Learning Sketchbook 12: Pencils Change Everything

For a long time I’ve understood the basic concept of doing a drawing in stages where you begin drafting the basic composition and shapes with a tool that leaves a light mark then use the draft as a guide for detailing with a darker marking instrument.  Since I’m only using pencils, this means that I typically sketch things out with a harder graphite (like a 4H) then switch over to something significantly softer (typically a 2B), but a consistent problem I’ve found is that softer graphite tends to dull extremely fast, which becomes a problem on the scale that I’m drawing when I want to produce finer detail.

After reading a bit more about the way graphite works (there is no shortage of treatises on the qualities of various tools and media in books about drawing, as I have learned) I decided that I would try doing details on a couple sketches with harder graphite; the original intent was to give myself some room for error while I worked out how to pose my figures before hanging clothes on them (clothing is fun to do, but I definitely still need to see where the limbs and muscles are first).  Somewhere in there I just started using the harder pencil for stronger lines, and I was pleased enough with the result that I’ve kept at it.

Along the way with that, I also finally started thinking about how to do some proper shading to give my drawings a better sense of volume.  It’s minor stuff for now (I find that I kind of obsess over light sources, so I’m trying to keep things simple), but the difference in quality’s been noticeable to me.  I feel like there’s depth that was missing before, and I’ve found a technique for shading that just doesn’t look as sloppy as what I saw in some of my stuff from a few months ago.  I will say that my faces continue to be very weird, and I think it has something to do with how I measure proportions versus how much space I think specific features are supposed to take up.  Basically, I think that I’m consistently drawing eyes and noses significantly smaller than they should be, and then when I try to adjust I find that the whole face either looks stretched in weird places or the outline of the head is far too big.  Anyway, here are some recent sketches I’ve done at various stages of completion.

On a completely separate note, I’m having a lot of fun learning how different photo filters on my phone help make pictures of my drawings easier to see on a screen.  Those light pencils sure do a great job of not showing up in the final draft, but it’s a real pain getting them to be visible on in-process stuff.  For this picture, I was really pleased with the pose because I attempted it after doing a lot of practice drawing from reference photos, and it was really satisfying to put together a figure with a dynamic pose.

My earlier comments about weird faces are apparent here, but if you set that aside, the hair’s working, the arm has decent proportions with the foreshortening, and the other character details are pretty good.  I had a pretty rough time with the positioning of the hands on the handle of the sword, so that’s a thing that could be better (I spent a lot of time thinking about the way I used to hold a golf club when I went golfing as a teen).  It’s also obvious here that I switched over from the sketchy lines I use in a lot of my older stuff.  The effect looks much more polished.

And here’s the finished version with the shading added.  There’s definitely some messiness around the head with guide lines for the sword that didn’t fully erase when I was doing clean up, but I like it.  The character’s Illyana Rasputin from the X-Men in a variation on her ’80s look.  And because I was on an X-Men kick, here’s another one that I did in the last week.

Nightcrawler is a fun character because he’s agile enough that you can justify drawing him in a lot of fun poses.  Here I wanted to play around with his love of old movies; he’s more of an adventure guy, but I figured he’d have a soft spot in his heart for classic Hollywood musicals.  You can faintly see in this image the outlines of the figure’s muscles that I sketched before putting the clothes on.  Like I said, clothes are fun, but I don’t trust myself to make them look right if I’m not hanging them on a model first.

really like how this one turned out after the shading was done.  It helps that the lighting of the photo enhances the overall effect of Kurt frolicking under a street light.  While I was working on this one I kept thinking about how cool it would be to include some more details in the background, but then I got on this whole perspective kick and decided that determining a vanishing point after the fact would be murder, so that was right out.  It did mean, however, that I immediately started thinking about working perspective into my next piece, which is still in progress at this point.  The early drafting stage is below.

The best thing I can say about doing perspective is that it’s a lot of fun to see three dimensional space just sort of appear on the page as you put in the guide lines for objects.  The worst thing is that I spent about a day stressing over all of that before I pulled out a stiff ruler with a good perpendicular angle instead of trying to use scrap paper to line stuff up.  You can see here that the figure is still naked as I hadn’t begun to do the dressing yet (this is another piece of fanart, but it’s for a character with a pretty specific look to their outfit, so I wanted to get some references before I jumped into that).

Now that I’m on summer break, I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time on drawing.  It’s a nice alternative to staring at screen, and it works out some different brain muscles from writing, which is especially nice.  Also, I’m planning on attending my first life drawing session next week, which should be a lot of fun.

Reading “What If? Magik Became the Sorcerer Supreme”

Sometimes it’s good to take a break from stories tinged with relentless bleakness around the edges, so I figured I’d look at a one-shot that came out last year centered around my favorite character within the larger X-Men universe: Illyana Rasputin.  Some folks might remember the series I did last year on the original Magik miniseries from 1984 by Chris Claremont and a number of artists (links to those posts can be found here, here, here, and here); after I heard about this issue I decided to check it out since it sounded like it directly explores a lot of the issues that Illyana’s origin story raises, but in a context divorced from the extensive continuity that’s built up around the character in the last thirty years.

