New Mutants: Demon Bear Review
Sometimes an artist change happens on a book, and no one notices. Then you have changes like when New Mutants went from the likes of Bob McLeod and Sal Buscema to Bill Sienkiewicz, accompanied by colorist Glynis Wein. While the writing by Chris Claremont remained the same, the entire angle of the New Mutants book went from a childhood adventure comic to something decidedly darker.
The newest re-issuing of the Demon Bear Saga, released to try and tie-in with the now-delayed New Mutants motion picture, collects this drastic change in direction for the New Mutants. The book runs from issues 18 to 20 of the 1983 series, with brief snippets of relevant pages from early issues that hinted at the entity known as the Demon Bear. With this, Marvel intends to cash-in on the New Mutants hype…and it’s not a bad reason to re-issue this content. However, the execution is less than desired.
Since the actual Demon Bear story starts incredibly abruptly, the collection opens with a remarkably brief summary of what’s happened so far. This is accompanied with small excerpts from issues 1, 3, and 17. It’s important to convey how the Demon Bear has haunted Dani Moonstar her entire life and how no one else believes that it exists, and it does the job. It also has the unfortunate side-effect of disconnecting the reader from almost all of the other main characters aside from Dani, and the lack of a character introduction page can make new readers incredibly disconnected from the story.
Issue 18 also has its own flaws, but ones that are easily forgivable in the larger picture of Claremont’s tenure on New Mutants. The issue not only features both an interlude for then-newcomer in Uncanny X-Men Rachel Summers’ backstory in a bit of cross promotion, but also features the first appearance of new team member Warlock. Sadly, Warlock’s sidestory winds up feeling random, thanks to Claremont and Sienkiewicz playing the long game and not having Warlock show up until after the Demon Bear story ended. To make matters worse, the interlude for Rachel Summers features major characters being slaughtered in what turns out to be a flashback for Rachel’s own horrific future timeline, which is jarring to the uninitiated.
Putting aside those interludes, the main story begins with the teenaged New Mutants training in the Danger Room of the Xavier school campus, wrecking robots right and left. It works as a solid introduction to the team, and the narration coming from Dani Moonstar helps flesh out her relationship with the rest of her teammates. Danger Room sequences for the X-Men have always been strong story openings, and this is no different. After a day of schooling, Dani realizes that the Demon Bear that has been hunting her in recent dreams has come to the school. Dani heads out into the wintry night, equipped with traditional weaponry to take on this malevolent force.
After a struggle with the bear-themed mass of death, it looks like Dani has defeated him with an arrow to what looks like his throat, only for her friends to find her, bleeding out into the snow and unconscious. It doesn’t take long to get Dani to the hospital, but the bear knows that his job isn’t done. And now it’s up to the still active New Mutants to save their friend from the unspeakable horror that is the Demon Bear.
Simply put, the Demon Bear story is amazing. Sienkiewicz is at the top of his game, fresh off his run on Moon Knight, with an art style that can switch between hyper-detailed and incredibly stylistic at the swipe of a pen. With Claremont at the helm and co-plotting, he made sure to take the ‘house style’ off Sienkiewicz and let him loose. Starting from a somewhat realistic stance, the world surrounding the Demon Bear slowly begins to distort and break, with logic leaving the page until the reader is left stranded in the badlands of another realm, facing down certain death alongside the New Mutants. There are several times that the art gets hard to follow, but Claremont and Sienkiewicz together leave the reader with the impression that this is a side effect of the Demon Bear itself rather than incompetence.
Since three issues and some extra pages make for a light collection, Marvel has also tossed in a semi-sequel for this story. The first of these two comes from X-Force (1991) issue 99. Titled Bad Company, its also introduced by a few pages from issues 96 and 97, with a brief summary of what has happened recently. Written by John Francis Moore, with art by Jim Cheung, they’re accompanied by inker Mark Morales and colorist Marie Javins to round out the crew.
To make a real long story short, the New Mutants have partially reunited under the team name X-Force, and the Demon Bear (or another one like it) is running amuck in downtown San Francisco. The story is serviceable, but mostly as an excuse to set up the 100th issue of X-Force. The problem is--that 100th issue isn’t actually included in the comic. This leaves the reader with a case of not being sure what just happened and no answers as to what will actually happen next. Then again, considering issue 100 turns into a cluster of confusion involving multiple universes and multiple characters that aren’t even in the Demon Bear storyline, it’s somewhat forgivable to leave it out.
The art, though, is a little more problematic. Jim Cheung’s artwork for X-Force 99 is respectable for the era, but has a distinct problem of everyone seeming to have the same one of five faces at all times. As seen above, there can also be the occasional issue of everyone being reduced to having LEGO-man faces. The solid ink work and coloring help fix this issue somewhat, but it can leave the comic looking almost amateurish at times.
The final piece of this collection is from the 2010 iteration of X-Force, excerpts from issues 7 through 10. Known as Old Wounds, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost share writing duties for this run. Mike Choi and Sonia Oback take the art and coloring duties for this tale. James Proudstar, member of the titular team, takes time off to go off into the desert for… reasons. While in the desert, he’s ambushed by a completely different Demon Bear. What makes this story different is that Ghost Rider shows up out of nowhere to help out, and it is rather awesome.
The art is incredible, with Choi’s pencils and inks making a different enough looking Demon Bear from before, while still referencing the bear of old. The few different characters we see are distinct and look almost realistic, with the muted colors adding to the realism. The only real problem is that the story ends utterly abruptly with a tease for yet another story not included in this collection. However, the addition of Ghost Rider and the action for the story do make up for the unfulfilled tease.
Remarkably, Marvel has also included a bonus section of original artwork from the stories, as well as the original bonuses from the first Demon Bear Saga collection. Considering these, like many DVD bonuses, are often lost to time with subsequent re-releases, it’s a real nice touch.
While the bonus stories wind up leaving readers with more questions than answers, they are just an unnecessary cream atop an already great sundae. If anyone is curious about the New Mutants before their upcoming movie, it’s hard to go wrong with this collection. It would be nice to include something describing the characters involved prior to tossing the reader into the deep end, but it just means we’re missing a cherry on this proverbial desert.