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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Magneto

slytherin

“I always knew Salazar Slytherin was a twisted old loony,” says Ron Weasley, “but I never knew he started all this pure-blood stuff. I wouldn’t be in his house if you paid me.”

And yet the House of Slytherin has no shortage of new applicants. It’s a Who’s Who of Recent Movie Supervillains, including Magneto, Sebastian Shaw, the Lizard, and the Red Skull. Oh, and Lord Whatshisface minus Ralph Fiennes’ nose. Also, if you don’t mind a little song and dance with your supervillainy, the Broadway Green Goblin. My family only just caught up on the fall season of Syfy’s Alphas, so now I can add Stanton Parish to the list too. He has the best advertising slogan of the batch:

“Better people, Better world.”

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The semi-immortal Parish has been honing his PR skills since the Civil War, so he may have cribbed the phrase from Kentucky eugenicists in the 1930s:

“Fewer Babies, Better Babies.”

That was back when contraception was about preventing the unfit from breeding. Or as Margaret Sanger phrased it on a 1921 cover of Birth Control Review: “To Create a race of thoroughbreds.”

The American branch of Slytherin House, AKA the Eugenics Society of the United States, was sponsoring national “Fitter Family” contests, with winning families receiving medals inscribed with the slogan: “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.”

The pamphlet writers over at the Carnegie Institute Department of Genetics were lesser word wizards, but no less dedicated to the cause: “Eugenics Seeks to Improve the Natural, Physical, Mental, and Temperamental Qualities of the Human Family.”

Other eugenic poster writers focused on the flipside: “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest.” Ads for The Black Stork, a 1917 documentary about a pediatrician who allowed unfit babies to die, cut to the chase: “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation.”

The 1921 Second International Eugenics Conference gave it a scientific-sounding spin: “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.” That means fixing the gene pool through compulsory sterilization, immigration boycotts, anti-miscegenation laws, and what was once euphemistically termed euthanasia,  AKA Auschwitz.

By losing World War 2, the Nazis largely (though not completely) killed the eugenics movement. All that “pure-blood stuff” would be forever associated with the uber-Aryan Adolf Hitler, AKA Salazar Slytherin.

So why is popular entertainment still waging the war? Lord Voldermort is just the tip of the white hooded iceberg.

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Ian McKellen’s Magneto complained that “nature is too slow,” back in the 2000 X-Men.

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Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was still complaining in the 2011 X-Men: First Class, but under the tutelage of Kevin Bacon: “We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.”

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A month later, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was giving Captain America the same lesson: “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. You could have the power of the gods!”

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Last summer, Harry Potter alum Rhys Ifans, AKA the Dr. Curt Connors, AKA the Lizard, wanted to “enhance humanity on an evolutionary scale” and “create a world without weakness.” “This is no longer about curing ills,” he assured Peter Parker. “This is about finding perfection.” Unfortunately, “Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble minded creatures. Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter!”

Green Goblin on Broadway

Another Spider-Man supervillain sings the same song every night, plus weekend matinees. According to Bono’s Green Goblin, “The crossroads of the world just need a little tweak from a freak.”He studies “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” to create “new men,” a “new species.” The military only wants a “new breed of Marines,” but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings are the new “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

This is the song of the Superman. Nietzsche wrote it back in 1883.

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“Lo, I teach you the Superman!” shouts Nietzsche’s PR man, Zarathustra. “Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. . . .Man is something that is to be surpassed. . . . What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman . . . .”

The Superman was Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God. Who needs Him? We can evolve ourselves. You could argue Nietzsche was writing philosophical allegory, not Aryan supremacy. But once George Bernard Shaw (any relation to Sebastian?) translated “ubermensch” into “superman,” the House of Slytherin was up and singing:

For each of the four founders had
A house in which they might

Take only those they wanted, so,
For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning just like him.

 Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”

lord-voldemort

 Maybe Rowling, like recent screenwriters for the X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man, just borrowed eugenics as a boiler plate bad guy. There’s no twisted old loony bigger than Adolf.

