In theory, a character’s development path can be followed from start to finish. Take Oracle, for example. DC’s numerous Crisis revisions notwithstanding, an astute reader can point to the issue where she was introduced, became Batgirl, got shot by the Joker, was introduced as Oracle, so on and so-forth. She has been through a lot, but a reader, with the time and resources, can follow her entire story.
Of course, not all characters are so straightforward. Wolverine’s past was left overly vague to add intrigue to the character, and various creators over the years used that opening to shovel in pretty much any “cool” thing you could possibly think of, with the exception of surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator while water-skiing over a shark. Actually, I think Wolverine did survive a nuclear blast. My point is that leaving the past too open can cause problems with lining up a character’s back story to the point where terms like “memory implants” have to be thrown in to manage to fit it all in. Sure, you can tell the cool story but you have to eventually reveal that it was just made up.
And then there’s the odd case where a creator will take an existing character and decide that they want to change them. Sure, your character may have worked just fine for years, but now you really want them to be something different – a new character will all of the history of the old character. So you tweak and change them right there in front of the readers’ eyes. And that’s fine…until another creator comes along and tweaks the character a little bit more. And then a little bit more. And suddenly, this character is no longer identifiable as the one that had been around before, so someone decides that the changes have to have a blanket explanation to close the whole matter.
Confused yet? Let me introduce you to a friend of mine named Psylocke.
Elisabeth “Betsy” Braddock was introduced in Marvel’s line of British comics. Twin sister of established UK hero Captain Britain (so the Brits don’t get points for originality), Betsy was a supporting character for the hero, given the job of a professional model with somewhat vague psychic abilities. When Alan Moore got a hold of the franchise, Betsy became a spy for STRIKE and dyed her hair to its signature purple color. Later, she filled in for her brother as Captain Britain, which got her eyes gauged out by the villain Slaymaster (master of slaying, I assume).
That was the state she was in when her creator, legendary X-Scribe Chris Claremont, decided to bring her across the pond in an annual of his X-Men spinoff New Mutants. Kidnapped by the villain Mojo, Betsy was fitted with mechanical eyes that restored her sight but sent all that she saw back to Mojo for broadcast in his TV-based dimension. She was rescued by the New Mutants and decided to stay at Professor Xavier’s school, though she was confused by her position, as she was older than the New Mutants team, but lacked the experience of the X-Men.
That decision was made for her by the Mutant Massacre which saw Mr. Sinister and his Marauders decimate the underground society of Morlocks. Sabretooth attacked the school itself, forcing Psylocke to fight him off on her own before Wolverine arrived to make the save. With her trial by fire done, she happily joined the ranks of the X-Men. But Psylocke filled an unusual spot – she was a telepath who was not exactly trusted by her teammates. Unlike Professor X or Marvel Girl, Psylocke did not have the history with her teammates and had something of a shady past. Her vicious streak didn’t help either – she more than once offered the solution of killing a villain. To that point, untrustworthy telepaths – like the Hellfire Club’s Emma Frost or the corrupted Dark Phoenix – had been definitive villains. Psylocke was a new breed.
And that’s the way she stayed for years, through the X-Men’s entire Australian period (in which she donned a rather cool looking set of armor). When Claremont took the X-Men in a new direction in which he broke up the team and had the various members floating around the world, Psylocke was taken in a completely new direction. Before, she had been a shady British telepath – but apparently what Claremont wanted was a sexy Asian ninja telepath. So Psylocke ended up in the hands of the Mandarin, Lord Nyoirin and Matsu’o Tsurayaba of the Hand, who used Spiral’s abilities to manipulate the body to transform her into said sexy Asian ninja.
This made her an even shadier character to her teammates. While not completely trusted by her teammates before, Psylocke’s new form had them questioning whether she was even the same person. This was her theme until Claremont left the title just after the team was split into two groups, in which she ended up on Cyclops’s blue team. The character had been greatly changed, but much like the earlier example of Batgirl becoming Oracle, the whole thing made sense and could be followed. Sure, the X-Men had their doubts, but the readers themselves were aware of what had happened to Psylocke. Pity it wasn’t to last.
Under Fabian Nicieza’s writing watch, Psylocke was taken in a very odd direction. She had begun flirting with Cyclops, apparently to throw Jean Grey into confusion, then revealed the “truth” about herself, which was not revealed to readers. Then, out of nowhere, another Psylocke showed up with the appearance and costume of her former British form. This person told the X-Men that she was actually Psylocke and the Asian one had been an imposter in their ranks the entire time. With Professor X and Jean Grey’s telepathy and Wolverine’s senses unable to tell the two apart (other than one being Asian and one being British), the X-Men basically tossed their hands up and headed to Japan to kindly ask Lord Nyoirin to explain it to them.
