Posted on Sunday, July 6, 2014
by Paul in x-axis
Magneto has been an antihero, or at times even an outright hero, for the better part of thirty years now. Which makes it surprising that he’s not had an ongoing series before, particularly given Marvel’s evident keenness to find every exploitable angle on the franchise.
There are two likely major reasons for that. First, bear in mind Magneto’s role in the X-Men. When first introduced in the Silver Age he was just a generic would-be world-conqueror. The early Claremont stories largely stick to that portrayal, though they throw in an element of personal bitterness towards the X-Men. But it’s only later that Claremont really brings his big theme front and centre, and – almost as a consequence of that – has to retool Magneto.
The X-Men were always about peaceful coexistence, but in their Silver Age iteration, the main threat to that peaceful coexistence is the threat from the villainous schemes of “evil mutants”. Under Claremont, the main threat shifts to being humans and their anti-mutant prejudice. That poses problems for Magneto’s role as arch-enemy, since he obviously can’t embody that threat, being a mutant himself. Instead he has to represent an alternative response to the threat.
The point of departure between the X-Men and Magneto, of course, is that the X-Men believe that coexistence is both possible and desirable, while Magneto thinks it’s impossible and responds, depending on what year it is, either with pre-emptive attacks on humanity, or with some form of mutant separatism. The clever bit about Claremont’s approach, and the reason why it’s been so influential for so long, is that while the stories implicitly invite us to accept that the X-Men’s way is right, they make sure that Magneto has plenty of logical support for his position; the humans really are out to get mutants, and if the future timelines shown in the comics are anything to go by, Magneto is just plain right about the way things are going. It would have been easy to show unequivocally that the bad futures are all due to the counterproductive efforts of mutant separatists, but the comics have wisely held back from that. Not only does this give Magneto a credible argument, it also makes sure that the X-Men’s worldview requires a leap of faith.
The point being, this take on Magneto – which has been the dominant one for decades – is interesting in large part because of the contrast with the X-Men themselves. Even Magneto’s recent stint as a member of the X-Men was done principally to make the point that Cyclops’ revised vision for the X-Men steered dangerously close to Magneto’s worldview, and to ask whether, by “uniting” almost all the remaining mutants on Utopia, Cyclops had achieved something wonderful, or merely compromised what the X-Men stood for. So all this leads to the question: is he actually less interesting if you take him away from the X-Men?
Second, until recently Magneto was vastly overpowered for a solo hero. In fact, he always has been – which is fine if you’re the sole arch-enemy for an entire team, but not so good if the audience has to root for you. Obviously, Magneto’s recent depowering as part of Brian Bendis’ Phoenix Five storyline solves this problem nicely.
So how does Cullen Bunn approach the task of a Magneto solo series? For a start, he plays up the depowering heavily, and moves as far away as possible from the traditional depiction of Magneto as an A-list super villain. This is Magneto in reduced circumstances, living in motels and investigating stories of violence against mutants. He does have his costume and does get to do set pieces with his powers, but we’re on the fringes of the Marvel Universe here, away from the big cities, and away from established characters for him to interact with – until issue #6, but by then the tone has been firmly set. Gabriel Hernandez Walta, drawing the first three issues, is a perfect fit for this take, since although we know he can do the grand gestures from his run on Astonishing X-Men, his basic style steers clear of superhero norms and points us to re-align our expectations accordingly. Javier Fernandez, who draws the next three, is a little more conventionally polished, but still fits happily into the tone set to start with.
This Magneto remains obsessed with protecting his people, with whatever limited resources he still has open to him. You can perhaps query why he would choose to go this way rather than staying with Scott, but the series never goes near the question of why he left the X-Men. More fundamentally, given his attitude to the people he’s fighting, even a vastly depowered Magneto is still pretty terrifying. The series wisely limits Magneto to doing things that are properly connected to magnetism, a limit that’s never really been strictly adhered to before – even in his debut, he was somehow able to create force fields. But so what if this Magneto is no longer up to throwing aeroplanes around? You wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with him and a fork.
Still, a Magneto remorselessly hunting down the oppressors of mutants and torturing them in inventive ways is basically the Punisher with added superpowers. The Punisher likewise started life as an alternate model of (anti)heroism to be contrasted with the likes of Spider-Man and Daredevil. Once you put him in his own book, you don’t have a full-blown hero to act as a contrast, and the moral argument becomes far bleaker – about a protagonist who has lost something of his soul, and where the stories can illustrate that there’s something wrong with him, but without there being any real impression that he might learn from it or experience redemption.
This seems to be the model Bunn’s working on in these six issues. The stories keep confronting Magneto with moments that ought to be giving him pause. The Sentinels are being stockpiled for defence by crackpot human separatists who would have been happy just being left alone. Magneto’s interrogation techniques are directly lifted from his childhood experience of the Nazis. The Marauders simply don’t fit into his idea that he’s defending all mutants, which he can only preserve by arbitrarily deeming them not to be proper mutants (even though getting rid of “the wrong sort of mutant” is precisely the crime he loathes them for to start with). But while the moral problems here are obvious to us, they leave Magneto himself utterly unfazed. As with the Punisher, there’s an element of moral horror here that stems simply from the fact of his refusal to respond to plot points that ought to be making him question himself. He’s either oblivious to them or he’s rationalised them away already.
None of this, at this stage, wholly undercuts the idea that we’re supposed to be rooting for Magneto, who is, after all, facing actual anti-mutant bigots and the Marauders. But it feels like it’s setting up some sort of debate about his obsessiveness, to be unpacked further in future issues. There are no recurring characters for Magneto to interact with (until Rachel shows up in issue #5, and even she only recurs in an exposition flashback the next issue); for all that Magneto claims to be defending an entire race, he appears to exist in a world of one. Magneto’s self-image is pretty unambiguous; the book’s attitude to him is a little more so, and it feel like this book will be less about him undergoing any sort of growth, and more about us figuring out how we’re supposed to feel about him. Thus far, it seems like a viable direction.