A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 7: Magneto vs. Erik Lensherr

As I discussed last issue, Silver Age Magneto was a very different kind of antagonist than the ones that fans of the X-Men are familiar with today, due to changes put in place by Chris Claremont. It’s surprisingly how quickly this happened; only eleven issues into his run, Claremont had begun a conscious and sustained effort to transform the character. (Then again, that was very much his style, with Jean Grey dying and coming back as Phoenix all happened within the first eight issues of his run.)

So how did Claremont turn Magneto from a Silver Age Snidely Whiplash into this?

magneto 1Magneto as Milton’s Satan

First and foremost, Claremont invested Magneto with a sense of personal presence and dignity that made him a villain to be respected rather than despised. Rather than a cringing coward who ran at the first sign of danger and who primarily relied on his bullied subordinates to fight the X-Men, Magneto was re-imagined as a fearless antagonist who would fight the whole team by himself:

magneto 2Both writers and artists were key to this change – in X-Men #111, Claremont has Magneto politely wait for the X-Men to free themselves from the thrall of Mesmero (indeed, he casually defeats Mesmero off-panel just to get him out of the way) before challenging them himself. At the same time, John Byrne depicts Magneto as a powerfully muscular figure who looks like he could put up a challenge to an entire team of superheroes. Indeed two issues later, Magneto will actually trade punches with Colossus himself and hold his own.

In addition to his physical improvement, the un-de-aging of Magneto (one of the stranger but ultimately highly productive ret-cons in X-Men history) enhanced his mutant powers to the point where, rather than being repeatedly foiled as he was in the Silver Age, he defeated the entire team on his own, making him an adversary to be feared:

magneto 3Power level is enough to make a villain a genuine threat, but it’s not enough to make a villain memorable – Doomsday is a powerful villain, but he’s not exactly a villain that anyone really cares about. Equally important, therefore, is creating a personality that makes the villain a memorable character. And Claremont went out of his way to make Magneto not only compelling but almost admirable. Firstly, he removed Silver Age Magneto’s sadism (a trait that works for a lot of villains, but isn’t suited to a villain who’s supposed to be Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite number) and emphasized Magneto’s idealism:

magneto 4Secondly, he emphasized Magneto’s willpower as a core part of his personality. Whereas previously Magneto’s ability to fight off Xavier’s telepathy was explained by Stan Lee’s lack of understanding of magnetism, now Magneto was simply so strong-willed that he could go up against the strongest telepath on Earth and hold his own:

magneto 5Willpower is a great attribute of classic arch-enemies. While you can have good weak-willed enemies (think Bizarro or Juggernaut), their more straightforward natures limit the kind of stories you can tell about them, which makes them better secondary threats. But to give your heroes (and your readers) an arch-enemy they can really sink their teeth into, you need someone with iron resolve who will keep on fighting to the bitter end. It’s probably the main reason why Doctor Doom is one of the best villain characters ever created, because no matter how despicable he may be, there’s still something admirable about him. (Incidentally, one of the best Doctor Doom moments ever was that he defeated the Purple Man through sheer willpower, because Doom kneels to no one!)

Thirdly, and this turned out to be the most fruitful change, is to give Magneto emotional depth. Whereas Silver Age Magneto wanted only to be feared rather than loved, Claremont’s Magneto had a tragic backstory (at this point, confined to a lost love) that showed he had a softer, one might even say, human, side:

magneto 6What all of these categories have in common is that they’re ideal for a Villain Protagonist, a character who could share a stage with Professor Xavier in political debates, who could challenge the X-Men not only in combat but also to reconsider their previously held notions, and who could change in interesting ways throughout the course of Claremont’s run.

magneto 7The difference between the two versions of Magneto is akin to the difference in the portraits of Satan in Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. While both epic poems depict Lucifer as a powerful figure, the former is far more limited than the latter, not only because Dante’s Satan is literally stuck in the lowest ring of hell, but also because there’s a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell about Satan as a giant red monster with giant wings and three faces. By contrast, Milton’s Satan is imbued with a strong sense of individualism and drive that he can function as the protagonist of Paradise Lost, and such a rich and complex personality that William Blake argued “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Magneto as Holocaust Survivor