At his estate, the X-Men found a painting of the Asian Psylocke labeled “Kwannon”, then got attacked by the Silver Samurai who conveniently knocked a hole into the wall where they discovered Lord Nyoirin’s diary which explained the whole mess to them, which Nyoirin then gladly repeated to them when he got around to checking on what all the noise was about. When Psylocke had turned up in Madripoor, as had been originally shown because of the Siege Perilous portal (one of the best-left-forgotten aspects of X-Men lore), she was discovered by Kwannon. When Kwannon touched her, the psychic abilities went wanky and the two were left with their minds merged. Basically, both Psylocke and the newly-dubbed “Revanche” were the same person, a merging of Betsy Braddock and Kwannon, in two bodies. All that stuff about Spiral and the Hand? Eh, forget about that. This is how it was left.
Obviously, this was not a welcome revelation for fans of Psylocke. True, now there were basically two of the exact same character, but neither
was actually the one fans had been following all this time. Another fix was needed, and Fabian Nicieza came up with a solution. The somewhat recent crossover X-Cutioner’s Song had left the mutant world with the Legacy Virus, which needed somewhat high-profile victims if it were to be taken seriously. Longtime X-Characters like Magik, Mastermind and Multiple Man were given the virus and quickly killed off. And there laid the easy out for the Psylocke mess. Revanche contracted the virus and took a couple issues to solve the whole Kwannon problem before calling it a life.
Deciding to die with dignity, Revanche ripped out her bionic eyes (remember them?) and left them for Psylocke before heading off to Japan, where she finally died. Psylocke went after her, leaving the eyes to be analyzed by Beast, which finally revealed the truth. When Psylocke appeared in Madripoor, Nyoirin had decided to get Spiral to switch the minds of Kwannon and Psylocke, trying to get a telepathic assassin out of Kwannon. But since Spiral was about as untrustworthy as they come, the process was pretty much botched, leaving both bodies and minds with fragments of the other. So the Asian Psylocke actually was Betsy Braddock, just with pieces of Kwannon stuck in for flavoring.
Matsu’o was reintroduced into the picture to explain the rest of the story. He and Kwannon had been lovers, but she was stuck in service as an assassin to Lord Nyoirin, who also lusted after her. She decided to kill herself rather than disgrace her name by breaking her oath to him, but even though she was saved, she was decently brain-dead. The process had restored her consciousness, but left her nearly amnesiac. The pieces of Betsy’s memories replaced her own, causing her to come to the X-Men seeking revenge. The Legacy Virus had amped her telepathy (as it originally increased mutant abilities until it burned the user out) restoring her true memories, which caused her to leave the X-Men. Before she died, she reunited with Matsu’o and gave him the truth in the form of a psychic message, which he then passed on to Psylocke, finally restoring her true mind and finally putting the whole Kwannon bit to rest.
The only thing left open was what the story and diary from Lord Nyoirin had been. With no other option, it was written off as “he was a lying asshole who lied to them”. Asshole or not, it was a stretch (putting it lightly) to believe that Nyoirin had taken the time to write a fake diary to explain the whole thing and then hide it hoping that the X-Men would just happen to get in a battle which put a hole in the wall in the exact place needed to find it. But Nyoirin wasn’t in any place to answer to that, as Matsu’o killed him for the trouble. Finally, Revanche was buried, Psylocke made her peace with Matsu’o and returned to the X-Men to begin shacking up with Archangel. Peace at last.
Or not quite. A while later, writer Scott Lobdell apparently decided that he had been left out of messing with Psylocke, so he took a turn at it. Sabretooth, captured by the X-Men for some time, managed to taunt X-Force member Boomer into freeing him from his shackles, but was stopped from tearing her apart by Psylocke. Hungry for a rematch from their years-old encounter, and believing that she had the kung fu skills to put up a fight, Psylocke decided not to summon the other dozen X-Men and instead took him on alone. It went about as badly as it could possibly have gone, as Sabretooth lived up to his reputation and left her a bloody mess.
Desperate to save his lover, Archangel accompanied Wolverine on a mystic quest to retrieve something called the ‘Mystic Dawn’ that apparently had the power to heal her. How this worked was not revealed, but instead used the cheesy romantic cliche that Psylocke had given Archangel a part of her soul through their love, which was plunged into the Dawn and somehow shot back to Psylocke herself and healed her. Or kept her alive. Or something. It left a mark above her eye (which artists often forgot to draw) and the vague statement that it may have changed her.
