[Sabretooth #1 Michael Suayan variant cover; X-Men: Schism #5; Shanna, the She-Devil #5]
This is the follow-up to my last piece, which looked at Sabretooth’s currently relevant history in relation to both certain of the Councilmembers and the stark fact of him being a remorseless sexual predator who nonetheless has a large fan base that just doesn’t care and/or is surprisingly (willfully?) unaware (Marvel is, of course, also culpable here in not wanting to address the issue, undoubtedly for commercial reasons). This time, however, we’ll address what a wonderful creative team we have on this book that will surely tackle some of Sabretooth’s problematic aspects while probably steering clear of his violent misogyny. But we’ll also look at two of the surprise characters that show up at the end of Sabretooth #1, and after researching one of them, I have begun to wonder if brilliant writer Victor LaValle does have in mind a way of at least obliquely addressing some of Creed’s hateful treatment of women*.
In fact, I plan to do a third piece, appendix style, to give Nekra and Oya a deeper look that should be relevant not just to the Sabretooth mini but their depiction in the modern era going forward. Neither has been very well developed. One has been a problematic caricature for fifty years, while the other has fared much better by comparison but has still not been handled well, a Nigerian adolescent girl schooled by fundamentalist missionaries and written almost exclusively by white men (most especially Jason Aaron, who rarely does that well with female characters period). But at the end of this article, we’ll briefly cover what each of these characters potentially bring to Victor LaValle and Leonard Kirk’s Sabretooth.
I plan to cover the next four issues of this miniseries, as well, but my initial excitement for it has fallen off pretty drastically after refreshing myself on Creed’s sordid past; research into this character is unavoidably unpleasant and leaves a lasting stain. My plan henceforth is to try to address the current series for what it is rather than expecting Marvel to allow the creative team to rock the boat in addressing controversial issues whose potential fallout neither corporate nor editorial will want to deal with. While enjoying this book now seems pretty unlikely, there will undoubtedly be fine and funny moments, even potentially powerful ones; it’s just the choice of base material that will keep the whole from coming together as a “classic” or even “essential.” Obviously, no Krakoa era fan should feel the need to read this book.
Who knows, though, maybe there isn’t an undisclosed moratorium on addressing the most heinous of controversies. But can anyone convincingly argue otherwise at this point?
*It’s sort of bizarre but maybe all too predictable that a character like Hank Pym was (justifiably) doomed, his fate more or less set in stone after slapping his wife Janet Van Dyne (in 1981’s Avengers #213, and whatever the case that it was the artist’s misinterpretation of the script)—while Sabretooth’s off-panel rape and murder of Silver Fox formed the basis of what was for years one of the most popular Wolverine comics of all time (vol2 #10), and then his very first miniseries in 1993 heavily features his emotional abuse of and violently threatening nature toward a quickly fridged female character whom it was later made very clear had been pressed into his service with not an inch of her own freedom although she, Birdy, did not necessarily appear hard-pressed except when Creed was acting erratic and yelling at her, which was not infrequent.
Now, let’s turn to something awesome:
Previously: Sabretooth Pt. 1
I. The Genius of Victor LaValle
Questions of freedom, love, and acceptance suffuse Victor LaValle’s work, as his protagonists are forced by circumstance into blind quests through uncertain and difficult-to-navigate scenarios, seemingly accidental and unwished-for situations that quickly become simply a life lived on the edges—and beyond. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read his first two books, both highly acclaimed and autobiographically inspired (the story collection Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, a novel about mental illness and an inspiration to rapper extraordinaire Mos Def); having now read all his other books, I plan to find the rest. And the man does not repeat himself; his range is very impressive, unusual in today’s marketplace. He’s primarily published in prose but increasingly in comics too, starting with Destroyer, a miniseries that creatively adapts Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in that classic’s bicentennial year, 2018, with a nano/biotechnologist and single black mother as the modern analogue for Victor Frankenstein, and her preadolescent son remade as the “monster” (having been murdered by a cop)—and the Monster himself. That was followed last year by Eve*, hopefully the first volume of the adventures of a young girl awakening to an emptied world ruined by climate change and depopulated by the disease unleashed from beneath the melted ice caps (which isn’t that far-fetched!)—though it seems like his most hopeful story yet. After all, that’s what we need at the end of the world.
