[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. This is an especially good entry. ]
“Inferno: Part the First — Strike the Match”
So begins “Inferno,” the 1988 X-Men fall crossover. This is the one everyone hates. To sum up the history at this point: 1986 was the year of the first X-over -- “Mutant Massacre,” a flawed but entertaining comics event built around a suitably momentous occurrence in the franchise’s history: the large-scale massacre of an underground mutant population. It wasn’t meant to be the start of a yearly tradition; but the commercial success of the project guaranteed that Marvel would attempt to duplicate it in 1987. Although “Massacre” occurred during the summer, the following year saw it placed during the autumn months – hence, “The FALL of the Mutants.” Unlike “Massacre,” this second event was tied together by concept rather than story, with each of the three core mutant titles (X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny) seeing tragedy befall at least one member of the team (Angel, Cypher and all of them, respectively). “Fall of the Mutants” was shrewdly economical, eschewing the bloated excess that ultimately weighed down on the latter parts of “Massacre” in favor of something quick and clean: three issues of three titles (with the middle installment for each series being “double-sized”), and then done.
By contrast, the number of Marvel comics published in the latter half of 1988 that tie in to “Inferno” is in the dozens – a horrible display of excess on behalf of the company, one which would be repeated many times in the following two decades. (Every aspect of “Inferno” promotion is over the top – on the core series, including Uncanny X-Men, the art department even pastes the word “Inferno” over the line usually reserved for “The Uncanny” – the first such textual manipulation of the logo since “The Uncanny” was added in the first place, eight years earlier.)
Even stripping away all the issues of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Cloak & Dagger, etc. that bore an “Inferno” tag in late 1988, the story clocks in at an absurd 15 parts – four issues each of Uncanny and X-Factor, three of New Mutants, and a four-part miniseries titled “X-Terminators.” Under the editorship of Bob Harras, authors Claremont and Louise Simonson (the latter writing everything except the Uncanny issues) craft a gigantic, ambitiously un-chronological, 350-plus-page novel whose departure point, oddly, seems to be Ivan Reitman’s “Ghostbusters,” of all things. Two major long-running arcs are resolved by “Inferno”: the Illyana Rasputin/Limbo arc (begun in the very earliest issues of Claremont’s New Mutants) and the story of Madelyne Pryor (both the mystery of her existence and the awkward abandonment-by-Scott debacle).
The blueprint for “Inferno” is disastrously uneconomical; the story vectors in a ridiculously schizophrenic path through the X-books for the first half before it finally settles down a bit in the latter chapters. Yet Claremont’s four contributions – in Uncanny #s 240-243 – show remarkable restraint. The pace is controlled; the characterization is sturdy; the tone is appropriately epic. Credit goes not only to him but to the entire creative team, for work that is consistently pristine and professional. Right down to the Dante-esque presentation of the chapter titles, “Inferno X-Men” has a clarity of design that makes the insanity seem immaculate; the chaos, classy.
It begins with a gorgeously romantic splash page, depicting Alex and Madelyne alone at the top of the Empire State Building. People who’ve been following this monster of a blog series since the start might remember Doug M talking about Jean Grey’s black dress. In Uncanny 98, Cockrum depicts Jean in a classy backless black gown, as she proceeds to scandalize Stan Lee and Jack Kirby by grabbing Cyclops to her and kissing him passionately. Stan and Jack grumpily point out that “they never did that when we had the book,” and we are invited to enjoy how much more (relatively) dynamic the sexual tension is between Jean and Scott. (Classic X-Men #6 would deepen the significance of the moment years later, revealing that had the night gone according to Jean’s plans, she and Scott would have made love for the first time at the end of their date.)
In Uncanny 132, drawn by Byrne, Scott and Phoenix do consummate their love (not at the top of a tower as we saw in them in issue 98, but still depicted at a great height, on a New Mexico butte). The very next scene sees Jean and Scott infiltrate the Hellfire Club, and Jean is again in a black dress, this time open down the front rather than the back – Byrne upping the stakes on Cockrum’s earlier depiction, giving us something much sexier, and more suggestive. It’s also significant that in both cases, Jean in black preceded a transformation. The earlier appearance was three issues before the creation of Phoenix; the latter, two issues before Dark Phoenix. As Doug M so delightfully puts it, the black dress gets a “semiotic workout.”
