with all the craziness that went on around them. Cable was a swift kick in the butt, one that led to some natural conflict within the group. He also added in characters with battles they wanted fought, creating a team of superpowered people who were fighting each other’s wars as an excuse for being a team.
Issue #98, of course, featured the introduction of Deadpool, hired by someone named Tolliver to kill Cable. (Tolliver’s Wikipedia entry is a classic summation of ridiculous soap opera histories in the mutant world.) Cable is aware of that person, and knows all about Deadpool. An entire New Mutants team can’t take down everyone’s favorite Merc With a Mouth, but the sudden appearance of Domino out of nowhere takes care of things. As it turns out, the element of surprise is the only thing that can stop Deadpool.
Re-reading the issue today, I like Domino more than Deadpool. She comes in with a quick save and a bit of attitude. She makes Cable more comfortable. For a man trapped in a time and place not his own, it’s natural that he’s always defensive and guarded. With Domino, he suddenly seems looser. Even Boom Boom notices how much happier Cable is with her around. And Domino’s fighting ability and unique visual were both just as strong as Deadpool’s.
Deadpool’s entry into the world was only a few pages, but it led to a lot more, especially in “X-Force” #2. Maybe I’ll get to that next year.
Joe Rosen lettered the batch of “New Mutants” issues I mentioned earlier. For the 98th issue, he did a pretty good hand-drawn impersonation of the Helvetica font on the final page.
Kudos to the creative team on Dynamite’s “Lone Ranger Annual” for hand lettering some special effects in. I’m guessing the artist, Matt Triano, did them directly on his art boards. They’re not the work of a technical skilled letterer, but they make a nice rough approximation of someone trying to create an old-timey feel with the right type style and no straight edge. A couple of special effects later in the issue were done on the computer, no doubt by Rob Steen. But Triano is channeling Ken Bruzenak at times, with some lettering effects that look heavily “American Flagg!” inspired.
I also loved the opening double page spread from this month’s “Invincible” #115. Check out the work here from Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn, John Rauch and Rus Wooton. I love that top panel. The lettering, in particular, fits perfectly into the scene. It’s a punctuation mark: a big loud crash at the end of a moment. It doesn’t need extra “RATATATATAT”s for the machine gun sounds or a KEE-RASH at the windshield’s point of impact. The largesse of the lettering tells you the volume of the moment. The slant of the lettering adds character. I even like the exclamation point, which I know some people aren’t big fans of.
And Kirkman offsets the mood with the nonchalant Invincible on his cell phone as the van crashes into him. Great moment.
I like the overall design of “Saga”‘s covers, too. The restrained thin sans-serif typography on the front cover couples with the colored back cover to match the front works well. (Credits are in Futura BQ Book, though I’m not quite sure what the title, itself, is in. ) It feels more like a high-end magazine or a book’s design. It still has the publisher’s logo in the upper left corner with the price, but that’s about it. Everything else about these wraparound covers is different from everything else on the stands. The issue number is even spelled out, rather than shown in Roman numerals. I like it a lot, though I do admit that throwing the issue number next to the price in the upper left corner would be easier when it comes time to organize comics.
In the end, I’m still a geek.