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Zeb Wells’ ‘New Mutants’: A Modern Day X-Classic

New Mutants is a title with a lot of history, having launched the careers of Deadpool, Cable, and their artist Rob Liefeld into the stratosphere. On top of that, it’s an integral part of the one franchise in comics that puts writers through the wringer more than any other in comics: the X-Men. There have been amazing writers who have had surprisingly bad runs on major X-books, ranging from Uncanny X-Men to X-Force and other flagship titles.

The X-Men franchise has been a jewel in Marvel’s crown for decades, and taking an assignment on an X-book brings with it a ton of pressure. You have to live up to some of the most beloved superhero comics stories ever, carefully navigate decades of labyrinthine history, and deal with enormous editorial pressure. Zeb Wells took on New Mutants in 2009 and recently wrapped up his run. How did he fare in the biggest, baddest meat grinder in comics? Let’s talk it out after the cut.

Uncanny X-Men and X-Men are the biggest monsters in the X-Men franchise, but New Mutants is their long lost sister, to be sure. It brings to mind the glory days of Chris Claremont, Louise Simonson, Bob McCleod, Art Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Rob Liefeld. It’s a title fraught with history and high expectations, and Wells stepped right into the middle of the lion’s den. Prior attempts at a New Mutants revival have hinged upon gratuitous nostalgia or completely reinventing the wheel, and were met with something a lot like apathy from readers. Wells’s take splits the difference. He used a team that was straight out of the classic run of New Mutants, missing only Magneto, Rahne Sinclair, Rictor, Skids, and Boom-boom. Rather than returning Cannonball, Sunspot, Moonstar, Magik, Magma, and Karma to their old fashioned and inexperienced roots, Wells kept them true to all of the character growth and warts they’ve picked up over the years. He wrote them as adults who have been part of a paramilitary strike force since they were teenagers, and more specifically, Cannonball as the battlefield general he became in the pages of X-Force. Wells made it a point to use history to push the book forward, rather than trying to recapture the past.

At the same time, paying homage to the past is something that X-writers simply have to do. Wells, despite the forward-looking nature of his run, is no different. Legion, the tremendously powerful mutant son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller, is the first villain the New Mutants fight. In the ’90s, Legion kicked off the entire Age of Apocalypse event. He doesn’t have quite so drastic an effect this time around, but he still provides a worthy challenge for the team. Wells also worked in a good old fashioned Days of Future Past scenario–where someone comes back from the future to warn of the X-Men’s impending doom with the hopes of changing it–as a crucial part of his run. Inferno, a classic crossover from the ’80s that involved demons invading New York, provides a surprise villain for late in Wells’s run. Even the title of his next to last story arc, “Fall of the New Mutants,” is a direct reference to Fall of the Mutants, another ’80s-era crossover. Wells even made that classic (and shockingly common!) X-Men mistake of having Bobby DaCosta, alias Sunspot, speak Spanish in his early issues. Sunspot, of course, is Brazilian. He speaks Portuguese, but if you flip through his appearances over the past twenty years, you’ll find that he speaks an awful lot of Spanish.

This could easily turn into continuity stew, but over the course of his twenty issues, Wells made all of this very accessible and easy to understand. I haven’t read everything he’s referencing, but he gave me enough information to follow along and, if need be, hit up Wikipedia later on to get the full history. For long-time fans, or ones who only partly know their X-Men history, the backstory adds to the weight of the story. For new readers, it simply provides an opportunity to learn more, rather than serving as a stumbling block.

Wells’s run can be separated into three distinct arcs. The introduction, composed of the “Return of Legion” story arc and drawn by Diogenes Neves, sets the stage for the team. We’re reintroduced to characters have been around for decades now and quickly caught up on all of their personalities and quirks. He introduces Legion, and even adds a couple of nice twists on Legion’s powers. In addition, the team is together because they’re old friends, rather than any sense of “how things should be,” like seems to happen so often with Teen Titans. When one of New Mutants was in need, the others leapt to help each other out. Every time Wells references the past, he makes sure to do it in such a way that it’s very easy to understand. What’s more, he adds to the past, providing new things for longtime fans to enjoy.

This part of his run is simply good comics with no gimmicks. Wells and artist Diogenes Neves tell a very straightforward and exciting story in “Return of Legion,” even while setting things up that will pay off several issues down the line. It also establishes that Wells has a firm grasp on all of the characters he’s writing, and that he knows how to craft a story without depending on your knowledge of X-Men history.

