Acclaimed horror writer Victor LaValle’s five-issue Sabretooth mini will undoubtedly go down as the best solo title ever for El Tigre Vic, the Slasher, the Butcher—though, admittedly, the bar for that metric has always been pretty darn low*. But probably, this five-issue story will prove one of the most successful minis of the past several years, as well. As we’ve come to expect in the Krakoa era, the creative team here certainly know their Victor Creed, and it’s exciting to know right off the bat that this is going to be so much more than an excuse for a feral murderfest. This first issue is hella fun, very wild, and shockingly unpredictable.
Ed Note: Spoilers for this issue follow
It also has the makings of a twisty allegory, for us, for our society that is seemingly, hopefully, finally somewhat acknowledging the waking nightmare that we and our forebears have constructed, zombielike, both willingly yet unwittingly, out of the poisoned well of carceral thinking: When you build a no-place, throw in the undesirables, and hide the key, from everyone—indeed, bury it in a grey, faceless “process”—and distract yourself and others from the “system,” assuming it will take care of itself, and pay no mind to what you’ve turned into a blind spot, a black pit, then a darkness wells up inside you, even as you continue to ignore it. Ignored and forgotten, the prisoner by which you made an example is exemplary no longer. So you repeat the process; or rather, we want to say that the “system” repeats the process. Having gotten rid of another undesirable element, we again turn away, let the system do its work—and grow. Wash, rinse, repeat. Until there’s no place that isn’t walled in, keeping out the unsightly, the undesired, the ungroomed.
We need allegories in entertaining stories to help us take notice of uncomfortable realities. That’s simply how the human brain is wired—and/or it’s just the tool we have in our current media-saturated reality.
But I wanted to start out saying that Victor LaValle’s Sabretooth most definitely will be among the best Marvel miniseries of the past several years. This confidence comes from familiarity with the author’s brilliant work, both in novels and in comics. However, especially after revisiting Creed’s publication history for this piece, I started to remember all too clearly why I don’t like the lead character—and not in the way of other villains we love to hate. And the problem here is not with the present creative team; the stain here is on Marvel itself, for not addressing the fact that the ever-popular (money-making) sadist Sabretooth is inarguably an unrepentant sexual predator, a murderous stalker of vulnerable, mostly nonwhite women.
So I am going to save my praise for what we find in Sabretooth #1 by Victor LaValle and Leonard Kirk for my next piece, taking the material there as much as possible for what it is—not for failing to address problems of a sometimes beyond-the-pale publication history that most contemporary readers might not remember or be aware of. There, too, we’ll delve into the basics on some characters who are much more interesting, those poor “new fish” who show up for the cliffhanger. Also, it’ll be fun to speculate on what exactly Krakoa might be feeling in regards to the first captive it’s been ordered to take (remembering that it once had no problem feeding on anyone whom it could snare in its verdant tendrils and roots).
That piece will also start off with a heaping dose of praise for the brilliant, humane and very creepy work of Victor LaValle, with a brief description of his trajectory from novelist to comics creator, overall themes, and his unique take on genre-writing that is nonetheless wonderfully representative of trends of the past decade (or so) in both mainstream “literary” and science fiction.
In this piece, I feel the need to offer readers evidence from Sabretooth’s publication history that might alter how you read this modern-day comic—or indeed, your decision to even give it a try. Any Krakoa fan deciding this series is not for them based on the worst elements of Creed’s prior characterization is inarguably justified. For that reason alone, this series should not be considered a must-read.
However, most of this piece will in fact be a presentation of what’s most relevant about Creed’s pub history as it pertains 1) to his prior dynamics with certain of the Councilmembers, 2) to contextualizing his persona from the little we (or he) know(s) of his childhood and his twisted-mirror relation to Logan, going back more than a century (chronologically), and 3) to the way his character has developed over the past decade.
