The Comics Classroom: Abstract Horror, NEW MUTANTS, and the Demon Bear

What is it about the term “horror” that so entrances us?

By all rights, such a term should revolt us and it certainly should not make us want to peer deeper and deeper into the eyes of what we find abhorrent, yet there is a whole genre of material built around the idea of being scared, of being horrified. There is an attraction to terror and I want to spend some time digging into some of the best aspects of this unique genre, both to explore all the unique facets this genre can manifest as and also because it’s fun to return to the comics that genuinely disturb us. Obviously, what disturbs me is not what will disturb you, but I hope somewhere in this series that I touch a nerve and talk about something that makes your blood run cold.

What we, as people, can be afraid of is a topic too big to condense down into easy, digestible pieces. As conscious beings, humans can be, on some level, scared of anything. I would however assert that one thing we’re scared about most is failure, primarily because once we have failed at something, we become ashamed.

Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz

Danielle Moonstar, in New Mutants #18, is a young Cheyenne mutant who is plagued by the fact that she feels responsible for the death of her parents, William and Peg. Dani’s parents were victims of a creature appropriately known as the Demon Bear, a malevolent entity from a space very much like our own world, yet also nothing like it at all in the slightest.

The first glimpse into what makes the Demon Bear a frightening force of horror is part of the art from the book itself. On the page where the title (“Death-Hunt”) is provided, a full-page tapestry is shown which depicts Dani under a patch-work blanket that is made up of red and white squares. As the pattern descends downwards beneath the fearful Dani, the bear’s face is revealed.

This is something I love about the art, which was provided by the incredible Bill Sienkiewicz, alongside the rich color work of Glynis Wein. Sienkiewicz and Wein combine their talents to present the Demon Bear as an abstract entity, a broken thing that is alive in our world yet hardly, truly part of it. It lives through Dani’s dreams and as an extension of her family, specifically the actions of her grandfather and her parents. Her ever-lingering fear is that the Demon Bear will come for her, so she has to prepare … but how can you really prepare to confront something you feel you’ve already failed?

Interior art by Bill Sienkiewicz

Much of the heart and emotion within New Mutants #18 comes from Dani trying constantly to become stronger so that she can kill the Demon Bear. Claremont writes how she struggles against Danger Room simulations of bears, pushing herself into agonized states, all for the chance to face something she already feels guilty about — that being how she feels responsible for the deaths of her parents at the claws of the bear. She has carried this weight within her for so long, yet she can’t … and won’t … share it.

There is something truthful about the things we fear and our inability to be able to talk about them. Not everything we fear forces us into silence (but some things certainly do) and, for Dani, the Demon Bear is an ever-pressing sense of how she failed her family and how she has to rectify the situation, even if it means her lonely, agonizing death.

Keeping in line with the art of the Demon Bear under Dani’s blanket, it’s evident that the kind of comic Claremont is crafting is horror-centric. The terrified Dani under her blanket, fearing the Demon Bear she can sense watching her in her? That is what we might say is genuine art-horror, a term I am referencing from scholar Noel Carroll. Carroll, in her landmark text Philosophy of Horror, distinguishes “art-horror” as a thing which is manufactured by creators to make people/audiences feel, as opposed to a picture we see of something which scares us, yet was in no way manufactured.

The best way to distinguish the two is the difference between being scared of a story, a manufactured work designed to make you feel, as a picture of a snake, an animal you’re afraid of yet which simply does frighten you, but not because it was designed that way. Art-horror, hereafter simply called horror, is something with a explicit purpose and design. The Demon Bear and Dani Moonstar’s three issue experiences in New Mutants #18-20 are all part of a specific kind of horror which Chris Claremont wants you to become lost in.

The first and most obvious aspect about the Demon Bear is that it isn’t an artistically ‘whole’ or ‘representative’ entity. The first appearance of the Demon Bear I wanted to mention does not even depict the whole bear, but rather its abstract and patch-work face. There is something strange and almost nauseating to me about the fact that this entity looks like it has all the qualities of a bear, yet is nothing of the sort. Demon Bear is presented as an abstract, distorted glimpse of a bear through a fun-house mirror.

Carroll, in her work Philosophy of Art, comments about how to ancient scholars such as Plato art was to be focused around representation, i.e. to be true art, the artist imitated the natural world, like a mirror was being held up to the natural. While it is clear that this was a limited view of what art could be, I am intrigued by Sienkiewicz’s presentation of Demon Bear as something modeled upon standard representational imitation of a bear, yet something that is not truly what is being copied. Demon Bear has all the qualities of a bear — it has a body with two front limbs, two back legs, eyes and a face, all of which you’ll find on any regular animal which we call a ‘bear.’ However, unlike a normal bear, Demon Bear is stretched out and distorted, it has red eyes, it’s angles and existence is contorted and … wrong.

Interior art by Bill Sienkiewicz

Demon Bear is a foe which is silly to try and talk about with people, mainly because they always guffaw or chuckle at a bear being a central antagonist. This always prompts the chance to dig into a few unique kinds of differences between two different and (sometimes) incompatible storytelling traditions.

While not without a hefty dose of snoot, the Western Canon of literature has at its heart a Biblical spine. Try as one might, you really cannot separate the Bible from the core values which make up much of the stories we, as Americans, value. This is not meant to be a judgement on my part, but I am stating a fact. With a Biblical backbone in our narratives, much of what we think about as ‘evil’ in stories has a focus on one of two things: shame and transcendental forces.

