Monday, 10 August 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #25: Magnus

It’s not easy finding a good villain, sometimes.

This is problematical to say the least, because good villains are essential. Interesting, powerful protagonists are all very well, but unless they can face off against an impressive adversary with a dastardly plan, you’ve only got half a story. There’s a reason why you don’t see Plant-Man threatening the X-Men anymore. I’m sure there are no lack of opinions and theories as to what makes a comic villain great, but my own personal take on it is that you need two things: a decent hook, and a bit of time.

Magneto has both in spades. Over the years I’ve read various people lament the fact that Marvel can’t create new villains like him anymore (usually this sort of thing appears in comic book letter pages, which you really shouldn’t read if you want to retain any faith in human nature whatsoever), which rather misses the essential point about Magneto, which is that his brilliance as an adversary is intrinsically linked with the amount of time he’s been around. You can retcon villains into your heroes' pasts (most obviously Sinister, for example), but you can’t write familiarity. Of course, the Magneto first encountered by the X-Men at Cape Citadel is almost totally unrecognisable from the multi-layered character he became, but that helps to prove my point. Once in a while, a truly great character may spring into being fully-formed, but ninety-nine times out of hundred, they with time.

The maturation of Magneto is particularly interesting, because it mirrors the development of the franchise itself. It doesn’t seem at all unfair to suggest that the initial USP of the X-Men was squandered somewhat. Why introduce the concept of mutants if each one of them is simply going to be a standard superhero or super-villain? Hell, most of them had origin stories for their powers in any case. Sauron; Sunfire; Mimic; Xavier himself, all of them had their own tales of how they acquired their uncanny abilities. [1] Magneto was another victim of such traditional thinking, a carbon-copy super villain. Basic Story-telling 101 tells us that the best villains are often dark reflections of the heroes they oppose. The truth of this with respect to what Magneto’s relationship with Xavier became is obvious, but in the beginning, the X-Men’s “dark mirror” was nothing more than an opposing team of mutants. It was impossible for Magneto to become more until the comic became more in itself, which didn’t genuinely happen until the arrival of Claremont.

As terrible as Magneto was in those early appearances, though, they are not entirely without insight into his character. His endless taunting of Toad and manipulation of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch might be simple 60’s evil short-hand, but it reveals a deeper problem. Actually, it reveals two. The first, which I’ll come back to later, is that whilst he cares deeply about mutants in the abstract, it is almost impossible for Mageto to give a damn about them as individuals. The second, which we’ll start with, is this, for a man determined to shape the future of the world, Magneto is impossible of thinking more than one step ahead. This one of the perils of trying to mould the future entirely from the desire to escape the past.

Of course, if anyone has just cause to not have dealt with his personal history, it’s Magneto. Pretty much anyone with the slightest interest in comics knows that he’s a Holocaust survivor, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. Some of it I didn’t even know until I was reading up on him. Growing up as a teenager in Auschwitz was only the second worst thing to happen to him during the war. First, he watches his entire family gunned down by SS soldiers, passes out from the exertion of subconsciously using his as-yet-unused powers to save himself, and is buried in a shallow grave with the victims of the massacre. He actually digs himself out by crawling upwards through the bodies of his dead family, only to be captured when he breaks ground and sent to a concentration camp. The hideous, pitch-black symbolism is difficult to miss; Magneto began his struggle for his right to exist by literally clambering over the bodies of the dead, some of whom were once people he loved, and his only reward was greater torment. The entirety of the tragedy of Magneto’s life (and it is a tragedy, even if the man often goes out of his way to avoid seeming sympathetic) is summed up right there. Every day is a struggle to climb the bodies, only to reach the top and find another pile to scale (and if his first brutal experience at the hands of the Nazis didn’t teach him that, spending his time in Auschwitz burning the bodies of the dead must have).

We perhaps see this revealed most clearly in Scott Lobdell’s Eve Of Destruction storyline; even with a safe haven for mutants guaranteed on Genosha, an island nation once on the brink of total collapse that Magneto has remoulded into something that, while far from paradise, at least constituted a functioning state, his first act upon receiving fresh recruits (thanks to Colossus curing the Legacy Virus with his sacrifice) is to declare war on humanity in general. Ruling Genosha was the absolute highpoint of a campaign that has lasted decades, and his response to that was to keep on climbing. The less charitable reading of this truth is that Magneto cannot rest until all of humanity is enslaved or dead, but I think the truth is more simple: Magneto cannot rest. His failure to save his family; the death of his daughter Anya, who burns to death before his eyes whilst he is restrained by corrupt policemen; the loss of his wife and fellow Auschwitz survivor Magda (later discovered to have been pregnant at the time with twins who grew to be Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch), who flees in terror when he takes his revenge on his captors; the combined effect is simply too much. He claims he strives to ensure the horrors of the past will never be repeated, but in reality I suspect he keeps climbing because the horrors of the past can never be undone.

