Monday, October 31, 2016

The Soul Of The Darkchild!

As a four-issue story that had as its featured headliners Storm, the leader of the X-Men, and the little sister of Colossus, Illyana Rasputin, the 1983 series Magik perhaps lasted two issues longer than its material could support. Building as it does on the conclusion of Uncanny X-Men #160, where the team was drawn into Limbo and faced the demon-lord sorcerer, Belasco, we were left to wonder at the end of that tale why Illyana, who was spirited away to Belasco's lair and later rescued, was returned to the X-Men seven years older than when she had been taken. The story's final pages were coy as to what happened to Illyana, nor was Illyana herself saying much of anything; instead, we saw her keeping a mysterious medallion close to her, filled with three "bloodstones" and with room for two more.

Just over a year later (our time), writer Chris Claremont takes readers behind the scenes of that adventure and explores Illyana's experience in Limbo--a domain where another group of X-Men never escaped from, and where Belasco continues his plans to appease those he serves, the "Dark Ones," by grooming the newly arrived Illyana to become first his apprentice, and then the eldritch gate through which the Dark Ones will enter Earth's dimension and seize it for their own.

If you're finding it difficult to perk up at the prospect of reading about a story that catapaults Illyana Rasputin into a starring role, readers over thirty years ago might have been shrugging their shoulders right along with you, particularly at seeing Illyana--a blip of a character who was only known through her relation to her brother, Peter, and who was still months away from making inroads in New Mutants--receive prominent billing on the cover of virtually her own series. "Magik," its title, was likely in part chosen because of its theme of sorcery, but it would also become Illyana's code name once the dust settled. At this point in time, though, can Illyana carry her own series, even with Storm added to the marquee? It's no small gamble on Claremont's part, though he depends a lot on the prior X-Men story's mysterious ending to jump-start interest in it.

Claremont's opening pages for the new story don't waste any time getting us where we need to be--a replay of the climactic escape of this team of X-Men (along with the kidnapped Illyana) from the realm of Belasco, a sorcerer who has already played out this scene with an earlier team of X-Men whose members weren't so fortunate. Then, it was Illyana who departed Belasco's realm, while the X-Men were left behind to meet their gruesome fate--but now, Illyana takes their place as Belasco's prisoner, and his victim.

Storm has survived from the prior X-Men team, as have two others--yet none of them have escaped the torments of Belasco, who rules this domain with an iron fist. It's curious that Immortus, the "master of time" who is a more familiar presence in Limbo and who considers himself its ruler, is nowhere to be found; perhaps he and Belasco have decided to simply stay out of each other's way. That would be a necessity for the story, since things in the Limbo of Immortus do not change--and, as we've already seen, there are significant changes taking place in Belasco's realm. Unfortunately, the aged Storm, one of the recipients of such change, is no match for Belasco, who immediately begins the process of creating the first bloodstone from Illyana's essence.

We'll learn that Belasco would invoke a different method for the formation of each bloodstone, which helps in part to sustain some level of suspense in this ongoing story since it's implied that completing the medallion will spell humanity's doom. Another way of keeping our interest will be in discovering which of the other X-Men exist in this realm, and what befell them. We were introduced to the elder Storm in the prior X-Men story, whose frailty keeps her from wielding her storm powers but who studied the dark arts to become a practiced sorceress; and now, with the arrival of a second X-Man who manages to drive off Belasco (for now), Storm takes custody of Illyana and the three retreat to Storm's sanctum, where Storm makes plans to salvage what's left of Illyana's purity--thanks in part to the intervention of the one now known as Cat.

"Cat" of course is Kitty Pryde, whom Belasco has decided to transform to sadistically have her be more of a reflection of her nickname. Aside from the onesie and the mask that artist John Buscema has given her, we can see that she's gone on to become an able fighter and develop a preference for and skill with sharp weaponry; yet she's also obviously very bitter at her fate, constantly seeking revenge against Belasco and angrily lashing out at any reminder of her past. Illyana's arrival has obviously become an issue with her--the question is, how will she settle it? To keep Illyana from becoming Belasco's, it seems she's prepared to take extreme measures, if it comes to that.

As for Ororo, Cat's angry exit is a result of Ororo using her magic to investigate Illyana's mind and determine the level of corruption that Belasco's bloodstone ritual has inflicted. What Ororo finds horrifies her, as the transformation of Illyana's soul has already proceeded to an alarming degree. Ororo barely escapes with her life, and decides that the best way to combat Belasco's influence is to make Illyana her apprentice, teaching her how to cope with the darkness within her--an approach that Cat insists will only help Belasco accomplish his goals with Illyana. And time is already running out--Illyana has already experienced a year's growth in just minutes.

