The premise behind this series of editorials will be amending or transforming the backstories behind famous fictional characters, events, or organizations to fix issues that I see with them. This could be something as complex as a complete rewrite of a backstory, to a simple retexturing of the overall lesson.
My aim with this series is for you to join me in considering why fiction utilizes certain backstories and how those stories and the changes we make can have a fundamental impact on the overall "feel" of the character, event, or organization in question.
And in today's Building Better Backstories, we will take a look at Marvel's most infamous
The Master of Magnetism and Leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants: Max Eisenhardt/Eric Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto.
The backstory of Magneto is one of great tragedy, tied to a moment in history at which mankind was at one of its most villainous.
Max Eisenhardt was a young Jewish man living in Poland during the 1930s. During the Second World War, young Magneto was caught up in the Holocaust, where he lost all of his family and the stress of survival kick-started his mutant abilities.
To that end, he formed the Brotherhood of Mutants. He became good friends with Charles Xavier, though they both fundamentally disagreed on the method under which mutant equality might be achieved. Their fracture on this issue, with Max leaning on the side of mutant supremacy, would eventually lead to the eternal fight between the Magneto's Brotherhood and Xavier's students - the X-Men.
Unlike so many other superhero and comic book origin stories, Magneto's history is tied not to some fictional loss or tragedy, but a real world event. The Holocaust was a capstone moment in recent human history. When evil was on display publicly for all the world to see in such concentrated forms (though not the first or last time) that it fundamentally shifted the perceptions of human cruelty and laid them bare for all to see.
In addition, to this historical connection, Magneto's thematic inspiration stems from Malcolm X, the American Civil Rights leader who stood as a counterpart to Martin Luther King Jr. (much like Magneto has Xavier). While this thematic correlation to Malcolm X is absolutely fine and should remain in any interpretation of the character going forward, Magneto's connection to the Holocaust has created a real issue with his character that will only get worse as the years go on.
The Holocaust was (as of writing this article) 74 years ago. And, much like our own world, as the years pass, living memory of the Holocaust will begin to fade in the Marvel universe. Magneto is incredibly old in universe. Even allowing him to be 10-12 at maximum at the end of the Holocaust (mutant powers develop when one is a teen or pre-teen) would make his 86 by any modern story.
For a series as politically tied and motivated as X-Men, remaining in the modern day is essential and tying Magneto to a real event makes it harder and harder to take an octogenarian seriously as a supervillain without some truly weird solutions.
|Yes...that is Magneto as a baby. That happened.|
In my opinion, all of these solutions complicate what is the true issue with Magneto's backstory. His reliance on a real historical event. Now this is not in any way a statement stating that the Holocaust should be ignored or treated as inconsequential, but rather as a consideration that tying Magneto to a fictional event or area whose thematic connections might be tied to similar acts of cruelty could achieve the same end and because they are real only in the world of Marvel Comics, could be placed in any decade they want. A fictional event would allow Magneto to perpetually be in his 50s.
What event would I place him in? Well in the 80s and 90s, Marvel Comics decided to create a country which they used as a thematic analog for apartheid South Africa. Since the US was ostensibly allied with South Africa and couldn't comment on apartheid publicly (to our eternal shame), Marvel used this nation to spread a message. This country was called Genosha and it was notoriously anti-mutant. They committed all manner of atrocities against the mutant populations, was corrupt and genocidal, and Magneto has had a long history with the nation in the comics already, sometimes overthrowing the nation and forming his own pro-mutant nation in reaction.
It is here that we can create our new Magneto. Just like Magneto was based on Malcolm X, this new Magneto could be based off of someone like Nelson Mandela. He was a political refugee of Genosha, who was subjected to the horrors and genocide of the regime in Genosha and managed to make it to America. He meets Charles Xavier and they begin to promote mutant rights, with Magneto having a more militant view because of the horrors he witnessed in Genosha.
I believe this will solve so much of Magneto's issue with regards to age, whilst still maintaining the deeply critical thematic connections that Magneto has to the human rights debate which underlies all of the X-Men mythos.
I love Magneto as a character and as a concept. But his inherent connection to a real historical event places him under a curse that we are dealing with even now in the real world. With every passing year, those who lived through or remember the Holocaust are dwindling in number; victims of the simple passage of time.
The days are coming when the only recollections of the Holocaust will be in history books, which is a dangerous event for anyone. Once there are none who remember a history in its living form, the ability to change, alter, or forget it can begin. Which in case of horrors like the Holocaust or Apartheid should never happen.
One way to avoid this is to tie our cultural narratives and stories to these real histories, as a means to teach and inform by proxy. One way to do this is by connecting a character to that real event, but that inherently dates the character and makes them subject to the same frailties as the human body. In time, the connection might not mean as much to those who did not live it.
So a better way is to tie by themes and common imagery. The image of Magneto's arm tattoo is a stunning image of human cruelty, but it is one that can evoke and inform on the Holocaust without being directly tied to it. Magneto can be attached to the symbols and iconography of atrocity, a victim who overcame and triumphed (though with his own complex flaws), and be a means to ensure that that atrocity is remembered and the calling cards can be easily identified by all.
That last point is important. Because those that might commit atrocities will almost certainly use the same calling cards, and they would count on a public's poor memory.