Which brings us back to Madelyne (Jean’s clone, though we are not meant to know that yet) and Alex Summers (Scott’s brother). Madelyne is in a black dress, and –talk about semiotic workouts – this time the cut of the dress changes EVERY PANEL! A comment on Madelyne’s too-mutable role in the series from her first appearance to now? Another link in the chain of one-up-man-ship, Silvestri taking things to a surreal extreme? In any event, certainly a clue that large changes are in store. And we already knew that Phoenix was a part of it all – “bird of fire” imagery had begun haunting Madelyne for a while now, as far back as issue 215, published two years earlier. The parallels to the Dark Phoenix saga here are obvious at times, but the use of the black dress as a signifier of the cycle restarting is marvelously subtle.
Consider also that – again, per the observations of the discerning Doug M – the Dark Phoenix Saga contained the troubling suggestion that it was Jean Grey’s sexual awakening that made her more promiscuous and, ultimately, more dangerous. A rather disastrous example of a male writer (or writers if one counts Byrne as co-plotter) finding no way to look at a female character other than a “virgin” or – once she’s had sex just once – suddenly, a “whore.” Viewed through that lens, it is significant here that Maddie – in the midst of her own transformation – pointedly refuses Scott’s brother when the latter makes a sexual advance. Despite the Dark Phoenix parallels, and despite the outré attire in which Silvestri drapes Madelyne, her corruption is nothing to do with a sexual awakening. She wants vengeance, and – in fact, in a lot of ways – she is largely in the right. Beyond the “Goblin Queen” accoutrements and the super-villain dialogue, Maddie remains remarkably sympathetic. At times, one can even root for her.
Finally I ALSO have Doug M to thank as well for opening my eyes to the contrast between depth and height in Uncanny X-Men 132 … that issue begins with a crisply sunlit love scene atop a New Mexico summit, then transports readers in its second half into the wet, black subterranean depths of New York. A brilliant use of contrast that slipped by me entirely.
But that motif too is duplicated in this issue (fool me twice, I won’t get fooled again). From the top of the Empire State building we are taken first to ground level in the Australian desert, then back to New York and down into the depths – specifically the Morlock tunnels. As in issue 132, we end underground. The X-Men take on the Marauders (whose ranks now include a few members that previously had only appeared in Louise Simonson’s X-Factor), and Madelyne – finally having settled on a black outfit that’s ripped and cut to the point of absurdity – finds herself underground as well, in the catacombs of the orphanage in which Scott Summers was raised.
Once again we’ve been taken from the heights to the depths. Along the way, allusions to the X-Men mythology (vast and faceted by this point) are dropped in to enrich and contextualize the drama. The city’s transformation into something demonic recalls the Kulan Gath material from Uncanny X-Men 190 and 191; Scott’s speech at the end of issue 175 (his marriage to Madelyne) is reprised, so that Madelyne can denounce his words – rightly – as lies. Storm fights a possessed Lorna Dane to a stalemate, as in one of Claremont’s very earliest X-Men issues (97, the second one that he plotted solo).
Additionally, some sci-fi signposts are dropped in – Madelyne is referred to not as a clone, but rather a “replicant” (per Blade Runner), and we end with an “I am your father” twist (as in dozens of soap operas, films, plays, novels, etc., but most accessibly “The Empire Strikes Back,” given the X-Men’s debt to Star Wars in the earlier Phoenix material). The call-backs to science fiction work here as tethers, keeping the X-Men attached to the genre they truly belong to, despite their immersion throughout “Inferno” in fantasy and mysticism.
This crossover is remembered by fans as one of the X-franchise’s most chaotic, but Claremont’s chapters are locked in tight by a latticework of shrewdly deployed imagery and allusion, and sustained comfortably inside a rich mythology that’s been slowly and steadily built over 13 years.