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X-Men: Inferno (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

I don’t like Inferno. There, I said it. There have been dry patches in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run before, and some would argue that his work following Inferno would be quite esoteric, but Inferno has always represented, to me at least, the creative low-point of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. That doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it for what it is, or acknowledge the care with which the writer crafted it, but it is just too much of a big random mess to really enjoy it. It’s a disjointed crossover that resolves the long-running Madelyne Pryor mystery that Claremont had been weaving through the book, but also features demons and goblins for some reason. It’s just a great big mess.

There’s a Storm comin’…

Okay, I can’t argue that Inferno doesn’t perfectly tie into Claremont’s big themes, at least as those themes don’t involve mutant equality. Devils and demons have been something of a recurring fixture of the run, with the team facing a demon immediately following the death of Thunderbird early in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. There’s a healthy dose of feminist rage, some major crises of confidence and identity, coupled with mind-control, body-transformation and bondage. It’s a party celebrating many of elements that defined Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run.

It seems unfair to criticise Inferno for not really dealing with the “mutant” angle of the title. After all, Claremont’s masterpiece, The Dark Phoenix Saga had little to do with the civil rights metaphors most people associate with the title. Still, the problem isn’t that Inferno doesn’t feel rooted to that central theme, but rather that it feels so pointlessly random. While The Dark Phoenix Saga played out Jean Grey’s existential dilemma against the backdrop of aliens and multiple realities, Inferno doesn’t seem so deeply rooted in Madelyne Pryor’s issues – so the story doesn’t feel as anchored. It’s just a bunch of crazy stuff happening for some reason.

We all have our demons…

Part of the problem is the fact that Madelyne is inherently less interesting than Jean. She has always been defined as a copy or substitute for Jean Grey, and was only lightly sketched as a character in her own right. She seemed to only ever exist to develop Scott rather than as a character with her own identity. As relatively useless as she was before Jean Grey was resurrected, she felt completely redundant once the “real” Jean Grey was written out. It’s extremely obvious from early in the crossover that the purpose of the book is essentially to remove Madelyne from the equation so that Scott can get back together with Jean. It makes any development that Madelyne receives seem especially pointless.

One could even argue, were one so inclined, that the event represents an opportunity to tidy away some of the unfortunate debris that Madelyne created. I always got the impression that Chris Claremont was never especially fond of Cyclops as a character. The most pious of the original X-Men, the boy scout and the anointed successor of Charles Xavier, Claremont seemed to use Cyclops as a deconstruction of the sort of “straight-arrow” superhero that his Uncanny X-Men so ruthlessly avoided. Like Captain America or Superman, Scott Summers was devoted to his ideals and loyal to heroism, but Claremont seemed to enjoy picking that idea apart. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the more recent characterisation of Cyclops stems from Claremont’s portrayal, as the character moves from an idealistic teenager to a fanatic.

Cyke out…

Claremont’s Cyclops was devoted to the mutant cause, but that sort of blind devotion wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Claremont’s Cyclops seemed to be blinkered by his superhero life, ignoring everything else going on. He practically abandoned Madelyne and his son to run around in tight spandex, getting angst about how tough it was to do the right thing. I don’t blame Madelyne for getting pretty peeved with a Cyclops so devoted to his mission that his family fall by the wayside. Inferno does seem like an attempt to rebalance this, at least slightly.

Louise Simonson always seemed more sympathetic to Cyclops than Claremont – Simonson allowed her neurotic mess to lead the team to victory, while Claremont’s Cyclops was easily dismissed by Storm. It’s telling that it’s an X-Factor issue that sees Scott saving his son from Madelyne as she discards the baby – a rather pointed reversal of the earlier situation. Instead of Scott abandoning his wife and child, he gets to play hero, saving the day. The result is that Madelyne is cast as a villain. It isn’t too long into the event before she’s cackling with glee and revelling in evil.

It’s a bit of shame, as Claremont uses Madelyne to explore some of his key themes. Claremont has typically written strong women, most notably Storm, perhaps the strongest female character at Marvel for the length that Claremont was writing Uncanny X-Men. Despite Claremont’s wonderful capacity to write strong feminist characters, it’s a recurring notion that such female characters can lose touch with their humanity in trying to divorce themselves from traditional female gender roles. Claremont seemed to argue that being female and being powerful were not mutually exclusive traits, and an attempt to sacrifice femininity for power would always result in tragedy. The key was to balance the two elements, rather than trying to reject one in service of the other.

Of mutant bondage…

Of course, Claremont’s Storm is the exception to the rule. She manages to remain both powerful and feminine. In contrast, Jean Gray’s transformation into the Phoenix and Betsy Braddock’s transformation into Lady Mandarin were deeply rooted in an attempt to remove themselves from traditionally feminine qualities. Jean Grey’s transformation was spurred by her subjugation by Mastermind, while Betsy’s was facilitated by bitterness over what she saw as the sexist selection of her brother Brian for the role of Captain Britain.

