The Xavier Institute: X-Force Begins In ‘New Mutants’ #86-89

by Tony Thornley
Cover by Rob Liefeld and Todd MacFarlane

New Mutants was one of the most interesting series in comics history. Some of the most celebrated comics from its era came from its pages, yet today it seems to mostly be remembered for its last year of publication, for better or worse. Years later though, do those stories hold up?

One of my biggest blindspots in X-Men fandom has always been the auxiliary titles. I’ve read plenty of the core titles but until the mid-2000’s I was never a regular reader of X-Force, New Mutants, or X-Factor. I think it was Peter David’s X-Factor that I pulled for the first time. Since then, I’ve made an effort to read more of “the classics” but I’ve avoided one era in particular, Rob Liefeld’s New Mutants.

Now, Liefeld is a divisive figure in comics, especially right now. He has a legion of fans but just as many detractors. He’s not afraid to express his opinion, and is especially bitter about the Big Two at the moment. However, when his career took off it was another thing entirely. In New Mutants #86 Liefeld joined writer Louise Simonson, inker Bob Wiacek, colors by Glynnis Oliver, and letters by Joe Rosen for a story that’s become infamous.

Rusty Collins and Sally Bevins have been held unjustly by Freedom Force, the duo’s longtime legal issues finally catching up with them, as the Mutant Liberation Front demands their freedom. As a war begins over them, the remaining New Mutants, Cannonball, Boom Boom, Sunspot, Rictor, Wolfsbane and Warlock, return from adventures in Asgard. But who is this mysterious soldier that has been hunting the MLF and what does he want with the New Mutants?

The Liefeld issues have a reputation for a paper-thin story, but Simonson’s story really shines across these five issues (including New Mutants Annual #5). She juggles a story that’s one part wrap-up of her long-time plots and one part introducing new concepts that clearly come from Liefeld, such as the MLF and Cable. It’s still her excellent superhero soap opera, with what was then a modern edge. It didn’t overwhelm the story, but it was a big tonal change.

There are two different Liefelds on display here. In the first three issues, Liefeld is inked by Bob Wiacek, and his lines are clean and expressive. It reminded me of a mixture of Jim Lee and Mark Bagley, with solid character work and layouts. But when Hillary Barta replaces Wiacek on issues #88 and #89, we see a lot more of the Liefeld we know today, with excessive lines, and a generally more extreme approach to storytelling. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as strong as the previous issues, and a noticeable change that leads to the work we know from X-Force and Youngblood.

Overall, I was glad to finally check out these issues. They were a mostly enjoyable read, though you can start to see the clash in storytelling styles that lead to Simonson’s departure just a few issues later. It did give me an appreciation for Liefeld though, even if he’s personally not my cup of tea, I can see why he became popular.

These issues are available on comiXology, and you may even be able to find them in back issue bins in your local comic store. They were also collected in X-Force: Cable & The New Mutants and Cable: Classic Volume 1 both of which are available digitally and in print.

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