Character Overview: Idie Okonkwo

A few months back I did a pretty in depth analysis (found here, here, here, and here)of the 1984 Storm and Illyana: Magik miniseries that Marvel used to explain the origins of Illyana Rasputin as a teenage mutant sorceress.  It was a pretty fun project because Illyana’s one of my favorite characters from the X-Men franchise and she serves as an excellent nexus point for exploring how trauma and cultural touchstones contemporary with their creation inform the development of characters and influence how they can be read.  Even better, Illyana is part of a long tradition of X-Men characters who come into their own in the aftermath of extensive trauma that’s centered around the intersection of their real world marginalizations with the manifestation of their powers in the context of particularly insular and controlling communities.  Within that tradition is a particular subset of characters whose origins put them in direct conflict with their faith community of origin; Illyana doesn’t precisely fit into this mold (she hails from a farm collective in Soviet Russia, so she presumably would have been raised atheist) although she acts in tension with broad American Protestant sensibilities as someone who feels thoroughly ambivalent about her connections with magic and a literal hell dimension.  Other significant characters who do fall into this subset include Kurt Wagner (although his devout Catholicism wasn’t fully developed until later, it complements his origin story as a Bavarian circus acrobat who was saved from a mob of superstitious villagers by Professor Xavier); Rahne Sinclair; and, most recently, Idie Okonkwo.  There are likely other examples that I’m forgetting, but these three come most readily to mind because a core facet of each of their characters is the rejection by their faith community of origin because their powers are viewed as demonic manifestations.  Of these three, the one that I’m most keenly interested in at the moment is Idie.

What I find fascinating about Idie is that she carries several additional markers of marginalization beyond the ones associated with Kurt and Rahne.  Although these two characters have powers that partially present as traditionally monstrous physical features (Kurt’s blue fur, tridactyl hands and feet, and prehensile tail; and Rahne’s ability to shape shift into various mixtures of a human and lupine form) they also are able to assert white eurocentric racial privilege (Kurt may or may not use an image inducer to hide his fur, but he’s never mistaken as anything other than a white German).  Idie originates from a small village in Nigeria where the manifestation of her powers is particularly volatile, causing everyone to flee and a local militia to trap her in her village’s church until she’s rescued by Ororo Munroe and Hope Summers.  On top of the dimensions of mutant identity, fundamentalist faith background, and female gender expression, Idie as a character also contends with the legacy of colonialism in Africa and racism at large.  The sheer number of intersections makes her a fascinating character to explore, but one additional feature that enhances her interest is her relative newness as a character.  The other characters discussed here have publication histories extending back at least to the ’80s, but Idie was created in 2010.  She’s appeared in less than a decade’s worth of stories, but the number of transitions and developments she’s gone through in that time are comparable to other, much more storied characters.

We meet Idie in the middle of her praying for help. (From Uncanny X-Men #528, written by Matt Fraction, pencils by Whilce Portacio, inks by Ed Tadeo, colors by Brian Reber, letters by Joe Caramagna)

From the beginning, Idie’s identity is steeped in her religious upbringing; she takes refuge in her village’s church when her powers manifest where she prays for help from Mary and her patron saint.  Immediately coupled with this core aspect of Idie’s identity is the concept that she’s also been abandoned by it; neither God nor Idie’s community will be sending her help.  Later in the issue when Ororo and Hope arrive, Hope makes a point of trying to disassociate their assistance with any sort of supernatural aid, which makes sense for Hope but likely carries some deep implications for Idie and her faith (especially considering that Hope’s connection with Idie and the rest of the Five Lights during the “Second Coming” era of X-Men was particularly strong with messianic and apostolic overtones; but that’s best explored elsewhere).  Carrying forward from this introduction, Idie develops some severe self loathing with regard to her powers.

