[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
“What Was That?”
Thanks to the free flow of ideas and threads moving back and forth between Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants – not to mention Jim Shooter’s compulsive need to dip his pen into the ink, giving the X-Men and Magneto key roles in his action-figure-tie-in-turned-vanity-project Secret Wars – it’s probably hard to track the evolution of Magneto if one is only reading Uncanny and nothing else. He shows up in Uncanny #196 as the friend of Charles Xavier and lover of Lee Forrester with a distinct lack of explanation. Here’s how it got to that point [deep breath] ...
After Magneto becoming repentant at the end of Uncanny #150, he next appeared in the quasi-canonical X-Men graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills,” which showed him working with the X-Men against an anti-mutant bigot. He next appeared in Jim Shooter’s first Secret Wars series -- a simple-minded comic book in which heroes fight villains for twelve issues for the edification of a cosmic, all-powerful being called The Beyonder. In Secret Wars, Magneto works on the X-Men’s side once again, at Xavier’s behest.
Magneto’s chronology then picks up in an ongoing New Mutants subplot that for a long time does not intersect that series’ main narrative. Crashing into the ocean after the destruction of Asteroid M, he is rescued by Cyclops’ ex-girlfriend Lee Forrester, and the two return to his base in the Bermuda Triangle. Magneto’s past with Magda is alluded to – we are given the impression that perhaps Lee reminds him a bit of how much he misses certain more human luxuries: friends, lovers, etc. He and Lee become both the former and the latter over the course of a few months, at which point Magneto is contacted by Professor X. Weaker than ever since his mugging, Charles sends Magneto to gather both the X-Men and the New Mutants to help Captain America against the Beyonder. The storyline crosses over into the first issue of the depressingly bad Secret Wars II, which sees Magneto once again working with the X-Men.
That brings us, finally, to Uncanny #196. At this point, we’re only four months away from Claremont’s most severe status-quo change yet, wherein Xavier departs the series entirely and Magneto takes his place as an X-Man and as the New Mutants’ new teacher. Surprising as the move is, there is a narrative precedent, and Claremont even reminds us of it here: Rachel points out to Rogue midway through the issue that in the “Days of Future Past” dystopia, Magneto was an ally of the X-Men. Recall that Byrne even drew the character in a wheelchair for that story, making his status as a replacement-Xavier quite clear.
A scene between Magneto and Rachel was inevitable. Granted, when “Days of Future Past” was originally published, it’s unlikely that Claremont knew then that Magneto’s presence in the concentration camp would be thematically prescient. His new back-story for Magneto wasn’t conceived until Cockrum replaced Byrne as artist on the series. The serendipitous resonance that resulted, however, in the decision to make Magneto a Holocaust survivor certainly can’t be ignored now. When Rachel goes mad in the face of pure hate and bigotry, only to be talked down by the newly rehabilitated Magneto, there is a fascinating psychological parallelism at work. Essentially, both characters have the same origin: Having endured death camps in their youth, each is inclined toward extremism to prevent another Holocaust. When Claremont depicts Rachel’s fit of rage toward the end of “What Was That?”, the reader is invited to consider that Magneto must have had a moment like this too, prior to becoming a villain. (Later, Claremont would show us that exact scene, in the brilliant “Fire in the Night” from Classic X-Men #12.)
Since Magneto’s origin is tied to a real historical tragedy and Rachel’s to a fictional one, the latter character cannot possibly bear the same sense of psychological weight. On a meta-narrative level, Magneto’s maturity and wisdom in the face of Rachel’s naivety parallels the fact that a superhero comic book can never fully bear the weight of reality.
True, the allusions to the Holocaust that occur in X-Men can and do give a sense of gravitas to the storyline; Claremont’s Magneto emerges as the author’s single most psychologically complex creation. But for all that, it is still just a comic book. It can never pretend, with its four-color fictions, to speak to the realities of racism, hatred and bigotry as experienced by actual victims and survivors.
This is why “God Loves, Man Kills” – with its audacious and awkward use of the word “nigger” to somehow prove the hurtfulness of the imagined epithet “mutie” – is such a failure. Ironically, issue 196 once again features Kitty throwing the “N word” in a black person’s face. It’s fascinating that this inflammatory slur appears for the first time in an X-Men story since “God Loves, Man Kills” in the exact same issue that contains a metatextual acknowledgement of the Uncanny X-Men series’ limitations in speaking to racial experience. This is perhaps Claremont’s tacit acknowledgement that “God Loves, Man Kills” was a wrong-headed and immature work.
It’s also significant that it is Kitty who keeps slinging the offensive word around. She’s the youngest member of the team (Claremont makes a point of reminding us she’s 15 one page after she uses the epithet), and therefore the least likely to recognize the full implications of using such loaded language, even in an ironic context that attempts to make an unsubtle point about how “words like that” can be “hurtful.”