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.
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.