What makes the scariest X-Men comic? Welcome to Comic Book Herald’s Krakin’ Krakoa meets One Horrifying Moment, a collaborative Youtube day of awesome creators tackling chills, spills, and thrills across a variety of artforms, all curated by CBH fan favorite Matt Draper!
Today I’ll answer:
- What’s the best horror story in X-Men history!
- Do the X-Men work well in horror?
- Connecting past works to the present day X-Men comics. Including theories and predictions for what’s to come!
For my money, the best horror story in X-Men comics history comes in the pages of The New Mutants, issues #18 to #20, in a 1984 story by Writer, Claremont, Pencils & Inks Sienkiewicz, Colors Glynis Wein, Letters Tom Orzechowski, & Editor Ann Nocenti. “The Demon Bear Saga” as we now call it is an iconic story – perhaps the iconic New Mutants story – kicking off the start of Bill Sienkiewicz’s time as artist on the series (which would last approximately 2 years through 1986), and serving as the inspiration for much of the thoroughly lambasted New Mutants movie that allegedly came out in 2020, but sadly there’s no way to be sure. I’ll focus today primarily on what makes “Demon Bear” tick, transcend and terrify, with an eye towards the future of New Mutants – One idea I’m particularly interested in is whether the New Mutants in particular are built for horror better than anything else in X-Men.
Even before the iconic “Demon Bear” saga, surreal, absurdist, and preposterously evocative artist Bill Sienkiewicz had established himself as the go-to architect of horror in the X-Men lineup. First in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #159 as a fill-in artist, and later in X-Men Annual #6 (a King Size issue), Sienkiewicz is pegged alongside writer Chris Claremont to connect the X-Men to classic horror villain, and Marvel Universe staple, Count Dracula.
To do so, Dracula becomes increasingly obsessed with Ororo Monroe, aka Storm, attempting time and again to make her one of his brides. As you’d expect, Storm ultimately overcomes Dracula’s vampiric overtures, but not without plenty of shocking fang fantasies such as Storm devouring Kitty Pryde’s nubile neck and casting her aside like a broken toy.
Effective as they can be, one of the major differences between Sienkiewicz’s X-Men / Dracula work and “Demon Bear” is that Bob Wiacek inks Sienkiewicz in both the X-Men #159 issue and X-Men Annual, whereas Sienkiewicz inks his own work in Demon Bear. It’s no real insult to say Sienkiewicz’s unique sensibilities simply hit harder when he has full control over interiors and the inking process, and you lose a bit of that in the pages of the X-Men stories.
Of course, another key difference is that Marvel Dracula is inherently not that scary. Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman occasionally work wonders in the 70’s Tomb of Dracula, but ultimately those comics are more likely to put me to sleep than they are to keep me up at night. Since then especially, Dracula has more or less morphed into a Marvel Universe supervillain, as seen most recently in the pages of the Dawn of X Wolverine and Jason Aaron and Ed McGuiness’ Avengers. And he’s a great supervillain to have around, but generally pretty far removed from that iconic horror status.
In many ways this brings us to the primary challenge in telling spine-tingling X-Men stories, and it’s that, for my money, the realness of the mutant metaphor, the realness of the hate and fear that drives so many of their stories, is the *actual* scariest thing about X-Men. I’m innately not that worried about Dracula pulling me into an alley (although to be fair, I overdose on garlic so regularly it’s basically reeking out of my pores), but I am deeply concerned about our world’s bigotry, hatred, and small-minded rage.
That’s why something like X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or Days of Future Past resonates so strongly, and if I’m being honest, the realities of an evangelical Reverend William Stryker weaponizing a mob’s collective fear and hatred into a frothing congregation of mutant-haters is way scarier than anything classically defined within the horror genre. That’s part of why I think horror often misses for the X-Men, as the most effective scares are so thoroughly baked into the concept.
