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Thursday, August 7, 2014

X-amining New Mutants #73

"The Gift"
March 1989

In a Nutshell
Illyana's battle with her dark side comes to an end. 

Writer: Louise Simonson
Penciler: Bret Blevins
Inker: Al Williamson & Mike Manley  
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Plot
In the demonically transformed Manhattan, Illyana battles S'ym, quickly realizing she'll need to fully accept her dark side in order to defeat him. Elsewhere, both the New Mutants and Colossus search for Illyana. Atop the roof of the Hellfire Club, N'astirh appears before the Inner Circle, offering an alliance. Passing by, the New Mutants see Magneto conversing with the demon, increasing their distrust in their estranged headmaster. Nearby, Colossus is brought to S'ym, just as the New Mutants spot the effects of his battle with Illyana. The New Mutants manage to separate Illyana from S'ym as Colossus fights the demon himself, and Illyana, distraught over her brother seeing her Darkchilde form, flees to Limbo along with the New Mutants. Once there, she realizes she can no longer run from her destiny and takes her throne, accepting her dark side as ruler of Limbo once more. On Earth, Colossus continues to fight S'ym as Dani, Rusty and Skids defend the kidnapped babies from demon attacks. In Limbo, Rahne rushes off, determined to locate the child Illyana the New Mutants had previously seen running through Limbo.


The New Mutants tumble through Limbo's stepping discs until they locate the young girl, at which point the teenaged Illyana appears before them. Enraged at the sight of the young girl whose survival led to her corruption, Illyana transforms once more, into a being of pure energy, and prepares to kill the young girl, but Rahne intervenes, telling her that if they save the child, they could save Illyana as well, that this time she alone has a choice. Saying that in Limbo there is no right choice, Illyana realizes the only way to win is to beat N'astirh at his own game by removing the choice, negating her presence in Limbo. Sending the New Mutants back to Earth, Illyana casts a spell recalling all the demons, including S'ym, to Limbo, then throws aside her Soul Sword. In the wake of the spell, all that remains is Illyana's armor, and, inside it, the young Illyana who fell into Limbo, now free of the place. The New Mutants realize that Illyana sacrificed herself to save the Earth and rescue her younger self from the life she knew. Nearby, N'astirh watches this scene, and in the wake of losing Darkchilde, decides to focus his efforts on the Goblin Queen, determined that before the sun rises, both Earth and Limbo will be his.

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue essentially marks the death of Illyana, at least as we know her, as she sacrifices herself to end the demon attack on Earth and save her past self, leaving the New Mutants with a seven year old Illyana who will be spared a childhood growing up in Limbo. She will shortly be returned to her parents in Russia and largely disappears from the X-universe for awhile, but the happy life the New Mutants envision for her won't come to pass, as she'll eventually contract the Legacy Virus and become one of the disease's first casualties in the early 90s.


Louise Simonson, who always tried to write out a character in a manner that would allow later writers to bring the character back, has said that the young Illyana rescued by the New Mutants in this issue is an alternate Illyana, and not the child version of the character that has appeared in New Mutants up to this point. That is essentially the loophole that will be used to bring the fully powered, teenaged, corrupted-by-Limbo version of the character back in the 00s. 

N'astirh approaches the Hellfire Club about an alliance in this issue, and while that in and of itself is ultimately pointless, the New Mutants' observation of their discussion furthers the tension between the team and Magneto, contributing to their upcoming separation.


Limbo isn't gone from the X-books entirely, with later stories establishing that S'ym regains control of Limbo in Illyana's absence, before eventually being bested by other rulers to varying levels of success, but this issue marks the end of the New Mutants being heavily involved with Limbo as, in the absence of a teenage Illyana and the end of "Inferno", they no longer have a reason or means to go there. As such, this issue feels a bit like an end of an era for the series, though that is more formally marked in issue #75, when the kids officially sever ties with Magneto and Xavier's School. 

Both Illyana and the New Mutants learn Colossus isn't dead this issue, though the question of whether the rest of the X-Men are similarly still alive is never raised, and I don't believe the New Mutants ever tell anyone that at least one of the presumed dead X-Men are alive. Similarly, while the X-Men and X-Factor meet in the course of "Inferno", the New Mutants are kept separate from their believed-dead one-time housemates, and though they will eventually take shelter with X-Factor (who, of course, now know the X-Men are alive), to my recollection, the New Mutants are never told the X-Men are alive on panel.

