For today’s Obscure Marvel Woman, we present the true story of the victim of one of the most brutal retcons ever devised. In the Original Marvel Universe, she was the personal assistant, or “leman” (a polite way of saying ‘sex slave’), of one of the X-Men’s major nemeses, who evolved very gradually from an unnamed background character to an interesting personality in her own right. Years later, however, she was revived and given a convoluted and implausible backstory in order to retroactively make her a member of the X-Men, thereby completely changing her motivations, her personality, and effectively making her into a completely different character. I find the original much more intriguing.
The woman known only as Tessa was born during World War II. Though nothing is known of her early life, it is clear that she existed in the seamy underworld of illicit sex and degradation. In her teen years, she began to manifest mutant abilities that granted her powers of analysis and deduction far above human norms. At some point during the 1960s, she met the billionaire industrialist Sebastian Shaw, also a mutant, and became his personal sex slave.
Inspired by the erotic French novel Histoire d’O, Shaw forced Tessa to wear a leather collar and other accoutrements of bondage much of the time, and she served him on multiple levels: as a sexual plaything, a handmaiden, a confidante, and an advisor / strategist in his business dealings. Though she accompanied Shaw everywhere he went, Tessa was kept in the background. Perhaps wisely, she harbored no ambitions above her station, for Shaw already had two other women whom he took as lovers and treated more like equals: Lourdes Chantel and Emma Frost, both of whom were mutants as well.
In 1968, Shaw Industries was contracted to build a new generation of Sentinel robots, based on the original designs of their creator, Bolivar Trask. Shaw initially had misgivings, as the original Sentinels had been intended to hunt down mutants, but his ambitions got the better of him when his client, Ned Buckman, made Shaw a probationary member of the influential Hellfire Club. Buckman was the head of the club’s inner circle, the Council of the Chosen, and Shaw benefitted greatly from his patronage. Shaw then had Tessa dress in the corsets-and-thigh-boots style of the other “Hellfire girls” at the club, as a symbol of his own status.
At the end of the year, however, during a lavish party at the Hellfire Club, Buckman’s plans to exterminate mutants were discovered when Frost telepathically scanned the mind of secret agent Michael Rossi, who had been investigating Buckman and his associate Steven Lang. Too late, Buckman sent one of Shaw’s own Sentinels to kill Frost, but Chantel teleported herself, Shaw, and Tessa to her aid, whereupon Shaw destroyed the robot. Unfortunately, the Sentinel managed to mortally wound Chantel, and she died in Shaw’s arms. Enraged, Shaw and Frost returned to the club, where Frost used her telepathic powers to force Buckman to murder the rest of his Council of the Chosen. Shaw then broke Buckman’s neck and replaced him as head of the club’s inner circle, which he re-christened the Lords Cardinal. Shaw named himself Black King and made Frost his White Queen. Tessa then became first among the club’s staff of female servants, though she was always considered Shaw’s personal property.
Within a few months, the Lords Cardinal were contacted by Mastermind, formerly of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who sought the Hellfire Club’s aid in getting revenge on his enemies the X-Men. Tessa advised Shaw to back Mastermind’s plan, and sure enough, the Lords Cardinal defeated the members of the X-Men who invaded the club’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Mastermind had not reckoned with the fact that Jean Grey of the X-Men had been replaced by the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix and was now too powerful for his mind-tricks. Phoenix rescued her teammates and drove Mastermind into a catatonic state before the team fled into the night.
A year later, Tessa advised Shaw as the Lords Cardinal attempted to capture the X-Men again. However, this time the X-Men were victorious and Shaw was badly injured when he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Tessa then spent over a year nursing Shaw back to health and managing his affairs while he was incapacitated. During this time, Tessa was kidnapped by Donald Pierce, a non-mutant cyborg member of the Lords Cardinal who intended to take advantage of Shaw’s weakness to take over the Hellfire Club. However, Pierce also kidnapped Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, and was defeated by a cadre of young mutants Xavier had only just recruited. Tessa took custody of Pierce, who was then expelled from the club and imprisoned at a Shaw Industries facility in Kentucky.
When Shaw was finally fully recovered, Tessa accompanied him on a trip to England to meet the influential politician Sir James Jaspers, whom Shaw considered a threat to mutant interests. A month later, Emma Frost collapsed into a catatonic state while talking to Tessa, and Tessa immediately alerted Shaw. They soon learned Mastermind was out for revenge, but he met defeat at the hands of the X-Men. Tessa realized that the X-Men and the Lords Cardinal had mutual interests and convinced Shaw there was nothing to gain by antagonizing Xavier’s team, especially after their own positions became threatened by the ambitious mutant sorceress called Selene, who joined the Lords Cardinal and quickly rose to the position of Black Queen.
In time, Tessa’s analysis was borne out as the Lords Cardinal and the X-Men were drawn ever closer together. After joining forces to defeat the mutant-hunting robot called Nimrod, Shaw offered the X-Men’s leaders, Magneto and Storm, the chair of White King jointly, hoping to check Selene’s ambition. Both groups found the new alliance to their mutual benefit, and it lasted just over a year, until the X-Men were apparently killed while fighting a monster in Dallas, Texas. Magneto, not present at the battle, became more involved in the Hellfire Club following the X-Men’s demise, which ultimately led to Shaw being ousted in December 1974. Following his expulsion from the club, Shaw took Tessa with him and began to seek other alliances among the “super-villain” community.
Shortly after, in early 1975, Tessa investigated when Donald Pierce was freed from his imprisonment in a bloody raid on the Kentucky facility. She decided not to alert the Hellfire Club of Pierce’s renewed threat, knowing Shaw would be pleased if Pierce now attacked the Lords Cardinal. To further thumb his nose at his former associates, Shaw lunched at the Hellfire Club as the guest of Senator Robert Kelly, a long-time member, and brought Tessa with him. When Senator Kelly’s wife was then killed during a battle between a giant robot and a group of unidentified superheroes, Kelly agreed to support Shaw’s proposal for a new generation of Sentinels, inspired by the Nimrod robot.
However, Sebastian Shaw’s plans were abruptly cut short a few months later when he was murdered by his illegitimate son Shinobi Shaw, who was no less ruthless and ambitious than his estranged father. Shinobi Shaw detonated powerful explosives that utterly destroyed his father’s Swiss chalet, and his faithful slave Tessa was killed in the blast.
First Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #132
Final Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #247
Tessa’s name was revealed in her third appearance, in the New Mutants graphic novel. Her early days with the Hellfire Club were revealed in Classic X-Men #6–7. Her death occurs behind the scenes in X-Factor #67. Her subsequent appearances are outside the scope of the Original Marvel Universe and are considered non-canonical.