“What’s your hero’s name?”
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design), Leinil Francis Yu (artist)
August 26, 2020
Magneto is a comic book character of fierce complexity. His history has never followed a straight trajectory; like the metal his powers manipulate, his identity has coiled back around itself—villain, survivor, hero, villain, survivor, hero—and we see ourselves reflected on its surface.
X-Men #11, by Jonathan Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu, concludes the book’s tie-ins to Marvel’s ongoing Empyre event and brings the alien Cotati armies to Krakoa. It is also a Magneto story, sharp and direct like a metal projectile slicing through some very invasive, very talkative plants.
The story unfolds like a firelit folktale, as Exodus rhapsodizes about Magneto’s defense of Krakoa to a group of mutant children. Though the battle was only the previous day, it’s already become a part of a much larger legend. I thought about Magneto’s ever-shifting role within the X-Men while reading this issue—not just Chris Claremont’s pivotal reinvention of the character, though turning a pop-eyed despot who flew around via jetpack into the nuanced, noble inheritor of Xavier’s dream was indeed an inspired bit of alchemy. (Seriously, just read those Silver Age appearances some time.)
Instead, my brain rewound to 1993’s “Bloodties” crossover. An event capitalizing on the 30th anniversary of the X-Men and the Avengers, it’s now almost thirty years old itself. Broken down, “Bloodties” shares some of the raw materials of X-Men #11. A war, an island, Exodus…though Magneto himself barely appears it’s a story very much about his legacy and what it means. And in the 90s, that legacy was evil. Said Scott Lobdell, promoting the crossover in X-Men Anniversary Magazine: “A lot of the story will have to do with these two heroes [Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver] coming to terms with the fact that their father is for all intents and purposes, Hitler.” A grotesquely insensitive comment to make about a Holocaust survivor striving to save a marginalized people from genocide, it reflects the bluntness of 90s superhero comics, where the characters were reduced to action figures slamming against each other on the schoolyard asphalt. Magneto was the bad guy, that was it. This attitude prevailed through the 2000s—Grant Morrison may have coined “Magneto was Right,” but remember that his Magneto was a doddering old fascist who marched people into crematoriums. Incidentally, thank god for retcons.
But here’s the thing, which X-Men #11 hammers home in a chorus of children’s voices: Magneto is a hero. The tide has turned so strongly I don’t think readers will ever accept him as a villain again. There are reasons for this that deserve more words than I can give here: a greater social consciousness, perhaps; an awareness of the failures of respectability politics; a readership that wants characters who are made of stronger stuff than plastic. And it feels weird to type this on the weekend of its painful, whimpering death, but the X-Men film series’ portrayal of Magneto may be one of its lasting legacies. Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender gave the Master of Magnetism such a compelling presence that you couldn’t help but kinda want him to win, even when he was turning Senator Willard Stiles into a puddle of goo.
When Magneto faces the Cotati in X-Men #11, we don’t just want him to win, we know he already has. It was never a question. Hickman and Yu introduce Magneto floating in meditation, nude but far from vulnerable (as Yu’s attention to Magneto’s anatomy can attest). Beside him hang three helmets and costumes in different colors: red, white, and black. The concept of “mutant clothes” has been a fun quirk of the Krakoa era, but the idea that their colors mean something has been underexplored, aside from Phoenix’s many costume changes. (As Jean pondered in Classic X-Men #43: “Three phases of Phoenix: green was the good one…red the bad…so what means this white?”) If Magneto’s white costume signifies diplomacy and peace, what means this red? Magik and Gorgon barge in, asking him to safeguard Krakoa while the war captains fight on the moon. “I may even dress for the occasion,” Magneto says, choosing the day’s ensemble. In this case, the red (warmly supplied by colorist Sunny Gho) means ohhhh my god, it’s happening, people, shit’s about to get real.
There’s a simple satisfaction in reading what is essentially a showcase for a single character, especially when it’s this good. After the slightly disappointing Giant-Size X-Men: Magneto and Empyre: X-Men miniseries, this is a stronger showing from Hickman, whose Magneto is imbued with intelligence, wit, and the nonchalance of a man who’s fought so many battles that an alien invasion doesn’t so much as arch an eyebrow. In a nice bit of worldbuilding, Tom Muller’s data pages reveal that the X-Men have been practicing new combinations of mutants’ powers in battle scenarios. Seeing it unfold on the page, with Magma unearthing liquid iron, Iceman rapidly cooling it, and Magneto unleashing a hail of iron hell on the Cotati, I felt that unique “12-year-old downing Mountain Dew and Doritos for the first time” spike of excitement that just screams superhero comics.
Yu’s art works well and the story plays to its strengths. In the past, I’ve criticized his art for being stiff and static, but here, if the Cotati seem wooden, well, they are. Yu’s linework is perfectly in sync with the script’s bone-scrapingly dry humor—and we really, truly don’t talk enough about how funny this book is. There are visual jokes here that land with the precision of a cartoon piano dropped on Daffy Duck’s head, and that skill should be noted.
Though Exodus hails Magneto as the singular hero of Krakoa, the unfolding story shows he did not do it alone. From Magma and Iceman creating ammunition to the dramatic final image of the X-Men striking down the Cotati, we see what the mutant community is capable of when it’s united against a threat, and when the human labels of “good” mutants and “evil” mutants are cast aside.
Let’s return to the glow of the campfire with Exodus and the children. Together with its counterpart in X-Men #7, this scene bookends the second arc of Hickman and Yu’s X-Men. In the nearly thirty years since “Bloodties,” the world of the X-Men has shifted dramatically, though these stories are connected by the red thread of Exodus and his unwavering faith in Magneto. How strange to think that Scarlet Witch (Avenger, Pretender) is now mutantkind’s biggest bogeyman, while her “father” Magneto is one of its biggest champions. The mutant children don’t say her name. They celebrate his.