the origin of Marvel’s Limbo?

Limbo was originally St. Augustine’s solution to the thorny theological problem of where infants go who have been deprived of the sanctifying grace of baptism and yet have committed no personal sins. The dogmas of original sin and the necessity of baptism would seem to close the doors of heaven to them. Yet it seems inconsistent with everything we know about a loving and merciful God that these infants would suffer the usual punishments of hell, especially since they have committed no sins of their own. The only way medieval Catholic theologians could reconcile these truths was to posit the existence a third eternal destination for the unbaptised infants: Limbo.

Chris Claremont was the first writer at Marvel to acknowledge Limbo in this way, as an “edge” of Hell into which Colossus’s infant sister plunged…

scene of the infant Illyana Rasputin plunging through Limbo from New Mutants #73

…playing it like a demonic Wonderland with Illyana cast in the role of Alice.

Alice in Wonderland battling the demonic Jabberwocky

While plenty of heroes and villains experienced the existence of Hellish realms firsthand in the Marvel Universe, why would one of them NEED to bring about Limbo?

Recalling the theological reason for Limbo’s existence, I’d suggest it was brought about in direct response to concern for the fate of an unbaptised child. Any hero would have this concern if their faith told them this was where a babe would go after death.  That narrows it down to a hero who was also a devout Catholic.  The most notable practising Catholic in the Marvel Universe is Daredevil, who had a run in with Mephisto and his son Blackheart.

evidence of Matt Murdock's faith from Daredevil #282

However, nowhere during his run was he shown to have fathered a child, nor was he directly associated with parents who lost an infant child.  Plus his powers could not bring about another “dimension.”  It therefore seems reasonable to rule out Daredevil.

So who else?

Ever since Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965), in which Reed and Sue are married by a clergyman of an unnamed denomination…

Fantastic Four Annual 3 Church Wedding

…sequences over the years have shown Susan Richards’ belief in God, including particularly for members of her team (i.e. her family)…

Sue praying from Fantastic Four #43

…or asking his forgiveness (such as in Fantastic Four #391).

Sue asking God's forgiveness and her belief in the sanctity of life from Fantastic Four #391

Mind you Reed was not exactly a shrinking violent when it came to acknowledging his own belief in a higher power either during the Lee & Kirby years (despite writers after that and before Waid assuming he was anything but religious).

Reed acknowledging a higher power from Fantastic Four #1 and #78 respectively

But I digress…

She tells her son Franklin that around Easter and Christmas she lights a candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the premier church of the Archdiocese of New York.

Sue in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, from Marvel Holiday Special 2004 #1

So her rarely spoken of faith is revealed here as Catholicism.

It is this to which Adam Warlock’s emissary alludes in the “Infinity Crusade”.Invisible Woman from Infinity CrusadeJohnny Storm acknowledging his sister as a religious person in Infinity Crusade

This establishes her knowledge of the theory of Limbo, but what would make her want to create such a realm?

The answer I’d suggest is two-fold.

In Fantastic Four #276, Mephisto captures Reed and Susan, enraged at having lost his increased power due to the intervention of their son Franklin Richards.

Susan and Reed being kidnapped to Mephisto's Hell from Fantastic Four #276

In #277 he torments them both, but for some reason seems to take extra delight in doing so to Susan?!

Susan being tortured by Mephisto from Fantastic Four #277

Reed is conscious and defiant against Mephisto throughout his torment in this issue…

Reed Richards defiant at Mephisto's torture from Fantastic Four #277

…while Sue is a quivering, screaming mess and depicted as being at the Hell-lord’s mercy (in a manner totally unbecoming of Sue when facing a villain).

Sue depicted as a quivering, screaming mess at Mephisto's mercy from Fantastic Four #277

I would therefore suggest Mephisto singles out Susan due to her Catholic faith.


Okay, so what about her faith is Mephisto tormenting Susan for exactly?

It is worth noting that only a few issues earlier, in Fantastic Four #267, Susan “lost the child she was carrying”.

