I’m at home right now. I’ve found my Magneto: Testament comics and am remembering the disappointment I met their inside pages with back when I bought them. It was fall 2009, around the time I fell into one of my deep Holocaust literature holes, reading Primo Levi and Raul Hilberg, watching Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity, etc. Finding a series devoted to uncovering Magneto’s childhood encounter with Auschwitz seemed potentially revelatory. Not that Testament should be held up against objective historical analysis, but even when placed in the context of more fragmentary and subjective Holocaust literature, or earlier issues of X-Men that dealt with the subject, the scope of how missed the opportunity was becomes equally, if not more apparent.
As a fictional approximation, in particular a comic, it has the opportunity to bypass the formal rigor of objective historical and socio-political analysis for something more personal. While the former is necessary for understanding how mass extermination was committed using rational structures, bureaucratic mechanization, taxonomical classification and other things generally associated with modernity and civilization, it doesn’t account for the subjective response in which the temporal dislocation of traumatic events put traditional cultural mythologies through the wringer and rendered linear objectivity useless. Fictive works like Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story give the events resonance in the canon of diasporic literature that deal with this. For instance, Manuel Zapatta Olivella’s Chango: The Biggest Badass, in which slavery is partially interpreted through a clash between African folklore and American monotheism, or Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun in which the Nakba is given circular fragmentation in village stories that loosely recall the tales of Sheherezade. Also Jewish folklore, which reconfigured the pogroms through The Golem. Testament by default registers as magical realism, but its attempt at streamlined narrative and documentary relevance cancels that out.
Meisha Rosenberg, in an article on Ozick and the “midrashic mode,” argues the necessity of not relegating Holocaust literature to the non-fiction realm, or enchaining the narrative with grounded purpose when within the fictional realm. She declines Theo Adorno’s (paraphrased) assertion that “writing poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric” on account of how documentary realism bars “imaginative entry into the event” and also gives credence to the ways in which fiction—in this case post-Holocaust fiction—has access to historical explanations that objective analysis does not.
Fiction about the Holocaust can fill a void in the Jewish literary community left by the millions of stories completely lost to the genocide. Fiction about the Holocaust can go where history cannot, paying tribute to the personal experiences that have been silence by mass murder.
Rosenberg implicitly makes a connection between Ozick’s use of the midrashic mode and the approach towards Talmudic discourse taken by rabbis after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Since the midrash—which etymologically means “to search” or “to inquire”—was meant to “guide the diaspora” after the destruction, it has resonance in Ozick’s attempt to both make sense of the Holocaust while upholding its mystifying grip on the shattered psyches of those that went through it. While guiding may have been the goal, the midrashic “project” led to an interpretive dynamic that allowed for non-didactic engagement with the source text. The overly literal and by-the-numbers Magneto: Testament goes the didactic route, approaching the subject with a limited attempt at documentary semi-realism. Its failures, especially as a comic, become all the more confusing when looking at issues 150 and 161 of Uncanny X-Men, whose mytho-poetic abstractions about survivor trauma are far more incisive than the streamlined “official backstory.”
One problem with Testament is reverence, not necessarily towards the Holocaust or its survivors but towards the genre and a notion of its teachability, where the historical event is given a pat narrative trajectory out of which one—possibly a middle school teacher or a hip volunteer at an afterschool program at Temple Beth Sholom—can wring out a lesson in morality. While the moral does engage in a contentious aspect of Holocaust scholarship—the level of resistance Jews displayed in the face of encroaching extermination—it does so in a way ensured to offend (and engage) no one.
For instance, take the comic’s treatment of Kristallnacht. As in history, the pogrom is preceded by a young Jew’s assassination of a Nazi diplomat (adorned with annotations to make sure this goes through the right bureaucratic channels for legitimacy), prominently displaying a Jew whose philosophy was “by any means necessary.” In contrast, the narrative’s trajectory is Max’s slowly dawning realization that not fighting back against Nazis for fear of amplified reproachment—which he is consistently told in skirmish after skirmish—means nothing in the face of inevitable wholesale slaughter. Thus, the passive, accepting and intentionally oblivious Jews of Hilberg’s history and the varied resistors of Yehuda Bauer’s history are both represented. Whether that was intended or not is unclear, since the events taking place, and the aesthetic that conveys them is so facile in its construction that historical debate by Jewish scholars seems a secondary concern to the remove of inoffensive Jewish characterization.
