This is a story about a girl named Crystal.
Crystal of Marvel’s Inhumans is the luckiest girl in the world, and, occasionally, on the moon. She’s a creature of distilled privilege, and from that privilege comes safety, and from that safety comes boredom. Crystal of the Inhumans has been a character used in comic books since 1965, but her appearances have been far spottier than your average headliner. For the bulk of their history the Inhumans were the definition of “supporting cast,” the equivalent of the list of names all fitted on one screen after the stars’ have had their solo moment in an old Universal picture. The Inhumans weren’t in comics to be the story, they were there to allow it to happen to the Fantastic Four. In fact, as the legend says, the Inhumans only became a viable subject of the limited series spotlight because the X-Men were no longer fully controlled by Marvel Comics—having become more of a Fox screen venture. There were certainly more Inhumans comic books to be bought after 2000 (when there were seven sets or more, depending on how you count) than before (when there were two). Because of this it’s very possible to locate all of Crystal’s twentieth century appearances, and read them all in a month or so, to find out “what she’d been like.” That is what I did.
From her debut appearance, it’s clear that Crystal loves, more than anything in the world, enormous and catastrophic drama. Johnny Storm, out on a jaunt, finds her sitting in the street amongst several condemned blocks-Worth of rubble, and Johnny Storm, who has just been stood up by a regular date, is g-o-n-e, baby. As we meet her Crystal is a siren: her strawberry-tinted blonde hair is thick and smooth; her blue eyes set it off, which you can tell since she holds them so wide; and her dress, amidst this decay and disuse, is pristine white. Slippers to match. What’s a girl like you doing in a condemned lot like this? The truth turns out to be: endangering my entire family, because I’m bored indoors.
Looking at her canon Crystal has never in her life been physically endangered, because her power is too strong. She has dominion over “the elements,” which is to say that if there’s any fire, water, earth or air hanging around she can whomp you with it, or protect herself from anything though finely-tuned application of command. This latter point is something which develops over her years of appearances, and may be unfair to refer to during a first appearance—it depends how you feel about canon and chronology. But in that first appearance Crystal is on the run from a terrifying “Seeker,” as are her close family who all hide below the ground—and she has chosen to go and sit in the road.
A point about these early Stan-and-Jack days is they are clearly being written by the seat of the pants. This is another thing that makes analysis of her character “unfair” if you choose to take that perspective; did StanJack intend Crystal to be a goose who sits in the road when she’s on the run, in fear for her life? Yes, patently, they did. But did they intend her to be such a goose that she’ll invite a stranger she met on that road into the family hideout as soon as she thinks he’s “one of us”—an Inhuman—when the family are on the run and in fear for their lives from…an Inhuman… who is working… for the current Inhuman… King? I don’t believe her debut was written with this next-issue fact basis in mind. Nevertheless, subsequent issues establish that this is, in fact, what she did. Stories develop and inherently retcon themselves, but when they do it within five episodes it can hardly be called misleading to refer to the facts of #5 in discussion of #1.
Through a little in-and-out misunderstanding, the Fantastic Four and the Inhumans make a friendly alliance and see off both said Seeker and said king. Black Bolt takes his throne, and the Inhumans—about whom I’d say more, but that would mean frequent stops in this Crystalline journey for me to complain about poor management of established fact regarding their “backstory,” so I’ll refrain—go back to their hidden city in the Himalayas. Johnny and Crystal have decided they are passionately in love.
Here’s what I think about Crystal: she’s not very clever and she loves to be the center of attention. I think these are terrific attributes for a fictional character. Here’s a definite fact about Crystal: if there’s a blandly handsome man in charge of a group, she’s gonna put her hands on his chest, tilt her face up toward his, and beseech him. For what? Doesn’t matter. For something. Anything. Crystal is there.
When Crystal comes back into the publication spotlight it’s to join the Fantastic Four while Sue Richards is pregnant. She doesn’t do this like a normal person. She makes her own costume and just… turns up in it, expecting everyone to be like “Wow! Great kicks!” Johnny does not say wow, and neither does Ben Grimm; both resent her entitled assumption that replacing Sue is no biggie. So she asks Mister Fantastic. She does this with the least comfortable sentence formulation an all-American, 1960s buttoned-up man who’s just seen his wife give birth could hear… while wearing his wife’s clothes, touching his chest, and beseeching at him.