Later, under the cover of night, Cat steals into Storm's sanctum and convinces Illyana to come with her, in an effort to return her to her home--ignoring Ororo's warning that such an act will facilitate Belasco's plans for her. The journey doesn't start out well, with the two eventually encountering one of the many demons that inhabit Limbo (at least Belasco's version of it--demons always seemed to give Immortus' domain a wide berth). While Cat fights off the monster, Illyana stumbles into a phenomenon imported from the prior X-Men story--one of the many teleporting "light circles" that randomly appear and disappear with no pattern or warning. We'll learn their true purpose in the story soon enough; for now, one of them transports Illyana to another location within Limbo, where she encounters her brother Peter's corpse--and his killer.

S'ym, a bruiser we met in the X-Men tale who serves as Belasco's enforcer, also turns out to have played a part in the death of Wolverine in this realm, which clearly establishes his threat level. For now, Illyana gets assistance from Cat, who eludes S'ym using her phasing power and passes with Illyana to another plane of Limbo which resembles the Savage Land, the environment where Belasco previously met defeat while attempting to set free the Dark Ones.

It's here that Cat begins to train Illyana in the ways of combat, a harsh regimen where Cat shows no mercy and makes no allowances for her pupil's youth or sensibilities. It's a part of Claremont's story which doesn't appear to make much sense; after all, if Cat's purpose is to take Illyana to a location where she can be transported back to Earth, why expend the time and effort training her to fight? Unless the journey is going to take months, what's the point? And if Belasco's corruption of Illyana is ongoing, isn't training her to be more vicious accomplishing what Cat feared Ororo's approach would do--making Illyana more valuable to him? Giving her reasons to Illyana, Cat states: "To survive, especially against Belasco, you must grow hard and strong and skilled." Sounds like just the sort of person that would be useful to Belasco, doesn't it?

All the while, Illyana continues to grow, so that by the time they reach Belasco's castle she's aged two more years in a fraction of the time. And as they make their way through the throne room, they're met by the final X-Man to have survived--if you can call it that.

With Nightcrawler... er, dealt with, Cat and Illyana make their way to Belasco's altar, where Cat uses a variation of her phasing power to prepare to escort Illyana back to her own reality. Cat's rationale for the mechanics involved perhaps wouldn't stand up to scrutiny:

"My phasing power enables me to slip the atoms of my body between those of whatever I'm moving through. On that primal atomic level, there's virtually no difference between the walls dividing a house and those separating dimensions. We should be able to phase out of Limbo and back to Earth."

It turns out we're not the only ones doubling over at Cat's preposterous theory--Belasco seemed to be having a good laugh, as well. When the two reach their destination, and "Kitty" on the other side is once more reaching through the rift to grab onto Illyana, the scene turns out to be an illusion--and it's instead Belasco who's grabbing Illyana. Cat reacts accordingly, and pays the price--and Belasco uses the opportunity to create another bloodstone for Illyana's medallion.

With Illyana now trapped in Belasco's citadel, her training as his apprentice begins. Illyana still walks the line between wanting to embrace the dark sorcery that she's learning yet also wanting to keep at bay the evil in her soul and remain as she is. As for Belasco, he remains stern, but patient--while the now-savage nature of Cat, who roams the castle as little more than a vicious pet, often makes Illyana fear for her own life.

As for Ororo, she maintains astral communication with Illyana, encouraging her to fight the evil inside her. Yet Illyana wants Ororo's help in another way: to steal into Belasco's library and study his grimoires, a plan that Ororo forbids for fear of Illyana becoming more bound to Belasco in the process. Ororo departs to make plans of her own; but Illyana's impatience forces her to seek out a means to stealthily move about, undetected by either Cat or S'ym. And her efforts pay off, as she makes the first use of her mutant power.

Quite an odd power to be born with, to be sure, since it requires making use of teleport energy indigenous to Limbo. If for some reason there were no Limbo, how exactly would Illyana's power be accessed? Regardless, Illyana takes immediate advantage of her new ability and teleports to Belasco's library, only to be harshly rebuffed by Storm and teleported to another location--in time as well as space. What she becomes witness to is a scene from the past, where Storm has finally confronted Belasco for his crimes, and her soul becomes forfeit.

Illyana is then caught in another light circle, which transports her back to the present where she finds that Ororo has made her move against Belasco--a desperate attack where, realistically, she doesn't have a chance of success. Unfortunately, Cat is also present--and while Ororo is focused on fending off Belasco, Cat strikes her fatally from behind. Illyana, in response, lashes out at Cat--and in an act which perhaps demonstrates how much like Belasco she's become, she snaps her friend's neck. As for Ororo, it's too late to save her--an assessment which, thanks to Belasco, carries more meaning than we might imagine.

