The Consequences of Kelman

Ever since the Dominaria story I’ve been concerned about Nic Kelman. In one scene Jace’s emotional growth seemed to be unwound. I chalked it up to the character having a bad day. I was less forgiving toward the misrepresentation of liches as token zombies. The mistake suggested editor Nic Kelman may never have played a fantasy game ever.

But that’s a minor matter. The realization he had written a whole novel glorifying sex with girls aged thirteen to seventeen, now that was major. But he wrote that long ago. You could argue it has little relevance to his current job at Wizards of the Coast.

At the same time, you may well imagine the author of Girls: A Paean seeing nothing wrong with retconning Chandra’s bisexuality. Kelman was the one who queerbaited, saying fans interested in Chandra and Nissa’s relationship should buy the book. He was also the first person from Wizards of the Coast in the Acknowledgements for Forsaken. As the Head of Story and Entertainment, the responsibility for queer erasure falls on him.

Image text from War of the Spark: Forsaken

I’ve previously written about my concerns Nic Kelman’s presence has had on the women characters in Magic: the Gathering. In the novel Forsaken, Jace clings to some of his emotional growth but not enough to maintain his relationship with Vraska. All they built together in the Ixalan story now lies in ruins. They didn’t even make good on the narrative promise to have a bookstore date on Tin Street.

That hurt. The biphobia wounded, but even after those betrayals, I still expected better than Liliana’s portrayal. She is made to internalize shame, guilt, and the patriarchy’s fears of strong women. Like antimatter it annihilates everything interesting about her character. Instead of celebrating her hard-won victories and finding new ways to live, she searches for ways to die.

At the end of War of the Spark: Ravnica, Liliana slew Nicol Bolas. She had freed herself at last from her demonic contract. She could’ve taken her place among the Gatewatch in triumph, resplendent in her power. Instead she fled to the swamp, full of self-loathing and pining for Jace. Really.

Like pervasive sexism, the problem isn’t one saying, belief, or quote from Forsaken but what they mean together.

The story team may have wished to portray Liliana as an abuse survivor. They may have wanted Gideon’s death to resonate within her. They succeeded in both those goals, but I believe the more unique and true portrait of her character is a bloodstained woman prying her soul from the dead hands of demons, terrifying and triumphant.

Strong characters change, but a redemption arc was not inevitable for Liliana. Her growth could’ve been overcoming her fear of death, which allowed her to defy Bolas. She could’ve searched for an even more epic goal, or honored Gideon by living more fully. Instead she changed into something indistinguishable from the sexist trope of a woman ashamed of herself and her power. In the eleventh hour we saw something similar in Game of Thrones, where the writers made the crown fall through the hands of two competent women, Dany and Sansa, and onto the head of a weirdo, who was decidedly male.

Throughout Forsaken, Liliana thinks of three things: killing herself, her maybe-love for Jace, and her guilt for Gideon. The woman who once pursued her own goals no matter the cost now defines her value in terms of men. This isn’t character change so much as character sabotage, and the responsibility falls on Head of Story and Entertainment Nic Kelman.

Are there consequences to hiring and promoting a man like Nic Kelman? I believe we’ve seen them, and I’ve seen enough. Going forward I will no longer follow Magic Story. I will boycott the upcoming Chandra series on Netflix, as it’s Nic Kelman’s pet project. I even question if I should continue buying Magic cards or support Wizards of the Coast at all.

I’ll leave you with one final note from Forsaken. All the characters approve of the budding relationship between Teyo, a nineteen-year-old Planeswalker, and Rat, who is a girl of sixteen.

Past writer of card names and flavor text for Wizards of the Coast and current member of SFWA. Magic: the Gathering player for over twenty years.