The story of every mutant, up to a certain point and with some exceptions, is the same. For the first 12 years or so of his life he identifies as a human being. During his pubescence he manifests powers that make him more interesting than his peers. He can turn his body into iron, control weather patterns, walk through walls, read minds, or fly. He’s still technically a member of the human race. He can still mate with humans and reproduce. Yet he is also something apart, a homo superior. Some mutants can hide their identity. Others — those who develop blue skin or amphibious features, phenotypes that sometimes appear at birth — are not able to pass.
Homo sapiens see in the mutant all that they fear in themselves. Some see in the mutant a possible slave or a creature that must be annihilated. The mutant withstands waves of oppression. One year is more brutal than another. Through it all, he learns to hate himself, then to humble himself before others and sometimes to hurt himself. Some mutants find their way to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, located in Westchester County outside New York, where they learn to respect the culture of the human race, even though it seeks to either destroy or control their very being. They master their powers and transform their bodies into novel instruments.
Other mutants find themselves in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants — later simply known as the Brotherhood – where they adhere to an ideology of mutant separatism. Faced with the threat of homo sapiens supremacy and even outright genocide, they become terrorists, though, as the cliché goes, you could just as easily call them freedom fighters.
Every persecuted minority protects itself with the same litany. They hurt us. They hate us. But we have powers — our own music, religion, humor, language — they can’t take away from us. If we honor our beautiful bodies, the names the majority gives us have no power to kill us. On this score, the mutants in the X-Men and the mutants in the Brotherhood agree.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men in 1963, and during their run the X-Men, like the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, were Mad Men-WASPy. In 1975 Len Wein introduced a new roster that would reflect something closer to the mess of human society. The writer Chris Claremont took over the title and continued the trend throughout his very long run. Colossus, née Piotr Rasputin, is Russian. Storm, née Ororo Munroe, is Kenyan. Rogue, née Anna Marie, is from the South. Wolverine is Canadian. More minorities kept showing up in the X-Men through the years and in the early 1990s Northstar of the Canadian team Alpha Flight came out, in an issue written by Scott Lobdell. But they are all mutants first. The ethnic, social, sexual, gender, political, or religious markers are secondary identities the larger society imposed upon them before they established their mutanthood. There are good reasons for these markers. They signal the sources for the comics’ metaphors and draw distinctions between those who humiliate and those who are humiliated.
For a long time the ethnic background of Magneto, the master of magnetism, the head of the Brotherhood and the X-Men’s arch-nemesis, was unknown. Then in 1981 Claremont invented his backstory. Magneto was a Holocaust survivor. At first, the comics hinted he was a Romani. Some years later, after a bit of narrative wavering, it was established that Magneto was a Jew.
The moral universe of the X-Men was always complicated, but Claremont upset the Manichean balance of the superhero world. The rosters of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood have changed and continue to change dramatically. Members of the X-Men have left to join the Brotherhood. Members of the Brotherhood have left to join the X-Men. Some have left to form their own third or fourth groups. Everyone has a different take on what it means to be a mutant in a non-mutant world. Sometimes they work with the U.S. government and sometimes against it. Sometimes they work in groups indifferent to the functioning of homo sapiens politics. And no one is ever entirely a child of either Martin or Malcolm. When I first got into the X-Men in the 1980s, Magneto had taken off his metal helmet and had joined the X-Men. Within a few years, he had returned to his life as a separatist.
The moral balance always tips in favor of the X-Men, but an intelligent reader never really knows which side he wants to join. The members of the X-Men are better-looking. They live in a dream mansion. They are comrades. Yet there are always problems within their ranks, jealousies, difficult romances. In the movies, Patrick Stewart plays Xavier with a Picard-ian paternalism, but in the comics he’s a strange man — Lee and Kirby looked to Yul Brynner for Xavier’s exoticism — constantly living within his own and others’ heads. His students suspect the telepath of controlling their minds. The good professor demands of them a strict adherence to an ideology only he seems to fully understand and, against all their instincts, he asks them to be what liberal humans want them to be, the mutant equivalents of “respectable Negros.” “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent,” Orwell said of Gandhi.
