Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #240

[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.

13 comments:

Nik said...

I have to admit I haven't read this since it originally came out, but for me it pretty much marked the last gasp of reading Claremont's X-Men regularly -- I thought the title ran out of steam around the Massacre, but with Inferno it really became an unwieldy beast. I should re-read it some time though to see if it's better than I remembered.

Jason said...

Nik, you certainly weren't alone in thinking that.

But you were also wrong. See the blog post on which you have commented for more details. :)

Anonymous said...

This was actually my favourite cross-over event ever. Really, Mutant Massacre and maybe the original DC Crisis were the only other cross-overs I was ever able to stand.
I just enjoyed the plot, and it wasn't as convoluted as it seems. I'd say it still contains hints of the "Fall of the Mutants" concept. You only have to read Uncanny and X-Factor to get the whole story. The New Mutants story is a seperate, but related, event. While I could understand FF readers growing weary having to read their book put on hold while this universe wide event happens for the sake of continuity, I have to admit that a great deal of the "Inferno" extraneous chapters were creative. It gave us Daredevil meeting the Devil over in Nocenti's DD, for one.
I know this represented the beginning of "bad things" for comic books after, as mega cross-overs gagged and polluted the industry, but I still have a soft spot for this example, in my eyes, of a fun mega cross-over.
I thought this was the last gasp of Claremont's run also. I thought his run went completely downhill after "Inferno" and I like to think of "Inferno" as the end of an era for the X-Men.

ba said...

I'm sorry, but as far as bloated messes go, Inferno doesn't compare to X-tinction Agenda. I think it wraps up a lot as far as having three main x-titles running parallel to each other, yet rarely intersecting. It sets up what is to become the complete unraveling of new mutants (which, at this point, was becoming utterly pointless...may I mention Gossamyr's Web?), and finally begins to end the STUPID premise behind x-factor. Love it or leave it - the x-men needed Inferno.

Also, no mention of the rather funny ghostbusters parody? Eaten by the evil elevator, only to show up again in 244, hunting jubilee.

Jason said...

I thought I did mention Ghostbusters in this one. Did I not? I meant to.

I'll talk more about those guys in the issue 244 blog. (The one I have yet to write ... oh, deadlines ...)

Besides the Ghostbusters reference, those characters' names -- Shiner, Milan, Snodgrass and Martin -- are references to some of the authors who did Wild Cards, the prose superhero books from the 80s. The Martin is, of course, George R. R. Martin, who has become much more prominent in the years since 1988. (Claremont also referenced Martin's "Armageddon Rag" novel in Uncanny X-Men 194.)

Gareth said...

This could be a stretch, but there might be another black dress moment in Morrison's New X-Men. Emma Frost almost always wears white, whether as a superhero costume or street clothes. But when she starts seducing Scott in Hong Kong she's wearing, you guessed it, a black dress. And since she's trying to replace both Jean and Madelyne, maybe it fits.

Anonymous said...

I remember being very disappointed with this issue and the next in terms of the X-Men vs. the Marauders. We were waiting to see the X-Men kick their butts, and they do, but it's all treated as an afterthought compared to what's happening to New York City. We also don't get to find out WHY the Marauders were sent to kill the Morlocks. Not the cathartic events I was hoping would take place.

I actually don't mind the size of the Inferno crossover. If demons are invading Manhattan, then by gosh, it SHOULD involve most of the Marvel universe. Lately the writers at Marvel seem to curiously see each of their titles taking place in its own little universe. New York can be devastated, Asgard can float above the city, or any other spectacular or cataclysmic events, and there is nary a ripple in other titles.

I remember the story of the Avengers butler, Jarvis, taking on the demons solo in Avengers #298, as a really fun story (This was during a time that the Avengers had disbanded). I happen to recall Spectacular Spider-Man featuring Spidey and Jonah Jameson teaming up to defend the Daily Bugle offices from a demonic incursion. Good stuff.

As ba noted, this story finally brings X-Factor's absurd premise to an end. Yet, it also takes a lot of wind out of the X-Men's faked death. The X-Men are only a relatively few issues into their new direction and now Cyclops, Jean Grey, Archangel, Beast, and Iceman know they're all still alive. Yet they're not supposed to tell the New Mutants OR Excalibur? DUMB. If I were Kitty, Kurt, Brian, Meggan, Rachel, Moira, Dani, Sam, Warlock, Roberto, or Rahne, I would be mightily pissed at the X-Men and X-Factor once I found out!

A potentially intriguing meet-up that was for some reason avoided was a meeting of Jean Grey and Rachel Summers. For some reason the powers that be at Marvel shied away from this encounter. How did Jean miss seeing Rachel in the news? You'd think she'd be at least interested in this young woman running around calling herself the Phoenix and manifesting the familiar firebird imagery. Not to mention that Mr. Sinister (you'd think) would be interested in Rachel, too.

Inferno, overall, was a fun story for me but it left me scratching my head at the many missed opportunities and strange behavior of the main characters.

Anonymous said...

I remember being very disappointed with this issue and the next in terms of the X-Men vs. the Marauders. We were waiting to see the X-Men kick their butts, and they do, but it's all treated as an afterthought compared to what's happening to New York City. We also don't get to find out WHY the Marauders were sent to kill the Morlocks. Not the cathartic events I was hoping would take place.

