A Very Tired Fangirl :) (jij) wrote in superhero_muses,
A Very Tired Fangirl :)

Workshop: "He's Got Issues: Writing Magneto" by Kiplingkat7

This week's workshop is by kiplingkat7, and is an in-depth look at the character of Magneto in the Marvel 616 Universe.  The essay was originally posted at www.magnetowasright.com, and can be read there along with some other excellent essays about the character.


He's Got Issues: A Dime Store Psychology Look at the Character of Magneto in the 616

Everyone knows that Magneto went through the Holocaust. What most people do not understand is how that experience drives him or what the other emotional twists in his psyche are. Most assume Holocaust = “angry vengeance-driven Magneto” and leave it at that. Yet over his forty-plus year history, we have seen many sides to the character, and many clues that rage is only part of the forces that drive Magneto both forward and backward.

Trying to account for all the characterizations of a comic book character over forty-odd years is a challenge. Every writer that has written the character has his or her own take, and in the case of Magneto, sometimes those “takes” are extremely different from one another. However, it is possible to synthesize single picture of the man by incorporating all these disparate portrayals.


The Basics

For all his political rabble-rousing, most fans forget that Magnus is a genius. While he is not on Reed Richards’ level of pure imaginative conceptual theory, he is easily one of the Marvel Universe’s top ten in the areas of engineering, genetics, computer sciences, and physics (in fact at time I have often wondered if he and Richards have an unspoken desire to pick each other’s brains). Admittedly, he is rather cheating in the last one, given that his powers give him access to one of the most primal forces of physics in the universe, but the rest of it is all him. His research is extremely important to him, as witnessed by how his regret over losing the information stored in his databanks in Uncanny X-Men #113 and how enraged he became when Kitty Pryde began earasing his databanks in Uncanny #150.

However, unlike Richards, Magnus is a deeply passionate character, ruled by his heart. His intellect is employed to rationalize and enact his decisions after the fact. Despite his outward reserve, he is capable of great abiding hatred towards his enemies, and he is also capable of great warmth towards those he cares about, such as his granddaughter Luna. The occurances are rare, but he can be surprisingly open about his personal experiences if he feels that understanding is needed to help the other person. In Uncanny X-Men #196, he opened up to Rachel  in order to keep her from killing a muderous anti-mutant bigot. He counseled the New Mutants through their murder and ressurection by the Beyonder (and who better than a man who had lived with death for four years), cradling a weeping Rhane in his arms and instinctually knowing what would be best for them (New Mutants Vol. 1 #40). His passionate nature is also shown in the continued mourning of his eldest child, his extremely reactionary interactions, his frequent and extreme rages, and as we shall see, his inability to look at his emotional problems logically.

Repeatedly claiming to be a "realist", Magneto would scoff at the assessment that he is a romantic. But he is in both the philosophical and relationship sense. Despite his outward cynicism, the fact that he continues to devote his life completely towards making the world a better place (what would be a better place in his eyes) indicates he is extremely idealistic. Given that he has spent most of his adult life tilting at the windmill of mutant superiority/separatism, he is a rather quixotic character in a way. His faith in his own will to overcome adversity and attain his gaols, his attachment to melodrama, his tendency towards grandiose expression, and the inspiration he finds in nature (Uncanny X-Men #274) all indicate a romantic temperment and mindset. It is also shown in his relatonships. He can be gallant with women he is attracted to or involved with. When he is involved romantically, he is utterly committed. Note his surprise to Wasp's casual estimation of their one night stand in Secret Wars I #4, his committment to Lee years after the readers had seen them together on panel in Uncanny X-Men #274, and the love he still shows his wife 30 years gone (weeping over her grave in X-Men Unlimited #2, naming the central plaza in Hammer Bay, Genosha after her).

Magneto's survival instincts are perhaps one of the strongest in the Marvel Universe, not only surviving four years in a Death Camp, but also clawing his way out of at least seven or eight situations on panel which should have killed or permenantly imprisoned him. Concurrently, his iron will is near legendary, not only enabling him plow through difficulties in achieving his goals and come back from defeat time and time again, but also helping him to reflect the attacks of some of the world's strongest telepaths (Xavier almost constantly, Jean Grey and Xavier in X-Men Vol. 2 #25, the Shadow King in Uncanny X-Men #275).