Well then. (From Wolverine & The X-Men #1, written by Jason Aaron, pencils & colors by Chris Bachalo, inks by Jaime Mendoza, letters by Rob Steen)

By the time we reach the first issue of Wolverine & The X-Men, Idie has acclimated to life in America, but her opinion regarding herself and her classmates hasn’t improved.  While Logan and Kitty Pryde are busy trying to persuade representatives of the state board of education that their school meets all the requirements for accreditation, Idie explains matter-of-factly to the visitors that all the students at the Jean Grey School are monsters, herself included.  Idie goes on to be a regular character in this series, and her subplot revolves extensively around her exploring various aspects of her identity in some normal and not-so-normal teenage ways (she begins dating Quentin Quire and also gets involved with a pseudo-Christian cult that wants to help her with her spiritual journey “to peace and damnation”).  It’s this series where Idie develops much of the personality that makes her so endearing; in the aftermath of the cult episode (if I remember correctly, they’re connected with the Purifiers, a religious anti-mutant hate group who are frequent antagonists of the X-Men) Idie starts to explore an identity that isn’t bound so closely with her faith community.  In a lot of ways she reflects the experience of people who have been shunned by communities that they didn’t want to exit in the first place.  The resilience and rebuilding of identity that’s not centered solely on a faith resonates.

In the most recent series where Idie’s appeared (that I’ve read; I admit I’m not totally up to date on X-Men books these days), she’s arrived at an equilibrium with regard to her past and her present circumstances.  In All-New X-Men Volume 2, Idie has joined the time displaced young versions of the original five X-Men, Laura Kinney, and Evan Sabah Nur to go road trip around the country doing superhero stuff instead of being bogged down in all the turmoil between the Inhumans and mutants since the release of the Terrigen cloud.  This is an Idie who’s become more comfortable with herself, although she still carries some of the weight of her past (as if it could go any other way).  We see her embracing her fun side much more, developing a strong friendship with young Bobby Drake and helping him meet guys as he begins to explore his sexuality after coming out as gay.  Besides helping her friends though, Idie gets to have her own personal adventures, as relayed in a story about her from All-New X-Men Annual #1: she goes on a date with a boy she meets in a town where the X-Men have stopped to relax, and in the course of their date discovers that he’s a mutant who’s been infected by the Terrigen.  Idie gets to shine as someone with significant confidence and self control as she defends her date from bullies and call in Ororo to help rescue someone else whose powers have gone haywire.  The whole story’s a nice capstone on Idie’s arc since her first appearance.

Idie reflects on her date after everything’s been settled. (From All-New X-Men Annual #1, written by Sina Grace, artwork by Cory Smith, colors by Andres Mossa, letters by Cory Petit)

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Reading The New Mutants: Zeb Wells Complete Collection

While I’m in the process of very slowly catching up on current X-Men stories (my supplies of necessary time and money to keep up with my comics hobby are inversely correlated), I’ve been going back and revisiting some runs that I particularly enjoyed when I first read them.  The most recent one that I wrote about here was the Si Spurrier Legion stuff, which explores how a person who’s been shunned because of erratic behavior related to previously unmanaged mental illness goes about trying to repair past relationships (also there’s a heavy dose of existential weirdness and one of those timey-wimey endings that just doesn’t make sense in terms of causality).  That series is my definitive concept of David Haller as a character; it’s what made me appreciate who he is as more than just a convenient plot device.  I’d say that that particular run is so iconic in my mind that I have a very hard time going back to earlier stuff with Legion precisely because Spurrier did so much to develop the character in ways that just hadn’t been explored before.

Illyana’s prominence on the trade’s cover should give you a pretty major clue who this run’s most interested in. (Cover by Adam Kubert; Image credit: Comic Vine)

So when I jumped into the recently collected Zeb Wells run on the 2009 New Mutants series, I was nonplussed to run smack dab into the middle of a Legion story where David lacks pretty much everything that Spurrier set up several years later.  Of course, Legion’s not the focal point of that first story; he’s the antagonist that the New Mutants, recently reunited as an X-Men squad, find themselves facing off against in a small town full of stereotypical bigoted rednecks.  The overall feel of the story (and most of the run) is heavily horror influenced in ways that I had forgotten were such an essential part of the best arcs of the original New Mutants.  Legion’s personalities have grown in number and they’re all running amok in his mindscape, here imagined as an infinite network of claustrophobic hallways, fighting for possession of a rag doll that represents control over David’s physical body.  It’s all far more horrific than Spurrier and artist Tan Eng Huat’s psychadelic vibe in their series.

