Who Is Magneto? Cullen Bunn And Gabriel Hernandez Walta Reestablish An Icon [Review]
When you consider the entire history of Magneto, it's pretty ridiculous. He's been assumed dead at least half-a-dozen times; he's probably flip-flopped from villain to hero more times than that; and he's been resurrected as both a Nelson-haired clone (millennials: Google "Nelson band" to get how funny that is) and a star-headed Taoist. Mistakes have been made with the character; mistakes so big that the character's retcons and course-corrections have diminished his stature, leaving readers to wonder; Just who the hell is Magneto?
After the events of Avengers vs. X-Men, the murder of Professor Xavier, and his resignation from Team Cyclops, Magneto was ready for a fresh start, and readers probably were as well. The last truly interesting thing done with the character was Grant Morrison and Phil Jimenez's "Ambient Magnetic Fields" in New X-Men #132. (That includes the Xorn reveal. I get flack for being a Morrison devotee, but as much as I loved the first two-thirds of New X-Men, I absolutely hate the home stretch). It feels like it's been a long time since Magneto last actually mattered.
In the Marvel NOW series Magneto, Cullen Bunn and company offer a new direction to a character that for very long seemed rudderless. His powers reduced, Magneto wages a one-man war against anyone who threatens the safety of mutants. It's a Fugitive/Incredible Hulk TV show take on the Master of Magnetism, except he travels around the country helping the downtrodden by savagely murdering their oppressors, rather than shooting at the ground A-Team style. It's a perfect approach, and has resulted in the darkest and most relevant Magneto story in recent memory.
By bringing Magneto down to his lowest level -- a few steps above vengeful hobo -- Bunn also concentrates the character to his core elements: the trauma of the Holocaust, the undying need to protect his own kind, and a sense of superiority that defines him as a villain. Even though the antagonists of Magneto are Purifiers and mutant fighting rings, Bunn doesn't make the mistake of trying to recast his lead as a hero, or even an anti-hero.
While exploring the current state of Magneto's mind, and the history of suffering that forged him into what he is today, Bunn never lets Magneto off the hook. Ever since Magneto's history in the Holocaust was revealed, he's always been a sympathetic character; no matter how villainous he was, it was easy to understand his point of view, in light of his history of oppression and loss. One of the things that made X-Men comics so great for so long was the opposing philosophies of Charles Xavier and Magneto, which challenged the reader to find sympathy with both sides of the struggle, and presented a much more ambiguous dynamic than hero versus villain.
Unlike many other writers over the last couple of decades, Bunn is able to delve into the aspects of Magneto that make him a sympathetic character without forgetting that he's murderous, vindictive, and narcissistic. Bunn writes a character who has been humbled by his recent experiences, but it's a humility that burns. Magneto thinks of himself as a deposed king; the savior of mutantkind made to suffer his current ignominy to make up for his past failures. The only redemption he's seeking is from himself, and his own perception of superiority.
Bunn treads a very fine line, revealing Magneto's guts with a subtlety not often seen in mainstream superhero comics. Magneto's inner monologue runs throughout the story, bringing the reader in line with his perspective, and exposing the true nature of the mutant who was once Max Eisenhardt: a man with many regrets who believes that the loss of his friends in the Holocaust emboldened him to shape history; a man haunted by the deaths of sixteen million mutants not because of their loss, but because it represents his own failure; a victim of genocide who became genocidal in response.
Magneto redefines an icon and re-establishes Magneto as a true villain without wiping away anything that came before. Magneto is still a sympathetic character, but Bunn manipulates the readers' sympathies or ambivalence to confirm that, no matter what, Magneto is still the bad guy. It's a great piece of character work that reconciles all the previous versions of the character within this haunted, hateful man.
Magneto truly is a team effort, and Bunn is not the only creator operating at the top of his game. As the primary artist for the series, Gabriel Hernandez Walta is a perfect match for its tone. His minimalist pencils and robust storytelling ensure the story is visually compelling, even though it's so intensely focused on the mental makeup of its main character.
Of course, Magneto is not without action or intrigue; a gritty, street-level sci-fi story, its every issue features a slow buildup in tension that eventually explodes, allowing Hernandez Walta to exhibit masterful control and restraint. Thought it's apparent the artist could enthrall you with intensity and drama in every panel, or dazzle you with a quirky layout on every page, he saves visual gymnastics for the moments when they really count.
Backup artist Javier Fernandez is a nice replacement (with colorist Dan Brown filling in for Fernandez's sequences), offering a slashing, violent style that matches Bunn's razor-sharp writing well, but those issues definitely lack the subtlety and expressiveness of Hernandez Walta's pages. While Bunn examines Magneto's interior, Hernandez Walta conducts his own investigation into the exterior, finding a myriad of harrowed nuances in his normally stony expression.
In case her Eisner award didn't convince you, Jordie Bellaire truly is the best colorist in comics. Over the last couple of years, she's shown her range across a wide variety of projects. Nowhere Men, Pretty Deadly, The Manhattan Projects, and Captain Marvel are all vastly different books with their own hand-picked palettes.
For Magneto, the palette is dominated by black, red, and gray, and as the shifts from muted scenes of self-reflection to moments of shocking horror, Bellaire applies her palette to stunning effect. Bellaire is a strong advocate for the importance of colorists, and Magneto makes her case. Her contributions to the book's tone and atmosphere elevate the series to the next level.
Magneto is a compelling serial drama with a visual style all its own, and it finds a whole new type of story to tell with its lead, tapping his hidden depths while also reconnecting to his roots. Magneto is the most complete picture of the character we've had in years.