Best of 2021 (Behind the Scenes): How Hellions turned Marvel's misfits into compelling superheroes
It's a good time to be a mutant. Ever since 2019's House of X revamp by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, Marvel's X-Men and related characters have been enjoying a creative renaissance. With the living island of Krakoa now established as an independent nation-state for all mutants, X-characters have a new status quo to orient themselves around. Krakoa is refreshing because it demands new questions of a decades-old franchise. X-Force, for example, asks: What can be justified in the name of defending Krakoa? And New Mutants questions what opportunities are available to mutant children now that they no longer need to defend themselves from constant attack.
But Hellions, one of EW's favorite comics of 2021, asks the thorniest question of all: Is there a place in paradise for the haters and losers?
The founding of Krakoa included an amnesty agreement whereby any mutants who promised to follow the laws of the new nation would be forgiven for past crimes. That means iconic X-Men like Storm now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with former mutant terrorists like Mystique. But what about the weirdos who still don't fit in, the killers who weren't famous enough to earn a spot on Krakoa's government, the people no one else wants to be around? That was the mission of Hellions: To band together the mutant castoffs into a strike team capable of performing the ugly missions that no one else wanted to do, and see if in the process they could all find a place for themselves in this new society.
"I wanted to pick at some of the complicated issues that were caused by the mutant society coming together," Hellions writer Zeb Wells tells EW. "I really like what Jonathan had done, where as long as you're a mutant you can come live on this island because it was going to be a utopia. But there are some very weird characters who have done some very terrible things. I didn't want it to seem like that would be brushed under the carpet, I wanted to dig into that. We could play with the larger issues of what a society does with the people who can't fit in, or don't want to fit in."
Hellions reached its finale with issue 18 this month, since every X-comic is ending ahead of the miniseries event The X Lives and X Deaths of Wolverine. Those 18 issues tell a perfectly contained story with defined arcs for each of its strange characters. EW talked to Wells about how he and his artist collaborators like Stephen Segovia made it work. (Warning: As this interview goes on, more spoilers are discussed. If you're a newcomer curious about what makes this book worth checking out, maybe only read the first few sections.)
Assembling the team
The Hellions lineup is bizarre: Somewhat recognizable X-Men like Psylocke and Havok stand alongside lesser-known characters like Nanny and Orphan-Maker.
"I started looking at characters that, if I was a mutant or an X-Man, I wouldn't want to be in the same room with," Wells says. "What I started gravitating towards were characters that, just having grown up reading X-Men comics, stuck out in my head as 'Man, those are some weird characters.' Nanny and Orphan-Maker are a great example. They've always stuck out in my mind, because Orphan-Maker looks so cool. So you're like, 'Oh, this is a badass character… Wait, he's a 9-year-old? And he hangs out with this weird egg? So he's not a cool character, but his guns are cool, but he flies around in an egg ship?'"
John Greycrow, formerly known as Scalphunter, became one of the Hellions' main bruisers despite his dark past as one of the Marauders. In the "Mutant Massacre" story line of 1986, the first in a long-standing tradition of X-Men crossovers, Greycrow brutally murdered dozens of the underground mutants known as Morlocks. Even though the Morlocks can now be resurrected thanks to Krakoan technology, they still haven't forgiven Greycrow for what he did to them — nor has he forgiven himself.
"He's always had a cool look to me," Wells says of Greycrow. "He looks dangerous and scary, and he's done terrible things. But now he has been offered this opportunity to move forward. So how do you move forward when you've done something terrible and you know it?"
Another of the Hellions doesn't really seem to care about the terrible things they've done to others. That would be Empath, a mutant with the power to manipulate the emotions of others — meaning he can basically make people do whatever he wants. As a result, Empath is a total sociopath who is hated by almost every other mutant (even his former teammates on the original Hellions, who were Emma Frost's students at the Massachusetts Academy).
