Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld: The Hidden DC Jewel

amyordinaryIt’s widely acknowledged that Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, is both one of the most frustrating and intriguing of DC’s comic properties. Like Ambush Bug, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld is a DC insider-secret, a character with deep roots and hidden impacts that never achieved broad commercial recognition.

Amethyst’s first issue came out in 1983, a full 12 years before DIC’s adaptation of Sailor Moon hit the US airwaves. She was a magical girl long before the term came into the mainstream, and there was very little before or after her that stole her crown – until the manga invasion of the 90’s began and shoujo manga began attracting female readership in droves. By then, Amethyst had been long forgotten by everyone – but she was still there first.

In context of the stream of comics released at the time, Amethyst was clearly intended to directly compete with Marvel’s series Crystar, Crystal Warrior. They hit newsstands during the same month – May 1983. Their cover logos are similar enough that there’s a good possibility there would be lawsuits over trademark dilution and consumer confusion if companies tried something like this again today. logos

The differences between the two series are immediately apparent, though. Crystar was expressly designed by Marvel to be made into toys, released a year after the toy line to try and drum up further sales. Amethyst, originally entitled Changeling, was the end result of a long gestation period in the minds of collaborator-creators Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn. Crystar was completely boy-centric, hypermasculine in a Frazetta mold, and issues featured a number of crossovers with the larger Marvel Universe. Amethyst came to DC from outside and featured a large, complex cast of characters, half of whom were women in positions of authority. Crystar was a man turned to stone; Amethyst was a young girl turned into an adult warrior.

amethystvscrystarNeither series has been reprinted in modern times. Crystar appears to have flopped wildly and is now pretty much forgotten except to collectors, while Amethyst struggled through a series of awkward and poorly-thought out attempts to shoehorn her into the mainstream DC universe. But Amethyst still exists – obscure, shadowed and compromised- as one of the strongest surviving magic-using characters in the DC pantheon. Gemworld was, at one point, even retconned into being the source of the DC-verse homo magi.

Amy Winston’s your typical twelve year old girl- blonde, pretty, a bit fiesty. She sleeps with a picture of Wonder Woman over her bed, and she’s outgrown her Barbie dolls. She’s got a big fluffy golden retriever named Taffy. Her mom’s a child psychologist, and her dad works in an office. Her best friend, Rita, gossips with her at school over boys. She’s living a perfectly ordinary life- until the night of her thirteenth birthday. Instead of the present her parents got her, she receives an ornately decorated box. Inside is a necklace, with a huge purple jewel- an amethyst. She’s scarcely had time to put it on before a monster comes out of her closet door and drags her off to a strange mystic land – where, as it turns out, 13 year old Amy’s brain is suddenly nestled in the body of a 20-something princess. With all the confusing sensations you’d expect from suddenly bypassing puberty and going straight into adulthood.

Her first night in the Gemworld is nothing short of terrifying; she’s been kidnapped by minions of the thoroughly villainous Dark Opal, the blue-and-black-striped tyrant who rules Gemworld- in short order we also meet his henchman, a desert-dwelling worm-man named Sardonyx, and Opal’s half-blood human son, Carnelian. Amy (now Princess Amethyst) uses her power on instinct to escape the clutches of a couple of lecherous trolls, and flees with the help of a pretty frightening Spock-alike named Granch. Retreating to the safety of Castle Amethyst, she learns from witchmother Citrina that she is an orphan child, placed on Earth to protect her from Dark Opal and his forces, who slaughtered the original Lord and Lady Amethyst. The House of Amethyst had, of course, been the original rulers of the Gemworld, and were renowned as good and benevolent rulers.

Citrina had sent the pendant to Amy as she was of age, intending to introduce her to her birthright destiny in a much more gentle fashion. Fate just doesn’t work that way, though. While Amethyst is learning about her true self, Amy’s parents are going nuts with worry; time passes differently between the two realms. Amethyst and Citrina repel an attack by Opal’s forces against them, and Amy soon goes home, with the knowledge of her secret – and her first successful uses of magic – under her belt.

That’s all just the first issue. Gemworld is populated by twelve Houses, each representing and ruling over a major gemstone, and each with its own culture. Aquamarine is oceanic; Garnet and Ruby are earthy, Amethyst is faded purples and Topaz is airy, iridiscent, almost futuristic. The House interpretations do not automatically follow the ‘traditional’ interpretations of birthstones; the ten priests of the Diamond collect and store the magic energy of the slain within their stone for safekeeping, for example. Rivalries exist between houses and rulers; Lady Sapphire colludes with Dark Opal to seize control of Prince Topaz’s kingdom by political marriage; Lord Moonstone and Carnelian can’t stand each other; Garnet and Aquamarine are bitter rivals. Each of the characters is sharply delineated, with a wide range of ages and physical characteristics; not everyone’s a pretty white teen, and about a third of the cast are women in positions of authority.

Amethyst is no vacant princess. She routinely cross-references Wonder Woman stories, mythology and plain old Earth logic to find resolutions to problems. And if the story leans a little too heavily in her favor in places it’s forgivable- it is a fairy tale, after all.

The first series is pencilled by Ernie Colon, one of the artists who worked for many years at Harvey (often uncredited, as I recall) doing Richie Rich comics and their ilk; the only thing Amethyst’s art has in common with that is the exquisite detailing of the gemstones. Unusual rounded, hand-drawn panels and page arrangements, as well as detailed, almost rococo borders lend the issues a feeling of unusual craftsmanship and opulence. Colon’s linework is clean and detailed but without the excesses of, say, a John Byrne; there is a fair amount of Kirby dotting peppered throughout the series. Faces decorate panels, peering out of edges and worn as brooches on people’s clothing. The color palette is unusual, often with two or three contrasting tones dominating pages, and really used well for psychological effect. On rereading, there’s more violence (although pretty tasteful, mostly off-panel) than I remembered – Granch is a particularly brutal killer, often depicted in shadow or splattered with the dark blood of thoroughly unfriendly creatures.

Between its fairy-tale trappings and its complicated political map, Amethyst is definitely strong reading for girls around the target age- I’d say 12 to 15 would be just right. It might not enthrall adults now, although it hasn’t really aged and has no significant aging issues.

Certain fantasies are perennials, after all: Your parents are not your own, this world is not yours, and you are the secret heir to a lost kingdom. Maybe you, just you, are the only one who can save the world.