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Growing up Hellfire: How Emma Frost’s upbringing produced one of the X-Men’s most compelling characters

Nearly all X-Men have a profoundly tragic backstory behind them, but Emma’s is nonetheless uniquely terrible.

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Perhaps no X-Man is more controversial than Emma Frost, and for great reason–there is no denying that this is a complicated woman. While it is true that she goes out of her way to protect her people, in the end, more often than not, they might wish she hadn’t. Using her ruthlessness on the side of justice has made for a more interesting Emma Frost in the long run, but it is also true that her moral ambiguity helped usher in a very different vibe at the Xavier Institute.

Marvel Comics

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Yet, it was not always this way for our girl Emma. Nearly all X-Men have a profoundly tragic backstory behind them, but Emma’s is nonetheless uniquely terrible. Beginning in a classic “poor little rich girl” narrative that immediately took a turn for the bizarre and ended up in the realm of superheroics, this is someone who has been beyond and back and lived to tell (a highly embellished version of) the tale.

House of WASPs

The people that wrote Emma Frost’s backstory mostly do not seem to have had any kind of a cohesive plan in mind, so there are a few different sources. In Generation X #-1 and #24, one version of Emma’s past is told, while in the Emma Frost series, we see a different take on it entirely. Though the two could potentially interlock somehow, that attempt was not made in narration, so it’s hard to say what exactly is the truth. What we do know is this: she was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Winston and Hazel Frost, who were as cold and distant as they could get without relocating to Antarctica. She had three siblings; Adrienne, Christian and Cordelia, all of whom struggled with their parents as much as Emma did and all of whom were eventually revealed to be mutants themselves.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

In short, Emma’s homelife was a Hellscape. Her father was deliberately cruel and aggressively petty, and her mother was completely detached. The atmosphere of emotional isolation and anger hidden just under the surface permeates all family scenes in the Emma Frost series. Her father chastises her for her grades, but when they improve, he declares that he won’t be rewarding her for what he considers to be the bare minimum. When Emma reveals her father’s affair with another woman to her mother, her mother lashes out at her rather than him. Elder sister Adrienne works only for her own self-interests and has no affection for Emma, or anyone. She sees people as means to an end. Younger sister Cordelia is emotionally volatile and tries to stay away from everyone. She experiments with drugs and gets tattoos and piercings that infuriate her parents.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Emma’s most devoted family member is her brother Christian, who, in the beginning, manages to avoid scrutiny by being non-confrontational and distant. As the series goes on, we discover that he is gay and in a relationship with a man named Dante, the revelation of which ultimately causes him to attempt suicide after his father callously has his boyfriend deported. To make matters worse, he forbids anyone visiting Christian in the hospital, and actually has Emma escorted off the premises when she tries. Tragically, just when Emma was finally developing a positive and open relationship with her brother, he becomes addicted to drugs and is institutionalized by their father, vanishing from her life for many years.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

This is all to say that Emma’s cold, calculating demeanor and her dry, scathing wit has obvious precedent within her family. Though her father attempts to grant her the family fortune, Emma is disgusted by his treatment of his family and she leaves home forever. Meanwhile, in Generation X #24, Emma tells a story in which her family institutionalized her in a place where she was assaulted by guards until she broke free. Either way you go, Emma was completely on her own before she left her teen years.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

From Gambler to Hostage to Empire State Alumni

There is an in-between time period where she ends up in a relationship with an absolute wreck of a person named Troy, who lets her move in with him without first mentioning that loan sharks are after him and intend to kill him. Emma wins enough money through gambling to pay his debt, but the man Troy owes it to demands interest. This leads to Troy ratting Emma out for having a rich father, which in turn leads to an incoherent ransom attempt. Emma’s father has no interest in saving her, but the issue is pressed when the story goes public. He pays, Troy is shot to death anyway, and Emma escapes, using the money to pay her tuition at Empire State University.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

While enrolled, Emma is at the head of her class. She rooms with another girl, but though their relationship is initially promising, it quickly descends into highly stereotypical cattiness and jealousy (over a man, of course). She meets another psychic named Astrid Bloom, who is inexplicably evil and prone to nefarious plotting, though to what end, we never find out. Bloom is similar in persona to the first appearances of Emma, in which she did many evil things for no apparent reason other than to fulfill a vaguely defined Hellfire Club agenda. Emma puts Bloom into a coma and we never hear from her again, though it would be great to at least figure out what her whole deal even was.

One of the least pleasant parts of the Emma Frost series is Ian, Emma’s high school teacher. Though he denies having an attraction to Emma and acts bewildered when she kisses him, he actively isolates her in order to flirt and spend time alone with her. Later, when she’s enrolled in Empire State University, he dates her roommate, who is roughly the same age as her. When Emma confesses her love for him, he admits that he was always attracted to her, and they begin a relationship. Ultimately, even after Emma goes well out of her way to protect him, he rejects her by launching into full-out anti-mutant bigotry.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Ian is terrible, and his vibe weighs down much of the series. Because the series itself doesn’t, it’s important here to emphasize that his inability to draw simple moral lines with his students is his fault, not Emma’s. He sees no punishment for the way he preys on younger women. Rather than believe him to be a monster, Emma believes it is her fault, and that she is the one who deserves to be hated. This will all be familiar territory for anyone who has been put in a similar situation in real life, and it adds a facet to Emma’s future disassociation. One major thing that we learn from this series is that quite literally every time she has opened up to someone, they have betrayed her.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

The relationship with Ian is disturbing, and it tells us something about how Emma interacts with people, humans and mutants alike, and her journey into the Hellfire Club begins to make a strange sort of sense. In Generation X #-1, we see Emma attempting to glean information from the minds of rich men and ultimately making a bizarre alliance with the amnesiac Dark Beast. In Deadly Genesis, we see her working as a stripper at the Hellfire Club, angry at the world and denying Xavier’s attempts to recruit her. After that, until her first canonical appearance during “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” we have no idea what happens to Emma to further harden her heart to the point that kidnapping Kitty Pryde and blowing up Angelica Jones’ pony seem like reasonable and justifiable actions to her, but one assumes it was a lot.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Emma’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Entire Childhood

Even with several missing beats, we know that Emma’s early life was an unbelievably isolating experience, and everyone who was supposed to love and protect her betrayed her or let her down in some way. While it doesn’t explain everything, it does put context around her actions. When Emma feels that no one else can understand, that she has to take the choice out of people’s hands to protect them, and that those she loves will ultimately turn on her, she just so happens to be right. She was raised in a traumatic environment and people used and manipulated her until she took control of the situation in every way she knew how. Her unwillingness to open up or depend on others clicks into place pretty well after you realize that she’s been through Hell since day one.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

These stories about Emma’s childhood might have been intended to fill in some continuity gaps, but by slightly rewriting what we knew of Emma’s past up to that point and ending before she ultimately becomes the White Queen, it leaves more questions than it answers. Regardless, the Emma Frost series and the handful of flashbacks besides do absolutely communicate the fact that this is a woman who was given sheer ruthlessness in the place of affection, comfort or love. Her need for control, her unwillingness to be vulnerable, and her distrust of others all make a lot more sense after you read about how deeply and truly this world failed her from the very beginning. While many of her actions remain nonetheless difficult to forgive, it is through these loosely connected stories of her past that we gained context for her actions and she became one of the X-Men’s most compelling characters.


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