It is this congenital inability to see the future in any other way than through the warped lens of his youth that traps Magneto. It is also one of the most obvious ways in which he is does in fact represent the dark mirror of Charles Xavier, or at least the polar opposite. Xavier has a crystal clear vision of the future, total integration of human and mutant, including mutual understanding and co-operation. Magneto has on many occasions decried this dream as exactly that, and nothing more, but the reality is more subtle. Xavier’s problem is that he knows where he wants to get to in twenty years, but has an almost impossible task in working out the exact right way to fight for that future now. Magneto, on the other hand, knows exactly which battles to fight now, i.e. all of them, but his reactionary blood-thirst betrays the fact that he has no clear idea where he wants the planet to become, only where he will not permit it to go. Like all terrorists (which is what Magneto frequently is, which is what makes his occasional attempts to leave that life behind so poignant, albeit inevitably doomed), the reason behind the violence has long ago simply become an excuse, the demands made so impossible for anyone to comply even before one considers the behaviour of the one making those demands, that endless warfare is all that remains. And so, inevitably, Magneto hastens the future he claims to so desperately want to avoid. Hell, at this point, thanks in no small part to his constant belligerence, mutants as a race are all but extinct. His own daughter managed more in one desperate sentence than Hitler achieved in half a decade. To say nothing of the fact that it takes some major fucking idiocy to end up in a situation that by your own standards is worse than the Age of Apocalyse. [2]

In the end, a lot of this comes down to ego. When you engage in debate with Charles Xavier and he comes off looking humble and unsure of himself in comparison, I would submit that you’ve crossed a fairly important line somewhere. Which brings us to Magneto’s second great flaw; everything always has to be about him.

This is most obvious on the personal level. In his mind, people never fail Magneto, they betray him. The punishments for disobedience are always severe, and the rewards for following orders almost non-existent. Small wonder Toad once sold him out to an alien power after one incident of abuse too many, or that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch abandoned him (this required a fairly complex and, to be honest, implausible plot to retrieve them from the Avengers, but Magneto gave no sign of having learned from his mistake; like I said, he can’t see more than one step ahead). Fabian Cortez betrayed him too, though Cortez is such an inveterate douche it’s unfair to blame Magneto entirely for that one. As a race, Magneto is desperate to save mutant kind, but on an individual level he frequently seems to see and treat mutants as tools at best, and cannon fodder at worst. In fact, he ultimately realises this himself, after a pitched battle with the X-Men leads to him almost killing Kitty Pryde. Faced with almost having murdered a child (and a Jewish one at that) leads to the beginning of a period of atonement for Magneto lasting several years, which we’ll discuss later.

As well as the personal level, though, Magneto’s self-regard damages his overall struggle. I hesitate to bring US politics into this, but Magneto’s world-view is eerily reminiscent of the most hawkish neocon, in that every action taken with him in mind, no matter how indirect, or how entirely defensive, is seen as a direct and intolerable attack. No country, or organisation, can have it’s own independent interests, either they follow Magneto’s vision, or they are the enemy, and are plotting against him (much in the same way that Kristol and his ilk believe Russia doesn't have its own desires and concerns, and just wants to piss of the West all the time). The most extreme example is perhaps the Magneto Protocols, an attempt by various governments to erect a satellite grid that would render Magneto harmless should he ever attempt to return to Earth (at the time he was using Asteroid M as a haven for mutants seeking “peace”, which naturally translated into “dictatorship under Magneto”). Despite having forsaken Earth, this attempt to separate Asteroid M from the planet more permanently (which was ostensibly Magneto’s goal anyway) is seen as a direct attack. And direct attacks against Magneto cannot be countenanced. His retaliatory strike, in which he takes control of the magnetic field of the Earth, kills thousands. Statistically speaking, that might well have included a mutant or two, but all Magneto can see is an attack against him. Years later, he decides to once again harness the magnetic fields of the planet for his own ends, and decides to put an unknowing human “on trial” to determine whether or not he is doing the right thing (X-Men #85, probably Alan Davis' best issue ever). Of course, as soon as the chosen homo sapiens demonstrates a desire to simply live and let live, Magneto reveals himself, terrifies the man by detonating a nearby car and flinging him into the air, and then declares his point proven when the poor man admits he wants Magneto dead. Not mutants dead, Magneto, but by this point Magneto literally cannot understand the difference. He may believe himself as working for mutant-kinds best interests, but the truth is obvious, he works for his best interests and then repeatedly assumes that the two things are the same. This is another factor common to terrorists, and to hawkish demagogues.

