The Re-re-invention of Psylocke

Betsy Braddock reshapes herself into her original form

In 1989, Chris Claremont and Jim Lee did a thing to Betsy Braddock, aka Psylocke. The white, British, purple-haired model, turned agent, turned X-Man, sister of Captain Britain, stepped through the Siege Perilous and was discovered by the Hand, who reshaped her into a Japanese woman. In 1993 on the pages of X-Men, Fabian Nicieza and Andy Kubert introduced Kwannon, the woman whose body Psylocke inhabited thanks to genetic manipulations by Mojoverse minion, Spiral. Kwannon just wanted her body and life back the way it was, but the poor thing didn’t realize that she was just a plot point to be discarded. An Asian skin to be worn by a white woman and subsequently fetishized for decades. But for some people desperately seeking representation on the pages of the comics they loved, the Asian psyblade-wielding ninja was the only Betsy they knew and the one they had come to relate to.

Betsy Braddock steps over her former Asian body
Hunt for Wolverine: Mystery in Madripoor #4 (2018)

Now, Marvel is changing her back.

The reversion is on a lot of people’s minds for many reasons. We gathered up a few Psylocke fans to talk about Marvel’s problematic decision to reverse a problematic decision.

What was your first introduction to Betsy Braddock?

Paulina: After the X-Men: Apocalypse film cast was announced, I googled around a bit and started delving into Psylocke as a character since I saw that Olivia Munn had been cast. My initial thoughts were, “huh, the twin of Captain Britain is an Asian woman?” And then I learned more … and was just confused by it all. A white woman in the body of an Asian woman (although it’s more complicated than that) just left me feeling like, “Why Marvel, why do you do this.”

Wendy: I discovered Betsy during “The Fall of the Mutants” in the late ‘80s. I liked the way she seemed very delicate in her pink outfit and butterfly power signature, but she still had confidence and was great support for the team. I loved her best when the story shifted to the Outback (I loved everything about the Outback). She got armour and her confidence and leadership really blossomed. She wasn’t upfront on the battlefield, but not everyone on the team can or should be. Her abilities allowed her to connect the team and I thought that was such a great way to show how actual teams work.

Annie: I can’t recall exactly, but it was around the time of the X-Men #1 … thing. Rebranding? Change of editorial direction? Jim Lee and everyone else leaving to found Image? I was nine years old and didn’t have Google, so I didn’t know about any of that stuff, but Psylocke stood out to me among the huge cast of characters involved at that time, primarily because she wasn’t white. Later I learned about the Kwannon situation, and I’ve been permanently confused ever since.

The cover of X-Men #31, featuring Betsy as Psylocke, and Kwannon as Revanche, with Spiral looming in the background
X-Men #31 (1994)

Gwen: My first real introduction to Betsy was via the Rick Remender X-Force run. I’d gotten into comics late and spent a lot of time catching up on things after I read a bit more about her, including the Claremont stuff. She remained one of my favorite characters in X-Men though, if I’m honest, I haven’t been too terribly current on things post “Civil War II.”

How do you feel about the logic behind her original transformation from a white woman to an Asian woman?

Wendy: It’s really disappointing. Especially the concept that she wasn’t strong enough, both physically and with her mutant powers, so she needed to be ninja-fied. Why couldn’t she have just been taught how to fight like everyone else who got Danger Room training, instead of this convoluted theft of someone else’s body and Elektra’s aesthetic?

Paulina: I’m not a fan of the original logic, the idea that they wanted her for a “Lady Mandarin” thing is culturally confusing. Mandarin is Chinese, not Japanese, and it makes no sense in regards to the issue of the British in Hong Kong. If that’s what they wanted, create a character FROM Hong Kong. Also the endurance of her East-Asian aesthetics comes off as a lot more than “for funsies.” Having an East-Asian body does not mean you must dress in East-Asian aesthetics and while she doesn’t always, such as in more recent runs, the endurance of the “sexy-ninja” costume combined with Betsy’s (once she’s caucasian again) sentiment of not having fit in that body feels disjointed.

Psylocke, as the evil Lady Mandarin, holds a comatose Wolverine
Uncanny X-Men #257 (1990)

Annie: I think the Elektra thing is a fair cop here. Big Two creators are notorious for creating knockoffs of existing characters, even within the same studio. And Elektra has some complex cultural/racial things going on, seeing as she’s Greek, yet deeply associated with a bunch of Japanese assassins. When the idea was “Let’s put Betsy through this trying experience and then return her to her normal appearance,” I can see where that could’ve been alright. But as soon as it became, “She looks way sexier now, so we should keep it for a while longer,” that’s already creepy even before you get into the question of why making her Asian made her more attractive in the eyes of the creators and/or fans.

Gwen: I understand the metaphor that Claremont alluded to in articles regarding such, though the Lady Mandarin and confusion between Chinese versus Japanese culture is still a bit of a thing that definitely threw me for a loop. Still, it’s been done with other characters outside of Marvel even to make statements regarding racial tensions.

How do you feel about her recent reversion?

Paulina: It doesn’t seem to have been handled with the care that it should have been. A number of Asian and Asian-descent women have commented on Betsy Braddock/Psylocke’s position and what it means to them and it feels like the writers ignored the complexity of her status and plunged on ahead. There is meaning and metaphor in the body/swap/mind/meld that could be used to speak to the experiences of being an Asian Woman, or being a mixed race person, and/or being transracial/transnational and instead it ignores all of that. We get no discussion of how she felt about “passing” as Asian or why Betsy continued to wear East-Asian clothes even if she felt and KNEW she was not in fact not Asian. Once again the feeling is “Why Marvel, why do you do this?”.

