Polaris: Psychology, Power, and Personhood – Uncanny X-Men #49-50 by Katie Liggera

A lot of discourse surrounding the X-Men and mutants in Marvel Comics focuses on metaphor. A less nuanced element in X-Men comics revolves around characters who struggle with mental health issues. In writing, approaching topics like trauma, psychological afflictions, or any other facet of psychology needs to be handled with extreme sensitivity. Sadly, many writers either lack a basic understanding of individuals who actually deal with disorders and mental illness, or their depictions of characters with these afflictions appear erroneous. 

Mental health is a subject that I feel deeply and passionately about. My desire to learn more about psychology and sociology stemmed from several college courses I took over the last few years. I took a class called Sociology of Murder last summer, and it completely changed my perception of aberrant behavior. Since the topics of murder and genocide also surface in X-Men (a comic book series I have only skimmed the surface of reading) I am fascinated by their representation in the expansive X-Men history. As a general disclaimer, I want to put forth the knowledge that, in no way am I an expert in psychology– or the X-Men. In an effort to broaden my knowledge in both of these subjects, I have decided to research and analyze the portrayal of mental illness in the character of Lorna Dane — most popularly known as Polaris. 

I’ve never read any Polaris-centric X-Men comics until now, so this experience will be a combination of discovery and extensive research. Lorna Dane has a complicated origin story, as her relationship with Magneto has changed back and forth several times since her inception. Unsure where to begin, I consulted the trusty internet for some background information about Polaris and found some reading orders. I decided to read the original Lorna Dane appearance and arc from X-Men #49-52 (1968-69) (also titled Uncanny X-Men, beginning in 1963). This short, four-issue origin story doesn’t provide much information and is contradicted by later issues in the run. Nevertheless, there’s definitely enough material to start considering Lorna Dane in terms of analyzing a character with mental health disorders. 

X-Men #49-52 first establishes Lorna as a character. Interestingly, Lorna is not actually given the code name “Polaris” in these issues. From what I understand, Lorna first starts using the Polaris handle in X-Men #97. Because of that distinction, this assessment will refer to Lorna simply by her given name — Lorna Dane.  I’ll start by discussing the first two issues (#49-50) in this initial four issue arc, while my next article will cohesively pair with this first one.

Right away, I noticed startling issues in Lorna’s mental health– from both a psychoanalytical and sociocultural perspective. I’ll briefly describe Lorna’s role in the storyline along with my analysis/observations for context. Again, these are just my thoughts and opinions as an observer and avid fan of psychology and X-Men! 

If there are any misconceptions or ignorance found in this article, I hold myself fully accountable. This exploration is meant as entertainment and a personal learning journey for myself, and anyone who would like to join me! 

Also, this is an analysis of these two X-Men issues only (seeing as how Lorna’s storyline and character traits are either explained and/or changed in future issues).

X-Men #49
Writer: Arnold Drake
Pencilers: Don Heck & Werner Roth
Inker: John Tartaglione
Letterer: Herb Cooper
Editor: Stan Lee

X-Men #50
Writer: Arnold Drake
Penciler: Jim Steranko
Inker: John Tartaglione
Letterer: Herb Cooper
Editor: Stan Lee

In X-Men #49, Bobby Drake (Iceman) discovers Lorna Dane after Mesmero unleashes a “psyche-generator” upon mutants in North America. Mesmero plans to draw mutant pre-potentials toward him in San Francisco. He plans to awaken mutants with the inactive X-Gene, otherwise known as latent powers. Professor Charles Xavier senses the effects of Mesmero’s device. With the help of Cerebro, Bobby finally locates a disoriented Lorna Dane in San Francisco. Lorna accidentally slips on ice left behind by good old Iceman. He catches her, helping jolt Lorna out of her frozen (pun not intended) reverie. Bobby, like the helpful guy he is, instantly offers room and sustenance for the confused Lorna.

