Comic book reviews: X-Men Black – Magneto

What if Magneto was right all along?

Magneto, mutant master of magnetism, has been a central figure of the X-Men mythos since the very beginning. Frequently an adversary, but sometimes an ally, Magneto is a figure who has often found himself in the grey area between villain and hero, terrorist and freedom-fighter.

Initially conceived in the early 1960s as a one-dimensional megalomaniac determined to conquer the world in the name of mutant-kind, Magneto was later re-conceptualized by writer Chris Claremont.

It was revealed by Claremont that Magneto was a Jew from Eastern Europe who spent his childhood imprisoned in the living hell of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Having seen his family murdered by the Nazis, and subsequently experiencing further discrimination after World War II ended, Magneto became convinced that humanity would never be able to accept the emerging mutant race.  Magneto was certain that another Holocaust was inevitable, this time with mutants facing extermination.  Resolving to never again be a victim, Magneto believed that the only way to prevent a mutant genocide was to preemptively conquer the world, to crush humanity before they could attempt to wipe out mutants.

X-Men Black Magneto cover

Claremont, the co-architect of many classic X-Men storylines, returns to Magneto in the new special X-Men: Black – Magneto.  “The Stars, Our Destination?” is penciled by Dalibor Talajic, inked by Roberto Poggi & Belardino Brabo, lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna, and colored by Dono Sanchez-Almara.  The cover artwork is by J. Scott Campbell & Sabine Rich.

As the story opens, Magneto is in his civilian guise of “Erik,” sitting in a café near San Fernando TX, drawing in his sketchbook.  The waitress, a teenage African American named Kate, comes over to talk to him.  The two converse, and Kate explains that her family has owned the café for generations.  Her family also has a long tradition of military service; Kate’s mother tragically was killed while deployed overseas.

Their conversation is interrupted by a television news report that the government’s Office of National Emergency has opened a “detention center” outside of San Fernando to house mutant children who “are being detained for their own safety, as well as the security of the general public.”

Magneto is, of course, aghast, immediately seeing parallels to his own childhood imprisonment in Auschwitz.  He is further disturbed by the reactions of the café’s other patrons, who vocally approve of the government’s actions.

Kate is the only one present who perceives the terrible injustice in imprisoning children who have committed no crimes, arguing “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!”  Unfortunately her protests fall upon deaf ears, with one customer angrily snarling “How can liberals be so stupid?” and another arguing “They’re talking civil rights, we’re talking the survival of the human race!”

Magneto, seeing how ugly the mood in the café has become, excuses himself.  Kate follows him outside to apologize for how the customers treated him, and she accidentally observes him beginning to use his mutant powers.  She isn’t afraid, though, and Magneto tells her “Today, child, I’ll wager you’ve made your mother proud. Never lose those ideals, Kate.”

X-Men Black Magneto pg 6

After a brief stop at his orbiting asteroid base, Magneto returns to Earth, where he approaches the Detention Center.  He is quickly attacked by ONE forces, including a woman in Sentinel armor.  Although his is briefly caught off-guard, Magneto soon gains the upper hand.  Using his powers, he destroys all of their weapons.  However, in an act of mercy, as well as so they will pass along his message, Magneto does not kill any of the government agents.

Magneto frees the children in the Detention Center, offering them sanctuary on Asteroid M.  The children ask if their parents and families will also be coming, and Magneto has no answer.  One of the children then tells him that they cannot run away, that they need to stay, to fight for the principles the country was founded upon.

Sad, but understanding, Magneto uses his powers to destroy the Detention Center and spirit the children away from the authorities.  Before he leaves, he addresses the prison officials:

“Your actions betray the bedrock ideals of your nation. You should be ashamed. Mutants are not your enemies. They are your friends, your neighbors, your family… Act as oppressors, you’ll be treated like them.”

Regrettably his words fall on deaf ears.  The ONE agents, completely disregarding Magneto’s act of mercy in sparing their lives, instead resolve to fight that much harder to kill him next time, genuinely believing that they are humanity’s first line of defense against extinction.

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In the past I have written about Magneto on this blog.  I have expressed the opinion that he is a man who let his childhood traumas and fears completely warp his thinking.  He is so terrified of another Holocaust occurring that he has become the very thing he despises.  As I saw it, Magneto’s good intentions had paved the road into his own personal hell.