Wendy: It feels like this is the role Scarlett Johansson has actually been waiting for -_- . And it’s even more suspect with Marvel refusing to address its own internal issues with a white EiC who masqueraded as a Japanese man.

Annie: My decades-long confusion only deepens. If they have brought Kwannon back, as well, and they really develop her as a separate character who’s dealing with having been body-snatched by Betsy for 30 years, there might be a way to pull this out of the fire. They’d need to do something pretty interesting with Kwannon and/or Betsy pretty soon, though, or the whole thing is going to feel like an apologia for Akira Yoshida.

Gwen: My problem with the reversion itself is that it comes during a period of time that we really need to have the diversity. The idea that it’s happening just now because of either editorial or creator control doesn’t justify the fact that someone who has come to stand as a strong female Asian lead in a time when people not just in the comic but entertainment industry should be more aptly portraying such is largely disappointing. Adding additional characters to such rosters like the Avengers did with Ami Han, who is Korean, doesn’t change that fact that they’re alienating a large portion of people who had emotionally connected with Betsy as such. In fact, a lot of emotional depth that developed between herself and Warren was written as an Asian female, thus bridging the gap in a metaphorical sense between the two races. It’s, like I said, somewhat disappointing and feels almost like backpedaling instead of progression, but I do understand that from the opposite side of that coin.

Where should Kwannon fit in this story?

Wendy: When Kwannon first appeared, I had hopes that this was going to be the story that switched them back, but they very quickly tossed that out the window by completely eliminating Kwannon. Last time I saw her, she was dead, but this is Marvel. Death is never the end and, according to Mystery in Madripoor #4, it isn’t. Kwannon’s character has been abused and wasted, but there is ample opportunity to give her justice and make her a whole human being that can live her life and can offer much better representation.

Paulina: From what I’ve learned about Kwannon, I think she deserves time to be a real character if they choose to resurrect her. If they do, I hope they go more off of the mind/meld/blending construction of the East-Asian Psylocke so that we can get some depth regarding the metaphorical and real implications of either sharing a mind or sharing a body with a white woman. She has to be part of the story or they make it worse.

Annie: I think she’s the key to all this. If she is really back, and if she comes away as a three-dimensional, well-developed character, there’s a lot that could be done there. Does she take up the Psylocke mantle, leaving Betsy to find a new role for herself? Does she swear vengeance on Betsy, even though the initial body-swap was unwilling on Betsy’s part? The interplay between their two stories could be really deep, exploring all kinds of issues about identity and legacy. But if Kwannon doesn’t wind up with her own stories to tell that have nothing to do with Betsy, or indeed if she’s not even back among the living, the whole thing is going to feel hollow to me.

Gwen: I was sort of hoping that it would be something that tied into Axis and the whole Heroes Reborn/Onslaught Reborn idea that there are separate pocket universes. When we see Bets in Uncanny Avengers pre-Civil War II, she seems to be on the side of “bad” guys so I was hoping perhaps there was a dual universe where Betsy was still in her body and they’d eventually face off. Especially after all the seeming confusion about her identity during the Sam Humphries Uncanny X-Force run.

Is there a creator/creative team you’d like to see tackle Psylocke and Kwannon’s story?

Paulina: I’m going to go with Sarah Kuhn and Ming Doyle as a creative team. After listening to Sarah Kuhn on an episode of Jay and Miles: X-Plain the X-Men, I think she’d be a great writer to have on the book. I think Ming Doyle would be cool as an artist to deal with the emotional weight of the issues in the character(s) and the not-quite-scientificness of Kwannon-Betsy blend could be done really well with her style.

Annie: I know Marjorie Liu gets brought up a lot in discussion of “which Asian woman should write X” in comics, but I think she really would be a good fit here. She’s been writing X-Men titles for a long time, and it’s in fact where she got her start in comics. In particular, she’s written a lot of Logan (the old Wolverine), Laura Kinney (the new Wolverine and formerly X-23), and Daken (Wolverine’s son). Those stories inhabit the grim, gritty X-Men world of shadowy government agencies, terrorist conspiracies, and assassins (a disproportionate number of whom are Japanese, it seems.) She has moved away from doing X-Men in recent years, and her work on Monstress with Sana Takeda is phenomenal. If she were to contemplate a return to Marvel (which, with CB-san at the helm, probably wouldn’t be a very friendly working environment), I think a book about Kwannon would be a great way to do it.

Gwen: I would LOVE to see Remender back writing Bets. As far as artists, possibly Adam Gorham or Juan Cabal. Adam’s risk taking as far as Magik’s more Yolandi look totally makes me feel like he’d do something new and innovative. I’d also love to see a Kevin Wada drawn Betsy.

In the conclusion of Mystery of Madripoor #4, Betsy speaks about being herself again, no longer manipulated by others to serve their means—a statement that has meaning beyond the panels of the comic. What Marvel plans to do with her and Kwannon in the future is left to be seen.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.

One thought on “The Re-re-invention of Psylocke

  1. Bringing Betsy’s original body back fixes half the problem. The other half is how they handle Kwannon which I don’t have much faith in due to Marvel’s poor history with Asian characters. You have the Hand whose Orientalist depiction was old even before the 80s, Sunfire walking around with the Japanese symbol of imperialism on his costume and white characters appropriating Asian cultures and aesthetics (Wolverine, Dr Strange, Daredevil, Stick, Iron Fist and, of course, Psylocke).

    Personally, I’d have used Secret Wars as a semi-reboot to retcon Betsy into being Japanese-British in one of the following ways:

    1) Betsy is Japanese but adopted by the Braddocks.

    2) Betsy is Brian’s stepsister.

    3) Betsy is Brian’s half sister sharing a father but having different moms.

Comments are closed.