Retro Review: Inferno By Immonen & Von Grawbadger For DC Comics

Inferno #1-4 (October 1997 – February 1998)

Written by Stuart Immonen

Pencilled by Stuart Immonen 

Inked by Wade Von Grawbadger

Colour by Tom McCraw

Spoilers (from twenty-two to twenty-three years ago)

Inferno is a character from the 90s post-Zero Hour reboot Legion of Super-Heroes and Legionnaires titles.  Prior to the reboot, Inferno was the name given to the SW6 version of Sun Boy, Dirk Morgna, but for whatever reason, the powers that be decided to give that name to a young woman who was not a Legionnaire, but a member of Leland McCauley’s Work Force, a corporate team.  Inferno was always portrayed as prickly and full of attitude in her earlier appearances.

When the Work Force helped fight off the Emerald Eye of Ekron, when it had possessed Shrinking Violet, Inferno was among a group of Legionnaires that got transported to, and stuck in, the 20th century.  She stayed with the Legion for a while, and got a new costume (thankfully, because her original one was terrible), and then rather abruptly decided to take off on her own.

It felt forced, and when she got her own four issue miniseries, it was a big surprise.  But then, it was the 90s, crazy things kept happening in comics, and if Stuart Immonen wants his own book, I guess you give it to him.

I remember buying this book, and I remember the way each cover was designed as an homage to fashion and womens’ magazines, but I don’t actually remember the story or content at all.  I’m curious to see if any of it will come back to me.

Let’s track who turned up in the title:

Villains

  • Vampire creature (#2-4)
  • Sean (#2-3)

Guest Stars

  • Spider Girl (Susa Pakka, Work Force; #3)
  • Ultra Boy (Jo Nah, Work Force; #3)
  • Leland McCauley (#3)
  • Saturn Girl (Imra Ardeen; Legion of Super-Heroes; #4)

