By Steve Morris
You know how Mystique is one of the coldest, most independent and self-possessed characters in comics history, let alone within the X-Men franchise? Across the decades only a few characters have been able to wade through comics continuity and come out with a fresh and sharp edge still intact, and Raven Darkholme should surely be counted amongst them. She’s a shapeshifter, yes, but that’s only been an aspect of her character, and she’s not got an ironic “I don’t know who I am!” sort of psychological profile either. The core of the character is her self-belief and strength, which had led her to do all kinds of amazing and horrifying things across her steady career as a primary villain/antihero for the X-Men franchise as a whole.
Mystique was in love with a mutant called Destiny, who had the ability to see into the future and predict what would happen. In life she was a rock for Mystique, and in death Destiny’s journals and diaries became the only way forward for her. She had other relationships and got tangled up in other stories – but ahead of anything else, Mystique always held those diaries close to her, because that was the fate and path she wanted to follow. It’s always been that way, really, and X-Men comics have usually been pretty good about sticking to that path when developing and exploring her character.
But then there’s The Draco.
The whole thing starts off with a single prologue issue drawn by, can you even believe, Sean Phillips. Philiips is all around the X-Men books at this time, although he’s not close to what you’d consider his refined style seen today. It looks as though he’s using reference, but the inking is a lot heavier and it reduces the naturalism of some of the poses. His expressions are also a little extreme – but that was true of many artists around the time, and was almost part of Marvel’s house style. When it comes to The Draco, we have to cherish an in-development Sean Phillips, because what’s coming round the corner is going to be a steep artistic decline.
The prologue, called “How Did I Get Here?”, is set in the past, during a time when Mystique had apparently married an old rich German feller in order to get hold of his castle. Erm, perhaps. She might actually love him. Chuck Austen’s writing style is to take an idea, run with it to an extreme, and never pull back to explore the idea or develop its foundations. What we get as a result is a comic where we frequently get something thrown at us without being fully-formed as a concept, but in addition no explanation around it or interest in working out the practicalities of the emotional stakes. Choices are made and you have to go with them.
When it’s a choice that works, everything’s sort of fine and only strange in hindsight. When the choice is a bad one – as with the choice of characterisation for ‘past’ Mystique here – as a reader you’re immediately thrown off and spent the rest of your time reading through in mystified confusion how any of this ever got approved. However, the headstrong writing style also means one thing: at least you’re never going to be bored. The Draco is bonkers.
Here we find a Mystique who is seemingly happily married, and certainly at least sleeping with her husband, but also spends her spare time taking on the appearance of staff members so she can sleep with hot stable boys. She gets the men she wants, then breaks out into maniacal, terrifying laughter when she hears the aftermath, when the stable boys find that the women they thought they were sleeping with have no idea who they are.
But she’s also trying to have kids with her husband, whose surname she has taken – making her name “Raven Wagner”. In a very confusing sequence, it seems that she is not able to have kids, but is trying to have kids the usual way and through in vitro fertilisation… but also may have once made it so she can’t have kids at all. And her husband may be infertile. It’s incomprehensible what Mystique actually wants. Austen never explains why she’s married this man – is it for the money, does she genuinely like him? – and so we can’t get a read on why anything that happens here is happening.
When she then meets a handsome count called “Herr Azazel” at one of her husband’s parties, then, it’s hard to tell if she’s torn about cheating or if she’s completely into it right from the start. When Azazel brazenly tells her that he can give her children, we haven’t been set up to know whether this is actually something Mystique really wants. She doesn’t have any agency of her own here. It’s not the Mystique we know. Everything is taken from her and given to the men around her, including the “Mystique” codename itself, which this story puts in Azazel’s mouth.
The story races through this whole courtship, instead keeping in all the parts where he’s openly abusive and negligent towards her and removing any part where he shows kindness or compassion or anything remotely romantic. The seduction scene, such as it is, revolves around Azazel demanding that Mystique tell him how badly she wants him and how important he is. They meet in a church where he demands that she strip for him. This comes off as really off-putting to start with, and is almost alleviated by the reveal that he means for Mystique strip away her human form and reveal her mutant form to him. That almost works, but throughout we have to remember that Mystique is almost a passenger in her own body by this point.
Azazel doesn’t reveal his true identity – oh, just so you know, he’s a demon from hell – until the next morning, just after Mystique runs to a waterfall and yells “I AM IN LOVE!” at nobody in particular. He’s obviously been stalking her. She says that she’s pregnant, he laughs at her, this is classic Max Landis-style “negging” abuse tactics. Azazel vanishes, leaving the bizarrely presented Mystique as ruined. Her husband doesn’t believe that the child is his, so Mystique kills him and buries the body before crying herself to sleep. She gives birth and the child has blue skin like her, so she is declared a “demoness” and thrown out the castle.
The final page has her running away with the baby (Nightcrawler, in case you didn’t know) back to her waterfall. She says she was happy and powerful before, and now has nothing, and throws the baby over the falls. Erm. Her takeaway? “Why couldn’t you love me, Azazel?”.
Now I’m all for fleshed out flaws and weaknesses in characters, but the whole storyline seems to have chosen the completely wrong woman for this narrative. If a random new character had been brought in, you could sort of piece this together and make it work. But using a character with legacy, character and personality like Mystique only serves to weaken everything involved: she comes off as ineffectual, Azazel comes off unrealised and rushed, and Nightcrawler’s birth is an afterthought despite being the clear finale of the story right from the start. The Draco is going to give all three a lot more panel time across the next few issues, but at no point does it make things any clearer than in this prologue: in other words, we’ve been thrown off the waterfall, and it’s all downhill from here.
Uncanny X-Men #428: The Draco: Prelude
Written by Chuck Austen
Pencilled by Sean Phillips
Coloured by Avalon Studios
Lettered by Rus Wooton
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.