“Tonight will forever be known as the “Mutant Massacre.”
When you have a character say that in your book, you’re making a statement. You’re immediately drawing comparisons to one of the most legendary X-Men events of all time, and you’re confidently stating that your book is on that level.
It’s not, though, so readers should keep their expectations tempered.
2023’s Hellfire Gala feels like it’s the “Red Wedding” from Game of Thrones all over again, except not nearly as impactful because:
A) We know for certain that some of these characters are coming back.
B) So much that leads to this is more a result of convenience than it is a result of any proper build up.
There’s a lot that happens here, starting from Kamala Khan’s resurrection, to small things in the gala which were built up in Gerry Duggan’s X-Men run, before Orchis comes crashing down (literally!) and everything goes to hell. In fact, it’s only 18 pages (not counting credits pages) until everything goes to hell.
To that end, no matter what I think of the story that unfolded, it’s a huge balancing act to make all of these elements work together – and it does! It’s a well-paced, well-structured story that is brutal, and you feel the brutality and the impact of the violence every time it happens. It helps that it doesn’t hold back at all. This book is bloody, to the point where I wondered why there wasn’t a parental advisory in the beginning, at the very least.
The art is also mostly extremely good. Joined by a frankly insane number of artists and colour artists, the book almost always looks fantastic. The chaotic panelling combined with the more calmer composition for the somber moments later on really adds to making those harsh moments pop.
My biggest issue lies with the opening section, where Kamala gets resurrected. She’s a teenage, brown Muslim girl, and having her in such a short robe is such a baffling choice that leaves me wondering how that got approved by editorial in the first place – especially when we’ve had other books in the line (such as New Mutants) where when people were resurrected, they wore long robes that covered themselves fully. It’s at least not portrayed as sexualized in any manner, which is a small silver lining.
Now, for the story…
When this era started with Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, and Marte Gracia’s House of X and Powers of X, there was a promise. Mutants as a minority metaphor is something that’s been used so much, especially by white writers, with the only impactful stories to come out of that being genocide where we had to look at cishet white characters’ pain as they’re considered “minorities” – which is why I, as a person of marginalized identities, personally never connected with them on that level. I could never see myself visually through them – emotionally maybe. Seeing Hickman basically toss that aside and pushing them to a future that was more focused on science fiction political storytelling was fascinatingly cool to me, where the fear of the future wasn’t genocide by humans again, but rather, artificial intelligence taking over everything. It was fresh, it was unique, and just like Krakoa itself, Orchis as a villain was a step in the right direction. Erasing death and making mutants “immortal” was a way to tell stories in a new fashion — a concept which Ewing used to make Magneto’s death impactful and really feel like a heroic last stand, which Gillen used to give us the fantastic “Sins of Sinister” crossover, along with the big moment in “A.X.E. Judgement Day”, which Percy used for his current “Weapons of X” plotline in Wolverine, and which Ayala used for an interesting look at how disabled mutants would deal with it in New Mutants.
And yet, here we are, back to mutant genocide again, because all corporate comics are cyclical and we all need to go back to the status quo instead of letting things progress.
Sure, you can make the argument that there is a plot in the pipeline where the resurrection protocols will eventually return, but there is a difference in framing. Where then it was for strong emotional beats or good sci-fi storytelling, here it’s just used to tell us the barely functioning minority metaphor is back! The difference here is that where those deaths were methodical and had meaning, here it’s all nonsensical. It’s just a mindless bloodbath without any meaning except “Now it’s serious business,” when all those deaths in the aforementioned titles also elicited that same effect, except with more thought behind it.
It gets worse when you look at the impactful deaths and how a good portion of them are from marginalized groups. Mystique, Lourdes, Jubilee, Frenzy, Prodigy, Iceman. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against killing a character just because they’re part of a minority group, but in a comic that’s known for this stuff, you’d think that there would be some look at the optics, but there was none. Finally giving us an X-Men team with multiple non-white members and then taking them away to kickstart the bloodshed is especially haunting. Does it effectively showcase that the creative team is not playing about this being an impactful comic book? Yes. Is it shitty that they do this through the most diverse team of X-Men in forever (which even then half the members are white so there’s that)? Also yes.