The middle segment of his run, issues 6-14, is Crossover Hell, which is as much an X-Men tradition as teasing the return of Jean Grey. New Mutants ties in with Necrosha (a crossover that featured undeadish mutants attacking all of the major X-Men teams) for a few issues. As a result of this story, Doug Ramsey comes back to life and Warlock, the alien robot who befriended the New Mutants in the past, returns to the team. While these are more than welcome additions to the cast, particularly considering Wells’s fantastic reinterpretation of Doug Ramsey’s powers, they’re clearly part of another story arc. Wells manages to make it feel like an appropriate part of his series by taking the time to focus on how the return of Doug makes the rest of the team feel, but this also serves as a speedbump for his run. Necrosha zombies come out of nowhere and go away just like that. You get a glimpse of the crossover from these three issues, but overall, the issues feel unsatisfying, despite Wells’s deft scripting.

Shortly after that comes X-Men: Second Coming chapters 3, 7, and 11. Inter-title crossovers are the most pernicious tradition of cape comics, and if you aren’t reading the entire line of X-books, these issues are nearly pointless. There are some fantastic character bits and some quality art (particularly from Nathan Fox), but you’re looking at, at best, about four pages of New Mutants-centric content per issue. The rest of it is your typically large-scale, unsatisfying, complex, and un-fun x-over.

The final segment, and the one where Wells sticks the landing, is made up of issues 15-21, the “Fall of the New Mutants” and “Rise of the New Mutants” story arcs, which are both drawn by Leonard Kirk. This is where Wells takes full control of the series once again and shows exactly why he was the right choice to write this book. There’s an issue dedicated to the New Mutants just hanging out and speaking to each other about their lives, and the dialogue is as funny and warm as it should be. Later, after he sees the true goal of the bad guys, Cannonball loses his temper and goes berserk. Doug Ramsey, after being enslaved, finds a clever, and horribly creepy, way out of enemy control. There’s even a scene that brings to mind the recent major death in Fantastic Four, but the scene in New Mutants earns its moment much better than the scene in FF.

This is all yet another example of Wells’s skill at blending the old and the new. He uses a loose end from Inferno that even the most hardcore of X-fans had forgotten about to create a new group of mutants with a compelling history. By focusing on the characters, rather than the events of the past, he successfully brings this loose end into the present day without sending readers screaming for Wikipedia. Where these characters come from isn’t always as important as who they are and what they are doing, and Wells focuses on the latter to great effect.

There hasn’t been a perfect run on an X-book in years. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix was great, until it hit the road bump that was trying to write a story with a mutant Princess Di, and his run on X-Men is better left unmentioned. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men had some heinous art problems. Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men has its merits, but often fell prey to paying too much homage to the past and having dialogue that was entirely too Whedon-y. Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men never managed to get off the ground, despite zipping into space for an interminable story. Matt Fraction’s run on the same book has been blessed with great art from Terry and Rachel Dodson and cursed with typically awful art from Greg Land. No one has managed to fire on all cylinders on an X-book in a very long time.

The best-executed run in X-comics lately has come courtesy of British writer Mike Carey, who hopped onto X-Men with Humberto Ramos and Chris Bachalo in 2006 and created some of the best X-comics in years. Roughly one year into his run, however, he was derailed by Messiah CompleX, yet another x-over, which was his own introduction to Crossover Hell. What followed was X-Men Legacy, which effectively derailed Carey’s run with (admittedly well-written) Continuity Cop Comix. He finally got to return to his original plot for four all-too-brief issues in late 2010 before returning to the tale of Hope, the so-called mutant messiah.

(An aside: It must be noted that Carey writes what is hands-down the best interpretation of Sam Guthrie in ages. Perhaps the secret to having a great run on an X-comic is to include Cannonball, who really should have taken Cyclops’s place years ago?)

In his 20 issues, though, Wells has come closest to taking Carey’s crown. He navigated through one crossover with aplomb, and while Second Coming was a tremendous speed bump, he managed to hold his run together long enough to wrap it all up. His run was very heavy on good characterization, with plenty of non sequiturs, in-jokes (the one about Cannonball and Sauron was a particularly great treat for kids like me who grew up on X-Force), and genuine growth. The entire cast ends the series different from how they were before, which is all too rare in this era of rotating status quos. They make hard decisions, build on their already established relationships, and gain new scars or lose limbs.

New Mutants was good. Wells’s run was fantastic to read, barring the blips in the middle, and it’s nice to read a run that tells, or attempts to tell, one story from start to finish. Not only that — Wells’s run was good X-Men comics, which is something even the most popular writers have completely failed to deliver, whether due to editorial interference, unsatisfying crossover issues, or just straight-up bad writing. Wells packed in the history, soap opera, and pretty much everything else fans love about the X-Men (save for Wolverine and the Phoenix smooching) and got the job done. In the end, he’ll have three trades of A+ work for readers to dig into.

Bravo.

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