The Hellfire Club is back. Cullen Bunn and Greg Land’s “Uncanny X-Men” #11 has positioned the Club and its Inner Circle front and center. It’s been three years since the supervillain organization was last prominently featured in a story, and it’s been even longer since the group’s most prominent leader — Sebastian Shaw — has been in charge.
Since their debut in 1980’s “X-Men” #129, the Hellfire Club has been a consistent thorn in the mutant team’s side. To be honest, the group isn’t even villainous so much as self-serving; the larger club’s open to the most wealthy and influential members of society — and that includes wealthy mutants (Warren Worthington, Betsy Braddock) and humans (Tony Stark, Norman Osborn) alike. It’s the mysterious — and exclusive — Inner Circle that throws their weight/money/power around to ensure their own survival at the expense of all others.
With over 35 years of continuity, the Hellfire Club has a storied — and surprisingly historical — past that’s worth breaking down now that a new Inner Circle has emerged in this month’s “Uncanny X-Men” #12. Let’s work our way chronologically through the many different iterations of the group — starting with the real one.
11. The Real Hellfire Club
It’s rare that organizations in superhero comics have a basis in reality, but, surprise — the Hellfire Club is one. The general name of Hellfire Club was given to a number of different high society organizations comprised of womanizing men in the 18th Century. The clubs, which mostly sprung up in England and Ireland, were designed to be places where well off men could go engage in acts that were perceived to be immoral (like drinking, viewing pornography and engaging with prostitutes).
The first Hellfire Club was founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton in London in 1718, while the most prominent club was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood in the mid-18th Century. While Wharton’s club — which only lasted for two years — mostly parodied religious ritual, Dashwood’s was a bit more intense. He leased Medmenham Abbey and redesigned and rebuilt the building to feature caves and sexually explicit decorations. They worshiped Bacchus and Venus at meetings, which occurred twice a month, where they also wore ritualistic clothing consisting of white pants, a jacket and a cap. The leader (or “Abbot”) wore the same clothes, but in red. Much of the art and records associated with Dashwood’s club have been destroyed over the centuries, but it is known that Benjamin Franklin himself visited the Club, though without ever becoming a member. In a truly comic book-y twist, some historians even posit that Franklin visited Dashwood’s Hellfire Club as a spy.
All of this historical intrigue has captured the imaginations of many creative writers, “X-Men” writer Chris Claremont among them.
10. “The Avengers”
A 1966 episode of the British spy series “The Avengers” introduced what would become the basis of Marvel’s own Hellfire Club. The episode “A Touch of Brimstone,” written by Brian Clemens, takes the historical name of “Hellfire Club” and applies it to an organization that bears a striking resemblance to the X-Men villains. Instead of donning ritualistic garb and engaging in satanic rituals, the members of “The Avengers'” Hellfire Club is comprised of wealthy members who wear 18th century garb and engage in illicit and kinky acts.
John Steed and Emma Peel investigate the club in a sequence that concludes with Peel donning the exact lingerie and whip combo — dubbed the “Queen of Sin” costume in the show — that the women of Marvel’s Hellfire Club will wear. This costume was deemed so revealing and extreme in 1966 that the episode was not shown in America, and was edited to air in Britain. Chris Claremont, who was born in London but moved to New York at the age of three, managed to track down the banned episode at some point between it’s airing in 1966 and his creation of the X-Men’s Hellfire Club in 1980.
9. The Inner Circle
January 1980’s “X-Men” #129 featured a few firsts; it kicked off the epic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” marked the debut of Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost, and introduced the Hellfire Club. The group debuts as a shadowy organization, clad in 18th Century garb and directly competing with the X-Men for the recruitment of Kitty Pryde. Mastermind, a curmudgeonly Silver Age X-Men villain reimagined as a devilish threat, also makes his move. The probationary member uses his illusion powers to slowly take control of the X-Man Phoenix’s mind in order to recruit the cosmically powerful hero to be the Hellfire Club’s Black Queen. Mastermind succeeds in corrupting Jean Grey, turning her from the Phoenix into the Black Queen — and accidentally unleashing Dark Phoenix in the process. The X-Men battle the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle and win, barely, only to have to go up against Dark Phoenix.