Dani is suffering from severe headaches this issue, chalked up to a combination of the concussion she received last issue and the massive death images she's experiencing. The headaches will continue to linger even after "Inferno" ends, eventually leading to the upcoming Asgard story and, ultimately, Dani's departure from the book.

To that end, the group of characters who go after Illyana in this issue (Cannonball, Sunspot, Wolfsbane, Warlock, Boom-Boom and Rictor) are who essentially become the main cast of the series moving forward, at least until it goes into full-on X-Force transition mode. Illyana is gone, Gosamyr will shortly leave for good, and while Rusty and Skids will join the team along with Boom-Boom and Rictor, they won't travel to Asgard with the rest and won't rejoin once the New Mutants, now sans Dani, return to Earth.

Blevins' art seems off this issue (his Colossus in particular is quite wonky); not sure if that's the presence of Manley on inks, or just burnout from pencilling a double sized issue.

The Chronology Corner
This issue takes place before X-Men #242. Though the ramifications of the crossover will linger for several more issues, this is the final New Mutants issue to officially tie-in to "Inferno".

A Work in Progress
The New Mutants mention Professor X, who Rictor and Boom-Boom know as "the old guy who taught X-Factor", while Magneto is to them the bad guy who sank that Russian sub.


Magneto sees Colossus walking the streets of New York, but chalks it up to a demonic illusion caused by the Inferno.


The New Mutants overhear the Hellfire Club discussing Selene's "Amazon holdings", realizing this could mean Amara is in danger.

Colossus tells S'ym he's impervious to the transmode virus; I don't believe that's ever been established before.

Illyana undergoes one final transformation, into a being of pure energy, just before she sacrifices herself.

Most of the demons that have entered Earth are recalled to Limbo by Illyana in this issue, though it will be revealed that some have remained on Earth.


Sam hangs a lampshade on the paradox of Illyana having saved her past self from growing up in Limbo, pointing out that even though Illyana is now a child, they still remember the teenage version, essentially establishing the loophole Weezie left in case anyone wanted to bring the character back.


I Love the 80s
Colossus tells a group of demons about his sister, who probably already know all about her, in such a way that if anyone happened to be reading his dialogue, it would helpfully provide details with which they may not be familiar.


He also has pictures of Illyana on him, which I guess he carries....tucked into his belt?

Teebore's Take
And thus comes to an end the sad but ultimately triumphant saga of Illyana Rasputin, a conclusion which arguably stands as Louise Simonson's swan song on the series. Though she still has a fairly long string to run out before the series is joined and then overtaken by Rob Liefeld en route to its transformation into X-Force, this is the last really significant contribution Simonson will make to the series (barring Cable, but he's tied pretty firmly to Liefeld), and her resolution to Illyana's arc, an arc which stretches all the way back to before this series even existed, is probably her best work on the book.

It's tough to know exactly how Chris Claremont intended to wrap up Illyana's story after he plunged her into Limbo and had her pulled out a grown teenager in X-Men #160, but Simonson's resolution feels appropriately Claremontian, with the better nature of a character leading to a sacrifice in order to defeat her growing darkness, and is certainly in keeping with the direction of the story crafted by her and Claremont in previous issues. While the exact mechanics of what happens are a bit muddied (Illyana rejects the darkness inside her, becomes a Claremontian Child of Light and recalls all the demons from Earth, which kills her/negates her somehow and puts her younger, uncorrupted self in her armor to be found by Colossus and the New Mutants) and the paradoxical implications (if Illyana never become ruler of Limbo, what about all the stuff she did as ruler of Limbo?) are best waved away with "time is funny in Limbo" and/or "alternate Illyana's", the end result is ultimately satisfying.