*Both comic miniseries are from BOOM! Studios. Sabretooth is his Marvel debut.
Victor LaValle has primarily written in the horror (the haunting and “weird”/Lovecraftian variety) and mainstream “literary” genres—the two really intermix for him, seamlessly—and increasingly, science fiction. Big Machine (2009), The Devil in Silver (2012), and The Changeling (2017) are among the very best works of (mostly psychological) horror, ever; they are also deeply funny, each in its own idiosyncratic way. Again, they deal with life lived on the edges, and you will learn much from joining the protagonists there, if only for a little while—unless, having finished one, you begin to look at the world a bit differently, at just the right tilt so that what you hadn’t even realized you were taking for granted, so-called consensual reality, starts to look wrong, has maybe already started falling apart, always has been, because we were never really paying attention. His 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom recasts H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (one of his most venomously racist stories) from the perspective of a black man who would have been entirely voiceless and anonymous in the original story, as a member of a satanic cult led by an old white eccentric; LaValle’s reinterpretation persuasively suggests that disenfranchised minorities and immigrants might have had ample reasons in joining an apocalyptic enterprise in the midst of an epoch of villainy architected by global genocidal imperialism courtesy of “the Great Powers.”
[Victor LaValle’s previous piece of carceral fiction, beside which Sabretooth may stand well, or not.]
So, Victor is our Vergil in the Pit—not that we could reasonably place the other Victor as our Dante. But reflecting back on his other writings, it’s clear that Victor LaValle really is a wry and humane guide to American Purgatory, and it’s Il Purgatorio that endures from Dante’s Comedy as by far the truest to modern life. Will his Sabretooth mini end up being less a tour of the infernal regions of the mind and more a difficult examination of the moral greyness (the purgatorial shroudedness and anomie) of what it means to be a Krakoan (citizen or councilmember)?
Though maybe one of those “new fish” we meet later in the issue could be our Dante? Certainly, they’re all more sympathetic than Victor Creed. But maybe complicating our view of this Logan-without-a-heart will prove integral to this season in a hell of his own making (and
ours I mean Krakoa’s).
II. Before the Pit
Sabretooth opens with a surprise, laugh-out-loud recasting of the moment of Creed’s condemnation from the point of view of the condemned, as he inwardly mocks each member of the Council: helmed Xavier’s unintentionally absurd appearance; Magneto’s hypocrisy; Kurt, Jean, and Storm seated at their “kids’ table,” looking “like they’re playing dress-up”; the old-money “Merchant and Ivory” stuffiness (Shaw) and hauteur (Emma) of Hellfire; the “Rainbow Gang’s” almost absurdist red, white and blue. Of course, for all that Creed is clever and crafty, he is extremely limited in viewpoint and imagination and will, for example, never understand how remote from him Raven is and always has been. (As touched on previously, “Leni” was just another mask, an empty signifier he once fell for—while she pursued her own agenda, however incoherently.)
And hey, what a great shout out for “Purple Thunder’s style” here; I’m fairly certain that’s a Victorism (as in jointly LaValle/Creed) coined here.
III. Creed Dreams a Little Dream—as Broken and as Small Himself
This book gets real violent quick. Creed’s ruthlessness in this scene is at least impressive. What’s actually stunning, though, is Leonard Kirk’s art this issue—on pencils and inks. He’s always been admirably reliable and woefully underrated, but over the past 25 years, beginning with Peter David’s Supergirl and later, following some especially fine guest issues for Geoff Johns’ JSA, making a bigger splash with the original Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker and then Paul Cornell’s all-time (sleeper) classic Captain Britain & MI-13, Kirk has set a high standard for what could be considered the ideal house style for Big Two superheroes. Now, in the Silver and Bronze Ages that might’ve implied some woodenness and flatness of style and affect. But that’s not in the least what I mean here. Simply put, he’s an unfussy but warm and dynamic artist whose simplicity of line is its own mastery. His lack of visual clutter allows every page to breathe, even this one partially pictured below (unfortunately, the actual double-spread is too wide to fit here with any clarity).