Supporting Characters

  • Jilly Major (#1-4)
  • Eldrid Hayes (a talking panda; #1-4)
  • Helen Cage (#1-3)
  • Charlie Woodcock (#2-3)
  • Sophie Desjardin (#2-3)
  • Donna Ferri (#2-3)
  • Jane Washington-Carter (#2-3)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • Inferno flies through the night, and lands as the sun comes up.  We learn that she’s afraid of the dark, and then are given a recap of how she ended up in the 20th century, and her leaving the Legion (although not her reasons).  Suddenly, we see that she’s fallen asleep in the corner of a parking lot, and a security guard wakes her by honking his horn, telling her she’s blocking people (although the art shows that she isn’t).  She gets swept up in a crowd, and finds herself in a large shopping mall (that is clearly modeled on the Eaton Centre here in Toronto, where Immonen lives).  She sees this as proof of civilization, but is also kind of confused when some mall walkers push past her.  She walks straight into a girl wearing a backpack who is concerned that her lunch might have been crushed (despite it being on her back).  Inferno starts to threaten the girl, who gets worried when she sees her form fire on her fist, and pulls her through a door into the back of a furniture store.  They settle on a couch, and the girl introduces herself as Jilly Major, and as a runaway.  Jilly offers Inferno some chocolate, and they both lay back.  Inferno remembers scenes from her childhood, when she developed her powers and ended up being sent to Leland McCauley.  Inferno wakes up in a desert.  She starts flying around, and spots a small house, with a telepathic panda bear sitting out front.  It introduces itself as Eldrid Hayes, the caretaker of the house.  Eldrid tells Inferno that the house belongs to her, and tries to get her inside, but instead she torches it, and wakes up in the furniture store.  She hears an explosion, and flies through the mall, where she sees that someone has blown a hole in an air duct.  She takes care of some falling glass, and spots a kid crawling along the top of the ducts.  She goes looking for him, but a second bomb goes off, and she again tries to deal with debris.  A third bomb goes off under her, and she hits her head.  She manages to hold on, and spots the kid who set the bombs about to fall off the ducts.  He tells her there are no more bombs, and she makes him fall, before swooping in to save him.  She hands him over to two security guards, one of whom tells her to leave the area or town.  Another girl, identifying herself as Helen Cage, praises Inferno.  Inferno realizes that Jilly stole something out of one of her pouces.  Helen offers to buy her lunch.  Some figure clouded in smoke watches them, and shows interest in Inferno.  It lets go of its control over the bomber kid, and laughs.
  • Helen introduces Inferno to her friends, Charlie, Sophie, Donna, and Jane, none of whom are very welcoming, or impressed by the fact that she’s a superhero.  Helen goes to get food, and the others warn Inferno that Helen will make her pay.  They also mention that Helen “messed up” Jilly, at which point Inferno gets really angry.  They point out that Jilly is coming down the escalator, and Inferno grabs her, flying her to a landing so they can talk.  Jilly returns the things she stole, while Inferno remembers her only friend from before her powers developed.  The girls lead her back to the table, and Inferno notices that Charlie’s boyfriend is pretty controlling.  The girls ask Inferno more questions, and she starts to fit in a bit.  This doesn’t make a shadowy figure in the air ducts happy; he wants to feed off her pain.  Inferno finds herself in the desert again, with Eldrid the Panda waiting for her, trying to get her to sit on the porch with him.  He calls her Sandy, which she doesn’t like, and warns her of danger.  Suddenly, she’s back in the food court with her new friends, and they’re telling her to run because the police are coming to get Jilly.  One cop puts his hand on Inferno’s shoulder, and she burns him.  Helen yells for her to help Jilly, but as she flies through the mall, Inferno spots someone robbing a jewellery store.  She decides to go after the two thieves, and delivers them to the cop.  He is upset that Jilly got away, and Inferno yells at him.  She finds her new friends, and they give her some attitude, since she didn’t help much.  Helen tells her to leave for a bit so they can talk.  Inferno flies off, and we see the creature in the ducts again, enjoying her pain.  Inferno sits on a bench thinking when she sees something.  She opens a door and sees the shadowy figure – he looks a bit like a panda, but is a skinny man.  Helen comes up behind her, scaring Inferno, and when she turns back around, the Panda-Man (Eldrid?) is gone.
  • Inferno stares at the map of the mall, thinking.  Helen tries to reach her, but then she notices Jane falling off an upper level.  Helen has to push Inferno into saving her, and as she does, Inferno scolds Jane for hurting her feelings before.  Returning Jane to the ledge she fell from, we see that the other girls have tackled Sean, Charlie’s boyfriend, who I guess pushed Jane.  The girls tell Inferno to kill him.  She flashes back to a mission she was on in the 30th century with Spider Girl and Ultra Boy, where they were burning a forest for Leland McCauley.  Jo noticed that Inferno was enjoying scaring the animals fleeing the forest, until apes attacked, and one covered her eyes, scaring her, because she doesn’t like the dark.  We see that during the flashback, Inferno froze.  The cops take Sean away, while Helen tells her that she has to head home for the night.  Inferno thought she lived in the mall too.  As Helen leaves, Inferno points out to Helen that her friends all hate her; Helen knows this, but also knows that they are still friends.  As the mall closes, Inferno hears Eldrid’s voice in her head again, and then finds herself back in the desert with him.  He warns that she is in danger of losing the house we see in the desert, which apparently has her memories in it.  He encourages her to look, and she sees herself as a child, playing with her parents.  She wants to forget her family, while Eldrid argues that her parents were good people who were trying to protect her.  Eldrid’s speech gets weird, and then Inferno wakes up to Jilly shaking her, trying to get her to hide from mall security.  Instead, she starts flying around again, hears Eldrid’s voice in her head again, and gets scared when she sees it’s dark out.  She tries to challenge Eldrid, and finds herself alone in the desert.  This time, the ground cracks open, and the giant form of the creature she saw earlier (really, I’m assuming that this is Eldrid because he looks panda-ish, and has the same speech bubble style) tries to grab her.  He identifies himself as a kind of vampire, and frightens her.  Back in the mall, the creature drops out of another air vent and comes at her.  She finds it gets darker and darker, and lashes out with her flames, setting off the sprinkler system in the mall.  The creature drops on her again, but she gets away.  We see her hiding in the bathroom.
  • The creatures stalks the mall, looking for Inferno.  Jilly finds her in the bathroom, and almost gets fried for it.  Jilly tries to get her to leave the washroom in order to avoid security.  Inferno tells her about the creature and the weird waking dreams she’s been having.  Inferno doesn’t like Jilly’s suggestion that she’s scared, and they start crawling through the vents again.  The creature crawls into the vents in one part of the mall, just as the girls come out in another – there’s a huge atrium (that doesn’t actually exist in the Eaton’s Centre).  Inferno explains how her parents sent her to live with McCauley, and after she learned that her parents split up, she decided to burn away her old life with them, and embrace her role in the Work Force.  Jilly asks what the L on Inferno’s belt stands for, and she admits she’s not thought about that.  Jilly disappears, and the creature starts to speak to Inferno telepathically, trying to scare her.  Suddenly, Inferno is back in the desert with Eldrid, only most of the landscape has worn away.  The house is still there, and Eldrid explains that he’s been keeping her memories for her since she first tried to get rid of them.  Jilly wakes her up to point out that the creature is staring at them.  It tries to stir up some emotion in Jilly as well, but Inferno cautions her to clear her mind of fear.  It then tries to rouse some anger and hate in Inferno.  The creature jumps at Jilly, knocking her over a railing.  Inferno flies down, grabbing Jilly, but then dropping her (reminding her to fly, which makes no sense) so she can swoop down and grab the creature, which then tries to kill her.  Inferno decides that the way to defeat it is to believe in herself, and embrace the darkness within her.  She blasts the creature with her flames, and it falls over a railing (how many levels high is this mall) and falls dead.  Inferno, whose name really is Sandy, hears Eldrid now (it’s still confusing that these two characters have the same visual effects on their speech bubbles).  He tells her that it’s all over, and we see the sun rise in the mall’s skylight windows.  Jilly is bothered that the creature is dead, but Sandy explains that she had to use her darker urges to help her.  Jilly announces she’s going home to talk to her parents, and leaves the mall that was apparently not locked all night.  Inferno is contacted by Saturn Girl telepathically.  She lets her know that the team is heading back to the 30th century, and asks if she wants to come.  Inferno is surprised that she has a choice, but Imra explains that Brainiac 5 has decided that she won’t affect the time stream.  Sandy decides to stay, and walks out into the daylight, with the sun high above her (which is a neat trick, considering that it’s just come up a few pages before).

