Saturday, January 28, 2012

Study In Evil, part IV

A quick note before I begin.  I have a ninth follower!  Welcome, I hope you enjoy the blog.

Second, please allow a moment of silence for the passing of a dear friend.

I am talking about the car, not the guy standing next to me.  That is my brother Donald who co-signed for me back then.  That picture was taken in December 8, 1999, the car was a 2000 Saturn SC2 three door coupe.  Twelve years, 155,719 miles.  I am driving a Chevrolet Sonic right now and it is nice.

But damn it, it just isn't the same.

Okay, on to why you are here.  Last time in Study In Evil...Reigns...I lambasted Star Trek, Deep Space Nine writers and producers for ruining the character of Dukat, transforming him from multi-layered villain into a cartoonish joke.  This sort of thing can be expected from almost any series if it sticks around past it's expiration date, be it a television series, motion picture series-

And Hayden weeps when he realizes this is the end of his career...
-or most commonly, a comic book series.  Since many mainstream comic book characters have been around since the sixties, fifties, forties and even thirties(!) it is inevitable that at one time or another their characters went through some tough times, creatively.  And the older a character the greater the odds that its overall quality has had it's highs and lows as creators and editors strove to make it relevant and popular to keep sales going.  I am going to look at one such character now but rather than cover it's entire history (which I am really not qualified to do as I do not have access to even a fraction of all of his appearances) I am instead going to focus on a period where the character went through a fantastic metamorphosis from villain to, well, not villain? Anti-hero?  Guy not trying to murder the X-Men and Mankind as a whole?

I am speaking, of course, about Magneto.

Really, it took forty years to explain why I wear this bucket?
Magneto is a mutant with the ability to manipulate magnetism and metal who decided that mutants were the superior species and decided he and they should either be in charge of Humanity or Mutantkind should wipe homo sapiens off the planet altogether.  When Magneto first appeared he was not a very well defined character.  In fact, I would say that for the most part he was a carbon copy of Doctor Doom, a helmet wearing megalomaniac bent on world domination with an opposite number who was head of his own super hero team, one with origins similar to his own (mutations/cosmic rays.).

Okay, to be fair Stan Lee was behind both creations and the guy was churning out a lot of product at this time, and Magneto's association with Xavier was introduced by Claremont (more on that later) so some creative shortcuts were to be expected.  Still even back then there were differences.  Magneto ultimately created his own team, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  Doom always worked alone, and-


Moving on.  When Magneto first appeared he was very much like Doctor Doom in most respects; arrogant, full of self importance, convinced he was right.  He was cruel to his minions and manipulative.  Heck, the guy even tried to take over his own South American nation at one point so he may have been jealous of Victor von Doom's ability to terrorize peons at a whim.  His frequent run-ins with the X-Men always ended in defeat, or his plans being somehow thwarted.  Finally one of his master plans backfired and he was transformed into a baby and he ultimately wound up in the care of Xavier's former love interest, Moira McTaggart. Magneto was re-aged by Erik The Red, an agent of the Shi'ar Empire to distract the X-Men but instead of being made an old man, Magneto was now a vibrant and young one (his physical age is never exactly pinned down, but it is suggested maybe late twenties, early thirties? It is hard to tell with that white hair.) with a lifetime of experience in the use of his powers now combined with a youthful strength.  He was now awesomely bad ass and needed no Brotherhood to back him up.  He defeated the new X-Men and fled1. Some time around this period once Magneto was returned to adulthood the world court ruled he was a "new man" and all the crimes he had committed before were expunged2.  This is important later.  Magneto confronted the X-Men again by using the villain Mesmero to capture them and make them acts in a carnival.  The Beast showed up and helped free them but Magneto showed up and spirited them all away to his underground based located beneath an active volcano.  There he imprisoned them in devices that rendered their bodies helpless but their minds active, much the same way he had been when he had been reduced to his infancy.  However, Magneto had not counted on Storm's experience as a master thief and lock pick and she used the picks hidden in her tiara to free herself, the rest of her team.  The X-Men fought Magneto more effectively this time,  but during the melee the base began to come apart and flood with magma, which forced both sides to retreat3.  Magneto was not seen again for some time, when he returned it was when Cyclops, on leave from the X-Men, wound up on Magneto's new base, an island he had raised from the ocean floor covered in the ruins of a pre-human civilization-

Just an aside here.  Magneto's first base was an asteroid.  His second base was located in The Savage Land.  Combined with the active volcano and island it is obvious the man knows how to live.

