This is the second part of my examination of the enmity between the mutant revolutionary Magneto and the Nazi war criminal the Red Skull. For those who missed it here is a link to the first part.
After their confrontation during “Acts of Vengeance,” it would be years before Magneto and the Red Skull would again encounter one another. They would finally come face-to-face once again in the prologue to the Avengers & X-Men: Axis crossover.
Although he has gone by several aliases during his lifetime, Magneto’s real name is Max Eisenhardt. A Jew, Max was born in Germany in the late 1920s. After the rise of the Nazis, Max’s family faced severe discrimination, and they were eventually imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. There the young Max saw his entire family murdered. Max himself became a Sonderkommando, a Jew who under threat of death was forced to remove the victims of the gas chambers and place them in the ovens to be cremated.
This nightmarish existence was made all the worse by the abuses heaped upon Max and his fellow prisoners by a sadistic Nazi officer named Hitzig. At the time Max’s mutant powers were gradually beginning to manifest, and he sought to use them to kill Hitzig. But between his young age, and his severe state of malnutrition, Max’s control of magnetism was much too weak, and he failed in the attempt to slay his tormenter.
The unimaginable horrors which Max endured left lasting emotional scars upon him. Years later, after he was prevented by a bigoted mob from saving the life of his daughter Anya, his traumatic memories were re-awakened. Looking upon the gradual emergence of mutants and humanity’s resulting fears, Max became convinced that a new Holocaust was all but inevitable. Determined to prevent this, he adopted the ruthlessly proactive identity of Magneto, a figure who would crush humanity before they could perpetrate genocide against mutant-kind.
In the ongoing Magneto series, writer Cullen Bunn has portrayed the title character as a driven, brutal individual. In his quest to protect mutants, and to avenge crimes against them, Magneto has regularly utilized violence and torture. He has maimed or killed his adversaries with scarcely any remorse, fanatically convinced of the necessity and righteousness of his actions. Bunn very much captures the extremely fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.
In issue #9, by Bunn and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta, with a cover by David Yardin, Magneto finally learns that the Red Skull has grafted Charles Xavier’s brain to his own, gaining immense telepathic powers. The Skull, with his S-Men and Ahab, has relocated to the island of Genosha, where they have constructed a “mutant reeducation camp” i.e. a concentration camp for the extermination of mutants. Magneto’s greatest fear given concrete form, he sets out to destroy the Red Skull. He was never ever able to kill Hitzig, but perhaps he can expunge the guilt he feels for his failure by slaying the Skull. “After all this time, I’ll get some reprieve from my disgrace.”
Magneto confronts the Red Skull, echoing the words he uttered to the fascist mastermind years before when he buried him alive in a bomb shelter. “I told you once before, Nazi… I am your better! But where I once showed you clemency, this time I have brought you nothing but death!” Unfortunately Magneto’s powers are on the wane, and he is overwhelmed by the S-Men, who beat him into submission.
As the next issue opens, the Red Skull mocks the now-imprisoned Magneto. Using his mental powers, the Skull conjures up a psychic projection of Hitzig in an effort to break the Master of Magnetism. This manifestation pursues Magneto through a lifetime of memories, inserting itself into each of them as a monstrous apparition, reminding him of his myriad failures.
Finally back in the real world, Magneto fins that he has been left at the mercy of Mzee, the member of the S-Men who resembles a humanoid turtle. Mzee is ready to make Magneto suffer. As the S-Man reveals “As a child, I watched your minions slaughter my family. Those moments… their screams… were endless. And no one came to help me. I’ll make sure your misery lasts just as long.” Here we see the cost of Magneto’s crusade made tangible. In his barbarous quest to protect mutants by subjugating humanity, Magneto has created yet another generation of victims who learned to hate and who now seek vengeance. By his actions Magneto has not changed anything, but instead perpetuated the cycle of hatred.
Before Mzee can act, though, Havok, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch intervene. In the pages of Uncanny Avengers #24 written by Rick Remender, the three members of the Avengers Unity Squad had been abducted by the S-Men and brought to Genosha. They managed to escape, and they free Magneto. The three mutant Avengers try to convince the weakened Magneto not to continue his fight against the Red Skull, but to lay low with them while they contact the rest of the Avengers for reinforcements. Magneto, though, will have none of that, and even accuses Rogue of betraying mutant-kind. “I forgot you abandoned Charles’ dream. No longer an X-Man, merely another stooge of the human establishment.” Rogue is understandably outraged by this, as well she should be. As a member of the Avengers, she played a crucial role in saving the entire world from being destroyed by the Celestials. But do not bother telling that to Magneto; so long as mutants are safe, the rest of humanity can burn for all he cares.
The argument between Magneto and the Avengers is abruptly halted when they are discovered by the Red Skull, Ahab, and the S-Men. As Uncanny Avengers #25 opens, with writing by Remender and artwork by Daniel Acuna, the Skull has frozen them all in place with his telepathy. The fascist takes this opportunity to once again poke & prod at Magneto’s insecurities.
Commenting upon Magneto’s state of mind, the Skull mockingly observes “It doesn’t take a mind reader to know why it frightens you so, Magnus. It is not the evil that might be uncovered within – it is the emptiness. A willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve your means. Including the gross manipulation of your own daughter. Tsk tsk. Oh, dear, she despises you, Magnus. A hatred that matches my own. Used by her father. Driven mad for his purpose.”
As he previously did in “Acts of Vengeance,” the Red Skull is attempting to point out that he and Magneto are more alike than not. And this time the Skull brings Magneto’s daughter, the Scarlet Witch, into his argument. Remender really hit the nail on the head with this, making a connection I had previously missed. The Skull used and abused his own daughter, Sinthia, manipulating her into an instrument of his will, a warped reflection of his own sick mind. As a result, Sinthia absolutely despises him. And this is all too similar to Magneto’s relationship with his daughter the Scarlet Witch. On numerous occasions he attempted to utilize Wanda’s reality-warping abilities as a weapon in the cause of mutant revolution, not caring what harm it caused her. The result is that the Witch would very much prefer to have nothing to do with her father.
Unknown to the Red Skull, when Magneto was freed by the Avengers he took the opportunity to ingest a dose of Mutant Growth Hormone. His powers now restored almost to normal levels, he knocks out the Skull, releasing the Avengers from mental control. Rogue, Havok and the Scarlet Witch engage the S-Men and Ahab. Magneto, discovering several lobotomized mutants in one of the concentration camp buildings, furiously declares “This is what they do to our people, Wanda! And so long as they draw breath there can be no unity.” Enraged, Magneto uses his powers to seemingly kill the S-Men. He then proceeds to physically assault the Skull, brutally beating him. Defiant to the end, the Skull continues to verbally taunt Magneto. Then, before the Witch’s horrified eyes, Magneto kills the Skull in cold blood, shattering his head with a block of masonry.
The Scarlet Witch, Rogue and Havok are horrified. At first speechless, Rogue finally gasps “What have you done?” Magneto attempts to justify his act, announcing that he has “killed evil incarnate” and “saved countless lives.” Rogue mere responds “You – after all your words – you’re no better than him.”
Of course, that is not the end of things. By killing the Red Skull, Magneto inadvertently set loose something that was buried deep within Xavier’s mind. Onslaught, the psionic entity that was once born out of the combined subconscious darkness of the Xavier and Magneto, lives again. And it is now controlled by the twisted consciousness of the Red Skull.
Thus is the stage set for “The Red Supremacy,” the first act of Avengers & X-Men: Axis. I will be taking a look at that miniseries, and the continuing struggle between Magneto and the Red Skull, in the near future.