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Forgive But Don’t Forget: Scarlet Witch & Shadow King Reborn in New Mutants #23 & Trial of Magneto #4

December 02, 2021

Today marks the release of New Mutants #23 and Trial of Magneto #4, two unrelated issues set in the Krakoa era of X-Men that share thematic DNA looking at the paths to reformation and self-acceptance for Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, and Amahl Farouk, aka the Shadow King. I’ll be exploring the parallels and differences in these well known characters journeys, and how current events are shaping where they might fit into mutantkind’s Krakoa and the Marvel Universe going forward.

* Spoilers Follow *

New Mutants #23

Writer: Vita Ayala

Artist: Rod Reis

Letters: Travis Lanham

Trial of Magneto #4

Writer: Leah Williams

Artist: Lucas Werneck and David Messina

Colors: Edgar Delgado

Letters: Clayton Cowles

At the center of these stories we’ll look at how far mutant forgiveness extends, and what accountability looks like for Scarlet Witch and Shadow King. I’ll start with New Mutants and Amahl Farouk, primarily because this run is one of the best New Mutants runs, and easily one of my favorite X-Men comics in 2021.

The Road to Redemption for a Shadow King Free Amahl Farouk

In this issue, The OG New Mutants are trapped in a looping astral hell of the Shadow King’s making, until the lost club reach out and connect. Ayala continues to make great use of mutant technologies, the only writer to really do so, and Rod Reis’ psychedelia is on another level, as this creative partnership continues to perform as one of the absolute best at Marvel this year.

Since inception in 1979’s Uncanny X-Men #117, Amahl Farouk and Shadow King have predominantly been seen as one and the same. Certainly in the earliest stages, I tied Farouk to Shadow King like you’d tie any Marvel character to their alias, Scott Summers is Cyclops, Kurt Wagner is Nightcrawler and on down the line. As time’s gone on though, we’ve seen Shadow King inhabit other human vessels, although the dark entity seems to always return to Farouk.

What Ayala started doing – literally from the first issue of their New Mutants run – is separate Farouk and the Shadow King, in so far as it can be done. And not only that, but Ayala and Reis’ vision is to show how the Shadow King entity preyed on a young and grieving Farouk. Empathy for the Shadow King, a being feeding on hate and rage, has rarely been in the cards, but empathy for a manipulated child? That’s not so hard.

New Mutants #23 is the culmination of that effort, with Farouk v King fully on display. These are competing owners of Farouk’s body on display, much like Legion and one his alters, or a character like Enchantress on the DC side. And it is decidedly different from traditional portrayals of the Shadow King / Farouk relationship, less symbioses and more overwhelming virus. After centuries of abuse, and stolen control, Farouk is ready to be free of the waning Shadow King.

Shadow King and Ahmal Farouk

One of the more impressive aspects of what’s happening here with Farouk is how Ayala is drawing parallels and trauma from past points in New Mutants comics history. So you have Illyana sharing how her experiences trapped with Belasco in Limbo both relate to Shadow King trapping and manipulating young mutants, and without realizing it, how Shadow King manipulated a young Amahl Farouk centuries ago. At the same time, Karma has experienced the most first hand damage from the Shadow King entity, and has to weigh that trauma and desire for revenge as the team learns of the existence of a separate Farouk entity that’s nothing more than a scared, trapped child.

There’s also a particularly nice moment of catharsis where the New Mutants are confronted with their greatest fears, Demon Bear, Shan’s family, James’ brother, Illyana’s demon form, and together assert “We are beyond this!” That’s the kind of momentum and breaking the rules that I want to see from X-Men comics in the Krakoa era. It’s both a victory chant, and an aspirational mantra for Amahl Farouk.

By the end of the issue Amahl finally comes to the same conclusion: “The truth is that I am the master of my own choices,” a quote very reminiscent of Legion’s “I Rule Me,” from Si Spurrier’s work on the character. The final moment is Farouk double over weeping and saying “I’m so sorry.”

The Krakoan for New Mutants #23 reads “What Is Deserved,” and it’s unquestionably one of the most challenging questions coming out of these issues. What do you do with an Amahl Farouk freed from the clutches of the Shadow King? Can Farouk even truly be freed?

This is not uncharted territory in X-Men Comics. The Dark Phoenix has pulled Jean Grey into the genocide of an alien civilization, and Cyclops into the patricide of Charles Xavier. In both cases, both characters have been allowed to slide back into their familiar heroic roles – quite literally leading the Superhero arm of mutantdom in the Gerry Duggan and Pepe Larraz X-Men – but not without scars, history, and guilt.

I don’t want to overstate the analogy, but it reminds me a lot of actions performed while under the influence, except here taken to literally cosmic levels of possession. Nonetheless, in this year’s excellent Midnight Mass on Netflix, Riley Flynn, an alcoholic guilty of murdering a woman while drunk driving, effectively denies that only his alcoholic self committed the crime: “That was me. I did it.” I think a similar mental hold *can* be asserted – at least at times – for the likes of Scott Summers and Jean Grey.

And now, of course, we can circle back to this line of thinking for Wanda Maximoff and Ahmaul Farouk.

The Three Wandas

Wanda Maximoff’s Perpetual Self-Acceptance Tour

Similar questions abound in Trial of Magneto #4, featuring the completion of Wanda Maximoff’s rebirth.