Magneto's plan was to blackmail the world into capitulation by means of a device a device that allowed him to create volcanoes anywhere on Earth, and he employed it to wipe out the Russian town of Varykino as proof of his power.  The X-Men fought Magneto to a standstill while their youngest member, thirteen year old Kitty Pryde attempted to destroy the device's computer.  Magneto broke off from the fight to stop her and as a result he almost accidentally killed her.  Now this is the point where Magneto's character development really begins.  Up until now he has largely been a one-note villain bent on world conquest.  A very ostentatious one to be sure, but for the most part he had not largely changed from his first appearance.  It is when he almost killed a fellow mutant, a thirteen year old girl(!) that he begins to doubt his cause (Although in retrospect I wonder how many mutants he accidentally killed when he wiped that Russian town off the map.  Statistically there had to be one or two there.  And he once tried to kill the X-Men with a nuke.).  Magneto abandoned his base and the new X-Men, for the first time, defeated him4.

A little while later, Chris Claremont told the story of how Magneto and Xavier first met in the pre-X-Men years, back when Xavier wandered the Earth.  The pair fought Wolfgang von Strucker and Hydra and beat them, and Magneto wound up with tons of Nazi gold (It was this vast wealth that allowed him to fund his operations.  Asteroid and volcanic bases do not come cheap.)5.  It was in this story that we first learned that Magneto is Jewish, a critically important retcon.  Because it is with this revelation that we are given more depth to Magneto's motivations.  It is not just racism that motivates Magneto, but a fundamental belief that humans are bad and if given a chance they would do to mutants what the Nazis did to anyone they felt was inferior or considered a threat.  Seen from that perspective Magneto's motives are almost justified, especially when you consider how the United States Federal government has repeatedly funded the creation of the mutant hunting Sentinel robots.
Your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.
So then Claremont wrote the exceptional graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills where a psychotic minister named Stryker kidnapped Professor Xavier and planned to use him to kill all mutants by wiring him up to a machine and turning his mental powers up to eleven.  Sound familiar?  Elements of the story were used in the second X-Men film.  And as was seen in the film, Magneto allied himself with the X-Men in order to stop Stryker and rescue Xavier.  This was an important change in Magneto's relationship to the X-Men; for the first time they had common ground and regardless of past differences they saw how they had to work together for the greater good.  As an aside, I highly recommend you pick up this comic.  Claremont is very much on his game here and the art by Brent Anderson is beautiful.  Anderson later went on to illustrate Kurt Busiek's Astro City and I love the guy's work.

Magneto, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk and Spider Man were sucked up into what was known as The Secret Wars.   Magneto was placed initially on the heroes' side, but he soon made himself a non-aligned player. I mention this due to the important distinction Jim Shooter was making here to align with the groundwork Claremont had set earlier; Magneto was no longer a straight up villain but someone who fell into a gray area: an anti-hero.  Magneto helped The X-Men and various heroes defeat Doctor Doom and returns to Earth, but who refuses to return with the X-Men, stating his paths and theirs "...must diverge. For now...".

Magneto ultimately replaced Charles at Xavier's School while the professor was off in space with his beloved Lilandra, Empress of the Shi'ar Empire.  This might seem strange, but Claremont again had laid groundwork for how Xavier thought.  He allowed Wolverine to stay on the team despite his violent history.  He accepted Rogue onto the team regardless of her past affiliation with The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants because she was desperate to learn how to control her powers6.  Xavier believed mutants needed to stick together much like Magneto did, but he also believed that even the worst of them were deserving of their shot at redemption.  So when Magneto showed he was changing Charles saw the importance of giving the man a chance to further redeem himself.  Magneto became the New Mutants' teacher and a full time ally of the X-Men.

Later, Magneto was taken into custody by the Avengers and brought to trial before the world court, the same judicial body that ruled Magneto's time before his "re-birth" could not be legally held against him.  Due to potential mental shenanigans on Magneto's part using technology he had stolen from the fallen Asteroid M, Magneto mind controlled one of the judges to rule in his behalf (The question was, however, whether or not the man would have ruled in his favor anyway.  Magneto would never know) and claim his actions had been those of a man at war with Mankind, and hence the world court had no jurisdiction over him.  While some countries like Russia could still hold him accountable, Magneto was essentially a free man.  This court's ruling only served to further fuel anti-mutant hysteria and Magneto would wonder in the aftermath if his actions had been the right ones to make7.

So Magneto was reborn, free (provided he stay outside of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence), and was a respected associate of the X-Men.  His character arc seemed to be largely over.

And then Chris Claremont messed it up.  Magneto went bad again, forming a new team of mutants, getting a new Asteroid M, and generally forgetting about years of character development.  In later years Magneto became ruler of Genosha (Do not get me started on the idiocy that is Genosha, one of the most utterly stupid comic book retcons of all time.), everyone thought he had died when Genosha was destroyed, he came back, decapitated Jean Gray, everyone thought he was dead but he was not, he teamed up with Xavier again, later was responsible for House of M, Cyclops let him join the X-Men even though Magneto had killed his ex-girlfriend and...

Deep breath.