In this sense, the comparison so commonly made between Magneto and Malcolm X seems rather unfair on the latter. It works on some fuzzy level when comparing him with Xavier/Martin Luther King Junior [3], but when viewing Magneto alone, it holds less water. X looked back on two hundred years of slavery and subjugation for one group of people and decided they were oppressed as Hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Magneto looked back on who knows how many years of suspicion and persecution of the Jews, added it onto a decade of outrageous horror and death, and extrapolated that to a totally different group of people. The most pertinent question to ask X might well have been “Do you really think this will work for black people?”. For Magneto, the question is “Do you really think this would have worked for the Jews”? X’s doctrine was almost certainly self-defeating, but the underlying argument that black people had waited long enough, and that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t really getting the job done, was understandable on its own terms. Magneto took it upon himself to start a war on behalf of a group of people most of the world didn’t even believe in with the stated aim of stopping mankind from treating mutants the same way Nazi Germany treated the Jews. The fact that this hasn't happened yet is irrelevant, and the fact that Magneto gives every indication that his desire to stop it is to simply utilise similar tactics in reverse just as ignored. The Santayana quote above is, of course, entirely true, but it is wise to bear in mind that you can end up repeating the past by remembering it, but learning all the wrong lessons.

Quite aside from that, though, the logical problem in Magneto's thinking is obvious. If mutants really are as politically and militarily weak as the Jews were in 30’s Germany, then poking the hornet’s nest would be a psychotically stupid thing to do. If, though, mutant-kind is possessed of a greater power (and who could doubt that these days, with so many Alpha mutants running around), then Magneto’s worse-case scenario is either impossible, or liable to come around for reasons other than the ones he imagines, i.e. the mere existence of mutants. It would take something like, say, taking mutants and associating them with crazy and belligerent thugs.

This is where we get back to the American hawks. Magneto operates on the paradoxical belief that mutant-kind was so weak and scattered it had to be protected from the massive majority of “normal” humans, but so strong and powerful that they could achieve that protection by declaring war on the entire world. It’s a comic book re-enactment of the inside of Bill Kristol’s head (with further shades of the GDR’s paranoia that their manifest awesomeness was so obvious that jealous foreigners would bring it down by being a bit mean about it in pamphlets); in which America is so much better than anyone else it must be protected from all slights, however benign, by making new enemies, and preferably bombing them into powder. "We’re so obviously strong that we need to make new enemies, so that we can protect ourselves from things we're too strong to be hurt by, and also to prove to our old enemies we’re not weak, so they won't try and hurt us!!!". [4] Magneto suffers from the same lapse in critical thinking. It’s understandable, because in his head the faceless masses of the mutant population are as helpless as the Jews of Europe, but all his belligerence and search for power ever achieves is to push the arms race a little further along the path. Each new Sentinel or battle-suit or mutant cure leads to another confrontation, another vow to destroy humanity, and the whole cycle starts up again. It is ironic in the extreme that it was Magneto’s X-Men that defeated Apocalypse during the AoA, and that Magneto’s last words to En Sabah Nur before tearing him to pieces is a reminder that “survival of the fittest” always ends in those that have been deemed weak rising up and taking control. It’s a lesson our Magneto would do to remember; uniting mutant-kind is one thing, but uniting humanity against them would be disastrous.

I don't believe Magneto ever really came to understand any of this, in general, but at the very least almost being personally responsible for killing an innocent mutant in the same room (as oppose to killing a human in the same room, or finding out he'd killed a mutant elsewhere, or killing a mutant for some slight against him) leads to him reconsidering his approach. So too does the revelation not long after that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are his children, and that thus he has a human grandchild (Luna, the daughter of Quicksilver and the Inhuman Crystal), tying him to humanity by blood (his phrase, one would assume his parents were human, even if the idea of humanity and mutant-kind having different blood wasn't fairly dumb to begin with).

