So, while this is a second follow-up on Sabretooth #1 (which I’ve already reviewed here across two pieces), what we’ll look at now is some supporting-character context for this first arc* going forward.
*Yes, I mistakenly called it a miniseries in my previous pieces; apologies for that! Frankly, this may have been just wishful thinking on my part—because it’s definitely my belief that the Krakoa era does not need Sabretooth—starring a serial-killing rapist—as an ongoing title. My coverage of the series will cease after this opening arc.
But why a whole piece on just one super obscure character and another who saw her potential forestalled almost a decade ago now?
Spoilers For Sabretooth #1 Follow
First, while Sabretooth sucks, his comics sell like hotcakes, and it’s potentially exciting to see these two women of color with backstories they certainly don’t deserve put into a major spotlight where they will each be one-sixth of the opening arc, since it’s likely to focus almost entirely on just the prisoners in the Pit (excluding, of course, Nanny and Orphan-Maker—who indeed would be too big for Sabretooth!).
Simply put, I’m reading this opening arc for Victor LaValle’s writing and two, maybe three, characters: Nekra and Oya, and possibly Madison Jeffries. Sabretooth can keep burning in his own hell (unfortunately, he will be part of the larger Marvel Universe again, undoubtedly; fortunately, Marvel has at least “airbrushed” him into a simple homicidal maniac, no longer nodding (for the past decade) to the grisliest details of his backstory, although that certainly shouldn’t make anyone feel better).
In any case, allow me to introduce you to the cringey bizarrerie of Nekra’s backstory instead, followed by the unrelenting sadness of Idie Okonkwo’s. I’m not going to guess at why they’ve ended up in the Pit, but by the end here, we should be hoping for them to each find their own light in their dark night of the soul—because, really, Sabretooth’s mere simulations, however horrific, just cannot be as bad as what they’ve already experienced, especially not in the case of Nekra since Marvel could in no way get away with superseding the spectacularly despicable misogyny and racism surrounding her earliest appearances.
[Art credits for the above pics: Shanna, the She-Devil #5: Ross Andru, Vince Colletta and Linda Lessmann; Uncanny X-Men #528: Whilce Portacio, Ed Tadeo, Brian Reber, Joe Caramagna]
So, read on if you want to find out more about the mutant that no writer has wanted to really dig into since Steve Gerber at once created and immured her in a whole lot of befuddled badness:
Nekra (Sinclair) debuted in 1973’s Shanna, the She-Devil #5 written by Marvel’s ’70s gonzo but grim satirist Steve Gerber. Soon after, in Daredevil #110, we learn that her mother was a Los Alamos janitor bombarded by radiation in a freak accident—alongside a white male scientist in the lab. This was the start of Gerber’s painfully bad attempt at racial allegory for America. A year after the lab explosion, the man’s wife gives birth to a boy “with black* skin and tufts hair sprouting from his tiny body.” The woman meanwhile delivers, to her sorrow, a vampiric chalk-skinned girl who quickly becomes “an object of scorn to her race.” At the age of 10, these freakish children are exiled, the now mandrill-looking boy driven out to the desert by a hateful father and booted out of the jeep, the girl backpacking out there, where they just happen to meet; she aids him in their survival, and they begin a boxcar journey across the land, hiding from the normies—until one day, six years later, the men with their pitchforks and hunting rifles hunt down the “monsters outside the schoolhouse” (where Nekra—is that really her given name?—had stolen more books for them**.
*To be clear, the art shows the baby’s skin is brown, so Gerber isn’t merely being descriptive here; he’s using racialized language for a child who is clearly not African-American—though he’ll inevitably be characterized by racists as fitting the hatefully distorted perceptions that white Americans have historically adhered to in justifying genocide, slavery, segregation, etc.
**While this would make them 16 here, in 1978’s Spider-Woman #16 we find that they were exiled at 14—a retcon allowing Nekra to have been hormonally manipulated by Mandrill’s pheromones at first encounter. But this manipulation was, until many years later, unwitting. Of course, his and Nekra’s debuts in Shanna, the She-Devil just a few months earlier had already depicted them as remorselessly evil; the Daredevil #110 flashback allows Gerber to complicate this characterization in the service of what he thought was sophisticated contemporary messaging on race.
And what was that message?
