Friday, October 19, 2007

Magneto


This is a piece of writing of mine from May 2003 and appeared on an earlier incarnation of my blog during my first few months as a blogger. I kind of got a kick out it. You might be able to tell I was still suffering from my grad school hangover at the time.

Magneto is part of the tradition of noble villains that Jack Kirby created during his run at Marvel in the 1960s which reached its most profound expression in the character of Darkseid in the "Fourth World" stories for DC. Earlier examples in the same vein include the first two major foes of the Fantastic Four, the anti-hero Namor (the Sub-Mariner), who wars with the surface world in order to protect the safety and sovereignty of his underwater kingdom, and Doctor Doom, Reed Richards' rival, driven by jealousy and arrogance to prove Richards the lesser man. Namor's love for Sue Storm eventually leads to his redemption. Doctor Doom is never redeemed, but in The Fantastic Four Annual #2, Kirby paints a sympathetic picture of Doom's origins that shows the reasons for his ambitions as well as his hatred for Richards, and, despite the danger Doom represents to the rest of the world (especially to the Fantastic Four's home New York City), we see that he is beloved by the people of the kingdom of Latveria, who have accepted his absolute rule in return for the safety and prosperity he provides.

Kirby's depiction of Magneto expands on this ambiguity. Not only can we understand Magneto's reasons for attacking humankind--as with Namor, they are a threat to his people (and his children)--but his methods of attack are not very different from the ways in which mutants were attacked by humans in the first place. There is an Old Testament justification in Magneto's crusade against humans. This ties the X-Men in with one of the major issues Kirby deals with throughout his work: for civilization's survival, Old Testament morality must be replaced, but, for Kirby, a veteran of WWII, the pacifism suggested by the New Testament was not a suitable alternative in a world that could allow the Second World War (the Galactus Saga in the pages of The Fantastic Four is perhaps Kirby's most visionary treatment of this theme). True peace required warriors whose power in war equaled their mercy--i.e. Professor X's X-Men: a liberally educated paramilitary group, committed not to revolution, but to the protection of the innocent from attack by any group of extremists--innocent humans from Magneto, innocent mutants from government agents.

As I've already written, I think these ideas exist only in an embryonic state in Kirby's X-Men, and it wasn't until his "Fourth World" series that he began to truly expand on them. And, as much as I enjoy Chris Claremont's writing, he was certainly no Kirby (he wasn't even a Stan Lee). However, he did continue to suggest the ambiguity inherent in Magneto's character. Claremont emphasizes that Magneto and Professor X had started with the same goals, but Magneto, like so many of the political leaders of the 20th Century, had been seduced by the expediencies of violence in fomenting political change. In this light, Magneto should not be seen so much as a black-hearted villain, but as a noble visionary, blinded by his ideology, felled by his own arrogance and self-importance.

3 comments:

James said...

Jon, I've got a bunch of those old X-Men's in reprint. It's been at least a decade since I read them, but I never detected any ambiguity in Kirby's Magneto at all. He seemed more or less like a theatrical villain in a terrible costume. Any particular Kirby issue come to mind? Because my recollection--again, it's been a while--is that the whole "partial rehabilitation of Magneto" mostly comes about during the late 70's and 80's.

I can't believe I'm posting this. What's wrong with me?

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

I think it's there (embryonically) in the basic set up. Part of the problem is that, unlike Kirby and Lee's work on The Fantastic Four or his solo work on the Foruth World comics, it isn't fully-realized. It's also a question of looking at Magneto in the context of Lee/Kirby villains - namely Namor and Doctor Doom - as well as in the context of non-Kirby Marvel villains - like the Dick Tracy/Batman-esque rogues' gallery of the Lee/Ditko Spiderman stories. Magneto - like Namor or Dr. Doom - is a villain with an ideology, and even if it mainifests as "I should rule the world" it still puts him on a different plane than super crooks running around Spiderman's NYC (or Batman's Gotham City, etc.).

Cram said...

Is Magneto the guy with the helmet?