Bringing back Lourdes Chantel was a good move on Duggan’s end in Marauders, but since then she has been barely utilized. Ever since that Marauders run ended, she was in one issue of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty (the only one Emma appeared in, too) and then in this year’s Hellfire Gala issue… just to die. Bleak. Her death is supposed to feel like a big moment, but it doesn’t, because we never really get an exploration of her reason to believe in the “mutant dream”, or a deeper look at her relationship with Emma Frost. It just happens, and the shock I felt wasn’t the shock of her death, but the shock of the fact that she was wasted, and how ultimately bringing her back didn’t even mean anything when it could have meant so much.
Mystique’s death was horrifying too. It’s weird, because the book has an entire off-screen plotpoint that happens in the Free Comic Book Day 2023: Avengers/X-Men issue, where Mystique and Destiny are clearly seen leaving the gala, but here they’re still there until when everything goes to shit. Maybe it’s just an oversight / continuity error, but it just feels weird to read when you consider that both that issue and this issue were both written by Gerry Duggan.
The deaths that did feel impactful were those of Iceman and Jean Grey, because even though we know that they’re coming back with their own miniseries, those deaths were done well. They fight until their last breath, going all out and pushing themselves to their limits, which is cool, but it makes me wonder why the non-white mutants didn’t get an opportunity for that last stand.
I felt nothing when Cyclops fell either, which is a shame because he’s my favourite mutant of all time – and it’s funny I didn’t because even though he died in a pathetic way in Inhumans vs X-Men, he at least had a strong speech before his send-off.
“WE–CAN’T–END LIKE THIS. DON’T LET IT END, EMMA!” vs “Jean… don’t go. I need you. I love you.”
There’s also the whole nature of events that led to this point. Sure, they’ve all been seeded across titles (mainly Duggan’s X-Men book), but also it just shows the mutants as incompetent – not in a way that displays their pride, but in a way that feels all too convenient for the plot. I can’t buy into the fact that for a year, Orchis was messing with Krakoan medicine under the mutants’ eye and it just happened, nor can I buy into Moira X, or generally Orchis, because the current X-Men book turned them into cartoony supervillains when they were so much more. Hell, M.O.D.O.C. (an alternate version of M.O.D.O.K.) was better utilized in the aforementioned Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty.
The Kamala Khan teases set up early on also feels like a lot of damage control more than anything. During a conversation with Rasputin IV, the latter talks about how Kamala’s her hero from the future, and it all reads so artificial, where you can tell that they’re just trying to convince the reader that her being a mutant is “good!” – and it’s not working for me. In the beginning segment, Kamala wonders whether her parents know that she’s alive, and Emma casually states that she’ll rewrite their memories of the past few days. First off – if true, that renders Fallen Friend, an issue that has some powerful emotional beats, negligible. Second off, it’s just an odd choice to change someone’s mind to make them happy, certainly something that’s been explored a lot across the X-Men’s publication history. There’s also the tease of her awakening a “mutant power”, but I refuse to speculate on that and will wait to see what it is.
Regardless, there are a lot of baffling decisions throughout this one-shot, and while I am curious as to how it’ll play out, I’m still not sold on it. Given the push they’re trying to have with Kamala being a mutant too, it does leave me worried about whether or not she’ll be pushed to the background, as so many other non-white mutants do, or if she will still be allowed to shine as a solo hero within the Marvel universe, with her own supporting cast that exists independently of the mutants.
It’s not all awful, though. Like I said, regardless of optics, it does feel impactful, for the most part. I also really like Firestar’s new status quo, being a triple agent for Krakoa, but given how little she was given in the main X-Men book – to the point where the annual by Steve Foxe was what sold me on her inclusion in the title – I wonder how well that will be utilized going forward. The RESIST defense – something from Al Ewing’s tenure on U.S.Avengers, was also great to see here. That final moment of Xavier on the ground of Krakoa was a brilliant last page, and I like that we’re finally hopefully going to get some answers to the Kate Pryde and Krakoan gates storyline, so that’s something to look forward to.
Right now, my hope is that the “Fall of X” era is like the Empire Strikes Back for the mutants, where everything is going to shit but will eventually come out, broken but new, to keep Krakoa going. It’s a fantastic setting, and throwing it away would be a damn shame.
X-Men: Hellfire Gala 2023 is a comic that I think will be worth it to you, depending on how much you can stomach this. If not, that’s fine too, because Marvel dropped an entire article with every impactful moment that happens, since letting readers read a comic for themselves is something that is non-existent now. A lot of this didn’t work for me, but for what it’s worth, at least there are some “Fall of X” titles that I am looking forward to.