Our culture fetishizes moral ambiguity.

As much as it’s become a dead horse trope, our storytelling conventions still rely on a black and white framework. Too often, like adolescents testing limits, we obsess over the ways we can complicate this simple dichotomy of good and evil. An entire age of comics was defined by our love affair with violent anti-heroes, ‘good’ characters who engage in ‘evil’ behavior.

Nonetheless, it’s rare that we latch on to a character who truly inhabits a moral shade of gray, rather than some attractive paradoxical commingling of good and evil. Magneto is one of these characters.

Part of what makes Magneto special is the inherent presence of a greater evil in his story. As limitedly as it factors in to some stories, Magneto inherently allows us to grapple with the problem of evil and to sort out our feelings about hatred, intolerance, and genocide.

Magneto: Testament is the rare comic that tackles these issues head on and the result is stunning. Written and drawn in collaboration with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Magneto: Testament examines and reveals, for the first time, the early life of the boy who would become Magneto.

The attention to detail is stunning. Previous X-Men stories had given us brief, and occasionally contradictory, looks into Magneto’s childhood and Testament does an astounding job of respecting all of them. Writer Greg Pak does his best to leave all of the existing continuity intact.

I Have Shamed a German Girl

I Have Shamed a German Girl

What’s more amazing is that he does so while staunchly sticking to the historical evidence of Nazi atrocities. Everything, down to the train schedules, in this book was meticulously researched. In an interview, Pak told me that each of the five scripts he wrote for this series took him at least four times as long as any normal issue due to the research involved. Pak has repeatedly stated that this was a wholly intentional act on his part and on the part of Marvel Comics to deny Holocaust deniers any purchase within the book to spread their hate, a heroic goal if I’ve ever heard one.

Of course, the best of intentions can fail to produce great results, but that’s very much not the case here. I do have one major complaint about the series, though. Despite the title, Magneto is not really the main character of this story. This isn’t a tale about one boy surviving the horrors of Nazi Germany, but of the depths to which humanity can sink and the struggles the human spirit can endure.

Pak avoids giving Magneto his powers during his time in Auschwitz, as X-Men: First Class did, and chooses not to focus on his status as an unwitting mutant in favor of presenting him as an everyman observer to the madness around him.  He also, wisely, declines to show Max, the young Magneto’s true name, as a heroic freedom fighter battling Nazi oppression, there will be plenty of stories about that to come. Max is neither victim nor hero, not selected for particular greatness or torment; he is a survivor, as too few were. There was little hope in Auschwitz for even the luckiest. The captive population was divided over whether to revolt or await outside aid. It robbed millions of their freedom, their lives, and their agency. While this fact is sadly apparent reading this story, there’s no denying that, structurally, the series suffers for its largely passive protagonist.

Thankfully Pak addresses this, in his way. One of the crucial themes of Testament is the way that the Nazis used lies and promises to divide, subjugate, and entrap their ‘unwanted’ populations, forcing them to police themselves and each other against revolution and dissent. The truth is that the Holocaust is too horrible to cater to our fragile need for heroic victories. Surviving and caring for others was the greatest heroism possible. Ironically, the frustration that some readers may feel is one of the greatest ties to the modern Magneto the series possesses, a furious need never to be put on his oppressor’s terms again. Though Pak prefers to provide an unflinching, unambiguous look at the issues at hand, there are many such examples, where the connection between Max’s lessons and Magneto’s ideology are apparent only in hindsight.Kristallnacht

Though you can feel Pak’s desire to include more wafting off of the page, Magneto: Testament tackles some brilliant and complicated issues. Particularly in the early issues, before Max is sent to Auschwitz, the series provides some beautiful looks at Max’s family and what it means to be a citizen.