Anyhow, while this turns out not be an actual breakout by Creed, but a scenario simulated by Krakoa and/or Warlock—and hey, what’s the exact difference these days (re: Inferno #3)—some remained sure it was real, even though Creed himself is disabused of the notion in the next scene. And even the perception that Creed may be in the process of effecting his own escape, or at least his “haunting” of free Krakoans, is suspect. It seems much more likely that Krakoa may be harnessing Creed’s hate to mess with its inhabitants who have basically forgotten that they’ve really disrespected this land by making of it a prison (which, again, it never had a problem with, in the past—but that was its own choice and natural appetite, not the result of dictates from without). The issue is mostly set in some kind of thoroughly lifelike virtual environment, with Doug communicating via an avatar that Creed has to behead before the realization that he is indeed hopelessly trapped. This virtuality, dreaming, simulation, whatever, is presumably courtesy either of some heretofore unexplored native power of Krakoa itself or that in conjunction with something techno-organic (from Doug and Warlock) and/or magical (from any number of influences; see for example the speculation of Strange in Savage Avengers #0).
What’s also interesting here is the potential connection between the two vampirisms of Krakoa and Nekra, one vitalist, the other emotional—although the potentials of what can come from Nekra’s learned knowledge of voodoo could also be roughly analogous with some aspects of Krakoa’s abilities.
The story’s savagery is interspersed with moments of quasi-contemplativeness, seemingly ridiculous and yet almost touching for all that readers will find that unlikely. But it may indeed be a deeper profundity than many other Big Two characters are capable of when Creed consistently reaffirms that his superpower is simply in knowing who he is—in embracing his base inhumanity, no regrets or second thoughts about being little more than the poisonous scum at the bottom of a crusty old bargain-basement cask.
But is that really true? Is Creed truly, deep down, at rock bottom, just homicidal pond scum? “Maybe,” he later thinks, after fantasizing all his “enemies” dead in countless viscerally creative ways, “I never got to imagine what else I could be.” It’s as if finally he starts to think for himself, to wonder at his potential “when I wasn’t the lackey or the heel or the paid assassin.” He looks into the sky from his contemplative cliff-perch and conjures another scene: the first formal meeting of “the Feral Council,” a comical contradistinction to the Quiet variety, also in that he’d certainly believe it to be more honest than the one that decided his fate…
Much better than all this questionable creeping sympathy for Creed, however, is Doug and Krakoa. First, the former is, as we’ve known since Inferno #3, in far more control of state secrets than the Quiet Council, which continues to be the case here; in fact, he represents “the state” in the way the Councilmembers will never manage. But what is the island thinking, exactly? That is, of course, part of the mystery.
Throughout the issue, indeed since Creed’s condemnation in House of X #4, it’s been clear that Krakoa is not happy about being coerced into becoming a carceral body. There’s no indication that it does or doesn’t like Creed. So far, it seems as if it just has a serious beef with those who act as though they are “the state.” Expect further rifts to develop—whether utilizing the (foreign) tools at hand (the prisoners in the Pit) or otherwise (Krakoa’s own native potential for disruption and even predation).
IV. New Fish
So, yeah, other prisoners—this was the issue’s biggest surprise! After Sabretooth in House of X #4, only Nanny and Orphan-Maker are known to be in the Pit (as of the still-recent Hellions #18). And yet here are five more, only one of whom we’ve previously seen on Krakoa (Oya in X-Men #8, hanging out with Broo, and then New Mutants #18, in the crowd at the Arena, when the Krakoans were still harboring little slivers of Onslaught, or rather a wee sliver of the original nightmare; re: Onslaught Revelation. Is it possible Idie did something regrettable under that influence?). Surely, her and Madison Jeffries seem unlikely candidates for incarceration.
