Sunday, July 5, 2009

Magneto: Testament
Historically Useful, or Travesty to Memory?

In my love for comics, specifically men in spandex (super-heroes, you know!), I rarely take the time to "get out of the box". Occasionally I'll try some sword and sorcery, or even some comedic material like Bone. But one genre of comics I usually seek out and make time for deals with another passion of mine, and that is study of the Holocaust. In my spare time, I am an educator with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I travel the country (and even beyond at times) teaching teachers how to deliver this subject matter to secondary-aged students.
I use Art Spiegelman's Maus with my own freshmen-level classes, and I've cited that graphic novel as well as Will Eisner's The Plot (an extensive look at the writing and desemination of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion) in my senior-level Social Injustice class. I just finished reading Magneto: Testament, and I want to recommend it to you. The edition I read is hardcover, runs $25 retail, and reprints the five issues of the mini-series that was published in 2008. It also includes historical endnotes and a teacher's guide. While I didn't wholeheartedly agree with all of the lesson suggestions, it would still be a welcome resource for many educators.

If for some reason you aren't up on your X-Men lore, or if you haven't seen any of the three X-films (and my main question would be -- why are you reading this blog if you are in the dark on the X-Men??), Magneto is the main bad guy in the mythos. He is a tragic hero, bent on making the world safe for those with mutant powers. He has been shown at times to be quite militant, and is opposed by Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men; you might think of Malcolm X's means for achieving racial equality vs. Dr. Martin Luther King's means; you'll get the basic story. Make no mistake -- just above I stated that he is a "tragic hero". That's somewhat of a newer characterization, as throughout the Silver and Bronze Ages Magneto was one of the premier do-badders in the Marvel Universe. He left a body count, to be certain. But, around 30 years ago, Chris Claremont (and subsequent writers) decided that a way to explain Magneto's militancy in the mutant vs. non-mutant conflict was to set his origins in the Holocaust. Magneto: Testament is the definitive origin/backstory of the character.

While this graphic novel could be used in any high school class-room, and is a serious and straight-forward look at a German-Jewish family and their lives before and during the Holocaust, I'll recommend it, too, as a fine read for the comics enthusiast. The first thing the reader of this story might assume is that Magneto is going to use his powers against the Nazis as was shown in the first X-movie. However, as a boy in this tale, Magneto exhibits virtually no powers, so this truly is a Holocaust story and not a superhero story in any way. The author and artist (Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico) were edited by scholars at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; I can say that everything they wrote/drew is accurate to the best of my knowledge -- the Auschwitz I and II scenes are outstanding. I was able to travel to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland last October -- my journey included a tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The author/editor of this graphic novel use the book's endnotes to offer specific support for many of the scenes in the story. I felt good that what had been presented was rooted in actual events, a danger that historical fiction often faces (and often loses, in my opinion). I did somewhat cringe, though, at a scene (panel, actually) that was right out of Schindler's List (when the women are on the train bound for Auschwitz).

The basic plot of the story follows young Max Eisenhardt (Magneto) as the Nazi noose around the collective necks of the Jews of Europe tightens. From the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 to Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) to the invasion of Poland, and of the USSR (June 1941), Max is thrust into the middle of events he cannot control. Compounding his problems is his budding love for a young Roma (gypsy) girl named Magda. The tale is fast-moving, historically accurate, and a page-turner of excellent characterization and suspenseful story-telling.

Magneto: Testament is a much shorter read than Maus, and probably more accessible to youngsters than The Plot. It is graphically violent in spots, but then I would add that no student of the Holocaust would be surprised at any of the situations depicted. I'd rate the book PG-13 I suppose, but there is more than that implied at times. Of course, with as much violence as generally makes its way in between the pages of the standard 20-page comic these days, perhaps no one will be surprised. I'd offer, however, that "real" violence -- that based on historical fact and in real-world events -- carries a bit more weight, even shock value.
So, if you have time to waste someday at a Barnes and Noble or Borders... or if you will actually part with your hard-earned cash, I'd recommend picking up this collection. I wanted to also give you a head's up that this could prove to be an exciting new resource for secondary teachers.

Note: The trade paperback collection was solicited in Marvel's section of the June Previews.


Charles said...

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical prinicples. This is not limited to Holocaust books and films. A comic book can carry the same message to vulnerable young minds. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

We live in an age of vulnerability. Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews (and others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote "Jacob's Courage" to promote Holocaust education. This tender coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"

Doug said...

Charles --

Thanks very much for your comment, and for your concern over the issue of Holocaust study and of course, Holocaust denial.

If you're not aware, there was an ignorant comment made by a figure in the world of sport last week. From the Sunday Chicago Tribune, it was reported that Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula I racing, stated in regard to strong leadership: "In a lot of ways, terrible to say this, I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done. In the end he got lost, so he wasn't a very good dictator."

Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, stated that Ecclestone was "either an idiot or morally repulsive."

Pollard may be right on both options.

Best to you,


Anonymous said...

I always thought that the atempts to redeem Magneto were somewhat weak.

He suffered the holocaust, yes. But he also has tried to conquer the world about a trillion times, killing many people in the process. And he has hurt a lot of people who hadn't anything to do with his past.

Xavier seems to thing just becouse somebody is mutant can be forgiven for anything.

Doug said...

Anonymous --

Good points, all. Thanks for stopping by!



MaGnUs said...

Magneto: Testament has a lot of glaring mistakes in the use of German language; but overall, it was a good miniseries, and as a big Magneto fan, I liked it.

Good way of teaching about the Holocaust too, and maybe a bit more likeable for younger people than Maus, since Magneto is a "superhero" tale, and Maus is a bit too... indy for some kids. Most kids. :)

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