Magnus also has a very healthy ego and sense of pride. His impressive self-confience often crosses the line into arrogance and sometimes even further into meglomania, but this is usually only attached to his episodes of madness which we will discuss later. Mortimer Toynbee, A.K.A. the Toad, observed that it was Magneto's confidence that was a strong factor in holding the fractious Brotherhood together. "He believed so strongly in himself--in his goals--in his methods--that no matter how ludicrous some of them sounded you actually believed he would accomplish them!" (X-Men Unlimited #2) However, when Magneto is in one of his sane periods, the ego is moderated into self assurance. He does not swagger or brag, nor will he suffer insult or engage in false modesty. What he is, he is. The traditional verbal barbs exchanged between enemies do not affect him. Only those rare few closest to him or those rare few he wants to be close to, such as his children, can get through his ego to strike at his concience and even then he may not show it until later. In fact, it takes rather drastic turns of events smacking Magneto upside the head for him to realize that he is wrong (such as when he thought he had killed the 14 year old Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men #150, or when Wanda's decended into madness in Excalibur Vol. 3 #'s 11 and 14). But he can be brought to that realization, and over his long history on panel he has shown himself capable of slow, subtle emotional growth.

Magnus is masculine without being machismo. Quietly confident in his mascilinity without feeling the need to thump his chest, flirt with or seduce women, or throw his weight around to prove it (he saves throwing his weight around for his political schemes). He just is. He is a chauvanist, as witnessed by countless "Foolish Female!"s, "Woman!"s, and "My dear"s, but this is stems from the fact that he was born in the 1920's in Eastern Europe, not from any kind of misogyny. He is not a sexist. He is not so stupid as to underestimate women nor dismiss what they have to say out of hand. He followed Storm's orders without friction while he was working with the X-Men. He is that happy ideal of a "Man's man" who is not intimidated or threatened by strong women. 

To call Magnus a "gentleman" would be painting too rosy a picture, but since his "rebrith" he does have a strong sense of decorum and a personally defined sense of honor. While not on the level of Hank McCoy's verbosity, Magnus is quite eloquent. He knows well and appreciates the finer things in life; classical music (X-Men vs. the Avengers #1), great literature (X-Men Vol. 2 #25), fine art (this makes several appearances in the background, and he uses his power to sculpt on occasion and does so well), fine food and elegant suits (which he makes himself from a ultra-fine chain mail that is as strong as body armour and as comfortable as cloth ~ Uncanny X-Men #210, New Mutants #52). His taste in decor seems to evoke the 18th century salons of Paris. However, while he is arrogant, he is not pretentious. These are natural enjoyments for him. But if he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he completely lost it in the Holocaust. He is equally at home in the London Barbican Centre as he is in a dockside dive (Uncanny X-Men #321). Nor has he ever been averse to getting his hands dirty both for himself and others. In fact, it is far harder for him to accept help than it is to give it. "..the primal, paramount lesson of my life is that I can depend on no one save myself." (Uncanny X-Men #275)

As surprising as it sounds to many readers, Magneto does have a sense of humor. It's quite dry, Saharan in fact, but it's quietly present when he is not in a meglomanical rage. However, by nature Magnus is not very social. "All my life I have been drawn to the wild and desolate places in the world. As a boy I saw myself walking where no man had, alone against the elements. The more I came to know people, the more strongly that yearning dream spoke to me. As though the fierce unyielding emptiness without struck a resonant echo within my heart and soul." (Uncanny X-Men #274)

For most of his comic book career, when Magneto was off panel he was either exploring and practicing with his powers, making new discoveries in physics (Classic X-Men #19), or tinkering and coming up with new inventions. Sitting around twiddling his thumbs or having them manicured is not his style (“I am sick of being ill. I am a man of action, this sitting around pampering myself is sheer torture!” ~ New Mutants #29). He is constantly trying to better not only the lot of mutants, but everything around him. In short, at heart the man is a “if it’s broke fix it, if it ain’t broke it needs more features” engineer.

