2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), primarily known as the author of his unparalleled epic poem, the Divine Comedy.
Countless works have been inspired by it, ranging from simple playful or intellectual references to entire plots and settings. In particular, Marvel decided, in 1980, to set a story within Dante’s Inferno. This became Uncanny X-Men Annual 1 #4, titled “Nightcrawler’s Inferno”, created by Chris Claremont, John Romita Jr, and Bob McLeod. In this unique adventure, we witness the descent of the X-Men into Hell, accompanied by Doctor Strange, who takes on the role of the strangest Virgil one has ever seen. So, with Inferno in hand, let’s take a look at what Marvel has concocted with the Divine Comedy!
The Geography of Dante’s Inferno
I wish I could explain the entire Divine Comedy in detail, but, unfortunately, I cannot do so or this article will never reach its conclusion.
So, to clarify the situation, let’s delve into Dante’s Inferno, which is organized logically and perfectly. The infernal pit is located beneath the city of Jerusalem, and after passing through the dark forest, one arrives at its entrance. This chasm was created by the impact of Lucifer, who, fallen from heaven, became stuck at the bottom of it. The principle of dividing the damned is simple: the lower you go, the graver your sin is, and the punishment follows the principle of “contrappasso” (retaliation, correspondence of the punishment to the sin). There are three types of sins: Incontinence, Violence and Fraud. Each sin is allocated to a different part of Hell. There is an Antinferno (vestibule), and then, beyond the River Acheron, there are a total of 9 circles, with the seventh divided into 3 rounds and the eighth into 10 parts, called bolge. The last circle, Cocytus, is situated beyond the Pit of the Giants and is divided into four zones, with Lucifer at its bottom.
“Abandon All Hope”
Let’s begin our journey into Marvel’s history by diving right into the action. Due to an unknown entity, Doctor Strange, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Storm and Colossus find themselves in Dante’s Inferno. Stephen Strange immediately takes on the role of a Virgil-like guide, not only because he excels in infernal dimensions but also because he’s the only one who has read the Poet’s work. Meanwhile, the X-Men, completely unaware of the situation, wander around asking questions, much like Dante himself, but without fainting as often.
They are welcomed by the Gate of Hell (Canto III), upon which words in sombre colour that end with the famous verse, Abandon all hope, ye who enter in (seeing it translated into English is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching). Having crossed it and forgotten about the Sluggish Souls of the Antinferno, our heroes swiftly arrive upon the dismal shore of Acheron.
Charon and Minos
The only way to cross the livid fen of the river is with the help of a ferryman, and so here comes Charon (Canto III). Marvel stays faithful to Dante’s description; the ferryman’s words are more or less the same, as is his appearance. The demon Charon is described as an old man, hoary with the hair of eld, with fleecy cheeks and with the eyes of glede that who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.
After crossing the river and skipping over Limbo (Canto IV), our heroes arrive in the presence of the great infernal judge, Minos (Canto V). Dante describes him as horrifying and snarling, examines the transgressions at the entrance, judging and wrapping his tail around himself as many times as there are circles in Hell where he wants the soul to be placed. In the X-Men story, Minos, on the other hand, has a completely different appearance: he appears as a distinguished but devious, elegantly dressed gentleman. He lacks the essential tail, which instead transforms into a tentacle emerging from beneath his throne (who knows why…). Why this change? According to Minos, it’s because everyone sees him in the form they consider suitable for their time and imagination. In other words, he’s a demon keeping up with the times. But how will our heroes overcome the Judge?
“It is so willed”
In the Divine Comedy, to quiet the infernal guardians who aren’t too pleased to see a living being wandering through their Hell, Virgil silences them with a few simple verses: “It is so willed there where is power to do. That which is willed; and ask no further question”. Doctor Strange also tries this (he says it first in Italian and then in English in the original), and rightfully, Minos laughs in his face. These verses are not the secret password to enter Hell but a very specific warning. It is, in fact, Heaven itself that desires Dante’s otherworldly journey, so anyone who dares to stop him opposes divine will. Dante is recommended; the X-Men not so much.
At this point, Storm and Nightcrawler, separated from the group by Minos, find themselves in the the infernal hurricane that never rests and that not even Ororo, with her powers, can control. While struggling against the wind, they are attacked by Harpies who manage to separate them.
The two X-Men have ended up in the band where Dido is host resides, which is the second circle, that of the Lustful. Dante describes it in the V Canto, one of the most famous in all of Hell, because it is where he encounters Paolo and Francesca, the two in-laws who became lovers and were killed for it by her husband between 1283 and 1285.
The contrappasso for the carnal malefactors were condemned, who reason subjugate to appetite, is the eternal storm that carries them away, just as they were carried away by their passions in life. In this circle, the absence of infernal guardians is a characteristic detail and Marvel has made a mistake by introducing the hideous Harpies. These beings from Greek mythology, part bird and part human, according to Dante, are found in the 2nd round of the 7th circle, in the Wood of the Suicides, where they make their nests (Canto XIII. Marvel, you missed an opportunity – you could have included Pier delle Vigne; what a wasted chance!).
