Avengers, X-Men, and the Kinky Sixties!

In the 2011 film X-Men: First Class the enemy of the newly formed X-Men was an organization known as The Hellfire Club led by Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon). This storyline first appeared in January 1980 with issue #129 of the Uncanny X-Men series, and was created by the writer/artist duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The new collection of villains was heavily influenced by The Avengers . . . not the superhero team of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and others . . . it was the 1960’s British TV show The Avengers that gave the Marvel Comics Universe some of its best villains.

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Historically, Hellfire Club was the name for several exclusive clubs for high society rakes established in Britain and Ireland in the 18th century. The name is most commonly used to refer to Sir Francis Dashwood’s Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe. Such clubs were rumored to be the meeting places of “persons of quality” who wished to take part in immoral acts, and the members were often very involved in politics. The campy spy-fi series The Avengers aired its most controversial episode “A Touch of Brimstone” on February 9th, 1966 which drew its imagery from this infamous and decadent society.

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The Honorable John Cleverly Cartney, leader of the Hellfire Club.

The episode is best known for the scene in which Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg) dons a revealing, kinky “Queen of Sin” costume (which Rigg designed herself), complete with a dog collar with three-inch spikes, whalebone corset, and high leather boots, with a large snake. It is the Hellfire club members who dress her this way; she appears for less than ten minutes of show time in this manner, always demure, though ending with the Honorable John Cleverly Cartney (played by Peter Wyngarde) attacking her with a whip.

As a result of this and other elements, the episode was not broadcast when The Avengers aired on American network television; it did air on British television, but with the whipping scene edited down to one crack of the whip, due to objections made by Associated-Rediffusion Television. James Chapman said of the episode, “With its visual references to sado-masochistic pornography, “A Touch of Brimstone” unsurprisingly ran into censorship difficulties with the ITV network; it was not screened in America at all.” Raised objections were that the members of the Hellfire Club were engaging in “uninhibited debauchery,” but the episode has been cited as one of Diana Rigg’s finest. 

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Emma Peel, the Queen of Sin on the left, and Lady Selene, the Black Queen on the right.

In the “Hellfire Club” issues of the Uncanny X-Men, Emma Peel’s guise as “the Queen of Sin”, dressed in a black leather corset, would be the model for the Club’s Queens, her first name even borrowed for White Queen Emma Frost. The leader of the episode’s club was played by actor Peter Wyngarde, best known for his role as Jason King, forming the basis for Mastermind‘s new “Jason Wyngarde” identity.

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Emma Frost – The White Queen

The other members of Claremont and Byrne’s Hellfire Club were similarly drawn from the names and faces of famous actors: Sebastian Shaw was based on actor Robert Shaw, Harry Leland on Orson Welles (who acted as Harry Lime in The Third Man and whose film Citizen Kane featured a reporter named Jed Leland), and Donald Pierce was based on Donald Sutherland (the surname referencing his Hawkeye Pierce character from M*A*S*H).

Later writers would further the references to The Avengers: Sir Patrick and Lady Diana, from the Philadelphia branch of the 1780s, are named after actors Patrick Macnee (John Steed) and Diana Rigg (Mrs. Emma Peel); conversely, the Black Queen of the London branch was revealed to be named Ms. Emma Steed.

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The force that binds pop culture together . . . Kevin Bacon!

The long chain of influence from 18th century decadent British lords, to 1960’s British television, to 1980’s comics, and to 1990’s cartoon shows took a step into infinity with the 2011 movie X-Men: First Class. By casting Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the film entered a seemingly endless chain that bonds modern cinema to all other films; the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon now connects this strand of history with . . . well . . . everything! Look out for the next step of the Hellfire Club’s influence on storytelling . . . it’s bound to be thrilling!


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