Do culturally sensitive historical events like slavery or The Holocaust have a place in superhero comics? That’s a question I wrestled with while reading Magneto Testament, Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s five-issue Marvel Comics miniseries. The book details the unspeakable horrors suffered by an adolescent Magneto while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The notion of Magneto as a Holocaust survivor isn’t new, but it never fails to court controversy.
The influential X-Men writer, Chris Claremont, first introduced Magneto’s hushed history in a 1978 issue of Uncanny X-Men (#113). But the idea was merely broached in a throw-away dialogue bubble. His harrowing experiences were never chronicled. Director Bryan Singer took the concept one step further in his 2000 big-screen endeavour, opening the film in a Polish death camp at the height of World War II. This brief but riveting scene has informed Magneto’s character over the course of three subsequent films, laying the foundation for his philosophical quarrel with lifelong frenemy, Professor X.
Now, for the first time, Pak’s miniseries shows us, in unflinching detail, what has only previously been hinted at. By all accounts, the book is historically accurate and exhaustively researched. The collected edition contains comprehensive endnotes, and even suggests further readings and classroom exercises for teachers.
But that doesn’t mean the book is child’s play. Far from it. The story doesn’t pull any punches and the artwork is often extremely graphic. Although, readers may feel cheated that Magneto only manifests his patented mutant powers in subtle ways. I was definitely frustrated that he never went full-tilt berserk, unleashing magnetic havoc on his Nazi captors. But that was probably Pak's objective.
Anytime a work of fiction deals with hallowed or contentious subject matter, the potential to anger and offend always exists. But when the intentions are genuine, and the execution is skillful, the results can be stirring. A prime example is Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier, which does a better job relating the decades-long Ugandan struggle than the infamous KONY 2012 campaign ever can. The reason is simple. Stories like Unknown Soldier and Magneto Testament give us narratives we can connect with on an emotional level. They're not primary texts, but they do provide us with certain truths. They are invaluable gateways to social and historical discussion. And they instill our pop-culture icons with relevance and meaning.