The X-Men are well beloved for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for their complicated soap opera dynamic which now spans dozens of different titles over many several decades — starting as a simple, self-contained superhero story and transforming over the years into a multimillion-dollar franchise featuring some of the best beloved and most easily recognizable fictional characters in the world. Yet, the beginnings of the book were humble, and it took several years and many epic stories to build up the legend.
Although the Dark Phoenix Saga is often considered the most influential X-Men story of all time, much of its effect was retconned away when Jean Grey, who was presumed to be the Phoenix, turned out to have been asleep in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay for the last several years. Her return sent the already fractured X-Men into a spiral. The apparent deaths of the X-Men in Dallas had led to several members of the team going into hiding in the Australian Outback, and the subsequent splitting up of the team into various different titles such as New Mutants, X-Factor, and Excaliber along with Jean’s return had left several plot threads in need of a trim.
The result was Inferno, one of the earliest examples of an X-Men crossover, in which a resuscitated Jean Grey, a clone of Jean named Madelyne Pryor, and the unnaturally aged Illyana Rasputin all had long-standing storylines resolved. The after effects of the storyline would set much of the mood going forward until writers Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson left the line entirely a couple years later. Besides the essential Phoenix Saga, Demon Bear, and Brood Saga storylines, Inferno is one of the most iconic X-Men stories of the ‘80s.
Illyana Rasputin and the New Mutants
The New Mutants was the first X-Men spin-off, and many of the characters introduced in that series as fumbling teenagers have gone on to play important roles in Marvel comics. In the early days, Professor Charles Xavier tried to keep them away from danger and out of the world of the X-Men, but the kids were left with the villain Magneto during a brief turn as a hero when Xavier vanished to space for several years. Despite Magneto’s best intentions, he wasn’t particularly well-equipped to handle a team of vulnerable, naive teens, and the New Mutants perpetually disobeyed him by leaping into danger every chance they got. Although by the time of Inferno they had lost some of their members and the book had taken on a fairly bleak tone, they were the youngest of the X-Men.
One of the members of the New Mutants was Illyana Rasputin, the younger sister of the X-Man Colossus. As a young child, Illyana had been taken to the demon dimension known as Limbo. An alternate version of the X-Men remained in Limbo with her, some of which died early on, others who went on to become twisted versions of their former selves. Nightcrawler became a lecherous creep while Kitty Pryde slowly transformed into a cat/human hybrid and served as a brutally unsympathetic mentor to Illyana before she herself was killed. In Limbo, Illyana slowly fell under the thrall of Belasco, a version of the devil in the Marvel universe. She gained power and eventually rule over Limbo and developed her natural power to teleport significantly, but was traumatized by what she had gone through when she finally returned to regular continuity aged forward several years. In the New Mutants, Illyana struggled with her dark side and seemed closer and closer to giving in to it despite the efforts of her friends to stabilize her.
The demon S’ym had abused her in her childhood, then became subservient to Illyana when she took rule of Limbo. In Inferno, he made his bid for power with the demon N'astirh, who wished to make Illyana his bride to rule Limbo with. Illyana wanted less than nothing to do with either plan, but Limbo had been usurped by S’ym and was being used against her and her friends. Demons invaded New York, and Illyana was increasingly powerless to do anything to stop them. She very nearly gave in to the dark temptation of absolute power that was offered to her by Limbo, but ultimately refused it to save her friends.
Inferno was the end of Illyana’s arc, which had begun in the early ‘80s. By this point, she had been reduced to her original age and would play a significantly smaller role for the next many years. That said, her arc in Inferno is quite moving, and it concluded in a way that fully recognized Illyana as one of the most tragic characters in all of comics. Her struggle between her good side and her bad side was strongly reminiscent of Jean Grey’s challenges with the Phoenix. Readers had been watching Illyana walk a darker and darker path for years, but in the end, she sacrificed herself to turn all that around.
Enter: Madelyne Pryor
The central battle with one’s inner demons being turned on the outside world was behind more than one character arc in Inferno. X-Factor and X-Men were even more deeply intertwined with each other than they were with New Mutants. When Jean Grey had been presumed dead after the events of the Dark Phoenix Saga, Cyclops, who had just watched what he believed to be the love of his life die before his very eyes, left the X-Men and drifted for a while on his own. He had a short affair with a woman named Lee Forrester before meeting Madelyne Pryor, a pilot he clicked with immediately. They seemed to compliment each other perfectly, and so they fell in love, but it gave the X-Men a shock when he brought her home to meet them and they all noticed immediately that she was the exact image of Jean Grey. Cyclops married Madelyne and had a child with her, the baby that would go on to become the man known as Cable after many years of complicated time travel plotlines.
When Cyclops received a phone call telling him that Jean Grey was still alive, he left Madelyne and their child on the spot to go find her. Hiding the truth from Jean, he and the other original X-Men started the team known as X-Factor. Madelyne appeared to go missing, although in truth she had relocated with the X-Men in Australia and began an affair with Cyclops’ confused brother Havok. She also began to draw power from Limbo and was rapidly corrupted by it, focusing on her hatred of Jean Grey to return in hopes of sacrificing her child and killing the X-Men, most of whom she had developed personal bonds with.
It was revealed that Madelyne had always been a clone of Jean Grey created by the mysterious Mister Sinister. Reflective of Jean’s apparent lack of autonomy over the last several years, Madelyne had been a blank slate that awoke when she felt Jean Grey supposedly die years before. She had been engineered to fall in love with Cyclops, and now that he had cast her away in favor of Jean, she snapped. Madelyne’s hatred of Jean and her agony over Cyclops’ callousness towards her made her one of the most sympathetic X-Men villains ever, and a perfect reflection for Jean Grey’s lack of empowerment over the years. This was a Jean who truly didn’t stand a chance in life, who had been created as nothing more than a tool with which others could be manipulated, who was not valued even by her own creator.
End of an Era for X-Men
In the end, the X-Men, X-Factor, and New Mutants mostly survived, but the books were never the same. For many years, the effects of this crossover were felt across the X-books. Even well into the modern era, we’re still catching glimpses of it. Illyana died temporarily, then returned at her escalated age and joined the X-Men again, only to show that her dark side has become completely inseparable from her identity. Madelyne Pryor appears occasionally, acting very much as a vengeful ghost years later. Of all X-Men villains and antiheroes, however, it is perhaps these two that remain the most sympathetic.
Most importantly, although she appears as one in a cast of characters, Jean Grey is given a resolution that had been a long time coming. Jean’s autonomy in the Phoenix Saga was non-existent. In the end, we discovered that she had never even been the Phoenix at all, that it had simply taken on her identity like a cipher and left her in the bottom of a bay while years of exciting continuity occurred. After Jean had awakened from her sleep, she had struggled and scrambled to understand her feelings towards her former teammates, in particular, Cyclops. Inferno gave her a triumphant return as she battled yet another echo of herself.
Yet, unlike Phoenix, Madelyne Pryor’s crimes were at least understandable if not entirely justifiable. The moral ambiguity of Inferno showed a huge tonal change in the X-Men since the days of the Phoenix Saga. Regardless of anything, Inferno is a better Jean Grey story, because she reclaims her personal autonomy after years of confusion and tragedy. Although tragic, some good things came out of Inferno, and a more coherent and strong version of Jean Grey was one of them.