Monday, September 12, 2011


So a little (OK, a LONG while ago) I reviewed a book compiling Jim Lee's early work on X-Men and made the somewhat heretical assertion that it was good Jim Lee came onto Uncanny X-Men when he did because it really kicked Claremont in the ass and got him motivated for more than the excruciatingly boring-ass Shadow King story he'd been grinding on for years and years about and I, as someone who had been reading the book pre-Lee (and post-Lee) it seemed like Claremont had run out of ideas for the most part and was spinning his wheels, and his ennui showed and the book suffered mightily for it.

I doubt very much that anyone bought this assertion--the narrative that "everything was going fine until the Image guys showed up and fucked it all up for everyone" is so deeply ingrained in the comics fan consciousness now that the words of some fool on the Internet aren't gonna push against it at this late date to any significant effect.

But I thought it was worth revisiting the idea, only with a slight modification. Because while Jim Lee did great in terms of reigniting interest on Uncanny X-Men, the other two books, X-Factor and The New Mutants also experienced a re-ignition of interest about the same time, and both were suffering from the same problem. The X-Factor thing will probably need a article all its own, so let's set it aside for now.

Let's talk New Mutants, circa the end of the 80s. It is a book that is basically sucking fumes, hasn't had a meaningful story since The Fall of the Mutants (and only then because Doug Ramsey got killed in it) Ever since then, the book just kinda limped on through Inferno, belatedly dealt with the idea that Magneto wasn't looking out for them two who years (at least) since Magneto had left Uncanny X-Men, and also marked time with a weird storyline wherein Gossamyr (perhaps the most Bret Blevins-y character Bret Blevins ever drew) got the Mutants involved with a giant spider called Spyder who snorted emotions. I'm not making any of that up.

Ultimately, New Mutants lurches into the status quo of "Hanging out on X-Factor's ship while Freedom Force annoys the shit out of them from time to time" This never really comes to much of a head before a change of direction, but there are two or three issues where it seems like things get started, and then . . .they kinda peter out.

Louise Simonson decided to send the Mutants off to Asgard again--no harm there, really--New Mutants had some great Asgard stories under their belt, it was a safe move. No disrespect to Simonson is intended here--from all accounts there were plenty of other pressures on her that forced her off the book, but even before that particular crisis point (and again, much like on X-Factor, which she also wrote about this time) it really felt like there were no real ideas beyond getting a new issue out month after month.

Enter Rob Liefeld, before he was an Internet punchline. Those of you who have read the Prattle know what I'm about to do, but for those of you who don't, here's the scoop: Rob Liefeld is, to be kind, something of a polarising figure among comics fans. We here at the Prattle applaud his enthusiasm and think of him a bit like Steve Coogan's character in Hamlet 2--namely he has all the ambition in the world and maybe a fifth of the requisite talent.

That said, look at the following and try, however briefly to see the world through his eyes. Because the following clip is what is going on in Rob Liefeld's head all the time:

Never gets old. I hope Rob Liefeld's career makes more sense to you, now.

Anyways, this is Rob's first Big Gig. Rob had got generally good notices having just done a Hawk and Dove mini-series for DC (how that wheel turned, eh?) that was actually pretty good . . .for about 4 issues, then Rob lost his shit and everything had to be re-pasted.This was enough to get Hawk and Dove an ongoing series (which lasted long enough for us to realise that the real strength of the book was Karl and Barbara Kesel's writing) but by then Rob was off to greener pastures.

Those greener pastures were two issues of X-Factor, and a couple of "Atlantis Attacks" annuals before he was announced as the new artist on New Mutants. No one was up in arms about this, generally because he was actually still drawing backgrounds at this time and most of his usual eccentricities had yet to appear.

With his arrival came the advent of a couple of things. One, the Mutants were getting their own "opposite number" team in the Mutant Liberation Front, who were young mutant terrorists (young goofy mutant terrorists) who took a far more active role in mutant affairs than the eternal junior varsity New Mutants did. This was OK--not very imaginative, but it's a direction, at least. To better appreciate the unique gonzo genius that is the MLF, let us pause for a ROLL CALL:

ZERO--Zero teleports. He has a zero on his face and is clad all in white. His design must have taken seconds.

