Tuesday, 4 August 2015

New Mutants Classic volume 1

Continuing the occasional look at series that haven't been given an Essential volume, it's time to turn to the New Mutants.

New Mutants Classic volume 1 contains the team's first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, New Mutants #1 to #7 and Uncanny X-Men #167. Everything is written by Chris Claremont. The Graphic Novel and early regular issues are drawn by Bob McLeod who is succeeded by Sal Buscema. The X-Men issue is drawn by Paul Smith.

One of the long running mysteries of the Essentials has been why New Mutants was never collected in the format. At first sight it seems to be because series from the early 1980s onwards are instead collected in the Classic format. Indeed only three Essential series cover titles that began their original run after New Mutants. But two of these are X-family books (X-Factor and Wolverine) so New Mutants became the exception to the exception. A reason often seen doing the rounds claims that Bill Sienkiewicz's art on the title has proved unreadable in black and white when tests were done (or, in a variant, the remastering techniques used by the Essentials wouldn't work) but insiders have rejected this claim. (Sienkiewicz's work doesn't appear in this volume as he didn't start on the title until issue #18.) Whatever the reason, the main collected editions for the series are the Classics that have so far notched up seven volumes.

The series was conceived in response to multiple influences. One was the demand for a second title to build on the success of X-Men. It's fortunate that a second title focusing on the same cast was not picked at this stage (a sign of restraint that was absent in later generations) but this pushed the request into spin-off territory with various proposals kicking around including one that was basically a cross between the later series West Coast Avengers and X-Factor. The prospect of "X-Men West" did not appeal to Chris Claremont and so he assembled an alternative proposal. Around the same time there were strong editorial demands to focus ever more upon the school aspect of the X-Men, showing youngsters learning how to use their powers and dealing with the pressures of growing in a changing world, perhaps due to the popularity of Kitty Pryde. New Mutants met all these demands, evoking some of the earliest days of the X-Men as once more a team of five young mutants studied at the mansion under the guidance of Professor X. Of course the early days of the X-Men are not particularly highly regarded, with few holding them up as either a great era for the team or one of the best of the Lee-Kirby collaborations. New Mutants also notably channelled elements of the more successful All-New All-Different era, right down to the make up of the class and the opening sequence of their initial giant-size debut.

Most of the entries in the Marvel Graphic Novel series are stand alone affairs, with a good number featuring characters without their own series, and so any regular reader who either couldn't spare the money or find a copy at the time would not have missed out on a key part of a story. But #4 is different, being effectively an expanded double-size first issue and so readers of the regular series would have to seek it out. This may explain why there are scans of three different versions of the covers in circulation with one including a flash proclaiming a reduced price. And the title page used here has been taken from a fifth printing; a sign that the story remained in demand. The story itself is a straightforward affair as a succession of young mutants find their powers manifesting, generating hostility in the process. Despite initial reservations, Professor X is persuaded to once more assemble a class of young mutants to teach them to control their powers, though this time he doesn't intend to send them out to risk their lives. This third genesis follows a similar pattern to Giant-Size X-Men #1 by introducing an international team of mutants starting with each being showcased individually and then the group has a baptism of fire in dealing with a rather forgettable villain, here in the shape of Donald Pierce of the Hellfire Club.

The team is at this stage confined to five characters with none having any significant pre-use beyond Karma debuting in an issue of Marvel Team-Up. A refugee from Vietnam with the ability to take temporary control of others, Xi'an (pronounced "Shan" and often lettered this way) Coy Manh comes with a criminal uncle and backstory of horrors from the war. As the eldest she becomes the group's first field leader though it's not Xavier's intention for them to go into action. I do find her habit of dropping the odd phrase in French a little irritating though, especially when she then repeats it in English.

Wolfsbane is my favourite character at this stage. Hailing from the United Kingdom, Rahne Sinclair was raised in an isolated strict Scottish Presbyterian environment and often finds her puritanical upbringing clashing with discovering the wider world and her classmates' enjoyment of it, making for a conflicted individual discovering herself. She can change into a wolf and sometimes finds she prefers this form. Her third, mid-transformation mode is less visually effective although it allows her to combine her animal abilities and human dexterity.

Sunspot is the hot head of the team in more ways than one, being able to absorb solar energy to gain super strength. Coming from a rich Brazilian family Roberto da Costa sees early tragedy when his girlfriend dies to save him from Pierce's mercenaries. With a father involved in shady business activity and a mother spending all her time on archaeological digs. A return to Brazil at the end of the volume suggests there are darker things to come in his family.

Psyche is the oddly named Dani Moonstar, a Native American with the ability to project images of people's thoughts. This effect doesn't work very well in colour because of the practice of rendering the images as monochrome outlines yet characters react as though they're real. Otherwise Moonstar is the team's headstrong and independent member, modifying the standard issue uniform to retain the belts and boots of her tribal dress.

The final recruit to the class is Cannonball, the all-American lad. Coming from Kentucky where his father's early death made him abandon his dreams and become a miner, Samuel Guthrie can project himself at rapid speeds and stay invulnerable whilst moving. Initially recruited by Pierce, he turns and accepts Xavier's offer.

The cast is rounded out by the use of Stevie Hunter and Moira MacTaggart, both lifted from the main X-Men title. The team may tick some boxes with character traits but offers a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds that offer potential. There's bickering and tension, especially as they try to control their powers, but also growing friendships to the point they will willing put their lives on the line for one another.

Despite Xavier's wish to avoid sending any more youngsters to risk their lives the team face a variety of threats including an attack by a new class of Sentinels, sent by government arsehole Henry Peter Gyrich and then an attack by a Brood growing inside Professor X. This leads to a crossover with the X-Men and an obligatory fight based on a misunderstanding. More smaller scale stories include Stevie being stalked by one of her dancing pupils who has both a crush on his teacher and abusive parents. Then they face Hydra, including the Viper and Silver Samurai, and AIM before coming under attack from the Hellfire Club again, this time under the direction of Sebastian Shaw.

There are no lasting original foes created here and the earliest issues show a little too much dependency upon the Brood storyline running in parallel in the contemporary Uncanny X-Men. There's also an appearance by Team America, a bunch of uninteresting motorcyclists who had just had a short-lived title, and this just adds to the crowding. And the first regular issue reveals that Xavier has a son but this isn't followed up within this volume. When the series is able to advance its own ideas it's working quite well but when it gets sucked into supporting other series and characters it loses its way. At such an early stage it needed to devote its space to developing its own niche better.

As spin-offs go, this is a good way of taking some of the concepts from a title and applying them to a new set of characters who can potentially stand on their own two feet. The characters offer potential and there are some ideas. It's a pity that some of this potential is squandered by detouring into the affairs of the X-Men or the totally needless appearance of Team America. The best is clearly yet to come.


  1. Sienkiewicz's artwork worked just fine in black and white in Essential Moon Knight.

  2. As I understand it....Essentials and Showcase Presents are no more. Such a shame!


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