“The Hellfire Gambit”
A recurring mantra of Claremont’s during his entire tenure on X-Men is that the protagonists should not kill. They are heroes, goes the refrain, and if they kill they are no better than the villains. The philosophy is repeated twice in this issue, first by Kitty then on the final page by – of all people – Wolverine. This liberal sense of morality, which in the context of the X-Men often seems naive, is part of what comics like The Authority and The Ultimate were rebelling against (as Geoff points out in his book). In “The Hellfire Gambit” at least, Claremont offers up a practical demonstration of why, in the sci-fi universe that the X-Men inhabit, killing your enemies isn’t a great idea – your enemy might have body-switched with one of your best friends. It’s superhero cliché used as metaphor again: In the story, Kitty is right to save Emma’s life, because although she doesn’t know it, Storm is trapped in Emma’s body. In real life, the death penalty is wrong because a good person might be somewhere inside the body of that seemingly heartless murderer. (Ironically, the White Queen will actually go on to be reformed over the decades, eventually going so far as to replace Jean Grey as Scott Summers’ main love interest during Morrison’s New X-Men series.)
Or an alternative interpretation is that this is a slight variation on a Morrison philosophy that Geoff so enjoys: Simplistic right-wing solutions like the death penalty just don’t work in the X-Men’s complex world of mutants and body-switching telepaths.
Whatever the case, morality lessons aside, issue 152 offers up a tidy and well orchestrated conclusion to a fun two-parter. While this second appearance of the Hellfire Club can’t possibly match up to the first (during the Dark Phoenix Saga) in terms of the overall scope and sense of dread, it does mark several notches of improvement in terms of the Club members’ individual characterizations. While previously they seemed like fairly generic evil-doers with an affected style of dress, this new story plays up the fetishism as integral aspects of their characters. It’s still tame by modern standards, but Kitty’s comment in the previous issue that Shaw, Frost, et al are criminals “for kicks” and that “they’re sick” gives the first hints of what sets the Hellfire Club apart from other villains. As with Magneto’s increased dimensionality and the curing of Sauron, the undercurrent of kink in the Hellfire Club is another example of Claremont attempting to avoid stagnation within the superhero paradigm of the recurring villain by adding a new twist each time.
The process continues here. Shaw’s casual romantic aggression towards Emma implies a sexually permissive relationship between the two, and the fact that Shaw is undeterred despite Emma inhabiting an entirely different body is telling as well. Indeed, Emma’s desire in the first place to take over Storm’s body can be read as motivated by twisted or fetishistic desire – it certainly doesn’t play out as an integral part of the Hellfire Club’s plan to invade the mansion. Its primary purpose seems to be to spice up the sexual interplay between her and the Black King. With the Club viewed in this light, it’s hard not to wonder as well about the White Queen’s single-minded desire to acquire Kitty Pryde. Is there a kinked motivation for that as well? (A story in New Mutants will eventually reveal that, no, the White Queen is not a pedophile – she merely seeks protégés.)
Apart from the implications of deviant sexuality, “The Hellfire Gambit” is not a standout story, though it is a supremely competent one. Claremont’s use of Amanda Sefton is a clever wrinkle; having established her as a witch in the otherwise useless X-Men Annual #4, Claremont now lets her be an important part of the action, her spells saving Wolverine from murder at the hands of cyborg Hellfire mercenaries. (The cyborgs are survivors of Byrne’s intensely violent opening sequence of Uncanny #133. Byrne obviously intended Wolverine to have killed them, but Claremont – steering the ship solo now – circumvents that intent and makes them recurring villains.)
Shaw is a great villain, always forcing creative solutions to defeating him. Here, master strategist Cyclops has Colossus “fastball special” Shaw into a lake, forcing him to burn off his absorbed kinetic energy in the act of swimming to shore.
Also notable is the implied parity between the X-Men and the Hellfire Club in Storm’s dialogue of the final panel. Like Charles’ musing in issue 149 that he and Magneto are “uncomfortably alike” – which hints at Magneto’s eventual replacement of Professor X in issue 200 – the pointing out of common ground between the X-Men and the Club opens up intriguing notions about the X-Men themselves, and plants the first oblique seed for the implicit “friends with benefits” relationship that will eventually evolve between Wolverine and Storm.
[It is interesting how the comic book idea that the villains are reflections of the heroes makes it easy to may characters like the White Queen and Magneto X-Men leaders.]
[There is also a bit where Cyclops sweeps a Sentinel off the lawn that reminded me of a moment in Whedon's Astonising. This whole period is really burned in Whedon's mind, both on X-Men and in Buffy.]