I. The Extreme (D)evolution of Sabretooth & Marvel’s Latter-Day Airbrushing
Granted, Creed’s brutalization of women is evidenced in a small handful of issues out of ~500 appearances, which of course excuses nothing—but may go some way toward explaining why only a minority of readers (seemingly) are vocal about the most compromising aspects of this character. The painfully euphemistic Wolverine vol2 #10 by Claremont and Buscema (1989) is now widely acknowledged as deeply problematic, but infamously, it did set a precedent.
However, Sabretooth’s sexualized misogynistic violence directed at nameless background characters is seen in only two stories (in both cases prostitutes, 1968 Vietnam in the first, early 1900s Tokyo in the second, so it’s also racialized): Frank Tieri’s Weapon X vol2 #27 (2004) and Jeph Loeb’s Wolverine vol3 #52-53 (2007).
But Larry Hama’s 1997 Maverick one-shot kicked off a decade of badness, as a supporting character who had already been fridged in 1993 was here retconned such that Creed had forced her into servitude, sexually and otherwise, sometime before her 1992 debut. I’ll mention these stories briefly when relevant. That said, who knows how many fans are clearly aware of this history; certainly there must be some who know and would still clamor for an ongoing Sabretooth title. Hopefully, a majority of Creed-stans would have serious second thoughts if presented with this modicum of evidence. Unfortunately, a lot of people (mostly but not entirely straight white men) need others to make the effort to convince them just to reflect rather than managing it on their own even with the material right in front of them.
It’s critical to note that Marvel itself has clearly but quietly sought to rehabilitate Creed’s image of the years—though it was quite on the nose when Rick Remender flipped his moral “polarity,” like that of many others, in one of Marvel’s sloppiest events, the 2014 Axis. Already, at least a decade before, the company had started to realize, through a very protracted and awkwardly fitful process, that the marketplace had been changing for some time—or had always been rather more diverse than what they’d assumed—and instead of openly dealing with the most problematic aspects of such hyper-masculine characters, editorial simply softened the sharpest edges and tucked away the worst features of whatever character’s past. Now, overall, they shouldn’t be harshly critiqued for this in every case; it’s largely understandable and inevitable given both the nature of a shared ongoing universe and the reality of a company experiencing rapid growth from rock-bottom (the mid/late ’90s). But it is a serious problem that Creed has never even really been called out in-universe for his violence against women, the majority of whom have been nonwhite sex-workers (at least in publication history; who knows what the creators of those comics intended readers to infer beyond that).
A modern-day, go-to pre-Iron Fist retelling of Creed’s early days is 2009’s X-Men Origins: Sabretooth written by one of my favorite comics writers Kieron Gillen and beautifully drawn by Dan Panosian. Just one among a number of other X-Men Origins one-shots, this was Marvel telling contemporary readers: This is all you have to know about this character. It skips over Creed’s extracurricular hobbies, treats the murder of Silver Fox even more euphemistically than the original story did, and takes the sexualization out of the bloodletting, which here is focused solely on innocent family members when Creed is a mere boy.
But let’s not forget that Sabretooth as an adult continued to be an indiscriminate child-killer, if we’re to take the “Mutant Massacre” seriously, even though that aspect on his part may not have been directly depicted (and readers have in any case been more okay with the death of mostly parentless sewer children than with the prospect of same for kids that might look more like their own or ones they know—a sorry distinction that popular media not infrequently exploits).
II. Prior Relations with the Council (and His Most Significant Other)—
Getting to Know the Worst There Is
[We’ll stop by this hilarious Sabretooth #1 scene next time.]
A Claremont and Byrne creation, Sabretooth has been around a long time, since 1977’s Iron Fist #14 (whose titular hero we’ll see Creed dream-kill later on this issue, followed by all the mutant “ferals”—inferiors according to Creed’s crude brutalist ethos); so let’s just take a glance at what’s most relevant for understanding the shared history and mutual disdain between this archetypal loose-cannon henchman and certain of the councilmembers.
