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Nov 8

X-Men: Black – Emma Frost

Posted on Thursday, November 8, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

X-Men: Black has been a strange little set of one-shots.  The MagnetoMojo and Mystique stories were mainly just restatements of the characters.  But Juggernaut seemed to be setting up a new status quo for the character (if not an especially interesting one).

And now we have Emma Frost‘s one-shot, written by Leah Williams and pencilled by Chris Bachalo (with six inkers, so the deadlines must have been pressing on this one).  This one is actually important to the plot.

As a character, Emma has been drifting since she was returned to being an outright villain, for no especially compelling reason beyond selling the importance of X-Men vs. Inhumans.  If it’s meant to play as some sort of reaction on her part to losing Scott, well, it hasn’t really come across that way; it’s just felt like the character has regressed and nobody really has much of an idea of what to do with her next.  Sometimes people try to nudge her back towards the X-Men, sometimes she’s a vaguely conflicted villain, none of it really amounts to much.

So this story at least gets points for taking that problem by the horns and committing to, well, something or other.

Emma approaches the X-Men to tell them that the Hellfire Club have been behind all of mutantkind’s problems over the last few years, and that since Sebastian Shaw is still recovering from the Mothervine storyline in X-Men Blue, this is a perfectly opportunity to take the whole enterprise down for good.  The X-Men are slightly sceptical but sign on, and wind up going after the footsoldiers while Emma takes on Shaw herself.

You can probably figure out where all this is going.  Emma is indeed out to take down Shaw, but only with a view to replacing him as the new leader of the Hellfire Club.  That’s the new status quo: she’s running the Hellfire Club, as the new Black King.

And it’s rather well done.  Chris Bachalo is a very talented artist, but at times his work suffers from inventiveness at the expense of intelligibility.  That’s not a problem here, as he deadpans his way rather nicely through an opening scene of the X-Men meeting Emma “unobtrusively” in a Walmart; it’s a sequence that makes great use of the incongruity of the utterly bland setting to liven up what could otherwise have been a dull exposition segment.

Emma herself seems more clearly in character than she has done for a while.  Williams and Bachalo both hit all the key notes.  Emma is vaguely disdainful of the X-Men, and simultaneously sincere and manipulative in trying to enlist their help.  There’s a four-page sequence of Emma simply walking impassively through the Shaw Industries offices and using her telepathy to send the staff into chaos all around her, or turning to diamond to shrug off the security measures, which is both inventive, and sells Emma as quietly unstoppable.  Shaw is a one-note sadist, but that’s his role here, and it’s not like he’s ever been a deep character; Emma goes out of her way to point out that he first encountered her as a stripper and made her a consort – and, hey, look how that worked out for both of them.

There are problems with this issue, but they’re really part and parcel of the problems that the story is trying to address.  The Hellfire Club has been a bit of a rotating cast of short-lived leaders for years now, and Sebastian Shaw hasn’t been even a B-list villain for years, while Emma has spent ten or twenty years now in the X-books’ top flight.  This story would very much prefer that we ignored all that and run with the idea that this is a changing of the guard for the Hellfire Club.

But, perhaps because it’s Emma, there is more of a sense of permanence here.  When she was in the Hellfire Club, even though she had more of the star quality, she was ostensibly playing second fiddle to Sebastian Shaw; if she’s not going to be in the X-Men, there’s something quite satisfying about seeing her take his role for herself.  Rebranding her as the Black King is a little odd, in as much as it explicitly echoes the character she replaced, and Emma is not what you would call a notably androgynous character, but it certainly sends the signal that she’s supplanted him and taken on that role for the first time.

As for what she’s actually going to do as the leader of the Hellfire Club, that’s decidedly ambiguous.  We’re led to understand that she genuinely thinks Shaw has been using the Club’s resources both to exploit other mutants, and simply to indulge his own fantasies; the Club under Emma is presumably going to have a rather different agenda.  The implication is that this version of the Hellfire Club is not going to be evil so much as a unreliable and unpredictable competitor for the X-Men.

Of course, much depends on what future writers actually do with Emma.  But this is a potentially interesting role for her, and it feels like something that could work.

Bring on the comments

  1. Col_Fury says:

    Hasn’t it always been that the Black King was the boss? Even when there was a White King (and Black and White Queens) at the same time, the Black King was always calling the shots, right?

    So yeah, I don’t think it’s an androgynous thing (because she’s also switching colors), I think it’s just Emma declaring “I’m the boss.” The boss = Black King.