So Crystal is in the FF. Crystal and Johnny are in love. Things are this way for some time. Crystal is adept at using her powers, she’s absolutely fine in a fight, she likes it when things are happening. She likes being adored, she likes being a superheroine, she’s having a grand old time. She’s good at being a superheroine because, like I said: she’s absolutely never in real danger, because her power is absolutely unbeatable. She’s a princess running around with the common people, impressing them and being beloved.
But that gets boring, right? Happiness? It gets same-old same-old. Fantastic Four #105 starts with Crystal peeved at Johnny’s badgering (because he’s worried about her health, because she keeps fainting) and ends with her hopping back to Attilan. It turns out New York’s pollution is too much for her, because Attilan’s airs are so high-qual in comparison, and if she stays with the FF she’ll die. Fair enough—if you’re gonna die, you gotta go. It’s the arrangement of this issue that creates such a delightfully mean view of things (of Crystal): first she’s annoyed that Johnny’s worried about her. Then she does a big, dramatic, musical-worthy swoon in his arms. Then as soon as she hears she has a reason to go—to leave him, her live-in loverboy of some months—she’s into it, ready to hop off exactly then. And she does! Good night, Johnny-boy.
Despite being an experience-hungry princess of a restrictive and stoic society, despite being a woman character in 1960s and 1970s marvel, Crystal never really actually lacks agency. Reed Richards doesn’t call Black Bolt, all “Crystal needs to be picked up, please.” Crystal doesn’t try to stay with Johnny even though she’s ill. Crystal hears she’s being poisoned by New York’s pollution, calls her magic dog, and he takes her home because she’s decided to go.
I like reading Crystal, because I think everything she does is selfish. Every action she takes is to get her something that she wants: drama and change. I like reading Crystal because I don’t find Crystal likeable, at all.
As matters develop, Crystal as an Inhuman had the following destiny: to be waited upon hand and foot in a slave-based utopia as the Sister-in-Law of the King. She’s a member of a closed society that breathes better air than anyone else on earth and she is never, ever asked to have a job, or do a single actual task. Many of her people are visibly individualised through the nature of their superpowers, but she is a box-fresh, country club beauty queen—and has, as mentioned, powers that afford her an essentially godlike ease of existence. Other Inhumans have powers like “must regularly dunk self in water” and “hairy goat legs for big stamping,” or “weird protrusions instead of eyes which can clamp onto other people to look at their mental images,” that make them freaks both to the humans in the world outside of Attilan and to the ultimately anthropomorphic culture of physical individualism they reside in. Crystal is white America’s physical ideal. Crystal just has to think to command any or all of Empedocles’ four classical elements. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone with a less challenging existence than Crystal. Given this putty, there are two options for creation: 1) Superman, but raised in a palace, or 2) somebody with no sense of scale. Superman had already been done.
Crystal and Johnny don’t see each other for a while, but they’re still “together.” It’s a long-distance thing, but they’re steadies. There’s some tragedy, some yearning—it’s all very dishy. A romantic way to live; delish, tart tragedy cutting through the cloying nature of untroubledness. But that gets boring after a while, doesn’t it? It gets same-old, same-old.
By chance, Crystal finds an injured, dying man and takes him home with her to nurse. It’s something to do, right? What do we expect her to do, rest on her laurels? Enjoy her easy existence? The next time Johnny comes to visit—this time hoping to stay for good—he interrupts Crystal canoodling with her new boyfriend, Pietro, whose life currently revolves around her as his literal saviour, carer, and residency sponsor. This isn’t the first time Crystal’s dallied with another man while she’s with Johnny (she gave a newly smooth Ben Grimm a smooch in front of him, to his dismay), but it’s the first time she’s really cheated. She spends most of the issue saying she doesn’t know which boyfriend she wants to keep, while they both make it very clear they want to be the one, and chooses Pietro on the final page. New is better than safe, isn’t it? What an enjoyable scandal!
