Saturday, November 5, 2011

Magneto, and How He Works.

So we talked about Professor X. I outlined the various reasons I, and others, find the comparisons between  Professor Xavier and Magneto, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X problematic. This isn't to say that it is entirely a mistake to evoke historical figures in the construction of the two characters. I linked Professor X to the likes St. Francis Xavier, and people like Carl Sagen who preached a "gospel" of secular humanism and scientific progress. Likewise, I do think there are a number of  historical figures that can be drawn upon to inform Magneto's character.


That guy for example. For those of you familiar with Magneto's back-story, it may seem like a stretch, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch. They both ran cults in the 1960's after all, the Brotherhood and the Family. They bear a certain resemblance name-wise. Both worked on their plots in obscure locations, Magneto on Asteroid M, Manson at Myers Ranch near Death's Valley. They also share similar goals, i.e. starting a 'race war' with the goal of coming out of said war as the dominate political force on Earth. Which is to say that both Manson and Magneto believe that they should eventually come to dominate a lesser race. In Magneto's case it's humans, in Manson's it's black people.

If historical figures don't grab you, how about mythical figures?

As mythical comparison's go, we could do far worse than compare Magneto to a Miltonian Satan. Both are villains who tend to get a loyal fanbase by portraying themselves as underdogs and the more earthy and sensible when compared with their counterparts. Actually, this is a bit of a tangent, I've noticed that Marvel villains in general, more so than DC villains, tend to have an air of the demonic about them.

Only two (or three depending on how you feel about Galactus) of the people in that picture are actual demons, yet we've got horns and capes and pointed ears all over the place. Magneto's demonic air is only heightened by his visual presentation in the comics.

 Maybe not the devil himself, but just as Professor X can be seen as the leading priest for one version of the gospel of tomorrow, Magneto can be seen as a counterpart. A satanic priest who preaches enlightenment via domination over the material world. It shouldn't be surprising that having survived hell, some of it would stuck to the guy, magnetic and all, you know.

Which brings us to the "H" word. I know it's played a pivotal role in deepening the character over the decades, but I think that linking Magneto's origin to the holocaust is a mistake. For one thing, it places Magneto's origin in an event that within this or the next decade will be completely removed from living memory. For another it means that whatever awful thing he does, it's kind of hard for a rational western audience not to feel sympathy for him. In this case, I think the 90's animated series was on the right track. They linked Magneto's origin to unspecified Eastern European ethnic cleansing. It makes that 'something' like that happened in Magneto's past, but again, making the tragedy of Magneto's back story the Holocaust gives it too much historical weight. Especially compared to Professor X who, bullying stepbrother and being orphaned aside, had a pretty cushy upbringing in comparison. That fixed point of the Holocaust in Magneto's origin effects Professor X's relationship to him in other ways. Usually they are depicted as meeting as peers, but as the Holocaust falls further and further behind us and Professor X, I assume, continues to not age, it becomes harder to see the two men meeting and each seeing his equal in the other.

A lot of folks don't like the more monstrous portrayals of Magneto. Maybe they're Claremont purists or were charmed by Ian McKellen's Magneto (I liked him better in Gods and Monsters personally.). Many have complained about Magneto's treatment during the penultimate storyline of Grant Morrison's New X-Men, Planet X. To me, the idea that because Magneto suffered at the hands of the Third Reich, that he would never act as they had, is baloney. If anything the fact that he unconsciously imitates their tactics and aesthetic underlines how much of a threat Magneto really is. (Seriously the guy looks like a living authoritarian propaganda poster.)

I detect some family resemblance. Magneto chose the costume, Magneto chose the helmet, more about which in a moment. Red for strength, an advertisement of his power. Purple the classic color of kings. Everything about the suit screams authority, and Magneto's the fellow who designed it. The fact that he is so weighted down by the past, Holocaust or otherwise, makes him the natural foil of the X-Men when viewed in terms of a battle for  the shape of the future. Despite "good" intentions how can Magneto bring his people forward when he's so mired in reaction to and imitation of his past. Magneto's past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Additionally, for all his talk of "Brotherhood" and saving the mutant race from the human's fear and haatred, the actual means he uses tend to place him in a position of domination over his supposed brethren.

And then there's what he did to Wolverine.

While asking my friends about what aspects of Magneto's character they'd like to see explored, one person asked whether Magneto was a top or a bottom. I think it's pretty clear that Magneto's a top.

Then there's the most Iconic element of Magneto's character design.

In a way the helmet tells you all you need to know about Magneto's mindset.Professor X has a helmet too.

However, Professor X's helmet is an extension of his Cerebra computer which allows him to detect and contact mutants all over the globe. It's a helmet designed to open Xavier's mind to the world around him. Magneto's helmet has a function too. It's designed to block out telepathic communication or attack. It's designed to keep the thoughts of anyone who's not Magneto from getting inside Magneto's head. An echo chamber repeating the same coercive, brutal ideas every time. It's fair to say that almost any time we see Magneto acting like a reasonable person, he's not wearing the helmet. It emphasizes Magneto's, subconscious or otherwise, complete refusal to advance beyond the cycle of violence he engages in. The helmet is so iconic, and says so much about who Magneto is without words, that I feel it undercuts almost any attempt to make Magneto a more morally grey or more sympathetic character. I mean, look at it again.

Whatever is human and relatable in Magneto's character, it's completely swallowed by that horned red wang helmet. The helmet is Magneto. It reminds me of something of something Lenin said that Gorky quoted:
"But I can't listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-what a hellishly difficult job!"
 Magneto with the helmet on is Lenin with the music off.

Finally we come to Magneto in relation to his adversary, Charles Xavier. In the essay I linked to concerning the writer's disapproval of Morrison's Magneto, he claims that unlike, say, Reed Richards and Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor and Superman, Professor X and Magneto are oddly asymmetrical arch enemies. I'm not sure that's justified. In my view they are quite symmetrical when one looks at their powers. Professor X's powers effect internal worlds, his own and pretty much anybody else's. They are entirely internal powers. Magneto's powers seem able to effect almost any matter around him, but they never really succeed in changing other people's minds. Not for long, anyway.

With his links to the earth through his powers, and the chains binding him to his tragic past, Magneto actually reminds me of a devil besides Milton's.

A being in bondage to the material who in turn finds ways to place others in bondage to itself. Xavier creates a school to prepare the world for the future. Magneto creates brotherhoods so he has someone to look down upon. Some have argued that making Magneto such a sort of impotent character lacking in self knowledge makes the character weaker, however I feel it makes perfect sense, and makes the character scarier, as an arch villain should be, and more human for his human frailties. When the X-Men banish this Magneto they are banishing the bonds that would drag them into a world where one man's trauma is reciprocated to an entire species. They are banishing the hypocrite who promises radical change, and spends his potency murdering pregnant movie stars. They are banishing the land where some mutants are more brotherly than others.

There is one positive thing to say about Magneto, he does not tolerate drama.

Claremont and McKellen's Magnetos may have been a comforting moral shade of grey, but they lack the crazy eyes that defined Silver Age Mags.

Next: Something, probably a Bat-something.  (Eventually a Cyclops/Wolverine double profile.)

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