With the white Missouri men’s attack on the children (either 16 or 20 years of age), they fight back savagely, killing one and all—and Nekra discovers she’s bullet-proof, “virtually invulnerable … if she could work up sufficient—HATE!! That emotion released her mutant power!” Mandrill continues: “And suddenly, we were helpless no longer. In the time it took to wipe out our assailants—I had conceived a daring new life-plan for us!” This was really just Mandrill’s plan for himself: “You see … all women are my slaves, without my having to do anything to make it thus.” Daredevil fills in: “And that’s how you raised your army of female warriors [in Africa].” Simply put, our hate-feeding emotional vampire was made of a piece with the worst sort of representationally exploitative exoticism that really emerged out of the countercultural turn in the US (and thereafter went mainstream).
Nekra’s destructively charged ability aided Mandrill’s pheromonally-fueled scheme to use his crazed army of African women with faces tattooed in imitation of mandrills/baboons take over as much of Africa as possible (collectively, they were known as the Black Spectre cult). Yes, Mr. Gerber, this is all unbelievably bad, though I know you insist you were not being racist but rather trying to say something powerful about racism. Well, guess what? You sure made it better by having your white savioress creation, Shanna the She-Devil, save those women from the baboon-man who’s actually white too but somehow identified as a black man. (The story thus far is found in Shanna, the She-Devil #5, Marvel-Two-in-One #3, and Daredevil #109-112, written throughout by Steve Gerber, 1973-1974 but plotting by Carole Seuling in the first issue.)
Will it surprise anyone now that we have not seen Mandrill in the Krakoa era? Because, yes, he would also receive amnesty on the mutant island-nation of Krakoa because he too is a mutant.
For those readers who’d like a sampling of Nekra without Mandrill around, well, there’s no hidden gold, but I do somewhat recommend her next appearances, in 1978’s Spider-Woman.
A few years later, now a captive of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nekra randomly found herself subject to the brainwashing of a nationally televised Hate-Monger rally, whose broadcast hatred reawakened her hate-fueled powers, instilling enough berserker rage in her that she managed to escape and briefly take over the evil ancient Cult of Kali. Really? It is indeed a racist/orientalist creation of, surprisingly or not, lefty Captain America scribe Steve Englehart. But here, we’re talking Mark Gruenwald and Carmine Infantino’s Spider-Woman #13-16, and on its own and for what it is, this particular story is a fun bit of pulp starring two powerful women (albeit with no women on the creative team). Interestingly, part of the beef Nekra has with Jessica Drew is that like Mandrill Spider-Woman has pheromone powers, and Mandrill’s erstwhile “sister” never wants to endure such manipulation again. Mostly, though, there’s much sapphic eroticism boiling up just beneath the surface as with much of this early Spider-Woman series.
[Spider-Woman #15, art by Carmine Infantino, Al Gordon, Ben Sean, Joe Rosen]
In Englehart’s opening issues of Vision and the Scarlet Witch vol2 (1985), we find Nekra in a new version of the Grim Reaper’s Lethal Legion (we’re talking Wonder Man’s evil brother) with the Reaper as her lover whom she later resurrects months after his violent death, utilizing the voodoo skills she’s recently learned from fellow Legionary and voodoo master Black Talon. Though perfectly lifelike, Eric Williams had to remain ignorant of his zombification lest the spell break. Battling his (sort-of) brother-in-law’s father-in-law, Magneto, he discovered the truth, turned on Nekra (appearing “hag”-like presumably as an enervating effect of practicing the “black arts”). But faced with her lover’s dawning realization, Nekra herself realizes that she’s now filled more with love than hostility, so the enchantment faded, and her love again fell dead. (These are some seriously bad comics of historical importance only to Scarlet Witch fans.)
Several years later, Nekra again raises the Reaper from death, but he now has to drain another’s life-force daily—with Nekra as his first victim. In the next issue of Roy Thomas’ Avengers West Coast (#66), Mandrill shows up looking for vengeance for Nekra and is grotesquely drained of life as well. (He gets better, somehow, and basically remains a backup henchmen in various gangs, visually distinctive but basically shorn of reference to the racism in his backstory; his misogyny remains a theme that occasionally pops up, however, usually to less than inspiring effect on the part of the writers involved.)
