I’ve read enough Marvel Epic Collections to know these colorful tomes can be pretty hit or miss. Sure, they may have an appealing title, but their contents are often a whole lot of filler. Fortunately, this isn’t really the case with the second New Mutants Epic Collection, which is packed with essential stories.
Now, as this collection is called The Demon Bear Saga, obviously, it features one of the most highly regarded New Mutants stories of all time. But beyond the future X-Men’s battle with a supernatural adversary, this 512-page trade paperback has the first appearance of Legion, Emma Frost’s Hellions and Warlock joining the team, among other important moments. Plus, it features the beginning of writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s acclaimed run on the series.
You know, “Epic” does seem like a pretty good word for describing this particular collection. Good work, Marvel.
While I consider myself a major X-Fan, I’ll admit the New Mutants tend to be a blind spot. But reading this collection (and volume that preceded it) has definitely helped. However, if you’re like me, I highly recommend reading New Mutants Epic Collection: Renewal first. It’s not as strong as this volume, but you’ll be less lost as this one kicks off with New Mutants #13. From the aforementioned issue through New Mutants #17, Claremont and artist Sal Buscema deliver pretty standard superhero storytelling with a teenage mutant twist. No disrespect to Buscema’s more traditional pencils, but the switch to Sienkiewicz with issue 18 is a very welcome change of pace.
Still, this story arc is important as the beloved White Queen is at its center doing what she does best: stirring the pot. From Emma butting heads with Kitty Pryde to her interest in teaching the next generation of mutants, there’s a lot in here that writers would mine for decades to come. The interactions between the New Mutants and the Hellions, Emma’s team of young mutants, are also a high point. Hey, is that Hellion James Proudstar, destined to become X-Force’s Warpath??? (Spoiler Alert: Yep!)
But as I alluded to before, this collection’s high point truly is “The Demon Bear Saga.” This is when Uncanny X-Men’s younger sibling found a voice of its own — and that voice featured some pretty gripping horror storytelling. From the very first page of New Mutants #18, featuring the Demon Bear appearing in Dani Moonstar’s blood red bed sheets, you know this series will never be the same. These stories were released in the 1980s, but they could almost pass for modern storytelling thanks to Sienkiewicz’s visuals. The artist wasn’t going to let the traditional comic book layout keep his imagination from running wild. The action breaks free from panels when necessary and Claremont, in turn, seems inspired to rethink his entire approach to storytelling to match his collaborator’s strengths.
I was definitely surprised to learn “The Demon Bear Saga” only lasted three issues, but that’s long enough to establish the Demon Bear as a terrifying threat that would go on to haunt the X-Men for decades to come.
In addition to the towering Demon Bear, it should be noted that Sienkiewicz’s Warlock is always a joy to see. This techno-organic alien is clearly the product of pure creativity, every single time we see him. OK, a powered-up Magma’s also pretty great. Look, it’s Sienkiewicz — it’s all amazing.
Of course, when you’re collecting so many comics from several decades ago, you’re going to run into some issues. Especially when you’re a teen book that had to appear hip to appeal to those crazy ’80s youths. So yeah, occasionally you’ll run into a character who calls Michael Jackson “a dreamboat of a hunk.” That one didn’t age well. Then, you have Claremont transforming two caucasian characters into Native Americans (complete with stereotypical Native American dress). What’s left to do but explore how these changes affect these characters? Oh, and did you know that Legion was initially introduced as an autistic character? Reading about autism and schizophrenia in an ’80s comic book — knowing all that we know now — is … interesting.
Oh, and a friendly reminder: again, this is all written by Claremont, so there are a lot of words. Oh so many words. If you love that, great. If you’re looking for a light summer read, you may want to look elsewhere, because Chris loves to type!
Flaws aside, it’s hard for me to not recommend this collection to X-Men fans. Even if you don’t love characters like Cannonball and Magik, this whole series very much acts as a companion piece to Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. Every other issue, an X-Man seems to show up or something happens that’ll play out in the other book.
If anything, I’m angry it took me this long to read these essential stories–but that’s not your problem. I guess I could always blame my negligence as an X-Fan on the Demon Bear. I mean, isn’t that how Marvel saved Bishop as a character? Just blame the Demon Bear!