“The Dark Phoenix Saga” introduces many aspects of the Hellfire Club, including its inner hierarchy. The Club itself is open to the wealthy elite, who use the Club’s mansion to engage in debauchery. The Inner Circle, however, is comprised of super-powered individuals seeking to influence the world in their favor. The Inner Circle is also, appropriately, an homage to “The Avengers” and classic Hollywood actors.
- Sebastian Shaw, the Black King, is a mutant with the ability to absorb kinetic energy and use it to increase his own strength and resilience. Claremont named him after actor Robert Shaw.
- Emma Frost, the White Queen, has the mutant power of telepathy and owes her first name to “Avengers” character Emma Peel.
- Donald Pierce, the White Bishop, is a cyborg whose cybernetics give him enhanced strength. He’s named after Donald Sutherland, who played Hawkeye Pierce in “M*A*S*H.”
- Harry Leland, the Black Bishop, possessed the mutant power of mass manipulation. He was visually based on Orson Welles, who played a character named Harry in “The Third Man.” The last name Leland was featured in Welles’ film “Citizen Kane.”
- Jason Wyngarde, a probationary member and the illusionist mutant Mastermind. He was named after actor Peter Wyngarde, who appeared in the aforementioned “Avengers” episode and was best known for his role in the British show “Jason King.”
- Present through much of the Club’s ’80s run was also Sebastian Shaw’s aide Tessa, who held no rank within the Inner Circle.
Following their defeat during the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the group shifted their priorities to working with the Sentinel program Project: Wideawake, capitalizing off humanity’s fear of mutants. Mastermind was rendered insane following Dark Phoenix’s emergence and he never gained membership into the Inner Circle. Donald Pierce was kicked out of the Club for plotting against them.
8. The Circle Grows
While they lost two members, the Inner Circle added another who would become a major player: Selene. Born 17,000 years ago, the immortal mutant, sorceress and psychic vampire joined the Inner Circle as the Black Queen. Selene gained membership thanks to one of her many worshippers, the quasi-lycanthropic mutant Friedrich von Roehm. As part of the deal, von Roehm became the Inner Circle’s Black Rook. Emmanuel da Costa, the human father of the New Mutants member Sunspot, became the White Rook, although he was seldom seen.
With Emma Frost’s attention focused mainly on running the Hellfire-funded Massachusetts Academy (home of the teen villain group the Hellions), Selene became a major player on the Inner Circle’s behalf in altercations with the X-Men. But even after padding out their membership, the Inner Circle experienced more shakeups when Harry Leland and Friedrich von Roehm both died during a battle with the mutant-hunting Nimrod robot.
Their membership depleted once again, the Inner Circle sought to forge an alliance with the X-Men by offering the White King title to both Storm and Magneto. The pair accepted, but Storm’s membership within the Inner Circle didn’t last long due to the X-Men’s perceived death in battle and subsequent retreat from the public eye. Magneto, believing the X-Men to be dead, stayed on with the Inner Circle and worked to oust the scheming Sebastian Shaw from his own club. Upon doing so, Magneto became both the Black and White King — or the Grey King. But Magneto himself would soon drift away from his duties, retreating to the Savage Land and abandoning the Inner Circle.
The group ended their first decade of publication — 1980 to 1990 — in a state of disarray with Leland dead, Mastermind insane, and Shaw and Pierce ousted. Emma Frost remained the only constant.
7. The Upstarts
Selene then worked with the mysterious and powerful telepath the Gamesmaster to put the final nail in the Inner Circle’s coffin. She recruited the Upstarts, a group of hungry young villains, to become the new Inner Circle. But first they were sent to kill the surviving members of the Hellfire Club, with Gamesmaster keeping score. Shinobi Shaw killed his father Sebastian and Fabian Cortez got close enough to Magneto to meddle with his health and destroy his asteroid home. The time-traveling Trevor Fitzroy racked up the most points in this game: he killed Donald Pierce, slaughtered the current roster of Hellions and put Emma Frost in a coma. Of course, Gamesmaster and Fitzroy then turned on Selene, imprisoning her and asserting the Upstarts as their own villainous entity.