Inferno plays into those themes with Madelyne, as the demon S’ym appeals to her, “Wouldn’t you rather shape your own destiny… than play the perpetual victim?” Much like Mastermind’s attempt to dominate Jean Grey led to her transformation, Madelyne is spurred on by Sinister’s attempt to subjugate her. “I don’t belong to you, Sinister! I won’t be ruled by you!!! I won’t be condemned by you!!!” Madelyne’s transformation is presented as reactionary – fueled by the idea that it’s better to harm others than to be harmed oneself. “I won’t be condemned, Sinister— instead I condemn!”

All it takes is one weak link…

If this feels like a retread of The Dark Phoenix Saga, it is to a certain extent. The wonderful Jason Powell summarised Inferno as “a genuinely culminating event for the X-franchise at this time”, and there are many who would argue that Inferno serves as a climax to Claremont’s X-Men run, with everything afterwards serving as an extended epilogue. I can understand that argument, even if I don’t quite agree entirely, and it makes sense for Claremont to structure his climax in homage to his best-received story arc.

Indeed, Claremont seems to openly acknowledge the similarity, as Jean Grey notes that her decisions also lead to the same result, just with different facets. Making an express mention of comparison, Jean suggests, “Dark Pheonix was one result, the Goblin Queen the other!” Claremont gives Madelyne a somewhat harsher line, as she describes Jean as “that resurrected, retread cow”, as if to concede that the book is merely covering old ground. Even Cyclops seems to have had enough of the throwbacks and references. “Why do we have to endure this again?!”

For want of a nail…

I think you could make an argument that, in Claremont’s later work, the writer was growing increasingly disillusioned with the lack of narrative progression possible in mainstream comic books. Many point to the use of Magneto in Acts of Vengeance as the source of this frustration, as Claremont watched over a decade of work on the character washed away because John Byrne needed a villain for the crossover. Indeed, the writer’s superb send-off, X-Men #1-3 can be read as an extended criticism of this trend, as Magneto is forced back into the role of villain, undoing all Claremont had done.

Although Inferno predates Acts of Vengeance, I think you can detect a similar sentiment here, as Claremont allows his Uncanny X-Men to eat its own tale. He journeys through The Dark Phoenix Saga again. He revisits the old romantic triangle between Wolverine, Scott Summers and Jean Grey, despite the fact that it had been buried long ago. In fact, Claremont seems to make a rather direct dig at those who would link Wolverine and Jean Grey, as we open on the pair kissing passionately in “an accursed place —  where nothing is as it should be…” Hm. I guess that pretty much puts the matter to rest, no matter how many writers might want to revive the old love triangle.

Grave danger…

That said, it does give us a nice feminist moment, where Claremont proves that Jean hasn’t regressed purely because he’s not writing her anymore. Jean rejects Logan’s advances forcefully, declaring, “I’m nobody’s property, Wolverine!” There’s another nice moment later on where Cyclops gives Storm a bit of lip about a decision she made in the heat of battle. Demonstrating why she’s always been on of Claremont’s most consistent fixtures on the team, Storm polite informs Scott, “I am Storm. I lead the X-Men. That gives me the responsibility and the right.”

Indeed, Inferno reads a sort of a reflection on Claremont’s run. As well as revisiting The Dark Phoenix Saga pretty heavily and tying up lose ends, we also get to see Storm reflecting on her own past, staring at her various past looks on screen. She truly has come a long way, and evolved quite a bit under Claremont’s pen. I’m not too sure that all those progressions (and the ones to come) were entirely logical, but she was never static. I’ve made the case before that Storm and Wolverine are really the central characters of Claremont’s X-Men, and here he seems to cement that. He anchors them back to The Dark Phoenix Saga, making it clear that they are permanent fixtures on a constantly-changing roster. “We were there when it happened,” Wolverine insists. “Jean Grey died. On the moon.”

Wrecking Havok…

Mister Sinister is the other major plot thread that gets developed here. He’s been skirting around the edge of the panels since The Mutant Massacre, when Sabertooth mentioned him by name. I’ve always liked the original idea that Claremont had for Sinister, treating him as a child’s projection of an evil mastermind. It certainly would explain serious quirks about the character, from the rather obviously evil name to his scenery-chewing dialogue and habit of referring to himself in the third person.

“From the moment I learned of your existence, X-Men,” he vows, “I knew our paths would cross as adversaries.” In try supervillain style, he seems to have a habit of declaring that he has no heart. I’m not sure if he’s speaking literally. “A pity she forgot,” he muses after Malice tries to attack him, “Sinister has no heart.” Later on, he manages to increase the cliché factor by using that line while talking about himself in the third person. He boasts, “Regrettably, Madelyne, Sinister has no heart.”

Made(lyne) for each other?

