is by – W: Gerry Duggan, Benjamin Percy, Zeb Wells, Tini Howard, Jonathan Hickman, Vita Ayala, Al Ewing, Si Spurrier, Leah Williams; A: Matteo Lolli, Joshua Cassara, Stephen Segovia, Marcus To, Nick Dragotta, Russell Dauterman, Lucas Werneck, Sara Pichelli, Pepe Larraz, Alex Lins, Alberto Foche, Scot Eaton w/ Oren Junior, Valerio Schiti, Bob Quinn, David Baldeon, David Messina; C: Edgar Delgado, Guru-eFX, David Curiel, Erick Arciniega, Frank Martin, Matthew Wilson, Sunny Gho, Nolan Woodard, Marte Gracia, Matt Milla, Java Tartaglia, Israel Silva; L: Cory Petit, Joe Caramangna, Ariana Maher, Clayton Cowles, Travis Lanham, Joe Sabino; D: Tom Muller
The true test of a great party is who’s there. Are the conversations worth having, can you gossip about the elbows you rubbed, who hooked up with who? The X-Men have just had their most ambitious party yet, a night to remember now collected in X-Men: Hellfire Gala, courtesy of the entire X-line. Rather than serving a single story, this trade is a sampling of the various series in the line – a snapshot of the Krakoan era in the summer of 2021, and a hint of things to come. Let’s look at the guest list to see how it stacks up, and if this is really my scene.
The Hellfire Gala was the brainchild of Marauders writer Gerry Duggan, culminating out of numerous teases and hints made by Emma Frost in that series. The mutant island nation of Krakoa has blossomed into a world player and the White Queen herself wants to show it off. She extends a diplomatic olive branch to the humans of Earth by hosting the titular gala, a night of gracious hospitality and firm reminder of what mutants are capable of as one people. Friends, enemies, and an odd celebrity call sheet are all welcome to marvel at Krakoa’s brilliance up close (but not on the mutant homeland itself – Magneto has supplied a private island for the occasion). Told in a non-linear fashion, the story of what happened that night gets pieced together throughout this volume.
The reader flits from one crisis to another as the details reveal themselves. The many plot threads running through the evening, like X-Force’s inept security detail or Excalibur dealing with the UK’s secession from the Krakoan trade deal, are at turns awkward and engaging. Ultimately, they’re all just window dressing to the mutants laying claim to Mars. Those “fireworks” steal everyone else’s thunder, and reward readers of the Krakoa era by advancing the outcome of X of Swords with jaw-dropping implications for the mutants’ future. By the end of the night (aka the beginning of this collection) it’s unclear if any of Ms. Frost’s stated goals are accomplished, and if in fact human-mutant relations may be worse than ever.
Who Are You Wearing?
The Hellfire Gala truly begins where any high society function would, on the green carpet. I commend Marvel’s marketing for its unique strategy of adapting variant cover budgets to commissioning special party ‘fits. Design duties were split among a number of X-artists, with Russell Dauterman, Lucas Werneck, Valerio Schiti, and Matteo Lolli (to name a few) supplying best- and worst-dressed looks. Standout designs include Rachel Summers, Colossus, and Manifold. The X-Men are not usually found this close to high fashion, so reactions were mixed but heightened.
By comparison, the rest of Marvel’s heroes look pathetic in their standard-issue uniforms. You can make real-world excuses for why this is the case but it comes off in-story as tacky and mildly insulting. We get some jokes out of it (Dr. Strange uttering “finally, I am underdressed”), so the moment wasn’t wasted entirely. Each of the heroes is given a Krakoan boutonniere, serving as both wristband as well as tracking device. This detail is given a lot of attention at the start but gets forgotten quickly, making for a weird red herring. The event is filled with moments like this that are either puzzle pieces to impending story lines or just fun embellishments, and no way to discern which is which.
Marvel publicity went through its rolodex for celebrities who would be willing to grant their likenesses to this story to help bolster the guest list. It’s less successful than the green-carpet looks, less a “who’s who” than a “who could they get?” (no offense). Even if you were on the lookout for Megan Rapinoe, picking her out of the crowd wasn’t always so easy depending on a given artist’s talent for likenesses. The creator cameos, on the other hand, were much more charming and genuine. That said, I did enjoy the eye roll-inducing Kevin Feige cameo, if only because Hickman uses it to bookend his X-Men run with Cyclops’ mission statement.