Pietro and Crystal marry, and Pietro is the first human allowed to integrate into the Inhumans society in, apparently, it’s entire history. They have a child, which later issues establish as an extreme privilege amongst Inhumans. Pietro is given a job and a social purpose, and is essentially granted the home that Earth societies have repeatedly denied him as (short version) a Romani orphan manipulated by a supervillain. He spends a lot of time training the militia he’s been charged with leading. Crystal gets bored. Pietro is not paying as much attention to her as before. Attilan is on the moon, now, by the way.
Crystal decides, apropos of nothing (I beg to differ: apropos of DRAMA), that she doesn’t want her unexpectedly human-normative baby to have superpowers. Pietro does, and attempts to override her wishes in accordance with his rights as a father in Inhuman society, which everyone else agrees with as well. That’s a ruckus Crystal can capitalise on: everyone’s against her! Crystal takes a trip to earth with her magic dog, and beseeches the Thing (with her hands on her chest) to interfere on her behalf. She gets her way. No reason is given for her preference for a powerless baby. Metatextually, it’s to create maximum drama—why not textually as well? Look at her, isn’t she good—with a powerless baby, and that exotic husband! How does she manage? Incredible. The people’s Princess.
During a Thanksgiving party at her sister-in-law’s house in New Jersey, on Earth, Crystal begins an affair. It’s not just at Wanda’s party—it’s also with her estate agent, and the only civilian who’s been really hospitable to Wanda (the Scarlet Witch) and her husband (the Vision) since they moved back to this powers-suspicious area after their first house burnt down. Norm thinks he and Crystal are in love, and that she’ll leave her husband for him. Crystal is not quite of that opinion. We have entered the Englehart years—where Crystal shines the brightest.
At Christmas, Wanda’s teenaged apprentice sees married Crystal kissing Norman the estate agent. At Mardi Gras, Crystal overdoses on the “potion” she takes to enable her to spend time in the dirty airs of earth. She’s been taking too much, because without it she can’t get any illicit estate agent sex. And what ELSE can she be EXPECTED to DO??? Her husband is at work and the nanny has the baby. Crystal needs something for Crystal. She experiences her overdose at her boyfriend’s house, and he is obliged to make up a fairly weak cover story in order to a) ruin Mardi Gras for everyone else and b) get Crystal back to a healthier Inhuman environment.
Back on the moon—Norm the cheater comes to the moon, because to everyone else he’s just Norm the estate agent who’s looking after Crystal for us—Crystal’s spirit refuses to come out of her potion-based coma. It’s not because she’s still poorly, it’s because she literally won’t wake up until everyone’s riveted. As her husband, believing her to be his faithful wife, begs her to awaken, she murmurs the name of her lover (of course!) and some affair-based buzzwords, making it clear she’s been maining a side dish. After some astral projection where Wanda convinces her that everyone—everyone, Crystal! Probably even god!—would rather she were alive and messy than dead and messy, Crystal does, generously, wake up. She and Pietro have a huge argument, and he tries to murder Norm. Everyone agrees that Pietro should just deal with it.
The puffy-sleeved princess dress Crystal wears as her “truest self-image” during the coma projection sequence is a delightful detail. What if Alexis Carrington wanted everyone to think she was a nice girl all the time? Crystal sends Norm back to earth saying she still wants to knock boots sometimes, and that she’ll call him. Crystal and Pietro are estranged, as Pietro cannot stomach immediate mandatory forgiveness.
Elsewhere, while they’re separated, Pietro goes mad. Crystal visits him in his prison cell—that’s what the Fantastic Four do with mad people, which is actually another way in which they share aspects with the Inhumans—to tell this mad person that even though Inhumans don’t believe in divorce, she’s going to live however she likes. If a person isn’t lucid, can you say you’ve really dumped them? From Crystal’s perspective, it’s a yes. She rejoins the FF. It’s been a year with no contact but she calls up Norm after all, who travels in from New Jersey… to dump her. He doesn’t trust her being around her old flame, Johnny Storm. He’s had some time to think about her, and what she’s like, and how he knew her. He’d rather not risk it again. Norm leaves, unfortunately, forever. Crystal thinks for a minute, and, huh, how about that? Tries to start an affair with Johnny Storm—who’s married, at this time (to Ben Grimm’s ex-steady, Alicia who turns out to be a skrull impersonator later, but that’s another story). Johnny rejects Crystal in the name of matrimony and though Crystal is still in it to win it she’s called home, and figures out that staying in order to get Johnny won’t mean much if Johnny leaves the team she’s stuck with because he’s scared of cheating on his wife. Back to Attilan she goes.