Sue's miscarriage from Fantastic Four #267

I would therefore propose that Mephisto, exploiting Susan’s faith, torments her with the thought that since she lost her child before it was baptised it would not go to Heaven. And although Sue was likely taught about Limbo as a young child when her aunt took her to church, the old doctrine was dismissed in the reforms of Vatican II, something Mephisto would eagerly remind her of, reiterating that her wide-ranging travels with the Fantastic Four had not happened upon the version espoused by her faith, so her unborn child would reach no such supposed haven.

Once Susan is free of Mephisto’s realm and the immediate terror she experienced, now surrounded by her family, she prays with every fibre of her being for her unborn child…

Sue praying from Fantastic Four #43

…and unconsciously folds space to create a pocket universe where it has a chance to escape the fate Mephisto has in store for it.

But how could the Invisible Woman create a pocket universe when her ability is to render herself wholly or partially invisible, the result of her being able to bend lightwaves away from her?

However, with the revelation during Tom DeFalco’s run that her energy seems to originate from a higher dimension of hyperspace…

Sue's power is revealed to originate from hyperspace from Fantastic Four #400Sue's power is revealed to originate from hyperspace from Fantastic Four #408

…I’d alternatively suggest Sue’s ability is more complex and what she actually does is to take a piece of hyperspace and fold it onto itself like a pocket and use it as a hiding place (anything inside the pocket is apparently almost invisible to sensors and the naked eye).

This ability initially manifests as the ability to render herself wholly or partially invisible, but when the fear that her unborn child will fall into the hands of the demon-lord Mephisto for the first time it shows a hint of its potential when she unconsciously accesses hyperspace as later theorised by Reed’s father, Nathaniel, and takes a piece of it, folding it onto itself to create a “pocket universe” to hide her unborn child in… but leaving an infinite number of access points so she can one day reach them (which manifest as the “stepping discs” which are part of the Limbo dimension).

And so, for the first time Susan demonstrates powers later shown by her son, Franklin, when he creates the pocket universe of Counter-Earth shown in the Heroes Reborn event to relocate the Fantastic Four and Avengers there to prevent their deaths at the hands of Onslaught. While Franklin’s power there was previously explained as a result of reality-warping abilities…

Franklin's power previously explained as a result of reality-warping abilities from Heroes Reborn The Return #1

…I’d instead suggest that as a mutant his latent ability to take a piece of hyperspace and fold it onto itself like a pocket was inherited from his mother, Susan.


Does Susan then make a deal with the Watcher to relocate his base to Limbo to watch over the child to ensure Mephisto doesn’t get her (where he is operating out of, instead of the Moon, in Strange Tales #134)?

Watcher acknowledging his base in Limbo from Strange Tales 134

But why would Uatu agree to break his oath of non-interference over this particular matter?

Well firstly I’d direct readers back to a particular scene in Fantastic Four where Uatu the Watcher becomes the first character in the Marvel Universe to not only refer explicitly to the Christian version of God, but acknowledge him as the most all-powerful being in the Marvel Universe.

Uatu acknowledging the Christian God as the most powerful entity in the Marvel Universe from Fantastic Four #72

With Uatu declaring himself a clear-cut Christian monotheist in the above scene, he would understand the gravity of Mephisto’s threat to Susan. That is, he would immediately interpret it as a direct threat against his deity by the Marvel Universe’s version of the Christian Devil. And given Susan is among the group of humans he has watched over more than any other on Earth, this event more than any other is the one he’d be most likely break his oath of non-interference over.

As for Mephisto, could all the other versions of Limbo we’ve seen have been the result of him plotting to undermine its integrity so he can abduct the child!?

Could this also be what the Celestial Messiah plot was all about?

That is, did the Watcher cause a star to appear over the Avengers Mansion (at the end of Avengers #128 as revealed in Captain Marvel #39)…

The Watcher causes a star to appear over Avengers Mansion at the start of the Celestial Madonna Saga in Avengers #128

…to put Kang off the trail of who the Celestial Madonna really was? To put the Conqueror off the fact that she was the member of another team… his team… the Fantastic Four!

Has the Celestial Madonna been Susan Richards all along?

And was the Celestial Messiah not of the human- and plant-world, but two other realms?

