[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men.]
“Inferno: Part the Fourth — Ashes”
The previous issue ended with a cool and sexy cliffhanger, as Dark Madelyne stood atop a tower -- Dark Havok by her side, Jean Grey her prisoner, and her own baby about to be sacrificed. From there, Claremont passed the narrative baton to the Simonsons, who turned in a pretty ugly issue, both visually and textually. But, it did at least offer a definitive origin of Madelyne Pryor, every loose end accounted for and every old plot thread addressed. (Claremont is rarely as neat and tidy.)
X-Factor #38 is a faintly depressing comic in terms of production value – but, from there we bounce back to Uncanny X-Men, and we get a gorgeous splash page of Madelyne Pryor, whose cape is a black Phoenix bird, every fold of which is gorgeously rendered by guest-inker Hilary Barta. Claremont’s narration is comfortingly baroque (with Madelyne described as a clone grown from “a clutch of stolen cells” – lovely); Silvestri’s figure-work is beautiful … ah, all is right with the world.
Patrick Meaney has called Madelyne’s transformation to demon-goddess nothing less than “character assassination.” It’s hard to argue the point during the opening sequence here, as – even in death – Madelyne is completely unrepentant, still attempting to kill the X-Men. Claremont and Simonson (and probably editor Bob Harras too) are still so intent on redeeming Scott’s abandonment of Maddie that they seem hell-bent on ridding her of all redeeming qualities. When Mr. Sinister starts rampaging through Jean’s mind, smashing her memories as if they’re made of glass, it can be viewed as a metaphor for what “X”-editorial is doing to readers’ memories of the “real” Madelyne, the heroic woman, loving mother, suffering wife.
I don’t care; I still love bitch-goddess Maddie. Especially when Claremont gives her lines like, “[He] calls himself Mr. Sinister. His hobby’s cloning redheads.”
Anyway, so Madelyne remains a villain to her last dying moment. (Actually, she seems to redeem herself at the last second, but she also seems to have become Jean at that point? Matters are a bit opaque here.) Cut to: the second half of the issue, as the X-Men track down Mr. Sinister, and learn that he has moved from his Nebraska base to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Claremont is bringing us full circle for this, his last contribution to the “Inferno” crossover. (It’s not only that; the text at the beginning notes that this is also the 25-year anniversary issue of the series, and the “150th issue of the new X-Men” – which makes it also Claremont’s 150th issue.)
The story of “Ashes” jumps around quite a bit – it functions weirdly as the penultimate chapter in the “Inferno” crossover (odd considering that the “Inferno” ended with Madelyne’s death at the end of the previous installment). But there is something else going on here. This issue has less significance to the “Inferno” chronology as it does to Claremont’s personal “X”-chronology.
Consider: Claremont takes us on a somewhat nostalgic tour of the “X”-mythos Continuity references abound: A tour inside Jean Grey’s mental space gives us some highlights (including a fashion-show of all her costumes, which is suitably Claremontian). We’re taken back to the School for Gifted Youngsters (not occupied by the X-Men since Uncanny 221, over a year and a half ago). Wolverine ruminates briefly over a picture of him and Mariko. Even more recent X-riffs are reprised, like Psylocke vs. Sabretooth. (I’m struck by the foresight demonstrated by Claremont in seeming to recognize that particular story as a riff destined to be replayed by other writers after him.)
It’s also amusing the way Silvestri has rendered “Inferno”’s apparent effect on Storm’s full-body leather costume – which is to say, it’s been torn to shreds, and now looks more like the original black-bikini design by Cockrum. Plus ce change …
Claremont’s writing in Uncanny 243 is as fluid as anything from this period, but matters here remain rather subdued throughout. Compared to the previous issue, this story – with its nostalgic turns and somewhat perfunctory action sequences – seems almost quaint.
Still, it contains some intriguing turns. Psylocke, for example, wonders whether “the changes [to the X-Men] wrought by ‘Inferno’ … were more than cosmetic.” This is a fascinating development that Claremont will kinda-sorta explore over the next few months before dropping it (perhaps at Bob Harras’ behest).
The climactic destruction of Xavier’s mansion is also quite exciting. Granted, Claremont has done this particular bit before (Uncanny #154), but the execution is a bit punchier this time around. Plus, it seems likely that Claremont intended it to stick this time. He wanted to kill Charles off and put Gateway in charge of the team. Destroying Charles’ mansion was no doubt meant as a very deliberate step in wiping away the old X-Men paradigm, and perhaps even a foreshadowing of what was to happen to Xavier himself.
Didn’t work out that way, in the event, but to end this milestone issue by blowing up the “school for gifted youngsters” is still very dramatically effective. The reason being: This 150th issue of Claremont’s run is also – in many ways – his final.
(Patrick Meaney uses a TV-based analogy to discuss this: He calls “Fall of the Mutants” the “series finale” of Claremont’s X-Men, while “Inferno” is the motion picture made a couple years later to resolve the final loose ends.)
Indeed, “Inferno” culminates so many of Claremont’s threads, and with such finality, that it does effectively become the climax of the story he began telling 13 years earlier. (Even the demonic-invasion trope provides an almost perfect book-end. The first X-Men story that Claremont wrote himself, sans a guiding plot by Len Wein, was Uncanny #96, about a demon invading the Earth.)
Claremont didn’t realize it at the time, but this is it. “Inferno” is the big, show-stopper finale. What follows is three years of curtain calls.