The New Mutants Epic Collection 5: Sudden Death finds us firmly in one of the strangest spans of the title. Over halfway through the series’ 100 issue run, Louise Simonson has replaced mutant mastermind Chris Claremont as the title’s writer. She was an obvious choice after having worked closely with Claremont as the editor on the X-Stories and guided the New Mutant’s creation.
Claremont and Ann Nocenti (who had replaced Louise as X-Editor) first recommended her for taking over X-Factor when series lead Bob Layton left that book. After working closely with the X-team on the Mutant Massacre, having Louise take over New Mutants might have felt like a further consolidation of mutant control, keeping the book ‘in the family’ with a writer who had already committed so much time to the characters and concepts that Claremont hadn’t wanted to give up.
Simonson understood the Mutants, right down to each character’s quirks and dispositions. She knew how to play up Sam Guthrie’s hayseed innocence, Roberto DaCosta’s stubborn hotheadedness, and Illyana Rasputin’s borderline sadistic tendencies. With Louise’s experience creating and writing Power Pack for the previous three years, and artist Bret Blevins’ exaggerated, cartoonish pencils, the book started to feel younger, bursting with ’80s teen cinema energy. A lot of unrequited feelings blossom, an adolescent desire for fashion and shopping is introduced, and Illyana gets downright lusty. Meanwhile, things descend even deeper into weirdness. For a series critically beloved for The Demon Bear Saga and Warlock, being weirder might have seemed impossible. Simonson and Blevins managed to find ways.
The volume begins with the crew invited to a boozy party by Cannonball’s space-faring girlfriend, galactic rock star Lila Cheney, where Sam gets dosed by a handful of space punks. If that sounds absolutely convoluted and bonkers, boy does this book have some twists for you.
First of all, we spend six or so issues (over a third of the book) with hideous affront to God Bird Brain, a plot-device-as-character monstrosity who was almost certainly conceived as a loveable Warlock-replacement for the team (Warlock, along with Sunspot, were off having adventures in Jo Duffy’s Fallen Angels mini). Thankfully, the story is redirected and concluded during the Fall of the Mutants crossover so that he and his Island of Doctor Moreau send-up friends are completely overshadowed but the most devastating event of New Mutants history.
Doug Ramsey, the least battle-ready of the team, is killed at the end of the story. Gunned down by one of Cameron Hodge’s Smiley’s, Doug’s death suddenly grounds the team—and the reader—in an understanding that none of this is permanent or immortal. The ramifications go on to echo for the rest of Louise’s run, with characters popping in and out, reverting in age, and being replaced altogether. It also throws Illyana through a dangerous loop, seeing her embrace her demonic side.
After a lengthy bout of brooding, the collection ends with a star-hopping sci-fi romp, one which never tries to escape the dark places the characters are in — one of Simonson’s great strengths is that she never drops the emotional through-lines. After Lila is abducted from a show, the team is unfortunately introduced to the endless “oh-woe-is-me” fainting damsel, Gosamyr, a character so unlikeable that she’s one of the few X-Characters to never be invited back to play in later stories (even Bird Brain eventually reappears). Her entire role in the book is for the boys to swoon and the girls to hate — and, of course, to vaguely be a world-destroying danger, a plotline thankfully dropped.
Despite my obvious dislike for some of the new (and failed) cast members, the New Mutants collected in this volume are nonetheless some of the most fun adventures of the series; Claremont’s run bordered on horror, and a year or so after these issues begins the rigid Liefeld era of the book, a time when Simonson did her best to flesh out very half-baked ideas and characters before quietly resigning (or, by some accounts, being muscled out). Sudden Death exemplifies her taking some bold risks, pushing the characters in interesting (if not exactly definitive) ways. Most importantly, the book is filled with obvious care for the property, a love for the characters that might have been lost on a writer who hadn’t spent a considerable amount of her young career with them. She and Blevins manage to turn a beloved, already iconic book into something all their own.
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