Magneto – Testament: today I learned that comics can break your heart

This isn’t going to be a review in my regular format, nicely divided up into impressions/story/art/etc. I just can’t do it for this one. Frankly, I wasn’t planning on writing this review at all. My bedroom where I work is completely torn up, and I had to drag the old desktop out of the garage and hook it up (at one in the morning, no less) because I absolutely have to get this out of my system and order my thoughts, or I won’t be able to sleep.

This book was one of many I picked up from my local library a few days ago (the two branches closest to me, bless them, have a pretty decent comics section, and I needed something to keep me entertained while I have limited access to the ‘net.) I pulled it out with a stack of Spiderman, Batman, X-Men–the usual suspects–because, hey, I frigging love Magneto, I love his character, and I especially love what Ian McKellen did with him in the movies (although in complete fairness and full disclosure, I’m an even bigger fan of Sir Ian than I am of Magneto, and that’s saying something.) I was already aware of Magneto’s background by word of mouth, and of course they had that excellent scene in the movie where Magneto discovers or awakens his magnetic powers. So I picked up this book tonight expecting a good deal of Nazi asswhooping (always a nice thing to go to sleep on, right fellow Wolfenstein fans?)

Holy. Fuck. Was I. Ever. Mistaken. I was expecting an adventure in the traditional (if more depressing than usual, thanks to the setting) comic book sense. Instead, I found that someone had stolen my X-Men comic, and replaced it with Maus.

Now, PLEASE don’t interpret this as a condemnation or criticism of the comic; its not. I just wanted to let you know where I’m coming from on this, and why I’m a bit more shaken up than I expected to be after finishing the book. I mean, its not like anything in here should be NEWS to anyone at this point in history (“holy shit, the Nazis were fucking assholes and killed people? You don’t say!”), but even after all the things I’ve read, seen and studied about it, stories like this still get to me (particularly when I’m not expecting them!) I will say too that some of the images in the book are actually *more* disturbing than real photos taken of the camps. Photos are often quite detached and clinical regardless of their subject; they just ARE. They reflect reality and show us what our eyes would see had we been there. Art like that in this comic, though, has…well color, for one thing which helps, but it also has the power to…exaggerate, for lack of a better word. By that I don’t mean making things out to be something its not, I just mean that the artist has the power to use colors and drawings to make an image look like what a character is FEELING, rather than like what they would actually be SEEING. (The abject and quite horrible expressions of pain and fear on many of the corpses in the camps are a good example of this.) This is a WONDERFUL thing (well, actually it feels more like a kick in the balls in this particualr instance, but its supposed to, and it SHOULD.) It speaks to the great skill of artist Carmine DiGiandomenico and colorer Matt Hollingsworth that the visuals in this book are SO damn effective. And they are.

As tragic as a lot of the book is, let me share with you the part that really kicked my butt the most, and let me know that the creators were going in a wildly different direction than I was anticipating. (Semi-major spoiler ahead I guess, if you’re silly like me and expect this to be a superhero story.) At one point, Max (Magneto’s real name) and his family are lined up in front of a pit to be shot and murdered by a group of Nazis. There’s an amazing series of panels with an image of the Nazis as they open fire, Max’s face, and then a really incredible image of the bullets as they travel towards the family–if the scene were animated, you’d imagine that Max was seeing the bullets approach in slow motion, Matrix-style. Over these panels, Max hears an internal monologue that echos the words his grandfather (who is standing beside him) said earlier: “Sometimes you get a moment when everything lines up…when anything is possible…when you can make things happen.”

Now, I don’t know if it was just the Matrix association in my mind, or if it was a deliberate fake-out on the part of the writer, or what, but my immediate reaction on seeing and reading those panels was, “aha! Max is desperate to save his family! No doubt he’ll use his newly-awakened mutant powers to turn the bullets aside and destroy those Nazi fucks!” (Seriously, that panel of the oncoming bullets made it look like that was exactly what was about to happen!)

…Instead, Max’s grandfather jumps in front of him and takes the bullets, and dies like a dog along with the rest of his family. Max gets thrown into the mass grave with their corpses and plays dead until the Nazis leave. He’s weak, freaked out, and I think he actually did get hit by one of the bullets just not fatally, so he’s lost blood and he’s naturally starving. In this condition he’s easy prey for roaming Nazi patrols, who promptly find him and throw him onto one of the cattle cars headed to Auschwitz.

