Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men 12b

[This post is part of a series of posts looking issue by issue at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“A Fire in the Night”

The first reference to a new origin for Magneto, rooted in the Holocaust, saw print in Uncanny X-Men #150. Again, however, Claremont weaves his ret-cons in early via Classic X-Men, and the present example – a story that lays out large parts of Magneto’s origin – is one the series’ most powerful accomplishments.

The flashback begins with Magneto – whose real name is never given here – helping the woman he loves, Magda, to escape from Auschwitz during the final days of World War II. According to an essay by Rivka Jacobs, who seems to have invented the art of Magneto scholarship online, the scene – in which Magneto fells a guard about to kill Magda and then escapes with her into a snow-covered forest – is historically accurate. Jacobs writes:

“[The scene] takes place on Jan. 20, 1945, two days after the camp was evacuated and the death marches began. Some 70 of the Sonderkommando were kept to help destroy the evidence of the death factory, before they were to be killed. Some 200 women from the woman’s camp, Jews, were chosen to fill in the huge pits where bodies were burned. They had to haul ashes, break up human bones, all in the coldest part of winter. The SS soldiers sent back on Jan. 20 were sent to kill the women. That is exactly what you see in this comic book, because Claremont and Bolton took the time and cared enough to do their research.”

Even the geography is correct, she asserts. “If they were out by the burial pits to the northwest of the camp, that is a point close to the forest.” Claremont is being careful here not to take his sensitive subject matter lightly, deliberately grounding it in as much fact as possible without distracting from the narrative.

The term Sonderkommando is defined by Jacobs as “Jewish prisoners who were forced by the Nazis -- in all the death camps -- to do the dirty work of killing. It was Nazi official policy. ... The Jews would be the ones to lead the victims to the gas chamber, to haul the bodies from the gas chambers to the ovens, to burn and bury the dead.”

Jacobs’ thesis is that Magneto was not only a Jew (something Claremont never states explicitly in the comics), but also a member of the Sonderkommando. Text in Classic X-Men #12b supports it, particularly the line in the narration that Magneto was at Auschwitz “from the start ... grown to manhood within its electrified, barbed wire fence.”

Jacobs posits that there is simply no way anyone could survive that long in Auschwitz unless they were either a Nazi or a member of the Sonderkommando. She further points out that even though much of this is kept implicit by Claremont (possibly because the sensitivity of it would have been too much for a mainstream superhero comics during the 1980s), there is an internal coherence in the various references Claremont will make in his Magneto stories during his X-Men tenure. In drawing connections between those references, Jacobs makes a very strong case for the chronology she’s assembled of Magneto’s early years, not only on an intellectual, scholarly level, but as an expression of why these details are important thematically. Her essay, linked to above, is highly recommended.

“A Fire in the Night” is a true triumph of collaboration. Claremont builds the story very carefully over its slim 12-page length, and John Bolton turns in masterful work – his finest artistic achievement on this series. Note the panel sequence on Page 4, which takes Magneto and Magda from their tragic circumstances immediately after their escape to the moment in which their daughter, Anya, is born. Each panel is a work of art in itself, imbued with realism, subtlety and poignancy. Glynis Oliver, meanwhile, a typically bold colorist, seems to be working with a more muted palette here, dominated by browns, oranges and greys.

The subdued tone is key to the story’s success. Published in early 1987, “A Fire in the Night” is post-Miracleman, post-Watchmen, etc., and Claremont is – quite successfully here, thanks to his collaborators – attempting to replicate that Moore-esque tone in this story, wherein Magneto discovers his superhuman powers. By keeping everything grounded in muted simplicity, Claremont makes us forget about the story’s context – aliens in bright red Viking armor – and the simple birth of Magneto’s powers seems extraordinary, to us and to him. (He has a wonderful line after his power has manifested only twice so far: once to let him sling a crowbar at an antagonist and then later to create forcefield protecting him from falling wreckage: “How do I make this power work?! Do I desire a thing with all my soul ... and somehow, the power makes that wish come true?!” The line perfectly expresses Magneto’s lack of context. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this development.

The story’s tragic ending pulls no punches, but the carefully maintained tone of stark realism in the art grounds Claremont’s choices. He is a fantastic writer of melodrama, but his work here – and that of his collaborators – cuts deeper. This isn’t melodrama. It is drama, period.

[Jason's best post so far in this series.

I don't mean to break the tone here but I have to ask a kind of silly-stupid question -- does Magda not appear in later comics as a woman with the head of a cow? I have a very dim memory of this in the post-Claremont X-Men comics I grew up on, but it may have been I dream I had.]


Dougie said...

