[covers by Leinil Francis Yu & colorists Sunny Gho and Romula Fajardo, Jr.]
Two issues into Vita Ayala and Rod Reis’ “The Labors of Magik” have made clear that this story arc will be essential reading for fans of our two most infernally/Limbo-themed mutants, Illyana Rasputina and Madelyne Pryor. The setup, which really began with New Mutants #24, was something of a slow build, and by the end of issue #25 and throughout the next issue we’re seeing the story’s momentum take off and promising to carry our heroines and their fans in unpredictable but fascinating directions—like issue #26’s journey through a Limbo yet to be, in a future where Krakoa has fallen.
The interiors by Rod Reis are absolutely stunning. As much as I love the art of Pepe Larraz, Stefano Caselli, Lucas Werneck, Bob Quinn and fresh discovery Eleonora Carlini, it’s Reis’ work that’s my definite favorite in the X line and by quite a lot—not just because he’s skilled at both drawing and coloring; his artistry is simply so unique and not based in the conventions of superhero or straightforward action/adventure stories.
Reis is instead the perfect artist for high fantasies and quest narratives, and that his work is even reminiscent of classic New Mutants visionary Bill Sienkiewicz makes his presence here even more of a treat.
There are of course still moments of wild, savage action, where the wildness of Reis’ crisp linework bursts from the elegant restraint on display elsewhere, which creates this magical balance between his sense for classically beautiful form and the intense, sharp-angled energy that animates his storytelling with a dangerous, propulsive vitality.
“The Labors of Magik” thus promises to be one of a small handful of all-time classic New Mutants stories.
Of the stunning Leinil Yu covers so far, the second is more suggestive and actually resonates subtly with S’ym’s original offer to Maddie of her heart’s desire—out of five choices, each a potential version of herself as seen in the figuratively reflective surface of one of his sharp fingernails. The connection here is probably unintentional, and after all we see only two versions of Magik here—one with demon horns and the other fully armored, both from 1989’s “Inferno” event—which quickly built from the initial S’ym/Maddie meeting in Uncanny X-Men #234 a year before (discussed in a bit more detail below). What’s clear, though, is that in its art and script “The Labors of Magik” features many clear resonances with “Inferno.” That’s obvious, but what’s delightful is that with so many explicit connections, subtler ones also begin to come to the fore for the attentive reader, and I think that lends Vita Ayala and Rod Reis’ story even more poignancy and readerly interest.
It’s clear that “The Labors of Magik” will be the “Inferno 2.0” that Hickman’s excellent miniseries (and dramatic envoi) of the same name was never meant to be. I just think it’s cool that fans who were left hankering for such a sequel or follow-up (over 30 years later!) are now getting this treat.
New Mutants #25
For all the complexity of Magik’s backstory, Vita really does give readers everything they need to know here in this issue, the opening chapter of the much-anticipated Magik-centric arc, “The Labors of Magik,” a title explicitly echoing the mythic labors of Heracles (Hercules). And the infernal context for supporting player Madelyne Pryor is also clarified as the story moves along—though obviously everyone should read “Inferno,” the original 1989 crossover event that featured both characters on separate but parallel journeys, making them the two mutants intrinsically bound to Limbo.
This issue’s opening epigraph is from Euripides’ drama Heracles, from the aftermath of his twelfth labor—which involved the titular half-god hero being driven mad and killing his own family. His punishment is exile, imposed by himself in light of the fact that his beloved fellow Thebans will no longer greet him.
“Last, ah, woe is me!” is followed directly by “I have dared this labor, to crown the sorrows of my house with my children’s murder. I have come to this point of necessity; no longer may I dwell in Thebes, the city that I love” (trans E.P. Coleridge).
Insanity? Murdering one’s family? Exile? Read broadly and metaphorically, away from the specific context, these themes might speak to Magik’s life. Even regarding violent death among those closest to her, Illyana has previously seen the deaths of both the alternate-universe X-Men in Limbo and her parents in Russia as her fault—because of trouble she’s caused, as a traumatized child might blame themselves for their trauma.