In addition to these changes, most famously, Magneto’s backstory was given a central focus that has defined his character to the present day. While earlier generation of Marvel creators like Jack Kirby had been passionately anti-Nazi in the 1940s, Chris Claremont was part of a younger generation of New York Jews (Kirby grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, whereas Claremont grew up on Long Island in the 1950s) who were more comfortable with describing characters as Jewish or discussing the Holocaust. And so, starting in Issue #150, Magneto was revealed to have been a Holocaust survivor – and this wasn’t an incidental reveal but something that would be developed substantially over time:

magneto 8Rather than a coded or vague allusion, Magneto’s identity was made clear in both visuals and text – not only did he bear the tattoo of a concentration camp inmate, but he named the most famous death camp of them all, Auschwitz, as the place where he “grew up” and where his family died.[1] And while there’s always been a degree of ambiguity to his coding as Jewish, the fact that this detail is revealed when Magneto meets Xavier in Israel as an immigrant volunteering in a psychiatric hospital for survivors made it fairly clear at the time.

magneto 9To me, this is an example of why retcons can be a positive force in comics writing. By placing Magneto in a historically-specific environment, not only does it has significant implications for his political ideology (more on this in the next section), but it also provides a much deeper connection with Professor Xavier. The man whose political opposite he now embodies was once a friend and colleague in a common project aimed at healing the wounds of the most profound act of violence directed at a genetic minority in modern history. And to me, this is how the “mutant metaphor” works best – not with mutancy acting as a stand-in for real-world hatred, but rather historical examples of oppression (for both us and characters in the X-Men universe) providing context for mutants dealing with anti-mutant prejudice (as I’ll discuss in the next section).

For Magneto, this element of his backstory ties together all the other elements of his new personality. He is fearless because he’s already experienced the worst fear imaginable and survived it; he’s powerful because he’s profoundly driven to never be powerless again; he is strong-willed because if he wasn’t, he would be dead. And finally, his experiences add to his emotional depth by making a personal loss something more universal – in contrast to the “inciting incident” for most comic-book villains.

And for Chris Claremont, who wanted organic character development – where, rather than being trapped in status-quo stasis, characters would mature and change even to the extent of leaving the X-Men – Magneto’s new past was something that could motivate him to change:

magneto 10In X-Men #150, when Magneto constructs a volcano-machine on his island fortress (which I’ll discuss more later), Kitty Pryde disrupts the machine with her phasing power and “Magneto ruthlessly responds, ending a lethal charge of electricity through her.” Magneto immediately recoils, realizing that realizes he has become what he has hated and feared, having (seemingly, because this is still Comics Code era Marvel) killed a mutant child. And it’s not an accident that the target of his wroth and the reason for his change of heart is Kitty Pryde, who isn’t just a mutant but is also openly Jewish. It’s not a particularly subtle scenario, but it lends the scene a certain energy and power.

It’s also a scene that the Silver Age Magneto simply wasn’t capable of acting in. However, the question remains, what is the reason for this change?

The Ideology of a Mutant Revolutionary

The purpose of all of these changes wasn’t to make Magneto so sympathetic that the reader would view him to be the hero (although as we’ll see in the future, it did put him in a place where he could become the headmaster of the Xavier School), but rather to make him a villain of prominence who could function as Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite. When Claremont had Magneto move from confronting the X-Men to once again engaging in super-villainy, he presented him as a revolutionary extremist:

magneto 11The costume – red jumpsuit, purple gloves, cloak, and briefs, stylish helmet – is the same, and the demand for world conquest and threatening global destruction is the same as Silver Age Magneto, arguably a direct homage to his public addresses in X-Men #1. What makes the difference is that Silver Age Magneto was a plain and simple tyrant whose thinking went no further than crude Social Darwinism, whereas Claremont’s Magneto has a larger political agenda driving his demands:

magneto 12There is a lot to talk about with this page, which is rather unusual for Marvel Comics (and not just because it does really weird things with the 180 degree rule). To begin with, it depicts actual politicians – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Breshnev, and Zhou Enlai (although it should be Ye Jianying and Zhao Ziyang) are all recognizable (although the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kenya seem more generic) – positing that Magneto is an actor in real-world global politics. Moreover, the layout of his speech posits that different nations are being singled out for Magneto’s particular political issues – Magneto points the finger of blame for anti-mutant prejudice at the United States and Great Britain (possibly a reference to Reagan and Thatcher’s less than friendly policies to racial and sexual minorities), of nuclear war at the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and lists his demands for disarmament with leaders of the third world.