Now recall the revelation that Susan’s second child was a girl did not occur until years later in Fantastic Four Vol. 3 #22 (during Claremont’s run when we see the birth certificate which says the child was stillborn).

Susan's second child was a girl from Fantastic Four v3 22Susan's second child was a girl from Fantastic Four v3 22

However, in Fantastic Four #267 they’re still referring to it as “the unborn child” with no gender being stated for the remainder of Byrne’s run.

So what if it’s not Valeria Meghan Richards who was the second, child of Sue whom she had lost years before in Fantastic Four #267?

Then who else could she be?

Well I think to figure that out we need to consider what her powers were upon being first introduced, “neutralizing Franklin’s” as revealed in Fantastic Four volume 3 #29.

The purpose of Valeria's powers were to neutralise Franklin's

What purposes could these powers serve? Who more than Franklin, and more than his parents, is afraid of his power? Why Mephisto of course! Haven’t you been reading;)

Mephisto fears Franklin's power from Fantastic Four Annual #20

So what if Mephisto had made a bargain with Doctor Doom to create a clone derived of Sue’s DNA which he promised to release the soul of Victor’s lost love Valeria into? Having a being in Franklin’s constant vicinity, and what better way than through a “big sister”, that could negate his powers so he could finally obtain the boy’s long-sought-after soul!

Mephisto demonstrating his willingness to make a bargain with Doom in order to corrupt the soul of Franklin Richards from Fantastic Four Annaul #20

If so, what then of the spirit of Sue’s unborn child?!

Have we perhaps seen this “child” before?

Well let’s think about it for a moment. That is, recall my positing above that the spirit of Sue’s unborn child was transported to Limbo for its own protection! If so, “the child” is likely still there.

So which characters inhabiting Limbo could be likely candidates for this child?

Well we can rule out Magik, Illyana Rasputin, given she is the sister of Colossus of the X-Men.

Illyana Rasputin as then Sorceress Supreme of Limbo from Uncanny X-Men #231

It would seem similarly safe to rule out her previous master, demon-lord of Limbo, Belasco who allegedly started out as a sorcerer in 13th Century Florence, Italy.

Belasco started out as a sorcerer in 13th Century from Ka-Zar the Savage #12

Then there’s of course the self-proclaimed lord of Limbo, Immortus, who while revealed as a Richards, originates from the Fantastic Four’s future, not their present (or recent past).

Immortus, proclaiming himself lord of Limbo in Avengers 131

Then of course there’s the Watcher who I noted above as also operating from Limbo in Strange Tales #134 (and earlier threatening to transport the Red Ghost there in Fantastic Four #13).

Watcher also has base of operations in Limbo from Fantastic Four 13

But Uatu can be ruled out as he wasn’t ever trapped there, given he also had as his home the Blue Area of the Moon.

So who does that leave us with? Well a character first introduced in Avengers #2 who in fact was the first character to make reference to Limbo in the modern Marvel Universe, Space Phantom!

Modern Marvel's first character to make reference to Limbo from Avengers #2

While the character was later revealed, in Thor #281, as being from the planet Phantus and from a species that had mastered the intricacies of time travel long before they had attempted space travel (cf. Thor #281)…

The planet Phantus from Thor 281

…then later again had this retconned to reveal in Avengers Forever #8 that beings who get trapped in Limbo slowly forget their previous existence and turn into Space Phantoms.

Retcon that Space Phantoms are beings who get trapped in Limbo and forget their previous existence from Avengers Forever 8

However, given the story in Thor #281 was revealed to be an illusion generated by Immortus, and the whole conceit of Avengers Forever miniseries being a plot generated by the self-same villain, it’s totally conceivable that the more recent Space Phantom revelation is just another of his manipulated schemes.

I’d therefore posit that perhaps there’s more to the Space Phantom’s name than we have previously ascribed. What if he is literally a phantom – the insubstantial remnant of a once-living being? And why a Space Phantom? As opposed to a Time Phantom (particularly when his power is to displace people to a temporal dimension such as Limbo and take their place)? A Relative Dimensions Phantom?