Magik’s plan to free herself of the shackles of Limbo do, however, go awry by the end of the arc’s first chapter: S’ym has shattered her Soulsword and thereby wrested from Magik her control over this infernal dimension wherein Illyana has never trusted any of the native inhabitants, at all, which is reasonable. Then again, the journey Vita is taking her on must surely lead to a happier accord between Limbo’s demons and their ruler, whoever they turn out to be.
For now, of course, the reins belong to S’ym’s chilling mysterious master.
S’ym has never magically pulled a new weapon out of his own body before—but it’s a clear echo of Illyana drawing the Soulsword from herself as a child imprisoned and abused by Belasco, but also taught sorcery by him, she at last defeated her captor of seven years (see the 1983 Magik series).
The demon S’ym first appeared as Belasco’s chief enforcer, an almost comic mismatch of character types: S’ym’s cartoonish brutishness to the ancient human sorcerer’s posturing expression of a refined cruelty, though Belasco is in many ways far more vile and brutal than his top thug, given the depth of his abuse of Illyana as a child.
Whoever S’ym’s current master is, it’s likely not Belasco, who no one wants to see again—but also he’s been missing his right arm for centuries now (since his dealings with the Elder Gods from whom he received immortality), while the silhouette we see S’ym talking to this issue has two, though it does resemble him otherwise.
The Little Goblin & the Goblin Queen
After the credits page, we get a neat surprise with the presentation of the Little Goblin’s story, depicted beautifully by Rod Reis. This is from a book we’ve never heard about before; previously, we understood Belasco’s library to be full of only the books useful for the study of sorcery. Now, we discover that Illyana had a treasured avenue of escape and coping in this storybook hiding amongst the sorcerous tomes. Of course, it would be foolish to call it escapist when it so reflects her own horrifying circumstances as a child; it just manages to sublimate or allegorize those horrors enough to make them comprehensible and ultimately manageable for a mind not fully developed and still in the midst of ongoing trauma.
That a young Illyana read this storybook is made clear in issue #25’s backup story (more on that below). Pages from this storybook will continue to pop up throughout “Labors,” and we’ll see that as they represent current events in her life, meaning that as a child in Limbo she read an allegorical version of her future probably without knowing that it would all come to pass (unaware, for instance, that “the Wolf,” “the Queen of Echoes” and “the Moon Whisperer” would turn out to be Rahne/Wolfsbane, Maddie Pryor and Dani Moonstar). With issue #26, we’ll see that the book includes glimpses of possible futures that are unlikely but relevant to Illyana’s journey.
So far these pages mostly seem to be prefatory or summary to the main action, but their presentation also tells us that her friends will play a critical role in helping her push forward and emerge whole on the far side of their sudden exile in Limbo, where traumatic elements from Magik’s past will try to, once more, subjugate the infernal realm’s proper ruler.
No doubt as Illyana seeks to transfer power to Maddie we’ll see the latter fight back against her dark side and infernally haunted past as well. That she’s Illyana’s chosen successor understandably has her friends (Dani and Rahne) rather disconcerted. After all, in the original “Inferno,” she came scarily close to unleashing Limbo’s contaminating demon hordes upon the Earth with apocalyptic results.
This gift of ruling Limbo is what Magik was referring to in issue #24 at the Green Lagoon when she promised Maddie “a shot at getting everything you’ve ever wanted”—which somewhat echoes an offer that appealed to Maddie’s darker side, S’ym’s encounter with her in a dream in Uncanny X-Men #234, where he offered up “her heart’s desire” as one out of five options (and she chose unwisely).
S’ym’s offer and the ensuing “Inferno”
In that Uncanny issue, weeks before “Inferno” kicked off with her alliance with the demon N’astirh, Maddie, unconscious from an accident, dreams meeting S’ym, who makes an offer of her heart’s desire—which he actually presents five versions of, one appearing on each fingernail of one hand, potential Maddies. Thinking none of this is real, she decides on choosing to become the powerful woman bent on personal vengeance, first against Scott for abandoning here and baby Nathan (Uncanny #201 and X-Factor #1), also against Alex, pretty much for being Scott’s gullible brother, and ex post facto, against Sinister for his creation and manipulation of her (the reality of which she was totally unaware of until Uncanny #240, “Inferno’s” second chapter).