There were a lot of strange and regrettable decisions made during the 1990s in the world of mainstream comics, but I think that deciding to launch a series of Legion of Super-Heroes adjacent miniseries with a mini about a very minor character set in a mall is among the strangest, if not most visible.

Inferno, the character that has mostly just shown an occasional tendency for throwing temper tantrums or being cruel, decides she wants to live in the 20th century she hates, and so hooks up with some mallrat girls, and happens to get into a conflict with an energy vampire who just happens to live in the same mall, but is helped by the talking panda who curates her memories.  For four whole issues.

I don’t want to be negative, but this is not a good comic.  Let’s try to focus on the positive aspects first.  Stuart Immonen is a great penciller, and this book looks terrific.  I assume he designed Inferno’s new look (her old, skirted costume was terrible), which makes her look a bit like a competitive bicycler, but also works as a decent superhero outfit that suggests the Legion’s general aesthetic.  Immonen’s character work is great, with some of the girls Inferno becomes friends with standing out as individuals.  Also, I love that most of the scenes of the mall make it look like Toronto’s Eaton Centre, because it gives it a sense of familiarity, and does actually explain the ridiculous amount of big air vents that are used as story elements over and over again.

I also love the covers to this series, each of which is designed to look like the women’s and fashion magazines of the late 90s.  It’s a cool conceit, and while they give very little clue as to the contents of the comic, they help prepare the reader for the setting.

That’s about all the praise I have though.  Inferno was a cipher of a character before this series began, and after she’s dug into her memories and motivations a little, she’s still not particularly interesting.  I came away from this book liking her less than I did when she was background in the LSH title.  The fact that she has a panda named Eldrid Hayes living in her head never got enough of an explanation, and I just never could bring myself to much care about her or the girls she was hanging out with.

Stuart Immonen has long been an awkward fit in mainstream comics.  He has a lot of indie sensibilities, especially in his writing, and this felt like a character study that might have better worked without fire powers, vampires, and panda bears, and had really just been about a lost girl meeting other lost girls in a mall.  The superhero stuff is what doesn’t work here.

I also found it odd that Inferno chose not to return to the 30th century with the others, based on the fact that a few girls her age can barely hide their contempt for her.  I don’t know if Immonen had plans or desires to place her into any other titles (I see that she made sporadic appearances around the DCU for a few years, like a two-part guest shot in Wonder Woman) that never came to fruition.  It’s interesting that he, according to the text piece in #4, campaigned to keep her from being killed off in Final Night.

From here, DC made a couple of other Legion-related miniseries, with the next one I’ll write about, Legends of the Legion, making the most sense of them all.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

You may be shocked to learn that this series was never collected.

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