    And hey, at least it’s a direction for her.

    No thoughts on the Apocalypse back-up strip?

  2. Omar Karindu says:

    Well, originally, the Club just had a Black Queen and seemed to use playing card motifs, since it was all based on an old episode of the ITV Avengers series (er, Steed and Peel) where Diana Rigg’s character is brainwashed into becoming “the Queen of Sin.”

    Once the idea of chess-based ranks started showing up, Shaw as Black King was the leader, but others like Selene (as Black Queen) kept subtly undermining and challenging him, and eventually some Classic X-Men backup revealed that Shaw had pushed out the previous, anti-mutant Inner Circle and replaced the previous White King.

    When Magneto joined, he took the role of the grey King and forced Shaw out for a little while. Later, we got a London branch that used Red and White, rather than lack and White, and was run by a Red Queen (of course). Then you had the Upstarts take over for a wile.

    And there were two abortive Claremont plots: one that had Selene, as black Queen,m take over and install a bunch of demons and sorcerers in a Fantastic Four annual, and later an X-Men arc during one of his returns to the titles in which Sat-Yr-9 (the even-more-fascist alternate of Majestrix Saturnyne who killed and replaced Courtney Ross in early Excalibur issues) became the White Queen of a revived club with the Viper as her aide-de-camp.

    The idea of Shaw as absolute master, intimidating everyone else into submission is a retcon from the Gran Morrison era, and was mostly a way to write out Emma’s original characterization as a knowing power player and partner to Shaw by making him her corrupter.

  3. Moo says:

    What’s wrong with you guys? You know we’re not supposed to talk about this!

    No, wait. Sorry. I was thinking of Fight Club. Carry on.

  4. David Goldfarb says:

    Well, no, it’s not actually the case that the Hellfire Club originally just had a Black Queen – they had a White Queen also. What was her name again….?

  5. Ben says:

    Pretty good little story, not thrilled with the direction. Does anyone care about the Hellfire club at this point? They’ve really tanked the Emma character with this return to villainy.

  6. Mikey says:

    God, I miss Bachalo on X-books. It’s a shame his talents were wasted on the otherwise unremarkable Bendis run.

  7. Col_Fury says:

    Hopefully what they’re doing is setting up three mutant positions/camps:

    X-Men (& Xavier School)
    Hellfire Club (& Massachusetts Academy)
    Magneto (& Acolytes)

    The X-Men / Magneto would be two ends of the mutant political spectrum with Emma in the middle bouncing between them, depending on the situation.

    OR…

    The X-Men / Hellfire Club could be the liberal / conservative spectrum with Magneto as the radicalized militant, trying to recruit his Acolytes from both schools.

    There are possibilities here as long as the Massachusetts Academy comes back.

  8. Voord 99 says:

    Did Emma really have more star power than Shaw at the beginning? I haven’t reread that stuff recently, but my vague memory is that Claremont/Byrne were quite fond of dwelling on Shaw, his distinctive power, and his shirtless hairy-chested fighting preferences. I tend to remember it as being that Emma became more salient after the initial Hellfire Club story, especially when her role as headmistress of the Massachusetts Academy became more significant.

    Overall, though, I have to wonder if reorienting the Hellfire Club towards “We’re a mutant-defending organization, too!” is influenced by its portrayal on The Gifted.

  9. Omar Karindu says:

    Well, no, it’s not actually the case that the Hellfire Club originally just had a Black Queen – they had a White Queen also. What was her name again….?

    Well, it’s not like that character ever went anywhere… 🙂

    More seriously, Emma and Shaw are the two “stars” of the early portion of the Dark Phoenix arc; she’s a three-issue arc villain who gets a lot of “panel time” and is set up as a rival to Xavier with the Massachusetts Academy right from the beginning.

    After Byrne leaves the title, it’s also Emma who spearheads an attack on the X-Men by, er, switching bodies with Storm. That story strongly suggests she and Shaw are more like partners (in multiple senses) than anything else. Really, it’s the arrival of Selene that pushes Emma to the back burner in Claremont’s run.

  10. JCG says:

    The king is dead, long live the king!

  11. ron says:

    Unrelated but probably worth a footnote that Howard Mackie finally admitted he’s writer X after all these years.

  12. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    While we’re listing things Claremont attempted to do with the Club, there was also a bit where Sunspot took over and tried to use the Club’s resources for good. At least that was the stated purpose, I dont think we’ve ever actually seen that.