Was it a moment’s weakness? Did she subconsciously know it wasn’t just a dream? Clearly, there was manipulation on S’ym’s part, but even if she believed she was merely indulging a fancy, isn’t it telling that she chose the outrageously vindictive version of herself? After all, she must’ve believed that she’d at least get a sense of what indulging that power fantasy might entail.
The question remains: How responsible is Maddie for her decision a few issues later to ally with N’astirh, knowing full well that she would open the way not just for Limbo’s hordes to invade Earth but for the world to become inextricably bound in its very essence to that infernal dimension; she wanted what her ally did but out of pure vindictiveness—Earth’s apocalyptic transformation into an eternal hellscape.
However manipulated here, she always had much more autonomy in all this than little Illyana did in Limbo.
Illyana will continue to argue that Maddie never got a fair shake, though—which is true. Whether she’s safe as ruler of Limbo is another question, making Illyana’s choice quite a gamble. But it’s clear that Magik wants to shake off Limbo’s horrific lifelong influence.
The succession deal formalized – but not yet for readers’ eyes
As to the blue cloth or towel that Maddie brings to Magik, I have no idea what it might be, but it seems to be involved with their bargain. It’s impossible to say for now; the deal itself is written on a large sheet of parchment and presumably Maddie’s terms are laid out there as well—although there’s a mysterious break between Illyana giving her the pen and the bargain’s conclusion (interrupted by a Little Goblin page that’s visually rather inscrutable; the page’s text very briefly summarizes the child Illyana’s tragic losses in Limbo, as seen in the 1983 Magik miniseries, wherein the familiar X-Men who die by various means—Storm, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine—turn out to be, of course, alt universe versions split off from Earth-616 when they made the choice to enter the Limbo dimension to come after Piotr’s baby sister).
Also this issue, we see a crusty old man-demon (more man than demon?) rummaging through her bedroom looking for something, arguing that he’s only trying to help Illyana (after she teleports in with her friends) and then running off with a hairbrush, assuring her that “she’ll see.” Illyana’s anger and distrust are obvious, but she’s focused on formalizing her bargain with Maddie—not to be distracted by what she assumes is merely crazed demonic scheming. However, whoever this guy is, we’re sure to see him again soon.
New details on coming of age in Limbo
So far, this is still firmly Illyana’s story, and we should expect it to function as even more of a follow-up and elaboration on Magik the 1983 miniseries than it is on “Inferno.”
In fact, the sort of bonus story this issue is a five-page flashback sequence that starts to fill in the gap between Magik #2 and 3, after a splash page that recaps of Magik’s first two issues. In this new wrinkle in the telling, we find Little Goblin writing the storybook that Illyana will find hidden in Belasco’s library.
Belasco’s library was not a prominent or particularly notable feature of the 1983 Magik mini, but we should expect these bonus stories to fill in the formative years that passed between issues #2 and 3.
Very different in style from Reis, artist Jan Duursema along with colorist Ruth Redmond effectively render the stark and gloomy atmosphere of this unhappy flashback story, and in issue #26, we get two more pages that continues the backstory, detailing the further travails of the child Illyana.
At the end of issue #26, Illyana begins to use what she’s learned from Belasco to try to do some good—which in this instance means trying to turn Cat back into her original self. It works, for a split second. Still, this is telling us she went through a crucial phase of using her adaptation and survival in Limbo heretofore in order to begin establishing some sense of control, albeit very gradually to be sure.
Exile in a Limbo yet to be (or an infernal Christmas Carol!)
With issue #26, it feels like Vita’s storytelling becomes much more subtle, which is delightful. Let’s look at it up close.