While the Legion stuff in this collection feels a little lacking compared to what comes later, everything else about it works beautifully as an homage to the greatest hits of New Mutants.  Despite some slight wonkiness in characterization at the start, the eight original New Mutants who feature in this series (Rahne is absent for all of this stuff because she’s become rather inextricably tied to the X-Factor line by this point in publishing history) all come across on the page as a group of friends who have some long history behind them.  Doug Ramsey, who was killed during Louise Simonson’s run on the original New Mutants, finally gets resurrected here, and his reimagining as a polyglot who’s become slightly detached from his humanity as he reaches new levels of comprehension about how language binds the universe together is both alienating and deeply affecting.  Really, everyone on the team is written in a way that feels like a natural progression of their original personalities given the experiences they’ve had both individually and as a group.  Sam Guthrie is having a perpetual crisis of confidence about his leadership; Dani Moonstar can’t stop trying to prove herself after being depowered; Roberto DaCosta is working through the realization that he has serious feelings for his teammate Amara Aquila while trying to maintain a less ridiculous version of the machismo image he cultivated as a kid.  Xi’an Coy Manh is perhaps the most underwritten of any of the characters despite going through a significant traumatic experience halfway through the series that really feels like it should have been explored more thoroughly.

For all the interesting beats that most of the team gets though, this is a run that’s primarily concerned with Illyana Rasputin.  To my great chagrin, Illyana’s return from an alternate timeline (I think I’ve mentioned several times before that the Illyana who currently operates in the Marvel Universe isn’t precisely the same one features back in the ’80s) isn’t covered in this collection, so for a series that’s constructed heavily around this particular character, it’s unfortunate that we begin sort of en medias res.  Among all the other difficulties the New Mutants have trying to find their footing as a newly minted combat team, a pervasive thread is the general mistrust that wafts around Illyana, whose rebellious, secretive streak has been amped up in the aftermath of whatever catastrophe she escaped from through the time stream.  The sense that she has something in mind for her teammates pops up repeatedly over the series, and it creates a delightful sense of paranoia imposed over the persistent work everyone else is doing to establish strong bonds of trust.  The ultimate conclusion of the series, which builds up to a story arc that acts as a direct sequel to the New Mutants’ involvement in “Inferno,” the X-Men crossover event of 1989 where Illyana saved the world from an invasion of demons from Limbo in part by swapping places with a younger, pre-trauma version of herself (that non-magical version of Illyana ultimately died of the Legacy Virus a few years later) establishes major stakes that work because they’re all so closely tied with the fortunes of a cast of characters who are all deeply affected by their pasts.  Things get extremely dark before Illyana’s plan finally comes to fruition, and the resolution provides an emotional catharsis that’s long coming after what the original Illyana suffered.

Illyana totally isn’t up to anything shady at all. Nope, nothing suspicious here. (Pencils by Dio Neves, inks by Cam Smith & Ed Tadeo, colors by John Rauch)

If you are a fan of the original New Mutants series and all the attendant teenage drama that came with that book, this collection is a strong follow up to that era that respects the characters’ histories in ways that are both satisfying and surprising.

Re-Reading Magik (Part 4)

One last dimension to the Magik miniseries that I want to talk a little bit about (and I’m not sure how in depth this will end up being, but it feels like an integral part of all the other stuff discussed previously) is the fact of Illyana’s experience as a girl.  She’s abused, and she’s corrupted, and these two things really can’t be separated from narratives about the role of women in our society.

