Strange Comic Books: Magik

Chris Claremont is the writer who guided the X-Men for nearly twenty years.  With artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, he crafted what are now regarded as classic storylines, material that decades later continues to influence current writers on the now-sprawling franchise.  After the departure of Cockrum and Byrne, Claremont continued on for over a decade on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, collaborating with a succession of talented artists, among them Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.  During this time, Claremont penned a number of memorable, intelligent, witty stories.  Oh, yes, and strange, definitely strange.  Claremont certainly knew how to plot & script material that was undoubtedly unusual.  One of these would be the four issue miniseries Magik: Storm & Illyana, originally published in 1983.  It was reprinted in a hardcover collection in 2008, which is when I finally had the opportunity to read it.

Magik cover

The Magik miniseries has its roots in Uncanny X-Men #160, which was by Claremont & Brent Anderson.  In that issue, the demon sorcerer Belasco kidnapped Illyana Rasputin, the young sister of Colossus, and took her to his strange other-dimensional realm of Limbo.  The X-Men followed, and were shocked to encounter a middle aged version of Storm.  In an alternate timeline, another group of X-Men had journeyed to rescue Illyana.  They were able to send her back to Earth, but had themselves been trapped in Limbo, where over the years Belasco killed or corrupted the entire team.  This elder Storm now helped the current X-Men to find their Illyana, and opened a portal back to Earth.  At the last moment, Belasco snatched back the young Russian girl.  On the other side of the portal, returned to Earth, Kitty Pryde reached back in to try and grab Illyana.  She succeeded, but the X-Men were in for a massive shock.  In the few seconds that had passed on Earth, years had flown by in Limbo, and the formerly six year old Illyana was now a teenager.

With the Magik series, Claremont had the opportunity to examine exactly what happened to Illyana between pages 20 and 21 of Uncanny X-Men #160, during those missing seven years of her life.  As the first issue opens, Belasco, having successfully snatched Illyana from the X-Men, attempts to corrupt her soul.  His end goal is to eventually make her a living portal through which his masters, the elder gods known as the Dark Ones, may return to Earth.  Belasco begins his corruption of Illyana’s essence, declaring in a standard Claremont monologue, “She is bound to me, body and soul, and through me, to my dread lords. Forever.”

Illyana is rescued by the middle aged Storm and her former teammate, Cat, an adult incarnation of Kitty Pryde who has been transformed into a half-feline creature by Belasco.  Storm attempts to teach Illyana to learn how to use sorcery, hopeful that the young girl can overcome the darkness that has begun to grow within her.  Cat is extremely skeptical, and prefers to instruct Illyana in physical combat.  At the same time, Cat believes that Illyana may already be beyond help.  The only two alternatives to Illyana’s salvation that Cat can see are to either find a way to return Illyana to Earth, or to kill her before she becomes irredeemably evil.

One of the favorite themes that Claremont often examines in his work is the nature of identity.  Another is the corrupting temptations of power.  Both of these are central to the story in the Magik miniseries.  Illyana frequently finds herself questioning her very existence.  Who is she, the innocent young Russian child, the pawn of Belasco, the student of Storm, or the warrior forged by Cat?  Pulling her back and forth between each of these aspects of her self is the allure of the mystical abilities that Belasco has awoken in her.  Illyana is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lord of Limbo.  On the one hand, she wishes to return home to her family & friends; on the other, she seeks to explore the powers that Belasco promises to enable her to utilize.  She tries to remember Storm’s warnings about using her magic in harmony with nature, but is tempted to shape reality to her whims like a toy, much as Belasco has done to Limbo and its ghoulish inhabitants.  The stakes are nothing less than her immortal soul.  Claremont does excellent work examining how this character, so far from home, attempts to discover who she really is while struggling with dark temptations.

Magik 3 pg 22

The artwork on Magik: Storm & Illyana is by a trio of talented pencilers.  John Buscema does pencils / layouts for the first two issues, Ron Frenz pencils the third issue, and Sal Buscema draws the final installment.  Tying everything together, giving all four issues a uniform look is Tom Palmer on inks / finishes.

Palmer is one of those artists who possess a strong, easily identifiable inking style, and it especially comes across here.  He probably deserves the most credit for establishing the eerie, unearthly, disconcerting atmosphere of Limbo.  I was very disappointed that Palmer did not receive credit on the cover of the collected edition.  Unfortunately at Marvel Comics it seems to be the standard practice to omit inking credits from TPB covers.  That is especially a shame here, given how key Palmer’s work is to the final look of the entire miniseries.

Bret Blevins also contributed, penciling a stunning, creepy cover of issue #4.  (I checked with Blevins on Facebook, and he confirmed he drew it. So the credit for Bill Sienkiewicz in the collected edition is incorrect. Just setting the record straight.)  It is a striking, twisted image of a satanic Illyana, soulsword in hand, levitating above a fiery inverted pentagram.  Palmer inks that piece, as well, which results in a really unusual but effective collaboration.

Magik 2 pg 5

Oh, yes… out of all the strangeness in the Magik miniseries, the figure who especially stands out is Belasco’s minion S’ym.  For years, whenever that odd baddie would pop up in the various X-Men books, I was really puzzled.  I could never figure out why there was this gruff-talking, cigar-smoking purple demon who wore a vest striding around.  Then someone finally pointed out to me that S’ym was Claremont’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Cerebus the Aardvark, who was created by Dave Sim.  Yeah, okay, it all makes sense now.

When it comes to examining Claremont’s numerous X-Men stories, a few leap out of the crowd: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” (and for that last one I plan to do a separate blog post).  Those are understandably among the highlights.  But obviously Claremont wrote a lot of other entertaining, thought-provoking, and, yes, strange issues, both throughout his original 17 year run and during his subsequent turns with the characters (I absolutely loved his X-Men Forever series).  Among the numerous gems, Magik: Storm & Illyana is certainly up there.  Undoubtedly an odd series, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece of character building on Claremont’s part.  And some three decades later, other writers continue to find it influential when penning the character of Illyana Rasputin.

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