REAPER--Reaper can stun people by hitting him with his scythe. How this is more beneficial to him than just hitting people with his scythe and killing them (as being hit by a scythe would do) is not adequately explored. He eventually gets sent to the Ultraverse, because that's where they send you when you don't make any fucking sense whatsoever.

THUMBELINA--Thumbelina can shrink down to teeny tiny size. I think she's supposed to be a teenager but Rob draws her like a white midget Amanda Waller, so it's hard to tell.

FOREARM--He has four arms. Rob Liefeld, everybody!

STROBE--She can melt stuff and is kind of a bitch, neither of which I am reasonably certain strobe lights can do.

TEMPO--Tempo can alter the speed of time. I'm more concerned with why she elected to wear a bucket on her head.


Oh yeah--the New Mutants also get a new mentor. And it's Cable.

Yes, Cable.

It's funny sometimes that if you look at a certain artist's work, especially if they worked on a character for a long time, you can see the character that became the baseline for every single character they every did--the mitochondrial Eve, if you will. For Rob Liefled, it's Cable. Because damn near every character he ever drew or ever will draw eventually carries a big gun and wears a vest. I don't really understand it either, but there it is.

Cable is a man of complete mystery--they're not even sure he's a mutant at this point, and all the other garbage that got dumped onto his backstory is far far away (it's telling, I think, that the three characters who coolness worked into proportion with how little you knew about them--Cable, Wolverine, and Gambit--pretty much lost all their coolness the more info was known) all we know is he's apparently working for the good guys and he's actually doing something, which is more than people have been doing in New Mutants for some time.

Concurrent with the advent of Cable, we're introduced to Stryfe, the leader of the MLF. Stryfe is kind of an idiot, and wears the single most impractical suit of armour ever created in comics. I have looked at it and looked at it and I can't work out how he turns his head, walks, or even does anything short of moving his arms. It's . . .kind of extraordinary in a design sense how you come up with something like this that completely sacrifices every other thing you learn or even absorb about design at the altar of looking cool. It's horrifyingly amazing.

Anyways, our run opens with Cable tracking the MLF and getting blown up. OK, could have used a more effective intro there, I reckon. Meanwhile Skids and Rusty Collins (barnacles left over from X-Factor which got shunted into the New Mutants with an eye towards them joining. This never happens, much like when they tried to fold Butch Reed and Kendall Windham into the Four Horsemen) They're laid up in the hospital after having the crap kicked out of them by Freedom Force, formerly the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and currently another in a series of blunders made by a federal government continually Not Getting It with regards to mutants. And because this is now reaching perverse levels of repition, let us do one more ROLL CALL:


PYRO--I just realised his first name sounds like "Singe-in'." Oh, my sides.

SUPER SABRE--Super Sabre is a World War 2 hero we never heard of and because Chris Claremont put him in one story one time, we could never get rid of the son of a bitch. I think he finally does get killed off later, which is one of those things that never gets brought up as something Liefeld actually did right.

CRIMSON COMMANDO--See "Super-Sabre."

MYSTIQUE--I know everyone likes Mystique because she's always running her own plan and she was naked and blue in the X-Men movies, but you're all wrong--Mystique sucks.

They're also here, because wouldn't you know it, that's exactly where the MLF are gonna strike next and Cable is going to be there to stop them! Holy SHIT how convenient. There's a fight, which Cable loses and gets himself captured, Rusty and Skids head off with the MLF (not to be seen for the next 13 issues) and oh yeah, the New Mutants are back from Asgard, in case you forgot whose book this actually was.

Speaking of, as our gaggle of ciphers gets a bit forgotten even by me, perhaps we should do a ROLL CALL:

CANNONBALL--I heard somewhere that he's nigh-retarded when co--er, I mean he's "nigh-invulnerable while blasting." Yeah, that's what I meant to say. Cannonball is Southern. He has hair and two legs That's pretty much it.

