Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #12, part a (UXM #104)

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right. Powell makes an especially interesting argument about the significance of a minor Defenders story in the overall X-Men history.]

“The Gentleman’s Name Is Magneto”

We come, at last, to the first appearance of Chris Claremont’s Magneto. In the original version of this story published in X-Men #104, it’s pretty obvious that Claremont hadn’t yet struck upon the notion of the noble Magneto. This character is still very much a continuation of the Silver Age characterization, in which he was all-out evil and more or less psychotic. Also, the idea that Magneto had history with Professor X before X-Men #1 has not been established yet, although the new pages that are unique to Classic X-Men #12 do acknowledge that backstory. (The new pages in this issue are drawn by Dave Cockrum, which is pretty great.)

So, there’s not much to really examine here in terms of characterization. Magneto is just another lackey of Eric the Red here, like Havok, Polaris, Juggernaut and Black Tom before him. He’s out to kill the X-Men, and even though five of the six he faces here are people he’s never met before, he still hates them just for being students of Charles Xavier. When the five new X-Men first show up to fight him, he refers to himself as “your oldest, deadliest foe,” which is sort of an odd thing to say to five people you’ve never met before.

This is the first appearance of Muir Island, a giant Scottish island all owned by Moira MacTaggert. We finally get the “true” story behind her here: she is a peer of Charles Xavier in the field of mutant studies, and she lives alone on Muir, inside of a giant laboratory. We learn that her home is not only a place of study but also a makeshift prison for evil mutants captured by the X-Men. Magneto has been here ever since he was turned into a baby.

Magneto’s last appearance before this was in a two-part Defenders arc (in issues 15-16 of that series). At the climax of that story, he and his latest Brotherhood (consisting of Mastermind, Unus, Blob and Lorelei), an artificially created mutant called Alpha magically transformed all the villains into babies. (The story is written by Len Wein, and it isn’t exactly a classic.)

The process is apparently easily undone: Eric the Red uses “some sort of ray” to turn Magneto back into an adult. Now, it should be noted that for a superhero comic, this is all pretty standard procedure: One story leaves a villain trapped in a certain situation, and the next story to use that villain must come up with a way to get the villain out of that predicament and back in action. That’s all Claremont does here. However, the specifics of this particular ploy will have far-reaching consequences. At some point a couple years down the track, it will occur to Claremont that if Magneto was de-aged early in his villain career and then restored to his prime, it means his age before that point can be whatever Claremont wants it to be, and the origin of Magneto (at this point still unrevealed), if tied into a certain historic period, will never have to be updated. The reduced-to-infancy gimmick draws a line through Magneto’s history, allowing his story before that line to be immutable (unlike Storm’s tie-in with the Suez crisis, which – as already discussed – was forced to be updated, or Professor Xavier’s military history that tied into the Korean War, but which would eventually have to be updated to Vietnam).

So what Len Wein did by de-aging Magneto in a throwaway Defenders story is fairly significant – it’s what will ultimately allow Claremont to make Magneto a survivor of the Holocaust, which is a huge, amazing, brilliant idea. More on that when we come to it.

In the meantime, Magneto is simply a badass villain, made all the more formidable by Cockrum and Claremont’s shrewd decision to have him win here. Cyclops has a great line: “The old X-Men could [beat Magneto] – but Magneto was a baby when the new team was formed! ... They’re good kids ... but against Magneto, they haven’t a prayer!” I love the way that line simultaneously reinforces that the new X-Men are still relatively green, while also playing up Magneto as a major villain to be reckoned with. (And there’s a third, subtler effect: Cyclops thinking of the other X-Men as kids, implying that he – at least in his own mind – has shifted into the mentor role that Charles occupied for the original team.)

A significant subplot begins here, in which Mutant X “comes awake.” This will not be resolved for another 20 issues or so, and not in the form that Claremont originally intended. More on that when we get to it, too.


Dougie said...

There's also the subplot that never was about Dragonfly's escape. Wasn't that supposed to lead into a Cockrum series called "The Furies"?
As a Scot ,I have to comment on the shocking stereotype,Angus MacSkinflint. Claremont is often lauded for his one-para pen pictures.This cameo makes the Cassidy Keep crew look like the work of Arthur Miller. Don't even start me on "Rahne" Sinclair.

Matthew J. Brady said...

That's a cool detail about Claremont's revising of Magneto's age. I never thought of it that way, but it's actually a really smart revision.

It's been a while since I read these issues, but I do recall the fight with Magneto being pretty cool. Isn't there a bit where he pulls iron particles out of the air to encase one of the X-Men (Banshee?) in a sort of shell? I always liked that move. And the next issue is another good one that I like, I think. But I'll wait until you get to that one.

And I forget, who is Eric the Red here, anyway? I don't remember what his identity turned out to be. Or did you already talk about it earlier? I feel dumb.

Jason Powell said...

"Wasn't that supposed to lead into a Cockrum series called "The Furies"?"

***Yeah, that's right. An all-female team. Storm was to be part of it as well, according to Cockrum.

"Isn't there a bit where he pulls iron particles out of the air to encase one of the X-Men (Banshee?) in a sort of shell? "

***Yeah. Then the next time they fight, Magneto tries it again but Banshee has now developed a defense against it, and vibrates the shell off, thinking to himself, "Banshee is too old and cagey a bird to be caught the same way twice."

***I thought I'd talked about who Eric the Red was in the review of Classic X-Men #5, but re-reading it now I realize I cut all that stuff in favor of the comparatively more interesting (I thought) Grant Morrison/Arnold Drake parallel.

I actually think Claremont intended him to be someone we'd seen before. There are a couple of hints that he has some history with Lorna Dane before he confronted her in Uncanny #97. But those hints don't go anywhere.

So: Eric the Red is actually Devon Shakari, an agent of the Shi'ar who's been on Earth for years, and who's been assigned to prevent Lilandra from getting Xavier's help against her brother, the emperor. Easiest way to do that, he figures, is just kill Xavier.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Re: Eric the Red - Ah, right, I vaguely remember that now. You know, it would be ridiculously easy for me to just pull my Essential volumes off the shelf and read along, but apparently it's still too much work for me, so instead I'll pester you with stupid details. Hope you don't mind.

Dougie said...

I love the fact that it's not the scary Viking spelling; it's ERIC the Red, which comes off like Hagar the Horrible. And didn't he have thigh-length boots?

Jason Powell said...

"Hope you don't mind."
***No, I always enjoy it. I could talk about Claremont's X-Men for hours. :)

Dougie, I think it's worse than that: I seem to recall the spelling changing from "Erik" to "Eric" and back again depending on the issue (or possibly even the page). (In keeping with tradition, I seem to have misremembered Shakari's first name: It was Davan, per wikipedia, not Devon.)

Dougie said...

I recall that the infiltration of sleeper agents like Shakari or terrorists like Raven Darkholme in early Claremont stories made the Marvel Universe of the day seem layered and sophisticated.Similar character beats appear more overtly in early Starlin (the Thanos-Thralls). Now, of course, we have a Secret Invasion...