But was I wrong?  Was Magneto right?  The events of the last several years have led me to question my certainty.  Chris Claremont’s story has given focus to my doubts.

Reading the X-Men comic books in the 1980s and 90s, I recall thinking that the anti-mutant racism and hysteria shown in the Marvel universe was depicted in a very overblown manner.  It seemed exaggerated and unrealistic, in comparison to our own real world.

Growing up in the 1980s, I believed that racism was mostly a thing of the past.  Yes, I acknowledged that there were still bigots out there, but I thought that they were now the exception rather than the rule.  I believed that so many advances towards equality were being made, that most people in this country had moved beyond racism… or maybe I should say that is what I wanted to believe.

As a middle class white male in suburban New York it was all too easy for me to ignore the widespread, institutionalized racism that still existed in the United States.  It was foolish and naive of me to believe that a nation that was founded upon the genocide of Native Americans and the brutal enslavement of blacks, a country that after the Civil War saw African Americans subjected to nearly a century of segregation and violent oppression, could completely turn away from racism & intolerance in just a few short decades.

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It took the events of the last ten years to finally open my eyes.  The election of Barack Obama to President brought to the surface all of the bigotry that had gone underground over the previous 40 years, but which had been quietly, persistently simmering just out of sight.  The idea that a black man was now occupying the Oval Office resulted in an eruption of vile, paranoid hatred, in the peddling of insane conspiracy theories and cries that the “white race” was in danger of extinction.  The Republicans were more than happy to cynically exploit the racism of their base, utilizing that blind hatred to obstruct Obama and the Democrats at each & every turn.

And then came Donald Trump, who wholeheartedly embraced the racist fear & anger of America, riding it straight into the White House.  Trump, a racist and misogynist who praises neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  Trump, whose administration is engaged in ongoing attacks on the rights of blacks and women and Muslims and the LGBT community and civil liberties and science and rational thinking.  Trump, who has separated thousands of children from their parents, and who has put those innocent children in cages, to the enthusiastic approval & applause of his many followers, who hate anyone who is different from them.

The idea that Magneto was wrong is predicated on the idea that another Holocaust would not, could not occur here in the United States.  However, the last several years have demonstrated that the institutions of democracy & liberty in our country are alarmingly fragile, and that we could very easily follow the evil path that Nazi Germany took 80 years ago.  Some would say that is exactly what we are doing right now, and perhaps they are correct.

And if that is the case, perhaps Magneto was right, and Professor Xavier was wrong.  Perhaps peaceful coexistence is not possible, simply because there are too many willfully ignorant, hateful bigots in this world, people who will not be swayed by appeals to reason or pleas for empathy, people who will happily see their neighbors sent to the death camps.  If that is so, then a man such as Magneto, for all his flaws and zealotry, might actually be a necessity.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 20

In any case, X-Men: Black – Magneto is an effective utilization by Chris Claremont of real-world contemporary issues to tell a compelling comic book story.  To anyone who wants to argue that in the past comic books were not political, Exhibit A for the defense could be Claremont’s original 17 year run on X-Men, which was frequently political, with mutant-kind serving as an allegory for any number of persecuted minorities.

Marvel Comics has been very reluctant to openly address Trump and his followers in their stories.  I am not surprised, given that Marvel is now owned by Disney, which has always endeavored to avoid controversy.  Certainly the recent firings of James Gunn and Chuck Wendig, both of whom have been extremely vocal in their criticisms of Trump on social media, demonstrates that Disney has no desire to overtly wade into politics.

Under those circumstances, the allegorical approach favored by Claremont is probably the best, at least if one is writing at Marvel, or DC Comics for that matter.  I have often commented that science fiction is an effective vehicle for addressing contemporary political & social issues, because the genre enables writers to utilize analogues for real-world controversies.  Claremont is certainly adept at this.  If he submitted a plot concerning the government putting young Hispanic children in cages it would undoubtedly be rejected flat by Marvel.  Instead he writes about a fictional government agency imprisoning mutant children, but it is very obvious what he is really talking about.

If there is one message that we can take from X-Men: Black – Magneto, it is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  Democracy is not easy.  It requires active participation from its citizens.  We must vote in every election.  We must contact our government representatives to let them know how we want them to act.  Like both Magneto and Kate, we must loudly, angrily protest whenever injustice occurs.  If we do not, our freedoms will certainly be taken from us.

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