Having lost Ororo, who fell deep into Hell, Nightcrawler reunites with his companions and begins the descent to find her. Our heroes then pass through the 3rd circle, that of the Gluttonous (Canto VI).
Here, the damned lie prostrate on the ground, immersed in a layer of foul-smelling mud, constantly pelted by huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow, seeking relief by frequently changing the side on which they lie. All the while, they are scratched, flayed and torn apart by Cerberus, the great worm (after this description, one might think twice about ordering seconds at the restaurant). Dante encounters his fellow citizen Ciacco here, who foretells the misfortunes of their beloved Florence.
The contrappasso for the sinners of the for the pernicious sin of gluttony is to be burdened by the rain, just as the indulgence in food weighed them down, and the noisome mud and cold and heavy water are the opposite of the delicate delicacies they indulged in.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth with his three gullets, also tries to block the path of our heroes, but the X-Men confront him and manage to defeat him. Wolverine and Colossus engage in a battle with Cerberus, but not as epic as Virgil, who, with unmatched composure, puts him to rest by throwing a handful of soil into his jaws!
The Gates of Dis
At this point, after quickly crossing through various infernal circles, in the background of which the torments of various sinners can be seen (including a tree of suicides, a nice detail but inaccurate because they are found beyond the Walls of Dis and because they have hung their mortal remains from the branches, something that will happen only after the Universal Judgment), Doctor Strange and company arrive in front of the Gates of Dis, the infernal city (Canti VIII-IX).
Marvel remains faithful to Dante’s description of the Walls, depicting them surrounded by flames because, in fact, the fire eternal that kindles them within makes them look red. The Walls are guarded by a host of devils, more than a thousand at the gates who out of the Heavens rained down, and they angrily try to push back those who without death go through the kingdom of the people dead (which seems fair to me, right!). Needless to say, the X-Men immediately engage in battle with them. But Colossus manages to swing open the Gates, and the devils flee!
Doctor Strange is becoming increasingly perplexed. No doubt, Colossus is great, but in the Comedy, it requires the intervention of a celestial messenger, whose mere presence sends the devils fleeing. With a wave of his little rod, this messenger opens the Gates, allowing Dante and Virgil to proceed.
Round and round they go through Hell and our heroes arrive at the infamous Malebolge, the sub-circles that make up the eighth circle where the sins of fraud are punished. Doctor Strange, with a touch of Virgil, provides a brief list to illustrate to his companions the horde of sinners present here. Storm, who resorted to thievery as a child to survive in Cairo, likely ended up among them. So they hasten to the 7th bolgia of the 8th circle, that of the Thieves (Canti XXIV-XXV).
Here, the sinners are forced to run naked and frightened terrible throng of serpents, with their hands bound behind their backs by the serpents. And it’s not over; the consequences of the snakebites vary: either the damned are temporarily reduced to ashes, or they merge with the serpent, or the serpent takes on their appearance and vice versa. It is this last fate that befalls Storm, who becomes a serpent while one takes on her appearance! Fortunately, thanks to Wolverine’s keen sense of smell, they manage to recognize her and save her.
In this bolgia, Dante encounters and recognizes many people whose contrappasso consists of this: the thief is as stealthy and sinuous as a serpent, and just as he has stolen what belonged to others, so now his very person is stolen from him.
Finally, our heroes reach the deepest part of Hell, Cocytus. It is divided into four zones, and the worst is Giudecca, where the traitors to their benefactors are imprisoned in ice, while a terrible wind sweeps the area (Canto XXXIV). Once again, Colossus comes to the rescue, freeing Nightcrawler trapped in the ice, and suddenly, they find themselves facing Lucifer!
Marvel has strived to convey the concept expressed by “Were he as fair once, as he now is foul”. Furthermore, the Emperor of the kingdom dolorous is impaled in the ground and flaps his six bat-like wings, generating winds that freeze Cocytus. Three faces on his head, one red representing Impotence, one yellow for Hatred and Envy, and one black representing Ignorance (in opposition to the divine Trinity, which represents Power, Love and Wisdom). In each of the mouths, he chews on the three worst sinners: Judas, who betrayed Christ; and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar. In Marvel, Lucifer’s mouths are more crowded, but, more importantly, a crucial detail is missing: for Dante, Lucifer with six eyes did he weep, and down three chins trickled the tear-drops, a sign that even Satan, the source of all evil, still retains feelings.
This journey to Hell was caused by a spell cast by Margali, and once they dispel it, our heroes finally manage to return home and see the stars again, bringing us to the end of this article.
If you enjoyed it, let us know here or on our social media channels and share it to honor our unmatched Poet! But, above all, read the Divine Comedy and all of Dante’s works!
Here you can also find the Italian version of this article
- Uncanny X-Men Annual 1 #4, “Nightcrawler’s Inferno”, 1980 (immagini prese dal fumetto)
- Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Zanichelli, Bologna, 1999