Illyana Rasputin is fourteen years old when this series ends. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I got to thinking about how Illyana being female shapes our perception of her experience because of the analysis that Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men did during their coverage of the “Inferno” crossover event which serves as the climax of this version of Illyana Rasputin’s story.  “Inferno,” which happened in the late ’80s, is mostly the story of Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops’s first wife and a clone of Jean Grey, entering into a deal with the demon N’astirh that threatens to turn all of Earth into a hellscape.  Running parallel to Madelyne’s story is Illyana’s; they have a lot in common as morally gray women acting with extreme agency at a time when Marvel’s editorial policy ran heavily towards social conservatism.  The event ends with both women being effectively removed from all the ongoing X-Men stories at the time as Madelyne dies and has her memories absorbed into Jean Grey, and Illyana gets de-aged back to her pre-Limbo seven year old self.  While there’s a lot to unpack about “Inferno,” the salient point that I’m reminded of with regard to Illyana and the Magik series is the use of corruption and demonic influence as coding for both sexuality and societal nonconformity among marginalized groups.

Compare innocent, six-year-old Illyana… (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With corrupted Illyana. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With Illyana, those codings get amplified by her coming-of-age narrative.  This story takes place over the course of seven subjective years, and that passage of time gets reflected most strongly in the way Illyana’s character design develops.  When she first finds herself trapped in Limbo, she’s dressed in a baggy shirt and pants to denote her childishness.  She’s just been pulled into a world where survival is difficult and not assured, and her clothing highlights her young age and lack of preparation.  Under Storm’s tutelage, Illyana wears a long nightgown that emphasizes her innocence in contrast with the corrupted, adult-presenting and sexualized part of her soul that Storm tries and fails to excise.  After Cat abducts Illyana, she dresses the girl in a leotard made of animal skins.  We’re meant to take the wardrobe change as a signal that Illyana must begin to grow up by abandoning unnecessary attachments and niceties, but there’s also a connection between her appearance and Cat’s; Illyana still looks like a child, while Cat, a skilled and ruthless fighter, is sexualized as almost a matter of course.  Cat’s style of resistance to Belasco’s depredations in Limbo is far more physically aggressive than Storm’s, and that aggression gets paired with a more overt sexuality (Storm is also, of course, an old woman in this story where Cat is in her prime).  Belasco’s corruption also manifests explicitly in Cat’s appearance; her face is meant to appear feline (though in effect it’s mostly just sort of alien looking).

Illyana’s wardrobe change into the leotard is clearly evocative of Cat’s own (highly improbable) outfit, but she still looks like a child. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Storm when she had fully embraced the demonic influence looks very different from how Illyana sees her throughout most of the series. (Pencils by Ron Frenz, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

We even see this pattern reflected in Storm.  Although the majority of the story features her as an old woman who has done everything she can to separate herself from Belasco, a sequence in the third issue where Illyana travels back in time to see the moment when Storm almost deposed Belasco as ruler of Limbo shows her in a highly sexual outfit at the same time that she’s most accepting of demonic influence.  In moments where Storm resists the draw of that power, she’s depicted in flowing robes and hair that hide her body (the one clear exception is the sequence in the first issue where she bathes while talking with Cat after initially rescuing Illyana; this is mostly just a long established thing where if Claremont can justify it, he will write Storm bathing or otherwise going au natural).  There’s a clear connection being drawn between Belasco’s influence, moral compromise, and how sexualized a given character appears.

Here Illyana is about thirteen. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

For Illyana, the leotard becomes her default outfit for the remainder of the series (she’s wearing robes at the start of the third issue, but then she inexplicably changes into her adventurer’s clothes between panels without leaving her bed).  The simple outfit helps the artists delineate how Illyana is aging by showing her features slowly maturing.  By the time of the final issue, Illyana has clearly reached her teenage years, although she remains unsexualized–at least, until the moment of self actualization when she conjures her soul sword.  The leotard has shrunk and ripped so that Illyana sports a bare midriff; she fully fits the mold of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars heroine.  This is where the pattern of corruption and sexualization breaks down, but it’s important to note that in place of demonic influence, Illyana is depicted in scant rags at her moment of clearest personal agency.  The sequence where she finds herself tempted to violently end Belasco as she takes on more demonic features is an extension of the danger of that agency.

