Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #19, part b

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

“I, Magneto”

“I, Magneto” is my favorite X-Men story of all time. The b-story in Classic X-Men #12, “A Fire in the Night,” depicts Magneto’s life in the years immediately following his escape from Auschwitz. There, Claremont plants the seeds of Magneto’s villainy, in that we see several massive tragedies befall the character. Here, in “I, Magneto,” is where the seeds bear fruit. It is set not long before Magneto’s first published appearance, in Uncanny X-Men #1, and addresses questions raised by an examination of the character’s internal chronology: How did this formidable three-dimensional personality created by Claremont ever come to be the ranting megalomaniac of the Silver Age? Why would a Jew, who had been persecuted by Nazis as a child, become such a totalitarian in his own right? (And that is what he is in the early stories, make no mistake. He even takes over a country in Uncanny X-Men #4 by having Mastermind create the illusion of a goose-stepping army to frighten the populace into submission.)

In 12 pages, Claremont crafts that transformation. The economy demonstrated here is breathtaking. Almost every line of dialogue and narration serves a dual purpose, allowing huge amounts of information, exposition, characterization, plot and dramatic irony to be conveyed. Certain lines reveal that Magneto is still a good, if tormented, man at this point. When he apprehends Hans Richter, a Nazi war criminal, he muses that mutants could rule the world “if we wished.” The juxtaposition makes an implicit meaning clear: Magneto doesn’t wish to rule the world, because he does not wish to go the way of the Nazis. Later, in a moment of gentle banter between Magneto and his physician/girlfriend, Isabelle, he refers to himself as a “unique, clearly superior being” as a joke. The line rings with irony, because we know he will soon be saying things like that in manically deadly seriousness.

Not yet, however. Right now, he works for the CIA, hunting down Nazi war criminals. (Indeed, the name “Magneto,” it is implied here, has its origin as his CIA call sign, which is a fantastic idea). He’s got a beautiful girlfriend who is also a doctor. He is practically a superhero. But there are cracks in the facade. He suffers from painful seizures whenever he uses his powers. He is still tormented by the tragedies of his past, as portrayed in Classic X-Men #12.

There’s a wonderful moment when Magneto learns in a newspaper profile that his old friend Charles Xavier has now become a teacher. He considers reconnecting with Xavier, thinking perhaps Charles might be able to figure out why he is having seizures. The implication is that if this story didn’t turn out the way it did, Magneto might have indeed gone to Xavier and, inevitably, become one of the original X-Men. It’s another clever layer of irony.

The story’s dramatic turns occur with a slick, unrelenting momentum. Isabelle is killed just as she has hit upon why Magneto’s power is causing him pain: “You manipulate the primal energies of the earth – the planetary magnetic field – through your body,” she says. “That must have some effect. Your seizures involve the central nervous system ... If there’s disruption to that bio-electrical network, goodness knows what effect it’s having in turn on the structure of your brain –”

She’s cut off then, literally, as her throat is slit by one of a group of government agents that have entered the hotel room. Their leader, Control, is the man Magneto has been hunting Nazis for, but Hans Richter wasn’t on the agenda. Richter was, in fact, a CIA asset. Magneto is appalled that the U.S. would work with Nazis, and Control replies, “We’ll use them the same way we will you muties.”

Magneto’s reality is falling in around him. His supposed allies are amoral, willing to use Nazis to achieve their own ends, and they will even kill Isabelle – an innocent bystander – simply out of spite. “Our ‘associates’ wanted their pound of flesh,” Control explains. “Sorry, pal, you play in the big leagues ... it’s better not to have friends.” (And now we know why the Silver Age Magneto treated his fellow mutants as lackeys rather than friends, browbeating them into doing what he wanted rather than treating them as allies. Ingenious.) There is also a harsh verbal irony in the use of “pound of flesh,” the price exacted in “The Merchant of Venice” by Shylock, the most famous Jewish villain of all time. (Claremont has come a long way from the unsubtle use of Shakespearean quotation we saw on the opening page of Uncanny #97.)

Magneto erupts with fury, killing all the agents except Control, whom he then thanks “... for showing me the true path.” The momentum of the tragedies in Magneto’s life have culminated in this moment, and there is a strong implication that whatever it is that was happening to “the structure of [his] brain,” that process has reached its culmination as well. “At last, for the first time ...” he exults as he kills Control, “... my eyes are truly open ... my destiny clear! ... It is I who shall lead my people to the glory they deserve. I, ubermensch. I, mutant! I – Magneto!!!”

He has gone from tragic hero to comic-opera villain. He even invokes the Nietzschean word “ubermensch” that the Nazis had co-opted. The final panel sees him hovering above the carnage, looking down at the body of Isabelle, a symbol of what was good in him, now killed.

I’ve not said anything about the once-again solid work of everyone else involved in this story – the regulars: Bolton, Orzechowski, Oliver, and editor Ann Nocenti. They all do top-notch support work, but Claremont’s writing is the star here. Published in late 1987, “I, Magneto” is the pinnacle of his achievement on the X-Men. He would continue to write quality comics for the next 3 and a half years, but never another one this perfect.


scott91777 said...

Claremont's development of Magneto's backstory is certainly one of his most lasting contributions to the X-men mythos. And, with a character who had been such a cheezy operatic villian, the backstory certainly adds something to the character. However, I reminded of a case where backstory can ruin a villian.

For my money, Hannibal Lechter is the most terrifying film villian of all time (except for maybe Darth Vader... but that's more primal for me). So, I was dissapointed when a friend of mine who had read the books explained to me that the reason he eats people... and is the way he is... is because as a child he watched a bunch of starving german soldiers murder, then eat... his sister.

I don't like this. I think I like Hannibal Lechter without a why. He's far more terrifying to me if he just IS that way. I don't want him to have a reason... he just DOES it because he WANTS to.

wwk5d said...

This is one of the best depictions of Magneto. It's a shame that, with stories like this, people still prefer Magneto as an old drug addicted fart who spends far too much trying to be hip by break dancing to impress to youngsters.