Free Comic Book Day 2016 Postmortem #1: New Mutants Volume 1, 71-73

I have read a lot of X-Men comics.  As a child of the ’90s, I was at that ideal age where I was smitten enough with the cartoon that I wanted to learn more about the characters in the comics.  When I graduated college, I finally got to do that in a truly satisfying way as I was given a huge backlog of X-Men comics by a coworker at my first white collar job.  My favorite of the early stuff was easily The New Mutants, which continues to be one of my favorite super teams in the entire Marvel universe.  Probably my hands down favorite character of the team is Danielle Moonstar (thirty years later she’s still kicking butt as a de-powered member of the team’s most recent incarnation), but a very close second is Illyana Rasputin, the little sister of the X-Men’s most famous strongman character Colossus.

I’ve been taken with Illyana ever since I read Chris Claremont’s Magik miniseries about how she survives for eight years in the demonic dimension of Limbo by becoming a sorceror and gradually losing small parts of her soul in desperate bids just to survive.  This origin story sets up Illyana’s core concept of a child who had to grow up too quickly while being forced to make a series of morally dubious choices that left her doubting her own ability to do good in the world.  Illyana became a regular member of the New Mutants shortly after she first returned from Limbo, and she always offered an incredibly poignant counterpoint to the much more naive perspective of her teammates who frequently assumed that because they were children they were generally safe from serious consequences (this attitude is constantly undercut in the original run of New Mutants as all kinds of messed up stuff happens to the team; even though they were the junior team to the adult X-Men, the New Mutants often had much darker adventures than their counterparts).  Where everyone else generally assumed they would be okay at the end of any given day, Illyana was the character who had already come out the other end really damaged by her experiences.

In the original New Mutants, Illyana’s arc began with her being haunted by her childhood, and her power set (being able to teleport through space and time by way of Limbo and being able to use the dark magic she was taught by her captor while she was trapped there) made it impossible for her to ever move beyond her history; some of her teammates, particularly Rahne Sinclair and Roberto DaCosta, never fully trusted her because of her association with Limbo.  In a book filled with tragic moments, Illyana was the classic tragic character.

The cover of #73 kind of gives the end away, but it’s also sort of an homage to the death of Supergirl, so that’s okay. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Illyana’s story is heavily threaded throughout the majority of the original New Mutants run, and it all culminates in the 1989 X-Men crossover event Inferno.  Because of the manipulations of two demons from Limbo, S’ym and N’astirh, Illyana is tricked into opening a giant portal over Manhattan that allows demons to pour out from Limbo and invade Earth.  In the collection of comics I got from my coworker, I never got to read this story; it was missing from an otherwise highly comprehensive library of back issues.  I had to skip ahead, and I found in the issues following the event that Illyana had somehow reverted back to being six years old, effectively removing her from the New Mutants (this narrative move coincides in my mind with the decline of the first volume’s quality; it happened about a year before Rob Liefeld joined the creative team and began to push Louise Simonson out; that one of the last arcs of Simonson’s run without Liefeld’s input ended with Dani Moonstar leaving the team as well was pretty much the end of New Mutants as the book that I loved).  The version of Illyana that’s featured in New Mutants volume 1 doesn’t reappear again outside of a miniseries from 2009 called X-Infernus, which if I remember right didn’t really go anywhere.  The version who’s been running around in the 2010s is from a slightly different timeline, which is narratively interesting because she has moments where she has to remind her teammates that she’s not the same Illyana that they remember (usually just before she does something that looks like a betrayal because like all versions of Illyana, she has her own motives for just about everything).

Anyhow, the point of all this background is to say that one of my purchases on Free Comic Book Day this year was back issues of New Mutants #71-73 (also #70, but that issue’s part of the previous story arc, and I only picked it up because the shop was doing a buy 3 get 1 free deal).  These issues were recently covered by Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men (Jay’s explication of the gender politics surrounding the Inferno event, which focuses heavily on the culmination of Illyana and Madelyne Pryor’s stories in the X-books they respectively appear in, is excellent stuff so you should go listen to the episodes about it right now), and with the occasion of Free Comic Book Day to hit up the comic shop, I decided to get the back issues I’d missed.

It’s been more than a few years since I’ve read comics of the ’80s (I don’t really count Sandman because Gaiman’s style is distinctly literary with heavy doses of pseudorealistic dialogue, as contrasted with the high melodrama and hyperdeclamatory dialogue of mainstream superhero books of the time), and it’s a very different experience from more contemporary fare.  The narration isn’t as over-the-top as what Claremont did at the height of his run on the X-books, but caption boxes, when they appear, are pretty sizable, and all the characters feel the need to explain what they’re doing in-panel pretty regularly.  It’s unfortunate that I’m having to read this arc divorced from its context (again, it’s been years since I read through the original New Mutants), but seeing the characters that I enjoyed so much is really satisfying, and leaves me with a vague desire to pull out my archives and read the old comics again.

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