With the entire Inner Circle dead, comatose or imprisoned, Shinobi Shaw stepped up and formed his own Inner Circle. This new roster — which debuted in 1994’s “X-Men Annual” #2 — included Shinobi as Black King and new characters Benedict Kine (White King), Benazir Kaur (White Queen) and Reeva Payge (Black Queen). Continuing with the tradition of coercing X-Men, Shaw tried unsuccessfully to get Storm and Archangel to join. While Shinobi would also discuss membership with Sunspot and Emma Frost’s sister Cordelia, this lineup accomplished little and would swiftly be replaced with the return of the original Black King.
6. International Hellfire
In the mid-’90s, it was established that the New York City Hellfire Club was nowhere near the only one operating. Warren Ellis and Carlos Pacheco introduced the London Inner Circle in 1996’s “Excalibur” #96. Using the colors red and black, this group featured Nightcrawler’s foster mother Margali Szardos in the Red Queen role. New characters (Alan Wilson, Emma Steed, Quentin Templeton and Scribe) filled out their ranks. While this Inner Circle wouldn’t appear again after that initial storyline, Black Queen Emma Steed did recently reappear this year in “Mockingbird” #2. She’s still holding it down as the London Hellfire Club’s Black Queen.
The 1996 limited series “The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix” showed the mid-19th century’s London Inner Circle. The 2000 limited series “X-Men: Hellfire Club” also established more of the Club’s roots by showing a London branch in the 1760s and one in Philadelphia in the 1780s. And Matt Fraction established a San Francisco branch active in 1906 in “Uncanny X-Men” #512. Other Inner Circles include ones stationed in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, although they’ve not been explored in depth.
5. Return Of The Black King
Sebastian Shaw returned from the grave and immediately took control of the Hellfire Club’s fate. After months of plotting, scheming and recruiting, the back-in-command Shaw debuted his new Inner Circle in 1996’s “X-Man” #22. This new lineup included Shaw as the Black King and Selene — the woman who orchestrated Shaw’s murder, mind you — as the Black Queen. Adding to the tension, Fitzroy (the guy that betrayed and imprisoned Selene) joined as the White Rook. The resurrected X-Men adversary (and Jean Grey clone) Madelyne Pryor became the Black Rook.
As with the last few iterations, this roster proved ultimately unstable. Donald Pierce reapplied to his old position as White Bishop, but failed his trial and was exiled. Internal strife caused the team to fall apart, with Selene scheming against Shaw and Pryor eventually defecting. This iteration of the club fell apart in a dangling plot line from 1998’s “X-Men” #73; in the issue, Shaw receives a mysterious offer that foretells the demise of the Inner Circle. He snidely tells Fitzroy that the Hellfire Club “won’t even exist this time next year” and, later, accepts the offer from the mystery shadow figure. This plot line is never mentioned again, and this chapter of the Hellfire Club ends.
4. A Hellish Club
The Hellfire Club managed to squeeze in one more iteration before the end of the ’90s. “Fantastic Four Annual 1999” saw the group’s name taken literally as Selene once again sought to create a new Inner Circle. She attempted to populate it with the demon Blackheart and “Son of Satan” Daimon Hellstrom. But “White King” Hellstrom fought Selene and Blackheart, imprisoning Selene’s chosen Black King within the grounds of the Hellfire Mansion.
While this club never took off, Selene did make one lasting move: she finally recruited Sunspot into the club’s ranks. 2000’s “X-Force” #98 saw Selene and Blackheart (as the issue took place within his “prison”) convince Roberto da Costa to join them. They did so by promising to resurrect his girlfriend Juliana Sandoval. Sunspot gave in and joined the group.
3. Try, Try Again
While the Inner Circle’s roster stayed steady throughout the ’80s, it was tumultuous in the ’90s. Following so much turnover in the preceding decade, the Hellfire Club laid dormant from 2000 to late 2004 until original creator Chris Claremont resurrected the concept during his third run on “Uncanny X-Men.”
