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Iconic Artist Bill Sienkiewicz On The Creative Risks That Inspired FX’s “Legion”

The illustrator of the seminal New Mutants discusses how pushing artistic boundaries continues to inspire 30 years later.

For someone used to toiling in ink- and coffee-spattered art studios, a Hollywood red carpet was a thrilling change of pace. Bill Sienkiewicz greeted the flashing cameras and microphones at the Los Angeles premiere of FX’s Legion, before getting the chance to see how art he produced three decades prior is inspiring current TV.

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The series, which bows February 8, draws its inspiration from Sienkiewicz’s and writer Chris Claremont’s edgy 1980s revamp of Marvel’s New Mutants, an X-Men comics spin-off featuring mutant teens with special powers training to be superheroes. The title pertains to the protagonist, whose schizophrenia incites his mutant powers.

Sienkiewicz attended last month’s event at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center sans Claremont, who was in Paris at the time, to represent the source material, later offering his take to Co.Create and recount their wild experiment that continues to inspire more than three decades later.

“I’m excited by their interpretation,” says Sienkiewicz. “The TV show is based on the characters and spirit of what Chris and I created, but they didn’t duplicate the comic. While I could see elements that were familiar, they ran with and expanded it in a whole new direction.

“It invited a whole new level my participation as an audience member, wondering where they’re going to go with it,” he adds. “I loved the idea of our inspiring them. And now their work can inspire me, which is was art is about. It’s a lot like jazz that way.”

The Origin Story

The Claremont/Sienkiewicz version of New Mutants, a comic previously drawn by artist Bob McLeod, has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts. An IDW limited collector’s edition of Sienkiewicz’s New Mutant art sold out last fall, and there’s an upcoming 20th Century Fox film basesd on it. That this version still influences testifies to the endurance of pushing artistic boundaries.

In 1983, Marvel offered the then-25-year-old Sienkiewicz the chance to illustrate X-Men, its top-selling comic title at the time. It was a huge promotion for a budding talent.

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Sienkiewicz turned it down.

Just off three years of Moon Knight, he couldn’t stomach another series, especially the creative confines of a flagship one. Over the run of Moon Knight, Sienkiewicz had transitioned from a style heavily influenced by mentor Neal Adams to one of unbridled emotional frenzy, and he wanted to continue that exploration.

“I was exhausted and wanted to try crazy stuff,” he says. “X-Men was Marvel’s Rolls Royce and I didn’t want to be the crazy guy driving it off a cliff.”

Then X-Men writer Claremont stopped him in the hall with an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I hear you just turned down X-Men,” he said. “Would you be open to a three-issue arc of New Mutants? It takes place in an alternate dream state, so it’s perfect for you to try the stuff you couldn’t do in X-Men and Moon Knight.”

The arc became The Demon Bear Saga, published in 1984, that wildly overhauled the book’s previous traditional look and tone and is held up as a watershed moment for the series.

“I started getting more abstract, and less concerned with anatomy and comic book tropes,” says Sienkiewicz. He pulled from expressionism, caricature, fashion illustration, collage, and fine art, using mixed-media, colored inks, crayons, watercolors, acrylics, spray paints, and airbrushing. “After three issues, Chris and I were having so much fun, it turned into us working on a new series.”

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The creators created a tension by juxtaposing ideas. Sienkiewicz drew Claremont’s shape-shifting robotic alien, Warlock, as comic relief. As Legion’s mental illness made it difficult to control his powers, Sienkiewicz explored his culpability through visual contrasts.

“You’d never know which of his personalities was coming through, and it made him uncontrolled and dangerous,” he says. “I made Legion kind of sweet-looking. I always loved characters who looked adorable but could unleash Armageddon.

“What we did together lead to Legion,” he adds. “Chris wanted to try ideas that he thought would work best funneled through my imagination. He would introduce the characters and plots and I would come up with visuals that would then inspire his writing. We gave each other the confidence to tell a really complex story involving taboo subjects, like mental illness and evil vs. illness.”

The run was immediately polarizing, with the editors overseeing the series often going to bat for the creators against a worried upper management.

“When it first started, we got a lot of shit. We were getting letters in crayon from kids saying, `Stop him before he kills again!’ “ Sienkiewicz laughs. “By the time it got around to the end, anyone who was going to jump ship was long gone, and we were left with fans who were going to stay for the long haul. They knew what they were getting and they liked the complexity.”

When the run ended, Sienkiewicz moved on to Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, with writer Frank Miller. And his New Mutants chapter closed…or so he thought.

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Katie Aselton as Amy, Dan Stevens as David Haller[Photo: Chris Large, courtesy of FX]

Hollywood Treatment

Fast forward 30 years, and now many of those fans are attending the Legion screening and after-party, alongside series executive producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan Singer, creator Noah Hawley, and star Dan Stevens, among others. Several cast members approach Sienkiewicz like giddy fanboys to compare show and comic visions.

Where Sienkiewicz altered his art style to delineate reality and fantasy, Hawley immerses viewers in Legion’s mind. The pilot feels like a psychedelic ride—which Hawley jokingly ascribes to his four trips to Burning Man—while Michael Wylie’s futuristic mid-century modern production design cleverly distances it from a specific time and place.

“In the 30 years since our comic, blurred lines, like the unreliable narrator, and explorations of mental illness and displacement in movies like Fight Club and Beautiful Mind have added to the inspirations,” he says.

As Sienkiewicz takes in the Hollywood feting, he recalls a heated meeting from his New Mutant days with the Marvel executives spooked by fan reaction to the renegade comic. As the New Mutants’ star rose, “the money people wanted us to bring the style more in keeping with the X-Men brand,” says Sienkiewicz. “I said, `You want me to stop doing what increased sales and critical acclaim and plunge it back into a level of anonymity?’ They were like deer in headlights when they realized what they were saying.

“So this show is kind of retroactive vindication,” he adds. “If our take had been bland, this series might not have happened. Because we pushed the envelope, it gave them a reason to revisit it.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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