Here’s a truth that every comic book reader knows, and that the rest of the world is only beginning to wake up to: comics have power. Like any art form, a good comic tugs on the heartstrings, transporting the reader into a world unlike their own – and yet, one in which life and death, hope and fear, doubt and certainty are found in just the same way. Like any art form, a truly good comic shines a light on our humanity.
That’s why I’m such a fan of the X-Men. The greatest #XMen comics frequently offer windows into the human soul, confronting prejudice, embracing families, and tackling ideologies reminiscent of those we see in the world around us. Every now and then, though, there comes an issue of Uncanny X-Men that truly stands out. For me, Uncanny X-Men #303 was one such issue.
To give you some background, the comic is part of Scott Lobdell’s superb run. In the aftermath of “X-Cutioner’s Song”, Stryfe released a deadly virus that targets mutants – it was literally the first ‘mutant race in danger’ plotline, and it ran for years. Prior to #303, the X-Men were yet to grasp the danger they faced - this is the issue that hammered the threat home.
Uncanny X-Men #303 opens with #JeanGrey approaching the X-Men’s rookie, Jubilee, and the two engage in conversation. Gradually we learn the truth of what’s happened – Illyana Rasputin, the beautiful little sister of Colossus, has succumbed to the Legacy Virus. For all the best efforts of Professor Xavier, Moira MacTaggert, and the Beast, they have been unable to save this child’s life.
The decision to focus in on Jubilee is a fascinating, and controversial, one; many fans were frustrated that the issue didn’t focus in on Kitty Pryde, who had worked with an older Illyana in the pages of New Mutants (it’s a long story). But in truth, by this time Kitty is too old to be an effective narrator for this issue. In choosing Jubilee, Lobdell presents us with a teenager’s first experience of death, and the depth of emotion is haunting.
The art perfectly suits the emotional feel of the book. Richard Bennett is on pencils, working with Dan Green as an inker, and with Joe Rosas as colorist. Together they work out a book with absolutely no action scenes, no superhero battles, no punches – and yet they make it visually captivating. Sometimes the art feels a little scratchy, but it always feels as though it suits the issue, adding a powerful visual dynamic to a haunting expression of loss.
Using Illyana’s “Bamf” doll is such a heart-wrenching touch, with the art perfectly conveying the death of childhood, the death of innocence.
The issue closes with Jubilee telling us of Colossus’ return – tragically, the X-Men were out on a mission to Dallas at the time Illyana died, and Colossus wasn’t even at her side. As the Gold Team disembark, you see everybody realising what’s going on – Iceman’s shock (worse as he’s just launched a bad pun), Jean’s telepathic realisation, and even Bishop reading the situation. Colossus? He initially reacts with anger, believing nobody is looking after his sister, and it falls to Xavier to convey the grim news. Although Colossus’ reaction is centre-stage, I’ll never forget the expression Bennett renders on Charles Xavier’s face. It becomes a symbolic panel, with Xavier grief-stricken, reaching out to the one who, moments ago, he addressed as “son”.
Although nowadays Illyana has been restored, after a fashion, the reality is that this was an issue that truly transformed the X-Men’s landscape. Illyana’s death brought home the threat of the Legacy Virus as never before. Meanwhile, the very next issue, Colossus’ grief would lead him to one of the most shocking decisions of his life – when Magneto made an appearance at Illyana’s funeral, Colossus would take his side, joining with the Acolytes and abandoning #Xavier’s Dream. For Jubilee, this would begin a journey in which the X-Men realised she was a child, not yet ready for the sheer horror and pressure of the X-Men, and she was set on the path that would take her into the pages of Generation X.
Rarely has an emotional issue carried so much weight.