X-Men: Magneto Testament by Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico
I’m not sure where I picked up this recommendation—I imagine it comes from the various comics communities I lurk in, as it’s an easy answer to “Where can I start with Magneto?”. My comics allegiance finally swayed towards Marvel over the summer, what with the debacle of the DC Universe reboot and Captain America: The First Avenger and all. X-Men, as a monthly title, can be particularly daunting, because there’s about twenty to thirty X-Men related titles at any given moment, so I think I’ll be exploring them through recommended trade collections, such as this. With Understanding Comics under my belt, it’s time to understand some comics.
X-Men: Magneto Testament consolidates Marvel comics’ various stories of the origin of Magneto, Master of Magnetism, to tell the story of young Max Eisenhardt, a German Jew during the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust itself. Under the rapidly evolving regime, Max struggles to keep his head down, falls in love, survive with his family, and witnesses some of the greatest atrocities of the age.
In comics, time is often a moving target. For instance, Tony Stark’s origin originally involved the Vietnam War, but is usually updated to the most recent American military action overseas. This keeps the characters from being too old to be believable action heroes and allows the writers to place them in the current day. But Magneto is a man shaped by his experiences in the Holocaust, which can make the efforts to keep the character in the present downright desperate (I seem to recall him being aged down to an infant at some point). Quite simply, you can’t have Magneto without his past. X-Men: Magneto Testament isn’t the first comic to deal with Magneto’s status as a Holocaust survivor, but I think it’s the first to place the focus firmly on the Holocaust and away from superheroics.
I was surprised to discover that it was first and foremost a story about the Holocaust. Without the title and the cover, this could easily be a comic about a regular boy—Max doesn’t know he has powers (as he doesn’t discover them until after the war in the comics) and the comic refuses to show them, showing only situations that Max may have unconsciously used his powers for. In the supplemental material, writer Greg Pak talks about his dedication to making the comic historically accurate. There’s notes for each issue explaining certain choices about Max’s historical placement (for instance, the choice to make him German instead of Polish) and even lesson plans for teachers who want to utilize this medium for this subject. I learned things about the Holocaust that I never knew, such as the existence of the Sonderkommando and just how starved the Poles and the Jews were in Nazi-occupied Poland. It’s one thing to know that they starved, it’s quite another to know that the rations for Jews were less than two hundred calories a day. It’s gripping in its frank depiction of the Holocaust.
But then again, this boy could only be Magneto. Towards the end of the comic, when Max decides to make a stand, there’s a brilliant and brutal reference to the “First they came…” statement, as Max mentions situations where he and his family held back for fear of deaths that came anyway. It’s a heartbreaking moment, as you realize how this will shape Max and set him on the path towards becoming Magneto, even though he doesn’t even know that he’s a mutant yet. He just knows, firsthand, how brutally the majority can be treat the minority. It’s a stunning character study, and very affecting.
Carmine Di Giandomenico’s art is clean, organic, and clear. The most notable aspect is the large eyes, which threw me at first, but they’re used to help you sympathize with Max and Magda, the girl he falls in love with. But what I was most struck by was the quiet moments that manage to strike you in the heart, often utilized over single pages or even over a spread. They’re used sparingly and effectively, to give you an idea of the scope—not only of the war, but of the moment and what’s going on in Max’s head. The art and the writing go together in a way that won’t date poorly.
I’d be absolutely remiss if I didn’t mention “The Last Outrage”, a short comic about Holocaust survivor and animator Dina Babbitt, whose art can be found in a Polish museum—a museum that refused to return works to her she was forced to create by Nazis. The piece is collected in the trade. Babbitt passed away in 2009; the paintings remain in that museum. In Stan Lee’s short afterword to the piece, he notes that all comic artists and cartoonists owe their support to Babbitt, who is, after all, one of their own. It’s an interesting piece of history, and I’m glad to see it collected here.
Bottom line: X-Men: Magneto Testament is first and foremost a story about the Holocaust—but then again, this young boy could only grow up to be Magneto in Greg Pak’s deft hands. A thoughtful and respectful piece of work.
I rented this book from the public library.