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The news that Anya Taylor-Joy will play Illyana Rasputin, aka Magik, in Fox’s New Mutants movie is good news for superhero fans with a love for characters with confusing backstories. In a franchise where obtuse is the norm, Magik’s comic book history stands out as an early example of just how strange things could get.
Illyana’s first appearance was underwhelming. Her brief cameo in 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men No. 1 wasn’t intended to establish her as anything more than someone for Colossus — her older brother — to save, revealing his super powers in the process. She wouldn’t even get a name for another six years, when she was kidnapped from her home in the Soviet Union and brought to the U.S. as a hostage to be rescued, once again, by Colossus in 1981’s Uncanny X-Men Nos. 145-147.
As a result of that storyline, Illyana Rasputin ended up in the care of the X-Men. This Illyana was a pre-teen and, as such, an odd fit for the Uncanny X-Men series as a whole; she could inspire in-universe fairy tales that would become fan-favorites, but otherwise, she seemed superfluous … until 1982’s Uncanny X-Men No. 160 brought about the first of her strange transformations. In that story, she is kidnapped into an alternate dimension called “Limbo,” only to reappear shortly after, seven years older, now a sorceress with the ability to teleport as the result of a story readers weren’t privy to.
That would change in the following year’s Magik: Illyana and Storm mini-series, which revealed that Illyana had spent seven years being raised by alternate versions of the X-Men, all of whom eventually are killed as she eventually ends up in the care of a demon who instructs her in the ways of black magic as part of an overly complicated plan for ultimate power. Of course, such plans tend to go wrong, but Illyana didn’t escape unharmed — when she returned to Earth, she had become part-demon, a situation that would define her for years to come.
As a central character in the New Mutants series, Magik’s conflict with her own dark side would be a recurring plot line all the way through the 1989 storyline Inferno, which was based in large part around the central conceit that Illyana had been overwhelmed by the demonic influence, and was part of a plan to open a gateway to Limbo and turn Earth into a quasi-literal hell. Again, ultimately, that plan failed … and Illyana, as fans knew her, died — only to be replaced by the pre-teen, non-demonic version of herself that readers had last seen in 1982.
Although Illyana appeared to be written out of New Mutants (and, with the exception of an occasional appearance or two, the greater X-Men mythology) following the end of Inferno, her story was far from over. Indeed, even her death — from a virus that only affected mutants, in 1993’s Uncanny X-Men No. 303 — wasn’t the end, as not only would she appear as a ghost years later, she would even later be resurrected by the same demon who attempted to corrupt her in the first place in 2007 storyline from the New X-Men comic book series.
Of course, her resurrection didn’t go smoothly. (If there’s one constant in Magik’s story, it’s that plans never work out.) The resurrected Illyana lacked a soul, which left her a colder, harsher character — whereas before she was a morally ambiguous hero, she had become one who was inconsistently portrayed as anywhere from outright villain to troubled anti-hero as the plot demanded it, willing to do whatever it took to achieve her aims at almost any cost — although what those aims might be could change depending on the writer of whatever story she was appearing in.
It was during this period that she became an official member of the X-Men team, a position she’s filled on-and-off ever since — making her one of the few New Mutants to actually graduate to full X-Men status. These days, she’s essentially returned to the role of troubled-but-essentially good sorceress and superhero; a reset to her 1980s prime, but with less sense of foreboding that she might turn evil and try to kill everyone around her. After all, she’s already tried that. Why come back from the dead if you’re just going to repeat yourself over and over again?
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Jon M. Chu