Why the New Mutants: The Demon Bear Saga was so groundbreaking

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Jan 31, 2018

The New Mutants is finally coming to the big screen in what is being generally considered one of Marvel's riskier movies. The film is being promoted more as a horror film than as a superhero film, and it's based on a comic from the mid-'80s that sold well but isn't an immediate reference for many comic fans - all while introducing an all-new cast of characters to the X-Men film franchise with very little comment so far on what exactly the film is about.

Longtime X-Men fans will likely recognize elements of the classic New Mutants story, "The Demon Bear Saga," in the upcoming film. That being said, the choices being made with the marketing of The New Mutants film are surprising for Hollywood but not necessarily so if you examine the history of the comic, which was generally about taking risks and going down a long, strange road for 100 issues.

The New Mutants series was the first spin-off of X-Men, setting a precedent for comics in general. Today, you can't walk into a comic shop without seeing a literal flood of comics with an X- prefix (or suffix), but in the 1980s when the New Mutants debuted, any series having more than one issue out a month just didn't happen. At the time, fans desperately wanted more X-Men stories. We might all reflect on that with a very “be careful what you wish for” attitude, but back then, it was a brand new thing. Writer Chris Claremont brought in a new cast of characters loosely banded together by Professor Xavier, who was possessed by an alien species known as the Brood, and who spent the first many issues of the series gaslighting and terrorizing his students—specifically the main character of this story, Danielle Moonstar (otherwise known as Mirage).

The original artist and co-creator, Bob McLeod, departed the book with the eighth issue, leaving penciling chores to Sal Buscema. Both artists did great work, but eventually Buscema also departed the book by issue 17. This led to the bizarre yet amazing decision to bring in Bill Sienkiewicz, who up until this point had done a memorable issue of Uncanny X-Men (where Storm almost becomes a vampire) and a short run on the lesser-known series Moon Knight. Essentially, New Mutants went from having very good art by two people working very much within the Marvel comics house style to having an avant-garde weirdo whose closest artistic comparison would be Ralph Steadman—who, at the time, was doing covers for Hunter S. Thompson books while out-of-nowhere Sienkiewicz was working on a teen superhero comic. The result is a visually beautiful, shocking story where the artist and the writer are clearly on different wavelengths but still somehow turn it into one of the greatest comics of all time.

Sienkiewicz did all the line work for these issues, but the color work of Glynis Wein is not to be undersold. The bright, popping style makes Sienkiewicz' more off-kilter moments really work in the context of a superhero comic. His line work is unquestionably incredible, but Wein's moves are equally bold and equally daring in many respects. Her work appears in many classic comics of the time period, and she is well worth following. In "The Demon Bear Saga," she shines.

Writer Chris Claremont would wind up having one of the longest runs in comic book history with the X-Men, and was responsible for most of the elements people associate with comics today—particularly the complicated soap opera elements that brought millions of new readers over the 17 years he wrote the series. At the time, The X-Men was a low-performance book that had been hovering on the brink of cancellation, and Claremont turned it around with the assistance of several incredible artists over the years. By the time he debuted the New Mutants in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, he had already written many classic X-Men storylines, including the Phoenix Saga which is being made into a movie scheduled for release later this year.

Marvel's then-editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, told Claremont in so many words that if he didn't create an X-Men spin-off, someone was going to—and so Claremont, somewhat grudgingly, complied. Rather than using any number of the X-Men characters he'd already created he introduced us to new ones, including the ones appearing in this story: country-boy Sam Guthrie (Cannonball), demon-witch struggling with morality Illyana Rasputin (Magik), actual princess Amara Aquilla (Magma), shy religious 14-year-old Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), hothead child of billionaires Roberto Decosta (Sunspot) and the aforementioned Danielle Moonstar/Mirage.

Native American characters are highly under-represented in a comics—and, well, everywhere—so featuring a story about a young Cheyenne woman in the early '80s was an unusual choice for a mainstream comic. Even now, when you look at the overbearingly white-centric output of both creators and characters in mainstream American comics, seeing Danielle Moonstar on covers as the co-leader of the team and as a complex, fully fleshed-out character is amazing. There are suspect choices in the comic, though; two white people are “turned into” Native Americans by the Demon Bear, which is uncomfortable to say the least and doesn't make any sense for the story. Despite this, Dani Moonstar has always been one of my all-time favorite X-Men characters—but unfortunately, since the original New Mutants series, there simply haven't been enough equally powerful stories featuring this amazing character.

We see in the first pages of "The Demon Bear Saga" that we are in a comic where the format's rules no longer apply. The art is scattered, blotchy, erratic. Comics are generally known for their specifically bright coloring schemes, but the colors are almost too bright, too glaring—all reds and yellows. Dani hides under a blanket that seems sentient as it dissolves into an image of the Demon Bear's face. Every smile looks somehow sinister, including and especially those from authority figures. No one appears to believe Dani when she tells them of her nemesis, which adds to the horror element. In a scene that still gives me chills, Mirage finally decides that enough is enough, and she calls out the Demon Bear, demanding that it finally face her. The Demon Bear obliges, appearing as a massive, hulking monster with glowing eyes and gnashing teeth. In their first battle, Dani is paralyzed and nearly killed. While she recovers, the story gets increasingly tense as she teeters between life and death while her teammates are sucked into the reality of the Demon Bear, called the Badlands.

In the first pages of New Mutants #20, we see a map with large portions blacked out with ink, indicating how much of what surrounds these teenagers is under the complete control of the Bear. The team has the fight of their lives. While they emerge triumphant, the shift in tone would resonate throughout the series. Once the sentimental heart of the X-Men, The New Mutants became the story of a group of teenagers who could no longer trust adults, who were thrust into experiencing the horrors of death and mortality. This series was never the same lighthearted romp it had once been after "The Demon Bear Saga."

Illyana Rasputin, the younger sister of the X-Man Colossus who had recently spent about a decade in a Hell dimension growing ever more corrupt, also exhibits significant character growth in this story—albeit to a lesser extent than Dani Moonstar. Considered ruthless and untrustworthy by the other New Mutants, she is the only character to show understanding towards the increasingly panicked Moonstar. While she had been wavering on her acceptance in the team up to this point, this is where we see her truly click with the New Mutants, risking her life to save her teammates and displaying an as-yet-unseen emotional connection. As a Magik megafan as well as a Mirage megafan, their interactions in this story are highly valuable.

In its time and place, there wasn't anything like this story. It would later be referenced by several early Vertigo writers and artists, and is now considered one of the most highly influential comics stories of all time.