Magik (1983, Marvel Comics)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Sal Buscema
Systemic abuse of the young is just about the darkest thing that comics can address, and for every character whose horrendous childhood is discussed in intelligent detail there are ten with dashed off cases of Childhood Abuse so cavalierly handled that they hurt rather than advance understanding of real childhood trauma (“It’s Clobberin’ Time..”). In the early Eighties, it was the turn of mega-star Chris Claremont to approach the topic, in one of the most beautifully crafted and undersung tales in the X-Men lore.
Magik is the story of Colossus’s sister, Illyana Rasputin, who was, as a child, left lost and alone in Limbo, where a vile magician named Belasco dwells. While seconds pass for the X-Men back on Earth, years pass for Illyana, years in which she is broken and rebuilt by Belasco until she is nearly unable to believe that she possesses anything good within her.
It’s a ravaging and almost viscerally terrifying story about the fragility of our sense of self and humanity stuffed into a four issue mini series that today shows up only in dollar bins, if at all. Claremont did not allow himself easy answers for this story. There is no Teamwork Will Save The Day moment, and no ultimate redemption because, in reality, trauma on that level does not go away or Get Solved. In one of the most powerful devices of the series, Illyana wears an amulet with five spaces. As she’s abused and made to believe that she loves her abuser, he draws off chunks of her soul and fashions gems from them to place in the amulet, each gem a symbol of humanity lost. At the end of the story, only two spaces are remaining, a constant visible reminder of the fact that a massive part of her life has been twisted beyond redemption, and that no matter what happens, there will always be lingering parts of her psyche that are pushing her into self-destructive choices.
It’s the problem of not being able to trust yourself or your own goodness that Claremont chronicles so well. Illyana attempts several times to tap into the good magic that Storm taught her (a different Storm, who’s a sorceress…it’s a bit of a story) to create an acorn, a symbol of life, only to have it wilt into a black mass of putrescence each time. It’s a fitting symbol for the self-doubt of the abused, the inability to ever really know if your impulses come from you, or what was done to you, if you’re doomed to be somewhat inhuman forever, or if you can legitimately heal.
For those who, judging Claremont’s works based on his output of the past decade, don’t understand the ecstasies people go into when they talk about the man’s prime, Magik is a glimpse of a master at his dark best. And as a tale of the deep psychological scars of abuse related with emotional insight rather than lurid sensationalism, it has been rarely surpassed in the thirty years since its appearance.
From The Depths of Limbo Comes… The Power Meter.
Fierce: 10: Illyana has to overcome a near omnipotent master of a torment dimension while struggling with the growing worm of abuse-born dependence in her heart so, yeah, she’s pretty fierce.
Smart: 10: Nobody in the book demonstrates any particular braininess. Illyana is a girl who has only known the grinding torments of Limbo her whole life, after all. But Claremont’s psychological astuteness and willingness to forego pat solutions to emotional scarring are smart in a way that Eighties books, heck, modern books, rarely achieve.
Funny: N/A : Not surprisingly, this book is not really About the yuk-yuks.
Artwork: 8: It’s Sal Buscema so, yes, it’s very lovely artwork. But one wishes that the look of the book was challenging on a level that matched the storytelling, like what Sienkiewicz and Miller pulled off in Elektra: Assassin. For any other book, this art would be exactly what you’d want, but for this tale of isolation and self-loathing, something more experimental might have sent it into legend, rather than the dollar bins.
I Hate Gallant Girl (Image, 2009)
Writers: Jim Valentino & Kat Cahill
Artists: Seth Damoose
“Remember that’ Who’s the Boss episode when…?”
No, you don’t. Because you don’t remember any individual Who’s the Boss? episode. Because it was a show dedicated to a happy average that allowed for a pleasant frittering of time with none of the upsetting vagaries of excellence or awfulness that stick in the mind. It was exactly and precisely All Right. It was, on occasion, On Television, and that was enough for 1989.
If there is a comic book equivalent of Who’s the Boss?, it is I Hate Gallant Girl, an Image/Shadowline title that manages to make sexual titillation and gratuitous murder seem absolutely by the numbers. There are only three issues in this mini-series, in which a competition is held to see who will become the next Gallant Girl to join the Fellowship of Freedom. A genuinely talented super hero loses because she doesn’t have the right look. A ditzy but actually evilly brilliant one wins because she’s pretty, and there are a few fights in between.
See if any of this rings familiar: The rejected youthful super-hero, Tempest, is recruited by the grizzled veteran of the Fellowship to root out corruption in the organization which he helped found. Every expected beat is there, just in a magnificently truncated form. The apprentice and mentor have a falling out over basically nothing only to patch it up again after a few panels for no particular reason either. There is this omnipresent feeling of, “Well, we have to do one of these scenes, so here it is. There. You happy? We did that scene. Now here’s an upskirt shot of Gallant Girl for ya. You like that? There’s another in a few pages, after some more of that, whatdyacallit… plot stuff.”
Tempest is supposed to have lost because she’s not hot enough, and we’re supposed to pull for her because she’s an unattractive underdog, but she’s drawn as a slim chesty raven haired beauty with perfect eyebrows because, presumably, that makes the Gallant Girl – Tempest fights more compelling. There’s a love interest for Tempest that’s developed for about two pages in which the male says that, in spite of her being a super-attractive super hero, nonetheless he likes her … anyway?
The moves to establish sincerity are subverted by their brevity, and the attempt to create distinction between characters is washed out by the Hot Girls aesthetic. But it’s still, for all of that, enjoyable because familiar. It’s like watching an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. Is it objectively good? Who knows – it is so familiar and expected that it just allows your brain to shut down and go on automatic for a while.
There’s value in that. Everything doesn’t need to be turgid and truth-revealing. That would be exhausting. For those moments when nothing will serve so well as Something, I Hate Gallant Girl will always be there.
I Rather Like Power Meters, However.
Fierce: 5: Yeah, Gallant Girl’s pretty fierce. Tempest is, you know, okay.
Smart: 5: Gallant Girl is an evil super-genius, so that’s nice.
Funny: 5: Sure, it’s, not bad, funny-wise.
Artwork: 5: If you like Bomb Queen you’ll find this art comfortably familiar.