    Though it does make for a nice precedent for his buying of AIM.

    Anyway this was for me the best of the Black bunch. And the Magik one -shot was the best of the current crop of What Ifs so I’m suddenly interested in Leah Williams’s work.

  13. Voord 99 says:

    The New Mutants story in which they go to the alternate future that’s the mirror-image of DOFP, with Roberto and Amara in charge of the Hellfire Club and leaders of a mutant overclass that represses the human majority (with adult Katie Power as leader of the resistance) — that rather suggests what Claremont’s vision might have been of where Roberto would have gone, I think.

  14. SanityOrMadness says:

    I suppose the pseudo-idea carries on from chess – the King is the key piece that you need to have, even when the Queen’s more powerful. Hence why Emma would want to be the “King” even when she’s not “a notably androgynous character”.

    > Hasn’t it always been that the Black King was the boss? Even when there was a White King (and Black and White Queens) at the same time, the Black King was always calling the shots, right?

    Well, in Claremont’s last UncannyXM run, he tried to introduce a role (Lord Imperial?) over the standard Kings & Queens. Didn’t stick.

  15. Thom H. says:

    Sounds like the Club itself has been a mess for decades. Remember when children were in charge of it? But I agree with Col_Fury, it’s worth reviving the concept as long as they bring back the Massachusetts Academy. I miss the Hellions,and it would be a great use of some of the former young X-men who have disappeared in recent years.

  16. Carl says:

    Just a minor note that Bachalo almost always works with the same group of a half dozen inkers these days, irrespective of deadlines. I believe it’s because he usually does both pencils and colors, so once the pencils are done, he wants to get the pages back as quickly as possible to start work on the colors.

  17. SanityOrMadness says:

    > Sounds like the Club itself has been a mess for decades. Remember when children were in charge of it?

    Did any character or concept of any description get improved in any way by Aaron’s run?

  18. sagatwarrior says:

    During Aaron’s run, the Club went into a complete absurdist direction, complete with aliens and a bizarre feel to it. I think it was meant to contained within his run only, as it was completely left out in “Spider-Man and the X-Men, ” the follow-up to Aaron’s run.

  19. Joseph S. says:

    Interesting about Mackie, will re-read Brotherhood. Haven’t thought about that series in ages.

    Also question about Bachalo, since I’ve never felt an army of inkers helps him any: if he’s doing pencils and art these days, why bother with inkers at all? Even if he’s got someone doing flats for him, seems there are plenty of artists working digitally doing art these days that in the past would have been separate pencils/inks/colors (Fiona Staples comes to mind most immediately but I’ve noticed more and more Marvel artists as well are being credited with “art” these days)

  20. Nu-D says:

    When the Hellfire Club are first introduced, Wyngard is shown speaking to shadowed people seated at four chairs with a playing cards motif—a heart, diamond, club and spade symbol. Wyngard refers to Shaw as the “Chairman of the Hellfire Club,” but Shaw is not shown. It is clear from the way Wyngard is speaking that he is not an equal to the others, though in the very next issue he is called a “member” of the inner circle.

    The first of the seated persons shown is Emma Frost, and she is named as the White Queen. Her real name is revealed two pages later when she’s in Chicago meeting the Pryde family.

    So from the beginning, CC was mixing the chess and card motifs. Shaw was established as, at the very least, first among equals.

    Jean was labeled the Black Queen in one of her hallucinatory flashbacks. Shaw is shown officiating a wedding between Jean & Wyngard, but he’s not named.

    Finally, Shaw, Leland and Pierce are shown and named two issues later, when the X-Men first arrive in the New York HQ of the club. None of them are given code names. Shaw does fret that Wyngard will try to “take over” the inner circle.

    In what may be the single best comic book ever written—where Cyclops fights Wyngard on the astral plane and Wolverine fights his way through the Hellfire Club—all of the members are introduced again, and again, only the women are named with roles in the Hellfire Club. Pierce, Leland and Shaw just use civilian names, and Wyngard goes by Mastermind. Jean calls Leland “Squire” at one point, but I think that has more to do with her hallucination than with his rank in the club.

    None of the men are ever given HC related code names in the original story.

    So I don’t think you can really read this story as setting up the position of “Black King” as a boss. Rather, I think you need to read this as Shaw being the first among equals (i.e. a “chairman” is someone who runs meetings, but only gets one vote like all the rest). to the extent the others look to Shaw for leadership, I think it is because he is more charismatic, not because he holds a position of authority.