"He's the most challenging one. He's the upper limit," Wells says of Empath. "He's never going to be a good guy, he has no interest in changing, and we all hate him because he does despicable things. It kind of gets into the free will question at a certain point: Is it really his fault? This is the creature that was put on the planet. This creature, with that power set, in this situation, this is what he becomes. How does a fully evolved society deal with this? Is there a place for this guy who hurts other members of the society and is dangerous for the other members of the society to be around? I like having a character like Empath around to remind me there are no easy answers here."
Psylocke and Havok are there to be recognizable characters on a bizarre roster, but they also have their own problems to deal with. Kwannon only recently took the Psylocke name and outfit for herself after finally being untangled from her decades-long body swap with Betsy Braddock (you can read Wells and Excalibur writer Tini Howard discuss all that here), while Havok has really been through the wringer over the years.
"Talking with [X-Men comics editor] Jordan White and going through the Hellions cast, Nanny and Orphan-Maker were obviously not going to sell many comics," Wells says with a laugh. "So going through the bigger names I could use, Havok became interesting to me as being on the other end of Empath. He is technically 'a good guy,' but he's been through so many traumas and he's been manipulated so many times that he's become a tragic character. That has analogues in real life, you know? People try to do good things but they have all this damage that causes them to act in ways that make them appear antisocial or 'bad.' He's the guy who's gotten chewed up by the system and thrown into a situation that he doesn't feel like he belongs in, and I'm sure a bunch of people in prison feel like that."
As for Kwannon, "I think she made a good babysitter who was also dealing with their own traumas from the past," Wells says. "If you're looking for drama and tragedy, she's a gold mine. I wanted to plumb those depths!"
In conclusion, "No one was allowed to be on the Hellions unless life had been really mean to them," according to Wells.
The boss you love to hate
The Hellions' weirdness starts from the top. Mr. Sinister is one of those former X-Men villains who has now been incorporated into Krakoa's leadership. The Hellions are given to him to lead, mostly to give him something to do all day so he doesn't have time to mess around with illegal cloning experiments. But though he acts flamboyantly evil all the time, Sinister actually ends up bringing the Hellions together — purely on the basis of how much they hate him.
"He's like the guy on your crew at work that everybody just s---s on, but you wouldn't know what to talk about if he quit," Wells says.
Wells credits Hickman for coming up with the idea to make Sinister part of Hellions. Researching how Hickman had written Sinister in House of X, and how writers like Kieron Gillen had handled him even before that, Wells fell in love with the character.
"I have to keep reminding myself that we're not supposed to like him now!" Wells says. "He is a terrible, terrible, murderous person. But then when you turn that murder dial up, you somehow make him even more engaging and funny. He's so evil! He's been such a fantastic character to write."
Since House of X, there have been two crossover events that united the various X-comics: last year's X of Swords, which saw Krakoa deal with the return of another mutant island called Arakko after its inhabitants had spent millennia in a hell dimension, and this year's Hellfire Gala, which saw Krakoa put on a high-fashion party to celebrate their culture. Wells says that in such mutant gatherings, the Hellions "should always be the outsiders or the party crashers." As part of that, the team undertook a covert mission during X of Swords that brought them into contact with the Locus Vile — essentially their opposite numbers from Arakko.
If the Hellions are the haters and losers trying to find a place in paradise, the Locus Vile are the haters and losers of hell.
"They're led by someone who could not care less about them," Wells says of Tarn the Uncaring. "He's the worst version of Sinister. The other characters all have afflictions, and Tarn got in there and made the afflictions worse — as bad as they could possibly be. That was a hard question to ask, 'What would Arakko's version of this be?' It was weird writing them, it was weird writing those data pages, because it was coming from a darker place."
The current line of X-Men comics are built on collaboration, and Tarn has already popped up in S.W.O.R.D. following his introduction in Hellions. Since he sits on Arakko's ruling council, it's safe to assume we haven't heard the last from him.
"I was happy because [S.W.O.R.D. writer] Al Ewing seemed to latch onto him and has fun stuff coming up," Wells says. "If you're impressing Al Ewing and making a toy he wants to play with, you're doing a good job, I think."