The content of his speech is also worthy of discussion. First, Magneto presents himself as a mutant nationalist, who believes that his powers “set me apart, and above, humanity” and who will act to safeguard his people from the threats (both intentional and inadvertent) that human beings pose. To this end, Magneto also presents himself as a non-aligned political actor, taking on both the Western world, the Soviet bloc, and the developing world, at a time when the Cold War was in one of its most tense periods.[2] Second, Magneto takes a strong anti-nuclear stance at a time when the nuclear freeze movement was at its height in the U.S and Europe, but again from a perspective of mutant nationalism as his primary concern is that “in the process, you might destroy my people as well.” Magneto’s aims go even further than nuclear disarmament, however, demanding total disarmament of conventional military weaponry as well as the threat of obliteration by volcano.

Moreover, as we learn from Magneto’s conversation with Scott Summers and Lee Forrester in the same issue, Magneto’s agenda goes further than just being a really militant anti-nuclear activist. His demands for total political control of the earth are not merely a reverse Cincinnatus drive to eliminate war and then resign:

magneto 13 magneto 14Rather, Magneto sees himself as an enlightened tyrant, uniquely capable (due to his mutant powers) of bringing about a global golden age by redistributing the peace dividend to end “hunger, disease, poverty.” At the same time, so convinced is he of his own righteousness and capability that Magneto sees no need for compromise, dissent, or even the formalities of democracy. Again, we see the strains of extreme individualism and pride of Milton’s Satan at work, shaping his vision of utopia. The purpose of all of this is to create a villain whose goals are so admirable that we can’t help but feel that he has a point, but whose methods are so extreme and flawed that the X-Men can not only fight Magneto, but also offer a philosophic critique:

magneto 15Thus, not only do the X-Men swing into the fray to face down Magneto and destroy his volcano-machine on Octopusheim, but Magneto has his “what have I done?” moment that makes him question his actions, because the best X-Men stories are about more than punching people.

At the same time, in order to make Magneto’s newly-developed ideology seem authentic, Claremont also tied in his backstory as a survivor to explain why he “believes that homo sapiens and homo superior can never live together in peace:”

magneto 16As Claremont’s narration makes explicitly clear, Magneto’s political beliefs are founded in his experience in Auschwitz – he’s seen human beings hate and fear a racial minority to the point of genocide, so it seems perfectly reasonable that the same could happen with mutants, a racial minority with actual super-powers. As I said above, I think this is a case of how the mutant metepahor functions best with using the real world to provide context for mutancy; in Lee and Kirby’s run, anti-mutant prejudice was an infrequent and poorly-explained element of the X-Men’s story, especially in a world when superpowered beings like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were enthusiastically embraced by mainstream culture. But anti-semitism is a real social and cultural phenomenon that has shaped world history both in our universe and in the Marvel Universe, so it gives weight to Magneto’s beliefs.

This is especially the case when you consider that in the Marvel Universe, Nazism is a far more persistent threat than it was in our history. In the same issue in which Magneto and Xavier meet in Israel and set out their ideological disagreements, Baron Strucker of HYDRA attacks the mental hospital in which they work, in order to abduct Gaby, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who is also a mutant whose power is to turn things into gold, in order to use her powers to finance the Fourth Reich in a plotline that has strong allusions to gold stolen by Nazis and hidden in Swiss bank accounts or abandoned in train cars in Poland. Xavier and Magneto thwart Baron Strucker and HYDRA, Xavier because that’s what heroes do and Magneto because no matter how much of a villain he might be in the moment he’s anti-Nazi first, but in a way that eludicates a lot about Magneto’s worldview and the roots of his ideology:

magneto 17 magneto 18To begin with, we can see that Magneto holds a profoundly cynical view of “the essential goodness of man” rooted in his experiences that “hate is more popular than love, fear more prevalent than trust.” The extent to which this attitude and the attendant belief of the inevitability of genocidal conflict between humans and mutants are rooted in his experience of the Holocaust is made explicit by his parting words to Xavier that “mutants will not go meekly to the gas chambers – we will fight and we will win.”[3] Magneto’s vision of the future, therefore, is essentially his past rewritten, with humans taking the position of the Nazis and mutants of the Jews. (And as we’ll discuss in future issues, given the dystopian futures of a Sentinel-driven mutant Holocaust predicted in Days of Future Past and future comics, he’s not far wrong.)