In New Mutants, Chris Claremont, Bill Sienkiewicz and the team found a new avenue for spooks, though, one that simply works on a level few had before or since. Truly, if you peruse through the rare Marvel Comics that can pull off effective horror – the current ongoing run on Immortal Hulk comes to mind – many of the lessons integrated into the work can be traced back to “Demon Bear.”
From the opening page, the tone of terror and palpable suspense is locked in place. From Sienkiewicz’s stunning integration of Dani Moonstar’s blanket and the face of the bear, to Claremont’s atypically restrained opening set-up, opening issue #18 is all looming threat, watching and waiting for the inevitable showdown between Dani and the Demon Bear that murdered her parents.
It’s a classic horror movie set-up too where Professor X, aka Dad, is out of touch, and it’s just the kids at home in the X-Mansion. This is a huge part of why “Demon Bear” works better in the pages of “New Mutants,” bringing the terror face-to-face with the young squad of teenage mutants, disconnected for much of the story from the safety net of their guardian protectors.
Even in moments of relative normalcy, such as the New Mutants training the X-Mansion’s danger room, Siekiewicz and Glynis Wein colors ensure the sharp spike of menacing panels keep the tension high. The use of reds and black space, alongside panels literally spilling over the safety of the school, set up a feeling that this demonic presence is invading the comic, gearing up to explode and attack at any moment.
More than anything, though, I think “Demon Bear’s” strongest trick is how Sienkiewicz sells the unseen. As much as I do quite love the reveal, the idea of a menacing Demon Bear out to get you is significantly scarier one you can actually visualize, measure, and quantify. Even after the Demon Bear is revealed, Sienkiewicz continues to lean into this, letting our imaginations do the heavy lifting trying to decipher the threat of the Bear from the mere presence of its fangs and poor Sharon and Tom’s screams.
There are classic odes to monster movies, as well, with Rahne Sinclair’s transformation into her mutant form coming closer to the raw kinetic energy of werewolves, literally shredding her clothes and inhabiting a wildness and power unique to what we’ve seen from the innocent young Scot in the book to that point.
Re-reading I was struck, too, how even the subplots interspersed throughout these three issues of New Mutants – the arrival of Rachel Summers to the X-Mansion, and Warlock’s flight from his murderous father the Magus – are steeped in chilling terror. It’s certainly arguable whether these “keep the chains moving” types of subplots – very common during the Claremont era of 80’s X-Men and New Mutants – are to the overall benefit of “Demon Bear,” but they are at least tonally consistent.
First we see a vision of a future from Rachel Summers, a Days of Future Past cast-off just coming to Earth-616 for the first time, in which Professor X calls for a military ceasefire at the window of the X-Mansion, and the armed soldiers shoot him anyway.
The next instance sets up the hunt of Warlock by the Magus, our introduction to the characters, and a pretty screwed up father/son story about a dad hunting his child to extinction. Again, note the tonal overlap as on the very same page Dani Moonstar hunts her own demon, connected to the death of her family.
Once the Demon Bear is finally unveiled in full, THE MAGNITUDE OF THE THREAT is impossibly convincing. Dani actually hunts and kills a vicious Bear in a Danger Room exercise prior to walking out into the snowing school grounds to confront the real threat, and the actual Demon Bear makes Dani’s previous training assailant look like a teddy bear.
Sienkiewicz is incredible at larger than life figures, and selling scope and scale on the page, and “Demon Bear” is an all-time great example. Plus, note the use of shadow to create an abyss where the demon’s core should be, simultaneously visceral and translucent. The reveal reminds me of the breathtaking grandeur in Shadow of the Colossus, as you’re left marveling at the sheer immensity of the challenge to the point it’s almost easy to miss a claw swinging with impossible speed in your direction.
Sienkiewicz uses this enlarged stature effect across his Marvel work, perhaps most memorably in Daredevil: Love and War with Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, as forever memorialized now as the design influence used in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Again, it’s a use of unbelievable proportions aligned more to the feel of a being’s presence rather than their actual plausible physicality.
