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Nov 14

What If?: Magik

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

There was a time when the basic format of What If? stories was to take a previous story and change the ending, usually by showing what would have happened if the good guys had lost.  (Spoilers: it was generally the apocalypse.)  More recently, the more common approach has been to do some completely alternative take on the characters, often in the vein of a mash-up of sub-genres.

In this issue, Leah Williams and Filipe Andrade take the opposite approach.  The official title is “What If Magik Became Sorcerer Supreme”, but that’s not really the story at all.  In fact, it’s the end point – so if you actually do want to know what would happen if Magik became Sorcerer Supreme, you’d better hope for a sequel.

A more accurate title would have been “What If Magik had Doctor Strange as her Mentor?”.  But then I suppose they can’t call it that, because it was already a subplot in Brian Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men.

The actual hook here is much simpler.  Magik starts off as a genre mash-up character; she’s a magic-based character who’s somehow found her way into the X-books.  Her connection with the X-books lies mainly in her being Colossus’ kid sister.  And so the question this issue is really asking is: what if we just got rid of the X-Men and put her in Doctor Strange where she belongs?

That doesn’t seem like it should work, but the resulting comic is unexpectedly good.  Magik’s origin story of being kidnapped by a demon as a girl, and returning to Earth as a teenage witch, can stand alone; it really doesn’t need the X-Men.  This issue doesn’t write them out, so much as simply ignore them; maybe the X-Men don’t exist in this world, maybe she’s just not related to them because Colossus isn’t around or something.  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, Illyana is back on Earth and she’s wandering America, the associated problems of which are pretty much not a concern for her, given that she grew up in Hell.

But she attracts the attention of Doctor Strange, who shows up, realises that something odd has happened to her, and takes her under his wing.  Not being much of a people person, Strange initially fails to grasp that he’s offering himself up as her new Belasco, which might be why she doesn’t seem so thrilled about the whole idea.  But since it’s the concept, and it’s only a single issue, she does swiftly accept, and we bring on the training montage.  It’s all about her struggles to produce a version of the Soulsword, apparently because her sense of self is so buried under her experiences in Limbo that she has trouble producing anything which is an expression of her soul; actually a good hook, and a nice example of a way that the basic elements of Magik’s story could have been played differently.

After that, we get the showdown with Belasco, and Strange helping her literally overcome her angst so that she can move on with life to become Strange’s heir apparent as sorcerer supreme.  It’s very straightforward, it hits all the key points from Magik’s core story – except for the X-Men specific stuff, which it doesn’t need anyway – and unusually for a What If?, it actually has a happy ending.  After all, this Magik is being mentored by somebody who actually knows what he’s talking about where magic is concerned, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising that he gets better results.

More to the point, though, it’s very well executed.  Andrade’s artwork – and Chris O’Halloran’s colouring – are beautiful.  I’m reminded somewhat of a more delicate Rick Leonardi, which is a good thing.  But there’s also good use of understated twelve panel grids to set up low key magical effects, weird off kilter sequences with Strange’s house distorting, and striking abstract backgrounds for the montage and the climax.  And there’s some fabulous cartooning as well, since the Strange/Magik relationship is really the core of this issue, with Strange’s usual schtick first grating on Illyana before she comes round to him.

There’s a sense in which this issue is really just a simplified version of the core Magik story, with a happier than usual ending.  Strip out the clutter – and from Magik’s point of view, the X-Men are clutter – and play it straight.  But it brings out the strength in that central story, and it’s a beautiful issue.

Bring on the comments

  1. Paul F says:

    I hope Leah Williams gets an X-Book in whatever relaunch is coming up.

    She has a Brian and Meggan one-page story in the upcoming Holiday special, following up her short story from earlier in the year, so maybe she has plans for them.

  2. SanityOrMadness says:

    The thing that was remarkable to me about this – other than it not being complete pigswill, of course. It’s very on-the-nose in places, but I rather liked it overall – is *just how much* it’s a “road that could have been taken” story, in a real-life sense.