One of the themes that will be explored periodically in X-Men comics, therefore, is the fact that Magneto seems to have internalized much of the worldview thrust upon him in the camps – the major difference between Magneto’s and Strucker’s view of racial conflict is that Magneto takes the side of the mutant and will work to see their victory. To that end, he’s willing to use any means necessary – including here stealing Nazi gold to finance his revolution. At the same time, there seems to be an unexplored contradiction in Magneto’s thinking – for all that he claims to “care nothing for…homo sapiens,” Magneto clearly had enough of an attachment to his Jewish identity to move to Israel in the 1950s, and in X-Men #199 we find that he participates in annual gatherings of Holocaust survivors. Does he view those survivors as homo sapiens who he must destroy lest they destroy him?

In spite of what some people have argued (and smarter people have corrected), very little of this resembles the ideology of Malcolm X, outside of the fact that both are drawing from nationalist thought traditions. If anything, Magneto’s ideology is much closer to some of the more militantly right-wing tendencies of Revisionist Zionism that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s – the belief in an inevitable racial conflict for control of territory, the disdain for democratic systems, and especially the rhetoric of the gas chamber and other symbols of the Holocaust used to justify violent action.

But to see how someone with those views could later become Headmaster of the Xavier School, you’ll have to wait until A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers…the Trial of Magneto!


[1] Which makes it interesting that most of Magneto’s aggressive actions in the Claremont run are directed against the Soviet Union, which liberated Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945. Something that might be interesting for writers to explore.

[2] Incidentally, one of the things that I’d love to see developed more in comic books is the exploration of how world politics is different in the Marvel Universe, given the presence of powerful non-aligned nation-states like Namor’s Atlantis, the Black Panther’s Wakanda, Doctor Doom’s Latveria, and the Inhumans’ Atillan.

[3] One could also argue that Magneto’s experiences also lead him to believe in the inevitability of all forms of conflict – hence his identifying nuclear war as a present danger to mutants. Indeed, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse is a running theme in the X-Men, a subject I’ll be addressing in a future issue.

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3 comments

  • The effectiveness of anti-mutant prejudice as a mirror of real world anti-semitism (and other targeted minorities) reminds me of something I read in Elia Kazan’s autobiography. In one passage, Kazan recalls that when Arthur Miller’s The Crucible came out, Molly Day Thatcher, a theatre critic (and Kazan’s wife) argued with Miller about the effectiveness of Salem Witch Trials as a metaphor for the Red Scare. Thatcher was a liberal anti-communist (and eventually converted Kazan to her cause) and Miller was leftist popular front, so politically I don’t agree with her…but her criticism is pointed. She said that in the case of Salem Witch Trials, witches don’t exist but in the case of the Red Scare, communists undoubtedly do exist, meaning there are actual questions whether communists are loyal to the party and global revolution (aka Moscow) or if they are people working for an actual political party that behaves democratically.

    In the real-world Jews, homosexuals, African-American and other targeted groups were powerless yet imagined and imputed into having special demonic powers in crazy conspiracies. In the X-Men Marvel world, Mutants actually do have those special demonic powers and participate in crazy conspiracies all the time. The Mutants are supremely powerful, certainly Magneto and Professor X are. The truly powerless people in this case would be humans, and not mutants. Now of course, I am being a killjoy and not suspending my disbelief and seeing this metaphorically, that mutants are special and powerful is symbolic of the multiculturalist ethos but if we are to discus these things politically, to me that’s the basic problem.

    To me the Mutants are the Salem Witches of THE CRUCIBLE. Witches don’t exist, but communists do, minorities have no special powers and pose no threat to society, but mutants have special powers and do actually pose a legitimate threat. So to me there is a problem in X-Men about openly and easily identifying with the mutant perspective in terms of prejudice and it’s a problem that writers never acknowledge or skirt past.

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  • One tiny factual error: Gabrielle Haller isn’t a mutant and has no superpowers; the reason Hydra needed her was because she knew where the gold had been stored. Otherwise, an excellent article.

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    • Memory fritzed there. Will fix.

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