Like Storm, when Illyana is at most in tune with Belasco’s corruption, she appears as a scantily clad demon. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

This all gets hammered home most strongly in the post-battle scene where Illyana contemplates how she’s been shaped by Belasco and Storm’s influence.  She stands on the balcony of Belasco’s castle, looking for all purposes like a full-grown woman despite only being around fourteen, and makes the decision to return to Earth.  When next we see Illyana clearly, she’s magicked a new outfit that de-sexualizes her, presenting as still innocent because she doesn’t want to worry the X-Men any more than she knows they already will be.

Illyana gets ready to go home. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Of course, all the stuff that I’ve laid out here isn’t really that unusual; we’ve been using overt sexuality as a code for moral turpitude in women for pretty much the whole of Western civilization.  In Illyana’s story that same trope gets recapitulated in familiar ways that result in her expressing extreme discomfort with the complete, complex picture of herself.  She’s every teenage girl who gets bombarded with negative messages about their own bodies and desires, just with an extra coat of demonization thrown on top.

Illyana makes herself “presentable.” (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Re-Reading Magik (Part 3)

The Magik miniseries ran from the fall of 1983 into the winter of 1984.  That’s the same year that the original Ghostbusters was released and Jack Chick published his infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons tract, Dark Dungeons (there’s a throwback post for you).  These three things all hail from disparate parts of the pop culture landscape; one was an obscure religious tract detailing the dangers of using one’s imagination, one was a major vehicle for a few of the late ’70s and early ’80s biggest comedy stars, and one (the subject of this series) was a tie-in to a comic that spun off from the Uncanny X-Men right when it was turning into Marvel’s biggest cash cow.  These creative works had nothing to do with each other, but they all feel tapped into a major phenomenon of that era: the satanic panic.

To get an idea of what the satanic panic looked like, here’s a bit from a post by Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk:

The rise of charismatic Christianity and talk of “spiritual warfare,” along with movies like The Exorcist, fueled a new dualistic supernaturalism among Americans. This was given credibility when we watched the news and witnessed the evil, grisly acts of murderous cults like the Manson “Family” and Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). A “satanic panic” arose in the 1980’s fueled by revelations of “repressed memories” indicating that large numbers of children had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A new diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder looked a lot like demon possession. Christian comedian Mike Warnke made a meteoric rise to popularity, with outrageous claims of having been delivered from Satanism. He told stories that scared the pants off Christian parents and youth alike who flocked to hear him speak and to buy his books and recordings. Preachers engaged in a focused critique on rock music’s occult influence on young people, especially in the “heavy metal” genre. These years saw the rise of the “New Age” movement. Popular Christian fiction writer Frank Peretti wrote best-selling books about “spiritual warfare against a vast, seductive New Age conspiracy” that was taking place in towns like yours and mine.

This account is specifically from a white evangelical perspective, but it still captures the zeitgeist that much of America was feeling in the early ’80s.  The supernatural was real, and it was dangerous, and the worst thing it could do was get to your children.  Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wanted to poke fun at it, Jack Chick wanted to capitalize on it, and Chris Claremont wanted to use it as a backdrop for his version of a “Little Girl Lost” story.

It’s sort of comical how obviously Belasco’s design is cribbed from traditional depictions of the devil. Also, note Illyana’s caption at the bottom of the panel where she admits to herself that she’s attracted to what Belasco’s offering despite knowing it’s dangerous. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

In retrospect, I think it was this evocation of the satanic that really appealed to me when I first read Magik about a decade ago.  In the years immediately after I graduated college I was very deeply immersed in the white evangelical subculture, and while this was the late ’00s, within white evangelicalism we were still in a lot of ways stuck back in the ’80s.  The concept of spiritual warfare, which asserts that all worldly conflicts are also overseen by equivalent conflicts between the forces of God and the devil, was a major aspect of white evangelical life.  It’s easy to see the echoes of this concept descending from the satanic panic of three decades earlier.  The conflict of Magik resonated with other Christian-branded media I consumed at the time like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (published in 1986), which tells the story of a battle between angels and demons in a small town where a New Age cult has infiltrated the community and begun brainwashing people into devil worship.  At the time I didn’t really grok that these different areas of pop culture were related in theme because they were all made in a span of time when much of American pop culture was preoccupied with these motifs.

