A Quest for the Familiar: Liefeld, Tynion and the Power of Blockbuster Comics

This spring, digital comics magazine PanelxPanel released four “One Shot” essays on a variety of comic-related subjects. Among them was “EXCESS” by Ian Gregory, a reassessment of Rob Liefeld’s 1980s work on New Mutants and X-Force. Gregory’s thesis is that much of what critics have come to deride about Liefeld’s early work forgets the broader context that he was responding to.

It’s an interesting essay. Without ignoring problems in Liefeld’s run on those books, Gregory highlight issues and innovations that are generally overlooked today. 

But what intrigued even more about Gregory’s essay is how Liefeld’s work to refresh New Mutants seem to mirror James Tynion IV’s recent work on Batman. Both came onto their books at moments when the titles faced similar commercial and narrative dilemmas; and their solutions likewise have more in common than I would have expected.


At the time Liefeld came onto New Mutants, Gregory notes, the X-line was struggling under the weight of its own continuity. Both Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants and Louise Simonson on X-Factor (and later New Mutants)  had woven a rich tapestry of character arcs and long-form stories over the course of many years to great commercial success. But in wake of the “Inferno” crossover — which resolved many plotlines, some going back many years — all three books found themselves narratively adrift and losing readers. “After 14 years of Claremont,” writes Gregory, “the entire X-line had become a mess of continuity, and the barrier for new readers was the highest ever.” 

Liefeld arrived on New Mutants as penciler with issue #86; one issue later he and Simonson introduced Cable to the X-Men universe. And Gregory argues that while Simonson and editor Bob Harras were certainly partners in the creation of that character – something Liefeld disputes – the introduction of Cable would capture much of what Liefeld would bring to the X-universe: First, the character was new, 5 and with no backstory readers would simply have to read the book to understand who he was.

In Liefeld’s relatively short run on New Mutants/X-Force, he and his co-writers would introduce many new characters – an astonishing 17 just in his 15 issues of New Mutants – and another seven in the 12 issues of X-Force he co-scripted with Fabian Nicieza. And while many of those characters are forgettable, 6 others really did become franchise players in the X-verse, 7 characters that have offered fresh doorways into all things X.

Second, Cable’s appearance almost immediately gave the title a new mission. Within just a few issues of appearing Nathan takes over the New Mutant team and directs them to a completely new purpose, again tearing away the dense web of continuity that had been suffocating the title and allowing readers both new and old a new way into the series. 8

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  1. Or at least seemed that way; yowza did that change.

  2. Was I the only one that got excited to see New Mutants #11 recently do something interesting with Wildside? Can a Thelma & Louise-inspired Tempo & Thumbalina road story be far behind???

  3. Including Deadpool, Domino, Shatterstar and, of course, Cable.

  4. Gregory also notes that while Liefeld’s work on the X-line gets criticized today for being superficial and simplistic, in fact he was trying to steer New Mutants back to its central conceit, “that of the struggle of an oppressed class of people.” What had harmed the book was not just continuity but metaphor-drift.

  5. Or at least seemed that way; yowza did that change.

  6. Was I the only one that got excited to see New Mutants #11 recently do something interesting with Wildside? Can a Thelma & Louise-inspired Tempo & Thumbalina road story be far behind???

  7. Including Deadpool, Domino, Shatterstar and, of course, Cable.

  8. Gregory also notes that while Liefeld’s work on the X-line gets criticized today for being superficial and simplistic, in fact he was trying to steer New Mutants back to its central conceit, “that of the struggle of an oppressed class of people.” What had harmed the book was not just continuity but metaphor-drift.