Thursday, April 2, 2015

Magneto Testament by Greg Pak

"My name is Max Eisenhardt. To whoever finds this, I'm sorry because I'm dead and it's now up to you. Tell everyone who will listen. Tell everyone who won't. Please don't let this happen ever again."
This was a letter written by a Jewish teenage boy inside the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz, Germany where he was one of the designated Sonderkommando who were laborers in the crematoria which is possibly the most degrading and sickening occupation ever created during the second World War. They were the ones who had to burn the bodies of fellow Jewish prisoners after various executions (usually in gas chambers), and the most upsetting of which has to be when they had to cremate mass graves. This young man had lost his family during a firing squad which he was the only survivor of, and while at camps he spent his entire time there trying to save Magda, a gypsy girl he went to school and fell in love with. Her survival has given him more hope to live for than his own.

Max Eisenhardt ultimately endures the horrors of the Nazi regime, thanks to his timing, resourcefulness and patience, but he was no longer a whole person after those wretched and traumatic experiences either, and this fearful and abused teenage boy eventually hardens into a man who now calls himself Erik Lehnsherr, otherwise known as the mutant revolutionist, Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Written by Greg Pak (whose only work I have ever encountered was DC New 52's Batman-Superman) and illustrated by Carmine DiGiandomenico, MAGNETO TESTAMENT is a rather harrowing examination of the dark forces that shaped the boy called Max Eisenhardt into something deliberately extraordinary years after. Composed of five chapters and tons of research about the accounts written on the events within Nazi prison camps, Magneto Testament included some of the most depressing and at times intensely moving moments of what it must have been like for someone of young Magneto's lineage to grow up during one of the darkest periods in human history.

I think this was the first time in X-Men canon that a writer has attempted to expound in narrative detail the terrible things a young Magneto had to undergo during such a criminally racist time when hatred and violence against the Jewish people were so disgustingly rampant that anyone who belonged to such a troubled time couldn't possibly stay sane, especially someone like Max Eisenhardt who watched his loved ones perish and had to take care of the remains of total strangers whose only connection he had with was the fact that they were condemned as an unclean race lower than the average human. It's fucking gross, and reading Magneto Testament is uniquely painful because of the small brutalities explored in every issue. I would like to applaud Pak in successfully delivering a rather humane piece in this twisted coming-of-age story truly deserving of one of comics' most multifaceted and compelling villains. I think Pak captured the essence of what must have given Magento during the later years his righteous rage and motivation which in turn gave him the solid platform to stand on and justify his war against the human race. I don't exactly consider myself a Magneto apologist or full-pledged sympathizer because some of his revolutionary activities done in the name of mutant superiority can be extreme and misguided, if not tragically ironic.

But I think anyone who claims to either enjoy or despise his character has to at least understand his personal history, and it pleases me that Greg Pak has accomplished just that for his writing in Magneto Testament.

What I consider most commendable is the fact that Pak did not even focus on Max's mutation as a metal telekinetic. There are hints and manifestations of his powers across the issues, such as the ability to throw steel lances in a far distance and the fact that he unconsciously avoided bullets during that awful firing squad scene with his family. But Pak did not give any indication that young Max even knew how special and different he is which I thought was a great choice for the story because Pak opted to highlight his permeating helplessness as an innocent Jewish boy who had to witness the inhumane acts committed around him whose cycle of systematic violence he reluctantly learned to become a part of as well. His journey as a lowly laborer to eventual Sonderkommado has enabled him to get a closer look at the surrounding abyss whenever he had to drag and burn the bodies of countless gassed victims. Young Max had no other choice but to unflinchingly stare back at the hideous darkness and welcome it into his personal space if he ever hopes to overcome it.

As rich as the stomach-lurching scenes were for this comic book, it has to be the tiniest things that made me tear up. One of them was this full-paged panel where Max glimpsed through a room filled entirely with eyeglasses. It literally made me put down what I was reading as I closed my eyes and willed myself to breathe normally again. There was just something about it that struck me in the most visceral sense. It was so damn visually painful and inexplicably so. Even now I'm not sure why it emotionally wounded me when there are many scenes in the comic book which are more brutal and disheartening to look at. I suppose it truly is this small kind of horrific imagery that is seemingly inconsequential and mundane that left a rather huge impact on me.

As depressing as everything is about Magneto Testament, there were impressive moments of light and sweetness concerning Max's feelings for the girl Magda and his determination to save her and get her out alive. From what I know in the canon, they eventually get married and have a daughter named Anya but Pak did not add this piece of canon information for his story which was okay because reading about a hopeful Max whose devotion and concern for a girl he barely knew was so heartbreakingly simple yet moving to watch unfold. It was enough for me to cling onto. I think my emotional investment for them was particularly high because I know what was going to happen to them after the Nazis were defeated. For this key event, Chris Claremont (who was the one who gave Magneto the Holocaust survivor background thirty years ago) touched upon it in the third volume of Excalibur, issue #6 but in case you're interested to know more about it, let me briefly talk about it here if you don't mind more spoilers.

Both Erik (this is Magneto's latest name in the comics these days) and Magda escaped the camps and are more than eager to start a new life together with their daughter but a commotion happens when a bunch of Nazi sympathizers tracked them down along with other Jewish people. These assholes burned down the apartment complex where Anya was sleeping and she was trapped as Erik couldn't get her out in time. Angered beyond reprieve, his child's death was the catalyst that brought out Erik's mutant powers to the surface and he proceeds to kill them using magnetism and metal telekinesis. Magda witnessed this and called him a monster, fearing he will endanger the unborn twins in her womb she never got to tell him about. These twins eventually grow up as mutants themselves named Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and they were reunited with their father somewhere along the way though it took some time for either parties to realize that they were family.

But for now, here in Magneto Testament, we have young Max and Magda clinging onto their young, blossoming love at a time a happily-ever-after doesn't seem to be possible, blissfully unaware that their cavalry has just began.

In a nutshell, Magneto Testament is a searing and sublime tale about the ugly crudeness that human beings are capable of committing on one another, particularly against a minority they perceive as inferior; and how one boy's quest for survival turns him into an avenging force of nature once he becomes a man fully capable of bending worlds to his will in the name of justice he was long denied of. In a final act of redemption, the letter he wrote at the camps as a boy eventually finds a way back to him, symbolizing and affirming the truth that it is ultimately up to him after all to ensure that another Holocaust does not come to pass ever again.

This is duly recommended to both X-Men fans and comic book aficionados, especially if you're generally interested in works of fiction based on the horrors of Holocaust. I think this comic book really dealt with the events as sensitively as it could and truly delivered a magnificent Magneto-centered parable at its core.


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