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.”

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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 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.

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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.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round three: Axis

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” – John Steinbeck

At long last here is the third and final part of my examination of the conflict between Magneto and the Red Skull, between the Holocaust survivor turned mutant revolutionary and the Nazi terrorist.  For those who have not already read them, here are links to Part One and Part Two.

Magneto 12 cover

Previously the Red Skull, who’d had the brain of the deceased telepath Charles Xavier grafted into his own, was brutally killed by Magneto.  Unfortunately, rather than ending the Skull’s threat, this caused him to transform into a new incarnation of Onslaught, the being originally created years before from the combined subconscious darkness of Xavier and Magneto’s minds.

(Or perhaps Onslaught was actually Rob Liefeld… I forget exactly.)

The Avengers and X-Men’s battle against the “Red Onslaught” and the terrible aftermath is seen in the Axis miniseries by writer Rick Remender and various artists.  Magneto’s perspective of these events is depicted in issue #s 11 and 12 of his solo series, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Roland Boschi, with covers by David Yardin.

In Axis #1, illustrated by Adam Kubert, the reborn Red Skull / Onslaught is spreading a psychic hate plague across the globe.  Havok, Rogue, the Scarlet Witch and Magneto attempt to stop the Skull.  It seems a hopeless task, especially as the three members of the Avengers Unity Squad want nothing to do with Magneto.  Havok, perhaps under the Skull’s psychic influence, attacks the master of magnetism, shouting at him “You damn murdering hypocrite! You’re just like him, Magneto!”

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The Avengers and X-Men, alerted to the Red Skull’s threat, arrive in Genosha.  After long months of tense relations between the two teams, they finally realize that they need to join forces against this common foe.  The towering Red Onslaught, however, is unimpressed, and he summons a pair of immense Sentinels constructed out of near-unbreakable adamantium.  The Skull reveals that he previously used his mental powers to manipulate Tony Stark into constructing these robot monstrosities, programming them with the data needed to defeat Earth’s heroes.

(Side note number one: Was any of this previously seen or even hinted at before the events of Axis #1, maybe in an issue of Iron Man?  Because the reveal by Remender seems to come completely out of left field, with no build-up or foreshadowing.)

Between the Red Skull and the Sentinels, the heroes have little chance, the blame for which Magneto is more than happy to lay at Iron Man’s feet.  In the midst of battle, Magneto flees.  The Avengers and X-Men are defeated and imprisoned by the Sentinels.

Back in his sanctuary, away from everyone else, Magneto finally engages in self-reflection, and acknowledges his own role in causing this crisis.  “All that I have done… it was for nothing. I have committed unspeakable acts. I have hurt people. I have taken lives as easily as I might draw breath. All so my people, so mutants, might thrive.”

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Briar Raleigh, Magneto’s human ally who sympathizes with his goals, argues that he could not have foreseen the results of killing the Skull.  Magneto disagrees, informing her “After all this time, after so many atrocities committed in the name of mutants, after so many bitter failures, I was blind not to anticipate something like this.”

Attempting to spur Magneto out of his despondency, Briar plays old video footage of his brutal attacks against anti-mutant forces.  She then shows him an interview with a young girl he once saved, who says “People say he’s some sort of monster, or maybe a terrorist, or that he’s insane. But I’m just glad mutants have someone like him, someone who can be angry, who can do bad things, so that we might survive.”

Grimly resolved that he is the one who has been forced into the role of making the difficult but necessary choices, Magneto sets out to recruit allies against the Skull.  If the Skull’s Sentinels are programmed to defeat heroes, then he will ally himself with criminals and villains.  Among those he approaches are Doctor Doom, Loki, Carnage, Sabretooth and Mystique.

Deadpool, who is not, strictly speaking, a villain, but who is certainly nuts, gets wind of all this and decides to find out what is going on.  The merc with a mouth tells him “I kinda want to know what the hell you’re trying to pull. I mean, I thought you were supposed to be a good guy.”  Magneto somberly responds “Not even you are foolish enough to think me a hero. Such distinctions are for those who can look at their own reflections and not despair.”

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Magneto and his group of ne’er-do-wells engage the Red Skull and his Sentinels in Genosha.  During the battle, they manage to free the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange, and Magneto tells them to attempt an “inversion spell” to revive the suppressed remnants of Xavier’s consciousness in the Skull’s mind.  Before it can be completed, Strange is knocked out.  Doctor Doom steps in and forces Wanda to complete the spell with him.