There's certainly no denying that Limbo, under Belasco's grip, has become a hell that none of us would want to find ourselves trapped in, and we definitely would want no part of the Dark Ones if Belasco is any indication of their modus operandi. But even Belasco underestimates the compassion that remains in his young apprentice, when she ensures that Storm will be free of her fate in this realm once and for all.

Belasco is understandably furious, even as Storm's death rains down lightning that destroys a good portion of his fortress as well as his demons. During the chaos, he angrily washes his hands of Illyana, vowing to take vengeance on her, while she makes use of one of the light circles to teleport with Ororo to her sanctum so that she can be buried there. With Ororo's death, her oasis quickly begins to succumb to bitter cold, a sign of Belasco's final revenge on her that will wipe all traces of her from Limbo. While there, Illyana begins suffering hallucinations--corrupted images of those she cares for on Earth, all perhaps in response to the corruption of her soul and the hopelessness of her situation. All too quickly, Belasco finds her, and enacts a third bloodstone ceremony.

Belasco's "lesson" is to exile Illyana to the wilderness, without the use of her teleporting power. The story slows its pace substantially at this point and loses its momentum, as several pages are spent in fruitless efforts to shake off her dark corruption and turn more toward Ororo's way. In the process, Illyana continues to grow older and taller; but after failing to invoke Ororo's "master spell" to achieve inner peace, she realizes that her way to salvation lies in enacting vengeance of her own, and so Ororo's spell is rechanneled into creating a mystic sword for herself (her "soulsword," as she would later name it). Immediately, she sets off to confront Belasco, and the tide indeed turns.

With newfound confidence, Illyana continues with her attack, destroying Belasco's irreplaceable mystic tomes--and as she moves in for the kill, the knowledge she gained from those books has acted on her to have her become more like Belasco in appearance, while Belasco is disturbed by his own equally shocking change.

With Belasco helpless, Illyana is poised to strike; but then she realizes the startling transformation she's undergone, and, worse, its meaning. At this moment, she faces the same choice Storm did in her own confrontation of Belasco, an outcome which saw her lose her inner battle with him and become totally corrupt. It's an equally pivotal battle that Illyana now fights--and, fortunately, one that she finally deems a stalemate.

When Illyana is finally ready to make the jaunt to Earth--this time by using her own power--she's seven years older than when she arrived, and proves quite a shock to the X-Men for whom only moments have passed since she slipped away.

The final pages of the story take the form of several of these "limited series" that supplemented the titles their material came from--a springboard back to present-day events, where in this case we find Illyana about to become part of the lives of the New Mutants as well as the X-Men. Claremont spends the pages sending off the character in a veritable tidal wave of affirmation--though for all his efforts, it remains difficult to develop interest in a young teenager who muses about things like "I don't mind the storm... here, it represents the natural order of things, not some madman's whim" or "I was born seven years ago, yet I've lived over twice that--and in my soul, I feel as old as time." Heady stuff for Illyana Rasputin, whose inner turmoil can still astonishingly be synonymous with a happy ending.

Magik (Four-Issue Limited Series)

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Buscema (Pts. 1 & 2); Ron Frenz (Pt. 3); Sal Buscema (Pt. 4)
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Anonymous said...

I wonder if S'ym isn't somewhat inspired by Dave Sim's Cerebus the aardvark. If you think about it, it kinda makes sense; the name, and the physical similarities between the two characters,apart from size.
Even down to the little black vest and the habit of referring to oneself in the third person.

Anonymous said...

Claremont's switch on the X Men from space and science fiction-based themed story arcs to mysticism and demons is one of the worst decisions in comic history. It made no sense and hurt the comic for years.


Comicsfan said...

To say nothing of the similarity of their names, eh, M.P.? Give Cerebus a cigar and you might be onto something. ;)

I'm not sure if he ever traded one for the other, Yoyo. Claremont seemed to give each their share of the limelight in X-Men; the one thing he toned down quite a bit in the series was Charles Xavier's involvement and influence, which gave the book the feel of a ship without a rudder.

B Smith said...

This was just after I'd given up reading the regular X-Men title. After reading your synopsis of this series, plus the attendant scans, I have to say I can find nothing remotely interesting or enticing about it - it seems to encapsulate everything that made Claremont hackneyed and dreary....and yet he was riding a wave that would go onto much bigger things. Shows what I know! But honestly, you couldn't pay me to read it.

And the artwork! Big John and Tom Palmer? Should have been an absolute runaway winner...but did work from them ever look more slapdash and eked out?

This seems like an example of prime Shooter-era Marvel, and makes me glad I bailed early.

johnlindwall said...

I agree with you B. Smith - this really looks like a slog. I feel exhausted just reading this synopsis, I can only image the toil of reading the full work.