Hellfire Gala 2022 is Secretly a Testament to Love

Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 Cover

Truth. Love. Killer robot women from Scotland.

What do these three things have in common? They can all be found at Krakoa’s second annual event, the Hellfire Gala 2022.

With the Fall of X upon us, and the third annual Hellfire Gala kicking the era off with a bang (and more than a few screams) it feels only right to revisit last year’s festivities.

Hellfire Gala 2022 – The Middle Child of a Complicated Fraternity

It’s impossible to overstate just how insurmountable the level of expectations was for Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 to meet.

The first Hellfire Gala, led by Planet Sized X-Men, saw mutantkind kind terraform Mars, transforming it into planet Arrako – perhaps the most daring piece of worldbuilding in a Marvel comic in decades. Following that, readers were met with Inferno, Hickman’s unexpected adieu to the x-office that set the stage for the next few years of storytelling while leaving readers wondering “what if?” about so many things. Then, immediately after, we had X Lives / Deaths of Wolverine – a slightly controversial book that promised huge revelations and ultimately only served to, in the eyes of many, reduce one of the Krakoan age’s most exciting characters to a genocidal caricature of her former self.

Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 had to follow that.

Duggan and company had to exceed, or at the very least match the hype of an Omega mutant-born planet, take the ball from Inferno and make sense of the jarring new status quo left in the wake of Lives & Deaths. And it had to cover the election of a whole new team of X-Men. And it had to tell an actual story.

It should, by all accounts, read like a corporately mandated mess – just another annual event that serves the larger movements of the Marvel universe and drums up publicity along the way.

And yet, it wasn’t. While it didn’t reach the hype of the previous year’s entry – largely due to its big reveal (the now known secret of mutant resurrection) being covered in a prior issue of X-Men – 2022’s gala still managed to find its own things to shout about.

If the theme of the first gala was expansion, then the theme of the second was all about love.

What’s a Celebration Without a Little Bit of Love?

With the grander plot movements playing out in other titles, Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 is free to do more of the emotional lifting this time around. What Duggan and co. seem really interested in examining this time around is what separates family from foe, and how concepts like truth and love are constantly used to renegotiate the differences between the two.

X-Men Hellfire Gala 2022 #1
Kris Anka. Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

From page one, Duggan (and first artist Kris Anka) greet us not with nationalism or Hellfire, but with love. Scott Summers and Jean Grey, leaders of the X-Men, sit opposite one another as they psychically discuss how Ben Urich just broke the story of mutant resurrection. Not only does this immediately establish the central conflicts and tensions at hand, but it also serves to efficiently frame the themes of the issue. We’ve moved on from the questions of place and empire that reigned at the first Hellfire Gala. This time around, Duggan is focusing in, not on places but people. It’s not about terraforming far-off worlds but reckoning with the state of things on the one the X-Men already have. The personal is always political, the opening reminds us, and the business of building a nation has as much to do with how its leaders (political or, in this case, cultural) conduct themselves as it does with how they conduct matters of policy.

Put another way: the X-Men began as superheroes, not nation-builders, and Duggan is reminding the reader that no matter how wide the scope of the Krakoan era gets, it will always be a story about characters first and foremost. Characters that, through their actions, must by design demonstrate some kind of ideal to strive for.

In this case, and in this modern context, Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 is reinforcing that Scott and Jean are heroes that lead through truth and love. Specifically, heroes that give truth lovingly, and give love that is true. Let me explain: as Jean points out, Scott only revealed the truth about mutant resurrection to humanity because anti-mutant terrorists O.R.C.H.I.S. were trying to use that information as a weapon. He didn’t do so to hurt anyone or violate their trust, as Emma Frost takes it a few pages later (‘This is how the man decides to #$%@ me?’). He did so to protect his people, regardless of how unpopular a decision it may be. Compassionate, forward-thinking, self-sacrificing – these are the qualities of Scott Summers.

It’s also a deliberate choice on Kris Anka’s part to render them nude. There is nothing between them – no clothes, no costumes, not even any spoken words. Their conversation is entirely psychic, speaking to the level of openness and trust at the core of their relationship. If heroes like the X-Men are meant to be examples we all look up to, then so too are we meant to strive for love that is an honest as this.

On that note, I use the word nude specifically, not naked. Despite how this scene culminates, there is nothing overtly sexual about all this. Their lack of clothing isn’t there to titillate the reader but to engage them emotionally. This is a scene of vulnerability, of revealing one’s true self, not something pornographic. Their transition into sex is tender and loving, and even their bodies, which the reader recognises and uncovered, are by virtue of Anka’s inks draped in shadow. They are nude for each other’s purposes, not the readers. Hence, love given truly.

Scott and Jean’s characterisation is consistent throughout Hellfire Gala 2022 #1, and that consistency is significant. Duggan et al introduce readers to these two before any other characters because they teach us how to read all other relationships presented. This is what the superheroic ideal of love looks like, and its inspirational quality draws all other representations into comparison as a result.

Broken Paradigms and Homicidal Scots

There are two key relationships that Duggan prioritises in the script as points of contrast with Scott/Jean. Those are Scott Summers & Emma Frost and Moira MacTaggert and her son, Kevin MacTaggert a.k.a. Proteus. In each case, the issue explores the effects of underserving one side of the love/truth dichotomy at the heart of any relationship.