The issue opens with our heroines lost in a strangely wintry Limbo and then a storybook page that depicts the “Goblin Exile,” a no longer young Little Goblin in retro pulp sci-fi mode fighting techno-organic demons, clearly echoing Magik’s alt future self doing likewise on the next page.
And thus the gang discover themselves in a Limbo yet to be—a tricky proposition relative to Earth, where time proceeds so much more quickly it boggles the mind; yet we’ll find later in the issue that this is a future wherein, except for Magik and Warlock, no mutant remains alive (just on Earth?) after the fall of Krakoa.
Now way back in Claremont’s New Mutants #47, the Technarch Magus infected Limbo with the T-O virus, which for the next two years overwhelmed the realm, heading into “Inferno”—paralleling all the while Magik’s downward spiral from her own demonic contamination. So, we have a potential future echo here, though the elder Illyana has not succumbed to demonic influence.
It’s soon revealed that this elder Magik is the lone survivor amongst the four mutants now lost in Limbo, but somehow Warlock* reached her while the rest of Krakoa was annihilated, though we’re not told how. Later on, we find out she’s lost her right arm as well, so Warlock isn’t just a sleeve but a prosthetic.
*It could be that sensing his own T-O substance there, he figured that was where she was as likely to be as anywhere.
The first data page transcribes a private “barracks” conversation between Magik and Maddie, the former explaining to the latter that she has what’s necessary to effectively rule and survive in Limbo (“madness and evil” in Maddie’s words or, in Magik’s preference, being “tuned-in to the truth”). Now in Warlock’s log, this must have been recorded without their consent (or just Illyana’s). What really matters, Illyana is saying, is that they each survived insane, infernal circumstances, making them the best (mutant) candidates to rein in and impose their will upon the hellishness they’ve been yoked to.
Because it was recorded by Warlock in what must be future Magik’s military-style fortress, in its barracks, the conversation must be between the present-day characters after the previous page where the older Illyana has bid them all a gruff good night.
And there’s a subtle clue here to the nature of the “arcane accident” (the older Magik’s own words) that befell Maddie early on in their Limbic exile: The present-day Magik reminds the erstwhile Goblin Queen of their “binding arcane contract [that she] freely agreed upon [and that] keeps [her] to the absolute letter of the bargain.” She then begins to appeal to Maddie’s better nature, the basic desire to win her freedom.
However, I think in this potential future, Maddie tried to renege on the bargain—and she got herself killed. Otherwise, the older Magik would likely have said she’d died in another attack following the one that did in Dani and Rahne.
Notice what else isn’t commented upon: When the lost mutants see from a distance a fortress under attack by demons (who seem “wrong” somehow), Magik and Maddie’s share the same instinct to retreat (although Magik had just argued against her need to rest) while Dani and Rahne want to help whoever’s besieged.
No one mentions that if hadn’t been for Dani’s insistence and then Rahne’s impetuousness, they would’ve passed the older Magik by, leaving both parties to their separate doomed fates. In fact, perhaps Rahne acting here is where the split from this future likelihood occurs, seeing how it all shakes out from there. But of course her being impetuous was also simply her following her nose to her now aged friend.
However, there’s a bit of confusion about how Maddie got tied to Limbo. In the data page, Magik tells her that the difference between their relationships to the infernal realm is Maddie’s choosing to ally with it—which is true, somewhat (recalling the ambiguity of her manipulation, in a dream, by S’ym before she ever meets the demon N’astirh).
Still, given Maddie’s history here, we shouldn’t wonder at Illyana’s friends feeling a mite ambiguous about her current decision-making.
Magik solidarity—for a little while
Back in our Limbo yet to be, a demon messenger is sent by his horde to Magik’s fortress with an offer of safe passage from Limbo for the time-displaced Krakoans. The demon tries to pleasantly point out that Illyana owes her older self nothing, that the older Magik is just a “cautionary tale” for her benefit. Now, this isn’t a breaking of the fourth wall, though it can obviously be seen as metacommentary for this issue.
Instead, he’s trying to get Illyana to discount the reality of this future. But it doesn’t work. The younger and the elder have already established their solidarity with each other. They laugh in his face.