Max’s Jewishness is implied by context instead of by character, as there are zero signifiers of Judaic heritage in his household aside from his artisan father yelling “Ach!” at the comic’s beginning. Since his Jewishness is primarily established by the discrimination he receives for apparently being Jewish, any ethnicity is rendered the province of his persecutors. He is drawn with dark hair, which separates him from the Aryan archetype of the Hitler Youth that springs up around him (a la Swing Kids). He is also given horrifyingly large doe eyes, as is Magda, his gypsy love interest, and also all of the comic’s victims. Pak’s study of Maus in preparation for writing his must have led to art directions suggesting another fable, this time made out of squinting Germans and Disney-fied, wide-eyed Jews.
To make sure any sense of historical importance from the egregious annotations is not lost on the reader, there is an author statement at the back of the first issue about research. The statement speaks of an attempt to synthesize the confusing, contradictory narrative strands surrounding Magneto, in the process creating something so grounded and literal that the rarefied, mystifying shock that led to this comic is lost in the process. Perhaps Pak, not being Jewish, was padding the story with a dutifully respectful approach to the Holocaust to avoid incurring the wrath of the ADL or anyone with like-minded inclinations. My mom, after watching X-Men: First Class with limited knowledge of the franchise, had identified so much with Magneto that she didn’t really register him as a potential villain. Earlier this weekend, when I began explaining Magneto to her, she wondered if it was a new stage in anti-Semitic propaganda, which seems reasonable without proper backstory.
Even though two Jews created Magneto, it was a gentile that invented his status as a survivor. However well meaning he may have been, that kind of information can easily be misconstrued. I bring this up not for validity of the reactionary response but for the murky, historically burdened waters in which this kind of stuff automatically has to float in. But since Magneto is already a Jewish villain of sorts, why even bother creating a palatable narrative when it already exists in the opposite direction? It reminds me of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Louise Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, which also had an angelic othering of persecuted Jews posing as social realism:
In keeping with the more enlightened, liberal brand of French anti-Semitism, which depicts Jews as cute, lovable, and exotic rather than venal and sinister, the featured victim is treated as a rare objet d’art rather than an ordinary kid.
Rosenbaum is not suggesting the more overt brand of anti-Semitism is preferable, but that using kid gloves on the subject is itself a form of revisionist history that further dehumanizes the oppressed subjects at its center.
Like the myriad of dutiful media products dedicated to teaching the Shoah before it, its packaging is unusually glossy. Ironically, this yields its one plus (aka what sold me on it), the covers. Much more powerful if taken as one large panel, the sparingly detailed, poetic abstractions adorning the covers are like a night terror that conveys Magneto’s narrative without spelling it out. I suspect that the choice of red as the only color was as much informed by Magneto’s suit as it was by the cloying sequence in Schindler’s List, but I haven’t really seen such a limited palette used with such visceral efficacy outside of Matt Seneca’s Affected.
The first cover is young Max Eisenhardt, seemingly on the eve of his fall, being showered with white leaves while shrouded by darkness, emerging from a closing light of promise, and facing down a bloody puddle with Magneto’s silhouette ominously foreshadowing his inevitable destiny. The white leaves make an interesting conversation with his white armband, whose black Star of David and grey stripes resemble the eventual flag of Israel more than they do the insignia Jews were normally forced to wear in the ghettos. A cursory search of the old testament for water, leaves and Israel reveals Ezekiel 47, where the titular prophet is shown a stream that will flow through the New Temple, bring life into the Dead Sea and surrounding land, and bring fruit to trees whose leaves will not wither. In contrast Max sees a cesspool of blood riddled with vengeful violence, and the leaves rain unattached to anything but a ghostly pallor.
The second cover, the last of the five to feature Magneto, has Max leaning on barbed wire, face now shadowed by a cap that serves no purpose in regards to anonymity. The use of white now renders the child a victim of vampiric bloodlust, black eyes sitting like slits in a removable phantom mask. Strands of red fabric rest on the barbs of wires barely out of reach and taunt any plans Max may have for escape. The face, and the placement of fingers suggest resignation, the cap being a potential nod to the iconic helmet, which hovers like a foggy vision in the background.
The absence of any Magneto iconography in the last three covers implies an internalization of his mythos. The costume is subsumed by the resentment it is used to clothe, becoming fully integrated as an idea into the body of its owner. In the same way that the trauma of war forces some to mature immediately, the necessity of portraying the physical transformation of Max into the elderly antagonist is rendered useless. In the fourth cover, with his head shaved, dressed in the striped uniform of labor, his impishness is both infantile and rapidly aged, representing the polar ends of life’s spectrum millions were forced to simultaneously inhabit.
