Illyana was Russian, blonde with harsh bangs, and could teleport herself and her friends across vast distances with “stepping discs” that used an otherdimensional Limbo as a shortcut. But like Wolverine, it wasn’t her mutant power that made her interesting -- it was something else.
In Uncanny X-Men #160, Illyana is a six-year-old girl. She’s with the X-Men on an old island base of Magneto’s, watching them take part in a training session -- and secretly being watched in turn by a demon named Belasco. Belasco lures Illyana to a secluded, shadowy corner of the island. He pulls her through a portal into Limbo -- and the X-Men give chase.
Long story short, the X-Men face down magical beasts, battle alternate versions of themselves, and finally rescue Illyana, pulling her back to our dimension as Belasco is trying to pull her into his. For the X-Men, Illyana is only in Limbo for a few moments.
Illyana spends seven years there, coming back out of the portal as a thirteen-year-old.
|Wolverine: hat on, shirt off.|
The four-part limited series Storm & Ilyana: Magik, published more than a year after this issue of X-Men, tells Illyana’s story over that seven year period.
By this fourth, final issue, Storm’s part of the saga is mostly done. Also? It’s not really Storm. Okay, it’s Storm, but not the regular Storm who was in the X-Men book at the time. This is an alternate reality Storm, also a sorceress, and she was aided by Cat, an alternate reality Kitty Pryde, who dressed kind of like 1950s Batwoman. Cat was dead, and this alternate Storm follows her in the first few pages of #4. Which is just classic storytelling, really -- this Storm is the Obi Wan Kenobi of Magik, there to impart a lesson, then to die. Meet the mentor, and then try to carry on.
|Off-panel blood magic, dudes.|
Throughout the issue, Illyana struggles with her magical powers -- and whether she’s here to be a hero of a villain. This is better magic than Harry Potter -- a young magician constantly faced with temptation, a perpetual Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker, with great power within her grasp, but only if she’s willing to embrace a demonic tradition.
This the the Marvel Universe, so there’s a fine line between “demonic” and “Satanic.” There are a lot of near-devils in the Marvel Universe -- Mephisto, Belasco, Marduk Kurios (who is the father of the Son of Satan, for what it’s worth) -- but this demon looks pretty classically Satanic. Red skin, horns, cape, fond of pentagrams, the whole thing.
|This guy looks trustworthy, right?|
Belasco instructs Illyana in the ways of magic, and tempts and punishes her with visions of her friends in the X-Men -- only twisted, corpse-like versions of them. He wants her to embrace her powers -- and the cost of using them. It’s a temptation Illyana is constantly aware of, and constantly wants to give in to. This great power could consume her, and she wants it to. It’s an itch that feels good to scratch, but under that it hurts intensely, but all she wants to do is scratch it forever.
|"I cast my pentagram, conjure my acorn. I have such high hopes."|
And again like Luke Skywalker (Jedi was released the year before this series), Illyana’s power increases as she embraces her own dark side. She turns against her teacher, absorbing his power, and taking on more and more of his demonic appearance. Belasco becomes just a comic book handsome-dude in a funky outfit, and Illyana becomes the Darkchild of the story’s title.
But with absolute power in her grasp, Illyana realizes that she’s become the demon she was fighting against. She drops her sword and refuses to strike the killing blow.
Belasco calls her a coward and disappears in a puff of smoke.
|Classic Belasco ninja vanish.|
Sal Buscema is the penciler of this issue, and his work looks remarkably like his older brother John’s, who drew a lengthy and sword-and-sorcerous run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. It’s a great visual style of this series, which is a less-travel branch of the X-Men family tree. It’s classic Chris Claremont in that way. Claremont wrote X-Men and many of its spinoffs for years, and he built a consistent and clear continuity that could account for superhero adventures, demon sorcerers, ninjas, space opera, and domestic drama. Of course it was built on the foundation of the Marvel Universe that Lee, Kirby, Ditko and others established in the 1960s, but Claremont tightened the laces and made his corner of that universe a place where he could tell stories in any genre he pleased.
After defeating Belasco and rejecting ultimate demonic power, Illyana still can’t go back to how she was before she started down this path.
|This is a pretty badass compact.|
“There are three bloodstones already in the medallion, parts of myself consecrated to evil -- a bond I can never break.” Illyana moves forward, but she's changed by what has occurred here.
Page 22 brings us back to Uncanny X-Men #160, when Kitty Pryde pulls Illyana back to Earth, now seven years older.
At issue’s end, another year has passed. Illyana walks through a snowy forest and wonders what it means to be who she is: “But what is my age? I was born seven years ago, yet I’ve lived over twice that -- and in my soul, I feel as old as time.”
The sudden shift from seven-year-old to fourteen-year-old is an exaggeration of the transition from an adolescent to a teenager. A little girl one second, and the next, a surly teen with mood swings and a changing body. It’s also a superheroic version of terrible trauma, the kind of thing we’ve read about in the true-life stories of Elizabeth Smart or the victims of Ariel Castro. Women who are forcibly taken out of childhood or young adulthood, who are traumatized by rape and physical and mental abuse for months or years, and who then escape from their abusers. Sometimes they can return to their homes or their families, but they can’t go back to the time before their trauma. They can be loved and empathized with, but their ordeal can never be entirely understood by the loved ones who care for them.
Obviously, the fictional ordeal faced by this fictional character isn’t comparable to those very real tragedies. But that’s what fiction is for -- to try to comprehend the incomprehensible. To make smaller the very big, or to make larger the seemingly inconsequential, as a means of understanding it, thinking and talking about, looking inward and outward at issues that are larger than us.
Magik ends with a lot of potential for Illyana as a character. It’s too bad that she went on to become not much more than a supporting character in New Mutants, a book about an X-Men training team. New Mutants, written for much of its run by Louise Simonson, who edited Magik, was one of my favorite titles, but it wasn't the story of Illyana. She was relegated to subplots in which she fought the temptation of her demonic side, eventually transforming back into her younger self, "de-aging" to a time before she was taken to Limbo. After that she died, was brought back to life, re-aged, and most recently was one of the “Phoenix Five,” a group of X-Men characters who were given the power of the Phoenix Force. Occasionally she's served as a damsel-in-distress when an exterior motivation for heroism is needed for her brother Colossus.
Serialized comics are too often tombs for great potential. Characters and entire storylines are forgotten or abandoned as creative teams change, editorial decrees are passed down, or creative energies wane or wax in new directions.
But stories don’t just belong to the storyteller. An executive from Lucasfilm can say the Expanded Universe stories don’t really count anymore, but they do -- they do, if you want them to.
Illyana’s story still counts, too. Maybe the merry gang at Marvel didn’t realize her full potential, but that doesn’t mean that potential goes unrealized by the rest of us.
Storm & Illyana: Magik #4 is written by Chris Claremont with pencils by Sal Buscema, finishes by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, and letters by Tom Orzechowski. It is edited by Louise Jones with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Published by Marvel Comics and dated March 1984. It can be found in dollar bins around the country, or in the collection X-Men: Magik - Storm & Illyana.