Adolf Hitler Saluting, 1934

But then why did it take till January of this year for my state to introduce the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act? Virginia was once the cutting edge of eugenics. The future chancellor of Germany admired our 1924 Racial Integrity Act while dictating Mein Kampf in his prison cell. He used its DNA for the Nazi’s own Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring.

Hitler removed himself from the gene pool in 1945, but Virginia eugenicists kept sterilizing the unfit till 1979. Governor Warner apologized over a decade ago, but only now is the legislature even considering paying for its Death Eater history. The bill limits claims to $50,000 per victim, with an estimated grand total of $76M.

If that sounds like a lot, then imagine living your muggle life under the reign of Voldemort.

Yes, Virginia, there are supervillains. And they don’t come from kids’ books.

Now pass the damn bill.

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[Addendum: Add Iron Man 3 to the list.  There’s another evil super-genius, Aldrich Killian, turning himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.”]

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My wife and I have been discussing the proper disposal of bad guys lately.

Used to be a hero could just kill them. You didn’t even have to call it “homicide.” Unless you’re the 1930s Spider or his 21st century descendant, Dexter. Sometimes stories just have a convenient way of doing in the villain. The hero even gets to keep his moral high ground, as his enemy refuses to grasp his outstretched hand before plunging into the abyss (see Loki in the 2011 Thor).

Batman racked up a list of kills before DC instated the first code of comic book ethics and, more importantly, recognized the joy of a reoccurring nemesis. That’s why the Joker’s first appearance ends in jail bars instead of flames (Batman #1). When Superman’s original archenemy (the now deservedly obscure Ultra-Humanite) mysteriously vanishes from his plane wreckage, Superman muses: “Well, that finishes his plan to control the earth—OR DOES IT?”(Action Comics #13).

But the disappearing body trick gets old fast. And so if you can’t kill or lock up the guy, all you’re left with is banishment. Take Magneto. Even that all-plastic prison in X-Men 2 didn’t hold him for long. The first time the Avengers thwarted his plans for world domination, they sealed him in a magic bubble and dropped him to the earth’s core (Avengers #110).

It’s a nifty trick, but did they really think through the consequences? They were saving the earth, but did they consider the below-the-crust population? What about the mole men? Here they are, minding their own subterranean business, when suddenly, BAM!, world’s mightiest mutant plops into the heart of their community. Sure, he’s been de-fanged, no magnetic power waves pulsing from his battle helmet. But it’s still him. Same hulking physique. Same pompously flapping cape. Imagine having to face schlepping to work every day, never knowing when you’re going to find him slouching at the office copy machine, an unrepentant grimace scarring his face.

Because that’s the problem. He doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. In fact, as my ex-department chair’s husband’s brother says, Magneto is the best supervillain because he actually thinks he’s the hero.

But he’s not alone in that category. Only a few Bronze Age readers out there might remember the ex-Avenger Moondragon and her mission to bring peace to the world by establishing herself as its all-powerful goddess. Her rule wasn’t exactly a golden age for human morale, but she didn’t mean any harm. The Avengers had to thwart her too, but instead of allowing her to conveniently die or vanish, Thor’s dad demoted her with a power-absorbing headband and then forced her to join the Defenders for safe keeping (Defenders #124).

Great news for the world. Kinda shitty for the Defenders.

At least when Wonder Woman topples would-be world-conquers, she ships them to Transformation Island where they wear Venus Girdles and learn to submit to loving authority (Wonder Woman #28). But a guy like Magneto never changes. So when his next evil plan went horribly awry, he was demoted all the way down to the baby room. The leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants ends Defenders #16 as a bawling infant.

Again, great for humanity. But what about the x-babies at mutant daycare?

Imagine plopping your diapered butt down for storytime and who’s hogging the bean bag chair but the kid who just the day before was trying to remake your world in his own fickle image. It’s not fair. Mutant daycare was one of the best run departments in the multiverse, and now they have to babysit a dethroned ubervillain? The Defenders are a top-notch team of world-savers, and now they have to share a water cooler with a mind control goddess still pining for omnipotence?