Being an engineer was his original goal when he moved the family from the Carpathian mountains to the city of Vinnistia, so Magnus is also at heart, ambitious. But for a very long time it was only modest ambitions that drove him. After the Holocaust he did everything he could to leave it behind and start a new life with a new family. He was a husband and father, and his only ambitions were to improve his education and therefore his and his family’s lot in life (Classic X-Men #12). Even after he discovered he was a mutant, Magnus’ only ambition was to find his wife. He spent at least a couple years roaming Eastern Europe in disguise (“I was willing to deny who I was, everything that my family died for, so that I could find one woman…” X-Men Vol. 2 #72) trying to find her before he gave up and emigrated to Israel where he went to work as a volunteer orderly in a mental hospital in Haifa, one of the more thankless jobs one can imagine (Uncanny X-Men #161).

This selfless act shows one of the principal forces that both drives and hobbles Magnus’s in his quest to protect mutant kind.

Survivors Guilt and Self-Hatred

If one can read only one story arc, only a couple issues, to come to understand Magneto as a character, then they must read Uncanny X-Men #274 and 275. This story is told completely from Magneto’s point of view, and his interior monologues are extremely illuminating as to the forces that drive him.

“I wear red, the color of blood, in tribute to their lost lives. And the harder I try to cast it aside, to find the gentler path, the more irresistibly I am drawn back. I should have died myself with those that I loved. Instead I carted the bodies by the hundreds, by the thousands, from the death house to the crematorium, and the ashes to the burial ground. Asking myself now what I could not then—Why was I spared?” ~Uncanny X-Men #274

What Magneto took away from the Holocaust was not merely rage, but guilt. A huge whomping case of survivor’s guilt. On top of the utter dehumanization, the torture, the starvation, the disease, the twenty-hour days, sometimes days without end, of back-breaking manual labor, as a sonderkommando, Magneto was forced to take apart in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. His people. It would not be at all surprising if he saw members of his extended family, friends, people he knew, among the faces of the bodies he pulled out of the gas chamber and fed into the crematorium ovens. For the most part, Magneto has focused his survivors guilt outward. He must prove his life was worth saving, that what he experienced and what he did to survive was the right thing to do. He failed at being a husband and father, so he had to find another reason to justify his survival. He did this by becoming a crusader, by saving his new people, mutants, where he could not save his old people, the Jews.

But along with guilt comes its Siamese-twin self-hatred. Magnus went into Auschwitz between the ages of 11 to 14. A child. One of the hardest thing most victims of child abuse have to understand was that it was not their fault. As adults, they may intellectually understand it, but emotionally there is a part of them that still takes the blame for being abused and it takes a great deal of time (and usually therapy) to come to terms with the fact that they are not. Add onto that becoming part of process of abuse, taking part in the murder of his own people by further dehumanizing them (after the Jews died in the gas chambers, the sonderkommando were forced to search the cavities of the dead bodies for valuables) and disposing of the bodies. Now add on the fact that he discovered he had the great powers that could have saved his people only after everyone he cared for had died (or in one case, had left him), and Magneto is walking around with a case of guilt and self hatred that would have many people suicidal. Indeed, the only person he has spoken to about being a sonderkommando is Charles. When he was telling Pietro and Wanda, his own children, of his Holocaust experiences in The Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries Vol. 1 #4 and Vol. 2 #6, he hid it. He painted himself as more heroic, claiming that he "possessed the power to fight back", when he clearly did not. (Wanda and Pietro probably do not even know they had an older sister.) It is something that emotionally he is deeply ashamed of and feels a need to make up for.

As surprising as it may sound for the arrogant, egotistical Master of Magnetism, Magnus has self-hatred in abundance. It is clearly seen in the self-sabotaging behavior he engages in not only his personal relationships, but his political schemes. Somewhere along the line Magneto always unleashes his rage at the wrong time, or alienates his allies, or is blind to potential betrayals. Even when he is successful he self-destructs. When he finally had Genosha, when the Legacy Virus had been cured, when his powers had been restored, when he finally had the opportunity to create that safe home for mutants, he threw it away: He declared war on humanity. With a force of “tens of thousands”, he declared war on a planet of six billion. (X-Men Vol. 2 #111)

It was insane. It was senseless.