But first let’s contextualize Creed’s origins by bringing in his most significant other, who is obviously conspicuously absent in this opening issue—and likely for the rest of the miniseries. They’re roughly contemporaries, with Creed maybe a handful of years older. Jeph Loeb’s atrocious Wolverine vol3 #52-53 (2007) has them first meeting as young men in Tokyo, where Creed had just been doing his thing, savagely murdering prostitutes; the Hand, for (Romulus) reasons, sent Logan into those mean streets to take him on, so the shadowy mutant mastermind Romulus could salivate over these prime specimens. The noble Logan hared off, while the sadistic Creed was recruited as Romulus’ point man.
What was previously established as Logan and Victor’s first meeting can be found in the aforementioned Wolverine vol2 #10 by Claremont and Buscema: Logan is (back) in the Yukon with a Blackfoot woman named Silver Fox, whom the working drifter Creed rapes, then murders, on Logan’s birthday. Ever since, or until recent years, Sabretooth has sought to brutalize his chosen nemesis every year on this same day—which usually ends in a sadomasochistic draw.
In the past decade, we’ve seen retcon stories that fill in the years between then and the Team X era, and they’ve had the progressive effect of redacting the Creed’s sexually predatory nature; Marvel wants readers of today to view him simply as a very slashy predator (i.e., more easily manageable IP).
As with many Wolverine-adjacent characters, there’s some consistently inconsistent logic to this. Creed fitfully (d)evolved into a messy backstory after a decade-plus of having virtually none; more than Logan, he’s a palimpsest of incomplete life-stories, and unlike his better half, it’s never seemed likely that he would ever recollect much more than a scant scattering of permanently disconnected patches of memory and identity. But when we briefly turn to Victor’s inner child later, we’ll come back to what has been established about his childhood; it is bleak (but not at all sexualized, unlike the bleakest aspects of his biography).
A. Mystique/Leni Zauber
Back in his Team X days, Creed was sent solo to East Berlin in order to extract an allied German assassin, Leni Zauber, but unbeknownst to him the woman he briefly went into hiding with was a disguised Mystique. Fooling around with each other proved short-lived as Mystique soon bailed, leaving Leni’s corpse behind. He wouldn’t know of the ruse for decades, nor that Mystique gave birth to their child, Graydon—whose care and raising she immediately left to others whom she paid. However, upon realizing in his early adolescence that he wasn’t a mutant, Raven brutalized and disowned him; she left him with the knowledge of her identity and his father’s.
As a powerful businessman and aspiring demagogue, a disguised Graydon coerced Creed into a hit job against Mystique—who saved herself by morphing into Leni Zauber and revealing all to a furious Sabretooth now hellbent for his current manipulator’s death. His rage and disgust only increased upon discovering that it was his son Graydon, who unwittingly lucked out when he murdered Creed’s nearby “partner,” Birdy*, purely to spite his father, even knowing it was a last desperate act. Instead, Graydon unintentionally, and regretfully, won his father’s begrudging respect, guaranteeing his survival: “Oh, you’re my blood, all right. My own darlin’ baby boy” (Sabretooth vol1 #1-4).
*Birdy had been regulating Creed’s atavistic lack of control with her “glow” (Birdy’s own mutant power) since her X-Men vol2 #6 debut the year before, but Larry Hama’s 1997 Maverick one-shot retconned how they came to be “partnered”: Sometime before, Birdy had been contracted to assassinate Creed, but it quickly went sideways and she ended up as his personal property, coerced into feeding his addictions. (Remember, this is the story that also gave us a child-murdering Arkady Rossovitch.)
Forced in the mid-’90s to become a member of the government-sponsored X-Factor, Mystique would soon receive the nasty surprise of Sabretooth coerced onto the team as well, at a time when he was trending increasingly unhinged (see below). There are a few moments where Creed appears to want to be accepted by his teammates, superficially identifying with them in opposition to their government handlers, but largely, this bizarre and rather obscure period sees Mystique and Creed’s mutual animosity only deepen (especially in their all-but-forgotten Sabretooth and Mystique miniseries).
