3.06.2014

X-Men: Hellfire!


The X-Men's "Hellfire Club" story is generally considered to run from issues 129 through 134, directly setting the stage for the (slightly) better-known "Death of Phoenix" saga. But, like many Claremont plots, the storyline is actually set in motion several issues earlier:

While the X-Men battle Proteus, Jason Wyngarde, aka Mastermind, begins to infiltrate Jean's mind, causing her to experience "timeslips."

Claremont actually ret-conned the beginning of this story all the way back to X-Men 110, when he revealed (in X-Men 129, over Byrne's objections) that the Hellfire Club was responsible for Warhawk's infiltration of the Mansion in that issue. If there was an in-between-panels character or backstory he could digitally insert after-the-fact, he did so.

Before we continue, let's have a look at Byrne's and Claremont's inspiration, starting logically enough with the actual Hellfire Club aka The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, aka the Mad Monks of Medmenham. (Check this site out for loads of info and pics of the grounds today.)

William Hogarth's painting of Sir Francis Dashwood (with his friend the notorious Earl of Sandwich's profile in the halo above his head.)
If you're unfamiliar with these guys, you can do no better than to track down a copy of Daniel Mannix's classic biography:


I won't say too much about it, except that it's an absolutely riveting and unforgettable read. You'll never look at the 18th century the same way again. (And you will be less likely to freak out about things like the Skull and Bones Society or the Koch Brothers: amateurs.) Well worth your time. It was the inspiration for a movie, but the film bears only superficial relation to the source material. 

One quick anecdote: one of the group's ranks, John Wilkes, vehemently opposed going to war with the American Colonies. He was quite popular in said colonies as a result, leading to his name being widely disseminated among the first few generations of American children, a tradition that ended ignominiously in 1865.


The inspiration for the X-Men storyline came from a different quarter. Here's John Byrne from his forum:

"There was, of course, a real Hellfire Club back in the 1700s, tho I know very little about it beyond the name and Benjamin Franklin having been a member. The inspiration for the fictional one Chris and I worked with came mostly from TV's Avengers, an episode titled "A Touch of Brimstone". That also featured actor Peter Wyngard, who served as the model for Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind. (Confession time, now -- the visual designs (came additionally from) the 1975 filmed version of The Story of O. Ahem.)"

(I'll leave it to you to google said film - might be a tad risqué to screencap here.)

Peter Wyngarde might best be known to Americans unfamiliar with British television of yesteryear as Klytus from Flash Gordon.

Well, those Americans familiar with Flash Gordon, at any rate. (We can thank the movie Ted for reintroducing this movie to a new generation. I wonder when they'll get around to rebooting it. Only a matter of time. Probably with Aisha Hinds in the lead.)
But his most famous role was Jason King:

Ergo, "Jason Wyngarde."
"A Touch of Brimstone" was somewhat unsurprisingly the highest-rated episode of The Avengers. The plot is simple enough: a group modeling itself after the 18th century Hellfire Club stages a series of increasingly criminal pranks until Emma Peel and John Steed intervene at Her Majesty's Request.

Along the way, Wyngarde's character says "Hell-fire!" about a hundred times.
And it is infectious. Try it with friends while clinking glasses - you'll never stop.
Byrne and Claremont apparently agreed.
The episode is better remembered for the Queen of Sin outfit Emma Peel wears at The Night of All Sins orgy.
Designed by Diana Rigg herself. (Which raises an interesting question that I'll get to in a moment.)
Rigg and Patrick Macnee are their usual unflappable selves about it all.
"Brimstone" was banned outright in the U.S., and the scene at at the end where Peel battles a whip-cracking Wyngarde was censored in the U.K. (I'm sure the snake symbolism wasn't lost on anyone, either.) Although still visually provocative, it's all relatively tame to 21st century eyes. (Though no less entertaining. The Avengers is great stuff in general, but the Rigg/ Macnee years were the best.)

