Everywhere Scars: Jace on Ixalan

What's left of Jace Beleren when you strip away all the memories?

Well, for one thing there's the nice robe. Or what used to be a nice robe, anyway. Jace admits to himself that it's "a bit much," in fact, upon taking a look at it for the first time in "Jace Alone". Stripped of his memories and marooned unexpectedly on Ixalan, Jace doesn't have a lot else to go on, but he quickly parses out from this robe that the robe is meant for colder climates than Ixalan — Ravnica, a plane he's made his home for many years now. Not that Jace knows that, or seemingly what a "plane" is. He's just got this record of his Ravnican tastes — clothes that are fine, if "a bit much," clothes that are part of a life of comfort Jace maintained through blackmail, then interplanar organized crime, then through becoming the living law code of an entire world via "shenanigans." One thing left of Jace is his clothes.

Jace parsing at least some of this out tells us another thing left over: Jace's actual personality. Losing access to his memories hasn't changed the way his brain assesses problems. Jace is an analytical thinker, good at puzzling out problems. That's not to say that he always uses that intellect or focuses on problems in productive ways, and much of Agents of Artifice is dedicated to Jace realizing that "schemer" isn't a life goal, but he's got, ultimately, a mind capable of both reconstructing parts of his history from his clothes, and of developing strategies for escaping a deserted island. Or, of course, strategies for besting a succession of other schemers.

Jace bears the marks, though, of times when he's failed to best his enemies, and that is the final thing that remains of him when all the memories are stripped away: his scars, or more broadly, his trauma.

Let's recap a little.

Liliana Vess
Jace lived for a while on Ravnica using his telepathy to keep himself in nice clothes through petty blackmail operations on Ravnica's nobility. Somewhere along the way, Tezzeret latched onto him and began training him as an apprentice, and Liliana Vess latched onto him as a love interest. Without attempting to recap all of Agents of Artifice, the basic gist that's important to understand here is that they both exploited Jace aggressively for their own ends — Tezzeret to maintain control of the cosmic organized crime ring, the Infinite Consortium, and Liliana to oust Tezzeret and deliver Jace into the clutches of Nicol Bolas in return for help with her demons.

Jace's physical scars come from this period. They were inflicted by Tezzeret to punish Jace for failure, using a magic-destroying mana knife. Jace's new art in Ixalan caused something of a stir among long time story fans, in fact, because for the first time we've gotten to see Jace partially topless, and by god they remembered to give him those scars! Apparently Jace can't remember their origin currently, but he retains them all the same.

He also retains more intangible things as well: ghosts of memories that give some interesting insight into his character. Jace's primary passive observers are Tamiyo, Ajani, and Lavinia. This makes some sense. Tamiyo is perhaps the character among them most like Jace — a documenter, scholar, and scientist. Does Jace compare himself to her? Lavinia's appearance is no surprise. After all, she must spend a lot of her time sternly watching Jace on Ravnica, waiting for him to do his actual job of keeping the whole plane from falling apart. As for Ajani, a character Jace has little direct interaction with . . .  Didn't Ajani warn Jace that challenging Bolas was a bad strategy? Yet, Jace and the rest of the Gatewatch barreled ahead heedless, even though Jace should have known better. Is Ajani silently judging him, or rather, is Jace conjuring Ajani to be his silent judge?

That's certainly the role Gideon plays in Jace's illusion play. Jace externalizes his own self doubt through Gideon. While there's probably some truth to the idea that Gideon is a little too self-assured for his own good, it's obvious that Jace is also (literally) projecting here. Disregarding Jace as utterly useless doesn't seem particularly in character for Gideon, but it certainly fits with Jace's own long term sense of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of success, and questing for validation.

Oh, and let's not forget, Jace associates Teysa Karlov with snares and traps. That seems like a pretty self-explanatory gag.