Are you thinking of Bova, who first appeared in G-S Avengers 1? One of the High Evolutionary's New Men and midwife to Wanda & Pietro.

Matthew J. Brady said...

This sounds like a good story. I haven't read most of the Classic backups, but this one sounds worth searching out. That bit of dialogue in the second-to-last paragraph is classic Claremont though. Man, nobody can duplicate that style, no matter how hard they try.

Ping33 said...

OT - Geoff, have you listened to CGS 368?

Geoff Klock said...

dougie -- yes. there you go. I knew it was something.

Ping -- Thanks. I am going to wait to comment on it, if I comment at all.

Streebo said...

I wouldn't comment on it, Geoff. There were several posters that defended you on the CGS forums. No need to let that nonsense spill over to here.

Jason Powell said...

Matthew Brady -- I can't tell, are you saying you don't like that dialogue? (I agree it's hard to imitate.)

Matthew J. Brady said...

Jason: No, I do like it, although it seems a bit old fashioned. It's just so distinctive to Claremont, and he's just about the only one who can make it work. I don't think I would want to read anything like it in modern comics (which is probably why I don't bother reading any of his current stuff), but it's cool to read in books from 20-30 years ago. Now, when you get to some of the later issues that aren't as well-regarded, we'll see what I think.

Jason Powell said...

Matthew -- that's cool. And it occurs to me now, I hope you don't think I was going to give you any crap if you said you didn't like it. Different strokes 'n' all.

I agree with you, it doesn't seem to work in the contemporary Claremont material. I'm still not sure why that is. Is it simply a matter of context? But I still genuinely *like* these old Claremont comics, even when I read them now, in 2008.

I have to assume that Claremont has lost ... something ... between his first run and his more recent attempt to do X-Men. I'm not sure what it is. I'm still trying to figure it out.

But I'm discovering things about Claremont for the first time even as I write these issue-by-issue commentaries. So I'm hoping that by the time I reach the end I will perhaps have discovered what it is about Claremont that he had back then that he seems to lack now.

(In the meantime, yes, it will be interesting to see what you and others say as I get into that long stretch between Byrne and Jim Lee. That whole stretch -- excepting 1983, the Paul Smith year -- is generally not looked kindly upon in retrospect, even though X-Men was the #1 selling comic almost that entire time.)

Dougie said...

I think Claremont was the natural successor to Roy Thomas, more so than the "pure" sophomore comickal books of Len Wein or Wolfman's overblown purple prose. Claremont could do "hip" and referred to pop culture OUTSIDE the world of Marvel, whether that be "Shogun" or "Department S", just as Roy The Boy referenced Shelley or Harlan Ellison. I remember being amazed as a kid by the homages to Star Trek in X-Men.
Claremont also wrote female characters who had an interior life that wasn't defined by romance- something Roy hadn't done, although Englehart attempted it.
Crucially, he is a humourless writer; he can almost pull off "wry" but often he can be as pompous as Emerson Lake and Palmer.
I don't think he has "lost" anything; it's just his work strikes a chord with earnest, bookish teens, like Morrissey. Joss Whedon is Claremont with a feel for comedy.

Jason Powell said...

Dougie, I agree with all of what you say, except I just can't believe that something hasn't changed between then and now. These days, Claremont's contemporary work doesn't even strike a chord with the "bookish teens," yet even modern readers still seem to enjoy Dark Phoenix and the other major " Is it because he's old enough now that his point of reference is just too far off? (He was 26 when he started writing X-Men, I think.)

True about his sense of humor, though. He can create a general sense of whimsy in a story (as long as he's got an artist who does it well), but he really doesn't have a knack for punchlines. (Though personally I think Whedon is overrated in that area as well. "I had to pee" will make me shudder till the day I die.)

Dougie said...

Aye, I haven't got to the bottom of this yet. I should have said "struck a chord". Is it possible that it's something to do with changes in the audience demographic? The perceived theme of the X-Men is generally held to be prejudice but your reviews show that time and again, Claremont's themes are love (romantic and familial) and sacrifice. Maybe they don't speak to the audience?

wwk5d said...

"That whole stretch -- excepting 1983, the Paul Smith year -- is generally not looked kindly upon in retrospect, even though X-Men was the #1 selling comic almost that entire time."

I loved the book up until Fall of the Mutants. And while this might be blasphemy...the John Romita Jr era is my favorite. More than the Byrne or Smith eras.

david said...

I think the Romita Jr material runs out of steam around issue 200 or so, but up to that point its my favorite chunk of Claremont X-Men comics by far.

I can't stand modern day Claremont, but I recently started reading the Essentials that cover his run, and I'm going through those things like they're crack or something. I don't know what he's lost between then and now either, but I wish he'd get it back.