One can actually detect the faintest traces of Claremont’s proposed origin, elements that were naturally ignored once he departed the book. For example, we get to spend a bit of time focusing on Scott as he reflects on the orphanage where he grew up. He remembers an early manifestation of his power, which went strangely unnoticed. “And nobody seemed to notice what I’d done except… one kid. I heard him talking and bossing everybody around, even the grown-ups. It was strange…” The character would be identified as “Lefty” Nathan, reflecting Sinister’s ‘real’ name of Nathaniel Essex.

So there are certainly elements that are interesting in the midst of this crossover, but they’re swiftly overwhelmed by everything else that is going on as well. In particular, Louise Simonson writes the vast majority of this crossover, and she’s simply not on the best form. Her contributions to X-Factor during Fall of the Mutants were the best issues of the crossover, but here there’s just too much goofy stuff going on to really appreciate a demonic invasion of New York. Getting Simonson to write a tie-in (X-Terminators) in the style of Power Pack doesn’t help matters much.

Kiss me, deadly!

Simonson’s X-Factor issues are saddled with two of the worst villains ever to set foot in any X-Men book – Nanny and Orphan Maker. The pair would come back to bother Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, but they really were two absolutely terrible bad guys. And they appear twice. Simonson’s dialogue is also at its lowest ebb, with gems like “you nearly match me in evil, Commander, if not in wit!” and “fool! you underestimate the power of evil!”

It’s a shame, because Simonson’s characterisation continues to improve, even in the middle of woeful stuff like that. Both Hank McCoy and Warren Worthington have solid arcs in the X-Factor issues collected here, building on what came before and setting up interesting avenues for future exploration. However, it’s just a shame that the stories around them are so completely dire. Which is a shame, because you’d imagine that a demon invasion of New York would be easy enough to write.

A Sinister scheme…

On the other hand, at least the art in the collection is impressive. Marc Silvestri doesn’t get enough love as an Uncanny X-Men artist, though I guess that’s what happens when you are followed by Jim Lee. I don’t think he artwork has even been better than it is here, as he relishes transforming New York into a gigantic death trap with all sorts of sinister constructs including man-eating mail boxes, anthropomorphic fire hydrants and people-eating lifts. Walt Simonson provides the artwork on X-Factor and is as good as he ever was. In one particularly memorable sequence, the artist draws a kick-ass killer train.

Still, Inferno does feel a little hampered by all the silly pop culture references. At one point, stand-ins for The Ghostbusters are eaten by a hungry lift, while two men in black who look uncannily like The Blues Brothers investigate the aftermath of the event. That said, I do find it hilarious that the powers that be in New York felt the need to explain a demonic invasion. After all, that sort of thing seems to happen to New York every other week in the Marvel Universe. (The fact that the excuse given is “mass hypnosis” indicates that the editors were in on the joke.)

Hell hath no fury…

That said, I wonder why Claremont “killed” the team off back in Fall of the Mutants if he planned to hold a gigantic cross-company crossover featuring the characters? I know that comic books allow for such things, but it seems like it might have made more sense to reverse the order of those two story beats, or possibly combine them. Then again, it’s not really my place to wonder such things. I’m just here to read comic books, after all.

On the other hand, I can’t help but be a little impressed by the scale of Inferno, even as I can’t make sense of it. Published well ahead of Acts of Vengeance, Inferno really set the template for crossover events to come. While the main book charted the demonic invasion of New York, the crossovers included a wealth of Marvel titles where the heroes were faced with hordes of rampaging demons on top of whatever else they happened to be dealing with. It almost seems like a dress rehearsal for John Byrne’s Acts of Vengeance, and I’m a little glad that Claremont got to do something like this first.

Hell fire…

If you ask me, Inferno is the weakest point in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. It just seems rather… strange, to be honest. It isn’t firmly anchored in Madelyne enough to make me care about the demons invading New York. Still, it does tidy up several long-running plot threads and leaves the book free to do whatever Claremont needs them to do. I’m in the minority in that I really liked the direction that followed, and Inferno just represents a sizable speed-bump in the road.

In celebration of Inferno, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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4 Responses

  1. absolutely excellent articole, thanks so much for the dedication and dilligence you’re putting into the reviews

    • Thanks Vlad. I try to balance everything. I’m just disappointed so much of Claremont’s run isn’t available. They have the start and the end well covered, but there’s a huge amount missing from the middle.

  2. The whole Madelyne Pryor/Jean Grey/Phoenix story rap-up is only half of the story. Equally as important was the wrap-up of Magik storyline- he corruption and redemption of Illyana. I think the bleeding over of two very disparate story lines in the effort to resolve them both is admirable, even if it got to be very weird at times.

    • “Weird” is the least of it, but good point. I actually know a lot less about that second plot line, so perhaps that’s why I omitted it. Whereas Jean Grey is X-Men 101.

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