Although Bobby is clearly kind-hearted in his intentions, Lorna’s dialogue here raises a red flag. This is our first introduction to Lorna in the entirety of X-Men history, so this interpretation can be taken lightly. Regardless, I feel it’s important to note that Lorna willingly leaves with a random man off the street while also admitting that she can’t refuse his offer, even if she “wanted to.” Mesmero’s machine obviously altered her memories and mind. Her condition proves a direct result of the “psyche-generator” and Mesmero’s sinister plans. I’d still like to take this dialogue into account because of its implications. Not knowing anything about Lorna as a character up until this exact instance, we can infer that Lorna’s latent powers have had little to no effect on her personality. She’s obviously dependent in a time of mental distress, as anyone would be. But what’s bothersome (and a similar issue surfaces again soon), is the extent of her dependence on a total stranger for help. Would her first instinct not be to find a hospital, as opposed to saying yes to a seemingly well-intentioned man? Mine would be, anyway.

I also must account for the year in which this was written (1968). Maybe times were different back then, but if I found myself indescribably stuck in a city 1200 miles away, I would fear a guy off the street who has offered absolutely zero information about himself or his “pad” close by. This is more of an observation than a critical analysis on a miniscule instance in the scope of Lorna’s story. But I can’t help but wonder about Lorna’s mental state and history with trauma here, even before receiving her mutant powers. Her readiness to trust a stranger while she’s in mental flux may speak to more authorial interpretation of women and not Lorna’s character herself. Obviously, dialogue and story pacing moves along quickly in the comic medium. I’m probably overanalyzing a facilitating factor in progressing the story, but this scene creeps me out — especially as a woman. Don’t go to random guys’ houses if you hit your head, ladies. Seriously.

After Bobby brings Lorna to the mutant apartment to rest (thank god Bobby’s not a serial murderer, Lorna), Hank detects a mutant energy impulse from inside the apartment. Hank quickly deduces that Lorna is the latent mutant they’ve frantically been searching for, but not before he discovers that Lorna . . . dyes her green hair! Her popular green hair color distinguishes Lorna as a recognizable character in the X-Men universe. Even people unfamiliar with Lorna Dane could probably point out this jade-haired mutant. Furthermore, I find it fascinating that Lorna admits she dyes her hair color in order to fit into society. (Note: A later X-Men issue informs readers that Lorna’s adopted parents forced her to dye her hair, but this is obviously not mentioned in this first issue.) This intrinsic desire for social acceptance falls into the analytical category of social psychology. She didn’t want to attract curious eyes because of her green hair, and this is before even learning of her latent mutant abilities. (It should also be noted that green hair wouldn’t be as noticeable in today’s society). 

As an individual without powers (yet), Lorna has already yielded to what conformity psychology describes as normative conformity: “. . . changing the behavior of oneself to fit in with others.” This branch of social psychology can be defined as, “The general belief and concept that refers to a change in behavior that’s created by other groups and people, and the fact that the person acted this way because of other people.” Lorna, like Nightcrawler or Mystique, have a physical difference that inherently delineates them, not only from other people, but from other mutants. This brief interaction implicates Lorna’s human want for conformity. The theme of conformity permeates these first issues in a dramatic, psychologically aware fashion.

After the rest of the X-Men team discovers Lorna, they begin their interaction by talking a lot about her and not necessarily to her (a different issue I’ll just attribute to exposition).Their welcome team could use some serious help. They immediately begin to throw out informed assumptions behind the reasoning to Lorna’s memory loss and presence so far from home. Lorna’s undeniably overwhelmed by all this talk of mutants and her latent mutant powers and a dead Magneto . . . by these people she has never met before. Anyway. . . Another detail to mention — that may be a result of a tight script — is that Lorna never mentions where she’s from or any family that might be concerned about her back home. Instinctively, most individuals in this predicament would want to contact people they actually know that might be genuinely terrified over their loved one’s safety. 