As discussed here, all of this raises some interesting questions. Byrne and Claremont lifted the visual design of the Black Queen from Diana Rigg's original design for the Avengers episode, which was written by Brian Clemens and directed by James Hill. The question of authorship when it comes to big-screen superhero movies is a controversial one, but one wonders if Diana Rigg and Brian Clemens shouldn't be receiving some share of the acclaim (never mind the royalties) for any/ all of this. 

Perhaps not Brian Clemens, actually. Sure, he wrote the episode that inspired Byrne/ Claremont (and thus Bryan Singer) but there's little similarity between the X-Men "Hellfire" story and the Avengers one. Which, given the alterations to the Byrne/ Claremont story for X-Men: First Class, means there's even less call to credit Clemens's work on Avengers.

Let's look at the original story in a bit more detail. 



The Hellfire Club is established as a secret society of America's rich and powerful, as ruled by an Inner Circle:


Not pictured: Emma Frost, aka the White Queen.
As aforementioned, Mastermind works on Jean Grey, maneuvering her into place as The Black Queen.
Why exactly are they after the X-Men? The longer answer is detailed in the issues themselves; the shorter answer is, this is simply what super-villains do


Over the course of the story, the X-Men (save Kitty Pryde, who is introduced herein, and Wolverine) are captured and at the Hellfire Club's mercy. 

Colossus is taken out by Sebastian Shaw, something that is amusingly recalled in Joss Whedon's sequel (of sorts) to this storyline years later in Astonishing X-Men.

Whedon's (and Cassaday's) run on Astonishing X-Men is essential reading, by the by. If someone published a volume that collected only it and the Proteus-into-Hellfire-into-Death-of-Phoenix storyline, you'd have practically everything you need to know about the X-Men. I'd personally add the other storylines I've covered here as well (Mutant Massacre and God Loves, Man Kills) and maybe a couple of others, but desert island scenario? Yeah, X-Men 125 through 138 and Astonishing X-Men 1-24. 

Jean manages to defeat the White Queen, but Mastermind's illusions continue to bewitch her.
At least, that's what she allows everyone to believe.
I won't detail all the ins and outs - it's just fantastically entertaining, well-executed, and exciting stuff.


Jean's revenge against Mastermind is particularly over-the-top.

 

These events lead directly into the Dark Phoenix saga:
Best closing page ever? At least in my personal running.
A story you just may have heard of. (And which was even more botched in its cinematic incarnation.)

I shouldn't say "botched;" X-Men First Class is its own thing and not necessarily a bad movie, whereas X3: The Last Stand is insulting to anyone who ever loved these stories or characters. I actually think First Class is perfectly fine. It's just not the source material, and since the source material is so good, it's disappointing.


I mean, I like January Jones and Kevin Bacon -
but whomever thought they were good fits for Sebastian Shaw (!) and Emma Frost is out of his or her mind. And they did a pretty good job, all things considered. But X-casting is so damn erratic. Even Hugh Jackman, who is great as Wolverine and probably what anyone would reasonably consider good casting, barely resembles the comics character. Hugh is six-foot-whatever and ruggedly handsome; Wolverine is five feet tall and (at least, he was supposed to be) well-battered.

Don't believe me? Here's John Byrne, when asked if his Wolverine was inspired by Clint Eastwood.

"Nope. It was Frank Miller who went off-model and "cast" Eastwood as Wolverine. My "model" was this guy. . .

Paul D'Amato as Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in Slap Shot.
Byrne's had plenty to say on the topic over the years, but y'all know how to use Google should you want more. 

And with all fairness to January Jones...


she fits the shall we say "enhanced" character model that all of Marvel's female characters morphed into over in the 90s.
Sorry, fanboys, but this is just so fucking ridiculous. Pardon my French.
Not that the original storyline was immune to sexing up the panels, of course, nor previous eras of comic-dom in general. But at least the characters looked the same from panel to panel, issue to issue. (And their postures and facial expressions match their dialogue.)
Googling Emma Frost is rather funny in this regard. You have the classic character model (i.e. the way she was created and illustrated throughout the 80s) and then endless Adam-Hughes-esque nerd-wankdom drawings. Guess which ones comprise the majority of returned results? She's hardly the only character to suffer this fate, of course; is there a single female character at Marvel (or DC) who wasn't devolved into cover-girl fodder? When it comes to such things, I'm more on the Camille Paglia side of feminism, i.e. I'm not a kneejerk "this is sexist!" type person when I see cheesecake-shots or what not. But it's almost criminal what happened to Marvel (and DC)'s female characters in the 90s and beyond. If there was a comics-verse equivalent of SVU, they need to pay a visit to the Marvel Bullpen.(On their way to DC's.)

