In the mutants, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the richest allegorical characters in superhero comics. In most popular adaptations, they can represent oppressed races and sexual orientations. More recently, the television series LEGION used the mutant metaphor as a way to represent the stigmatization of mental health issues. The X-Men and their massive world, including THE NEW MUTANTS, will always be the most meaningful when used to speak about larger cultural concepts.

Recently, the trailer for Josh Boone’s THE NEW MUTANTS dropped. Boone had spoken in interviews about how he planned to make a superhero film with a horror movie tone. Of course, we have often heard studios and directors discuss the idea of superhero films not being a genre but rather a lens to tell genre stories. Some directors deliver on this promise more successfully than others.

However, THE NEW MUTANTS trailer surprised many fans with its horror film tone. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Marvel logo and the word “mutant” the trailer would look like the next Blumhouse Production. A closer look at some of the original NEW MUTANTS comics reveals just how deep these horror roots go.

It is no coincidence that so many horror films feature teenage protagonists. Something is terrifying about the crushing weight of adulthood on the adolescent mind. In fact, the mutant metaphor and the horror metaphor both use blossoming sexuality and puberty as metaphors for the existential anxieties of adulthood. Therefore, by merging these two, Boone’s NEW MUTANTS may end up being a fascinating cinematic adaptation of Marvel’s merry mutants yet.

Slasher Set-Up

Art by Matthew Peak (left) and Bill Sienkiewicz (right)

THE NEW MUTANTS was a 1983 spin-off of the hugely popular UNCANNY X-MEN series. The comic, written by Chris Claremont, would become an important piece of the X-brand. He put together a culturally diverse team of young mutants and dipped into the young teen soap opera drama that he perfected in the UNCANNY book.

The initial line-up of this relaunch included Cannonball, Magik, Sunspot, Wolfsbane, and Dani Moonstar. They were a group of teenagers, each with their own internal struggles and secret crushes, being thrust into dangerous, life-threatening scenarios. The cast of NEW MUTANTS were basically the cast of a slasher film with a superhero paint job.

The book reached new levels of creative heights when penciled Bill Sienkiewicz came aboard. His abstract, frenzied style brought bold characters like Legion and Warlock to life. His painted covers alone blew away anything else on the stands. They were weird and unsettling, evocative of horror posters like Matthew Peak’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

The Claremont/Sienkiewicz issues of NEW X-MEN illustrate the collaborative nature of comics. Sienkiewicz’s art was perfectly suited to Claremont’s surreal story concepts. Sienkiewicz pushing the stories of these New Mutants into nightmarish territory with stories like The Demon Bear Saga.

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Dani and the Demon Bear

New Mutants
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz. Courtesy Marvel Comics

For many, our parents give us a sense of identity. For better or worse, parental figures shape our sense of self-worth. They can build us up to the best versions of ourselves, or break us down into self-loathing and doubt. Their absence can leave us feeling lost, but their constant presence can suffocate us. They wield power over their children, and that power can be terrifying for both children and their parents.

For Dani Moonstar, the Demon Bear is her white whale. Dani’s ability to manifest the fears of those around her gave her the vision of the Demon Bear that would someday kill her parents. She searched for the creature since the night of her parents’ death, not even sure it existed. Dani marches out into the snow one night to face her personal demon, only to be violently struck down. Her teammates find her and bring her to a nearby hospital where the Demon Bear sucks them into an alternate dimension of terror known as the Badlands.

The Demon Bear story is a story of horror, but it is also a story of living in the shadow of our parents. Dani wants to do what her parents couldn’t: exorcise the Demon Bear from the world. The New Mutants manage to overcome the power of the Demon Bear through Magik’s sword. In the process, they rescue Dani’s parents from the imprisonment of the Demon Bear. In this story, Claremont establishes a theme he will often return to in the saga of the New Mutants: the legacy of parents. For Dani, slaying the Demon Bear would provide the cathartic resolution she has been denied since the disappearance of her parents.

Defeating the Demon Bear was not just a noble quest; it was a psychological compulsion to fulfill the role left behind by her parents. Ironically, it’s Dani’s willingness to sacrifice herself that draws out the Demon Bear into a battle with the New Mutants, sealing its fate. Her sacrifice leads to her parents’ return, but the horror of adulthood rarely ends so peacefully.

Sins of the Fathers

Art by Bill Sienkiewicz. Courtesy of Marvel Comics

In THE NEW MUTANTS, parental fears are manifested in David Haller, the estranged son of Charles Xavier. In NEW MUTANTS #26, Doctors diagnose David as autistic and schizophrenic. His neurological state keeps him at an emotional distance from everyone he comes into contact with. His powers further manifest this feeling of isolation by giving him a different power for each of his divided personalities.

In his psychic form as Legion, David first lashes out by attacking Dani’s parents. David is directing his animosity towards his own absent father toward the types of parents he never had. He grew up with a mother but never knew his father. In turn, Charles Xavier never knew that his former lover Gabrielle had a son. When Legion unleashes a psychic attack that incapacitates Xavier’s mutants, the professor takes it upon himself to enter the mind of David Haller to discover what is happening.

Each of David’s personalities personifies the conflict within David. One, a macho American warmonger, another an apathetic anarchist in the midst of destruction, the third, a peaceful Arab man who is the scapegoat of the American’s rage. The horror of this story is much more psychological but no less terrifying.

The American, a personality by the name of Jack Wayne, represents the Oedipal impulses and masculine violence that is just as horrifying as any monster. Not surprising Claremont and Sienkiewicz present him as an overblown American movie star like John Wayne.

In a way, this manifestation of Wayne is perhaps how David imagined his own father. Wayne is the ideal masculine figure according to society’s presentation of manhood. Therefore, David would, of course, create this sort of archetype in his mind to replace his father. In this vain attempt to become his dad, he ends up creating a far more terrifying monster.

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“This Be the Verse…”

Both Dani and David live in the shadow of their parental legacy. In turn, their fears of meeting the expectations of those parental figures manifest in terrifying ways. Boone’s film may be presenting the New Mutants in a more “stripped down” manner.

However, the horror of these comics is evident in both the art and the text. If we’re lucky, Boone’s film will genuinely capture the scariest thing of all: growing up.

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