Sunday, February 08, 2009

X-Men: Magneto - Testament

Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Colourist: Matt Hollingsworth
Editor: Warren Simons

Although the miniseries X-Men: Magneto - Testament claims to be the origin story of Magneto, it isn't really. It's a story about the Holocaust, and a kid called Max who, we're assured, eventually grows up to become Magneto. But really, he could be anyone. Nobody here is especially bothered about exploring the motivation of the X-Men's arch-enemy; they want to tell you about the Holocaust.

There is always a danger that projects like this will slip into extreme bad taste. Sensitive portrayals of genocide are not generally enhanced by the inclusion of vengeful supervillains. Nonetheless, Marvel have generally managed to avoid that trap with Magneto, largely by not dealing too directly with the Holocaust itself for extended periods. This book takes the opposite approach, pushing any remotely fantastic elements to the extreme margins. Max is just a kid; his powers do not emerge; he simply suffers under Nazi oppression for five issues, before escaping with Magda (as established continuity demands) in the final issue.

Even that could have been tackily heroic, but Pak sidesteps that problem by ensuring that Max isn't given any particular credit for getting out. He simply seizes the opportunity during an uprising. The book does offer some suggestion of Magneto's later motives, pointing out that he tried the path of peaceful resistance, and look where it got him. But this is played more as a moment of existential despair: fighting back is futile, but if everyone is going to die horribly anyway, why not?

So, the series has avoided the disasters that could easily have befallen it, and remained on the right side of sensitive. But do you need to read it?

It's clear enough that the main purpose of this series is to tell everyone that the Holocaust was a horrific atrocity. Evidently conscious that this risks being overfamiliar, the series tries to bring the point home with fresh (and, we're assured, historically accurate) detail and by the use of a somewhat familiar character as a focal point. In all this, it largely succeeds. At the end of the day, it's still the standard approach - an older Max shows up in the epilogue to give us the "never again" speech - but then the Holocaust isn't the sort of subject which people should stop discussing for want of a fresh angle.

But I do have slight reservations about this approach to the subject. Let me see if I can explain this. In 1946, you could say "never again" with some conviction. Today, it isn't quite so simple. The catalogue of humanitarian atrocities continues to mount up. To be sure, there has been nothing on the scale of the Holocaust, but that must be little comfort to the 1.7 million Cambodians wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, or the hundreds of thousands who died in Rwanda in 1994, and so forth.

Now that so much time has passed, I wonder whether there is a risk of placing too much emphasis on the unique and exceptional nature of the Holocaust, and not enough on the dismal tradition of which it forms a part. There is something almost reassuring in the thought that the Holocaust was a one-off, which ended sixty-four years ago, and which will fade from living memory in the not-too-distant future.

The message from history, surely, is the horrors of which humanity is capable, and the need to guard against them. And to keep that message alive and relevant, it needs to be seen in a wider context of human nature.

It is interesting, too, that audiences in Holocaust stories are almost always invited to identify with the Jews. But by definition, most of us are not members of an oppressed ethnic minority; the message we should be learning is how a society not dramatically different from our own lost its moral compass so spectacularly. Everyone takes away the message that they could have been a Jew; perhaps not enough take away the message that they would have been a German.

Anyway. None of this is necessarily a criticism of Testament, so much as me wondering aloud whether the wider culture gives this sort of story enough context to remind everyone why it has ongoing significance, and not merely historical interest. On its own terms, Testament manages to pull off an extremely difficult balancing act of building a serious Holocaust piece around Magneto without cheapening it. And that is something of an achievement.

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