Taking Scott and Emma’s relationship first, where truth is found in short supply, it’s interesting how quickly Duggan complicates the idea of this paradigm of two halves. Blindsided by Cyclops’ actions in the Daily Bugle, Emma finds herself isolated. On one hand, she loathes Scott’s lack of transparency for not making her aware of his plans. On the other, she bristles at the thought that while he lied to her (even by omission) he couldn’t lie enough to the rest of the world so that he could protect her.

X-Men Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 Scott and Emma
Matteo Lolli. Courtesy of DC Comics.

There’s an obvious commentary to be read here that love without truth isn’t love at all. Scott falls short of Emma’s estimations of him as mutantkind’s hero, due in large part to his perceived duplicity. And yet, she also demands that duplicity of him: ‘Couldn’t you have just lied, even a little?’. Duggan is drawing out the complexities of romantic relationships here, and he’s not necessarily painting this instance as unhealthy either. Scott’s insistence that he couldn’t lie, lest he doom mutant-human relations, does certainly reinforce the idea that love and truth in tandem are essential for one to be a hero; however, Emma’s position is sympathetic, not unreasonable, and as such adds the wrinkle that while truth is essential to good partnership, a consciousness of how to wield that truth is just as necessary.

After all, while Scott’s actions are ultimately validated in the macro, he still causes another of his loves’ pain, regardless of his good intent. It’s a compassionate handling of the truth then, Duggan argues, a loving truth, that separates the good from the great when it comes to navigating relationships.

This brings us to the other side of the coin: Moira MacTaggert, and her many machinations.

Moira’s goal throughout the Gala is to lie, cheat and manipulate her way into a position where she can exploit her rocky relationship with her son, Proteus, ultimately leading to disaster on the dancefloor. Whereas Scott and Emma’s relationship represented love without truth, Moira’s treatment of Proteus illustrates how the opposite can be just as (if not more) dangerous.

Determined to let loose the destructive potential of an unstable Proteus, Moira reveals a series of truths over the course of Hellfire Gala 2022 #1: the original sin at the heart of Krakoa, meant to shake his belief in the world around him, followed by the truth of the cold calculus of his conception, undermining the world within and before him.

Truth without love becomes truth weaponised, as Moira strikes at Proteus, telling him he was ‘a necessary creation’. He has been a pawn in her games from the start. It’s a chilling line, taking the motherly act of creation and evaporating any of the tenderness and warmth that one would conventionally associate with it.

Her weaponisation of the truth doesn’t succeed though, as Proteus, not the easily manipulated young man he used to be, is wise to Moira’s moves. The power she might’ve once held over him was dependent on the persistence of their familial relationship, but Kevin denies that and in turn robs her truth of power. Where once the presupposition, and subsequent denial, of love would have twisted the truth, Proteus renounces the paradigm altogether, as he asserts: ‘You’re not my mother’. With the personal relationship dissolved, so to is the relationship between love and truth.

Family is not something you inherit but something you choose, argues Duggan (and most 60+ years of X-Men continuity). This is because, as Moira demonstrates, love is not unconditional, even from those you’d most hope it would be. Love is a choice, given without expectation for return. It requires sacrifice, that openness to vulnerability as Scott, Emma and Jean epitomise in their ever-complex tango of fates. And that’s why, even though she birthed him, Moira is no mother to Proteus. His real family, the ones whose truth hold power over him, are his chosen family The Five – who, true to form, rush to his aid the moment they recognise he’s in danger.

Choice. Vulnerability. Power.

In this context, Duggan adds an under-dimension to this dynamic within Hellfire Gala 2022 #1. Yes, love and truth are paramount in any relationship. But, they are not singular in their effect, and consciousness of their significance can just as quickly enable abuse as it can empowerment within romantic and familial relationships.

Striking at the Heart of the Hellfire Gala 2022

Love and trust, just like Scott and Emma, are two partners in a dance. Each must be in lock-step with one another, leading and being lead, supporting and lifting. Should either partner fall out of rhythm – should love be offered without honesty, or truth bludgeoned upon someone without compassion – then the whole paradigm falls apart. Families break down, relationships tear in twain.

Make no mistake: it’s deliberate that Duggan chose an X-Men story to explore these most intense of emotions. It is mutantkind, after all, that is ‘hated and feared’ – and what are love and truth if not antidotes to hatred and ignorance?

The Hellfire Gala 2022 #1 may not be as status quo redefining as its predecessor, or as cataclysmic as its sequel, but it doesn’t need to be. This is an X-Men comic, one that’s striving to be the X-Men comic. There’s a reason these issues centre upon the election of a new team every year; on some level, these issues should be about celebrating and exploring what, exactly, the pinnacle of the X-Men (both as characters and as an idea) should be.

And in a world consumed more and more everyday with fear and bigotry, with a growing subculture determined to present “facts” as a weapon to target and marginalise, Duggan shows us what our greatest heroes should aspire to be.

They should be honest, and they should be agents of love. They should always recognise the responsibility of those ideas, lest they abuse their power. And they should fight tooth and nail to protect that twin-ideal at all costs.


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