WOLFSBANE--Wolfsbane is Scottish and meek. She turns into a wolf. I think furries probably like her.

RICTOR--Rictor is from someplace Hispanic and can make earthquakes. He's kind of a jackass. He's also gay, I think, now.

BOOM BOOM--She's blonde and throws time-bombs and to say she was the best thing to come out of Secret Wars Two would be a hideous lie, because nothing good came out of Secret Wars II.

SUNSPOT--He's strong, but not invulnerable and is hot tempered, particularly when people play "Girl From Ipanema" on the jukebox. You would think after 80+ issues of publication, the New Mutants would have more character than this. You would think that, and you would be wrong for thinking that.

WARLOCK--Dead man walking. Warlock is an alien whose sole purpose at this late date is to hang around in case some detail-happy artist like Art Adams wants to draw funky shit. Anyone remember that Web of Spider-Man annual where he watched too much TV and turned into Godzilla and rampaged around? That was a lot of fun . . .

The next couple of issues involve Cable escaping from Freedom Force's custody (it is good that two issues in he's shown actually doing something right) and the Mutants grappling with the whole Muir Island subplot, or its equivalent of a "red skies" issue wherein someone says words to the effect of "Wow, Moira McTaggert sure is dressing like a slut now." (Seriously, this happened so many times before that damn thing was finally over. Depending on what day you catch me on, the Muir Island Saga may be my vote for worse X-Crossover ever, dislodging perennial reigning champion Operation Zero Tolerance) Cable and the Mutants hit it off and decide to go back to the X-Mansion . . .

. . .which, as often happens, is blown to bits, so Cable and company move into the basement. Underneath the basement is what's left of the Morlocks from the Mutant Massacre and from the baffling amount of Morlocks we've seen since that crossover, it's plain to see that the Marauders did a real shit job of killing them, because there's still tons of them.

The Marauders must have worked that out because here's Sabretooth down here killing them off. I should add that Liefeld's portrayal of Sabretooth is . . .a little different. Whereas everyone else seems to draw him as much larger than Wolverine would be, Liefeld draws him . . .well, kinda like a Sumatran Rat Monkey.

The sewer tunnels seem to be the place to be, because Calbian his hunting Sabretooth, who's hunting the Morlocks. Caliban is one of those pieces of plot flotsam that's been wobbling about like an uneaten Cheerio in a bowl of milk for years and years in search of some resolution. The short version: Caliban was the first Morlock we saw in Uncanny X-Men, he joined X-Factor for awhile, then finally joined with Apocalypse because X-Factor made him walk around wearing pink (it being the 80's or not, you can see how that would push him over the edge) Apocalypse gave him super-strength and then . . .kinda forgot about him, because being an immortal, Apocalypse really sucks at long-term planning.

Liefeld draws him like Badrock. I'm sure you needed to know that.

Anyways, the Mutants are getting new costumes and fighting in the Danger Room and Rictor's being a whiny bitch because he thinks Cable killed his father (honestly, don't even try to work out what really happened. That way, like voting Democrat, inevitably leads to confusion and disappointment) which leads him to go down to the sewer tunnels to prove himself to the others after crying and wetting his pants in the Danger Room.

He gets gutted by Sabretooth, which proves that . . .he's kind an idiot, I guess.

The Mutants slog around in the sewers and run into Masque, who's just plain ker-AZY here nowadays and to sorta set up issue #100, until finally they run into Rictor, whose powers have increased to the point where he can have a T-shirt in one panel and then not, can heal himself as the plot demands, and also grow his hair out as needed. Mutant powers are the shit, y'all.

Caliban kills Sabretooth by hugging him to death. No, really--that's what it looks like. I'm not sure Liefeld gave much thought to the bio-mechanics of actually snapping someone spine, and that's odd because he's usually a bear for detail about that kind of thing.

We finish up with a two-parter that features the Mutants teaming up with Sunfire (heaven knows why) and Cable getting into a fight with Wolverine (because that's how you build up your breakthrough character, y'all) and then they all team up and attack the MLF again because that's what they're doing now. They succeed and Cable and Stryfe have a fight in which Stryfe supposedly perishes, but really, you nor I don't believe that or even care one way or the other.