Worth a thousand words
Wells wrote every issue of Hellions, but a bevy of different artists helped him out. Stephen Segovia provided the art for most of the series, but key chapters were also illustrated by Carmen Carnero, Ze Carlos, and Roge Antonio, among others.
"I don't feel like Hellions became Hellions until I saw issue #1 with that page of Greycrow cleaning his gun. All the sadness and all the stuff I wanted to write for that character was just on his face instantly," Wells says. "I don't think Hellions is Hellions without Stephen, and the Locus Vile isn't the Locus Vile without Carmen. We had so many artists come in and put their thumbprint on it."
Wells particularly credits Segovia with helping build Kwannon into one of the single most interesting X-Men active today. This is a character who wasn't even in control of her own body for years, and is now off to star in another monthly comic (Marauders) following the conclusion of Hellions. When she's not braining people with her psychic knife, Kwannon is struggling with some intense emotions. Since she's not a talker, her struggle to balance her concern for her missing daughter (whose DNA has been held hostage by Sinister) with her responsibility as Hellions field leader comes across in the art.
"Stephen's Kwannon is iconic," Wells says. "You look at her face and you know there's a massive internal world going on in her head. I can't write that in dialogue. That's his own artistic intelligence being applied to creating a character. You look at the face and you know she's thinking of stuff that's not on the page. You can see her history and her tragedy in her face."
The big reveal
As great a read as Hellions was this year, it will surely reward re-reads because of a twist that happens in issue #15: the revelation that Empath's presence on the team was to spy for Emma Frost and make sure Mr. Sinister didn't step too far out of line.
"It checked so many boxes that I liked," Wells says. "Okay, the Hellions used to be Emma's team, and now they're Mr. Sinister's… but then at the end you realize, 'Oh no, wait, it kind of still was Emma's team.' It justifies the whole endeavor of saying, 'Oh sure, Mr. Sinister, you can have a team, you can do whatever you want with them,' because then we reveal that no, they don't trust Mr. Sinister. They'll allow him a playground, but if he steps out of the lines too far they have to keep an eye on him, and this was a way to keep an eye on them."
Wells continues, "I think it also plays into the tragedy of these characters, which is that they were pawns in the end. I want to believe that both of those things were happening at the same time: that people did want to give them an outlet to heal and express themselves, but at the end of the day, if you're going to have characters that are thrown to the wolves and manipulated, you're going to pick the ones that are the most messed up. For me it scratched a logic itch but also stayed in the realm of Hellions, which is exploring what do we do with our undesirables and people who don't fit in. They kind of get the shaft a lot."
Back from the fridge
Madelyne Pryor (Cyclops' first wife and the one-time Goblin Queen) may not have been a member of the Hellions, but her presence looms large in the book. She appeared as a villain in the first few issues, and her long-awaited resurrection in the final installment reflects certain things about where the Hellions ended up.
"Havok is of the most privileged member of the Hellions," Wells notes. "He is Cyclops' little brother, and he did a bad thing so they put him on the team, but he's not really on the team. When they activate him to destroy Sinister's clone farm, he gets kinda coddled and gets Madelyne Pryor brought back to keep him happy. Which I think is gross, and is meant to be gross. It also puts Madelyne Pryor back on the board without taking the teeth of that character, because when she finds out the reason she was brought back, that's the opposite of the case she's been trying to make, which is that no one is concerned about her as a person, they're concerned about her for what she means to other characters."
Pryor is a classic example of what the writer Gail Simone famously identified as "women in refrigerators" — an unfortunately long-running trope of female characters in superhero comics being horribly mistreated in order to provide motivation for male characters. A nice thing about Krakoan resurrection is that it allows female characters like that to come back and speak for themselves.
"I love that about her character: Just by taking the biography of what has happened to her, it forces you to address issues of fridging and using female characters just as a reflection of male characters," Wells says. "I love that she can give a voice to that and explore that. I think it's impossible to write that character without exploring that. I'm excited about where Madeleyne Pryor goes from here."