In the last cover, Max’s age is completely inscrutable. His charcoaled face is a stream of snot, tears and sawdust. His pupils are red, whether they are witnessing Magneto or the crematorium is unclear, but in way that is immersive. The differentiation between his pupil and his face is important. The face, drawn with blunt realism, relates the explainable version of the holocaust, one based on the documentary evidence available via, say, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. It reflects on our perception of the events, and is reduced to what we see of him. The red speaks to the inexplicable, the shattered psyche that has to contend with the lacerating scars of unspeakable atrocities, that doesn’t conform to our objective and linear understanding of history but struggles in its own fragmented universe.
The pupil’s subject is up to interpretation, and the tearful, snot-filled wordlessness suggests an explanation that is worlds away from pedestrian understanding. It recalls Ka-Tzetnik 135633’s Shivitti: A Vision where the author, a holocaust survivor suffering from night terrors, undergoes LSD therapy in order to confront his traumas. In a way it recalls the alternate realities explored by the broken protagonists of Philip K. Dick, continually haunted by their pasts, rarely benefitting from the technological advancements and interdimensional transcendence of the future (though the author here does, in a way). Ka-Tzetnik, real name Yehiel De-Nur, basically goes back in time and becomes witness to his own memories, but as the procedure progresses the LSD and the subconscious memory bank it’s tampering with render them increasingly distorted and, most importantly, biblical. This image in particular could be the aforementioned red in Max’s pupil:
Auschwitz is a flaming pyre. I know I have been summoned to witness the fire-belching site. Ashmadai, King of Auschwitz. Here he is. I see him with my own eyes emerging from the furnace in his ascent from the chimney, from the hidden holies of his abode. Cloaked by the smoke, he wafts to the heights of heaven, with Shamhazai and Azael unfurling a canopy over his head. Mushroom-like, the specter looms in the sky: Shamhazai and Azael are about to anoint Ashmadai as the new King of Kings, lord of the universe. With blaring trumpets they declare war on the four corners of the earth that the new name of the sovereign of the universe will no longer be Ashmadai but Nucleus! His birthplace: The heart of the furnace in the mystery laboratory, Auschwitz. Manufactured from a new substance, altogether unique, Nucleus is the concentrate of the souls of one and one-half million living, breathing children.
This hallucinogenic interpretation of the trauma of the Holocaust, written in 1989, isn’t actually the first time it was broached in that fashion. Though fictional, Uncanny X-Men #161 from 1982 has a comatose Professor X relive the memory of his split from Magneto, the action starting in a Haifa mental ward for Holocaust survivors. The opening page depicts X under nightmarish reverie, with the X-Men hideously transformed into monsters and insectoid aliens (like the dark forces that would later roam the outer regions of the Invisibles’ consciousness) looming over his skull. He is soon whisked back to 20 years prior, when he first meets doctor Magnus at his friend Daniel Shomron’s survivor clinic. A patient named Gabrielle Haller, beyond the ability of Magnus to heal, sits catatonic.
Professor X broaching the closeted mental space of a catatonic schizophrenic directly engages with a debate raging then and now as to the use of survivor testimony in understanding the Holocaust. Raul Hilberg ruled out any testimony that wasn’t born of the period either prior to or during WWII claiming the inconsistencies between survivor memories (either lockjawed or borrowed from memory of what happened other inmates), where Yehuda Bauer contended that the sometimes sharper memory of elders and those inconsistencies themselves were equally ripe for analysis. Christopher Browning, a historian who at one point followed Hilberg’s maxim, recently wrote a book called Remembering Survival in which the 1972 case against Walter Becker, a german chief of police spotted by survivors of Treblinka as a former officer at the camp. He was acquitted when legal rule of inconsistent testimonies resulted in having over 100 surviving witnesses’ statements thrown out of court.
Xavier, braving the hallucinogenic instability of Gabrielle defies any pretense of rational observation when the effect of the atrocities was irrational in itself. Before Xavier’s superego magically extracts itself and projects into her mind, one of the backgrounds already evokes “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the suggestion that the narrator’s unreliability is as revelatory as it is obfuscating.
