Don’t Call Them X-Babies Anymore: New Mutants: War Children #1

New Mutants: War Children #1

Chris Claremont (writer), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Bill Sienkiewicz (artist), Chris Sotomayor (colorist)
Marvel Comics
September 25, 2019

In the 1980s, Bill Sienkiewicz, artist on The New Mutants, Moon Knight, Elektra: Assassin, and other titles, was putting art on spinner racks that looked like nothing Marvel had ever sold before. Stylistically, Sienkiewicz changed the game, though as his run with Chris Claremont on The New Mutants released month by month, it wasn’t yet clear how large his impact would be.

The original nine New Mutants, except Karma, pose around a large purple X-Men logo.
New Mutants: War Children #1 variant cover by Martin Simmonds, from Marvel Comics September 2019.

Now, with the release of New Mutants: War Children #1, it’s unquestioned that Claremont and Sienkiewicz are two of the greats: creators who defined who the New Mutants would be remembered as, and whose impact on comics as a medium cannot be questioned. In 2019, it’s been decades since they each left the original run of The New Mutants. But this single-issue story reunites the creative team with the original nine New Mutants—along with Kitty Pryde and Lockheed—for the first time since 2003’s X-Men Unlimited #43. A nostalgic return to the school years of the team, this beautifully illustrated story reminds readers just what was so compelling about the team’s original run, and will leave them hotly anticipating more of the team’s adventures in November’s relaunch of New Mutants.

The story goes something like this: Warlock, a Technarch who fled to Earth seeking refuge from the Technarchy’s instinctive imperative to destroy their young, becomes overwhelmed by the fear that when the Magus, his sire, eventually tracks him to Earth, Warlock will find himself forced to hurt his “self-friends”: the New Mutants. Fleeing the school to hide in the Institute’s grounds, Warlock begins infecting the Xavier Institute’s forest—and soon the New Mutants themselves—with his strain of the techno-organic Transmode Virus. In the struggle to free the infected mutants and shake Warlock loose from this fear, Magik’s dark side, the Darkchylde, emerges, hoping to take control of the team from Warlock for her own means.

For a single-issue, even an oversized anniversary issue, the story is awfully dense. Either Warlock’s nightmare-fueled panic or the threat posed by the Darkchylde could easily have carried an oversized double-issue, or even a mini-series. Combining both of these plots into a forty-page issue nearly felt rushed, events happening so quickly one after the other that the cast of nine human mutants, one technarch, and one small purple dragon feel cramped. While it’s exciting to see the classic team back on panel together, there are simply not enough pages for each of the nine New Mutants to have a great deal to do. Karma and Cannonball, in particular, seem shunted to the side—a greater disservice to Karma, easily the most classically sidelined of the New Mutants, who only features on one of the issue’s three covers.

The goddess Hela, infected by the Transmode Virus, appears to tell Dani Moonstar that she will always be a Valkyrie, and Dani reflects on this fate.
New Mutants: War Children #1 from Marvel Comics in September 2019, by artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Chris Sotomayor.

The story is deeply nostalgic, which certainly makes sense for an anniversary issue featuring the return of an iconic creative team. At times, this nostalgia feels clever and familiar, such as Sunspot’s rash bravery ringing pitch-perfect to his early characterization, regardless of how greatly his character has evolved in the years since he graduated high school. At other points, it feels cloying. In an introductory page, narration asserts that ex-girlfriend Lila Cheney is a currently otherwise married Cannonball’s “true love.” Hela makes a narratively unnecessary cameo insisting that Dani Moonstar, who lost her Valkyrie status in this summer’s War of the Realms event, will be a Valkyrie “now and forever.” Sunspot jokes that Cypher, now the only mutant able to communicate directly with the mutant island of Krakoa, cannot talk to plants. These moments exist in the story to telegraph to readers that while other writers may have written these characters in the thirty-two years since Claremont left the title, Claremont still considers his word to be final.

Sienkiewicz crafts gorgeous, creative, and evocative art in this issue, retaining all of the energy he brought to his run on The New Mutants, but with the clear benefit of greater experience. Sienkiewicz has elevated his style in the years since, but each page is still so distinctively his own, immediately invoking the run that comes to mind for most when they think of the New Mutants. Panels are laid out in inventive, eye-catching formations, with full page spreads overlaid by smaller panels propelling the narrative forward, contrasting with pages laid out in more familiar, but still inventively slanting, grids.

Colorist Chris Sotomayor’s vibrant color work aids Sienkiewicz’s expressive art, and together the two artists produce a book that feels richly textured and dense with detail on every page. In particular, they shine in depicting the inhuman looking powers of the New Mutants—a full page of Magma succumbing to the Transmode Virus is breathtaking, and spreads of Warlock and of Magik’s Darkchylde form similarly dazzle. Warlock, in particular, is stunning. He spills out across pages, techno-organic circuitry creeping from panel to panel, he looms giant and monstrous over Cypher, and he takes on wild, creative shapes which utilize the comics medium to its fullest effect.

Warlock of the New Mutants contorts into a monstrous form in a nightmare where he is forced to slay his frends.
New Mutants: War Children #1 from Marvel Comics in September 2019, by artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Chris Sotomayor.

Equally eye-catching are the issue’s three covers. Sienkiewicz’s main cover cleverly hints at the plot of the issue: a nightmarish Technarch hovers across the cover, spindly claws reaching from the bottom to cage the New Mutants (excluding Karma) standing in the foreground. Original The New Mutants artist Bob McLeod also contributed a cover featuring the five original team members whom he designed, and Martin Simmonds created a lovely cover reminiscent of Sienkiewciz’s expressionistic art, featuring each of the New Mutants, though once again excluding Karma, posing around a giant X.

Letterer Clayton Cowles similarly brings his considerable skill to this issue, lettering lengthy narration and dialogue that could have weighed overwhelmingly on the page with a neat grace. Shifting scripts between the voices of Warlock, Darkchylde, and the other New Mutants, Cowles makes it clear who is speaking and under whose influence each speaker is, as Warlock’s transmode virus incorporates the New Mutants one by one. Particularly inventive is how Cowles handles Cypher and Warlock’s dialogue as they merge into the Douglock being and as they individuate, lettering indicating the Cypher-Warlock mindmeld as seamlessly as Sienkiewicz’s illustrations of Cypher and Warlock’s merging and shifting forms do their gestalt status.

In just forty pages, Claremont, Sienkiewicz, Sotomayor, and Cowles tell a story that could only be a New Mutants story. The issue fits neatly into the context of the classic Claremont/Sienkiewicz run on the title, reads as a fun adventure in its own right, and comes just in time to remind X-Men readers just why they should be looking forward to the team’s reunion this fall.

Emma Snape

Emma Snape

Emma is an Ohio native who has worked in film production and education, and writes about comics on the side. She loves thinking about the role of visuals in narrative storytelling, both in film and comics, reading comics set in cities she's lived in, and telling people to read X-Force (1991).