Sailors Fighting In The Dance Hall (Is There Life On Mars?)
I don’t want to imagine a big X-event without Pepe Larraz in a starring role. The Spanish phenomenon (paired again with genius colorist Marte Gracia) has the honor of ushering mutantkind to the stars in Planet-Sized X-Men, placed directly in the middle of the collection. Duggan, Larraz, and Gracia make it so impactful that, even if the title gives away the game, watching them terraform Mars still fills you with awe. Larraz and Gracia show you what the birth of a world looks like, and there’s no mistaking this is the reason the Hellfire Gala exists.
So many details in this book felt inconsequential if fun, but Quentin Quire gathering the Omega-level mutants for this performance is a particularly great touch. House of X defined our list of Omegas, but this is the issue that delivers on why we ought to care. The heavy-hitters we know like Storm, Marvel Girl, and Magneto are in top form, while Larraz introduces us to new instant favorites Sobunar, Lactuca, and Xilo – Larraz has proven to be a master at designing characters that inspire true-love-at-first-sight.
Duggan’s writing style is more “sitcom” than Hickman’s or even Claremont’s, so most of what happens in this issue is easy to follow and fairly logical – he doesn’t throw too many curveballs. That said, he puts a few surprises into Planet-Size, the biggest shock coming from giving Mars to the Arakki mutants. I haven’t been thrilled with the way Duggan has interpreted that segment of the new X-Men mythos, notably in Cable, but this is an intriguing direction that opens up a new universe of possibilities.
Al Ewing and Valerio Schiti (with Gracia again) begin to explore those possibilities straight away in S.W.O.R.D., with Abigail Brand pitching the new mutant planet to an assembly of galactic dignitaries. It’s “while you slept the world changed” to the 10th power. The mutants of Krakoa are expanding their dominance outward, not only claiming Mars but establishing it as the seat of power for the entire solar system. Brand sweetens the deal when she unveils Mysterium, now called Sol, a magic metal/intergalactic currency that only mutant technology can mine. In one fell swoop, Ewing pays off the dangling thread from issue one and changes the landscape of what Marvel space could look like moving forward. Oh, also Storm will be the new figurehead from here to Pluto, overdue attention for a character who was once the X-Men’s main character.
We saw in Marauders how everyone reacted to these developments, but they don’t quite match up. The impact is hamstrung by a less-expressive artist like Lolli and the necessary ambiguity – guests are shocked but avoid any reference to what is shocking them. Thankfully Ewing and Schiti revisit this scene after the cat’s out of the bag, and give us a poignant scene of Captain America’s human perspective. This is a rare moment in the collection where the pace slows down enough to give us a scene like this with equal parts gravity and nuance, and the whole reads better for it.
The Planet Arakko thread is as close as the Gala comes to having an A-story, but it’s rife with B-, C-, and D-stories. Jonathan Hickman’s final issue of X-Men is a victory lap as the first Krakoan X-Men team is announced via Dauterman, turning in some great reaction panels. Long-time Hick-heads will enjoy Xavier’s and Magneto’s second rejected proposal to Namor (his short-sightedness is delicious in hindsight), but we’re left to wonder when or if it will pay off. Speaking of Mars, Sara Pichelli draws some of my favorite sequentials in the whole gala where Emma Frost tees up for Planet-Size. The pomp and circumstance is visceral in Pichelli’s hands, especially with the colors provided by Woodard (presumably).
Vita Ayala’s New Mutants is a sweet distraction from the stuffier bits of the night. Artist Alex Lins has an appealing cartoonishness that’s a great fit for the subject matter. “Barry Thee
Asshole Artist” gives Karma, Magik, and Warpath some fine scenery to chew in an otherwise fluffy plotline that dissipates enough tension for Warlock to mend his relationship with Cypher (and new wife Bei). The sweetness can barely conceal the bitterness rising to the surface, however, as Scout turns up dead. She’s not the only body to turn up that night. X-Factor tries to make the most of an admittedly janky final issue by wrapping up Prodigy’s resurrection mystery and giving the team a proper send-off before revealing a murdered Scarlet Witch. This comes after a touching reunion with Magneto in S.W.O.R.D. (or was it before? Time will tell). While interesting, this is more of an end-credits stinger than anything to do with the Gala.
