Armagideon Time

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.

19 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Lock and load”

  1. Jason K

    Seeing Warlock and Magik pop up for a walk-on in the otherwise excellent X-Club mini brought back memories of how obsessed the eleven year old version of myself was with the New Mutants. I’m ashamed to admit that I actually spent part of a summer prefacing any question I was going to ask with ‘Query’ just like Warlock — that cool robot guy from comics! And, because I wasn’t really jaded about comic book stories, I was legitimately upset when Cypher was killed (Actually, the Greg Land Battlesuit that showed up on the last page of Uncanny X-Men #5 and was traced onto the cover of #6 also tripped my nostalgia switch; it reminded me of Orphan-Maker, the guy who actually killed Cypher originally).

    I guess that, when you’re an eleven year old kid, a transforming space robot who just wants to be buddies and play D&D with you when he’s not turning into a giant yellow and black battlesuit can briefly elevate himself to ‘somebody’s favorite’ status.

  2. Mike Zeidler

    Woah, woah, WOAH!

    I can see not being a fan of Douglock (incredibly disturbing as he is) but Warlock? I guess maybe it’s a generational (though I think you’re only three years older than me) thing, because he’s probably one of my favorite mutant characters.

  3. Deep Space Transmissions

    That ‘super human teenagers who aren’t superheroes’ bit reminded me of Bendis’ introduction of the Secret Warriors. They’re the children of superheroes and villains who were born with special powers, but they’re definitely, repeatedly, not mutants.

    They’re actually basically the New Mutants with Nick Fury instead of Xavier. Fortunately Jonathan Hickman seems to have found this premise just as boring as I did and stopped even bothering writing them into their own comic as it got closer to the end.

    Just think how many weeks (months, years…) you could get out of repurposing this column as Nobody’s Favourite New Mutant. So, so many candidates…

  4. Brimstone

    Huh? Sienkiewicz art for Warlock is amazing. I read one issue of this comic (the demon bear one, i think) and I still remember it. The art you used for this post is fantastic. He’s my new favorite.

  5. Brimstone

    Actually screw it. that last photo is my new avatar for everything

  6. Decker

    I have such fond memories of the Impossible Man vs. Warlock battle in the New Mutants Annual that I’m torn between digging it out of storage and leaving the memory unsullied.

  7. Jason K

    The problem with the New Mutants, ultimately, is that there’s nowhere for them to go. They were created as “The Next Generation of X-Men” but quickly got replaced by an endless sequence of Next Generations from Generation X to the New X-Men to the Five Lights and whatever is going on now over in Wolverine & The.

    (Also, I suppose, it was probably a problem that the New Mutants really showcased Chris Claremont’s tendency to stick crazy accents and broad ethnic stereotypes into things wherever possible.

  8. Adam Halls

    woah, woah, woah.

    I’ve read and loved every installment of this collumn but Warlock is actually one of my favourite characters. Seriously, I own all his New Mutants appearances, his Nov appearances and even his short lived an unappreciated solo title from the 90’s. He’s got a great and really distinctive visual style and a neat (if fairly unoriginal) story hook to him. What’s not to like?

    Although hating on Douglock, that I can get behind.

  9. Ken

    New Mutants was my favorite X-book and Warlock was a favorite character. I actually picked up the Fallen Angels mini-series just because of his status as a team member.

    Now, granted I probably have some emotional issues that were seriously effecting me when I was about 11, but when they first killed Warlock and Rob Liefeld then killed New Mutants to replace it with X-Force I legitimately was upset, spiraling into a deep depression.

    For a character who often served as the comic relief in the series (or at least its attempts at it) he was pretty freakishly terrifying looking. I also really enjoyed how his weird alien virus thing factored into the Inferno crossover, which I still have a pretty big soft spot for (but as yet, not enough of one to pony up for that giant hardcover book of)

  10. zusty

    Waah, Warlock’s _my_ favorite! I’d suggest that his not being able to understand the world/teen culture was resonant with my weird little self, at least — and then there’s Sienkiewicz’s art, which I adore. (I also like Cypher, but I realize that I’m a little nuts for that one.)

  11. CandidGamera

    I will go with the prevailing winds here. I think I spoke up with you lampooned Paladin – saying that while he wasn’t a favorite, he was well-liked by me. Well, this time, I can be more forceful – Warlock is my favorite member of the New Mutants.

  12. Slappy

    While every criticism hurled here at poor ol’ Warl is true, I ALWAYS loved Warlock …by Bill Sienkiewicz. As noted, most other artists can’t handle him and make him look like a John K. character that got bitten by a radioactive Wooly Willie game before falling into a taffy-puller.

  13. Sumguy

    At first I was gonna mention Annihilation, but then I saw you already did. I also just noticed how much of Cosmic Marvel consisted of potential Nobody’s Favorites: Nova, Star-Lord, Phyla-Vell, and a lot of others had pretty minimal fanbases until the days of Annihilation.

  14. Reggie

    I’ve been reading this column for over a year now, and finally there’s a Nobody’s Favorites character that I actually DID like! Warlock wasn’t my favorite…or even my tenth favorite character, but I really liked his initial forays in New Mutants. Thanks for the writing!

  15. David

    Heck yeah – I’m with the majority of commenters: while Warlock wasn’t my favourite, he was definitely a preferred character.

  16. Monzo

    I loved Warlock’s appearance(s) in, um, Power Pack. Does that count for anything?

  17. VDM

    I think he wrote Warlock into the column just so he could make that shitty Republican joke. This site really went downhill lately.

  18. bitterandrew

    It’s a big internet. There are plenty of other sites out there, VDM.

    Feel free to fuck off and make inane comments elsewhere.

  19. Jeremy Henderson

    Really, one of the New Mutants as a Nobody’s Favorite, and it isn’t Sunspot?

    I’m kinda shocked here.

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