Attachment theory describes the effects of affectional bonds that are forms of behavioral attachment a person has toward another. An overview of these affectional bonds mentions two criterias that would distinctly apply to Lorna’s current situation: (1) “The relationship involved in an affectional bond has strong emotional significance. These affectional bonds have a major impact on the lives of those who share them” and (2) “The individual seeks contact and proximity with the person he or she has an affectional bond to. We desire to be physically close to the people we share affection with.” Attachment theory and affectional bonds are probably the most obvious psychological topics to discuss when talking about Lorna Dane. Later in this mini-arc, Lorna will question her loyalties and attachment to Magneto. 

Here, Lorna never thinks about her attachments to anyone back home. She’s frightened, but instantly latches onto Bobby as a grounding source. This proves that Lorna is highly susceptible to easily forming affectional bonds. 

Therefore, in this particular X-Men #49 Lorna Dane issue, a question can theoretically be posed: Why do Lorna’s parents hold either no “. . . strong emotional significance” or no desire for her to be “. . . physically close” to them? Apparently, this conflict emerges in many later X-Men issues as a huge source of tension in Lorna’s character development. X-Men #49 is only Lorna’s conception as a character, so my application of affectional bonds quickly becomes a moot point. Thinking about attachment theory this early on — even if this analysis holds no water because of future events and retcons — will better inform an understanding of Lorna’s behavior in subsequent storylines. 

Bobby doesn’t do a great job of protecting Lorna, in the end. Mesmero and his android team burst into the X-Men apartment and Mesmero incapacitates Bobby. As a result, Lorna is left to cower in fear at Mesmero. Without any powers to protect her, Lorna assesses the danger and proclaims how terrified she is. When Mesmero and the Demi-Men bow down at her feet, Lorna still calls on Bobby for help.

 Lorna’s already generated an emotional attachment to Bobby, as I stated earlier. Her instantaneous bond with Bobby cannot be severed. In this moment of extreme emotional duress, Lorna’s self-preservation instincts trend in a more dynamic direction than usual in this “fight or flight” scenario. Lorna does not want to fight, nor does she want to flee: She wants Bobby to fight for her. Once again, attachment theory proves that her affectional bonds with others hold great sway over Lorna’s behaviors. Whether it’s authorial intent or not, Lorna’s character has thus far been largely influenced by the males around her in #49. The entire X-Men #49-52 arc showcases Lorna as powerful, but either as a love interest for Iceman or as the daughter of Magneto. Later X-storylines more harshly relegate these roles to Lorna, but the male gaze/failure of passing the Bechdel test will be discussed in detail in future articles.

Fortunately, these skeleton characteristics prescribed to Lorna’s personality in her first appearance issue profoundly influence the physical metamorphosis Lorna undergoes in the subsequent issue. The set-up in X-Men #49-52 paves the way for differing interpretations of Lorna’s character and origins. Not all of these interpretations pay off, but these first issues give readers a first glimpse into Lorna Dane’s mental state and inner conflict with herself as Mesmero dubs her, “Queen of the Mutants” in X-Men #50.

Moving onto issue #50, we see Mesmero capture Lorna and Bobby, taking them to his headquarters. There, Mesmero uses the psyche-generator machine seen in the previous issue to awaken Lorna Dane’s mutant powers. In an astonishingly gorgeous set of panels, Lorna’s magnetic-based powers finally surface. I do love the sheer ferocity and intensity the art provides for Lorna in these scenes. The artistic rendering of unhinged power imbued onto Lorna vigorously juxtaposes the previous narrative depiction of a timid and unsure woman.  

After Lorna’s mutant powers are awakened, Iceman internally posits the encapsulating theme of this storyline: Will Lorna’s newfound power change her personality as well? Mesmero is evidently cognizant of the fact that Lorna is an extremely powerful mutant — enough to even call her their “invincible leader.” In essence, Bobby asserts that Mesmero’s evil social influence might possibly coerce Lorna into either conformity or compliance. The idea of social influence — that “Individuals are likely to change their behavior according to the social environment in which they find themselves” — is paramount to the rest of this narrative. Humorously, Bobby is fairly astute in making this assumption, despite having only known Lorna for a short period of time. 