November 2004’s “Uncanny X-Men” #449 saw alternate Earth dictator Opul Lun Sat-Yr-Nin approach Sebastian Shaw about becoming the White Queen of a new Hellfire Club. With Sat-Yr-Nin the new White Queen, Shaw promoted himself to the rank of Lord Imperial and gave the Black King title to Sunspot who hoped to use the position as a force for good. All the while, Selene still lurked in the background, operating on her own as the Black Queen. This attempt at reforming an Inner Circle fell apart by “Uncanny” #454 with the return of Donald Pierce. Seeking revenge, Pierce attacked Shaw and nearly killed him. Unable to fulfill his duties as Lord Imperial, Sunspot ascended to the position.
The next attempt at a firm lineup came a few years later in the pages of “X-Men: Legacy.” 2008’s “X-Men Legacy” #210 established that Roberto da Costa was still the acting Lord Imperial — and Sebastian Shaw, back in the club following his defeat four years earlier, didn’t like that. In an effort to regain control of the club, he recruited the newly created Claudine Renko — a telepath and then-host of the X-Men villain Mr. Sinister — to be his Black Queen. Luckily for Shaw, da Costa returned to the X-Men at this time and left the Club for the taking. In the 2008 Wolverine-focused storyline “Original Sin,” new characters Castlemere, Merecedes, Leonine, Tithe and Turner joined the Inner Circle with unspecified ranks. Castlemere, Tithe and Leonine conspired to kick out Shaw, but the Black King and Miss Sinister had their own plan: try to recruit Wolverine’s amnesiac son Daken to their ranks while pinning his kidnapping on the Inner Circle. Wolverine killed Leonine and Castlemere, and Daken soundly defeated Shaw and Sinister.
2. Hellfire Kids
The Club went all-ages in late 2011 with “X-Men: Schism” #1, when 12-year-old mad genius Kade Kilgore caused an international incident spurring the creation of a new fleet of Sentinels, proving him worthy of being the Club’s new Black King. In the pages of “Wolverine and the X-Men” between 2012 and 2013, Kilgore slowly built up his new Inner Circle of pre-teen villains. The martial arts master Wilhelmina Kensington became the White Queen, weapons manufacturer Manuel Enduque became the White King and grotesque biologist Maximilian Frankenstein served as the Black Bishop.
This human Inner Circle turned the group against mutants, poisoning the Club’s leadership so they would have sole control. Jason Aaron’s “Wolverine and the X-Men” run marked the first time since the ’80s that the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle actually had a steady lineup and frequent appearances. They even launched their own Hellfire Academy, harkening back to the original Massachusetts Academy. This iteration of the group ended in late 2013 with their defeat and the conclusion of the “Hellfire Saga” storyline.
1. The All-New Hellfire Club
All that brings us to today and “Uncanny X-Men” #12. Cullen Bunn and Greg Land have created a new version of the club that takes it back to its roots. This current lineup consists of Shaw, once again the Black King, and X-Man Monet St. Croix as the White Queen. Classic X-villain Black Tom Cassidy serves as the White Bishop while Magneto’s human ally Briar Raleigh is the Black Bishop. Unlike many previous revamps, this one actually acknowledges the previous lineup; Raleigh says they “sent [the kids] to bed without dinner.”
As has happened just a handful of times in the past, this new Inner Circle is working with Magneto and his X-Men against a larger common enemy. The Club hands the X-Men some info about the Someday Corporation, a company offering to freeze mutants wishing to ride out the deadly spread of the Terrigen Mist. The issue ends with the Hellfire Club and the X-Men fighting side by side against Someday’s manipulated mutants as the stakes escalate.
There have been many, many iterations of the Hellfire Club and their Inner Circle over the past 36 years. Here’s hoping that this lineup bucks tradition and sticks around for at least a little while.
The Hellfire Club/X-Men team-up continues in “Uncanny X-Men” #13, on sale on September 21.
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