Tini Howard largely continues to lay down bricks in a plotline that has been building through the the entirety of Excalibur, the gala setting is incidental. Marcus To always draws beautiful comics, so there’s little reason to complain, especially when we finally get a quiet moment for Rictor and Shatterstar at the end. Howard’s other title, X-Corp, is another pleasant comic that happens to be the same night as the big party. Penance and Angel interview candidates for a board of directors while Fenris gets into some treacherous activity. It’s not always clear what’s happening or why, but making Mastermind interesting these days is a feat worth commending. Zeb Wells’ Hellions is as funny as ever but is less substantial. I’ll just say Nanny deserves MVP status.
Deadpool shows up in X-Force and Wolverine, which sums up how well that goes. Benjamin Percy’s humor doesn’t reach much higher than rectal contraband which isn’t my favorite use of that character. The main focus of these issues, though, is Beast inflicting the consequences of his bad actions on everyone around him. He’s sent his sleeper agents into the crowd to plant spy equipment on the world leaders in attendance, but the puppets instead transform into monstrous swamp creatures, threatening the party vibes. Reading X-Force is like witnessing a highly-preventable, slow motion car crash – it’s hard to derive much enjoyment from it beyond Cassara’s artwork. Especially when Abigail Brand is doing such a better job of being a H.B.I.C. in S.W.O.R.D.
Way of X takes place after the party is all over, chronologically, catching up with a hungover Nightcrawler (we see Kurt getting cartoonishly drunk throughout the various other issues). He’s on a spiritual journey in this series, and this installment leads him to screaming at Stacy X for handing out condoms at the afterparty. You see, one of Krakoa’s three commandments is “Make More Mutants,” and Spurrier chooses to eschew the various, thought-provoking ways one could interpret such an edict to only focus on the biblical, sexy interpretation. Way of X’s contrarian tone and bad faith explorations of Krakoa’s possibilities exhaust me. The script reads more like a screed that sets up a strawman, knocks it over, and moves on to the next one before you’ve had a chance to get out a word of argument. Bob Quinn’s art is expressive but here mostly just contributes to an overly frenetic pace that sets my teeth on edge.
Répondez s’il vous plaît?
The first Krakoan Hellfire Gala ends with the promise of another next year. I’m ambivalent on whether I look forward to doing this again. It’s fun for X-Men comics to try new things, to do the unexpected, but this experiment has uneven results. I’m curious what a redux of the gala would look like in two or three (real-world) years, having learned the needed lessons. The narrative symmetry might be fascinating, and could lend retroactive significance. That might be the only way to get me excited about another Gala under the same management. On its own, the Hellfire Gala is a curiosity with a lot of high notes but is probably not one of the X-Men’s most memorable storylines. It still brings a smile to your face, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s convenient, if not appropriate, to contrast this book with X of Swords, the preceding X-event. Unlike that crossover, the Hellfire Gala is gold-plating wrapped around business-as-usual. The shared location and red carpet fashions create a tenuous narrative cohesion to justify the trade dressing. In a way, it’s the perfect realization of this era’s series of Dawn of X trades. This collection documents a distinct turning point in the franchise more than anything else, when the reins of X passed on – Head of X Jonathan Hickman is pointedly staying out of the spotlight here. Instead, the dance floor is opened up for Duggan and the other X-Office creators to have as much fun as they can get away with.
Is it a good party though? The celebrity guest list is hit or miss (could they really not get Lil Nas X?), the mutants are all dressed to make a statement, there wasn’t much dancing, and I had a good time with about half of the creative team. All told, pretty mixed. A real-life party with X-Men would be life-defining no matter what, but in a world where I see X-Men all the time I might leave this one early without telling anyone. So few of the chapters rely on your reading the whole collection to enjoy, that it might serve you to do the same. Just make sure you don’t leave before the fireworks.