So if we establish the Phantom was a once-living being, the next question is why a “Space” Phantom?

Well if he is the child Susan was carrying that she lost, which I’m proposing here, I’d posit the “SPACE” part of his name derives from the fact that like his mother, he can generate and control a form of energy from hyperSPACE!

And the reason he has to swap places with others is because when Susan unconsciously created Limbo she did so that her child would be “bound” to it in order to protect them from Mephisto (and all the attempted demonic incursions have been about trying to weaken the protective barrier).

But over time he comes to learn that his inherited abilities to access hyperspace enable him to fold another’s physical projection around him (as Plok puts it, copying their “hyperspatial imprint”:), causing them to suddenly end up with his form, thereby tricking Limbo and thereby displacing them and enabling him to temporarily escape its protective “prison”.

Modern Marvel's first character to make reference to Limbo from Avengers #2

The logical corollary of this being that Limbo doesn’t cause those who get trapped to forget their previous existence and turn into Space Phantoms (as suggested in Avengers Forever #8), but rather Space Phantom’s folding of himself out of Limbo and folding of them there in his place!

But how can all this be when Space Phantom in Avengers #2 refers to his “people” invading Earth?

Space Phantom reveals his plans to enable his people to invade Earth from Avengers #2

Well, there’s nothing to say his “people” are necessarily of his original race! That is, if he is an unborn child that has not had the opportunity at a real life, and Limbo ends up becoming the place for other unborn children (to protect them from Mephisto), these other “ghosts” become his community. And not knowing the reason why they are in Limbo in the first place, they perceive it as a prison from which they most desperately want to escape from…

…and see Earth from Limbo…

…while at the same time realising Space Phantom has the ability to access hyperspace to temporarily escape…

…so task him with becoming the advance scout for their “race”, an invasion force from Limbo intent on conquering Earth.

Acknowledgements: Once again there are a series of thank yous I need to make whom without this post would not have been anything more than a pipe-dream: So without further ado, thanks to Richard Bensam of Estoreal for reviewing my initial draft, fnord12 of the Marvel Comics Chronology, Ancient One and thjan of Alvaro’s Comic Book Message Boards for tracking down some hard to obtain images, Chris Tolworthy of and world’s foremost authority on the Fantastic Four and Plok of A Trout in the Milk for their van Vogtian assistance in helping me explain the science fiction implications of theoretical physics:)

11 Responses

  1. I just spent over an hour on a long reply, analysing every detail, exploring Sue and religion and the nature of Limbo and how hyperspace links all the parallel realities, but the reply was getting longer and longer with no end in sight. So rather than post very confusing notes I’ll just say “awesome post!”

    • Thanks for your reply and glad you like it Chris:)

      Oh and I want to read that hour long analysis at some stage!

      So do you like the biggie that Sue’s ability to render herself invisible is not bending light waves away from herself but taking a piece of hyperspace and folding it onto itself like a pocket and using it as a hiding place? I felt coming up with that one was most inspired:)

  2. At which point did Susan get her power-up from being invisible to also making force-fields? Did they note then it’s the same power really only applied differently? Pictorially invisible Susan and her invisible force field don’t differ.

    Other than that, Susan being the Celestial Madonna – and Mephisto’s strong reactions – kind of suggests that it’s none other than Franklin who would be the Celestial Messiah. Franklin, who as it happens has married a redhead telepath named Rachel in the distant future of 2013 in “Days of Future Past” by Byrne and that other guy; Rachel, whose last name and parentage were at that point held undisclosed but only because of the editorial meddling had just recently before removed Jean Grey from Earth-616 complicating things and who we now know of being of the powerful lines of Summers and Grey.

    Yeah not to over-do my proposed science/mystics dichotomy, but funny that the CELESTIAL Messiah mutant son of THE science guy and his Limbo-creating wife, both bathed in vaguely-defined cosmic rays, should end up with the scioness of THE mutant line that has the annoying firebird flapping around.

    Also, “an invasion force from Limbo intent on conquering Earth”… I remember reading of one of those. Some silly girl was stupid enough to blast a door open for them with her explicitly stated powers of teleporting by summoning the stepping-disks (I’ll be courteous enough to not mention here his mentor making a huge deal of his tiny “bloodstones”…).