What all this means for Magik is that while it’s pretty obviously a story about abuse, when I first read it I was drawn to the corruption elements in the story because they reflected the internal struggle that white evangelicals recapitulate for themselves all the time.  When you see the world as being fundamentally a struggle between your baser nature (never forget that the Calvinist idea of utter depravity is the harm that keeps on harming) and the influence of a morally upright divinity trying to exert its influence on you, it becomes pretty easy to relate to the scared little girl who finds herself attracted to the temptations of power offered by the red man with horns and a tail (and only a left arm because who doesn’t love visual coding to reinforce the untrustworthiness of sinister people?) while continually chastising herself for being tempted at all.  Even the final issue’s conclusion, where Illyana sees herself succumbing to Belasco’s influence and choosing to spare him to keep from becoming exactly like him, is fraught with subtext about refusing to engage with the devil using his own methods.  Illyana wins the fight, but her solution for coping with the corruption is to bury it inside her.  In the final pages of the series, she uses her powers to not only escape from Limbo, but to also alter her appearance so that she doesn’t look like she’s just spent seven years in hell.  It’s one last bit of obfuscation to help the X-Men accept her as an innocent victim when she feels at least partly complicit in the changes that have happened to her during her formative years.  Inside she feels depraved, but she puts on a shiny facade in a way that’s highly reminiscent of the ethos of white evangelicalism to never let inner difficulties show because those simply aren’t accepted by the larger community.

There are words to be said about Illyana’s appearance as this story progresses, but I think that will have to wait for another entry. Suffice it to say, her growing horns and a tail are pretty extra for a sequence that’s more satisfying to read as her reclaiming her agency from a long time abuser. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Re-Reading Magik (Part 2)

I gave a pretty broad overview of what happens in the Magik miniseries last time, mostly because you have to have a basic understanding of the plot in order to be able to talk more in depth about all the cultural and sociological influences that shape the story.  You have Illyana, a girl who has grown up in a highly abusive environment for about half her life, coming of age while grappling with complicated feelings of self worth and personal morality while also trying to navigate the expectations of other people for what she’s supposed to outwardly present.

If there’s a controlling idea within Illyana’s story, it’s the tension between her internal feelings of being unsettled in her identity and the pressure that everyone else exerts on her to try to get her to fulfill specific roles and expectations.  The motivations for this pressure range from the benign to the deeply selfish, but that spectrum of intent is secondary to the actual harm that Illyana experiences from all corners.  Her ability to establish a personal sense of identity get severely undermined by all of her mentor figures who try to enforce on her an image that reflects their own.  Storm wants her to learn to be a sorceress who channels magical forces for the purpose of creation; Cat wants her to become wary of dangers and ruthless in the pursuit of survival; Belasco wants her to serve as his protege and eventual tool for world domination.  Only once Illyana escapes from all of them (mostly by killing or otherwise seriously harming them) does she have enough space to try to figure out at least a little bit what she wants to become for herself.  Even this moment of personal epiphany is cut short because she’s still tasked with defeating Belasco just so that she will be safe, and then following that victory (which Claremont frames as a major moment of temptation that still feels off in its presentation), she has to subsume her identity in order to make herself appear as what she thinks the X-Men who are trying to rescue her from Limbo would find acceptable.  This ending tinges the entire story with an unshakeable element of sadness because Illyana escapes her physical prison, but she still carries major marks that she’s afraid to show to people who ostensibly love and support her (this is a significant motif for a lot of X-Men characters).