Magneto, blue-eyed and silver-haired, is a more charismatic figure, a man who tells you exactly what you want to believe about yourself. “You’re a god among insects,” Ian Mckellen’s Magneto tells a young protégé in X-Men 2. He meets homo sapien supremacy with mutant supremacy. The X-Men have their freaks, the Beast and Nightcrawler, but the Brotherhood is an uglier group, closer to the way the rest of us actually look. Magneto makes deals with supervilllains and he constantly hatches plots of mass murder, but always with one aim in mind, the survival of mutantkind.
Charles Xavier maintains a steady faith in the world into which he is born. In The Uncanny X-Men #141 (January 1981), Xavier sits in a senate hearing alongside his fellow pro-mutant activist Moira MacTaggert as they listen to Senator Kelly debate the possibility of mutant registration. MacTaggert makes the right call. “Registration of mutants today, gas chambers tomorrow.” Xavier answers, “[Kelly is] scared. We must teach him that his fear is unfounded.” Charles Xavier’s optimism is rooted in his powers. He can read the minds of all humans and can see, somewhere beneath the riot of their synapses, something that bends towards decency. He is a mutant Mencius.
Still, one wonders what Xavier hears when he listens to other people’s thoughts. Does he believe Kelly is incapable of creating camps because he is essentially a good man or because, when he senses the senator’s darker thoughts, he can’t believe them and simply ignores them? Magneto serves as Xavier’s counterbalance. Though the comics cast him as something close to but not entirely a supervillain, he’s not always wrong. He is unable to read the thoughts of human beings, but he knows a Nazi when he sees one.
It wasn’t until 2008, in Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s Magneto: Testament, that Marvel fully described Magneto’s childhood. Magneto, née Max Eisenhardt, grew up in 1930s Germany, the son of a Jewish watchmaker. In an attempt to impress a young Romani girl named Magda he enters and wins a javelin competition using his powers over metal against a group of Aryan youth. Tensions rise and the family escapes to Poland. Eventually Max finds himself in Auschwitz, staring across the fence at Magda, who is interned in the Gypsy section of the camp.
The book answers the most pressing question about Magneto’s life: How could a young man with god-like powers over metal not kill every single Nazi in Auschwitz and liberate his fellow inmates? To answer the question, Pak’s story pointed to the machinery of the camp, the divide-and-conquer strategy that the Nazis employed against their inmates. He also points to the fear that any uprising would have led to the deaths of more Jews. Throughout the book, his fellow inmates warn Max that for every Nazi he kills thousands of Jews and Romanis would die in retaliation. The Max Eisenhardt in Pak and Di Giandomenico’s book is a sweet, loving boy, a young romantic. And he maintains a gentility all the way to the end of his tenure as a sonderkommando who shoves old men and young boys together in ovens because they burn more quickly.
That sweet boy dies within a few years after the book’s conclusion and is replaced by a cynical man bent on survival by any means necessary. His attempts at revenge change from one crisis to the next, but they always lean towards some form of violence. Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies depict the extent he’s willing to go to protect his own kind.
At the end of X-Men, Xavier’s team foils Magneto’s plot to transform all the world’s humans into mutants. Magneto’s process is deadly, an unfortunate fact the X-Men know and he doesn’t. If he had succeeded he would have committed, albeit inadvertently, mass murder one thousand times greater than Hitler’s.
At the end of X-Men 2, the X-Men and Magneto foil a plot by a rogue fanatic who attempts to use Cerebro, a machine Xavier and Magneto co-invented, to kill every mutant on earth. Magneto then attempts to use Cerebro to murder, this time with clear intention, every human on the planet. He does not succeed.
The Holocaust victim, in our popular imagination, is a man of goodwill. He is the figure who tells you never to accept bigotry, that life is worth living, that violence is evil and that survival is a blessing. He is Elie Wiesel standing up for the victims of Darfur and the Khmer Rouge and teaching the lessons of his life story to Oprah Winfrey’s audience. He is a Jew laying a stone on Oskar Schindler’s grave in living color. He is Roberto Benigni clown-marching to the gas chambers, comforting his son. She is Anne Frank believing in the essential goodness of humankind even when faced with all evidence to the contrary.