    So anyway. If Cable in fact was, as we are lead with good reasons to believe, the other son of Nathaniel Richards, and not Nathan Christopher Charles Summers who grew up to be Rama-Tut/Kang/Immortus, who we remember going after the alleged Celestial Madonna… well, Clan Askani has done either tremendously well or a massive cock-up with their changeling gambit. I’ll need a clarifying chart drawn for me.

    About that “theory of everything”… forget vibranium, it’s all about this Immortus guy. Also, only now I read who this Hyperstorm guy is supposed to be. Well, if Rachel can go around as Grey, I guess it’s okay for him to be a Storm.

    • Well I could have answered this but why when I have access to the world’s foremost authority on the Fantastic Four, Chris Tolworthy. In his own words:
      “Sue had her forcefield revealed in issue 22. But I see hints of it before that: nothing certain, but right from issue 1, in fact there are oddities that a pre-forcefield would explain. The very first thing we read on the cover (after the title) is “I can’t turn invisible fast enough”. Why would invisibility prevent the monster, which was already grabbing for her, from holding her? The answer may be inside, where her first use of invisibility shows people falling over. People do not usually fall over when pushed out of the way: the most that any person needs to be pushed aside in a crowd is half a body width, and people are designed to remain standing after they stumble. But something about Sue’s invisibility made them all fall over as she rushed past. I would suggest that Sue knew that her invisibility protected her somehow, hence the cover comment, but she did not know how.

      “In the second issue she was able to push past some guards in order to escape her prison cell. This is usually interpreted as the guards being incredibly stupid: they did not know that an invisible girl might be invisible. But a better explanation is that they were prepared for that, but somehow Sue exerted more force than they expected. Many of Sue’s early appearances are like that.”

      And how do you propose it being all “about this Immortus guy”?

      Oh and I am certainly not done with Vibranium yet!

      • Thanks for the Sue power history, you and Chris. It’s obvious the force fields have been there from the beginning then.

        About the Immortus guy, the furiating thing about your “Origin of Cable” is that you only tangentially addressed whatever happened to Nathaniel “Cable” Richard jr.’s time-waylaid “brother” from another mother, Nathan Christopher Charles Rama-Tut Kang Immortus Summers. Because, he seems to have his arms up to elbows in a plethora of happenings on Earth-616 of late 20th/early 21th century.

        – Mister Sinister got unhealthy interest on him the minute he was born, if not a long before, and in the end it took all the powers of Limbo to derail Sinister’s machinations regarding him

        – He showed a curious force field power in X-Factor #42 before being sent to future

        – He is sleight-of-handed to grow up in the Richards clan of the Warlord’s Earth, and the first thing he does when grown up is to jaunt back in time to Egypt 3000 BC, coincidentally (?) just when Apocalypse will rise, but “gets bored” soon enough and ditches the place, and

        – After a lot of Kanging, he becomes Immortus and the lord of Limbo and delves in A LOT in various shenanigans including the Celestial Madonna debacle, apparently oblivious of it having been Susan Richards instead (or convincingly acting so) and very specifically everything related to Scarlet Witch.

        So, what exactly is his endgame? Is he trying to make things happen? Prevent them from happening? What?

        Regarding Scarlet Witch, he’s all over the place meddling with her. Why? To do everything to prevent House of M timeline/M-Day? To stop her from having children by going to the length of building an artificial husband for her?

        Why exactly was Mister Sinister so keen on him? Just the old Summers-Grey bloodline or did someone else rather set Sinister after Nathan Christopher when he was a newborn baby? Why did the whole Limbo, Immortus’ dominion as we remember, essentially blow up just when Sinister’s plans were coming to fruitition, demons powering up his momma Maddie and whatnot, causing his machinations to go awry? Was it because oh the demons just do that stuff, or… did the lord of Limbo carefully set things up so that all that would happen, essentially saving, well, himself?