Even when she’s trying to help Illyana, Storm treats the aftereffects of Belasco’s abuse as something alien to Illyana that needs to be expunged rather than a part of her to be processed and integrated into her sense of self. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

The real world parallel for Illyana’s development is the effect of growing up in a family where abuse happens.  Belasco is the chief abuser because he holds primary power in Limbo, but we see his mistreatment echo through others who would typically be heroes in a less nuanced story.  Storm’s history as Belasco’s previous apprentice has left her with a sense of guilt about her own moral compromises that drives her to overly idolize Illyana’s innocence.  In trying to protect the child, she imposes this template of nurturing creator that simply isn’t a natural fit for Illyana’s developing personality.  It’s the gentlest treatment that Illyana gets while she’s in Limbo, but her recurring angst over being unable to conform to Storm’s ideal (evidenced by her repeated failed attempts to mimic Storm’s creation of an acorn) creates a feeling of instability that undermines Illyana’s ability to reach any kind of equanimity about all the aspects of her identity.  As hard as Storm tries to protect Illyana, she perpetuates the problem in less intuitive ways by reinforcing the sense of shame that makes seeking help from abuse so difficult.

Cat can’t differentiate between training Illyana to survive and actively trying to kill her. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Cat’s behavior is more straightforward in its effects.  Unlike Storm, whom we can infer suffered under Belasco’s tutelage for years while she learned magic, Cat appears to be the victim of one traumatic encounter with the demon lord.  He literally dehumanized her in a way that has left Cat feeling ashamed of herself and in a constant hypervigilant state that makes it impossible for her to relate to others in prosocial ways.  She views Storm’s use of magic, the avenue by which Belasco tortured her, as a personal betrayal, and she tries to rescue Illyana from being drawn into the same harmful patterns.  The problem is that Cat fails to see how Belasco instilled other ways to be hurtful into her.  Hey hypervigilance leaves her in a state that’s incapable of recognizing the line between pushing Illyana to improve so she can survive and literally endangering her.  Because this is an adventure story, Cat does succeed in helping Illyana learn survival skills that are necessary for being self-sufficient in Limbo, but she also acts recklessly and places Illyana in greater danger.

At the moment when Illyana’s in full rebellion against Belasco’s influence, she still feels a need to try to reconcile with him in the hopes that he’ll relent. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Belasco’s own relationship with Illyana is further complicated because he operates very much in the way that intentional abusers typically do: he alternates between extreme cruelty and what appears to be genuine care for Illyana while he teaches her more about the use of magic.  It’s one of the most disturbing aspects of the story as Claremont highlights Illyana’s own confused feelings about her relationship with Belasco.  Like actual victims of abusive relationships, there’s an element of affection that Illyana feels for her abuser which she finds extremely confusing.  This confusion becomes especially uncomfortable in light of the pseudosexual overtones that Claremont adopts in describing Illyana’s feelings about her ongoing corruption under Belasco’s influence.  In a sense it’s unavoidable because we’re looking at a coming-of-age story about a child growing into adolescence, but it does carry unfortunate implications about female sexuality when paired with the textual narrative of demonic corruption and the subtextual narrative of child abuse.

Next time we’ll try to break those connections down a little bit and discuss the cultural milieu that I think Claremont was directly tapping into with this story.

Re-Reading Magik (Part 1)

One of the many ongoing projects that I have at the moment is a gradual re-read of the Claremont run of the original New Mutants book from the ’80s.  There was a sale on Comixology a couple months ago on the series, so I got all of the Claremont stuff for about thirty dollars, which is a pretty good deal when you consider that he wrote over fifty issues on the series before turning it over to Louise Simonson.  One of the collections I bought includes not only the first twelve issues of the New Mutants series, but also the issue of Marvel Team-Up that introduced Karma (it’s okay), the issue of Uncanny X-Men where the X-Men return from space after the Brood Saga and save the New Mutants from a Brood-infested Charles Xavier (it’s fun to see Paul Smith artwork in high quality digital scans), and (perhaps the best bonus of the set) the four issues of the Magik miniseries detailing Illyana Rasputin’s origin in Limbo.

There are certainly some rad elements in the cover of Magik #1, but it doesn’t exactly advertise what you’re actually going to get. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The first time I read the Magik series, I wasn’t really sure I how much I would enjoy it.  I knew of the character Magik from prior reading about the major players in the New Mutants series (which I don’t think I had yet begun reading at that point), but her concept didn’t sound that terribly interesting to me.  Magically inclined comics characters are not typically my preferred flavor of fantastic (I write this being fully aware that I’ve spent months geeking out over an urban fantasy comics series), and the sword ‘n’ sorcery patina on the Magik series didn’t do a whole lot to reassure me that it would be interesting.  Nonetheless, I had a mission to read all the X-Men related comics I could get my hands on, and this was the origin story of a major character for a series that I was genuinely looking forward to, so I jumped in.