These stories all carry the sheen of political correctness and they all ignore the mess of post-1945 politics. Wiesel may have called for Israel to take in refugees from Darfur, but he’s also one of the more prominent apologists for the Israeli right wing. It’s amazing how many monuments quote Frank without acknowledging her famous line’s horrible irony. The stone-laying scene at the end of Schindler’s List is a happy summation to the world’s greatest tragedy, but on some level — the level at which we are watching actual survivors honor the man responsible for their survival — we can accept it. Benigni’s march, however, is a lie. There were stories of teachers and grandmothers who comforted children marked for death, but Benigni’s martyred clown is incapable of tears. He’s an insult to the many millions who went to the chambers without idiot smiles on their faces.
These myths ignore the suicides among survivors, the depressive rage among children of survivors. Far more people read these myths than open The Immortal Bartfuss or Kaddish for a Child Not Born. Our attachment to these myths form the basis of an indictment. No one believes in Auschwitz because no one wants to believe in Auschwitz.
The many storytellers who have handled Magneto have then, in their own way, and through accident and emendation, achieved something remarkable. They have given mainstream popular culture a Holocaust survivor who understands exactly what was murdered in Auschwitz and who refuses to accept any sentimental definitions of survival.
By turning a Jewish Holocaust survivor into a mass murderer, these writers and artists ignore some terrible implications. The myths in Marvel Comics, half-formed and always more outlined than fully examined, lend themselves to an open reading on the part of fans. How do you read Magneto in a world in which the Holocaust is cited by cheap commentators in every human conflict?
You can read Magneto as the fantasy of every post-1945 anti-Semite. He is the Jew who will exert his powers to the absolute degree necessary and then even further, in order to gain his rightful pound of flesh. He is the Jew who screams “Auschwitz” whenever you question the bombings in Lebanon or Gaza, the Jew who will murder and burn his way to safety, ignoring all the children he may incinerate on the way.
You can read Magneto as the nightmare of every post-1945 Jewish humanist. He is the Jew who lost the soulful liberalism of the Yiddishkeit, and who has allowed the Holocaust to turn him into everything he despises. He is the Jew who will bomb Gaza and say, with some credibility, that it is for defense while privately acknowledging a pleasure in revenge. He is the Jew who has allowed the Holocaust to instill in him a debilitating paranoia, an inability to love or trust anyone who is not a Jew, as well as an inability to love or trust most of his fellow Jews.
The two caricatures have a lot in common.
There are other readings as well. Magneto is a wailing child demanding a return of his family and his culture, who now dresses up in metal armor to protect him from the anger of the world as well as his own. He’s a boy who saw God gassed alive and sees no difference anymore between writing “God” and writing “G-d”. He’s also something that none of the writers or artists who have handled him and none of the X-Men readers can know, something only the devil can name.
I’m a fan of the X-Men, but I also believe that superhero comics and superhero movies have no business standing anywhere near the gates of Auschwitz, and the X-Men movies and comics have done nothing to correct this claim. Chris Claremont was and is a miserable writer. His monotonous, somber narration can’t differentiate between Magneto’s experiences during World War II and a fight scrimmage at Xavier’s school. Di Giandomenico’s painterly strokes make his Auschwitz Jews a little too beautiful and his book too easy to look at. Bryan Singer’s depiction of the gates of Auschwitz at the beginning of X-Men is no more menacing than the criminal lairs in The Usual Suspects, a movie he made five years prior. A superhero movie, which treats the threat of apocalypse as an opportunity for adventure, has an unsolvable problem when faced with an actual historical case of mass death. It should avoid this problem.
Still the X-Men movies and comics do something that the more respectable Holocaust movies of mass culture don’t do. At the end of Schindler’s List, the black-and-white of the distant Holocaust past turns to color as the elderly Schindler Jews emerge to plant stones on their savior’s grave. The scene provides closure and catharsis. Spielberg concentrates his camera only on the Jews who live happily forward all the way to the end of the 20th century and buries the Holocaust safely in the past where it can’t hurt anyone after 1945.
Magneto stands as a rebuke to that burial and as a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening. They tell you these things even if their action narratives, their melodrama, their wit, and their fascination with lithe bodies don’t allow you to feel them. The writers and artists behind the X-Men don’t believe in Auschwitz, not only because they don’t wish to believe in Auschwitz, but also because they can’t believe the very things they are telling themselves.