A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 14: Chris Claremont on the Mutant Metaphor (The Hellfire Club)

When Chris Claremont was handed the reins in Uncanny X-Men #94, he took the opportunity to put his stamp on almost every facet of their world – and the mutant metaphor was no exception. Given his xtra-ordinarily long tenure on the X-books, it would be impossible to cover his contributions in one essay, so this will be the first in a series of essays exploring how Claremont mutated the metaphor.

As I mentioned way back in Week 4, it took a while for Claremont to bring in the metaphor, and even then the issue is more of an homage to Uncanny X-Men #57 (which he had helped with as an intern) rather than a fully-fledged creation of his own. His “voice” begins to really sing with “the Phoenix Saga” (#97-108), but as I’ve talked about elsewhere, the Phoenix Saga really sings more as a space opera and personal drama rather than a story about what it means to be a mutant.

However, I will argue that Uncanny X-Men #129 is where Claremont really starts to say something about the mutant metaphor with the introduction of his first new mutant antagonists, the Hellfire Club.

So what is the Hellfire Club and what does it stand for?

Filthy Rich, Emphasis on the Filthy

First, and most importantly, they are the 1%. Indeed, the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club are a diverse array of different kinds of wealth: Sebastian Shaw is a 19th-century robber baron brought into the 20th century, a “self-made man” who thinks only in terms of dominating other people yet hides his feelings of cultural inferiority behind the façade of an emphasis-on-the-rugged individualist; Emma Frost is New England old money, although to be fair her inheritance of Frost Industries from her emotionally-abusive WASP father was in addition to her own fortune earned through her own business savvy (supplemented with telepathing insider trading); Harry Leland is a corrupt corporate lawyer who used murder to move up the ladder; and Donald Pierce is a mutant-hating cyborg industrialist (presumably one of the left-overs of Edward Buckman’s human-only Council of the Chosen).

This is, incidentally, why I’ve previously referred to the Hellfire Club as “neoliberal” as opposed to your classic country-club type: they have both human and mutant members (despite the fact that a lot of their human members are violent eliminationist anti-mutant bigots), they’re racially integrated (Emmanuel da Costa, Sunspot’s father, an Afro-Brazilian businessman, becomes the White Rook; Sebastian’s half-Japanese illegitimate son, becomes Black King for a time), half of their Inner Circle are women (although I’ll get to their issues with gender later). Indeed, the Hellfire Club is almost a classic Marxist’s view of the bourgeoisie; that all other considerations – race, religion, nationality, gender – have been subordinated to capital:

But for all that the Club is open to self-made “powerful industrialists,” the Hellfire Club is distinctly not Silicon Valley “disrupter” types or Sunset Belt ultra-conservatives: they are the Establishment. As Neil Shyminsky describes them, the Hellfire Club “isn’t planning to take over the world. One gets the impression that they don’t need to because they *already* control it.”[1] This is why their headquarters isn’t a secret volcano base on Skull Island but rather a mansion on Fifth Avenue with a view of Central Park, and why the Club’s organizational manifestation is not an evil corporation (a la Roxxon or Alchemax) but rather a social club which hosts the most exclusive parties in New York:

The insidious, all-encompassing influence of the Hellfire Club – the fact that their membership includes not only the “economic elite” but also the “social [and] political” elite[2] of both the first and second worlds (as Colossus’ comment indicates) – is what makes them truly dangerous to the X-Men, who for all their power have almost no cultural capital in human society. Thus, in the wake of their climactic showdown in #134, the Hellfire Club uses public relations and insider influence as one of their main weapons against the X-Men:

The Hellfire Club’s establishment status is also linked to their motivations as antagonists. Unlike the Sentinels, the Purifiers/Stryker’s Crusade, the Friends of Humanity, or the Genoshan Magistrates, the Hellfire Club isn’t motivated by anti-mutant prejudice, but rather by the single-minded pursuit of power in all aspects of life.

Rather than being existential opponents, therefore, the Hellfire Club view the X-Men as merely instrumental. As Cyclops puts it in #132, they’re “a group of industrialists out to rule the world. They view mutant-kind – and the X-Men – as a means to achieving that goal.”