Max’s family members, limited as our understanding of their inner lives may be, are fine representations of regular Jewish struggles under the Third Reich. His sister Ruthie, reminds us of the toll that sickness and starvation took even before the cruelty of the camps. His uncle Erich, shows us the futility of rebellion and the ways in which Nazi laws manipulated ideas of ‘normalcy’ to deny those deemed “non-Aryan” (once more, for good measure) support. Perhaps most tragic of all is his father, Jakob. Jakob’s desperate belief that his country will not abandon him, that good things will happen to good people, highlights the way that Nazism infected Germany, feeding an unjust but survivable disease called anti-Semitism until it consumed millions.

There’s simply too much pain and horror to fit into 110 pages, but Pak succeeds in giving a visceral depiction of the Nazi’s machinery of hate, without completely numbing the reader. Max’s attempts to protect his family and the girl he loves amidst the endless slaughter of the Shoah provide enough room to breathe in these issues to avoid things blurring together. Issue #4 particularly stands out for the sheer number of moments that can take your breath away, beautiful, horrible, and poignant. (Spoilers)

None of this would be possible without an extremely talented artist, and Carmine Di Giandomenico fits that bill nicely. Readers who know Di Giandomenico from Marvel’s All-New X-Factor might recognize his linework in the faces of war-era Germany and Poland, but his collaboration with colorist Matt Hollingsworth proves far better tuned, providing the grit and three-dimensionality that the lines needed to shine.

Sometimes Magneto TestamentThough faces occasionally warble a bit, Di Giandomenico excels at drawing believable exaggeration, both the heightened realities of his personal style and the transformative effects of intense emotion. In a story that exceeds our ability to fully process, this talent does wonders. The line heavy style is perfect for the subject matter. Gaunt bodies, strings of spit and blood, and faces creased by cruel, hard lives are all within Di Giandomenico’s wheel house. He also uses eyes beautifully. Magda’s large eyes capture her particular beauty as well as her fear in many scenes. You can really feel Max’s eyes deepening as he endures the struggles of Auschwitz in issue #4. Jakob’s heavy brow and slight eyes communicate both his compassion and the troubles weighing on his mind. And the sharp, stony eyes of Nazi guards and students make their pride and disdain perfectly clear.

The use of shadow is dramatic, perhaps overly so to some eyes, but I think that most can agree that the resultant compositions are striking. In fact, striking is a word that I’d use to describe many of Di Giandomenico’s choices. There are a huge number of panels that you can just stare at and connect with the art or the moment or the history. Even theoretically mundane panels can have an edge to them.

With very few exceptions, the panels are quite good at leading the reader’s eye, directing us through the narrative at hand without getting tripped up by the detail work. Sometimes this leads backgrounds to look fairly sparse, but it rarely, if ever, distracts.

The individual issues of Magneto: Testament were released in 2009 with a trade paperback following shortly after. The book had been out of print and grown somewhat rare in actual comic shops but, thankfully, Marvel just released a new edition that retails for $19.99.

While you’re welcome to grab the mini-series in any form you like, I strongly recommend buying the trade. Both printings contain a sad but important comic entitled “The Last Outrage”, Greg Pak’s notes and citations, and even a teacher’s guide. Every time I read the issues I find myself compelled to read the endnotes beginning to end and, when I do, that’s when the full weight of the story hits me. That experience of seeing even a portion of the research that Pak did and the connection to the survivors whose testimony inspired the story is powerful.

Magneto: Testament is a tale of survival, it’s a love story, but it’s not, by any means, a complete origin story for the Master of Magnetism. Where Max goes at the end of this story is no less interesting a tale and, in some ways, no less a part of what drives him to become Magneto, but that’s not this story. It very literally is a testament, the testament of a young man who speaks for the millions who can’t and in reverent solidarity with those few who can.

Particularly as I look at the news and the country I’m watching from, I can’t help but think how important this story and this history is to know at this moment in time. As Martin Niemoller famously said,

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Strange as it sounds, Max Eisenhardt has a power to reach people in this day and age that real survivors do not. It may be fiction, but it is truth and it is truth we need to hear.