The blue and yellow swirls surrounding the floating Xavier register both as wings fluttering in the netherworld of his coma’s cocoon and as panoptic eyes rendered useless by Gabrielle’s barrier, which interestingly looks like a red pyramid. The connection between historical (Nazi) and biblical (Pharaoh) oppression—a connection which I am not making given rich and important culture of ancient Egypt, I mean this mainly in the diasporic sense of a continuum of overseers—gives the trippy atmospherics a touch of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which similarly flirted with the occult of both ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany. Much like Ka-Tzenik’s later filtering of Auschwitz through the imminent presence of nuclear holocaust, Xavier interprets the blinding light in the same way J. Robert Oppenheimer did the first atomic test, with the quote from Baghavad-Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” Xavier also falters in attempting to interpret the light, vacillating between the feminized menace in the Greek mythology of Gorgon or the overwhelming potential of the monotheistic lord. While it is later revealed that Xavier survived serving in the Korean war, Gabrielle’s Dachau-informed visions are initially beyond his comprehension.
Part of the reason, of course, is that Gabrielle has transformed Dachau into equally horrifying if still removed horrors of predatory insects. I’m not entirely sure how much of this is Xavier combatting against the infestation implanted by the Brood Queen in his mind, but there’s an overlap between the fantastical horrors of space and the earthly terrors of the camps. One of the things De-Nur is combatting in Shivitti is that sense of estrangement from the camps as a tangible, of-this-earth historical reality. In an interview with Tom Segev for the introduction to The Seventh Million he recounts:
I was there for about two years. Time there was different from what it is here on earth. Every split second ran on a different cycle of time. And the inhabitants of that planet had no names. They had neither parents nor children. They did not dress as we dress here. They were not born there nor did anyone give birth. Even their breathing was regulated by the laws of another nature. They did not live, nor did they die, in accordance with the laws of this world. Their names were numbers…
Issue 161’s plot, which alternates between space, Haifa, Dachau and the internal recesses of the mind, creates another form of dislocation.
Though X-Men was always allegoric, this issue is basically a secret entry into the Weird War Tales/Horrors of War canon, and as such becomes more teachable than Testament while its phantasmagoria correlates more to the language of comics as well. Since the art in Testament is uniform, it subscribes to an aesthetic linearity that undermines both psychological turmoil and the ways in which traditional comics art naturally conveyed that. Xavier walks through her horrors much like Ka-Tzetnik wanders through his own, noting common signifiers such as the cattle cars, the death of the elderly, the rapid maturity of the young who were “ancient in spirit, innocent no longer”, the gas chambers and officer cruelty. It is implied that Gaby is used by the guards, who “like her,” corresponding with Ka-Tzetnik’s most controversial work, the Joy Division-inspiring House of Dolls, in which Ka-Tzetnik’s sister is thrown into the camp brothel, or joy division, for Nazi pleasure. This also trumps campy movies like Dead Snow about nazi zombies in that the mutated guards here reflect on the damage they inflicted on Gabrielle instead of “whoa, what if there were Nazi zombies” inanity.
In the various boxes, the spare, unorthodox coloring also provides effective disorientation. The barbed wire, with a gloating skull floating over it, is done in black and red, the inmates barely etched into the other side of the fence. The crematorium spews pink fumes giving the gas an appropriate signifier of a science experiment gone awry. The color scheme also advances the plot, in that the solid gold Gabrielle turns into is the fusion in Xavier’s mind of the memory of the ensuing conflict, which is the emergence of terrorist network HYDRA, made up largely of ex-Nazis, in the pursuit of gold hidden by their former peers. Gaby’s golden transfiguration is symbolic of the Nazi loot’s origins, robbed from new inmates to the camps.
The complex interplay between layered imagery resurfaces when HYDRA’s uniforms resemble both the infestation in Xavier’s mind and Gaby’s trauma-induced nightmares. Now that the recognizable uniform of Nazism has been relegated by law to museums and antique shops, what the insignia represented has floated on as a phantom presence and manifests itself in a garish approximation of the mental scars it left. Prior to the above panel, HYDRA attacks the hospital in order to kidnap Gaby and two Israeli soldiers exchange queries about whether the attackers are “Arab Commandos? Terrorists?” or not. They hear German and realize that’s impossible. While successive Israeli administrations re-oriented the threat faced by Jews to the surrounding Arab nations, the sneak attack also brings an unpleasant reminder of the European origin of Jewish destruction.
Magnus eventually uses his powers to crush HYDRA and once safely securing the gold redirects it towards the funding of his plans for Mutant Supremacy, giving backstory to the rift hinted at in X-Men issue #150, both of which make a far more compelling backstory than the one invented by X-Men: First Class. Issue 150 exposes one of the problems with giving Magneto’s childhood a digestible narrative. Mainly, that the fractured and unstable psychological state the atrocities left him with speak more to the complexity of the horrors endured than a conservatively traditional Shoah story does.