In a slightly less forgotten 2001 four-issue crossover, “Dream’s End” (starting with Uncanny X-Men #388), Mystique, oddly enough, recruited Creed for her new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Given that her plan was to create and unleash a human-targeted version of the Legacy Virus, in her eyes, she was simply employing a despicable tool for a righteous end. Of course, it came to nothing, and Sabretooth escaped. Further Brotherhood iterations in the 2010s would see them both acting as someone else’s henchmen. (Jason Aaron’s take on a Hand-resurrected Raven in Wolverine vol2 #300-304 is an aberration, and I’m still looking forward to the day he retires from Marvel.)
After East Berlin, Creed took a vacay from Team X in ’68 to do a gun-for-hire job in Vietnam, where he warmed up by killing some random sex-workers, like he does, but he never got to work as Sinister’s man Greycrow (Scalphunter) tracked him down to tell him his client had been taken out for snooping around local Sinister activities. Creed knew nothing of Sinister at the time (Weapon X vol2 #27 retcon). Much later, he was hired by another Sinister henchman (Gambit) for some dirty work in the sewers beneath Manhattan (“Mutant Massacre”).
A reliably heartless killer, he was ever the loose cannon, but when Sinister criticized his henchmen’s failure to successfully complete their assassination of his laboratory creation Madelyne Pryor, Sabretooth’s defiance ended almost immediately in his near death (Uncanny X-Men #221). However, Sinister’s (temporary) death was just around the corner, in the classic “Inferno” event, and Creed thereafter reverted to a free agent.
Years later, in 2000’s X-Men vol2 #102, Sinister is seen guarded by what must have been a clone of Victor—no surprise there.
Soon thereafter, Sinister has a significant hand in Frank Tieri’s violently dull Weapon X vol2 (2002-2004), where Creed is by turns a pawn of Weapon X, John Sublime, and Sinister himself.
C. Charles and Jean
After Birdy’s death, a desperate Victor sought help from Xavier, who had the X-Men capture him so that, in classic Xavier fashion, he could try to turn Creed to the side of the angels; in the meantime, he would be kept in a cell (Fabian Nicieza’s X-Men Unlimited #3). This was 1993, when Creed’s characterization as sexual predator had been confined to the euphemistic 1989 Silver Fox story; still, it was only his killing ways that the Professor and company sought to address explicitly, which was unsurprising given the marketplace and Marvel’s desire to stick to superficial and commercially enticing sexualization and violence while avoiding deeper controversy. How times have changed.
Victor’s presence at Xavier’s, cell-bound or no, was in fact deeply controversial among the X-Men. Meanwhile, Jean and the Professor refused to indulge his addiction to telepathic regulation (the “glow”), forcing him to sweat it out—which involved much nastily suggestive taunting during Jean’s visits, although readers still did not see him addressed as having a history of sexual assault. Even when he later briefly escaped his cell and immediately targeted Jubilee, his desire was “simply” to terrorize and then slaughter her (Uncanny #311). Finally, in issue #328, an exasperated Xavier admitted his experiment’s failure, and he turned Victor over to federal agent Valerie Cooper, head of the Commission on Superhuman Activities. (To the chagrin of X-Factor’s government liaison, her employers decided to place Creed inside X-Factor, albeit fitted with a monitory restraining collar. Unbeknownst to her, he was a mole for the government’s “Hound Program,” which name bluntly alludes to “Days of Future Past”; X-Factor #120-124.)
Erik’s daughter Polaris was possessed by the Marauder Malice for a time in the late ’80s, so while her mind was trapped helpless deep inside, she was perforce not just Malice’s captive but of all the Marauders, including, of course, Sabretooth, whom Magneto would’ve already despised. Lorna was also forced into being Sabretooth’s teammate during his X-Factor days.
