(The Modern Limbo Triathlon.)
Look. I tried. I really did. Abigail and Teebore were all like "It's not that bad!", and between them they gave me hope that perhaps this second issue would turn me around on this mini-series.
It has not.
I will at least admit that this second issue is better than its predecessor. Now that Cat has determined to bypass Ororo's ethical issues (which, as noted, were entirely foolish and in no small part objectionably solipsistic) by running away with Illyana, we at least get an issue in which our characters get to be proactive. I don't think Storm's plan to teach Illyana restraint was a bad idea under the circumstances, but actually reading it kept making me think of that old Simpsons line where Bart tells his karate sensei "Look, I already know how not to hit a guy".
One of the core problems with this issue, though, is a follow-on from the last; the argument in that issue was whether Ororo was right to risk the human race in the hope she could reverse Illyana's partial corruption, or whether Cat was right in insisting the stakes were too high and Illyana would have to be killed. This seemed so central to the piece that when in the final pages of MSI #1 Cat stole into Illyana's room to offer her a route home, I assumed she must be lying, tempting the child out of the sanctuary so Cat could kill her without interruption.
Here, though, we learn that Cat really does think she can get Illyana home, which negates pretty much the only interesting idea this series has managed so far. In it's place is a short-form version of what we may as well call - with an exceptional lack of originality - the epic journey. In this case, Illyana and Cat have to cross through a viciously twisted version of the Savage Land to get to the portal that will take the young Russian home.
So, fine. Not something the X-Books have done particularly often, and if there's still a problem with the people we're following - Cat is just a relentlessly unpleasant version of a character I never had much interest in first time around, and Illyana remains an almost entirely blank slate - well, it's not like Lord of the Rings was full to bursting with fascinatingly complex characters, either.
So how does it work as some kind of messed-up travelogue of Limbo? Well, not too bad at all, actually. John Buscema makes a decent fist of the barren expanses of the pseudo-Savage Land, and there's a superbly creepy moment when Illyana's exploring by hand an almost lightless cave, and grabs hold of what proves to be the boots worn by the corpse of her dead brother:
(Except of course that she clearly couldn't have reached him; and also there's a stogie-chomping demon, that might belong in some scene, but certainly not this one.)
Whilst this horrifying tour is being conducted, it's becoming clear what the structure of this story is. Last issue had Ororo go all Dumbledore (to quote Buffy) on Illyana, with a bunch of stuff about harmony and restraint and all the sorts of things that lead to villains having their arses entirely un-kicked. This time round, it's the turn of Cat, who during their long trek to their mountainous destination (which, contra Illyana, really doesn't look much more than thirty miles away or so, though I wouldn't wanna run that either) teaches Illyana the ins and outs of swordplay. So you've got the path of restraint and the attendant price of having to watch things get worse and not interfere. You've got the path of violent resistance, and the attendant price of becoming hard and callous. Presumably next time round, Belasco will get his chance, and give us the path of magical assault, at the cost of losing one's soul in the process of satisfying one's every whim.
That at least is reasonable framework, and with Illyana now adept in swordplay (via a brief "I was shit for ages, but now I'm good" sequence that's basically a montage filtered through Claremont's melodramatic approach), I assume the final conclusion will be that there's something to be said for all three approaches combined. Naturally, this requires we be reminded of Storm's position, so she shows up in spirit-form to harangue Cat some more, and once again insist that were she to kill Cat to retrieve Illyana and save the fucking world, she'd be just as bad as Belasco. Sigh.
This just keeps being the problem. The end is a foregone conclusion, because we know Illyana survives and so does humanity. The characters involved are either unpleasant, undeveloped, or painfully stupid. And the whole thing revolves around such ludicrously extreme choices that there's never a chance to actually shade any of the players' philosophies. It's just never kill, always kill, kill to prevent more killing.
I'm also not keen on the handling of Illyana's age. The implication in "Chutes and Ladders" was that Illyana suffered years of degradations during her time in Limbo. Here, she just seems to keep growing at an accelerated rate. She gained a year in Ororo's gardens whilst apparently just doing a spot of meditating, and here we learn she's aged two more years in the trip to Belasco's mountain, despite it being in sight when she and Cat first set off. It seems fairly clear that Claremont didn't want to address this, really (though of course the latter two issues may prove me wrong here); the fact that Illyana laments turning fourteen instead of eight in MSI #1 but here mentions being six when she fell into Limbo one year earlier suggests he put very little thought into this at all (to make things more ridiculous, New Mutants will put her age at fifteen in an issue or two). Frankly, it feels like a cheat; a way of telling this story that severely weakens the original gut-punch of UXM #160. "I spent seven years in a hell dimension" is just so much more unpleasant to contemplate than "I spent four issues in a hell dimension, and aged like heck whilst I was doing it".