The inversion is seemingly successful.  Onslaught is banished, and the Red Skull is returned to human form, unconscious.  Immediately, though, there are problems.  The Avengers want to imprison the Skull ASAP before he re-awakens.  The X-Men, however, want custody of him, to see if now they can fully restore Xavier to life.  The disagreement causes the two teams to once again find themselves at odds with one another, neither side willing to budge.  Their fragile alliance is shattered.  Even in defeat, the Skull achieves a dark victory, once again driving apart humans and mutants.

And what has happened to Magneto?  Wounded, watching all of this from afar, he hears the Scarlet Witch ask “Where are the villains?”  Magneto bitterly thinks to himself, “After everything we did… everything I did… these Avengers… even my own daughter… would still see me as another threat to be eliminated or contained.”

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As we soon find out in Axis #4, however, the inversion spell by Wanda and Doom worked much too well.  It caused everyone who was in Genosha to turn 180 degrees on the moral compass.  All of the heroes who were present are now ruthless, violent and selfish.  All of the villains are now moral and altruistic.  Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon and now the new Captain America, wants to lead all of the inverted Avengers in taking over the world, creating an ordered society that they control.  The mutant Genesis is transformed into a reborn Apocalypse who leads the X-Men into war against humanity.  They construct a bomb that will wipe out all non-mutants on Earth.  Oh, yeah, and Tony Stark becomes an arrogant, greedy, hedonistic asshole.  If you thought regular Iron Man could be a jerk, well, inverted Stark is about a hundred times worse.

The now-elderly Steve Rogers and the few non-inverted heroes who managed to escape being captured by the corrupted Avengers are forced to ally themselves with Magneto and the other inverted villains to stop the X-Men and Apocalypse.  These events play out over the remainder of the Axis miniseries.

(Side note number two: Did Remender really need nine extra-sized issues to tell this whole story?  The whole thing would very comfortably have fit into a mere six issues.  I liked Axis, but it definitely suffered from being padded out with tons of fight scenes that played out over a bunch of splash pages and double-page spreads.)

Finally coming to Axis #9, with Jim Cheung artwork, Rogers and the inverted villains attempt to recreate the inversion spell.  Doctor Doom manages to summon Doctor Voodoo and his ghostly brother, and they take possession of the inverted Scarlet Witch.  Doom and the possessed Witch catch up with Rogers, who has located the Red Skull.  The man who was once the personification of human evil has been inverted into the remorseful White Skull… seriously, even his mask turned white.  How did that happen?

The White Skull begs Magneto not to once again resort to murder, to not kill Iron Man, and allow the new inversion spell to undo the damage.  Magneto reluctantly agrees.  Doom, the Skull, and the possessed Witch re-enact the inversion, turning everyone back to normal.  Well, almost everyone.  Iron Man, who refuses to go back to how he once was, is able to shield himself, and both Havok and Sabretooth are caught in his energy field.  That means Havok is still a violent fanatic who hates humans, Sabretooth still has a conscience, and Stark is still a douchebag.  Oh, well, can’t win ‘em all!

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In the closing pages of Axis #9, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch form a new Avengers Unity Squad, hoping to bridge the gap between humans and mutants so that a disaster such as this never occurs again.  Magneto, however, is in no mood to celebrate, realizing that Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Iron Man have all escaped.  We see that the Skull is now the prisoner of Doom, a potential weapon to be used by the Latverian tyrant in the future.

Hopefully Magneto and the Red Skull will meet again.  Theirs is a dramatic, powerful enmity driven by mutual contempt & hatred.  They are simultaneously alike and as different as night & day.  Much can be revealed about Magneto through the comparing & contrasting of him to the Skull.

Magneto, as re-envisioned by Chris Claremont to be a survivor of the Holocaust, is undoubtedly a complex, complicated and morally ambiguous individual.  One can certainly see Magneto as the personification of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous warning “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Likewise the character appears to embody the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I have often regarded Magneto as a tragic but dangerous figure.  He is a man who experienced horrific losses in his childhood & early adulthood, and who is unable or unwilling to let go of the past.  All of this has led him to fanatical extremes.

The Red Skull commits evil acts because he is a psychopath.  Magneto, on the other hand, is driven by fear and guilt, by a burning obsession to never again become a victim.  Unlike the Skull, it is certainly possible to understand, even sympathize with Magneto.  But if in the end by his actions Magneto arrives at exactly the same place as the Skull, as an unrepentant monster, than all the rationalizations in the world are meaningless.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round two: March to Axis

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.

Magneto 9 cover

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Finally back in the real world, Magneto finds 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Click here to continue on to round three of the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

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The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.