Thursday, June 4, 2015

Comics Review: Inferno #1 & the 1980s Inferno

Marvel’s Inferno event occurred way back in 1988 and ‘89.  At its core, Inferno was an invasion of Manhattan by the demons of Limbo, one of the many magical Hell-dimensions of the Marvel Universe (MU).  More than that, it was also something of a bridge stylistically from the mutant-prejudice stories of the 80s to the 90s hyper-dark, hyper-sexy style that eventually became emblematic of Image comics.  It is perhaps no surprise then that the art of Marc Silvestri plays a substantial role, and that even Rob Liefeld makes a cameo in one of the later issues, though his work here is largely devoid of the markers that will later become his trademark.  Inferno was important because it tied up several storylines that had been playing through the X-books since as long ago as the Dark Phoenix saga, and as such, it was something of a seminal story event.  It was also one of the last times that some of these books made anything like logical, narrative sense for a very long time. 

2015's Inferno #1, written by Dennis Hopeless, art by Javier Garron.
I need to get my wife some of these boots!
The original 500+ page Inferno TPB is available for $29.99 on Comixology or for a little more than half of that if you’re willing to buy the Kindle version.  I bought the Kindle version, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it despite the fact that it was dirt cheap.  Not only is it physically harder to read on the Kindle, the issues are also presented out of order.  This is a disastrous mistake considering that the book’s table of contents lists the correct order but isn’t actually linked to the starts of the various chapters.  Thus, to read the story as it happens, one must flip through the book digitally to find the starts of each of the various chapters.  That’s a serious pain in the ass.
The original Inferno had two causes.  First, Illyana Rasputin -- Magick of the New Mutants -- lost control of Limbo, the infernal realm she ruled as the so-called Darkchylde (note the 90s-style spelling).  Magick was something of a proto-warlock in the D&D mold.  Her mutant power gave her the ability to control the teleportation disks that occurred naturally in Limbo, linking all points of time and space in a kind of infinite/timeless hellscape.  This power is inherently evil, so the more she used it and the magic it granted her as Limbo’s queen, the more she eroded her soul.  As she lost control, demons were able to use her power to invade Manhattan, and thus we have our story.
Illyana was introduced early in the New Mutants run, and Inferno took place from issues #71 to #73.  By the time Inferno started, her story had been running for at least five full years.  She was a new but very popular character, and her arc was a well-established part of an established, long-running team.  The fact that Inferno actually resolves her fundamental storyarc in a satisfying way is therefore something of a miracle.  It is, quite honestly, the kind of thing that you just don’t see in comics anymore.
Illyana Rasputin as the Darkchylde, original Inferno.
The second cause of Inferno is a little harder to explain.  Jean Grey -- aka Marvel Girl and then Phoenix -- was killed at the end of the Dark Phoenix saga.  Shortly thereafter, her one true love Scott Summers -- aka Cyclops -- met and married Madelyne Pryor, a woman who looked exactly like Ms. Grey.  Scott and Madelyne left the X-Men to try to live as civilians, but Scott was miserable, and their marriage was mostly unhappy.  Still, Madelyne eventually gave birth to Nathan Summers[1].  At about the same time that Madelyne gave birth, however, Jean Grey came back to life.  Scott bolted his marriage immediately to join X-Factor, a re-grouping of the original X-Men, and they head off-planet.  But then mysterious Marauders showed up to try to kill Madelyne and steal her baby, leaving her with no one to call but Scott’s old buddies the X-Men, now led by Storm.  By the time X-Factor got back, the X-Men were headed into the Fall of the Mutants storyline, which eventually saw them die on live TV in Dallas in an effort to save the world.  Scott therefore watched his wife die, but to be fair, it’s not like he was upset.  Really, Madelyne’s death was conveniently timed considering that he was at that point already back together with his one true love, leading the members of the original X-Men under the name X-Factor.  
But mom... look what you're wearing!
Inferno, then, was the story of Madelyne’s revenge.  
She made a deal with N’astirh, the same demon who had subverted Magick’s powers to create the demonic invasion of New York, whereby she would sacrifice her son Nathan to permanently hold open the portal between Limbo and the natural world.  Madelyne became the Goblin Queen, she subverted Scott’s brother Alex -- aka Havoc -- to become her Goblin Prince, and wackiness ensued.
For what it’s worth, the new Inferno #1 picks up from this same point.  What’s different is that with the advent of the new Secret Wars, Dr. Doom has become the God-Emperor of the MU, so that all reality now exists as a kind of fever-dream inside his head.  Doom is not the most stable guy, however, and the shape of the universe reflects this.  Earth has become Battleworld, full of independent baronies which exist in overlapping continuity from all over the history of Marvel comics.  The Inferno barony is ruled by Scott Summers, accompanied by Jean Grey and company in the original X-Factor uniforms, alongside most of Marvel’s other mutants.  In this timeline, the actualInferno occurred some five years ago, with the salient difference being that the X-Men lost.  
Why did they lose?  Because that’s the way it happened in Dr. Doom’s head.
The original Inferno was interesting and complicated, but it was also very long, and the art was uneven at best.  It was mostly a story about Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Madelyne Pryor, but Peter Rasputin -- aka Colossus -- also played a substantial part.  This made sense.  He is the brother of Magick and also made of organic steel, which makes him resistant to magic.  I mean this in the D&D sense.  For the purposes of Inferno, Colossus takes half-damage from magical attacks and has Advantage on Saving Throws to resist magic’s effects.  This makes him a key member of the team.
The Inferno TPB starts with X-Men 239 as a Prologue.
The actual event kicks off with issue #240.
It’s not surprising, then, that Colossus is the viewpoint character for the new Inferno.  Scott Summers’s barony is a rough approximation of New York in which Manhattan is controlled by demons while the outer boroughs remain free.  The X-Men mostly serve as the barony’s police force, with Colossus acting as a critical member of the effort.  He’s married to Neena Thurman -- aka Domino -- in what can only be described as a happy, loving marriage.  But once a year, Colossus takes a team of mutants into Manhattan in an effort to rescue his sister from the demons.  After five years, though, that effort has gone from being merely dangerous to hopeless.
I liked the original Inferno quite a bit.  As a kid, I thought it was insane but compelling, and as an adult, that’s still pretty much my impression.  It’s a massive event with four writers and at least five pencilers, and that makes the quality of the overall work uneven, but the parts from the pages of the New Mutants and the core Uncanny X-Men titles are very good.  Granted, writer Chris Claremont’s trademark catchphrases and personal storytelling foibles are all here in abundance, but still… these are characters that he understands at an instinctive level.  I don’t love his pacing at times or his total lack of foreshadowing, but the basic idea -- that this is the story of an abandoned spouse who’d rather get revenge on her faithless husband than find happiness in the arms of his similarly abandoned brother -- is the kind of compelling family soap opera that made the X-Men such an interesting book in the first place.
In this sense, the new Inferno is a very similar idea.  Colossus is a man who could have a happy life and a happy marriage, but he just can’t let go of his sister.  His failure to let go may well cost him everything.
The original Inferno is far from the best X-Men story of all time, but it’s a lot of fun.  Fans who want to revisit the book as it existed in its heydey in the 80s could do a lot worse.  The new Inferno reads more like a modern, twenty-first century comic book, but it’s still an entertaining and wild ride, and if you miss that in the modern X-Men, you could again do a lot worse.  I’ll be on board the rest of the way.

[1] Nathan Summers eventually becomes the iconic mutant character of the 1990s, Cable.

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