The Hellfire Club
The Hellfire Club(pop culture)
Since the dawn of civilization, various elites have used their power and resources to sway human destiny, and the era of the radiation-spawned mutant is no exception. The Hellfire Club, obliquely introduced by writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum in 1976 (Uncanny X-Men vol. 1 #100), is one such influential clique of the privileged. Established in the mid–eighteenth century as a cabal of the wealthiest, most powerful people in England, the Hellfire Club not only catered to the decadent tastes of its wealthy roster—upper-crust bordellos called Hellfire Clubs actually existed during Victorian times—it also furthered the expansion and consolidation of its members' economic and political influence. A decade or so after the Hellfire Club's inception, several of its members emigrated to New York City to establish the American Hellfire Club, which they based in an abandoned church on Fifth Avenue, a short distance away from the eventual location of the Avengers' Manhattan headquarters. Former British Parliament member Sir Patrick Clemens, along with his mistress, the famous actress Diana Knight, held the respective titles of Black King and Black Queen in the new Hellfire Club's chess-themed leadership structure, which also included white and black bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns (X-Men: The Hellfire Club miniseries, 2000). More than two centuries on, the Hellfire Club has become more powerful than ever before, and considerably more dangerous, its leadership (known as the Lords Cardinal of the Inner Circle, or the Council of the Chosen) comprised of superpowered mutants. As with its early predecessors, this latterday cabal confers membership by invitation only; such offers are rare, sought-after, and almost never declined. As far as the general public knows, the Hellfire Club is merely an exclusive upper-class social fraternity, a country club in the heart of America's premiere city; in reality—and unknown even to most Hellfire Club members (which include the parents of the X-Men's Angel)—the group's Inner Circle pursues a clandestine agenda of total domination of the global political-economic stage. The modern Hellfire Club maintains a London branch, which has boasted Union Jack and Captain Britain among its members, as well as subsidiaries in such cities as Hong Kong, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Venice. With their vast financial holdings, their command of high technology, and their army of blueand- red-garbed masked mercenaries, the Hellfire Club's leaders are well positioned to take over the world, both overtly and while acting from behind the scenes. They even used heavily armed, vaguely humanoid robots known as Sentinels in a failed attempt to neutralize other mutants who might oppose them, making it clear that only powerful mutants of good will, such as the students of Professor Charles Xavier (aka the X-Men), have any hope of thwarting their plans of global conquest. Visually inspired by the Hellfire Club depicted on the classic 1960s television spy series The Avengers, the members of the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle distinguish themselves from other supervillains by affecting a strange blend of Enlightenmentera dress, complete with cravats, waistcoats, and breeches for the men and Frederick's of Hollywood– evocative lingerie for the women. In the hands of the writer/artist team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne in X-Men vol. 1 #129–#135 (1979 and 1980), the Hellfire Club reached full flower. Led by Black King Sebastian Shaw and White Queen Emma Frost, the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle—and its never-ending pursuit of power, influence, and money—severely complicated the lives of the X-Men. Anticipating the realworld corporate raiders of the go-go 1980s, both Shaw and Frost were revealed to be the heads of major corporations, with the enterprising Ms. Frost also serving as the headmistress of the Massachusetts Academy, an elite prep school whose student body included the youthful superpowered mutant team known as the Hellions. Like most of the Inner Circle, Shaw and Frost also possessed powerful mutant abilities (kinetic energy-absorption powers and psionic talents, respectively), and brought all of their metahuman might, as well as all their vast financial resources, to bear against the X-Men, the only other superpowered group apparently able to undo the Hellfire Club's schemes. To those ends, Shaw's company (Shaw Industries) acquired a secret contract to construct a new generation of Sentinel robots for Project Wideawake, a paranoid, Reagan-era U.S. government effort aimed at subduing, studying, and ultimately controlling and exterminating superpowered mutants. Meanwhile, the particularly devious Hellfire Club member Jason Wyngarde (aka the telepathic mutant Mastermind) mentally influenced the X-Men's Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl, aka Phoenix) into willingly becoming the Inner Circle's Black Queen. But Wyngarde's psionic persuasions had a deadly unintended effect: they precipitated Grey's transformation into an evil, world-destroying entity called Dark Phoenix, who left Wyngarde temporarily catatonic before laying waste to an entire inhabited planet (not Earth, thankfully); in a momentary flash of lucidity and love for her fiancé Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Grey subsequently immolated herself, dying (temporarily, at least) in a spectacular cosmic conflagration. Like many groups of the powerful and arrogant, the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club faces as much peril from within its ranks as from without; while they have clashed repeatedly with such “good guy” mutant teams as the X-Men and the New Mutants, they are also prone to quarrel amongst themselves, vying for control of the Hellfire Club's vast resources. Notable examples include: Magneto, who briefly became a member of the Inner Circle and seized power long enough to rescue the New Mutants from the Hellfire Club's clutches; White Bishop Donald Pierce, a cyborg who tried to take command of the Inner Circle at the expense of his scheming mutant colleagues; and Black Queen Selene, a powerful sorceressvampire and soi-disant goddess who orchestrated her own power-grab conspiracy within the Inner Circle. The Inner Circle itself was eventually overthrown and replaced (however temporarily) by younger mutants known as the Upstarts, a group led by Shinobi Shaw, Sebastian Shaw's son. An alternate version of the Hellfire Club debuted in Ultimate X-Men #18–#19 (2003), dressed in modern tuxedoes and gowns in order to pose as “thoughtful billionaires investing in the future.” Once again led by Sebastian Shaw, this almost completely reimagined, updated iteration of the Hellfire Club stood revealed as the secret financiers of Professor Charles Xavier, the mentor and leader of an equally rebooted X-Men team. But this Hellfire Club proved just as malevolently power-mad as the Claremont-Byrne version, summoning dark eldritch forces that could only be held at bay by an inexperienced eighteen-year-old telepath named Jean Grey—and which apparently wiped the Hellfire Club itself out of existence. Given the Hellfire Club's deep roots in the Marvel Universe, however, as well as the apparent unwillingness of deceased superheroes and supervillains alike to remain dead, the group's eventual return appears to be all but a certainty.