A la Avengers Disassembled, Wanda’s trauma is physically manifesting as threats to her friends, this time in the form of Kaiju attacking Krakoa. You have literalized Ghosts of Wanda past, present, and future needing to come together to make Wanda whole and stop the attacks on Krakoa and her family colleagues and friends. By issue’s end, Wanda brings together all of what makes her her and has accepted who she truly is.

Wanda’s move to acceptance as a form of rebirth (both literally manifested through her own magic and figuratively in an effort to move on from the character’s traumatized continuity) is frankly a harder sell than Farouk. Not because it’s the wrong approach, but because her journey is messier (you literally have to chart her appearances across decades, rather than a lead-in run to Trial of Magneto).

Also, and this one particularly stands out, other creators have tried this exact same path before. For my money, it’s relatively unclear why Wanda’s acceptance in Trial of Magneto is particularly different from attempts from Avengers vs. X-Men onward. What gives us confidence that this declaration that we’re ready to move on and let Scarlet Witch ascend will play out any differently?

Again, though, this doesn’t mean it’s the wrong outcome. For Wanda to move forward from Dark Wanda – from John Byrne’s West Coast to Avengers to Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled to House of M – you can either provide a path to moving forward from within or from without. And in the era of “The Great Pretender,” and a whole mutant culture built around demonizing her, acceptance from others is simply out of the question. Wanda can not earn this. It is impossible.

Still, we see Wanda striving for this in Empyre X-Men. Despite the warnings of Dr. Strange, Wanda takes it upon herself to magically undo the extinction of Genosha at the hands of Cassandra Nova’s sentinels. The process goes horribly wrong, resurrecting Genoshan mutants as zombies, which all kind of gets conveniently covered up due to the Cotati invasion during Empyre and their landing on Genosha. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure mutantkind is even aware Wanda tried and failed in this attempt, since her and Strange work to cover it up by Empyre: X-Men’s end.

Now, I think you could look at that and say, well if Wanda’s attempts at reconciliation *worked* maybe she could earn back favor and forgiveness, but we’ve seen this prove untrue in many other areas as well, through Avengers. Vs. X-men and Uncanny Avengers. There will always be justified mutant resentment for Decimation, that harm will always be too great, and regardless of the weight you put on blame between Wanda, Quicksilver, Doctor Doom, etc, Wanda will always be at the center. The lips mouthing “No More Mutants” will always run scarlet.

So yes, I think Leah Williams is right to turn inwards, to quote on quote deal with Wanda’s messy history through acceptance rather than denial, overwhelming guilt, or *audible gulps* more retcons. But I simultaneously think Krakoa is built to prevent Wanda’s self-acceptance from changing mutantdom’s attitude toward her.

Looking at how Krakoa works, too, you see that it is a nation quite literally founded on mutant forgiveness. House of X #5 welcomes all known longtime mutant villains to the island. Magneto, Mystique, Mister Sinister, Exodus, and Sebastian Shaw all sit on the ruling Quiet Council. It’s one of the biggest unbelievable power moves Hickman pulled in House/Powers, a change executed so flawlessly it sits without question, and you have characters like Harry Leland resurrected in today’s Marauders #26 brought to tears by it There are no good guys and bad guys in Krakoa, so long as you’re mutant.

Yet Wanda (yes no longer mutant Wanda) is VILLAFIED.

I’m struck too by how all the guilt and pain caused by Wanda and Farouk stems from long running comics continuity, rather than actions in their respective runs (although in the case of Farouk and the Shadow King, there is in fact the murder of Gabby Kinny, and at least some manipulation of Rahne Sinclair). These transformations, or progressions are only really possible when you factor in the combined weight of stories decades in the making, which is of course a huge part of why I love shared universe comics so much.

But over their histories, these characters have caused some serious pain. That doesn’t just go away. And while I haven’t been possessed by any elder demons recently, or created an alternate reality (I’m working on it!), I can certainly relate to guilt and pain you just can’t erase. Those moments in the middle of the night where suddenly you’re thinking about a mistake that tears you up inside. That’s what Wanda’s represented in all of us for years, and what Amahl Farouk now joins.

Consider too in the differences between Farouk and Maximoff, that Shadow King has *always* been a villain. Wanda is a literal Avenger. And yet it’s *Wanda’s* path to redemption that feels further out of reach, while Farouk’s redemption tour on Krakoa is already well under way; after all, he’s their on Krakoa in the first place despite long standing hatred between himself and Professor X and Storm among others. Plus, Farouk is essentially rescued by the New Mutants in an act of self sacrifice and empathy; the 5 make efforts to resurrect Wanda, but ultimately it’s The Great Pretender who must protect and restore herself. Wanda’s reformation is always in her own hands; Krakoa won’t save her, mutant or no.

At the end of these issues, Farouk – assuming he’s truly free of the Shadow King – is only now entering the cycle of guilt and accountability Wanda’s been trapped in for nearly three decades. The key difference here is Farouk may well have the support of a nation and culture to help him through it. Wanda’s path as a mutant was forsaken from the nation’s founding.

Of course, foundations crack, and with what we’re seeing in Inferno changes to leadership and mutant culture could be just around the corner. Could The Great Pretender be poised for a status quo shift to The Great Return home? Either way, Trial of Magneto is telling us Wanda won’t need that external validation to move on.

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