        Did someone gently usher Belasco, who this far had mainly been seeking a grown woman for a consort and a brood mare, to suddenly drop those plans and abduct this little girly, who through her brother has a large X-tended family of superbeings at disposal and whose other brother has powers for warping energy wavelenghts and teleporting through time and space? How come this little girly end up with very Limbo-specific mutant power of controlling the stepping disks for doing stuff for which she seemed to have a genetic affinity towards? Was it all an elaborate scheme by Immortus to foil Sinister’s plans?

        And, in Avengers 300, how come the stepping disc pentagram got broken EXACTLY when Sue got agitated over Franklin’s treatment by then demons? Yeah N’astirh was using Franklin to power up his pentagram a bit, but surely cutting him off won’t per se close the portal.

      • Seconding the thanks to Chris! And yep the force fields have been there from pretty much the beginning.

        I wasn’t suggesting Immortus was Cable’s brother, but rather his ancestor. And you’ll note the fix was about Cable’s origin, not Immortus. If doing Morty’s origin, I’d still be on it two years later;)

        Have you seen my Call-Out list here?

        I’ve got a committed list to get through before I even attempt to fix Mister Sinister’s interest in Nathan Christopher Charles Summers;) But don’t worry I have ideas and suggest you consider my following thoughts:
        Avengers #2 established that physically identical beings can’t co-exist in the Marvel Universe at the same time, a fact later reinforced during the Gatherers Saga, so when the Space Phantom took on the appearance of someone in our universe they were shifted to Limbo. And guess who was sent to Limbo when “Jean Grey” returned in X-Factor? So was this suggesting the Jean Grey that returned in Fantastic Four #286 was a Space Phantom? Or alternatively when Jean died as Dark Phoenix, she did not go to Death’s realm but was rather quarantined in Limbo, its temporal energies restoring her to the age she was just before her powers manifested; forcing the Space Phantom to Earth in the physical form of young Jean. The first time we saw him in this form was in Avengers Annual #10. Yep I’m suggesting that young Madelyne Pryor was an amnesiac Space Phantom. And what powers does Nathan Christopher manifest after his “mother” returns from Limbo with him? He manifests curious force field powers for the first time in X-Factor #42. And he then grows up to become Master of Limbo, kicking the demons out as payback for what they did to his “mother”, the hint of her surname meaning “existing or coming before in time”. And if that doesn’t knock your socks off, I don’t know what will!

        As for why Mister Sinister wanted him, well if competing in a game with other mystical power for power Cyttorak has offered, and if Cyttorak is as I believe one of the N’Garai Masters, young Nate wants him for his powers “both temporal and arcane”, since if he has the power to usurp control of Limbo from Sue’s unborn child, Space Phantom, the N’Garai can use that dimension to launch their invasion of Earth from and return to one again being our masters as they were before Atlantis sank.

  3. And, Rachel Summers! A telepath/telekinetic travelling in time never made sense to me. So, did she get help for that from his time-travelling brother perhaps, and to what end? Did Nathan Immortus need a trustworthy adult with some hands-on experience of late 20th century Earth-616 who he could send to future to handle his own transferring to safety as a baby? It’s a twist of irony that an anomaly Doctor Strange caused through Illyana’s powers guided Nimrod through the timestream after her.

    Or, is Immortus trying to save the mutant kind in the end? Is Scarlet Witch Chthon’s anti-mutant protocol like Juggernaut is Cyttorak’s? A commendable goal for a Summers-Grey.

    • What anomaly that Doctor Strange caused through Illyana’s powers are you referring to?

      • I assume he’s referring to the Kulan Gath issues of Uncanny X-Men, 190-191. The spell he cast via Illyana’s powers resulted in Nimrod saving Jaime Rodriguez and the loss of Gath’s amulet instead.

      • @Brian: Great to have a rec.arts.comics contributor along for the ride. Hope you enjoy a look around other articles on my blog:)

      • Oh rats, I’ve failed to follow this up. Brian got exactly right what I meant. I think there was a Classic X-Men bonus story where Nimrod is explicitly shown to be lost in the timeline when following Rachel, but then the said anomaly guides him/it to land at the mugging of Jaime Rodriguez.

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