Compare this to modern takes on the Demon Bear, as found in the likes of X-Force vol. 3 (the Yost and Kyle run starting in 2008), or Uncanny X-Force vol. 2 written by Sam Humphries with guest art by the amazing Adrian Alphona. The first example captures the size, but not the intangibility, the unknowability of the original. The latter can’t help but give in to fuzzy wuzzy was a bear feels, lacking the menace of the original (ultimately with some intent as the Demon Bear is turned into Psylocke’s pet!).
One of the scariest and most effective elements of “Demon Bear” is how The New Mutants lose horribly and violently at nearly every turn. Dani’s an incredible fighter, and yet she stands virtually no chance before being left to die, bleeding in the snow for her teammates to find.
Dani’s medical readout is scary as hell, with the emergency surgery room of the hospital caked in a blood-soaked red ambience that bodes nothing but ill for the young mutant. It’s not enough for Claremont to tell us she barely has a pulse, as the page is drowning in a litany of specifically brutal injuries: fractures, lacerations, trauma, and crushed vertebrae – there’s virtually no part of Dani left unscathed from the Demon Bear’s vicious assault.
It’s such a cascade of wounds that New Mutants #19 opens with a corner box showing Dani hooked up to life support.
I’m somewhat deliberately underselling it because Chris Claremont experiences no shortage of accolades, but his ability to meet the art of this story – which I cannot overstate is transformatively distinct from the work of team co-creator Bob Mcleod or Sal Buscema that came prior – is one of his most successful maneuvers across New Mutants. In particular, Claremont sells the spirituality and magic of the demon, transporting us to a realm of uneven physics and chaotic laws. As he puts it: “there is a moment of absolute madness – of their universe, the proper order of things, being turned upside-down, inside-out, followed by blessed oblivion.”
In the end, though, it’s the blend of the chaos and the absurd that sells the Demon Bear’s malevolence. After the beast’s shape has come on screen, Sienkiewicz continues toying with fragile boundaries to unveil a monster whose only discernible quality is a desire to puncture you with its enormous claws and take from you everything you hold dear. The fact that it’s revealed in the third and final chapter that the Demon Bear’s victims are damaged at the level of their soul makes it an even more potent figure, lashing out on a level we typically assume is unassailable.
That the Demon Bear is wreaking all this hell while showing captured victims, including Dani’s thought deceased parents, as prisoners of its evil aura only adds to the stakes. Note too how even in the final battle, only portions of the beast can fit on screen at any given time, a claw driving through Magma’s chest, or a paw hovering above Illyana Rasputin prepared to strike.
In the end, it’s really only through Illyana’s own magical connections, and the user of her Soulsword forged in limbo, that the New Mutants are able to conquer the Demon Bear. There’s no real morality play, limited power of friendship vs isolated evil. Success is granted simply because Magik brings her own better sorcery to the party and the New Mutants more or less get lucky. To my knowledge, it’s also the only time in the story when the Bear’s red, blood-stained aura cools, and transmutes to an icy blue as the soulword cleaves its head in two.
Looking forward, what does Demon Bear teach us about the role of the New Mutants in the Dawn of X? The actual Demon Bear specifically has been used very sporadically since debuting, so any attempts to literally play a Demon Bear saga sequel are bold claims to legacy that set extremely challenging standards for themselves.
I think more broadly, the saga tells us that the New Mutants as a unit simply navigate the realms of horror with an ease and affect that the Big capital ‘X” X-Men struggle with. So far in the Dawn of X, we haven’t really seen this, with Jonathan Hickman taking the team to space, and Ed Brisson telling stories more firmly grounded in the hate and fear of humans in this new era of mutant superiority. I’m very much looking forward to Vita Ayala and Rod Reis’ run on the title starting with New Mutants #14, and look forward to what horrors they may have in store for the team.