Tuesday, September 16, 2008

X-Men: Magneto - Testament #1

"Testament", part 1 of 5
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Letterer: Natalie Lanphear
Editor: Warren Simons

I approach a new Greg Pak story with some trepidation. On the one hand, he's a very talented writer. He's often delievered unexpectedly good stories based on seemingly unpromising material. But his CV suggests an unfortunate willingness to take hopeless causes under his wing. So for every good series he's done, there's an X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong staining his bibliography. Yes, Incredible Hercules is very good; but Pak is also the man who brought you Marvel Nemesis: The Imperfects.
Testament is the origin of Magneto, and thankfully, it shows every sign of being one of Pak's more personal projects. It's a Marvel Knights book, but one that's apparently intended to be firmly in continuity - a closing editorial insists that any inconsistencies with earlier stories are purely the result of Pak having to choose between clashing flashbacks. And since it's the origin of Magneto, that means we're in late 1930s Germany, heading for the Holocaust.
Now, the Holocaust is a delicate subject for superhero comics. Obviously, its insertion into Magneto's back story was a masterstroke; it fits perfectly with the X-Men's themes. But for the most part, it's merely been a sombre background note. The more directly you approach the subject, the more awkward the juxtaposition of superheroes and genocide becomes. Such stories are unlikely to cause any offence - they're unfailingly reverential - but they do risk inadvertant dark absurdity.
Pak's approach is to de-emphasise any fantastic elements, and focus on bleak realism. We get Magneto as a teenager, living with his family, and being bullied at school. Not just by the pupils, mind you - by the school. And in keeping with this approach, the traditional "Magnus" name is discarded. Magneto's real name, apparently, is Max Eisenhardt. I'll be interested to see if that one sticks. It took long enough to stop writers calling him "Erik."
The other difficulty with writing about the Holocaust is... well, we all know where it's heading. A happy ending is cheating, but the obvious alternative is a one-way descent into horror. In Magneto's case, however, he's got to escape; presumably this is another reason why he's being outfitted with a full-scale family supporting cast, to get killed in his place. Even then, you can hardly do a final issue where Magneto thwarts the Nazis with his superpowers.
The normal rules of light and shade don't work with this subject. Pak neatly touches on that, by giving Magneto's grandfather a speech about standing up to tyranny and not hiding away. In most stories, this would be the inspirational moment. Here, it's hollow, and deliberately so, because we all know that getting the hell out of the way is the only thing to do. (Pak might even be trying to set this up as a further explanation for Magneto's disdain for heroics - he's seen where it got people.)
Artist Carmine Di Giandomenico is taking the "banality of evil" route, with understated, downtrodden characters. And it works, with Max as a child helpless in the face of history. He's allowed enough moments of hope and triumph to stop the story becoming unreadably depressing, and Di Giandomenico sells them beautifully. And, of course, at the same time, we all know none of these moments can really come to anything.
My one reservation about this series is that I can't quite figure out how you bring it to a satisfying conclusion without either departing from established history (which the creators insist they won't do), or veering into uncomfortable triteness. Of course, just because I can't figure it out, doesn't mean that Pak can't - and this first issue is excellent.

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