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Wolfsbane, Reverend Craig and overcoming religious indoctrination and abuse

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Apr 7, 2019

The X-Men have been around since 1963, and over the last 46 years, hundreds of creators have worked to give us several spin-offs, countless crossovers, and many seemingly conflicting takes on any number of characters both major and minor. With all things big and small in the X-Universe, there is seldom a definitive stance on anything, and much of the series has served as a morality tale against things like abuse of power or being blinded by good intentions.

Though there are many positive portrayals of any number of different belief systems in the lives of our Merry Mutants, there are also a lot of takes that illustrate the dangers of organized religion when it becomes nothing more than a facade for bigotry to hide behind. Stories like God Loves, Man Kills served as a metaphor through which to call out some religious leaders in the U.S. for their intolerance.

Among these many tales, there is the story of Rahne Sinclair, better known as Wolfsbane, a young lycanthropic mutant whose religious upbringing left her with lifelong pain that she has yet to fully work through. Joining the New Mutants, she found a family, but she has still not been given the chance to recover from the upheaval of her early life.

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Wolfsbane by Bill Sienkewicz

Wolfsbane's Origins

Wolfsbane was created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod along with most of the rest of the New Mutants, making her first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4. That was in 1982, so she’s been hanging out in the Marvel Universe for close to 40 years now. As with most of the original New Mutants, she started strong and won hearts only to be written wildly inconsistently for the next few decades after the original series had run its course. In the beginning, the New Mutants were assembled by Professor Xavier, who seemed to truly want to teach them to protect themselves with their powers, while avoiding and discouraging the idea that they would ever become superheroes. Xavier had recently lost many of his students when he believed most of the X-Men were killed in Texas, and he was afraid to repeat his mistakes. Obviously, all this only drove the kids to dedicate themselves to becoming the X-Men they so admired.

We met Rahne Sinclair when she was 14 — the same age that Kitty Pryde had been in her early days as the X-Men, but the personality differences between the two of them are vast. While Kitty and many of her New Mutants peers struggled with varying levels of social awkwardness, Rahne was genuinely convinced that she was a demon from Hell who deserved a fate far worse than death. As such, she had a slightly more difficult time adjusting to life at the school than the others did. She was extremely timid and struggled to assert herself on a team of comparatively strong personalities.

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Uncanny X-Men #167, written by Chris Claremont, art by Paul Smith and Bob Wiacek, lettering by Tom Orzachowski

Rahne was raised by a man named Reverend Craig, who had a vaguely described encounter with a sex worker, during which time he fathered Rahne. When the woman died during childbirth, Craig was left as her sole guardian despite being the absolute worst choice for the job. There are a heck of a lot of questions and very few answers in that story, and the audience has no sense of what exactly happened with Rahne's mother, outside of a handful of lies told by Craig and what Rahne subsequently put together on her own.

Craig raised Rahne to hate herself, blaming her and her mother for his own actions. When her powers manifested, he quite literally assembled a torch-wielding mob to murder her. Rahne only barely escaped certain death when Xavier’s liaison Doctor Moira MacTaggert stepped in and saved the child, giving Craig a piece of her mind in the process. Moira shields the child and gives her sanctuary, snapping at Xavier’s reluctance to take her in until he agrees that he shall. Though Rahne lives in the States with Xavier, the scenes of her bonding with Moira and learning to let her guard down and love her as a mother after years of misery still provide some of the most moving moments of X-Men comics of the ‘80s.

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New Mutants #26, written by Chris Claremont, art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Glynis Oliver, lettering by Tom Orzechowski

Post-New Mutants

In the New Mutants, Rahne’s central struggles were her shyness and the way her harsh upbringing set her apart from the others. Overcoming religious indoctrination to build a happier life took center stage. After the New Mutants dissolved, most of the team reformed as X-Force, a much edgier series that replaced the deeply felt interpersonal tenderness of the New Mutants with action hero dialogue and bombastic fight scenes. For her part, Rahne had ended up enslaved and brainwashed on the mutant prison island Genosha along with the mutant Havok, and, together, the two of them chose to stay there and attempt to help the people of the island establish themselves after years of living in prison camps. During this time, she had formed an unintentional psychic bond with Havok which was not a two-way street, so when he left to join X-Factor, she followed, even though he rekindled his relationship with Polaris almost immediately and the shift caused her a great deal of pain.