Dialing back, the point is Magneto had a wonderful story arc going from the sixties up to the early nineties.  He started off as a one-note villain and over time was fleshed out to become a more complete, complex character.  I attribute this in large part not only to Chris Claremont's writing but also the work of Marvel's editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter as well as writer Roger Stern for his small contribution in writing X-Men vs. Avengers.  There was a concerted effort by all parties to try and keep Magneto's character development consistent.   It was the slide back into super villainy that ruined him, something I blame not only on Claremont but on editorial decisions at the time.  But if you focus on the point where Magneto became the New Mutants' teacher and ended it right there then I think you can see a fantastic story arc of a villain finding redemption and peace. In fact, I would have been happy to have seen them retire Xavier altogether and keep Magneto as the school head.  Heck, how awesome would it have been had they run a story where Xavier had become a villain and it was Magneto who had to find a way to bring his old friend back from the brink?  Think of the awesomeness in reading that role reversal.

So, what have we learned when looking at this portion of Magneto's run?

Your villain's base can never be too cool.  Magneto's digs are awesome. From orbital asteroids to subterranean caves beneath active volcanoes, to formerly sunken islands covered by the ruins of a city created by a long dead race pre-dating Humanity to a hidden jungle in the Antarctic, the man knew how to live.  When fashioning bases for your villain sometimes it is best to think beyond the abandoned warehouse or mundane medieval castle and go big.

Make your power upgrades make sense! There is nothing wrong with having your bad guy be more powerful in the next go 'round, but (s)he cannot be a pathetic loser in one encounter and a devastating bad ass in the next without some rational explanation.  In Magneto's case there is a good reason behind him suddenly being able to handle the X-Men all on his own (In part it was also due to the new X-Men being an uncoordinated team.  It also did not help that half of their powers could be used against them by the Master of Magnetism: Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine's powers were all countered by Magneto's abilities to some extent.).  Even stating the bad guy has "learned from his last encounter" and has prepared special spells/potions/gadgets to compensate would be good.

Retcons are not bad, unless they are bad retcons.  This means if you do add an element of the character's past make certain that it 1) does not contradict what the PCs already know and 2) it adds to the character rather than detracts.  For example, what upsets me so much about Ed Brubaker bringing Bucky back and making him The Winter Soldier is how it wrecks an important facet of Captain America's character, that of a man who has lived with survivor's guilt, and who's last act of heroism was a failure.  Captain America was shown to be fallible, flawed, without making him any less of a hero.  Sometimes even the greatest of us fail...Unless your sidekick is later found floating in the ocean by Russians, given a bionic arm, brainwashed and turned into an assassin and kept in cryogenic freeze until such time as he is needed.  Oh and have him have sex with The Black Widow sometime before or after (or maybe during) her marriage just to give him more credibility. With all those literary gymnastics you would think it would have just been easier to, you know, create a new character rather than pissing all over Captain America's story.  Or how about the time Ed Brubaker created an entirely new team of X-Men no one had ever heard of that Xavier never mentioned to anyone, who were believed to have been killed in action and Xavier did not tell anyone about.  Oh, and one of them was Cyclops' other brother8?

Do I think Ed Brubaker might be a little over rated as a comic book writer?  Maybe a bit.

Provide the catalyst.  Why do the villains change?  What is their epiphany?  All reformed villains require one.  In Magneto's case it was facing the harsh fact that his conflicts with the X-Men almost had dire consequences for a fellow mutant, the very people he was supposed to be fighting for.  Of course he did try and kill the X-Men with a nuke once, but killing from a distance and with one's bare hands-especially when the latter victim is little more than a child-are considerably different.

Give it a little time.  Magneto's road to redemption can be said to have begun when he was reborn and ran through a little while past X-Men vs. Avengers.  So that was more than ten years of effective storytelling.  Each step was logical, with Magneto a couple times almost sliding back to super villainy before finally becoming a full fledged reformed man.  These days Doctor Doom can send Reed Richard's son to hell and just a few years later become his sidekick without any mention of his horrific deeds. Do I think Jonathan Hickman is over rated as well?  Hell yes.

I am not saying it needs to take years to redeem a villain, just provide a little groundwork.  Establish their villainy, add a bit of complexity (i.e.  they are morally conflicted, or they hold a murderous grudge against a hero), provide the catalyst for their change.  Or use an opportunity your players may provide as that catalyst!  I mentioned before how Photon accidentally blew Doctor Hades up and this resulted in him becoming an artificial intelligence with radically different priorities.  Your players are important resources of creative energy, use it to your advantage!

Next week, hopefully, I will have another article up focusing on another antagonist.  Hopefully February will be a little less dramatic. :)

1 Uncanny X-Men #104

2 Defenders, volume one, #16
3 Uncanny X-Men #111-113
4 Uncanny X-Men #148-150
5 Uncanny X-Men #161
6 Uncanny X-Men #171
7 X-Men vs. Avengers limited series, circa 1987
8 X-Men, Deadly Genesis, a comic which makes no sense and turns Xavier into a total bastard.

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