This time, we’ll cover what I think are the two most immediately interesting choices for the Pit here: Nekra and Oya. Madison Jeffries has a more extensive history than either and does have an old history as a victim of repeat brainwashing for heinous purposes; otherwise, it’s not immediately obvious why he might be here. He was last seen during the Age of X-Man event. Somewhat like Forge and Wiz Kid, he’s a mutant inventor and, more like Takeshi, a technokinetic—so it seems like he might really be powerless in Creed’s Hell. Meanwhile, Melter is not the Silver Age Iron Man villain but rather an obscure pull, a reluctant henchman, from Paul Cornell’s Dark Reign: Young Avengers (2009) and later appearing in Dennis Hallum’s Avengers Undercover (the follow-up to his dark romp 2013’s Avengers Arena).
Third Eye is Victor LaValle’s new character here. Presumably, he has psychic/telepathic powers, which could play into the plot in a useful/meaningful way.
Again, my next piece will be a deeper dive into Nekra and Oya (two wholly unrelated characters until now), but here we can cover them schematically and speculate on what they might bring to this series, both thematically and in terms of powersets.
Nekra has never been involved before with Sabretooth, but anyone familiar with her origins will immediately suspect that he will act in her eyes as a kind of stand in for her original twisted relationship with a man, her yearslong ill-fated spell with the unfortunate Mandrill, a character whose origin story is damning, a mutant whose power directly lends itself to bald-faced lechery and misogyny. Childhood runaways together, the young pair discovered their mutant powers traumatically, of course: White men attacked them in the night with pitchforks and hunting rifles, and the adolescents’ savage strength awoke, allowing them to not just defend themselves but kill every last one of those bloodthirsty hatemongers. Nekra’s own power violently came to the fore in this sudden outbreak of violence, an atmosphere of shared hatred and fear.
Nekra’s mutant ability is in harnessing the dark, savage emotions within herself and others to become superhumanly strong and above all durable (think about Luke Cage-level on both counts, but only when she’s fully powered by hatred, which provides a super-boost of no more than an hour—still a long time when it comes to battle havoc). In later years, she became a vodoun adept.
[Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #9, 1983]
In her earliest appearances, starting with 1973’s Shanna, the She-Devil #5 written by Steve Gerber, neither Nekra nor readers (nor even her creators, most likely) knew that she was then under the pheromonic sway of Mandrill—and that she had been since their first meeting in childhood (at age 10 or 14, depending on which retelling you read). Regardless, while clearly not an equal partner with her Mandrill “lord,” Nekra was fervently engaged in his ambitious scheme to take over as much of Africa as possible using a female army under his pheromone-fueled control; and yes, all these women were African while he turned out to be white despite the fact that the initial intention was for Mandrill to have been an African man (whether the intent was Steve Gerber’s or plotter Carole Seuling’s, it’s now disputed—the later embarrassment of white creators, neither of whom really wants to own up, all of which is predictably unsurprising). It’s equally clear that Nekra was supposed to be of an “exotic” origin, as well; to add to the exoticizing elements inherent in Shanna, the She-Devil in concept and venue, Nekra’s skin was colored the same eggshell yellow that characters of Asian descent were also subjected to. However, she has no backstory at this point; she’s simply a mad “priestess.”
Unsurprisingly, the title was canceled with issue #5, but continuing the story on his own a few months later, in Daredevil of all places, Gerber inserts a wildly unexpected shared backstory for Mandrill and Nekra (issue #110). I’ll analyze this more closely in the next piece, but it’s enough to say here that it’s really bad and no less racist in its own way than the earlier premise. It is simply much more complicated. However, let’s leave at this for now (using Gerber’s terms here): For looking like freaks to their respective races, these two children, one a white boy who to the worst sorts of racists appears black, the other a black girl who appears (chalk)white, are exiled from their native society—in America; Santa Fe, in fact!
So, now we’re left, unintentionally or not, with an angry black woman who embiggens on hatred and hostility—all this dreadfully common stereotyping in a female figure that looks either Italian vampire or Asian succubus. This is really bad.
What do subsequent creators do with this? Not much! None of it particularly good—much less adequate to the problem of surpassing her overly complex and toxically racialized origin.
Long ago, Nekra did break away from Mandrill (who, hey, should have Krakoan amnesty, right? ☹)—but what her character has never seen is an undoing of her status as caricature written by men who certainly haven’t wanted to address anything about her messed-up background.
Has Victor LaValle thrown down the gauntlet?