The Hellfire Club’s commitment to capitalist ideology shows itself in their internal organization, which closely follows the precepts of social Darwinism. For all that the Inner Circle might cooperate for mutual profit, they ultimately view one another as competitors in a winner-take-all struggle for power:

The looming conflict between Sebastian Shaw and Jason Wyngarde is hardly an exception to the rule: Shaw achieved his position by killing Edward Buckman and Emma Frost by killing Paris Seville; Emma Frost and Shaw will conspire to try to assassinate Selene; Sebastian Shaw will later be ousted by Magneto, Shaw, and Selene; Shinobi Shaw will challenge both his father and Selene for leadership; and most recently, Emma Frost manipulated the X-Men into helping her overthrow Shaw and become the Black King.  Indeed, one could think of the history of the leadership of the Hellfire Club as so many hostile takeovers and corporate mergers (in the case of the X-Men’s later alliance and temporary membership as White Kings).

Fais Ce Que Tu Voudras

Not everything about the Hellfire Club can be explained by capitalism, if only because something has to explain why their uniform trends less toward business casual than the bondage section of Fredericks of Hollywood. So if the first thing about the Hellfire Club is that they’re neoliberals, the second thing is that they’re hedonists:

Nor is this attitude confined to the guests whose privilege the Inner Circle seeks to exploit: to the extent that we get inside the heads of the Hellfire Club’s leadership, we learn that Jason Wyngarde believes that “in all our souls lurk a devil, a yang counterpart to the surface yin” which he seeks to free “from its moral cage”; similarly, Emma Frost thinks to herself that “in this, as in all things, my pleasure will not be denied.”[3]

This belief that the rich and powerful should be free to throw off the bonds of morality and taboo, but safely behind closed doors so that their position in society won’t suffer from public disapproval, makes Marvel’s Hellfire Club very much the intellectual heir to its real-world counterparts. There were, in fact, two 18th century British social clubs that operated under the name of the Hellfire Club. The Duke of Wharton’s Hellfire Club was noted for its satirizing of Christianity – members claimed to be devils, conducted mock religious ceremonies, and dined off a menu that satirized transubstantiation – and the fact that it included men and women as equal members. Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club (which included the notorious gambling addict and culinary inventor the Earl of Sandwich, the artist William Hogarth, and the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes) had its anti-clerical elements – Dashwood rented out a former abbey and brought in sex workers dressed as nuns for entertainment – but leaned heavily in the direction of paganism, worshipping Bacchus and Venus and Priapus through the usual methods of fermentation and fornication. Crucially for this point, Dashwood’s club took as its motto “fais ce que tu voudras” (do what thou wilt), which they borrowed from Rabelais and which would in turn inspire Aleister Crowley. 

For all that these groups were more about over-intellectualizing wanting to drink and have sex more than the church would approve of, they struck something of a chord in the public imagination and so the Hellfire Club stuck around in sensational literature and media throughout the 19th century, eventually leading to the “A Touch of Brimstone” episode of the U.K Avengers show which inspired Claremont and Byrne to create the first half of the Dark Phoenix Saga:

(costume designed and worn by Olenna Tyrell)
(costumes designed by John Byrne)

At the same time, there’s something very safely heteronormative about the Hellfire Club’s particular brand of hedonism: only the women are dressed up as fetish maids or dommes (and its noticeable that the putative female leaders of the Inner Circle differ from the help only in that they get to wear capes over their corsets), whereas the men remain fully covered-up in their faux-regency knee britches and tailcoats.[4] (One wonders whether Emma will change the dress code to something more authentically BDSM now that she’s the Black King.) It’s very reminiscent of the way that Hugh Hefner tried to cash in on the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s without incorporating women’s liberation or the gay rights movement into his worldview. No wonder then, that even Warren Worthington III who’s hardly the wokest of X-Men even on his best day, sees the Hellfire Club as not much of a radical challenge to conventional morality:

Indeed, Claremont even addresses the blatant sexual imbalance in the Hellfire Club’s presentation and practice in Classic X-Men #34 [5], when Emma Frost has a changing room heart-to-heart with an unnamed Hellfire Club waitress about systemic sexism:

While her argument isn’t exactly persuasive – the waitress has much less of a choice in her choice of “weaponry” – it’s almost over-determined that this era of Emma Frost would lean much more in the direction of Camille Paglia than Gloria Steinem, or that her particular line would focus so heavily on the uses of “weaponized sexuality” and her own personal rise to power as both a survivor of sexist institutions and a superior being (both because of her appearance and her mutant power), rather than a systemic critique or collective attack on said institutions. One can only imagine what Emma Frost’s Lean In circle meetings are like.

