Jace Beleren's past has been retconned all to hell.
That's probably ok.
Jace has always had something of a multiple choice past and personality. The first short story featuring Jace never happened. The first novel featuring Jace doesn't introduce him till a fifth of the way in, at which point it turns out that the person we (and he) thought was Jace wasn't Jace at all. The Jace that most players experienced through flavor text was nothing like the Jace of other stories. Other Planeswalkers have had their continuity issues, to be sure, whether it be Chandra's sometimes garbled present or Gideon's somewhat confused themes. Jace, though, stands above them all as particularly, bizarrely discontinuous with himself.
A lot of this is due to the weird new paradigm for the storyline a decade ago.
Which, wow, can I just take a moment to stare in bleak horror at the fact that "the new storyline paradigm," from my perspective, is now a decade old?
Anyway, let me take you back to that moment and its many oddities. I think it'll help shed some light on Jace's overall reception and history.
Lorwyn hit the scene in fall of 2007. This was our first look at the Neowalkers, or Bradywalkers (so named for head of Magic creative Brady Dommermuth), or "Jace and the Wheeled Warriors" as disgruntled members of the storyline community quickly dubbed them. These 'walkers and their cards were intended for Future Sight — a demonstration of the new determination of WotC to create cards representing our fellow Planeswalkers — but they posed too thorny a design problem amidst all the other weirdness of Time Spiral block, and had to be pushed back to Lorwyn.
This was odd, but it kind of worked out, as Doug Beyer points out: "[A]n obscure little world with no humans, a place that probably has no clue about the existence of Planeswalkers, might be the ideal place to premiere the world-hopping magi . . . They're planeswalkers. They're strangers to — and yet at home in — every setting." It was a solid introduction to the 'walkers conceptually.
There was a problem, though. The creative team shook up the storyline status quo with Time Spiral, but the publishing model remained the same. Lorwyn had its own story, conveyed over the course of a trilogy of books. The new Planeswalkers, surprise visitors within the plane and the set itself, did not — could not — feature in this story.
It would be over a year and a half before we got a substantial story about Jace Beleren.
In the meantime, what did we see? Nothing, I would argue, particularly impressive. Jace as he appears in the early promotional material isn't what I'd call a great character. Beyer describes him as someone who "excels at anything he puts his mind to" but who is "isolat[ed] from his peers" by his ability to read minds. Fair enough, I guess, for a Blue mage, but it does rather come across, paired with Aleksi Briclot's rendering of Jace, head bowed, hood up, hair over one side of his face, as a moody teenager convinced that he's always going to be alone because, well, he's just so much better than everyone else. I think it was hard for many of us, and remains hard for many fans, not to see in Jace a reflection of our own embarrassingly self-centered teenage nerd angst.
Still, there's hints in Beyer's description of what is to come: Jace's power, he predicts, "will attract the worst kind of attention, the kind brought by those seeking to subvert and control his power." There's also a notable absence: Jace has no past in this account. We have some predictions about his future, but no sense of what he's been through, where he's come from.
The next few stories didn't do anything more to clear up questions we might've had about Jace. Oh, we started getting trickles of story during this year, via a series of free webcomics posted on Magic's website. Bizarrely, though, the character seemingly created to be the avatar of every angsty teenage Magic player wouldn't get a webcomic for another year. In the meantime we got a sort of nothing story about Chandra blowing up some people (there was no hint at the time Chandra's misadventure stealing some old pyromancy scroll would be the inciting incident in several apocalyptic events), and two short comics featuring Garruk fighting Liliana, and Ajani meeting some guy with a dragonsona.
Jace, being shaped behind the scenes by Ari Marmell, and Chandra, being developed by Laura Resnick, mercifully escaped the stilted dialogue and strange layout choices of these early comics. Still, we continued to wait and wonder who this dude appearing on so much promotional material actually was.
Oh, well, except for that story we got about Jace going to Lorwyn and skulking around in people's dreams. Except that Doug Beyer's story, published in March 2008, probably never happened.