In Warren Ellis’ 1995 Druid, Daimon Hellstrom resurrects Nekra to battle a power-hungry Doctor Druid, whom she seduces and then shoots dead, a quick wrap-up to the prematurely canceled Vertigo-like title.
But hey, at least this Krakoa mini isn’t called Mandrill, right? 😉 Seriously, though, digging back into Nekra’s past, as messy as it is—in fact, because of that—has me really curious, even excited, over how LaValle might develop her characterization here. After all, Sabretooth as another “savage” alpha male will very likely have her falling back into the old pattern of twisted relationships with deeply broken men who are also aggressively manipulative. Of course, leaving her there would be too easy, and it seems very unlikely this miniseries will do that. I’m betting, hoping, LaValle’s ultimate intention is to have her not simply revisit the traumas of the past but push beyond those toxic depictions that no other modern writer has wanted to touch on. Until my research dive for this, Nekra was not a character of interest to me, but now I see why: She’s languished since her deeply problematic initial run of stories under Gerber’s pen because no one has known what to do with that material. Instead, in her scant appearances in the decades since, she’s been locked into the caricature of an inexplicably hate-filled harpy (inexplicable without reference to her origin). I’ve got no contemporary memory of her before Matt Fraction’s fleeting use of her in the Utopia era*, where she might as well have been a different character altogether. With Sabretooth, though, she might at last become a rounded character far exceeding what we’ve seen before—but only by first working through where she’s come from. It’s sure to be an uncomfortable ride.
*2009’s Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia one-shot is worth checking out. Also, Uncanny X-Men #528 is worth checking out for Oya’s origin; see below. But as a sidebar we get Northstar and Dazzler vs. Nekra and Frenzy, as well (where none come off as particularly admirable).
[pic DA/UX art by Marc Silvestri, Jim Weems, and Frank D’Armata—
note that her eye color is different in each colorist’s rendering, to say nothing of all the other issues]
Nekra last appeared in the closing splash page of Gerry Duggan and Patrick Zircher’s Savage Avengers #16, enjoying her own tankard of beer while cozied up with ladies’ man Conan, who’s got brilliant mad chemist and equally scantily clad Nightshade snuggled under his other meaty arm.
(The so-called “Death Reaper,” a young nonmutant mystic who showed up in 2009’s Dark Reign: Zodiac miniseries written by Joe Casey, claims to be Nekra’s daughter and is herself infatuated with Zodiac, who had once brainwashed then-Alpha Flight member Madison Jeffries into serving his criminal enterprise; Steve Seagle’s Alpha Flight vol2 #1-12, 1997).
Turning now to Idie Okonkwo, who in a fit of self-loathing that encompassed her pre-missionary heritage renamed herself Oya, we’ll be taking a look at a somewhat less obviously racist depiction of a black woman, certainly less convoluted, but one that is still fraught with the lame and lazy assumptions of her white writers, particularly Matt Fraction & Kieron Gillen (both of whom have written some of my favorite comics, which does not win them a pass here), and Jason Aaron (who I kind feel of bad about picking on at this point because his past and current work just happens to come up so much in my writing, but what you gonna do; however, in this instance, he fares better than Idie’s original authors).
Shortly after her debut in 2010, Oya inadvertently played a critical role in X-Men: Schism and then went on to become a major supporting character first in Generation Hope and then, for three indelible years, Wolverine and the X-Men by Jason Aaron; she then took a more chill backseat in the “road-trip”-lite era of Dennis Hallum’s All-New X-Men vol2—after which she fell off into the deep background, gone the way of so many “new mutants” before her, whether because they prove visually “nondistinctive” or inconveniently (for white writers) nonwhite and/or non-American. And guess what, she’s all three.
Idie’s something of an elemental, able to absorb heat from her surroundings thereby creating pockets of severe chill while also being able to psionically manipulate ice or release the heat she’s absorbed as heat and/or fire. However, she doesn’t have the distinctive look of Iceman or the Human Torch, not unless she’s in the act of unleashing her heat powers. The only reason this lack of immediate visual distinction is important is, of course, that successfully reappearing characters sink or swim based on such distinctiveness. Add to that her intersectional identity as a rurally raised Nigerian teenage girl in an American comic, particularly one that’s already an overly congested franchise, and she’ll always be facing an uphill struggle without constant conscious stewardship from creators who’re interested in exploring her potential.