I actually don't mind the size of the Inferno crossover. If demons are invading Manhattan, then by gosh, it SHOULD involve most of the Marvel universe. Lately the writers at Marvel seem to curiously see each of their titles taking place in its own little universe. New York can be devastated, Asgard can float above the city, or any other spectacular or cataclysmic events, and there is nary a ripple in other titles.

I remember the story of the Avengers butler, Jarvis, taking on the demons solo in Avengers #298, as a really fun story (This was during a time that the Avengers had disbanded). I happen to recall Spectacular Spider-Man featuring Spidey and Jonah Jameson teaming up to defend the Daily Bugle offices from a demonic incursion. Good stuff.

As ba noted, this story finally brings X-Factor's absurd premise to an end. Yet, it also takes a lot of wind out of the X-Men's faked death. The X-Men are only a relatively few issues into their new direction and now Cyclops, Jean Grey, Archangel, Beast, and Iceman know they're all still alive. Yet they're not supposed to tell the New Mutants OR Excalibur? DUMB. If I were Kitty, Kurt, Brian, Meggan, Rachel, Moira, Dani, Sam, Warlock, Roberto, or Rahne, I would be mightily pissed at the X-Men and X-Factor once I found out!

A potentially intriguing meet-up that was for some reason avoided was a meeting of Jean Grey and Rachel Summers. For some reason the powers that be at Marvel shied away from this encounter. How did Jean miss seeing Rachel in the news? You'd think she'd be at least interested in this young woman running around calling herself the Phoenix and manifesting the familiar firebird imagery. Not to mention that Mr. Sinister (you'd think) would be interested in Rachel, too.

Inferno, overall, was a fun story for me but it left me scratching my head at the many missed opportunities and strange behavior of the main characters.

Patrick said...

The thing I really like about Inferno is that it's the first crossover where the characters actually cross over. The X-Men haven't seen the X-Factor people in years, and in this case, the narrative is big enough to justify bringing all the characters together.

Crossover 'fatigue' is one of the most popular things to write about on comics blogs, but I love seeing all the plots get jumbled together, and though there's a lot of inexplicable plot points in Inferno, the sheer spectacle of it all carries things through.

I think the major reason that people have a problem with post-Inferno Claremont stuff is that Inferno basically clears the deck. All the major long running plot points are resolved, and at this point, the series doesn't really have a reason to exist anymore. I have huge issues with the way Maddy is treated later on, but the over the topness of the whole thing puts the story over for me.

Menshevik said...

Have to agree with the first Anonymous, for me Inferno was the mega-crossover I liked best, even though I was actually quite unhappy with the two major outcomes, the respective fates of Madelyne (uncluding the retroactive blackening of her character) and Illyana. And it actually was done quite well despite the big number of titles involved - I recall I wrote down little synopses of what happened in the different titles involved to create a general chronology, and that worked surprisingly well, creating only a very few minor continuity glitches. And as others mentioned, it makes sense that if New York is overrun by demons that this is also felt in the other titles based in New York. Of course, back then still was a time when they paid more attention to continuity and e.g. the Casket of Ancient Winters plot in Thor would also be felt (briefly) in The Amazing Spider-Man.
Kudos also to the Simonsons for their work on X-Factor that culminated in Inferno (afterwards Walt Simonson left and the title stagnated a bit, though its downward turn was not as bad as that of New Mutants). Given the sheer awfulness of the early issues of X-Factor (which I think was the first time I got the feeling that maybe it is not a good thing to let old fans (was the term "fanboy" then in use?) loose on a book), I think Louise Simonson's making the adventures of the original X-Men a worthwhile read again is an achievement that often is underappreciated.
By the way, one may be my fond memories of the Inferno-related stories would probably be something connected to X-Factor and the ending of its stupid original premise: the crisis and catharsis the relationship between the Beast and Trish Tilby went through (on a demonic subway train!). As one of the few Hank/Trish shippers I'm biased, of course, but it is also another case where I later thought Grant Morrison missed the bus, because during "Inferno" we saw their love weather an even more extreme change of appearance and personality than the later change from ape-like Beast to cat-like Beast...

Dave Mullen said...

Good coments up above that I can totally agree with.
I thought Inferno was a very good crossover event (I've still got a shop poster for it somewhere!) and set a precedent that following such events failed to live up to, it works as it addresses a lot of outstanting questions and plotlines and so delivers a degree of satisfaction to the reader. It's also well coordinated and clearly a lot of planning and communication was going on to make it work so well, A lot of the tie-ins as noted are very good quality reads, particularly Daredevil as i remember. What really let it down though is the way the Marauders are given short shrift and were treated as an afterthought that quickly dissapears, I always felt betrayed by that as we'd been waiting such a long time to get the closure on that.
Still, it was a very good issue that focuses on Action and in hindsight this is the equivalent of the big Summer Blockbuster movie.
I was excited by it then and i remain with fond memories of it even now. Whatever your misgivings about it might be At east you can look back on it and say that Stuff really did happen therein and big changes came out of it...

Teebore said...

For what it's worth, I've never hated Inferno either, and I like it's sprawl. As has been mentioned, when NY is under siege by demons, then all the over NY-based heroes should be affected in some way.

Isaac P. said...

Another Inferno fan here. As a newcomer to the Marvel U at the time, it led me to pick up a lot of books I hadn't read before. I remember the Daredevil issues the most fondly out of all the non-X Inferno issues.