After years of build-up, Illyana rejects the darkness inside her, and while that's a fairly standard beat for this kind of story, her sacrifice is genuinely surprising, creating a bittersweet ending for the character that is far to uncommon in superhero fiction. Illyana lives, after a fashion, her innocent past self spared the immense torture and abuse our Illyana suffered in Limbo, but in the process, our Illyana, the one we've read and cared about for years, is no more, as much as if the character died fighting a villain. The series, then, has lost one of its more interesting and nuanced characters (and it will suffer for that a bit moving forward), but by giving Illyana a conclusive ending, one which is both tragic and triumphant, it makes her overall story all that much more resonant. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow, the combined X-teams battle the Goblin Queen in X-Factor #38. Next week, the third batch of "Inferno" tie-ins, followed by Excalibur #6. 

18 comments:

  1. "Louise Simonson, who always tried to write out a character in a manner that would allow later writers to bring the character back"
    Really? What were the loopholes to bring Doug back? Or Maddie?
    Colossus was implied to be immune to the transmode virus in Uncanny 231.

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  2. "Colossus tells S'ym he's impervious to the transmode virus; I don't believe that's ever been established before."

    I think it might have been mentioned in the Uncanny issue where he fought Warlock's father? Hey, impervious to magic, the transmode virus...it pays to be metal ;)

    "The series, then, has lost one of its more interesting and nuanced characters"

    I would have liked to see Illyana and Rahne's post-Inferno relationship, especially now that Rahne has seen how miserable and horrible Illyana's childhood was.

    This definitely does have the feeling of being the end of an era, for much of the reasons you said. It also doesn't help that the post-Inferno status quo doesn't last long, thanks to the never-ending Asgard story and the arrival of Commander X...er, Cable.

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  3. "He also has pictures of Illyana on him, which I guess he carries....tucked into his belt?"

    Well, that's exactly where Wolverine kept his photo of Jean while in the Savage Land, circa UXM 115. So why not?

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  4. 'What were the loopholes to bring Doug back?'

    Those panels showing the transmode virus within his eye, at a microscopic level?

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  5. "Louise Simonson ... has said that the young Illyana rescued by the New Mutants in this issue is an alternate Illyana, and not the child version of the character that has appeared in New Mutants up to this point."

    And that's why I hate this ending. Between the characters (Sam in particular) waving off the disbelief with a shrug and the fact that the explanation is not part of the story itself, it feels like it was orchestrated despite all plot/character logic to get a happy ending at any cost. I have never been a fan of the "timey wimey" excuse, which this ending uses, since it allows the author to use cross-eyed logic & blow off any concerns that it's just that. If she had just made it clearer that the real Illyana had returned to Limbo to guard it & that the kid definitely was an alternate Illyana instead of leaving it in the air, maybe it would've been better. But it always felt like a happy ending for the sake of a happy ending & not for the sake of the larger story. It's the lowest moment of Simonson's run to me because it is so easily fixed with a word balloon here & there that no one saw fit to add.

    "What were the loopholes to bring Doug back?"

    This one I can explain. Before leaving, Claremont made it clear that Doug was infected with the Transmode virus, so that could've revived him. Even as late as the X-Tintion Agenda, she had that scene of the team scattering Warlock's ashes on Doug's grave with a caption that made it clear this could be a way to bring both back as a single character (which at first they did, then didn't - late 90s continuity is the worst). So Doug/Warlock/both were pretty salvageable. But I don't think anyone, Simonson or Claremont, had a way to bring Maddie back; after Shooter's X-Factor demands, she was more of an albatross than anything. Which is a shame, since like most folks here, I thought she had a lot of potential as a cool civilian ally.

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  6. PART ONE OF A TWO PART COMMENT

    > And that's why I hate this ending [...] it feels like it was orchestrated despite all plot/character logic to get a happy ending at any cost.

    I agree, and it's certainly not the ending Claremont would have written - besides the fact that he hated writing out his pet characters (and Illyana is far and away the should-have-been breakout character of the New Mutants), this ending does not fit with his thematic agenda.

    Claremont's feminist agenda kicked off with the well-intentioned but flailing depiction of Jean-as-Phoenix, whose power is overtly depicted as unrestrained female sexuality. As Doug M. noted in a 2008 comment on Jason Powell's read-through:

    > Transfixed, unhuman joy, impact of sensations, building to an inevitable crescendo? Ai yi yi -- it's straight from nerve.com. In an earlier thread you expressed disgust at the scene in Whedon where Kitty comes. Well, this was present in Claremont too, and nowhere more blatantly than here.