In addition to the issue of gendered self-presentation, there’s something else problematic in the way that the Hellfire Club practices kink. Even taking into account that the fictional scenarios of BDSM aren’t the same thing as the praxis of the community and that the Hellfire Club are fictional antagonists, it’s interesting that the members of the Hellfire Club don’t practice kink among themselves; it’s only their employees and their prisoners who get stripped down and tied up. In other words, Hellfire Club kink is done entirely without negotiation, consent, or trust. While Jean Grey’s extended gaslighting/mind-control is the more famous case, one of the creepiest examples comes in Uncanny X-Men #152, where it’s implied that Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost have sex using Storm’s body:

While this does prompt the normally-pacifist Ororo Monroe to try to kill both of them immediately after she reverses the mind-swap, I’m surprised that we don’t see more callbacks to this profound violation. However, the fact that Emma and Sebastian choose Storm specifically speaks to a broader attitude of privilege and entitlement to the bodies of people they view as “lesser.” In turn, I think this explains a lot about the particular Mills and Boon scenario that Jason Wyngarde puts in Jean Grey’s head:

A Better Sort of X

The third key ingredient that goes into making the Hellfire Club is that they are (mostly) mutants, and yet are largely unaffected by their X-gene status. Unlike pretty much every other mutant group (regardless of their ideology), from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to the X-Men or even the Morlocks (another subject I’ll get to in the future), the Hellfire Club elite not only don’t experience anti-mutant prejudice, but they neither live openly as mutants nor go to particular lengths to hide their mutant identity, and don’t think of themselves as mutants who are part of a broader community.

If we try to describe Hellfire Club ideology on the mutant question from their actions, we see a perverse equality. Rather than showing any kind of solidarity or fellowship, the Inner Circle treat mutants like any other member of the 99% who they are happy to exploit, rule over, and abuse. For me, the key imagery here is that, before we see any of them as individuals, Anglo-American Chris Claremont depicts them as Tory fox-hunters pursuing the most dangerous game[6]:

As social commentary goes, a bunch of rich Tories literally hunting the poor is pretty blunt. However, almost 50 issues later, Claremont returns to the same imagery, but the victim changes from an otherwise-naked man in pseudo-pagan headgear to Mystique in her true form:

At this point in the comics, Mystique’s blue skin hadn’t quite been the synecdoche for mutant pride that it became in the movies, but the implication is clear: to the Hellfire Club, humans and mutants are both inferior kinds of animal, and the Inner Circle are the gentry who use them for sport. It’s as about as strong a denial of solidarity and group identity as one can imagine.

When the captured X-Men actually ask the Hellfire Club why they’ve gone to the effort of tracking down and capturing the X-Men, we get a peek at their super-villainous business plan, and it turns out that they don’t see our merry mutants as an existential or even incidental threat to the Hellfire Club. Rather, they see the X-Men as a valuable source of intellectual property:

You can’t really get more neoliberal than isolating, synthesizing, and patenting the X-gene while turning mutant bodies into unwilling test subjects: what the Hellfire Club really want is to turn mutantcy from a random accident of evolution that can empower the poor as well as the rich into a private market commodity that they can monopolize. As Emma Frost puts it in Classic X-Men #7, all of this is a mere “means of enhancing the Hellfire Club’s wealth and power,” since “whoever controls mutantkind will also control the world.” The Inner Circle’s plan may have inspired the master plan of Dr. Zander Rice of the Transigen Corporation from the film Logan, where the existential threat to mutants came not from personal bigotry but an industrial strategy of turning mutants into a product that can be manufactured on demand in the maquiladoras of northern Mexico for the U.S military-industrial complex. 