In her Uncanny X-Men #528 debut, we’re introduced to the young Nigerian villager at a moment of crisis, with a local militia looking to mete out witch-hunting justice after the manifestation of her powers has caused the incineration of her family and village. But Storm and Hope Summers arrive, with one fending off the attack and the other touching the beleaguered girl in a particularly messianic moment to stabilize her powers—barely averting a scene of white saviorism with Storm’s presence? Certainly, the immediate implication that’s never ever stated anywhere is that the mutant “messiah’s” activation of the other new mutants is the prime cause (deliberately using the deific language of the Prime Mover here) of death of all Idie has known and loved. Idie’s backstory related here and there reveals that she was schooled and thoroughly indoctrinated by hatefully dogmatic Catholic missionaries. Believing herself possessed by Satan in the inferno’s aftermath, her rescuers fail to dissuade her of the Devil talk, but she sees in the mutant “messiah” her personal savior whom she vows to follow anywhere.
Over the course of the subsequent maxiseries Generation Hope by Kieron Gillen, we see her devoted to and fixated on Hope in a way that the other comparatively well-adjusted Five Lights very much are not. This mirrors the infamously fundie-raised Wolfsbane and her beloved peer Dani Moonstar in the early 1980s, although the racial dynamic is, oddly enough, flipped. Like Rahne Sinclair, Idie continued to view herself and all mutants as monsters, despite a few exceptions for those she reveres. Certainly, any mutant presenting as non-passing are bound for damnation (though she isn’t preachy toward others, quite unlike Wolfsbane’s example).
Gillen’s writing takes a very questionable turn when Idie declares herself unworthy of being either Catholic or Igbo and because of that takes on the name of Oya, a divinatory and protective Yoruba storm deity and patron of the Niger River, one of the world’s longest rivers. And in any case, she’s long been syncretized with St. Brigit of Catholic tradition. But in Generation Hope #8, Idie’s declaration can be boiled down to: “I’m not worth being identified with my former religious and ethnic heritage, so I’ll identify with heretics—you know, the ones who might’ve killed or fought against my grandparents etc. in the Nigerian Civil War, the most horrifically disastrous attempt at post-colonial secessionism in 1960s Sub-Saharan Africa, wherein my people, the Igbo, found themselves lower down the socioeconomic ladder due to the dividing and conquering of the British colonial occupation and absorption of West Africa into imperial global capitalism, which saw the Yoruba financially and politically ascendent to our detriment. I’ve really got no idea whether my dear scribe Kieron has thought through the implications of my depressing offhand little speech here.”
Like, never mind the fact that the vast majority of Yoruba are predominantly either Christian or Muslim and number, like the largely Catholic Igbo, around 34 million—and though the latter suffered greatly after losing its bid at secession, the Igbo people, left without an ounce of government largesse in the aftermath, have become among the most entrepreneurial both at home and abroad.
[Generation Hope #8 art by Salva Espin and Jim Charalampidis]
It’s not like any of the clueless kids around her know what to say to this Debbie Downer.
But that’s part of the serious problem here: Africans in American media must, of course, be always suffering. How else do white people emote toward nonwhites if not through
magnanimous pity condescension incapable of maturing into anything like recognition and respect?
Speaking of endless Black sadness, while none of the mutant leadership is able to adequately address
Idie’s Oya’s issues, a fellow Light takes her to the grand opening of San Francisco’s Museum of Mutant History, but the occasion is of course crashed by terrorists hired by Kade Kilgore of the Hellfire Club. Trapped inside with no help and human hostages at stake, Oya agonizes over what to do until Cyclops urges her telepathically to decide for herself since the other X-Men won’t make it in time. Scott’s grim expression clearly harbors the barest humorless smile, imply that he wants her to make a decisive move and not wait, basically hoping she’ll step up and become a child soldier, like he had been, but with the harder edge that Xavier kept from him from, for too long apparently. After all, this is X-Men: Schism we’re talking about! The new era in which Xavier’s finally defiant boy scout would be proven “right.” So she slays the terrorists, still believing herself and mutantkind damnably monstrous; but at least she’s rescued the innocent humans.
From these early days through Idie’s comparatively chill post-Secret Wars years, one wonders if anyone writing Idie thought to consider the actual experienced trauma of real-world survivors of a childhood lost to communal violence and/or regional warlords, bandits, and militias—since that is obviously the direction Marvel decided to go with this character.