In other words, evil is often done to show us (as a lesson) what we should ourselves be ashamed to do, or it is meant to show us the kinds of transcendental entities in the universe which we need to either avoid or fight. If we fight these entities, it is always with the backing of faith that they are defeated. There is a very strong, very impactful resonance of duality within Western narratives where morality is concerned. With an entity like DEMON Bear, one might assume then that there is a classical “Western” evil afoot that will be bested by Light and Faith.

Well, not exactly.

Remember, Dani Moonstar is a Cheyenne warrior and, in a very real sense, the force of Demon Bear is also part of the Cheyenne spiritual tradition. There is one powerful moment when Dani proceeds outside of the X-Mansion, to confront the Demon Bear, when she knows she very well might die and she has accepted this. Being a warrior of the Cheyenne is meaning that you’re willing to try and have as good a death as you can. This is, in a way, incompatible with Western spiritualist narratives because to risk your life in a suicidal endeavor endangers your soul.

Dani’s obsessive training against bears in the Danger Room, as well as her picking up her grandfather’s bow to hunt the Demon Bear, speak to a warrior’s mentality, one Dani is clinging to so she can face the horror she lives within every moment while the Demon Bear is present in our physical world. She knows she has to face her fears, not run from them, if she is to have peace. Demon Bear, by virtue of its existence, is also a reminder of the Cheyenne’s views on nature.

Interior art by Bill Sienkiewicz

While the Demon Bear is very much a cruel and malevolent spirit, it is part of the universe and is something to be confronted, yet not wholly defeated. As Dani’s parents explain once their souls are freed from the Demon Bear, its existence is a cyclical force that thrives on one aspect of existence (anguish and fear). Demon Bear is not demonic in the Christian sense because it is not tied to a transcendental plane such as hell, but rather a world very much like our own, a mirror world.

Dani’s confrontation with Demon Bear ends in disaster as her spine and body are broken. She is rushed to a hospital by her New Mutant friends, and that is where the horror really begins.

Dani’s surgery is complicated by the fact that, naturally, Demon Bear is still out in the wild and it is thus up to Illyana Rasputin, Wolfsbane, Canonball, Magma and Sunspot to protect their friend and everyone inside the hospital. With a vibe not unlike that of Assault on Precinct 13: the heroes find themselves trapped within a building besieged from without (and, within) by an external, malevolent force. In the case of Demon Bear, it tries first to attack the generators of the hospital and then the New Mutants directly.

One of the strangest and most intense factors going for the Hospital phase of the story, and why it remains a great horror story, is in part because of the Demon Bear’s nature. It is an almost insurmountable entity, a force of pure hatred and violence that will not stop not matter what is thrown at it. In typical stories where heroes are fighting on an even, or close to even, field, combat stories are a kind of “give and take.” One participant engages, the opponent pushes back. This repeats back and forth, with both sides taking and giving ground, until the side that is mandated to win by the storyteller does so.

Demon Bear is a marathon in pain, not only because of what it can dish out, but because of what it takes to even make it flinch. Canonball’s ferocity, Illyana’s magic, Wolfsbane’s ferocity, it’s all virtually insignificant to Demon Bear, thus much of the story is an endurance trial while Illyana and Wolfsbane try and decipher the Demon Bear’s mental link to Dani and how to defeat it.

There is, buried beneath the more overt horror themes of the story, a glimpse into a brief body-horror moment when Illyana is struck by the Demon Bear’s claws, revealing a strange metallic residue beneath her clothes. Remember, this is an X-story and one of the driving themes behind X-stories is puberty and developing maturity among those who feel different. Illyanna Rasputin, Magik, spent time in a very literal hellscape and returned a mystic force to be reckoned with … but she also came back as a dangerous, mysterious force at this point in her narrative existence.

Claremont was laying seeds for development within Illyana’s character by having her own friends see her as dangerous, and even evil. Magik’s manifestation of strange armor beneath her clothes, at the time, comes across as very direct way of showing her powers were growing, yet it was unclear as to “what” she would become. Unfortunately for Magik, she is even attacked by Cannonball when he acts on his own mistrust of her and thinks she is hurting another member of the team and endangering Dani’s life. There is a horror to growing up and becoming who you’re meant to be on a physical level. Puberty and change are difficult to handle, as Magik comes to find out in this story.

Interior art by Bill Sienkiewicz

But, back to Demon Bear and Dani …

Dani’s operation to save her body is contrasted by the efforts of the New Mutants to save her soul. In an effort to win against Dani’s guardians, Demon Bear forces his opponents into the Badlands, a mirror world where it’s power can manifest more freely. This is another fantastic horror aspect because it does not play into conventional Western horror-themes.

Unlike the domain of Limbo where Illyana spent her youth, the Badlands are a reflection of an untouched wilderland, yet one shaped by the twisted and fantastic art of Sienkiewicz. The horror, then, is that the New Mutants are trapped within this freakishly beautiful space and cannot reach Dani to save her because of Demon Bear and his ever-growing powers.

Both the Badlands and Demon Bear itself are twisted reflections of reality, places and entities beyond our normal ability to comprehend … mostly. While both of these things are not fully “Cosmic” horrors, they’re both used to enhance a story that, on its surface, should come across as more bizarre than horrific. However, because of the writing of Claremont and the art of Sienkiewicz, the “Demon Bear” story from the beginnings of the New Mutants run remains among the best of their canon and a fine addition to the ranks of horror comics.


Related posts