Sometimes there are issues of What If that are so outrageous, they’d never be possible in the regular canon. Other stories, however, take already established plotlines and give them a little tweak, then show us the Butterfly Effect that this small change causes. What If Magik #1 definitely falls into the latter category, giving us a look at the life of Illyana Rasputin had she walked away from the New Mutants at a pivotal moment.
Starting life as a background character in Uncanny X-Men, Illyana rose to prominence after being abducted into Limbo for what seemed like a short time to the mutants, but from her perspective, seven long years had passed. In that time, Illyana had been taken under the wing of the demon Belasco and transformed into the powerful, Soulsword wielding Magik. In the established continuity, Illyana stayed with the X-Men, joining the New Mutants and becoming a major player in the X-Men Universe. In this issue, however, writer Leah Williams asks the question: What if Illyana had walked away?
The question on the cover is slightly different than that, although clearly more eye-catching. While yes, by the end of the issue Magik is set up to become the next Sorcerer Supreme, in reality, this issue uses the concept of her stepping away from the X-Men as a chance to explore the fractured psyche of a 16-year-old who has grown up literally in Hell. Chris Claremont did an excellent job of re-introducing the character into her old life back in the early ‘80s, as well as exploring just what happened to her in those lost years in the Magik miniseries, but here Williams adds a depth and complexity to the young Illyana in a way that -- despite this being an out of continuity tale -- enriches one’s appreciation of the character.
The other player in this tale is Doctor Strange, and it’s to Williams' credit that we get to explore a rarely seen side of the Sorcerer Supreme also, namely one of a mentor. Brian Bendis briefly explored this dynamic between Strange and Magik in his X-Men run from a few years ago, but in a single issue Williams established a very real feeling between a man who is tired and potentially ready to take a step back from the frontline and a young girl who is suffering in a whirlpool of emotional turmoil. Illyana has the feel of a genuine teenager to her words and her attitude, and this adds an element to Doctor Strange’s life that finds new ways to pull him out of his comfort zone.
Filipe Andrade manages to play with the contrasting elements of this story nicely. On the one hand, this is a small, personal tale of a man who essentially becomes a reluctant father figure to a troubled young woman, and in that respect, Andrade’s art captures the emotions in both the facial expressions and the body language necessary for the melodrama in the script. On the other hand, this is a fantastical tale of a seasoned magician training a rebellious new student, and in that respect, Andrade shines. There are a few pages specifically that come to mind. The first being two panels in which Strange is chasing after Illyana through the Sanctum Sanctorum. As she walks away, the walls of the hallway warp and twists around them in a way that’s reminiscent of the dizzying CGI of the Doctor Strange movie, but also emblematic of both of these character’s worlds being turned around and confused by this new relationship.
The other example of Andrade’s excellent design choices comes on the following double page spread, which depicts a training montage, but one in which time, space and reality all warp around the characters, and the panel borders are a series of abstract, intersecting parallel lines that introduce a loose structure into a series of structureless scenes. It’s also in this spread that Chris O’Halloran’s colors are most prominent, filling the page with a wild, unnatural palette that suits the worlds being depicted. The first meeting of Illyana and Doctor Strange is similarly filled with bright colors, but these are played as extensions of the emotions on display, and contrasted with stark shadows and silhouettes, adding a tangible element to the darkness raging within Illyana.
If there were a single criticism to level against What If Magik #1, it would be that at no point does Williams acknowledge the rest of the X-Men, or mention anything about whether they’re looking for Illyana. Claremont goes to great pains in the original continuity to show the struggles of Illyana’s peers in finding common ground with their former friend, but if any of those relationships were present in this continuity, they’ve been resolved (or left behind entirely) off panel. It’s a small issue, and in the grander scheme of things introducing the X-Men would render Strange’s necessity slightly less important. Here, he is the only one who’s there for her, and any other characters getting involved would only get in the way of the purpose of this story, i.e. the central relationship Illyana and Doctor Strange.
There’s so much to enjoy in this issue that it’s a shame that it’s out of continuity. Williams does an excellent job of using the somewhat reluctant pairing to enrich and deepen both central characters in a way that seems almost wasted in this one-off issue. If it weren’t for the fact that this early time in Magik’s life was already fully explored by Claremont, this would make a perfect retcon flashback that could set up a future relationship between Illyana and Strange. As it stands, this is an effective examination of the two characters in a way that manages to find new things to say about both of them.