It’s fitting that, with a new series of Magneto soon to hit the shelves (and I for one can’t wait), I turn my eye to the secret history of the man usually known as Erik Magnus Lensherr…
When Magneto first appeared, he was a violent supremacist who gathered villains to his side. It says everything that his team were self-identified (and without a hint of irony) as the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. As the years have passed, though, writers have added layer after layer of rich history to this character, turning him into one of the most identifiably human villains in the entire Marvel Universe. The ultimate privilege belonged to Greg Pak, whose 2008 series Magneto Testament dug deeper than ever before into Magneto’s history.
Magneto Testament is a comic like no other, presenting the story of young Max Eisenhardt – a Jewish boy brought up in a Germany where the Nazis are rising to power. It’s an absolutely haunting comic, firmly rooted in historical reality, and only cemented in the Marvel chronology when, in X-Men: Prelude to Schism, Magneto admitted that Max Eisenhardt is his real name, and Erik Magnus Lensherr is just an alias. But this comic deserves to be part of the canon, and most certainly shouldn’t be forgotten.
As brutality sweeps across the German nation, the nail that sticks out is hammered down – Max being the nail. The family wind up on the run, and experience the horror of the Kristallnacht.
In the aftermath of these events, Max’s family flee to Poland. Just in time for the invasion, and they wind up segregated in the Jewish sector of Warsaw. By June 1941, starvation had set into the ghetto so badly that 2,000 people a month were starving to death. Max watched his sister Ruthie dwindle away to nothing. And then the Nazis begin moving the Jews on – to the gas chambers. A resistance attempt goes horribly wrong, and Max and his family are part of a group sentenced to execution. That’s when we see the first flare of Max’s powers, as he deflects the bullets enough to survive.
Sentenced to the horrors of Auschwitz, Max endures inhuman conditions, along with the rest of the Jewish prisoners. What follows is a harrowing issue, and again one sickeningly based on reality. No punches are pulled. Then comes a haunting passage, one that hints so effectively at the man Max would become:
“My name is Max Eisenhardt. I’ve been a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz for almost two years. I watched thousands of men, women and children walk to their deaths. I pulled their bodies from the gas chambers. I dug out their teeth so the Germans could take their gold. And I carried them to the ovens, where I learned how to combine a child’s body with an old man’s to make them burn better. I saw my fellow workers buried alive under an avalanche of rotting corpses. I saw thousands of murdered people burning in giant outdoor pits. I have seen at least a quarter million dead human beings with my own eyes, and I couldn’t save a single one, any more than they could save me.”
Sight of the love of his life, Magda, turns Max’s head even more upside-down. Magda survives by hiding in the corpse pile, and Max takes risk after risk to keep her safe. When the Jews rebel, Max and Magda take the opportunity to flee for their lives.
This is the history of Magneto. He is a man who stood by once, unable to help as his family were slaughtered, watching as his people were led to the gas chambers. He is unwilling to do the same again, believing wholeheartedly that man and mutant will come into head-on collision and – for fear of another Hitler – treading a path that risks turning himself into another Hitler.
Recent years seem to have forgotten this man, but Uncanny X-Men #16 – a set-up issue for the new series – ensures that he is once again at the forefront of our minds.
I think we could be about to get some vintage Magneto.