That’s heavy stuff for a fourteen-year-old. Also, I forget how integral inks are to creating mood in older comics. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Thankfully, the first page of the first issue helps establish what this story is really going to be about.  The whole narrative is a flashback of Illyana’s experiences during the events of Uncanny X-Men #160 where she was kidnapped by the demon sorcerer Belasco through an interdimensional portal and re-emerged after having approximately doubled in age.  The ending of the series is a foregone conclusion, which eliminates a lot of narrative tension on the basic adventure level of “will she survive?”  Throwing this basic problem out immediately, Claremont created a need for stakes that were a little more personal, and this opening sequence establishes those stakes effectively: Illyana views herself as morally compromised somehow, and we’re going to find out why someone who is still relatively young thinks that about herself.

From that opening, the story unfolds as a series of episodes in Illyana’s life growing up in Limbo with each issue being centered around a different mentor figure.  The first issue focuses on Illyana and an older version of Storm who has grown too frail to use her mutant powers without putting unbearable strain on her body.  In lieu of weather control, this Storm has become an accomplished sorceress who has spent most of her life defying Limbo’s ruler Belasco.  We get hints that Storm has her own history with Belasco that parallels what he plans for Illyana (before Storm can rescue her, he corrupts a piece of Illyana’s soul, which he describes as so pure that it will make the perfect medium for opening a gate to earth for the Elder Gods).  Her mentorship over Illyana is meant to help the child guard against Belasco’s corrupting influence.  The second issue details Illyana’s time under the tutelage of Cat, an alternate version of Kitty Pryde who has been corrupted by Belasco and turned into a partially feline creature.  Cat completely distrusts the use of magic and steals Illyana away from Storm to prevent her learning any more of it.  Cat’s mode of education is an extreme version of sink or swim where she places Illyana into situations that demand the child to adapt and toughen up in order to survive.  Illyana’s time with Cat ends abruptly when they attack Belasco’s castle, and the sorcerer captures them, stripping all of Cat’s remaining humanity away and taking Illyana as his apprentice.  In the third issue Illyana advances rapidly under Belasco’s tutelage, but she feels increasingly conflicted over the alternating abuse and care he heaps on her (as she grows more corrupted by Belasco’s influence, Illyana finds herself more and more attracted to the darkness he’s cultivating in her).  The final issue of the series sees Illyana escape after Storm dies rescuing her from Belasco’s castle; finally independent of any mentors, she has to find a way to balance the influences that have shaped her into something that’s workable for her.  She ultimately chooses to get revenge on Belasco and nearly gives in to her urge to kill him, but she stops short because the aggression is leading her to manifest demonic characteristics.  She returns to Earth having won control of Limbo from Belasco, but still conflicted what her experiences mean for her own character.

On a purely surface level, I found all of this to be a really compelling plot the first time I read it.  I think the element of corruption and struggling with immoral impulses was a really appealing aspect of Illyana’s character back when I was in all the evangelical stuff (remember folks: if you don’t think you’re fundamentally bad, then you can’t effectively do white evangelicalism!).  A character who had to struggle with literal inner demons was the sort of thing I ate up, especially when the framing of her story was so heavily built around a good-evil dichotomy.  Re-reading it now, the thing that comes across so much more clearly is that this is a story about surviving abuse and carrying that trauma with you.  It’s high melodrama all the way through, and Claremont has an uncomfortable relationship with the application of violence as morally wrong in absolutely all circumstances, but the core of the book is the fact that Illyana’s stuck in this dysfunctional family with a patriarchal figure who has repeatedly and openly abused everyone around him in order to maintain a status quo that favors him.  Storm and Cat, while trying to oppose Belasco, are also culpable in perpetuating the abuse that shapes Illyana into who she is.  As folks like to say, hurt people hurt people.

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.