Take a look at the introduction:
That's a lot of hedging. The only definitive statements Beyer makes in the intro are about Lorwyn itself: "Elementals are made of dreamstuff." Everything dealing with Jace himself is speculative, a what if. The events probably didn't "actually" occur. Jace's whole character feels somewhat unformed here, very Generic Blue Mage. This is a what-if story about a character who doesn't really exist yet, a speculation about what would happen if you threw someone we've never heard of before into a new setting. Jace exists, for the fandom, as a subject of imagined possibilities before he exists as a character with a canonical past and future. Jace comes pre-fanfic'd.
The first hints of a history for Jace come in the comic "Fuel for the Fire", which takes the comic "Chandra's Ultimate" as its first, retroactive, issue. See what I mean? Retcons and revisions all over the place! Anyway, Jace gets hired by the Sanctum of Stars to retrieve the scroll Chandra stole, via the "Consortium." Again, that's about as much as we get. It's a clue, but Jace's character is still pretty hard to determine. Terse, cold, businesslike . . . but it's interesting that this first canonical narrative appearance involves the absolute master mind mage prodigy genius misunderstood whiz kid getting outwitted by a girl whose head is on fire and a bunch of monks. It's not an impressive first outing!
At this point you're probably waiting for Jace to finally show up "for real" as it were. Now you know how I felt! After the whole old paradigm of Planeswalkerhood (and a number of fan favorite characters) got the axe in Future Sight, we waited six months for the first sight of what was supposed to be our new recurring cast of characters. Then we had to wait through Lorwyn block for the new publishing model, and in the meantime this guy Jace was showing up in promotional material and being given a "Duel Deck" and so on, but had yet to show up in the story. That went on for a year. Then we got Fuel for the Fire, which wasn't, like, outright bad the way some of the other comics were but wasn't exactly impressive. Then we waited for a few more months.
And finally, finally, we got Agents of Artifice. And it was good. It was real good.
But where the heck was Jace Beleren? Who was this "Kallist" guy we were following around for the first 72 pages?
Well, it turned out that "Kallist" was actually Jace all along. I remember this causing some real confusion for some readers early on. It's kind of a wild narrative decision, on the whole — to have the first part of your narrative not only jump into the middle of the chronological events, but then to have it follow a character who thinks he's a different character because of an accidental brain swap that happened before our view into the story began.
The actual chronology isn't too hard to understand: Jace joins up with a criminal organization called the Infinite Consortium, befriends an assassin — Kallist — who looks remarkably similar to Jace, and ultimately breaks with the Consortium with Kallist. Kallist is bound to Ravnica, so Jace gets the brilliant idea of taking Kallist's mind, copying it into his own brain, and planeswalking away to a world where he can transplant Kallist's brain. This, it turns out, isn't actually a brilliant idea at all, and Jace, unable to hold both minds in his one brain, accidentally switches bodies with Kallist. He only realizes what has happened when "Jace" — really Kallist — is killed, and Jace's mind reverts to his own body.
And so it is that after all that endless deferral we finally meet Jace Beleren, a man who just got his best friend killed, a man who made a series of terrible miscalculations, a man (unknowingly) in love with a necromancer who orchestrated his best friend's death, a man kneeling in a Ravnican gutter and crying helplessly as he is forced to remember.
Now. I'm not arguing that waiting two years for the first Planeswalker novel after the Mending, and a year and a half for Jace's full development into an actual character, was great. In fact I think it was a pretty lousy situation that did serious damage to the storyline community. Some of the present day resentment toward Jace might even trace its origins all the way back to this frustrating chain of events and the gap between the compelling, tragic figure of Agents of Artifice and the more shallow and cliched character conveyed in promotional material.
But isn't it interesting that Jace always seems to be deferred, receding into mist, forever losing touch with and recovering connection to his own continuity? It's not just that he seems to keep ending up crying while being forced to remember all the terrible things that've happened to him. It's that we as readers seem to end up as befuddled as Jace, looking for the truth underneath the layer upon layer of misdirection and misrecollection. If Jace's smarmy, obnoxious, quip-filled flavor text seems off, well, that's not totally out of line with the fact that Jace has a history of using illusion magic to appear much healthier than he is.
The whole kind of ridiculous history of the early post-Mending publishing model and its convulsions and failures isn't great taken on its own terms, but in its effect on Jace — the whole experience we have of Jace as readers — there's the spark of something really fascinating which the creative team is now fully capitalizing on. Join me next time as I continue to dive into Agents of Artifice, Rivals of Ixalan, and the history of how Jace's past came to be, retroactively.