One of the traditions attached to Magneto (and supervillains in general) is outrageous MacGuffins. The Silver Age saw the character inventing mutant-making machines; utilizing technology with giant horseshoe magnets attached; trapping the X-Men in a steel gondola and tossing them into space. Here, that tradition is continued, as Magneto has “created a device capable of manipulating the earth’s crust.” Cleverly, however, this time Claremont is using superhero convention as metaphor. The nature of the machine – its ability to rearrange the substance of the world – lightly foreshadows how this particular Magneto vs. X-Men fight will end differently: the X-Men will rearrange the foundation of Magneto’s worldview. The catalyst turns out to be Magneto’s (seeming) murder of Kitty Pryde. When he realizes his zealotry has taken him to the point where he could so cavalierly take the life of a 13-year-old girl, he is shocked into a new state of mind. The action immediately reminds him of the death of his daughter and leads him towards an introspective self-examination, whereby the readers learn for the first time that Magneto was at Auschwitz. With a few key lines of dialogue, the character is suddenly launched into an entirely new context. (There is an added layer of irony in Claremont’s choice to make Kitty the catalyst for Magneto’s epiphany: She is the only Jewish member of the X-Men, a fact the readers know but Magneto does not.)
It would be years before Claremont would capitalize on this profoundly creative new take on Magneto – the story of his daughter’s death and the loss of his wife, alluded to with some specificity in Uncanny #150, will not be fully told until 1987’s “A Fire in the Night,” published in Classic X-Men #12. Indeed, the achingly tragic “Fire in the Night” adds significance in more ways than one to “I, Magneto.” Note, for example, that Magneto’s brutal reprisal against the U.S.S.R. – the sinking of one of its submarines (killing all aboard), followed by the violent destruction of one of its cities – takes on new significance when we recall that his daughter died in the Soviet Union, because a mob of Soviets prevented him from saving her. Is this what his brutal attack on the country is truly meant to avenge?
(A less significant – but no less striking – resonance with Magneto’s attack on the U.S.S.R. is the backup story from Classic #29, wherein the KGB’s Colonel Vazhin told Colossus he could best serve his country by remaining with the X-Men. When the team stops Magneto in Uncanny X-Men #150, thus preventing any further violence done against the Soviet Union, Vazhin is rather neatly proved correct. Online critics love to accuse Claremont of having a haphazard style that seems directionless compared to the more outwardly elegant work of, say, Neil Gaiman -- but the connections between Claremont’s X-Men stories do exist, and they are more clever and multi-textured than he is given credit for. Uncanny X-Men #150, a veritable junction box of connections between other stories in the canon, is a prime example.)
Claremont isn’t the only one who contributes sublime work to this issue. After providing fairly lightweight artistic contributions in the previous couple of months, Dave Cockum slams this story out of the park. In collaboration with Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek, Cockrum demonstrates fantastic range and subtlety here. The sequence wherein the X-Men emerge from the water to invade Magneto’s island is a particular standout. Note the incredible creepiness of the panel depicting the shadowed and still partially submerged faces of Storm and Nightcrawler – surely one of the most striking images of either character that Cockrum has ever produced.
We also get another example of what will soon become a staple dramatic beat for X-Men stories: with all the team members trapped and powerless, Cyclops regains the use of his eye-beams and blasts the unsuspecting villain, thus turning the tide back in the heroes’ favor. We saw this bit already as the inaugural moment of Byrne and Austin’s fantastically choreographed fight scene in Uncanny #134. Here it is again, and the primal beauty of both the idea and the image is such that it will go on to punctuate many X-Men stories in the years to come. (In 2007, Joss Whedon made it a key feature of his Cyclops-rehabilitation project in Astonishing X-Men.)
The greatest single accomplishment of Claremont’s original 17-year X-Men run is his character arc for Magneto, transforming a previously one-dimensional villain into one of the most powerful and tragic characters in Marvel’s vast stable. “I, Magneto” is a key chapter in Magneto’s transformation, and thus a key piece of the Claremont canon. Indeed, Claremont would even reprise the title in his masterful backup story for Classic X-Men #19, which detailed Magneto’s initial transformation from a noble man to a crazed megalomaniac. That “I, Magneto” ended with the eponymous line, marking the exact moment of Magneto’s transformation. Thus Claremont stuck an eloquent symmetry with Uncanny #150, which opens with the title phrase and ends with Magneto’s first steps from crazed megalomaniac back into a noble man.
The symmetries of Uncanny #150 do not end there. Grant Morrison, probably intentionally, chose issue 150 of his New X-Men project to deliberately revert Magneto to a one-dimensional villain – a swerve that directly contravenes Claremont’s X-Men #150. He then ended the story by killing Magneto off, as mockery of the fact that X-Men writers since the ‘60s had been ending their runs by killing off Magneto, always to no permanent effect. Ironically, both Claremont and Morrison were reacting to the same phenomenon: The futility of hero/villain conflict in superhero comics. This is reflected in Claremont’s story when Xavier comments that “physically defeating Magneto ... [has happened] so often in the past and ... has resolved absolutely nothing...” The two authors’ diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem reflect their different temperaments. Claremont ends the cycle by attacking it from within, unironically adding layers of tragedy to Magneto’s character that will thus inform his future appearances and preclude another rehash of the X-Men vs. Magneto. Morrison comments from outside the story, rehashing the hero/villain conflict but from an ironic distance, and thus subtracting dimensionality from Magneto. Perhaps inevitably, both authors would see their solutions erased by corporate-minded editors to preserve the X-Men franchise, vindicating Morrison’s more cynical view.