E. Purple Thunder
In the obscure dregs of late-’90s Wolverine vol2 (#145), Big A chose to pit Creed against Logan in a trial to create a new Horseman of Death. Determined to prevent the already unhinged maniac from becoming Apocalypse’s minion, Logan defeated Creed, who then suffered the agony that Logan had gone through several years before—the extraction of his skeleton’s (recently acquired) adamantium coating. Thus, Apocalypse replaced what Wolverine had infamously lost to Magneto back in X-Men vol2 #25. So, clearly, although Creed has ample reason to loathe Purple Thunder, he’d be a hopeless simp for the bigger alpha given a second chance.
[art by Leinil Francis Yu, Dexter Vines and Marie Javins]
(Creed did get his adamantium replaced shortly thereafter, upon his abduction by a refurbished Weapon X, which in its earlier iteration had not infused Creed’s skeleton with adamantium-lacing—only his claws.)
III. The Boy Was Already the Beast
This (simulated?) dream scene from later in Sabretooth #1 is, like much of the rest of the issue, hilarious, creepy, and somewhat touching, albeit distressingly. In the next piece, we’ll place it back in the context of the ongoing story, but here let’s address what we can know at this point about the Boy.
Much of this is contradictory patchwork. First, there are two conflicting accounts as to his first human kill:
According to a brief scene in Uncanny X-Men #326 (1995), wherein Xavier has a collection of files that form a patchwork picture of Creed’s past, a young Victor first sated his taste for murder at the age of nine with the slaughter of his pediatrician; his parents then chain him up in the cellar, but by age 13 he’d escaped and killed three Canadian police who’d been trying to stop his “killer rampage across three provinces.”
There’s the suggestion that this doctor had been trying to help the boy overcome his atavistic urges, which we’re meant to assume have possessed him like a debilitating ailment from an early age. This was the era of Xavier trying to “cure” Victor, who at this point, after Birdy’s murder, had become completely animalistic. But it was as if he was simply born with a lust for death that even animals themselves don’t exhibit—unless they’ve been previously “broken in” and brutalized by humans. What so odd about Victor’s childhood, then, at least up to the point of his first human kill, is that in the modern-day 2009 telling, it’s not in the least implied that he ever suffered parental abuse. There, it is clear that his parents are the ones who are terrified and have very good reason to be; the boy is not at all frightened. The parents’ containment strategy is foolish, but they were also late 19th-century country folk in northern Canada.
This retelling is in the previously mentioned X-Men Origins one-shot from 2009, wherein Victor nonchalantly slays his slightly older brother while enjoying a homemade cherry pie, as well. He’s chained up in the cellar but eats off one of his own arms to get out and slaughter his parents before hitting the road. But again, even when his father yanked out his canines, it was made very clear that the pain and terror were all one-sided. Even so, the husband and wife are portrayed so cartoonishly that the reader has no opportunity to begin sympathizing. The entire story feels like a lark (even the heavily redacted Silver Fox portion).
The cellar part is from Larry Hama and Mark Texeira’s 1993 Sabretooth #1, where Creed’s shadowy father figure is portrayed as purely monstrous and abusive, with his mother caught between the savagery of father and son. Here, the sense is that the father’s fear and abuse is preemptive, before Victor has killed anyone.
Again, 1996’s Uncanny #326 tells us that the killing of his pediatrician precipitates his cellar captivity. But that’s really weird, even for late 19th-century rural Canada; surely, the local authorities would likely have had other plans for a mindlessly murderous sociopath?
So, you really have to wonder what the point is of dumping Sabretooth in the Pit and forgetting about him forever. The X-Men all know what a mindless, unrepentant killer he is—presumably the rest of the island does too. What I hope to see from LaValle and Kirk’s miniseries is an answer as to what to do with him now, when he is still very popular with readers but completely and utterly useless to the Krakoan project.