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Monday, August 24, 2020

‘The New Mutants’: How the Demon Bear Brought Horror to the X-Men [Comics]

After more than two years, it looks like The New Mutants are finally coming to theaters.

Comic fans have been dying to see the movie since its first scheduled release date of April 13th, 2018, and not just because it brings the beloved X-Men spin-off to the screen, or because writer/director Josh Boone and writer co-writer Knate Lee promise to deliver a proper superhero-themed horror movie.

No, longtime fans of The New Mutants comics are excited because the movie’s central villain is the team’s most memorable protagonist, the Demon Bear. Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, the Demon Bear is the psychic manifestation of dark emotions. After a brief cameo in The New Mutants #3, the Bear fully appeared in 1984’s The New Mutants #18, when it haunted the dreams of Dani Moonstar aka Mirage, the Cherokee mutant who can create images of her enemies’ deepest fears. Although it only spanned the three issues The New Mutants #18-20, “The Demon Bear Saga” became the team’s defining story.

X-Men, the Next Generation

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby premiered the team in 1963, the X-Men were a fairly generic set of superheroes. A group of white teen Americans in matching uniforms, the X-Men struggled to stand out next to more popular heroes like Spider-Man and Hulk. But when writer Chris Claremont relaunched the series with 1975’s All-New, All-Different X-Men #1, he seized upon the comic’s core appeal. His new X-Men were a diverse, international team, hailing from all walks of life but bound together by their outsider status as mutants.

In 1982, Claremont married his take to the Lee/Kirby approach with the New Mutants, a new set of teenage mutants to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Students, whose matching uniforms belied their wildly different backgrounds. In addition to the aforementioned Dani Moonstar, the team featured Southern boy Sam Guthrie aka Cannonball, Brazilian Roberto de Costa aka Sunspot, Scottish Catholic Rahne Sinclair aka Wolfsbane, Russian Illyana Rasputin aka Magik, and the ancient Roman mutant Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla aka Magma.

In Claremont’s hands, the New Mutants had more than their share of hellish enemies, including the monstrous minions of the Goblin Queen and the socialite members of the Hellfire Club. But none are as imposing as the Demon Bear.

The Demon Bear Horror

To those glancing through the comics, the three-part Demon Bear Saga doesn’t seem to earn the word “Saga.” The story itself is fairly straightforward. After seeing in her dreams the bear that murdered her parents, Dani decides to hunt and kill the creature. But the fight goes badly, leaving Dani in critical condition with a broken back. While the team waits by Dani’s bedside, the Demon Bear attacks the hospital, eventually transporting the team to the Badlands and transforming two bystanders into twisted versions of Native warriors. The New Mutants defeat the bear thanks to Magik’s soulsword, releasing the Bear’s prisoners and bringing back Dani’s parents.

Instead of slowing down the story, this straightforward superhero plot leaves plenty of room for Claremont and Sienkiewicz to make the story into a surreal nightmare. Claremont’s writing might strike modern readers as unnecessarily verbose and melodramatic, but no writer before him so thoroughly explored the inner lives of heroes in tights. Even more than Stan Lee, Claremont saw superheroes as operatic figures, wracked with contradicting emotions instead of simple morality.

It’s this exploration that makes possible the horror of the Demon Bear Saga. The guilt Dani feels over the death of her parents drives her to fight the Bear, even though she doesn’t entirely understand what she’s looking for. In the story’s somber middle section, in which the team waits in the hospital for Dani to recover, the teens must contend with anti-mutant bigotry from police and the medical staff. At the same time, they wrestle with the realization that their education in the Xavier school may lead to their deaths. Claremont’s reliance on internal monologue effectively separates the characters from one another, making them feel alone even while cloistered together in hospital rooms.

This emphasis on psychology gives Sienkiewicz permission to blend the abstract with the mundane. Although Sienkiewicz had done superhero work in the vein of classic Neil Adams comics on Moon Knight and The Fantastic Four, The New Mutants gave him a chance to explore the nightmarish style that he would later bring to Elektra: Assassin and DC’s Vertigo imprint.

In the story’s early scenes, Sienkiewicz’s frantic linework gives the characters a sense of motion, despite its relatively realistic figures. Sienkiewicz renders an early contest between Dani and a Bear in the Danger Room (the X-Men’s holographic training suite) in the usual superhero proportions. The bear is big and Dani is in bright tights, but that’s standard Marvel Comics stuff.

When Dani finally meets the Demon Bear, it towers over her, filling almost the entirety of the splash page. Snowflakes blowing in a blizzard pass by the bear’s dark patches, giving the impression of a starfield and making the bear feel like a creature of cosmic evil. When it teleports the Mutants to the Badlands, the Bear stands in the background of a tableau, with its victims and the landscape spread out along its body and the team cowering at its feet. As the battle continues, the Bear becomes a black mass, nothing but teeth, claws, and wild eyes. Sienkiewicz draws the Bear’s two minions, the nurse and police officer transformed into figures from Indigenous mythology, as constantly shifting creatures, who morph from skeletons to muscular warriors to cartoonish monsters.

Aided by muted color washes from Glynis Wein and scratchy lettering from Tom Rozechowski, Sienkiewicz imbues even the quiet hospital scenes with a feeling of dread. As the Mutants question their ability to defeat the Bear, their eyes blend with those of the monster, their faces turning bright red. The hospital feels less like a place of refuge and more like a trap where the Bear will come and tear them apart.

Return of the Demon Bear

As powerful as the Demon Bear Saga is, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at some of its use of Indigenous culture. While Dani identifies her specifically Cherokee tribal affiliation, and her extra-worldly abilities are attributed to her status as a mutant instead of Native stereotypes, the story does involve some characters being magically changed from white to Indigenous. If even a white reader like me can see the problem with that story beat, one should be wary of other problems in this story told by white creators.

From the trailers and promotional stills we’ve had years to study, the upcoming New Mutants film seems to lean less heavily on Native mythology and more on psychological torture. Here’s hoping that Boone and Lee can sidestep any racism with the character and make the Demon Bear the scariest ursine monster since Annihilation’s Scare Bear.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/comics/3628879/new-mutants-demon-bear-brought-horror-x-men-comics/

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