Again, the artistry and green color palette enhances the cinematic facets of Lorna’s transformation. Where Bobby is given an internal dialogue just two panels before, the visual sumptuousness delegated to Lorna shines the spotlight back onto our star character. This pacing perfectly builds up the tension before revealing Lorna in her new mutant state. 

Lorna Dane appears, beautifully dressed in her green, cut-out, one-piece embellished with yellow accessories. Where she got this gorgeous costume, who knows? Still, I will continue to marvel at this boldly appropriate fashion choice. She looks like a majestic badass. 

Promptly, Lorna is immediately oversaturated by both her environment and her personal reflections. In any social or psychological science, the social environment contributes to altering or affecting our state of mind. Mesmero and his evil Demi-Men revere Lorna and shout their affections toward her. After learning of her parental lineage, Lorna immediately acknowledges her physiological bond with her dead father, super-villain Magneto. Based on attachment theory and Lorna’s proneness to affectional bonds, Lorna would be expected to feel some familial loyalty to her father, no matter his past. Social influences and her social environment subconsciously challenge Lorna’s morality before she’s even had a chance to accept the bodily changes that couple with acquiring mutant powers. This quintessential page proves that its creators took all of the thematic, psychological, and characterization factors into account and executed the dialogue and art with aplomb. 

Although Mesmero tries to force Lorna to conform to his ideologies by using coercion and psychological manipulation, Lorna sublimely underpins the foundation of everyone’s expectations. Lorna’s physical awakening appears to have simultaneously induced a mental alteration. Before, Lorna exhibited character traits like hesitancy and dependence on Bobby to guide her. By refusing to succumb to the negative social environment Mesmero placed her in, Lorna shows a new side of her personality: self-efficacy. A facet of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy is key to self-management. Self-efficacy is the “. . . belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” Lorna demonstrates superior situational management in this moment of extraordinary conflict. Nevertheless, Lorna will again struggle with her allegiances in issues #51 and #52. There’s a lot to be unearthed in relation to Lorna’s self efficacy that will be covered in other articles as well.

Lorna chooses to defend the X-Men against Mesmero and his crew, exerting power and control she had previously lacked. Her inherent urge for paternal attachment led her to question whether she should destroy the X-Men who had murdered her father. Magneto had been an uninvolved parent up until this moment. The revelation of her parenthood causes Lorna to mentally stumble, but Magneto’s paternal absence allowed Lorna to emotionally comprehend her attachment herself to those who directly involved themselves in her well-being. As a result, Lorna saves the X-Men she is psychologically tethered to by affectional bonds.

The final panel of X-Men #50 drops another bomb into the overarching narrative storyline: Magneto is alive! Even before Magneto’s announcement, Lorna senses Magneto’s existence. Interestingly, she says that she feels “unspeakable evil” radiating from Magneto. The adjective “unspeakable” indicates Lorna’s sentiment toward her dead father. Magneto’s evil horrifies and shocks her. The familial attachment she had wrestled with when she thought Magneto dead now presents a new psychological quandary for Lorna. How will she deal with an evil father she has never met? How will it affect her personhood?

X-Men #51-52 builds on the thematic and psychological pantheon that Magneto’s existence presents in Lorna’s life. I will do a deep-dive into these topics in my next article. Lorna Dane is a product of pathos, neglect, trauma, and eventually grapples with bipolar disorder. I hope this first analysis brought insight or raised questions for anyone curious about her character. I care deeply about accurate representations of mental health in writing, since it requires sensitivity to fully execute. Writing this has taught me so much more about psychology and mental health already. I look forward to all of the learning opportunities and moments of self-reflection ahead. Lorna Dane is a mutant, yet she is a stark representation of what it means to be human. 

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