But there’s no denying the demon’s parting words: The future Magik is weakening by the day. She explains that her and Warlock’s spells against the T-O horde is depleting them both each time they attack.
Also, we’ll see that while the solidarity between the younger and older Magiks is deep and true, it’s marked by impurities, insecurities—the elder Magik’s lack of confidence in her past self, which is worded differently in her journal entry that closes out the story this issue, but that’s really what it amounts to, an uncertainty about herself that remains, as well.
The demons return, still holding out their offer but otherwise ready to lay siege to the fortress once more. But the elder Magik makes her own challenge: She’ll challenge S’ym, winner takes all. And he’s game, probably assuming that she’s weakened and he’s stronger now in his T-O form, likewise his mallet.
In fact, he hasn’t seen her since his, um, soulless mallet shattered her Soulsword. He proceeds to kill her, apparently. Only his physical contact with her, holding the aged Magik by the throat as she bleeds out, allows her to absorb his T-O infection, healing herself—and then she impales S’ym’s ordinary demon body on her Warlock sword.
The demon horde panics and attacks, and as the other mutants hit back, young Magik scoops up the soot that was S’ym (and which to the elder smelled of “charred victory,” as seen in her journal entry)—and somehow creates out of it a ball of blazing, crackling light that transforms into a new, black sword.
After the second storybook page, which is a simple recap of the preceding victorious action, the chapter closes with a data page—only entry 52 in future Magik’s journal (despite all the years of her hard exile). First, the aging Magik tells of how she realized the way to defeat the T-O demons—and then that the new sword her younger self conjured won’t last long, as they both well know. Further, she feels “the kid’s confidence is still shattered,” and so, feeling uncertain there’s a better option elsewhere, she decides to stay, even though the youngsters offer to take her with them.
The older Illyana’s decision not to gamble on ending up somewhere worse off seems to echo the reaction the younger Illyana had upon first seeing the demon horde attack the fortress: retreat, rather than rescue and solidarity.
I could be missing the mark here, though, since the older Magik ends with writing that she’s determined to find out what happened to her Krakoa, perhaps being almost as much in the dark as we are. So it’s impossible to say if this is the last we’ll see of this future, but it’s obvious it won’t be the fate of Earth-616. Still, we know that timelines can continue to exist even if the mainstream universe’s convergence with them is no longer possible.
And yet we’re clearly meant to understand that the aging Magik has lived for years in a downward spiral, barely hanging on. The desire to not join forces with her younger self feels reactive, like a flinching away from the risk of the unknown that could potentially aid her in her tragic quest as much as aiding the others. Then again, now that the threat in Limbo is ended, she and Warlock could more easily find their way back to their own destroyed world—and perhaps she’ll uncover knowledge that could prove critical to her past self, if they find each other again.
Regardless, whether or not our Magik’s confidence is really so totally shattered, she now knows this future, at least in its particulars, isn’t for her or her friends. But even so, she might well feel a degree of satisfaction that her older self emerged victorious. So, I still get the sense that the older Magik in her decision to stay and in her entry is projecting insecurities, ones that they both share, naturally.
Creepy Peter (and Karma’s vague girlfriend)
We also have a page of Colossus searching Krakoa for Illyana. No mention should be needed to remind us that Piotr is possessed by the will of the Chronicler, at his demented brother’s request—and indeed none is made, effectively making his presence here in New Mutants all the creepier.
Note that Karma is still an item with Galura, who is such a new character that she remains a cipher—which could become frustrating if there isn’t a Karma-centric arc following “The Labors of Magik.” After all, we’ve had a few opportunities to get to know her just a bit more since Galura’s Marvel’s Voices: Pride 2021 debut, but really, there’s almost nothing of any real substance to this character yet, and thus to their relationship, which shouldn’t be the case for not just Karma’s first romantic relationship directly on the page, but also what remains for Marvel a very early openly queer relationship. It’s outrageous that there’s really only been the most meager, miserly handful before now. To let it go on being completely vague would be a serious waste of our remaining good will.