Pietro stops being mad, which was probably a symptom of being mind-controlled by Maximus the Mad, Black Bolt’s brother, who regularly tries to ruin everybody’s life and is never really given any more thought than “put this mad guy with evil brain powers in a prison cell, and let him do his schemes from there.” The Inhumans at large are an awful, dreadful, shoddy piece of creation. Anyway—Pietro’s not mad any more, and now he wants to reunite with Crystal, which is handy because (as stated) the Inhumans do not believe in divorce.
Crystal joins the Avengers. She just turns up all “I want to join! So I’m in, right?”, which is really very Crystal of her. She does not touch Captain America on the chest or beseech him—Bob Harras doesn’t really know how to tell a dishy story, even though he knows how to basically mimic the silhouette of other people’s. In her first appearance with this team she tells everyone she probably only cheated on Pietro because she too was being influenced by Maximus the meddler, and she’s here because she wants to find out who she really is. It’s disagreeable, a poor idea, because fault-free sinning is neither dramatic nor satisfying, and lengthy reads being gutted by the “reveal” that nothing in them was either relevant or resonant makes them a retrospective waste of time. Did Harras and Englehart have beef?
This opening sally of Crystal’s rehabilitation becomes funny when she cheats again, under her own definite steam, but it isn’t worth reading. This period (1991-1995) is devoid of fun or charm, there’s no lightness or dazzle to the writing or visuals and much less agency and skill afforded to Crystal and her powers. Metatextually one can make it work; her nonsense has got a little old, things are more tawdry simply through buildup. But in actual fact most of the “events” of this period are off-page until their expositional recap on it. If you’ve heard the writing advice “Show, don’t tell!” and you’ve wondered why it could be useful—Avengers, ‘91-’94. During this time Pietro is appearing in another book, X-Factor, another government-accredited superhero team. They attempt reconciliation, this husband and wife, but then Crystal gets distracted because oooh the Black Knight is really kind of a hunk, huh? And he goes for the oh-poor-me Crystal—my husband! I have a baby! I have my own petulant desires! Should I beseech you??—like a fly to honey. Wow! They kiss. It’s duller than it sounds.
By the end of her first decade of publication, Crystal and Pietro’s daughter, Luna, is not yet on full sentences but has had at least three different king-appointed live-in nannies. Do you feel like Crystal just doesn’t get on with them? Do you think it means something that the one she seems to like is the overtly judgemental one who makes life miserable for the person otherwise running the house they live in? God, that would be worth reading. I want to read a story about a messy bitch who loves drama. I want that in Avengers because if that isn’t what Crystal is, she’s nothing. That is what and who Crystal is. Except here. Where she’s nothing!
From her debut, Crystal was only ever written from the outside, as an observed object, by men. Originally these men were the type to want to marry Crystal. Then John Byrne and Steve Englehart, who respectively wrote Crystal’s appearance in The Thing #3 (Not my baby!) and the Norm and married-Johnny soap opera years, seem like two flavours of the type to personally steer well clear of what they—I really mean he, Stan Lee—wrote into being: a Marilyn bit without that Monroe sparkle. In essence, in effect, Crystal’s narrative purpose was being “a girlfriend”—a good one when some men wrote her, a bad one when others did. Crystal in debut was a Stan The Ladies’ Man template girl pumped up to be the miracle that could make handsome, sporty, dates-every-night teen-ager Johnny Storm fall calamitously in monogamy. An air-head who makes decisions, a pretty bit who’s already changed her mind before you can get bored with her. Crystal is Daisy Buchanan’s ideal daughter, a beautiful little fool with some tempestuousness for spice, and from her own internal perspective—let’s think creatively, as people who can relate to girls—that has to be either on purpose, with some breed of conscious naivety, or she’s empty. If she’s empty, she’s a tragedy, tossed about with no way to amuse herself and nothing to reflect upon. That’s a tragedy that’s also boring—there have to be intentions in play for a character to have meaning or presence. BEING BORING IS A LITERARY CRIME! It’s also a literary mistake: there’s no such thing as a beautiful little fool, and that’s the point of Daisy’s dream. She wants a daughter with an interior life so non-existent she could weather this world unendangered. Crystal can’t be empty; she has to be consciously naive. If we want to believe in Crystal as a person, Crystal has to have some sense of her melodrama, and the only way she can have that and be fun to read is if she’s absolutely awful. She’s a goodie, sure. But she’s unpleasant. She’s a girlfriend by nature, but she’s a person who needs to be a girlfriend. Actualising to these is a good creative decision, and few writers have made it.