The book ends with a teaser for the X-Tinction Agenda, and soon after will be retooled into X-Force. We'll burn those bridges when we get there.

Anyways, back to our original question--did any of this help? Not so much--while the book finally has some direction, it's really vague and unfocused and lurching from one superficially cool thing to another. In short--Liefeld. While this is generally a step up from having no story at all, you can't help but wish they'd tried a little harder. On the other hand, compared to where we'll be a year and a half from now, ten issues into X-Force with Liefeld doing his riff on Highlander . . .well, let's just say we'll be almost nostalgic about the level of focus on display here by then.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

This is one of those stories that's more memorable for what it meant than for anything it actually did: as I recall, the high concept for Cable was the introduction of a third rallying point besides Xavier and Magneto - someone who rejected both Xavier's pacifist idealism and Magneto's notions of preemptive conquest. Under Cable, the New Mutants were basically meant to respond aggressively to mutant threats without extending that hostility to all humans everywhere. Admittedly, for a franchise that had spent so much of its life polarized between those two extremes, having a third faction made sense. But alas, it was the '90s and we just weren't ready to have nice things yet. :)

Kazekage said...

This was in my blogroll this morning Eerie serendipity, eh? :)

Yeah, getting to grips with what the Mutants/X-Force's identity as a group and a philosophy was teased a bunch of times, but I don't think it was ever quite nailed down until after X-Cutioner's song, when Fabian Nicieza actually had the liberty to make the book his own. Of course, all this got ignored, but that Fabian Nicieza's career for ya. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Well, apparently Jeph Loeb is bringing Cable back again in a few months (because no one demanded it), so I'm not surprised he's making the rounds... ;)

From what little I recall of Nicieza's X-Force, his problem was that even after giving the team a clearer identity, he kept getting bogged down with the tortured dialogue and the overwrought interpersonal dramas. Which, to be fair, was typical of pretty much everything that was coming out at the time...

Kazekage said...

The sad thing, I read that as "Cable bringing Jeph Loeb back to writing because no one demanded it." And look! Cable has half his face gone, just like that Liefeld arc in X-Force that no one talks about because it makes Youngblood read like fucking Watchmen.

As was the style at the time, really. Of course, Nicieza abused the privilege a bit by having Magneto call himself "The overlord of the fatal attraction." (my favourite bit of purple dialogue ever) But he really worked hard to give them a unique identity (the bullshit with Reignfire notwithstanding) Then Jeph Loeb came along and screwed it up.

C. Elam said...

Well, if we're talking about Jeph Loeb in the comments, isn't that pretty much his thing? His very first comics writing gig involved screwing up the Challengers of the Unknown to set up a sequel that sales in no way justified. He left them useless as characters, which admittedly didn't get a lot of press since no one cares about the Challs (except me! SOB!). Basically, I am saying I have the dislike for Loeb's work that people usually reserve for...Rob Liefeld. Funny how they wound up together.

It's a neat bit of revisionist history that forgets those future Image guys re-energized some stale and boring books. I mean, I was never a fan, but their books had zing that late-80s Marvel lacked. They were undone more by their own hubris than a lack of people wanting their books.

The funny thing about Rob Liefeld's art is that he made a conscious decision for it to look like that. I own some of his earliest published work (maybe his first) in the pages of MEGATON and he was trying to draw like George Perez.

...No, seriously. It was amateur Perez, but it only bears a passing resemblance to the Liefeld work we all know.

Kazekage said...

I remember even the promos for Loeb's Challengers book made me wonder who in the hell thought that was a good idea, and really should have strangled his comics career in the crib. Sadly, this did not happen, and I have yet to read a story written by Jeph Loeb in the ensuing 20+ years of work that has justified why he gets work. No, not even Long Halloween. I know people think it's good, but I am right and those people are wrong and that's all there is to it.