Post-Schism, Idie enrolls at the (ironically) Wolverine-run Jean Grey School, where she’s taken out of peril (snubbing Cyclops), and attempts are made by all, courtesy of architect Aaron, at normalizing her (i.e., granting her the closest thing the mutants can get to an all-American youth). And granted, during the course of Wolverine and the X-Men and Jason Latour’s follow-up in volume 2, she becomes a bit less broody (yes, that’s a deliberate pun!) while developing into a more rounded character over these three years. (And anyway, does she really have a hope of out-brooding young Broo?)
Aaron provides funny moments galore, but many don’t scan well at second glance. Suffice to say for now, however, that he should be credited with bringing some much needed levity not just to Idie but to what really had become a rock-bottom franchise (unfortunately, it would find new lows between Secret Wars and HOX/POX—highlighting the apparent miracle of Jonathan Hickman).
Idie found herself in a superficially sweet but iffy triangle, caught between the adolescent attentions of Broo and Kid Omega—two different brands of ick? What she really fell in love with was the American sensation of ice cream. And yet according to reader and Broo’s observation, she’s never seen just having a laugh until issue #18, and it is not heartwarming laughter; no, it’s snide and nihilistic.
Clearly, peril couldn’t be too far off: Seeking to dismantle the school from within, Kade Kilgore and friends first fashioned a robot priest at a front church in Salem Center, attracting Idie’s attention in a different way. Entirely lifelike, it not so subtly reawakened and even embellished her old self-loathing. To her peers, however, she seemed more carefree than ever, culminating in her dancing with and making out with Quentin Quire at the school dance (issue #18 again); really, though, she had simply come to accept inevitable damnation. (Meanwhile, Broo, dejected over but concerned about Idie, investigates the church only to get a seemingly lethal Kade Kilgore gun-blast for his troubles.)
Immediately, Idie takes responsibility for what would prove Broo’s months’ long coma (and his feral state after awakening out of it). Outrageously, she believes it’s all due to her one night of carefree living in denial of her monstrous/damnable nature. And it takes another ten issues for the diabolism of the Hellfire Club to come to light. But then she transfers to their Hellfire Academy (issue #29) to go undercover and get revenge on Kade Kilgore. Thankfully, she forgoes her assassination plans; unfortunately, her white savior this time is Quentin Quire, whom she begins dating—though here she is the one being forward and doing the choosing.
[W&X #33 and 35 art by Nick Bradshaw, Walden Wong, Laura Martin, Clayton Cowles—the start of Idie’s all-too-brief apotheosis for the next half-year before fading back into the background]
A relationship with until-then incel Omega? Apparently doomed from the start although it did start off with a further tempering of his previously more abrasive personality (he’s also drawn more childlike in this era; compare with previous renderings going back a decade). But ultimately, in the next volume’s opening arc (by Jason Latour), we see the potential culmination of their relationship in the couple’s 25-years-later future. Everyone’s seen the future potential of an evil Phoenix-possessed Quentin, and Idie’s future self ends up killing this future version of her lover while the present-day Kid Omega inherits the wealth of a corporation devoted to recruiting him into a kind of Phoenix cult with himself as its perfected chosen deity. Basically, the story of Idie Okonkwo has ended in the fiery embers of her now ex-boyfriend’s drama; he hares off, and she, the erstwhile “Girl Who Wouldn’t Burn,” fades into yesterday’s school yearbook—as first AXIS helps tank much of the X line quality-wise, and the debris is swallowed up in Secret Wars.
Post-Secret Wars, however, Oya was given quite the makeover compared to the dark, edgy place she’d been left off back in W&X vol2 #7. Instead, 2016’s All-New X-Men vol2 by Dennis Hallum gave her what amounted to a long vacation with a few moments of creepy peril but nothing like her early days. And happily, Christina Strain’s Generation X at least showed her and Quentin making amends while Idie definitively but amiably drew the line at platonic friendship.
In fact, her characterization from 2016 to 2020 has been so copacetic by comparison it’s hard to fathom how she could’ve now ended up in the Pit. If return to a dark night of the soul were written by yet another white guy, I’d likely say no thank you, but the question remains what LaValle will do with this young woman who’s certainly already been through more than enough hellfire, of her own making and otherwise.