Well FUCK!

Fuck-shit-godamned-sonofabitch!

I literally stared at those last panels where he gets loaded and shipped in the train car for like five minutes before turning the page, just willing the whole damn thing to be different. (Willing history to be different along with it, too, I suppose…sigh. Fuck the Holocaust, dude. Seriously fuck those guys.) I LIKED MY ENDING TO THE CHAPTER BETTER DAMMIT! I KNOW its not cannon and I KNOW Magneto’s family is supposed to die, but at least then I wouldn’t be so damn sad and depressed!

And I haven’t even touched on the part where Max gets the dubious honor of becoming one of the crematorium workers who collects and burns the bodies of the gas victims.

(Have I mentioned “fuck the Holocaust” yet? I know that probably sounds incredibly trite and almost tongue in cheek, but I mean it with every fiber of my being right now. Its the only way to express what I’m thinking without turning this blog from a nice pop-culture site to a maudlin meditation on man’s cruelty to man, and exactly what I would do if I ever got my hands on a time machine and had five minutes with an SS Officer.)

I’ve already mentioned the artwork is absolutely unbelievable. Maybe I just have low standards, or maybe it was the subject matter, but this just blew me away on a visual level. I honestly think I could have followed the story with no dialogue whatsoever, and NOT just because the story itself does admittedly follow the…usual, I guess we could say, Holocaust story script. That does actually bring up one of the less stellar things about the book–its writing. Its not BAD, you understand; in places its actually quite good. The problem is that it DOES follow a something of a…god, I hate to call it a formula since this is based on real events that happened to real people; its not just some storytelling device or crutch. But the fact remains that if you’ve read any other Holocaust fiction, or even read historic accounts, you know the general outline of this story already. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes and no. No, because it is, after all, a TRUE series of historical events, so they can hardly be changed. You can’t gloss over this stuff, nor can you have a different outcome. Its bad, though, in that it doesn’t give the writer a whole hell of a lot of leeway to do his thing; he really is boxed in to a narrow series of beats that need to be hit to get the story told. (That’s a problem with historical fiction in general though, not just this book.) I will say that under the circumstances Greg Pak does a very admirable job–the bits with Magda (Max’s girlfriend) in the camps, and Max trying to secure her escape, did have some nice twists that surprised me. But overall, none of the WORDS of this book can hold a candle to the images–whether its the slow motion bullets I mentioned before, Max holding Magda, or (and this one was really the #1 panel/splash of the whole book for me) Max stumbling on a room filled floor to ceiling with nothing but eyeglasses taken off the gassing victims. *shudder*

Overall, this book is a kick in the gut, in the best and most necessary way. I’m actually shocked they handled it so completely straight–like I said, I was expecting the scene from the movie where Magneto discovers his powers; instead I got a Holocaust drama. That’s not a bad thing though. It never, ever hurts to take a moment and remember what happened, and also, if you didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Magneto and his views before, you will after this. And not just in the kicked puppy “oh that poor abused kid” kind of way; you can genuinely understand why he hates and takes stands against the things he does. I’ve always felt that Magneto is one of the most sympathetic villains in the comic world, and this book further cemented that in my mind. A fantastic and unexpected read. I can’t call this one a pleasure, I don’t think, but it was certainly a journey and an experience.

As long as we’re discussing comics and the Holocaust, I would be remiss not to recommend a series (I mentioned before) called Maus. Its the story of a young man and his father, a Holocaust survivor. Its about their relationship, his fathers’ experiences, how they affected him…it truly a tour de force. The “hook” of the whole thing and the reason a lot of people pick it up (I think) is that all of the characters are anthropomorphized animals–Jews are represented by mice (hence the title) while the Nazis (and all Germans) are represented by cats. (Makes sense, no?) Americans are dogs, Polish are pigs, and so on. In THIS book, the writing is the star of the show–Art Spiegelman is an incredible writer. The art is good too, and quite effective, but its his words that will move you and stay with you. If you get the chance, that is one comic that EVERYONE, not just comic fans, should make time for. Its one of the most moving and incredible pieces of literature you will ever read.

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