Liliana is a projection as well, to an extent, but one less about Jace's insecurities than about his traumas (though separating them out completely is probably impossible). Her mere apparition out of the corner of Jace's eye is enough to provoke anxiety spikes, and when manifesting fully she degrades, berates, mocks, and, most chillingly, leers at Jace. This is the Liliana that controlled and manipulated Jace all through Agents of Artifice, or at least an expression of Jace's buried trauma from that experience. Did you notice that "I dislike crocodiles" comes apparently as easy as a self-identifier to Jace as his own gender identity? Did you notice that the text, locked within his subjective point of view, describes Liliana as smiling like a crocodile? No doubt about it, Liliana eating Razaketh alive through the bodies of a hoard of zombie crocodiles must have made an impression on poor Jace, one that imprinted at a deeper level than mere conscious memory. That horrific association had plenty of existing fear and pain to latch onto.

It's with Liliana, I think, and with the scars Tezzeret inflicted that we see most clearly how trauma lingers outside of conscious memory, as something that transcends the mind and is inscribed in the body. It's the use of continuity here, the reliance on 8 years of Magic story, that helps us come to grips with what Jace carries with him even after losing his memory.

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm one of the ghastly, unpleasable, weird "grognards" who cares about continuity. If you look at many of the stories I've particularly enjoyed — this, Chandra's Kaladesh pieces, and "Release" most notably — it's pretty obvious that I gravitate toward continuity-heavy stories, or at least stories that are grounded in continuity. It's a Special Interest for me, and something that I get basic aesthetic pleasure from. So, seeing Jace catalog a variety of different experiences from the last eight years of Magic's history (nearly a third of Magic's total history, if you can believe it!) is just enjoyable on that level alone. Clip shows are usually pretty skippable when they come midway through each season, but a clip show after eight years is a lot of fun.

But what really makes continuity interesting in all of these stories is the work it does. For Chandra's Kaladesh stories, that means linking together Chandra's current story with aspects of her arc and her place within Magic's narrative dating back to The Purifying Fire, her whole trajectory of self-acceptance blazing across the storyline's history like a shooting star. For "Release" it means establishing that "actions have consequences," and there is a real, tangible, result that persists in the reality of Magic's setting when Planeswalkers "forget how big our feet are."

What "Jace Alone" brings to the table is the idea of continuity as compounded trauma. This isn't an idea original to me or to Magic. I've previously cited Phil Sandifer of Eruditorum Press's academic work on superhero origin stories, for example, which posits that the Origin Story is a trauma that is reinscribed within superhero continuity over and over, both through reminders for the readers and through reiterations (Batman and Spiderman most notably are constructed around the heroes failing to save loved ones). Agents of Artifice serves as a kind of origin story for Jace in this sense. Being abused and exploited by more powerful, more experienced, and older Planeswalker mentors has left literal marks on him, and it's telling that Jace's great hope on Ixalan is to define himself without someone else imposing his nature upon him.

Of course the first person he meets is Vraska, so, I expect that in proper superhero fashion Jace is about to have his Origin Trauma reinscribed in a big way. Oh well.

This is important, though, because it uses continuity, Jace's literal scars, and his illusion hallucinations to express an embodied reality to trauma. It makes sense, I think, to envision a fantasy scenario where Jace could have his conscious memory wiped and yet retain all these ghostly scars. Trauma does not sit solely in the memory but extends through the body. Stress builds up and breaks down. Reflexes, anxiety surges, and triggers may be precognitive, affective, and phenomenological, something felt before thought, and health problems that come with prolonged stress, that hot allostatic load, last beyond the removal of chronic stressors.

When you strip away all the memories from Jace Beleren you are still left with the body of the boy Jace Beleren and the deep cuts worn into it. And this is an important story to tell.

But you are also left with the clothes of Jace Beleren that his body knows, that are not exactly gaudy but a bit much, comfortable. You are also left with the mental hardware of Jace Beleren that lets him analyze and adapt and find solutions to his problems. You are also left with the desire to overcome that lasting embodied record of pain to become a Jace Beleren that is new and self-defined.

And this is also an important story to tell.

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