    Of course, Shaw later gets the title of Black King, and I think Pierce is called the White Bishop, and there’s even a Black Rook at one time or another. But I don’t think you can really piece all of the stories over the years together into a coherent whole when it comes to the relationship of titles to authority. I think it has a lot more to do with the charisma and authority of the person holding the title, than it does the office itself. Shaw’s position relative to Magneto, for example, was formally one of equals.

    Emma’s decision to call herself the Black King is more a statement that she has ousted Shaw and therefore ascended to be the most powerful person in the club. It’s not that she needs to hold his title to be at the top; only that she needs to remove him, and by taking his title, she demonstrates that she has done so.

  21. Zoomy says:

    Going by memory, but somewhere (probably the Official Handbook) it said that the inner circle is traditionally ruled by one King and one Queen, adding that it’s exceptional that there are currently two Queens (Selene and Emma).

  22. Thom H. says:

    All the shifting titles/roles make sense as a bunch of elite members vying for control of the Club as they gain popularity/loyalty from other high-ranking members. It’s never been a stable set of ranks because shifting alliances cause roles to be redefined…or something?

    Also, can we talk about the sexiness for a minute? As icky as it is to equate kinky sex with evil (it is 2018, after all), I love that the Hellfire Club represents the hedonistic facet of the mutant experience.

    Norms don’t apply to them because they’re not normal. They’re like the fun version of mutant superiority, whereas Magneto is the dour version. That libertine vibe is captured ever so spicily, as Omar mentioned, in the Emma/Storm body swap story. Which I read when I was 8. Which was weird.

  23. Omar Karindu says:

    The Club is in some respects a clever bit of allegory: socially elite mutants who “pass” as human and even work against other mutants for status and money.

    But behind closed doors, they let their freak flag fly, and even get social sanction for some of it. It’s not just the hedonistic aspect, but also the “screw you, I’ve got mine” aspect and “poor mutants don’t count.” They’re the flip side of the Morlocks in this sense.

    More crudely, if the Sentinels are the Nazis –and “Days of Future Past” under Claremont certainly traded in a lot of concentration camp imagery — then Shaw is Ernst Rohm, especially in his promotion of the Sentinels program.

  24. Nu-D says:

    To my knowledge, the rich hedonist interpretation of the HC never really took root, except in the clothes. My knowledge of HC stories after about 1994 is patchy, at best, so maybe there’s something I’m missing. But through the first and second generation of stories, it was really more about super villainy mixed with a dash of corporatism and politics. The hedonist angle was superficial, at best.

  25. FUBAR007 says:

    Thom H.: Also, can we talk about the sexiness for a minute? As icky as it is to equate kinky sex with evil (it is 2018, after all), I love that the Hellfire Club represents the hedonistic facet of the mutant experience.

    Omar Karindu: But behind closed doors, they let their freak flag fly, and even get social sanction for some of it.

    When I saw Eyes Wide Shut, the scene with Cruise’s character wandering through the orgy-with-masks made me think of the Hellfire Club.

    I’ve long thought there’s potential for a dark, disturbing mature-readers-line series in the Hellfire Club. Intricate machinations, power rivalries, gender politics, historical conspiracies, wheels within wheels. What powerful, establishment evil looks like from the inside out. How it grows and evolves. Then, add superhuman abilities on top of that.

    Separately, Emma Frost is practically tailor-made for an erotic thriller. My mental movie-casting of her has always been Sharon Stone circa Basic Instinct.

  26. Thom H. says:

    @FUBAR007: Yes! Remember when Paul Jenkins was doing those dark, moody miniseries with Jae Lee like The Inhumans? That’s how I imagine the Hellfire Club series.

  27. Omar Karindu says:

    Selene is pretty much a figure straight out of the Decadent tradition of the late Gothics, and it’s around that time that she confirms that Tessa (in her original incarnation, long before the Sage retcons) is Shaw’s “leman.”

    We also get Senator Kelly’s wife as a Hellfire Club personnel, dressing up as a maid and coming on to him — to Kelly’s bemusement — for some fetish play while Kelly is meeting Shaw at one point. Shaw gives the flustered Kelly a Hefneresque line about Hellfire Club “girls” being able to hold their own and more with any man, and not being meek housewife types.

    Claremont is definitely playing p the Club’s hedonistic licentiousness, and even suggesting that this is what draws the rich and powerful who make up its “Outer” circle.

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