When the Hulk went on a berserker rampage after losing the balancing presence of Bruce Banner, Dr. Strange banished him to an endless crossroads of alternate universes, ones where his green muscles could do no harm (The Incredible Hulk #300). It was a kindness to the poor brute because he got to choose where he would live, while still removing him from the world where he caused so much chaos. Sort of like job searching during an imposed sabbatical far far away.

Is that so much to ask?

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When we streamed X-Men: First Class in our living room the other night, we roped our fourteen-year-old daughter into watching too. My wife promised cute guys. So it’s not surprising that Madeleine noticed first:

“Wait, are they gay?”

She meant Magneto and Professor X and, wow, was she right.

In retrospect, their first meeting (a passionate underwater hug) should have been a clue. I didn’t see it till the shot of Chuck and Eric nuzzled shoulder to shoulder in the strip joint bed. Madeleine got it when they were gazing at each other across a chessboard with the, um, Empire State Building in the background. Apparently Wolverine smelled it too. When the two ubermutants saddle up to him in a bar, he spells it out: “Go fuck yourself.”

Oh, I think they are.

Even without the gay rights subtext (when Charles accidentally outs Hank McCoy, the mutant tells his C.I.A. employer: “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”), the air was already thick with bromance.

Before the release, actor James McAvoy (Charles) promised a “kind of love story, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which, really, was a love story between two men.” The difference is that Redford (or was Newman “Butch”?) got a sappy love montage riding a bicycle with his very heterosexual love interest. 1969 was not a year to come out of the Brokeback closet.

Charles and Erik pay some minimal attention to women (Charles has a couple of lazy pick-up lines, and Erik solidifies Mystique’s allegiance with an off-camera consummation), but their real passion is for each other. Erik cradling the crippled Charles in his arms says it all. “I want you by my side.”

Once they break up, both instantly sublimate into new and wholly heterosexual channels. Charles and his C.I.A. contact were Platonic before he pecks her on the lips and strips her memory (the ultimate rufie?). Erik is more blatant when he springs the comically underdressed Emma Frost from a C.I.A. holding tank.

“Where’s your telepath friend?” she asks.

“Gone. Left a bit of a gap in my life if I’m to be honest. I was rather hoping you would fill it.”

The last actor to play Magneto would have gone further. For his third and last X-Men movie, Ian McKellen wanted the camera to discover him and Patrick Stewart (a sexier, albeit balder Charles than McAvoy’s) in the throes of a sex scene. Bryan Singer might have gone along with it (both he and McKellen are gay), which could also explain why Fox handed control of X-Men: The Last Stand to a different director.

But Charles and Erik are not the first superpowered frenemies with benefits. It was the subtext of the arch rival since its comic book conception.

Superman faced down his first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, back in 1939. Like Professor X, Ultra is a bald, wheelchair-bound super-genius. Creator Jerry Siegel retconned him into the first dozen Action Comics as the secret mastermind behind all those garden variety crimes Superman so effortlessly ended. The Man of Steel needed an opponent on his own playing field.

As McAvoy says about Magneto and Professor X: “This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too.”

Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger exploited the same, not-so-subtle sexual subtext with Catwoman.  Simply “The Cat” in her first 1940 appearance, she attempts to seduce Batman after he captures her: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me! You and I TOGETHER!” (Robin is conveniently looking away during the embrace.)

Though tempted, Batman refuses. But he also lets his favorite feline escape. “Lovely girl! What eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime.” (We can discuss Robin’s jealous reaction elsewhere.)

Siegel understood the subtext too. Perhaps too well. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife Marguerite, Lois Lane is the one antagonist always on the verge of discovering Superman’s secret. But Superman had an even bigger breasted threat.

After Ultra’s first four appearances (and second apparent death) the original comic book nemesis returned.  As a woman. Superman recognizes his arch rival in the “blazing eyes” of screen star Delores Winters.

“You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look—as you can see, I’m very much alive!”

And very much female in that tight, red, spaghetti-strap dress Joe Shuster sketches for her/him. How is such a villainous transformation possible!