Anyway. The Black Queen returns in later storylines, this time played by Selene:

And Emma Frost eventually reforms and ends up both joining the X-Men and becoming romantically entangled with Scott/ Cyclops:


but for my money, the Hellfire Club are still best represented in the Byrne/ Claremont storyline.

COVERS GALLERY

Emma returns for a memorable 2-parter in 151 and 152, when she and Storm switch bodies. It's a nice callback to the Hellfire Club story. (Of course, it was only a year and a handful of months later, so memories were still fresh.)

5 comments:

  1. One of the greatest X-Men stories ever. And it leads into another story that might be even better. Very cool.

    It should be noted this was the first story where Wolverine was given some up-front scenes. Before this he wasn't even featured on a lot of the covers. When we see him on the cover of 133, and solo no less, that was the beginning of him "becoming" the Wolverine we all know today. It actually started on the last page of the previous issue and I wonder what X-Men readers of the time thought. I didn't start reading the book until 141 so I missed out on this the first time around. I wish it weren't so, but alas...

    The Disco Dazzler. Ugh. What was with Marvel (and DC, too) always coming into a fad when it was on its way out? By 1979 people were turning away from disco in droves. I'd like to think stupid characters like this one helped usher that garbage off the stage.

    Awesome, awesome story. One of the top 5 greatest X-Men yarns ever.

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  2. There is a Peter Straub novel called "The Hellfire Club" that I am suddenly much more interested in reading.

    I don't even know what to say about the (unlikely) prospect of Aisha Hinds playing Flash Gordon, except that I want to see it and to NEVER EVER EVER see it at roughly a 35%/65% split. Klytus...I am booooored.

    If this entire post had just been screencaps of Diana Rigg, I'd've been okay with that. I mean, I'd have felt really bad for you on account of your lack of focus...but, like, I'd've understood.

    As for Rigg's chances of royalties, they are nonexistent. These Hollywood folks can't even be bothered to fling a few coins at the people who were CREDITED on the material they use, much less the people those people ripped off / paid homage to. As big a fan as I am of the modern superhero movie era, I have to ignore that aspect of it lest it sicken me.

    I love that "YOUR POWER IS NOTHING" panel. I'm a sucker for that face-totally-in-shadows-except-for-the-eyes approach.

    I'd sort of forgotten about it, but I've actually read most of this! I had the graphic novels of "Hellfire" and "Dark Phoenix" -- bought and read 'em shortly after the first "X-Men" movie came out. I'd forgotten how good "Hellfire" was!

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    1. ha - I'd hoped you'd enjoy that Aisha Hinds shout-out. I'd kind of love to see that, too. (Especially if they just kept kept the Queen soundtrack but added some awful song over the end credits to be "current.")

      This post very nearly WAS a photolog of Diana Rigg from "A Touch of Brimstone." On another level of the Tower, that was the one I published. (Also, a lot more shots of Wyngarde chortling, toasting, or snarling.)

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  3. X3 terrible. Just sad stuff. The new Xmen though has been great. I love learning about Dark Phoenix. The most I know about Xmen comes from the animated series in the 90s. Which I loved so much!

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    1. I've been watching the animated series a little bit lately - was thinking of reviewing the Days of Future Past adaptation they made for it as part of the Days of Future Passed blog. The stumbling blocks for me, besides changing the story around so much, were Gambit, a character I just never cared for and whose popularity at the time of the show's production seemed to translate to his getting almost every line, and Wolverine's bizarre Australian accent. haha - but, it's cool that they adapted the classic storylines.

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