As one might expect, this plan relies upon the Inner Circle having a great deal of confidence that as mutants, they won’t personally become fodder for the mutant exploitation industry. As with everything else – the confidence that they can get away with kidnapping mutants off the street, assassinating U.S military intelligence officers, or various forms of sexual exploitation of staff and prisoners alike – the Inner Circle are so convinced that their wealth and power completely insulate them from the effects of anti-mutant prejudice that they not only work with bigots like Donald Pierce or Stephen Lang, but go to the ultimate length of bringing the Sentinels back:

We usually think of quislings as being motivated by fear, cowardice, and an attempt to placate a new ruling power; it’s pretty rare to see quislings who are confident enough to believe that they are powerful enough to turn the government and the military-industrial complex into their pawns. This over-confidence doesn’t so much stumble into hubris as leap into it with both feet, because Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, and Harry Leland should know better from bitter experience. As we learn in Classic X-Men #7, Sebastian and Emma’s coup against Edward Buckman was sparked when they learned that “Project Armageddon[‘s] true purpose [was] to bring about the total eradication of homo sapiens superior.” In this coup – which happened before the Hellfire Club first tangled with the X-Men – Emma was attacked by Sentinels and Shaw’s lover Lourdes Chantel was killed by a Sentinel.

Despite this foreknowledge, the Inner Circle believe themselves to be literally shielded from the threat of genocide-robots:

Unfortunately for the Inner Circle, they are no more immune from ultracrepidarianism than any other billionaire, and thus didn’t really think through the fact that the Sentinels have turned against 66% of their creators. In this case, the fatal flaw was not thinking through the long-term consequences of their actions, that while current-day Sentinels might be under their loose control, they can’t guarantee that Sentinels will remain under their control in the future. Thus, when Rachel Grey travels from the alternate future of Earth-811 (the “Days of Future Past” timeline) to the present-day of Earth-616, the ruling Sentinels send back their most advanced unit Nimrod after her. When the Hellfire Club runs into Nimrod while hunting for Rachel themselves, they are hoist by their own petard:

To an extent, the Hellfire Club’s story ended there, with being forced into solidarity with their fellow mutants out of enlightened self-interest. While the X-Men would be in alliance with the Hellfire Club for some time, there wasn’t really much done with that story hook beyond being background noise during events like the “Mutant Massacre,” “Fall of the Mutants,” and “Inferno.” Since then, it’s not that the Hellfire Club hasn’t been around, it’s just that it’s been used more as a villain-of-the-month than having a starring role in a story which had something new to say about them. 

On the other hand, this is the comics industry, where making something new out of an old idea that hasn’t been used much in a while has been the wellspring of critical and commercial success since the 80s. And with Emma Frost as the new Black King, there might well be an opportunity for her (and the reader) to look back at the institution she now rules and think more critically about what it’s all about.

But that would be a topic for another People’s History of the Marvel Universe…


[1] Neil isn’t far wrong. For example, in issue #182, we learn that the Hellfire Club has double agents working within SHIELD whom they can order to assassinate U.S military intelligence operatives without any fear of retaliation from the U.S government.

[2] Uncanny X-Men #130, p. 8.

[3] Uncanny X-Men #129, #151.

[4] Although given Sebastian Shaw’s penchant for taking off his shirt and getting punched by well-muscled men, it’s not entirely straight.

[5] Since Classic X-Men were reprints with edits, interpolated panels, and new back-up stories written by Chris Claremont about a decade after the originals came out, this moment can’t help but have the air of a correction issued by a creator with a track record of listening to and responding to feminist critics of his work.

[6] For those unfamiliar with British politics, this form of hunting – pursuing foxes from horseback with hounds – and the uniform of red coats and black top-hats is associated with a particularly aristocratic tradition in the U.K that become popular in the 18th century and increasingly controversial up to the present. Both out of animal cruelty concerns and because of the quasi-feudal nature of the hunt, where upper-class horseman run literally roughshod across other people’s lands, there have been a number of attempts to ban fox-hunting, eventually leading to the Hunting Act of 2004 under New Labour. Notably, the Tory governments of David Cameron and Teresa May have proposed repealing the ban due to pressure from rural Tory voters, although no legislation has yet been brought forward. 

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