Starting right off with her 2010 debut, the young Nigerian Idie Okonkwo had a much more eventful history up through 2014, but after the end of Jason Latour’s short-lived Wolverine and the X-Men vol2, she basically falls off into the background with only very rare spotlights. Yes, over a full year later she signed on to the time-displaced O5’s “road-trip era”-lite, but her supporting role there really was a backward slide toward obscurity. Iranian-American author Sina Grace valiantly tried to do more with the character, as seen in 2016’s All-New X-Men Annual, an Idie solo story, and she popped up a few times in his two Iceman minis—but an actual sense of inclusivity behind the scenes at Marvel is a very recent thing, and no doubt, Idie’s lackluster fate over the past seven years is of a piece with Marvel’s disinterest in defending their own creators of color and/or nonnormative sexuality (see Sina Grace’s piece on this published one month before the release of House of X #1).
All this is relevant in that Oya/Idie is now potentially returning in a big way. Hopefully, it’s not a moment that proves ephemeral—because obviously, it shouldn’t be up to just Victor LaValle to make her stick, though we should have no doubt that he’s the one at this point who could redefine her story for the better.
And what is Idie’s story? Again, I’ll get into this more next time, but suffice to say for now that 1) she was schooled by Catholic missionaries whose judgmentalism turned on her when her mutant power manifested, 2) she is alternately a dangerous fire-starter and self-loathing ice girl, and 3) she was written as the catalyst for the decisive split between Wolverine and Cyclops as the ideologically opposed heads of mutant society—when Logan sought to save her from having to lethally defend herself, some unconscious X-Men, and human hostages from antimutant (Kade Kilgore-employed) terrorists even though it was clearly depicted such that he couldn’t have made it in time, which fact Summers acknowledged, encouraging Idie to decide for herself; the decision she made was indeed very successfully lethal (see the Jason Aaron-helmed X-Men: Schism miniseries event, 2011).
[X-Men: Schism #3 by Jason Aaron and Daniel Acuña]
Just months before, Idie had been rescued from her village by Storm and the “messiah/savior” Hope, which also saved her from having to defend herself in this same lethal fashion; she was barely an adolescent (see Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men #528 for this debut).
Essentially, Idie is a modern-day Wolfsbane as young teen. Hopefully, her return from obscurity does not result in a further trajectory similar to Wolfsbane’s.
For now, though, the drama couldn’t be more unpredictable.
V. Hooked by the Wrongness of It All
To recap, LaValle’s stories often feature luckless protagonists conditioned by forces beyond their control, which is sometimes clearer to the reader than the protagonist. So, I was very intrigued to see how he would portray Sabretooth, especially in his current carceral situation. Plus, the two share a first name—which commonality seemed to add piquancy to his Destroyer protagonist’s invocation of Victor Frankenstein, where the stereotype of the mad doctor faded upon a reexamination of his original (textual) motive: grief. Of course, it’s impossible to say at this point if we’ll find any such points of humanizing identification here in Sabretooth. Despite a few clever feints by LaValle and Kirk, even the glimmer of a hope for redemption seems very unlikely (for all the aforementioned reasons).
And as to LaValle’s framing of our own world, he’s hooked* by the real-life horror of the banality of evil, where there aren’t clear diabolical villains or spectacularly grotesque moments of brutalization or even grandiloquent flights of inspired “madness.” Instead, in our everyday lives, jailer and jailed, doctor and patient, oppressor and oppressed, are most often almost equally locked into a system of dehumanization—and no one can escape. The villainy is systemic, not easily located in a human face or single identity; it’s dispersed, and thus almost impossible to combat. Certainly, those who sacrifice their time or whole lives doing so are not glamorous, do not receive popular accolades much less recognition.
*He’s hooked like anyone could be; it’s an apt verb for what the horror genre (or is it really just an affect?) does “best.” Renowned sf critic John Clute’s long essay The Darkening Garden: A Lexicon of Horror thoroughly, compellingly, articulates what we experience when we are taken by horror. I cannot recommend it enough, as a kind of regular physic (the Weird Fiction Review site linked to above is really the only place to find it these days, as it had a very limited run).