Again, though, all of this is about him. His failures. His family. It still seems almost impossible for him to show any real emotional connection to anyone not already tied to him one way or another. This is not to say he feels no love, or loyalty (Lee Forrester receives the first for a time, despite being human, and Xavier has been saved by Magneto on more than one occasion), simply that his goal to keep mutants safe, while clearly of overriding importance to him, only occur in the abstract. If ten mutants need to be sacrificed to save eleven, Magneto will make the call instantly; and he will kill ten more mutants if they stand in his way. Somehow, his struggle is both intensely personal and disturbingly clinical.

Having said all that, once he chose to fight on the side of the angels, he gave his all to it. Those years (starting sometime just before UXM #200 and lasting for some four years or so, or I guess eight months or so from the character's perspectives) was the most interesting in his long history. At this point comparisons between Xavier and Magneto become truly meaningful; here we have two people who aim for the same thing, but disagree on how to achieve it, a contrast that became even more immediate when Magneto became headmaster of the New Mutants. Specifically, it demonstrates that it was never their differences in approach that separated them, or at least that those approaches stemmed from far more fundamental differences in temperament. Whilst Charles deals with his failures with stoicism and what Bertrand Russell would call "calm autumnal sadness" (sure, that eventually leads to him becoming Onslaught, but that was partially Magneto's fault in any case), Magneto deals with it with anger and force. Since his sincere desire to follow Xavier's example (at least upto a point) means he can no longer turn that force against humanity, he simply turns it inwards instead, becoming a taciturn, unfeeling drunk, desperate to find a way to protect the New Mutants as once he tried to protect all mutant-kind, and with no more success. Doug Ramsey is murdered, and the other New Mutants drift from his care, sickened by his involvement with the Hellfire Club as the "White King" (an attempt by Magneto to both keep an eye on the organisation and to use their resources against the X-Men's enemies) and his refusal to allow them to try and prevent the X-Men's "death" in Dallas not long before Inferno. Ultimately, the New Mutants demand to leave his charge, and Magneto accepts. Within months, he has returned to his villainous ways, leading to a set of events that incorporate the Magneto Protocols event mentioned earlier, and concludes with him extracting the adamantium from Wolverine's body (another ultimately self-destructive act of revenge) and having his brain shut down by Xavier.

There are many, many more things one can say about Magneto. I've skipped over Genosha almost entirely, to say nothing of the Magneto War, his clone Joseph (who will at least get his own article), his reduction to infancy by the mutant Alpha and Moira MacTaggart's subsequent attempt to rebuild his DNA, but I think we've covered the essentials [5]. Magneto is a man who has seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and he has allowed it to change him into something monstrous. He is a man who can deal with the failures of the past only by making new mistakes in the present. And, above all, he is a man who cannot separate himself from his cause, but separates the cause from its cost all too easily. In all but the first, those things probably makes him more like everybody else than we would like to admit, and certainly more human than he would dare to concede. But then, that's always the problem with dividing people up into us and them; they always turn out to act exactly like us.

Next time round, we consider Psylocke. Will I be annoyed at the implication that a reserved British woman can't last as a super heroine? Or will I mainly concern myself with the fact that she's a brutally hot ninja? Who can tell? WHO!?!

[1] Whilst I continue to maintain that M-Day and the events preceding it represent an opportunity wasted rather than a bad idea altogether, but the fact that Quesada justified it as an attempt to make it harder to create new characters rather makes me wonder whether the man has any idea what the fuck he’s doing, partially because it didn’t (and couldn’t) work, but mainly because all you need is a cool idea and the line “they’re a mutant” and you’re off and running. Why you’d want to intentionally block that is beyond me.

[2] Say what you want about that particular alternate reality, they weren't running out of mutants any time soon.

[3] Particularly after a cursory glance at the respective childhoods of the two men. They were in no way as far removed from each others experiences as Xavier and Magneto, of course, but at the very least you could hypothesise that the two men might have shared or even swapped their political philosophies had they swapped their early experiences. In the Marvel Universe, Charles never needed to fight for his food, and never could fight in order to stop his abusive step-father and bullying step-brother. Magneto, on the other hand, is only alive at all because he chose to kill rather than lay down and die.

[4] The short-hand to all of this is that the only way to not be destroyed is to demonstrate fearlessness, and the only way to demonstrate fearlessness is to deliberately flirt with situations that would lead to your destruction.

[5] He also tried to take the world over using mind-controlling lava, once, but we don't like to talk about that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! That 's impressive, this is what I call an awesome ,deep analysis (I wish I could write as well as you...)
Anyway, MY opinion an the x-men villains in general here:

waiting for your response;cheers !