“My assistants, finding my body, revived me . . .  and following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”

From all the bodies on the planet, Ultra chooses to become a famously gorgeous film actress. That’s not a metaphor. The guy is transsexual.

Superman continues to call the post-operative Ultra/Delores “he,” but even when Shuster draws Delores’ body in trousers, she’s still all woman. In Ultra’s next (and last adventure), the villain(ess) even uses his feminine wiles to seduce an atomic scientist (“The fool!”).

The gender bender proved too much for Siegel and/or his DC editors. Veiled homosexuality is one thing. An explicitly transgendered supervillain is another. The solution? A not-yet-bald Lex Luthor replaces Ultra in the next episode.

And so the bromance continues . . .

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While I was promoting my second novel, School for Tricksters, ThreeGuysOneBook.com asked me what books made me a reader for life:

This is embarrassingly unliterary, but comic books started me reading.  I remember my first: The Defenders #15. The cover is the desktop background on my laptop.  This was around 1972, when my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. I was too busy studying superheroes to take much notice.  Until someone sprayed “Niger Lovers” (yes, they misspelled it) on the side of our house.  My parents were suing our Pittsburgh suburb to desegregate their police force, which also explains why our phone was tapped.

I was seven and more concerned with the Defenders’ battle against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  I was living on a planet of pulp paper, neatly sorted into stacks in my bedroom closet: Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk. I have a box of tattered survivors in my attic, and have tried to woo my ten-year-old with them, but he prefers real novels (Percy Jackson, Eragon, Artemis Fowl).

My Defenders #15 vanished, so I recently bought a reprint collection the size of a New York telephone book. It’s in black and white, but I still recognize the stories, even exact panels: the way Magneto sits plotting over an ancient book of magical science. After thwarting the Brotherhood, the Defenders went on to battle the Sons of the Serpent, a supervillain group I only now see is based on the Ku Klux Klan. Their evil plan: start a race war and force all non-Aryans out of America. I wasn’t living on as different a planet as I thought.  Hawkeye, the Defenders’ newest member, is a millionaire playboy by day, and he soon discovers that his African American assistant has been secretly financing the Sons of the Serpent with his fortunes. Why? Because it’s good business. This isn’t another planet. This is America, only more so. America dreaming about itself.

I grudgingly grew out of comics by the end of elementary school, and went on to devour Heinlein in middle school, Vonnegut in high school, and finally the novels that most inspired my writing: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior.  It was Morrison’s Playing in the Dark that opened my eyes widest, showed me that all writers are writing about race. It’s just a question of whether they know it or not.  I read it the year it came out, 1992, the year I started writing my first novel.

Or that’s the literary way of telling the story. My new novel in stories, School for Tricksters, may owe as much to Marvel Comics. It’s about an evil government plot to destroy non-Aryan culture.  It’s about heroes with secret identities: a young white woman and a young black man passing as Indians in a school designed to turn Indians into Whites. Everyone there learns to wear a mask. Including myself: I am a white man writing as a black man and a white woman about Native America. Unlike The Defenders, the novel recreates real people for its characters. Its world is painstakingly researched history, but the true tale is as amazing, incredible, and uncanny as any of Clark Kent’s or Peter Parker’s. It’s America, only more so.

I’ve tried to go back to comic books—those shelves of graphic novels in every major book store. Like real dreams, their absurdities are embarrassing, sometimes revealing, but most often banal.  I teach a college seminar on superheroes, and my research unearths an occasional gem like “Wyatt Wingfoot,” a Fantastic Four character based on Jim Thorpe, a central character in School for Tricksters.  Wyatt and I were both born in1966, just a month apart. More often my discoveries are uglier: the roots of the superhero in 1930’s fascism, 1920’s vigilantism, 1910’s eugenics. America dreaming in nightmares. That’s not the history Marvel Comics taught me. But then my American history texts didn’t teach me about the Carlisle Indian School either.  It’s our job to go deeper, to read under the surface of things.  Comic books are as good a start as any.

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