Review: X-Men: Inferno hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

The two stories collectively called the X-Men: Inferno crossover are arguably the last entry point to the X-Men franchise before it became hopelessly convoluted. It’s the third in a series of major crossovers, but Inferno makes sense without reading Mutant Massacre and The Fall of the Mutants. One of its central conceits is breaking down the barriers between X-Factor (the original five X-Men) and the Uncanny team (focused around Storm, Wolverine, Colossus and Rogue). At this point, the Uncanny X-Men were thought dead, and they were convinced that the X-Factor team were traitors due to their mutant-hunting façade. It’s a miscommunication propagated by Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops’s ex-wife, whose son is in the custody of X-Factor and who ended up in Australia with the Uncanny team.

I mentioned that there are two stories involved here, both of which are two-title crossovers and are loosely linked. Apart from the Uncanny/X-Factor crossover, there’s also the New Mutants and their adventures with the X-Terminators, the young wards of X-Factor. The X-Terminators mini-series is not collected in the older paperback edition of Inferno that I have, but the pertinent events are explained well-enough in New Mutants. To be perfectly honest, none of the X-Terminators are all that interesting, with the few that are -- like Rictor and Boom-Boom -- later migrating to New Mutants and X-Force.

What I really like is that Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson built up the two stories around women victimized into becoming villains, creating some narrative parallels. Even though Madelyne was named after folk musician Maddy Prior, it’s likely not a coincidence that her name is also similar to Medea, who went on a rampage after being wronged by her husband. The story also explores her link to Jean Grey: as a clone of the heroine, she was never intended to have a life until her master pulled her strings, and then she had to deal with an interaction with the Phoenix Force. Meanwhile, the younger mutants finally resolve the fate of Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’ younger sister who was kidnapped and aged up in a demonic Limbo, becoming that dimension’s savior. (I’m not even getting into some of the more recent retcons about Illyana’s motives or I’d be here all day.)

A demon from Limbo, N’astirh, while warring with Illyana’s tormentor S’ym, has come up with a scheme to link Limbo to Earth using twelve infants as a sacrifice. N’astirh also unlocked some of Madelyne Pryor’s powers to transform her into the Goblin Queen while also using her son Nathan as one of the infants in the portal scheme. When this plan goes awry, N’astirh delivers the boy back to Madelyne, who has fully embraced her powers and brought out the negative influences of the Uncanny X-Men, putting some of them in her thrall. That’s just about the simplest I can reduce the plot to, leaving out some really unnecessary bits like the transmode virus getting involved and Archangel’s constant angst over his then-recent transformation by Apocalypse. Yet believe it or not, this whole book has a relatively low level of X-angst; that doesn’t really kick in until the arrival of Gambit a few crossovers away.

It all leads back to Mister Sinister; this is his first major plotline so that’s not the cliché it would later become. Sinister’s a really nasty piece of work here, with an utter disregard for his creations like Madelyne. Turning him into just another underling for Apocalypse really reduced his level of menace; Inferno demonstrates his skill as a master planner with plots reaching back to Cyclops’ origin. He’s actually not in the story for much of the second act, letting the X-Men get angrier and angrier until he meets a well-deserved end. There’s even some callbacks to the last time the X-Men got this angry and Colossus snapped the neck of Sinister’s henchman Riptide, who is suddenly alive in this story. (Spoiler: cloning.)

A major highlight in the artwork -- from Mark Silvestri, Bret Blevins, and Walt Simonson -- is the demonic transformation of New York City. People are warped into their darkest forms and items become sentient and deadly. I can sense two film influences here, Ghostbusters and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, both of which were contemporary to Inferno. The former can be seen in the transformation of the Empire State Building into the locus of the Limbo portal; a group of “Ghostbusters” look-alikes are killed early on. The “Roger Rabbit” connection was a later realization that came while re-reading some of the New Mutants issues. Many of the now-alive possessed objects act like the Toons in how they exploit their forms for maximum mischief; when they worship Illyana, all I could hear was “Hi, Eddie!” from the Toontown sequence. Blevins especially shines in this crossover since he was used to turning Warlock into odd, personified objects.

Speaking of art, one thing I really enjoy about the old paperback version which I’m not sure is present in the hardcover is the title page. The entire thing is set up as an Aleister Crowley-style summoning diagram, with interlinking circles containing the different positions. There’s a later page showing the Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor casts as the Sefirot in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (a concept Claremont used again in X-Men: The End). A lot of recent trades don’t put this much work into creating title pages; it’s a glimpse at a time when collected editions were a little more rare.

While the stories in X-Men: Inferno are a bit overlong, that’s just expected in a crossover, and the stories themselves have some great character bits. The artwork is also excellent; it may have just catapulted Silvestri over Jim Lee as my favorite Image founder. Blevins is an unsung master and Simonson, as always, can’t be beat. If you’re really new to reading the classic X-crossovers, you might be better off starting with the Phoenix Trilogy that I previously reviewed, followed by Mutant Massacre, but definitely make your way to Inferno.
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  1. I picked up the massive hardcover of this story about 5 years ago (I assume your copy is same as mine).

    One thing that's worth mentioning is at the end there's a issue drawn by a young Rob Liefeld. I got a lot of entertainment in comparing his work then with his more recent artwork (Uh...spoiler? It hasn't changed at all). Regardless, this is probably the last storyline of the Claremont-era worth reading.

  2. The one I read is, I think, the first or second edition paperback. The omnibus (which I think is what you have) has more issues from all of the titles involved plus the X-Terminators mini and some Excalibur issues. And then there's the whole extra crossovers omnibus...