Anyway, let's finish up on the plot: eventually Cat and Illyana get to Belasco's citadel, carved into the mountain, and they go searching for the portal home. Instead, they find Evil Nightcrawler, who does his best first to kill Cat, and then Illyana (doesn't Belasco brief his guards about who's on the guest-list?), but comes a cropper when Cat phases his leg into the floor and let's go.
Which, I confess, is utterly awesome in it's sick nastiness. Like everyone else with a diseased mind and an interest in the X-Men, I've always wondered what an untimely unphasing could do to someone, and now I know - it shatters your bones utterly and leaves you unable to do anything but scream in agony until someone stabs you to death. A powerful warning indeed, I think.
With Nightcrawler dead, it appears that the coast is clear, but of course it's all a trap. The waiting arms of the X-Men are just an illusion hiding Belasco, the duelling skills of Cat no use when Belasco first paralyses her and then completes her transformation into a feline. In another moment of supreme hideousness, she pads over to start eating Nightcrawler's body, but Illyana hardly notices. She's almost entirely under Belasco's power now, opening her own arm to provide the blood needed to form the second bloodstone (collect all five to unleash the Elder Gods!). Watching in horror in her crystal ball, Storm decides she's been going about this all wrong after all. The only hope for saving the world relies on her taking action. Illyana must die!
So, that's a kind of odd end to an odd issue. I mentioned the framework here seemingly being that Illyana will receive three lessons and choose which of them to base her actions on (though as I say, I suspect a combination is by some distance the most likely outcome). Here, though, Storm has abandoned her position, and Cat's has been shown to be fruitless. Once Belasco's approach proves - as surely it must - to not be worth the price it requires, where is that going to leave us?
I have no idea. Well, that's not entirely true. I do know one thing, courtesy of the first page of the first issue in this miniseries. Right now, Illyana has two bloodstones. When she escapes back into reality, she's carrying three.
Which means that whatever else happens, Illyana hasn't finished paying for her ticket out just yet.
Yeesh, this is a mess. It always amuses me to think that the seed for the idea that led to this blog came from John Seavey arguing the following:
In Uncanny X-Men #165, during the Brood saga, Kitty Pryde is described as 14 for the first time. Her birthday, we’re told, passed while she was in space. (So Lockheed? Officially the Coolest Birthday Present Ever.)I still chuckle every time I read that. Claremont couldn't even keep continuity straight from the first issue of MSI to this one. Last time around Illyana's narration says she's speaking on her fourteenth birthday, but that it would be her eighth had she not been lost in Limbo. In this book, we learn she is speaking about her experiences one year after she returned, which would make her seven when Belasco took her. So, obviously, it's explicitly stated that she's six when she and Cat leave to find the portal home. Grr.
Then, in Excalibur #15, we see her celebrating her 15th birthday in the company of Saturnyne. (Who she thinks is Courtney Ross at the time. God, it’s hard explaining Chris Claremont comics.) These two comics were both written by the same author, so there’s no question of continuity mistakes or differences in authorial intent. The span of X-books from January 1983 to late July 1990 are fully intended to take place over roughly one 365-day span of time.
Actually, this isn't at all hard to fix; we can just assume that Illyana's framing narrative isn't exactly a year after her return. If we make it, say, a year and two days, then so long as we don't count the year Illyana aged physically in Ororo's garden, the timings all add up.
Interestingly, this means that Illyana's narration is taking place some time after the events of the surrounding X-Books; 13th May 1984 in our current time-line. We shall have to see if that causes problems down the line.
Sunday 13th May, 1984.
Seventeen hostages (sixteen British, one Portuguese) are feed by the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, having been captured in an attack at Cafunfo in February, along with some forty-three hostages released the previous month.
"Does that feel good, my Cat? Shall I stroke you more?" - Belasco
I really can't tell if this is meant to be as disturbing as it actually is, but it's genuinely unsettling in all the right ways.