Dane and Crystal’s flaccid affair ends when he leaves the entire Marvel universe for Malibu’s to get away from their sordid entanglement. He actually steps out of this plane of reality as a choice easier than breaking up with her. Crystal and Pietro achieve some family togetherness, as there’s nothing else really on her plate at this time. And after not too long, Crystal is one of several superheroes who sacrifice their lives to defeat a supervillain.
In fact, she does not die, but returns to earth having spent some time in an alternate reality (Heroes Reborn… Better left forgotten) where Pietro never existed and she once again struck up a relationship with Johnny Storm, leaving her “unsure” of her feelings, again. During an attempted reunion with Pietro, who has been a widower raising Luna with the help of his own nanny (a cow woman; don’t even ask), Crystal also reunites with Dane the Black Knight, back from wherever, and promises him they will “speak” about their “relationship” later even as she leaves with her husband. This causes Dane to invade the castle Pietro and Luna, and now Crystal, live in—an action which Crystal defends as Pietro demands he leave. Crystal decides she can’t choose which one she likes best, the invader or the invaded, and takes her (her~) daughter back to Attilan (which is either on the moon, or not. Does it matter a lot? I just don’t care.)
While Pietro and Crystal are together in Attilan due to editorial presumably forgetting, or someone not checking, who was where and when, Pietro goes mad due to being mind-controlled by, guess who!! That guy with proximity-enabled mind control powers and infectious madness they keep in an open prison cell in the city centre. Because of this Pietro acts poorly, what a shocker, and is put in his very own madman prison cell where once again Crystal says some vaguely dramatic things about him being bad and their relationship being tenuous. Eventually everyone’s like “Oh, the mad mind control guy did it! Again,” and they let Pietro go. Crystal is displeased with Pietro for being uncomfortable around her royal peers who constantly let him get mind controlled into humiliating himself amongst people he’s innately humiliated by (Inhuman attitudes towards Pietro are not at all stable, book to book, but being the cucked import husband of a family who has a lot of ritualised day to day life you’re supposed to seamlessly take part in can be understood to be a chore on the ego even when one comes from a secure and reliable home life) and she doesn’t want him to take care of the people he has responsibilities for. By my estimate Crystal’s soul is best expressed in the immortal words of Birb Rights: I am uncomfortable when we are not about me?
After M-Day, Pietro loses his mutant power and in his grief and guilt for having contributed to that loss for others, commits suicide. He fails and is taken back to Attilan (it’s on the moon) to be nursed, again. He steals some of their secret natural mutation crystals, which is pretty bad. He also catches Crystal accepting the flirtations of a sexy gardener. He accuses her of having affairs. She acts offended for some reason. He indicates the flower the sexy gardener put in her hair. She has no argument, but is cross anyway. Pietro is confined to his room, and not allowed out without a chaperone, which Crystal tells him without much kindness. Without any, really.
Pietro is a bad husband and a regular anti-social phenomenon; this goes without argument. Nevertheless, reading their history in chronological order makes Crystal seem a disaster that happened to him in slow motion. He loves her, he wants to be with her; he has massive and obvious insecurities and poor impulse control. But she just wants a pet, to never trouble her, and failing that someone to affect. Her privilege on every face makes her yearn for a whipping boy. Because she’s a character less central to the Marvel Universe than Pietro, also known as Quicksilver, who was an X-Men villain before he was an Avenger and the son of Magneto, she’s liable to show up simply because of her association with him—the perpetual girlfriend—and when she does it means misery.