Unfortunately, no one really knew what to do with this new aspect of Psylocke. At first, it left her emotionless. Then, after a while of her and Archangel taking a leave of absence from the team, she began developing “shadow powers”. She would fade in and out of shadows to look mysterious, with still no real definition of what it meant. That became the ability to teleport through shadows, which was rarely used. Eventually, it seemed that the creators quit trying to define it, and Psylocke was again yanked from the team. She finally showed back up, back to her old personality, as the needed psychic in a battle with the Shadow King. This story was ended with Psylocke locking the villain in the astral plane with the totality of her abilities. Long story short, if she used her powers, the Shadow King would gain his freedom. That’s about as much of a write-off as a character can get.
Until, that is, Chris Claremont returned to the X-Men with his ill-fated “Six Month Gap”. The gist was that the storylines would jump six months ahead past the defeat of Apocalypse and the apparent death of Cyclops, and any changes would be explained at a later date. Of of these changes was the power-swap of Phoenix and Psylocke. Phoenix no longer had telekinesis, but stronger telepathy, while Psylocke no longer had telepathy, but now had telekinesis. Why this was done or what exactly caused it was never explained. Nor was it explained why Psylocke could still use her Psychic Knife. Explained (repeatedly) as the “focused totality of her psychic abilities”, being hit by a solid mind zap would basically fry the victim’s brain for a while. Being hit by a solid blade of telekinesis would, in theory, punch a sizable hole through the victim’s head. But now I’m just nit-picking.
This version of Psylocke didn’t stay around long as Claremont surprisingly killed her off via a sword to the gut from D-list villain Vargas in the second issue of X-Treme X-Men. It should be said that Psylocke has yet to prove her fighting prowess in one-on-one combat against a villain. As the legend goes, Claremont killed her off with the plan of restoring her to her British body, but was slapped down by the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada edict that in the Marvel Universe, dead was dead. But after Joss Whedon revived Colossus over in Astonishing X-Men some time later, Claremont took the opportunity to revive Psylocke.
But again, with the character’s return came changes. Revived by her reality-warping brother Jamie, Psylocke was now protected from any and all forces seeking to manipulate her mind or body. And with that, she also had ridiculously amped up telekinetic abilities, to the point where she could shatter a mountain with her mind. This was used for one lone story in Uncanny before the character was sent, along with Claremont, into relative obscurity over in the reality-hopping New Exiles. For the mainstream X-Men fan, Psylocke was once again gone.
When New Exiles ended, Uncanny writer Matt Fraction claimed Psylocke off of character waivers and brought her back into the fold. This time, a league of women X-Villains dug up Revanche’s body (groan), restored it, and put Psylocke’s mind back into it. Before you go and complain about this, it didn’t stick. The British body again died and Psylocke was restored to normal, albeit without the Crimson Dawn mark over her eye. With the change, creators scaled back her telekinetic bang and restored some of her telepathy. The character was almost usable again, but just one more thing had to be done.
Hoping to never have these problems again, writer Chris Yost took Psylocke out for a four issue mini-series in which she went to bury her original body once again. This time, she was attacked by assassins sent by Matsu’o who destroyed the British body completely (and with it any chance of a return of Revanche). One might think that this doesn’t make sense (which is also was Psylocke herself thought), but long story short, Psylocke decided that she was going to kill Matsu’o for this. This, actually, had been Matsu’o’s plan, as he was in pretty bad shape himself. Matsu’o had made the mistake of fatally poisoning Mariko Yashida, better known as the love of Wolverine’s life, forcing him to kill her himself rather than allow her to slowly and agonizingly succumb to the poison. In revenge, Wolverine visited Matsu’o regularly and sliced off a single part of his body. When Psylocke finally found him, he was missing his nose, an ear, his hands and feet, and had slices all over his body. Now physically unable to take his own life, he wanted Psylocke, in the body of the woman he once loved, to do it for him. After fighting off Wolverine, who wasn’t done with Matsu’o, Psylocke did as he wanted and finally killed him.
And with that, all of the mess that had been made of Psylocke had been put to rest. Nyoirin and Matsu’o, the men with ties to Kwannon, were dead. Psylocke no longer had the Crimson Dawn mess nor the overpowered ridiculousness of Chris Claremont. She was finally back with the X-Men, and she has been a featured character ever since. In fact, her original vicious streak is back in play starting next month as she has joined Wolverine’s new (and badly named) Uncanny X-Force.
So unlike most characters, Psylocke cannot be followed start to finish easily. Her history is riddled with mysteries, revamps, retcons and bad decisions, all laid out before the reader as they were happening. It’s best not to go looking into it (unless using this article as a guide to help) and just enjoy the fact that the X-Men have a sexy Asian ninja with ill-defined psychic powers and a British accent. Just don’t worry about the rest.