I know, right? There are a LOT of people in the business who hate the Image guys (in his book Grant Morrison kinda frowns on them for pulling the audience from the writer-driven proto-Vertigo books of the late 80's) but honestly, there needed to be some kind of reinvigoration out there and someone needed to make comics for 12-year olds (occasionally looking like they were written and drawn by same) again because we stopped doing that at the turn of the century and look what's happened.

Yeah, I've seen his early stuff and you can tell he was eating, sleeping, and breathing New Teen Titans during that time (I think Youngblood began its life as a Teen Titans riff) and he just kind of . . .started being Rob Liefeld as we know him today. It's not unlike Frank Miller, in a way. Look at Miller's Daredevil work early on and look at Holy Terror You'd hardly believe it was the same guy.

C. Elam said...

I have never understood Loeb's comics career in any way. Wasn't it observed by someone that he benefited from the "writers from outside comics" phenomenon? (even though writing COMMANDO and TEEN WOLF isn't the same as being a best-selling novelist)

DC reprinted that Challs mini a few years ago to cash in on the subsequent Loeb/Sale successes. The introduction was written by Brian Michael Bendis, who raved about how influential he found the comic. Draw your own conclusions.

I--really? That strikes me as kind of petty and misguided. I mean, I don't think there was a huge crossover in the audiences between Sandman/Doom Patrol/Swamp Thing and X-Men/Spider-Man/New Mutants at any point in history. I could be wrong, but I never perceived the Image guys diminishing the Vertigo thing in any meaningful way.

Among what I have is proto-Youngblood work, and oh yes, you are correct. I don't think he ever came through on releasing those 80s Youngblood stories, which is a pity.

I've seen Frank Miller's work from his fanzine days, so I've seen a full-blown evolution. But Jim Starlin's is much more entertaining in that regard.

Kazekage said...

Being "the writer of COMMANDO and TEEN WOLF" shouldn't even earn you a cup of coffee. Of course, comics being comics, anyone who so much as carried cable for one day on a failed TV pilot is worth more than, say, Alan Moore.

Man, what a waste of good trees that was. The fact that Bendis thought it was so brilliant explains . . .well, everything, really.

Well, it presupposes that comics "then" are like comics now and there was only ever a narrow strain of audience for everything. Kinda terrible that people in comics have forgotten that there were actually comics pitched to kids and comics pitched to adults and everyone got along fine. Ultimately he does come around later in the book, but yeah, it put his nose out of joint.

I don't know if the world is ready for Rob Liefeld before he was Rob Liefeld. I think their heads might explode or something.

B Phat said...

Good recap on a storyline and era that I had checked out on at the time. I read my New Mutants as a kid (and was generally disappointed), then came back in the early nineties and didn't recognize X-Force as the evolved team at all (and was generally confused). I think those "Image guys" truly did revitalize the industry, particularly Marvel's X-titles, and in all their work reminded readers that art is an important aspect of the comic book experience. Sure, they couldn't hold up the storylines themselves, and their egos led them all down the path of being parodies of themselves. I kinda hate them all now, and don't have any draw to chase down the new DC stuff (even though I subscribed to the new JLA when I saw it on the list of my kid's magazine drive). But I think it's wrong to downplay their positive contributions to the industry over the years.

No big opinion on other writers listed in the comments- I guess I just see a lot of the same pattern- creators who are lauded for some breakout pieces but then can't sustain a level of originality, but somehow continue riding a reputation they often don't continue deserving. The Nickelback of comics, if you ask me.

Anyway, thanks for breaking down the whole NM -> XF thing for me!

Kazekage said...

It took quite a long time for the New Mutants to really get into a groove and become X-Force. I would actually put it at the "aftermath" issue post X-Cutioner's Song actually, which is . . like 17 issues in to the run of X-Force or something, which should tell you something right there.

I'll always stand up for the Image guys, as they really grabbed the younger folks attention in a way that comics really haven't managed to do since, which is kind of a shame. Sure, in the long run it didn't turn out they had a lot of staying power, but you can have disposable pop music exist in the same world as classic rock, surely.

Oh, and I love the phrase "the Nickleback" of comics, and will probably nick it sometime. :)