A’hem, waiter? There’s real life in my comics!

by Ben Peirce

I shouldn’t be writing this right now.  There are about a hundred and one things I should be doing tonight rather than writing this article.  But whenever life presents me with a a to-do list the size of  a gun in a Rob Liefeld book, I usually like to blow off everything and read some comics.  So you can imagine my befuddlement with tonight’s reading, X-Men: Magneto Testament, by Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico. Not only did this book pour gasoline on my procrastination fire by being so good I had to come here and write about it, but it also doused my hopes of mindless escapism with a healthy dose of the real world.

This is about the only hint of superheroics you'll find in "X-Men: Magneto Testament"

Magneto Testament is, on the very surface an exploration into Magneto’s early origin.  In the tradition of the Marvel Knights line, it lies just outside current continuity but takes a deep dive into the history of Magneto and provides a sort of hyper-canon by resolving some inconsistencies in the character’s origin and anchoring them soundly in real world history.  As most X-Men fans (even those who only saw the movies) will know, Magneto’s extreme intolerance of prejudice and hate were instilled at an an early age when he faced persecution, not as a mutant but as a survivor of the Holocaust.  But unlike the casual references and fictionalized flashbacks we’ve seen in the past, this story places Magnus (or Eric Lehnsherr or Max Eisenhardt as he’s referred to here – see above inconsistencies) firmly in the all-too-real continuity of our world.  Magneto Testament is a meticulously-researched look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a (albeit fictional) survivor and (if we go by page count) it’s 98.7% real.  There is no bending of iron bars or peeling back of barbed wire in this story.  As appropriate when dealing with this type of material, all elements of the fantastic end with the word X-Men on the front cover.

Despite the harrowing nature of its subject matter Magneto Testament was a joy to read.  Perhaps even more impressive than the story itself is the wealth of back matter provided in the hardcover collected edition. Author Greg Pak provides, page-by-page notes on the historical accuracy and supporting documentation for the entire series.  (Much of this end-note material is available on Greg Pak’s website.)

A page from "The Last Outrage" by Raphael Medoff, Neil Adams and Joe Kubert

A backup story by Raphael Medoff, Neil Adams and Joe Kubert tells the tale of Dina Babbitt, a holocaust survivor who escaped death by painting portraits of Auschwitz prisoners being subjected to barbaric medical experiments by notorious war criminal, Joseph Mengele.  Since 1975 she has fought the Auschwitz Museum for the return of her artwork which, despite hundreds of petitions and and international outcry of support, they have refused.  Also included, is a detailed lesson plan for teachers to use Magneto Testament in the classroom including before, during and after-reading activities.  All of this supplemental material serves to brings the story to life in a whole new dimension.

Superhero stories, like this and Darwyn Cook’s DC: The New Frontier are very impactful because they present historical events through the eyes of characters who we “know”.  The events of the Holocaust are taught to us through literature and film and eye-witness testimony and they are hard to fathom.  Seeing them through the eyes of a familiar character, one who we know will be tragically changed by them, gives us something akin to a personal connection and reminds us how very real they are.

Outside the realm of superheroes there are countless comics with real-world subject matter, presented in varying degrees of non-fiction … the recent Vertigo graphic novel, Cuba: My Revolution, Joe Sacco’s Palestine which my wife, Jen spoke about on a recent podcast … and Brian K. Vaughan’s anthropomorphic commentary on the Iraq war, Pride of Baghdad to name a few.

Sometimes the parallels between comics and real life are closer than creators even intended. Brian Michael Bendis’ new series, Scarlet, follows the fictional story of a girl who sparks a revolution against corruption and injustice through the use of social media and instant online communication.  It was written and in production nearly ten months before this became a reality in Egypt and Libya. While Magneto Testament reminds us of past atrocities, Scarlet shows us how the current state of communication makes for a world in which ignorance is no longer an option – and what a significant and volatile change that presents to our way of life.

Comics will always have plenty to offer in terms of escapism.  The spandex-clad heroes of our youth will continue to battle the forces of evil for our amusement on a monthly basis.  But someday … when you’re ready to try something new … when you want to see the full range of comics as a storytelling medium … or when you just feel like learning about the world, pick up Magneto Testament or on of the myriad of other titles out there, exploring the real world.  You might just be surprised what your funny books can do.

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