    > What Claremont and Byrne are telling us here, as explicitly as possible in a mainstream comic in 1979, is that being Dark Phoenix an orgasm. It's an orgasm that /never stops/.

    > And it blows stuff up because, well, that's what uncontrolled female sexuality does.

    I believe Claremont sensed that this was a misstep, but Jim Shooter's decree that Jean die at the end of the arc cost him any chance to revisit it directly. Nevertheless, his subsequent stories made a strong effort to depict complicated female sexualities without the tone of slut-shaming that characterized the Dark Phoenix saga.

    His least ambiguous achievement in that regard is Storm, whose opening up to her sexuality with Yukio (UXM 172) and Wolverine (UXM 245-246) is played straight. But he also revisited the theme of rape and coercion with two of the New Mutants, Xi'an and Illyana.

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  8. Xi'an's backstory made her very literally a rape survivor, and it seems that Claremont quickly regretted that decision, since he seemed unable to do anything interesting or tasteful with that aspect of her character - when he shows a flashback to her past, the experience is just too raw for the reader to dwell on it. He wrote her out quickly, and replaced her with Illyana.

    This was a masterstroke - unlike Xi'an, Illyana's experience of childhood abuse could be rendered through metaphor. She could figuratively battle the figurative demons of her past by literally battling literal demons! This layer of indirection opened up vast storytelling opportunities - a reader uninterested in the subtext got to enjoy kinetic, visually arresting battle scenes, while the more clued-in audience got the rich story of a young person who had survived terrible things and who believed herself to be irredeemably, intrinsically evil struggled to move on from her past and re-narrativize herself as a hero. Buffy the Vampire Slayer draws heavily on the X-men, but never as heavily as it does here.

    So, this is the story I think Claremont really wanted to tell - how do we deal with our past, and integrate it, and rise to its challenge instead of being defined by our traumas? This is Magneto's story too. And it's not one that Louise Simonson understood or was interested in. Just as she rolls back Magneto to a cartoony shade of villainy in her run on New Mutants, she consistently undermines the progress Illyana has made at defining herself as anything other than a rape survivor, culminating in this arc, where her entire character is erased in the name of "restoring her innocence".

    This is not how recovery happens, and it is not how human stories work! Can you imagine if someone had pitched a plot where the X-Men travelled back in time to rescue Magneto from Auschwitz so that he'd never have become a villain? It's too tacky to even contemplate. But that's what happened here - Inferno is the assassination of one of Claremont's finest characters.

    > I don't think anyone, Simonson or Claremont, had a way to bring Maddie back

    Jean absorbs the dying Madelyne's memories in X-Factor 38, allowing her persona makes one final appearance during the "Judgement War" arc in X-Factor 43-50.

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  9. I also read about the Alternate Illyana trick around the same time I read Inferno. I figured that the L'il-Illyana-Legacy-Virus-victim was the Illyana associated with the X-Men that became servant-groper-Kurt, hanging-corpse-Peter, Sorceress-Ororo, and Cat. It was never mentioned how their Illyana got out of Limbo. This issue is probably the best answer.

    This issue also closed Part 2 of my Inferno reading to my sister. I commented to her that had Illyana embraced her dark side, all would be lost. But her sacrifice instead gave the X-teams a fighting chance.

    Still, I wondered why Belasco wasn't included in this crossover. His last appearance was in Englehart's FF run. Does anyone know what happened there?

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  10. "Still, I wondered why Belasco wasn't included in this crossover. His last appearance was in Englehart's FF run. Does anyone know what happened there?"
    He tried to make Crystal into his apprentice (over Ben's objections that her name wasn't Crysanna). Meanwhile, Dr. Strange cast a spell to kill Shuma-Gorath by bashing him with a magical "voodoo doll" of the Earth, Belasco worried that this might destroy all the realities and cast a spell to mitigate the damage and the FF used this opportunity to escape. (And yes, innocent people did die as a result of Strange's actions but we're supposed to forget about that because Strange said hello to a woman in a blue dress. Don't ask.)
    @April- I disagree with the idea that the ending has Unfortunate Implications for abuse victims. During Simonson's run, Illyana would repeatedly toss villains into Limbo to be tortured by demons, whine about how she kept getting more evil and keep tossing people into Limbo. I've got no sympathy for abuse victims that keep torturing people. (Or non-abuse victims that keep torturing people, for that matter. That includes Louise Simonson, who will soon inflict the Asgard story on us.)

