Marvel’s New Mutants was one of the first funnybooks I followed on a consistent basis, medications as it made its debut right when my eleven year old self was most receptive to the series’ mixture of teen angst and mutant melodrama. (My then-recent discovery of a local news vendor that sold current comics didn’t hurt either.) While my affection for the characters and excitement at getting in on the ground floor for the first of many, many X-Men spinoffs kept the fires of my enthusiasm stoked through the first year-and-a-half of the series’ run, there was also a niggling realization that the quality of the product fell well short of the X-pectations established by its franchised lineage.
This partly had to do with the nature of team and the repeated assertions that its protagonists were “superhuman teenagers” not “superheroes.” This attempt at hairsplitting — like most other mainstream attempts to buck that genre template — turned out to be largely semantic in practice, where declarations of difference inevitably led down convoluted paths toward the same old slugfests readers had become conditioned to expect. Protest all you want, but if the story ends up with battling Viper and Silver Samurai with the help of a team of toy-licensed stunt cyclists, then you’re coloring well within established genre lines.
New Mutants‘s lack of distinguishing characteristics also extended to the artistic front. The unique illustration styles of John Byrne and (later) Paul Smith did much to define the sense that X-Men’s ongoing series was different type of beast, removed from the standard impression of what a “typical” Marvel superhero book was expected to look like. New Mutants started off with a distinct and strong visual identity — thanks to co-creator Bob McLeod’s solid Mike Zeck-meets-John Buscema aesthetic — but quickly settled into the familiar and predictable patterns associated with Sal Buscema’s pencilwork.
(That’s not a dig at Swingin’ Sal, whose art I think is just swell. It’s just that the man’s prolific output and wide portfolio of assignments — including those infamous Hostess ads — during the 1970s and 1980s has forged a permanent association between his style and “generic Bronze Age Marvel art” in my subconciousness.)
This changed radically when Bill Sienkiewicz was handed the artistic reins of New Mutants starting with issue #18 of the series. Though Sienkiewicz had begun his comics career as a passable Neal Adams imitator, he quickly developed a highly distinctive and expressionistic illustrative style (demonstrated across dozens of memorable Marvel cover) which he carried over to his new assignment. If the editorial logic was akin to asking an Old Master to paint one’s tool shed, the results in terms of adding a signature visual hook to an otherwise forgettable series were remarkable.
In (deliberate or subconscious) response to the radical change visual style, New Mutants writer Chris Claremont began tailoring the book’s plots to play Sienkiewicz’s artistic strengths. The teen drama aspects of the title were retained, but with a slightly darker and more sinister edge involving surreal Native American “demon bears,” the psychic landscape of a teen affected with multiple personality disorder, and the the arrival of a bizarre new member of the team…
…known and (un)loved as Warlock.
The member of a race of shapechanging techno-organic aliens who feed on energy, Warlock rejected his people’s Cronus-Zeus mechanic of child-rearing and sought sanctuary on Earth (after accidentally disintegrating Asteroid M and thus setting up X-Men’s “Trial of Magneto” arc). Though his bizarre appearance — and his ability to infect organic beings with a “transmode” virus to faciliate snacking on their bioenergy — led to a requisite donnybrook with the New Mutants, the misunderstanding was soon sorted out and the extra-terrestrial fugitive was granted a place on the team roster.
(Warlock’s lack of proper Homo superior genetic cred was waived because his ability to feel compassion for others was seen as a unique “mutation” among his species…which I can only assume means that he hailed from a techno-organic race of space Republicans.)
Besides allowing Chris Claremont to scratch his recurring itch to dabble in sci-fi concepts, Warlock also assumed the role the team’s resident naif unversed in modern American culture and thus prone to issuing pseudo-profundities about the confusing nature of world we all take for granted. (“Query: Selfriendbobby, why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?”) As several other members of the New Mutants’ roster also fulfilled a similarly sophomoric purpose, Warlock was also given the duty of babysitting his teammate Cypher, as Cypher’s actually useful superpower of symbolic and linguistic interpretation made him the New Mutants’ weakest link.
Mostly, however, Warlock served as a vector for Claremont’s inexplicable fascination with cramming two words together into irritatingly precious neologisms, an unfortunate writing tic which may also have been a product of the man’s obsession with contemporary trends in “literary” science fiction. Whatever Claremont’s reasons were, they didn’t make the manifestations — “lifedeath,” “selfriend,” “murderhate” — any less grating for the end user stuck wading through the gibberish. Even worse, Warlock upped the stakes by predceding his speech with signifiers such as “query” or “observation,” which evoked the voice of Deathlok’s internal ‘puter…after it had received a “fourteen year old aspiring poet” firmware upgrade.
Warlock remained with the New Mutants long after Sienkiewicz moved on to other projects, which placed subsequent artists in the ineviable position of making sense of a character design so deeply rooted in “Billy the Sink’s” unique style. While guys like Art Adams and Alan Davis made a decent go of rendering Warlock’s visual noise into something passable, but even the best efforts only served to underline how out of place Warlock felt against the backdrop of more “traditional” illustration techniques.
Since his days as a New Mutant, Warlock has gone through the the typical cycle of developements associated with x-supporting cast members — deaths (fake and real), resurrections (fake and real), and a gestalt fusion with the corpse of Cypher which was dubbed “Douglock” (real, unfortunately). Though Warlock and his people were put to effective use in the Annihilation: Conquest storyline, the truthfact remains that the heartsad emoalien and his brutalpain speechcrimes have earnwon him a homeplace in the heapscrap of Nobodysfavorites.