There is no denying that the nostalgia factor for 80’s pop culture is at its zenith (and I’m loving every second of it). Saturday morning cartoons and cult movies from the era of “He-Man” and “Dark Crystal” are being rebooted on streaming services for new generations. Tweens born in the 2000s proudly adorn themselves in t-shirts with graphics from “The Breakfast Club” and “Heathers”. Yet nowhere is our obsession with the decade more prevalent than in the resurgence of horror fiction. Stephen King’s library of the macabre is making huge waves on both large and small screens this year, while Netflix’s “Stranger Things” arguably the cult show of the decade.
It is within this vein of spine-tingling, thrill-inducing horror that I humbly offer a suggestion for your own pop culture libraries: the 1984 three-issue run on Marvel Comics’ “New Mutant” series, collectively known as “The Demon Bear Saga”.
The Demon Bear Saga
I mean, come on, doesn’t that name just scream 80’s over-the-top awesomeness? Demon Bear? Sign me up.
Running from issues 18-20, this series can be picked up for a few dollars in back issue bins at any comic book shop worth one’s salt. If you grew up reading King’s work, run to your local shop and find these issues. Now. Seriously, they are diamonds in a sea of long boxes, and here’s why:
Bill Sienkiewicz’s Art
It is hauntingly surreal. It’s like all the creepiest and most bizarre scenes from Labyrinth and music videos like Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” thrown in a blender. The first page of issue eighteen is quite possibly the best first page to come out of a Marvel Comic that whole decade. It is disturbingly abstract and brutally literal all at the same time, creating a sense of urgency and claustrophobia to the layouts that make the reader joyously uncomfortable and addicted to page-turning.
The New Mutants are beloved by a certain generation of fans, and widely forgotten by the rest of nerdom. Regardless, what the writer (X-Men Royalty, Chris Claremont) does exceedingly well is creating inner monologue and exposition in between these teens that make them feel real. And by “real” I mean awkward, angsty, terrified, and loving. The New Mutants are The Breakfast Club with mutant powers.
When the Demon Bear appears earlier on in the New Mutants series it comes off as an apparition just slightly more intimidating thanTheGhostbuster’sSlimer. However, when reintroduced in issue #18, gone are the ominous monologues and the floating bear head-cloud. In it’s place, we have a character of teeth, hair, and beady-red eyes the fills every page in which it appears. The Demon Bear is a beast of indeterminate, yet massive size. Some of the pages make you, the reader, feel small and helpless in it’s presence (much again, thanks to Sienkiewicz’s art). This is not a mustache-twirling bad guy in a leotard, this is an unnatural force of nature, unkillable and relentless.
Most superhero story arcs run for many issues, but The Demon Bear Saga is wisely presented in only three issues. Much like horror films, with statistically shorter runtimes, the pacing creates a sense of urgency. The short form is complemented by an inner monologue narration from one of the New Mutants, Dani Moonstar, whose limited perspective gives readers a protagonist who is easy to connect with, while seeing the events of the story unfold through her eyes; experiencing her fear, anger, helplessness, and determination as the bookends of this story. Likewise, in the middle of the tale the perspective shifts to her classmates, trapped in a snow storm-engulfed hospital as the otherworldly Demon Bear stalks them. Each character gets a nice beat, while not being bogged down in backstory. This is a story about trapped kids hunted by the unknown. It just feels like Stephen King, doesn’t it?
Yes, there is a movie in the works: Director Josh Boone actually just wrapped filming on a loose adaptation of The Demon Bear Saga for Fox’s X-Men franchise. Wisely, the director has maintained that the film is a horror flick set in the X-Men universe, adding a new genre to a film universe dominated by action/adventure narratives. Perhaps this is just the shot in the arm the fledgling X-Men universe needs to stand toe-to-toe with the MCU and DCEU. We can only hope it actually takes place in 1984.
Go buy these issues from a dollar back issue bin, put on the Stranger Things soundtrack, grab a Slurpee, sit back and read this one on a cold night (preferably when it’s snowing). Your inner 80’s child will love you for it.