Crystal debuted as a plus-one and that status defined her direction. Because Pietro is usually making the wrong decision, Crystal is usually there to make whatever bad situation he’s in worse for him. An emotional vulture is, I reiterate, a good character (not a “good person”) who adds motion to your storytelling ocean. Somebody who can do whatever she likes, go wherever she wants, at literally any moment in time, but who chooses only to insinuate herself into situations through romance, intimacy and scandal, is somebody to explore. That’s money in the bank!
Crystal is the sort of person who can say “If you had a child, you would understand” to her sister, who had a child she wanted so much she accepted exile in order to avoid court-mandated abortion (Ann Nocenti, as if you couldn’t guess), and whose continued life has brought various tragedies (the baby is either mad, or evil, or etc). Crystal is the sort of person who gets the mouth-twisting kind of angry when her husband says “I will not be humiliated by your affairs!” after she’s had two affairs and tried to have a couple more. This Crystal of my vision—the Crystal I see on the page to begin with, and as potential thereafter—is fantastic. I want to read about a horrible person! I don’t want to read about someone who exists in a world without any moral weight, where actions have no relevance.
The beauty of Crystal being an Inhuman, the worst “team” in Marvel, is that they are not a team and by being “of” them she is not a superhero. The Inhumans are a people. The royals are a royal family, not a superhero group. They are the most important people. They are in charge. They have no moral superiority at all because they don’t need it to be royal—they are just a bunch of aristocrats! They “should” be good, by a basic and idealistic metric, but they aren’t, and nothing about their designation obliges them to aspire to goodness. They’re born rulers who rule because they rule, not people who discovered great power and knew they’d better use it with great responsibility. Superheroes are supposed to strive, that’s the silent bargain their titles make with the readership. “These superheroes are going to strive to be morally upward”—the ones who subvert that as their draw can only do so because the bargain is implicit in the first place. But royals are just Royal. They’re better than you because they are so decreed, not because they have to behave like it. Crystal can join a super team, and the team as a composite whole can be obliged to be on the side of good, but she’s an Inhuman first. That’s not a good thing to be! The Inhumans had a gigantic monument erected to their collective subconscious guilt about creating and using a slave class, the Alpha Primitives, but they forgot about it and started using them again. While they were free Crystal became the fated queen of the actually-noble Alpha Primitives, and immediately abandoned them, and the next time they’re mentioned they’re working night shifts in the dark.
Crystal stands out from her peers because she wants to be allowed to break the rules of the Inhuman society, but Crystal does not want to change the rules of the Inhuman society. She wants to have both. One rule for me, and ten for you. That’s good narrative. She’s not subject to the requirements of a superhero narrative—so her presence within one creates extra dimension. (This is both an argument for a textually compromised Crystal and against the Inhumans as worthy headliners.)
Until this point, 2006, where Inhuman presence became too regular and scattered to track simply, and did not get enticing enough to reward the effort, nothing Crystal has said or done has made my vision incompatible with her actions on the page. It’s not the vision I’m supposed to hold; I’m supposed to see what the writer of the moment wants to project, and that changes with the tone of the house and the needs of the “larger story” but has increasingly, distastefully, become “a Strong Female Character” and “the new Kitty Pryde.” Good grief! These modes don’t suit her, and they don’t interest me, and it’s a tragedy of the Marvel archive that Crystal is especially prone to such repurposing because the Inhumans were always such ringers—it’s often clear that only the barest flick through prior or previous issues have been taken by whoever is writing today’s issue. Incongruities and inconsistencies are regular, and because of this her history as it stands now is irritating to read. It’s not a good experience to be the audience for something disjointed and lazy, or without congruent tension. In essential terms, Crystal didn’t matter to the marvel universe during the twentieth century, because she was primarily a girlfriend and/or a wife. Now that she’s been deemed relevant those aspects of her are considered unworthy—or unfeminist?— or just left unconsidered. It’s necessary to impose your own understanding of the text, whether by reconciling then and now through personal creative work or slicing off everything past a certain point, as is my preference, because there’s been no one defining captain at the wheel. When it became necessary to foreground her group as Can’t Believe It’s Not X! the interest of the editorial position was in defining a heroine—a superheroine. Not using Crystal as she was, or to her best effect.