She does get a sweet cape though, so the cover’s only partly lying to you. (Cover by Jeff Dekal; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The issue itself is part of one of Marvel’s longstanding traditions of publishing stories outside of regular continuity under the banner of the What If? series.  These stories typically take major events in the Marvel universe and imagine alternate outcomes that either end in abject tragedy or arrive at the same ultimate result via a different path.  What If? Magik actually discards both of those templates and explores a path where Illyana avoids all the angst associated with the X-Men and reaches a state of relative peace that’s not present in most of her depictions within regular continuity.  The full title of the issue is What If? Magik Became the Sorcerer Supreme, but that title’s mostly in place as a way of enticing readers; Illyana does end up accepting an apprenticeship under Dr. Strange in the course of the story, but things leave off before she actually ascends to the eponymous position.  For the cover itself, there’s not much to say other than we get a nice picture of Illyana in a meditative moment.  The background colors, with her sitting mostly in shadow but facing out towards the light, is a nice nod towards the typical dichotomy between good and evil that Illyana always feels as central to her sense of being.

The story itself is divided into three broad acts (it’s been so long since I read a genuine one shot I had almost forgotten that it was possible to do this in nineteen pages): Illyana’s attempt to go it alone after leaving Westchester, her apprenticeship under Dr. Strange, and the final confrontation with Belasco.  Leah Williams, the writer on this issue, hits all the beats that you’d want in such a brief story about growing past trauma with Illyana’s beginning as someone who’s deeply internalized the harm Belasco did to her, slowly coming to grips with it under Strange’s guidance, and finally establishing a sense of identity that’s shaped but not dominated by her experiences.

Yeah, that’s Illyana. (Artwork by Filipe Andrade, colors by Chris O’Halloran, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The core of the issue is the relationship between Illyana and Dr. Strange.  Where the primary mentor figure in Illyana’s life in the main continuity is Magneto, whose own struggles with a complex morality that emerged from traumatic experiences help him serve as a somewhat reluctant guide during her time in the New Mutants, Stephen Strange is a generally pleasant person who relates to Illyana purely as a more experienced mage to a potential protege.  This isn’t a couple of survivors relating to one another over common experiences, which is a valuable sort of relationship (and one that Illyana’s definitely needed during much of her history).  Strange reads more like a somewhat bumbling but enthusiastic foster parent; he isn’t projecting his own baggage on his relationship with this kid he picks up off the streets.  There’s a playfulness that Strange injects into Illyana’s life that feels like it was mostly missing in the main continuity, especially from her parental figures.

I can’t fault his logic. (Artwork by Filipe Andrade, colors by Chris O’Halloran, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Of course, being someone who doesn’t relate to Illyana through trauma backfires on Strange at certain points.  After she explains her history as Belasco’s sorcery apprentice, Strange rather callously offers her an apprenticeship as well, completely oblivious to how she might react to an offer that sounds exactly like what Belasco has already done to her.  Context matters, and Strange fails to account for that pretty spectacularly.  Because this is an essentially hopeful story though, he learns from his mistake, and he and Illyana develop a pretty strong bond.

Strange’s aggressive finger point combined with Wong’s downturned face is delightful; it’s an excellently played joke. (Artwork by Filipe Andrade, colors by Chris O’Halloran, letters by Clayton Cowles)

For all the parts of Illyana and Dr. Strange’s relationship that are fun and joyful, this is still a story about working through and overcoming trauma, and because it’s also a superhero story, that means that Illyana’s moment of epiphany about her identity has to be accompanied by a confrontation with her abuser.  Belasco attacks Illyana and Strange immediately after Illyana has finally had a breakthrough in her practice of creation magic to create a Soul Staff (contrasted with the Soulsword that Illyana’s known for in regular continuity).  Williams leans heavily into the abusive dynamic between Belasco and Illyana, having his appearance act as an immediate trigger for her old feelings of helplessness.  A wordless sequence shows Illyana, faced with Belasco’s threat to Strange (which Strange isn’t really concerned about), cling to her Soul Staff as she becomes the little child who was originally abducted to Limbo.  Her posture in the scene suggests that she’s less terrified of Belasco than working to maintain the equilibrium she’s found under Strange’s tutelage; the Soul Staff is a major accomplishment for her, and it serves as her anchor while she gets hold of herself.  That Illyana doesn’t immediately lash out at Belasco in some splashy show of strength feels like a good reflection of how exposure to traumatic triggers often requires significant mental resources to cope in the real world.  While Strange might be slightly inconvenienced by Illyana being too busy to help him fight the demon lord off, her reaction comes from a healthy place.

Williams leans far harder into domestic abuse tropes with Belasco than anything Claremont did in the original miniseries. (Artwork by Filipe Andrade, colors by Chris O’Halloran, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Naturally, this is still Illyana’s story, so she does the last minute save to keep Strange from being killed by Belasco’s dark magic.  The conflict resolves with Illyana stabbing her Soul Staff through Belasco’s heart, echoing the killing blow that she resisted delivering back in Magik #4.  It’s a satisfying turn from the original resolution where Illyana pulled back because of her fear that she’d become like Belasco; we get a recapitulation of that here as she manifests her devil’s horns and collapses in terror at what she’s done.  It takes Strange talking her down to help her see that she’s not done anything so unforgivable as her abuser.

Just keep breathing. (Artwork by Filipe Andrade, colors by Chris O’Halloran, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue’s end leaves Illyana in a place where she’s never really been allowed to rest in main continuity.  Though there’s a strong implication that she still has a lot to learn as a magician, Illyana is set on a path here that’s altogether much more hopeful than in any of her other appearances.  She’s set up as part of a family that has significantly less baggage than anyone associated with the X-Men.  It’s an excellent ending for a character who usually doesn’t get this kind of love in stories about her.

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.