Things were all over the place for Rahne after that. She lost and regained her powers more than once, she committed murder multiple times, she made some terrible and occasionally illegal relationship choices, and she attacked her teammates Rictor and Shatterstar when she discovered they were in a queer relationship with each other. She knocked Shatterstar out the window and later confessed to Rictor that she felt confident he was going to burn in Hell, thus throwing most of her character growth over the years out the window for the sake of making a fairly weak point on the complicated nature of spirituality. Besides all that, she had a baby that she temporarily abandoned, but when she tried to make amends, the boy was killed. I’m honestly not sure why writers like torturing Rahne as much as they seem to, but at this point, it’s kind of getting to be a little much, and for an X-Man, that’s saying a lot.

Once it was revealed that Craig was Rahne’s father, the constant comparisons between her and her mother took on an even more uncomfortable edge. For years, he would show up in the background of random scenes set in Scotland, ranting and raving about the burning hellfire that awaited all the people of the world, but especially Rahne. In Excalibur #93, Rahne happens across another young woman fleeing from Craig. Though it is not confirmed, it is strongly implied that this girl was also fathered by Craig, and he had likewise tortured her with his unforgiving theistic hatred. Finally, Rahne confronts Craig, and this is one major step forward for her. Unfortunately, it is forgotten going forward, and Rahne is quickly returned to her uncertain, troubled existence at the fringes of the Marvel universe.

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Excalibur #93, written by Warren Ellis, art by Casey Jones, Tom Simmons, Malibu Hughes, and Ariane Lenshoek, lettering by Comicraft

Somehow It Gets Worse?

In X-Force, Rahne is once more attacked by Craig, who kidnaps her to a base run by the villains dubiously known for calling themselves The Purifiers. Rahne is injected with heavy drugs and methodically brainwashed before even being shot by her father, who she fully devours while she’s in her wolf form.

Honestly, everything that has ever happened to Rahne is just about the worst thing we’ve ever read, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with time. It is our hope that the pending New Mutants movie gives Rahne at least a little bit of a break from being a never-ending Greek tragedy that is her life. The valid storytelling point of potential horrors of religion gone wrong aside, Rahne’s journey is so full of awfulness that it is beyond overwrought. The New Mutants overall are quite tragic, but Rahne is in a league of her own.

Wolfsbane is a complicated character. Reading her early days with the New Mutants is delightful, but it becomes gradually more agonizing as you realize what is to come for her. The hatred that Craig instilled in her mind has repeatedly formed an insurmountable block between her and a better life. Her fear and guilt are character-defining traits. She has made horrific choices that make her incredibly hard to like most of the time after 1990. Yet, she has been abused in ways that are difficult to fathom, and much of her early developmental period was nothing but an unending chain of nightmares. Though one hopes Rahne will be able to put the past behind her and find the sense of peace that has long eluded her, she has always been a strong example of the way that childhood trauma can create cycles that are difficult to break free of.

At any rate, it might be time to give poor Rahne a break. Writers can seem to take a little too much delight in portrayed her as a prudish hypocrite with an inability to control her animal instincts while forgetting what readers loved about the character: her naive, well-meaning innocence, her dedication to doing the right thing, and her struggle to overcome the negative influences over her in order to have a healthy spiritual life. She doesn't have to abandon her religion in order to come to terms with it, and maybe it'd be better if she didn't. We haven’t seen anything new from the tropes that are thrown at Wolfsbane in ages, and it prevents her from evolving into a more interesting character. Regardless of all the twists and turns she's taken, most of them for the worst, many readers can't forget the tragic, overwhelmed kid who was in way over her head from her early days on the New Mutants. A successful take on Rahne has to meld these many versions of her to honor her story.

As for Craig, we're just praying no one resurrects that guy.

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