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  11. @anon - I think it is worthwhile to distinguish Illyana under Claremont's pen from Illyana under Simonson's. Like Magneto and Madelyne, they are completely different characters from the ones Claremont left in her care. The conclusion Simonson wrote for might be appropriate for her version of that character, but it isn't a good ending for the version who I care about.

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  12. Hm! Although I praised Louise Simonson's ending for Illyana in an earlier thread, I find myself nodding at much of what @Mela and @April Arcus have to say about it here.

    I definitely agree that Illyana's regression feels a bit mechanically cheaty ("We don't know exactly what happened! But it definitely happened!") as well as a pat and too-easy "happy" ending for Illyana.

    Still, I like it. I guess it's mostly just a matter of comparison. Compared with other New Mutants who die or are written out with a bit of a shrug around this period, at least Illyana's exit conveys a certain amount of gravitas. I like that the reader is asked to really think about her struggle, and to respect the complicated nature of her heroism.

    I'd never made the connection that @April Arcus points out between Karma's departure and Magik's entrance, but it makes a lot of sense. One thing I'd also bring attention to-- though I don't have much to say beyond observing it-- is the contrasting way Illyana and Karma are presented vis a vis their sexuality. Illyana is always pretty overtly sexualized, both in appearance and behavior, whereas Karma is, in my recollection at least, always depicted as almost aesexual.

    (I'm not taking into account into the later revelation that Karma's a lesbian, both because that comes so far in the future and also because I haven't really read those issues.)

    Rather than Karma, the character I've always mentally connected with Illyana is Rachel Summers. While Rachel's origin doesn't have quite the same overtones of sexual abuse, she and Illyana struggle similarly to accept themselves as heroes despite past trauma. (As with Karma, I think Claremont bit off a bit more than he could chew with Rachel, hence the character's significant and somewhat head-scratchy revision when she's reintroduced in Excalibur.)

    I could say a lot about the Dark Phoenix stuff, and about Claremont's depiction of female power in general, but I'll try to keep it short in an already too-long post:

    I think Claremont was a trailblazer in the fact that he portrays powerful women AT ALL during this era, but a lot of his work also really seems to play into male anxiety about (and the attendant prurient interest in) untrammeled female sexuality. (Breasts as weapons are the comic book version of the vagina dentata, right?) At any rate, all those metatextual tensions least led me to real consideration of the complications of gender and sexuality as they're represented in fiction, and that feels like a net positive on a personal level.

    Anyway! Obviously this stuff is really interesting to me, and I love having somewhere to pick it all apart...

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  13. > the contrasting way Illyana and Karma are presented vis a vis their sexuality

    For whatever it's worth, these both feel like real reactions to me. Illyana was abused by a father-figure, Belasco, and has inappropriately thin boundaries because they were never role-modeled for her. Maybe she doesn't even understand that what happened to her was wrong - she claims her nature to be basically evil, which you could read as her internalizing and normalizing the morality of what happened to her.

    Meanwhile, Xi'an's overdeveloped boundaries seem consistent with both her experience of stranger rape and being pressed into service as a caretaker to her siblings from a young age.

    I'll follow your observation without an analysis by noting that Xi'ian's power is 'coercion', and Illyana's is 'escape'. Illyana can run away from the bad place, but never very far, which seems fitting. I have a less clear read on Xi'an - she uses her power pragmatically and without really dwelling on its ramifications, which I'm not sure what to make of.

    > the character I've always mentally connected with Illyana is Rachel Summers

    I feel like Rachel's axis of trauma is more closely aligned with Magneto's. She is the survivor of the genocide he is hell-bent on averting, and they share the experience of enslavement into their oppressors service - Magneto in the sonderkommando, and Rachel as a hound. But her science fictional backstory doesn't resonate as well as his historical one, and she comes off as more of a shadow of his character than an effective counterpoint to it.