Titled “I, Magneto,” the story gives him a sympathetic monologue that gives the merciless cruelty of the villain sociological heft and greater sympathy. In fact, the inside cover depicts Magneto orating on a small stage next to a globe, his own Globe Theater, if you will. While not a backpedaling attempt by Shakespeare to counteract the overt anti-Semitism he was employing in Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh, it is tangentially Jewish (his tattoo had not yet been revealed) and a tragedy of a systemic order. It introduces what would overshadow the rest of his menace and become the largest pop cultural take on survivor aftershock.
The plot follows the X-Men as they try to stop Magneto from destroying the globe. Magneto, as a hologram (which uncomfortably recalls the liminality which most survivors who feel they accidentally “made it” toil in) is depicted in front of a variety of nations, from the U.S. to Moscow to Saudia Arabia, delivering the a speech establishing mutants as “homo superior,” transcending the barbarity of “common humanity” that hunts and kills mutants because they are different, while at the same time leading towards “HOLOCAUST” by way of nuclear weapons. The politics are somewhat complicated, in that, the systemic persecution and sometimes violence towards mutants has rendered Magneto’s views of world politics in a false binary that excludes the residents of Kenya, whose leader is among the hologram’s audience.
Magneto is projecting his image from an island where, ironically, he uses a machine to paralyze the powers of any mutant that gets in his way. The action, as a result, subtly simulates the identity crisis of the mutant granted normality at the expense abnormal familiarity. Though established early on when Cyclops is introduced with his powers already lost, the moment where the X-Men arrive later on and realize their stripped status uses the limited palette to great effect. For one picture they are all colored in the same washed out purple, their differences neutralized.
Earlier, after the hologrammed state of the union address, he tells prisoners Cyclops and Arcadia about his plans to divert the war funds and caches towards the “eradication of poverty, hunger and disease.” The ultimatum, though, is between a positive golden age and death, which leads to a minor debate on freedom of choice. Magneto’s rash insistence on a fascist turnover, in turns benign and malignant, poses the dilemma of exhibiting agency through vengeful remediation within the framework of the system that stripped him of it. Perhaps a printing mistake, but after his helmet is removed, his white mane is briefly given a pinkish purple hue, giving it continuity with the gases to be depicted in Issue 161. Cyclops and Arcadia are is dressed in ancient Greek garb, and like the hideaway itself exist somewhere between Jason and the Argonauts and Flash Gordon. Though a bit heavy handed, it hammers home the historical continuum in which these power shifts have and will always exist.
Wile the extremities of his views have a traceable impetus in the oppression of Mutants —itself an extremity that causes an inverse response of overturned taxonomical hierarchy—the final skirmish sets off a post-traumatic trigger the reveals how deep his wounds go. Pointedly, what sets off the trigger directly plays with the structural barriers set up in the camps, electrical fences. When Kitty Pryde attempts to strip Magneto’s mechanism of its power through the infrastructure’s memory bank, he lunges at her. She “disrupts Magneto’s natural electronic field, jolting him painfully.” Magneto, on impulse, sends a “lethal charge of electricity through her.” His pain subsides and the gravity of what he’s done registers in a shock, becoming victim to the same thing he’s been escaping ever since he destroyed the camp fence.
Kitty’s apparent death by Magneto’s power brings back memories of “Magda” who reacted with “terror” when he tried to “[avenge] our murdered daughter” with his powers. Much like Captain America’s grief-stricken comedown from the post-awakened skirmish, Magneto is immediately awash in agony. Kitty survives and Magneto disappears, but the way his mutant oppression is qualified by his Jewish oppression lingers.
Testament in its slavish adherence to respectful literalism, seems to miss the point of franchise it contributes to. X-Men managed to infuse the schematic with the symbolic, incorporating allusive political commentary into the Heroes vs. Villains template. In a world where mutants represented the effects of oppression, there was a fluidity to the way it switched between allegoric—Professor Xavier as MLK vs. Magneto as Malcolm X, or the segregated, mutant-slave state of Genosha as South Africa during Apartheid—and direct—here, the actual Holocaust. In issues 150 and 161, the vestiges of trauma, as exploded into the mytho-poetic abstraction that comics trade in, we learn more about what happened to Magneto and what it can demonstrate about what happened to victims of the Holocaust on a physical, psychological and cultural level than any straightforward explanation could attempt to “teach.”