    Spin around some editorial & creative choices resulting in Illyana’s origin being a setup for Dr Strange rather than New Mutants, split this out over a year of subplots rather than a single issue and tweak some of the late-2010s-ness to be more of-the-period, and this could easily have been something that happened in Dr. Strange without having to reimagine the basic IRL ground rules of the MU. Even the failure to answer its own title question (“What If Magik Became Sorcerer Supreme?”) plays into that – obviously Strange would never have been permanently retired, but he doesn’t retire in this; even the cloak he gives her at the end is a replica of his that he’s made, not the original. We don’t see her as Sorcerer Supreme at all.

    You could easily imagine that this Illyana would ultimately have ended up in the same position as most of Strange’s apprentices – sent off to some scenario to get her out of the book (possibly back in the X-books, given her status as Colossus’ sister – X-editorial might even have actively grabbed her back) or killed off.

    [And the divergence point seems to be that she escaped Limbo rather earlier, rather than being mentored by Old Lady Munroe, and landed somewhere away from the X-Men. And then felt no need to actually contact them, because, hey, they dropped her in hell…]

  3. SanityOrMadness says:

    Meant to add, how many What If?s have actually been plausible in that sense? Something that could have happened (IRL) with slightly different choices? Obviously, apocalypses or stuff that otherwise overturns everything about the MU need not apply.

  4. sagatwarrior says:

    I remember the one What-If story where Rogue absorbs Thor’s powers and became the new Thor and had a somewhat happy ending. Destiny, who was narrating that possible future, said Rogue finally found purpose in her life that would always be denied to her.

  5. ron says:

    Magik has always been a weird fit for the X-Men. X-Men are kind of crying out to be in their own separate universe.

  6. Moo says:

    Yeah, I always tuned out whenever X-Men did magical/mystical stuff. It doesn’t belong there. And it’s not that I don’t like the genre. I like Doctor Strange. But when I’m reading Doctor Strange, I don’t want to see Sentinels or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants turn up in his book either. What some see as cross-pollination I see as cross-contamination.

  7. Thom H. says:

    I like the cross-pollination. Really what’s the difference between teleporting in space and time because you’re a mutant and doing it because you’re a sorceress?

    Kind of the same thing with the Scarlet Witch — probability powers or witchcraft? I like that there’s a bleeding edge, making you wonder about the connection/overlap.

    And Belasco works really well as an abusive father. Much more interesting than when the X-books trot out another set of mundy parents. They just end up dead or ignored for years at a time. Belasco’s a proper villain to get teen angsty about.

  8. Moo says:

    I don’t care how Illyana’s teleportation works and actually, I’d be thrilled to see the Scarlet Witch (along with her brother) finally join the X-Men. I’m ok with a cast member utilizing magic. I just don’t care for it when the storylines get really magicky and take the X-Men to places like Limbo or wherever.

  9. Luis Dantas says:

    I realize that Magik has a considerable number of fans, but I don’t think that she was ever written well during her supposed heyday. If anything, she was an early warning call of the serious mistakes that overtook 1990s Marvel.

    The concept seemed intriguing, but the stories just never delivered. There was never a true clear character concept; her origin was somehow both cluttered and vague; her relatioships were both incipient and hopelessly vague. She felt like a growing collection of marooned hints and unresolved subplots, waiting for Inferno to release her from her unworkable burden.

    Instead of being a refreshing new idea for the mutant books, she became a permanent source of tonal and conceptual clashes handled with neither resolution nor skill. The silver lining was having her become a convenient source for all-purpose travel with no instructions manual. That is a very slim justification for keeping a character with no workable characterization around.

    Therefore, she is indeed a natural for an alternate history tale, and has always been.

  10. Thom H. says:

    Magik had some well-defined positive relationships, at least in the early days, esp. with Kitty Pryde and Dani Moonstar. Not to mention a difficult relationship with the uber-religious Wolfsbane.

    I thought her “I’m the queen of demons” shtick was a good stand-in for teenage doubt and self-esteem issues. Illyana was never quite sure if anyone liked her because she was, you know, evil and weird. So the support she got from the people she let in meant a lot to her.

    I’m not sure how well Claremont followed up on those threads since his writing on New Mutants seemed to lack direction toward the end. And then of course Louise Simonson came along and destroyed the team in short order.

    So I think the foundation of a great character was there, but it got derailed pretty quickly.

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