    She apparently remained a favorite of Claremont's despite this. I haven't read any of Excalibur, and I'm interested to see where he goes with her.

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  14. April Arcus: Xi'an's backstory made her very literally a rape survivor, and it seems that Claremont quickly regretted that decision, since he seemed unable to do anything interesting or tasteful with that aspect of her character - when he shows a flashback to her past, the experience is just too raw for the reader to dwell on it. He wrote her out quickly, and replaced her with Illyana.

    Has anyone yet made a case about this "let's all flail hands at the sexual abuse of a white blonde chick, and write the Asian chick off to, oh, I don't know, more mostly unaddressed abuse"?

    Of course, the sexual abuse with Illyana is only one possible interpretation, rather than in-your-face blatantly clear allegory.

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  15. April Arcus: I feel like Rachel's axis of trauma is more closely aligned with Magneto's. She is the survivor of the genocide he is hell-bent on averting, and they share the experience of enslavement into their oppressors service - Magneto in the sonderkommando, and Rachel as a hound. But her science fictional backstory doesn't resonate as well as his historical one, and she comes off as more of a shadow of his character than an effective counterpoint to it.

    The approach the characters necessary have to have to their respective genocides differs though. Magneto's is in the past for everyone in the world and can only be coped with whereas Rachel's is in the days of future for everyone else around her and avoidable at that which brings the inherent existence of hope into the equation.

    The X-Men are crappy friends though. Mag's gets essentially a pass on everything based on his traumas while Rachel is a whining crybaby to everyone. She should have joined MLF instead of Excalibur apparently, lead it really with his alt-timeline brother. There's really a small terrorist inside every Summers anyway.

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  16. "Has anyone yet made a case about this "let's all flail hands at the sexual abuse of a white blonde chick, and write the Asian chick off to, oh, I don't know, more mostly unaddressed abuse"?"
    No, but Xavier's leaving Karma to more abuse at the hands of the Shadow King and preventing the other New Mutants from rescuing her because she was already damaged goods has been complained about.
    "I feel like Rachel's axis of trauma is more closely aligned with Magneto's. "
    I felt that Rachel's trauma was closer to Maddie's- they both were women that caused the deaths of children in circumstances that weren't really their fault- Maddie in her plane crash, Rachel as a hound. Maddie reacted by becoming more gentle, Rachel reacted by becoming more ruthless.
    Which is another reason that what Inferno did to Maddie was crap.

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  17. Good conversation, people.

    I can't really jump in with considered, reflective opinion since this is my first time reading this run. Until the subject popped up here in comments as Inferno neared, in fact, I wasn't even aware that Illyana had been unMagik'd and written out of the series, through de-aging or replacement by alternate younger self or any other means.

    // Blevins' art seems off this issue //

    Hmm... Diff'rent strokes, I guess. While I did notice Colossus becoming inconsistently proportioned towards the end, I think this is the best the book has looked since Blevins came on — perhaps because with everything touched by Limbo's demonic influence the material finally caught up to his own stylistic tendencies, although I might credit the inks with the human characters looking less exaggerated than usual.

    // The New Mutants overhear the Hellfire Club discussing Selene's "Amazon holdings" //

    Which has an entirely new meaning today, of course. I wonder if she nominated Jeff Bezos for membership in the Inner Circle.

    Estranged Headmaster is my new band name.

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  18. "This is not how recovery happens, and it is not how human stories work! Can you imagine if someone had pitched a plot where the X-Men travelled back in time to rescue Magneto from Auschwitz so that he'd never have become a villain?"

    Actually, that kinda DID happen. I think that's what the "Joseph" arc of the 90s was suppose to be about.

    Speaking of crap 90s retcons, this "resolution" to Magik (I think calling this "the death of Magik" is more fair than the death of Illyana) they present a problem with Weezie's deaging of Illyana. Illyana died of the Legacy Virus. But a future miniseries will establish that MAGIK (teen Illyana) contracted the disease retroactively via time-travel goobledly-gook from her not-Colossus brother. Therefore young Illyana shouldn't have it right? See what happens when you try to timey-wimey your problems away?

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