And he ended up paralyzed and de-powered because of it. (X-Men Vol. 2 #113)

And it was a mercy to those around him that he did because if he had carried out his plan, Genosha would have been destroyed on the rocks of his arrogance, rage, and self-hatred.

Nor is his self-destructive behavior limited to his subconscious. Despite his incredible strength of will to survive almost anything the world throws at him, despite his incredible ego, Magneto has been suicidal off and on almost his entire existence on panel. Note in the preceding quote Magneto says “I should have died…” not “I might have died…” a big difference in attitude. Nor is that the only example, as far back as (Uncanny) X-Men #63 Magneto was refusing to be saved from life-threatening situations. “Too late! Too late to do anything but die!” We see a similar occurrence in X-Men (Vol. 2) #3, in which Magneto refused to leave the crumbling remains of Asteroid M as it broke up in the atmosphere. This finally culminated in Excalibur (Vol. 3) #14 in which in a mystical fuge state Magneto asks Xavier to kill him.

Magnus: “Haven’t you ever felt like you were in the grip of forces far greater than yourself? Some things are not allowed to change. I am old Charles, and so very tired. I have no more strength. The path of my life is piled high with bodies. My own children years for the love of a family they’ve never known, yet can only think of their father with shame and revulsion. You’re more than my Friend. Charles, you’re my brother. I have no one else to turn to. No one I dare trust. I’ve done such harm, especially to those I should have loved more than my life. I’m hoping for a miracle. Even one I do not deserve.”

Charles: “And this is your solution? Helping her retreat into a cocoon of fantasy, while I put a bullet through your brain?”

Magnus: “I want her to be happy. I want to be at peace.”

Blaming Fate

And here we come to one of the true faults of Magnus as a man. He almost consistently denies the responsibility for his choices. “Forces far greater than yourself”. In the quote above, Magnus was willing to die rather than face up to the responsibility of what his life as a terrorist had done to his children.

In X-Men (Vol. 2) #1 the X-Men attack him out of their longstanding enmity rather than pause for a moment to listen to what he has to say. “You chose to see me solely as the man that I was! Is that then what I am?” Later, as he and Rogue are having a discussion above Soviet airspace, they are interrupted by a missile attack from fighter planes.  

“I tried to change, I did my best to follow Xavier’s path to peaceful co-existence between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens superior, and paid for that folly with the blood of innocents….There is you answer child, and mine! Whatever we decide, the world will never accept us. They mean only our destruction as individuals and as a species!”

For someone as intelligent as he is, Magnus is shockingly un-selfaware. He allows others and events to define him. While he readily blames the Holocaust and Magda for the path his life has taken, he seems determinedly ignorant of his independent will, of the choices he makes. His actions he takes responsibility for quite readily, from being proud of blackmailing the world to gain Genosha to feeling responsiblity for the death of Douglas Ramsey very keenly. But the choice he makes to take the path of violence and militant separatism in the first place he always blames on fate instead of looking at himself to understand how the tragedies of his life have affected how he thinks and approaches people and situations. While he has reconsidered his actions rare points, he has never acknowledged he has mental health issues or emotional dysfunctions. Life made him the way he is, that's that. Its fate's fault that he became a terrorist, nothing he could do about it. It is far, far easier to wrap himself in the familiar warm cloak of righteous anger and react rather than examine his reactions and think the problems he is confronted with through. 

It is noteworthy that Magneto never made a conscious decision to join the X-Men and become Headmaster of the New Mutants during his reformation period. He was casting about, trying to find a new direction when he was railroaded into the X-Men by Xavier. First Charles asked for his help in fighting the Beyonder in Secret Wars II (New Mutants Vol. 1 #29), and then bound Magneto to them by a “death bed promise” to take over teaching the New Mutants in Uncanny X-Men #200. While Magnus earnestly worked to fulfill that promise and obviously came to care for the New Mutants ("...I have come to know these children and care for them. Whatever I was, whatever I become, they mean too much to me to abandon them." ~ New Mutants Vol. 1 #48), he never actually said “This is the path I want to take…”

As a smaller example, in New Mutants #28 he grabs Lee Forrester when she tries to walk out on him during an argument, manhandling her with his powers. He doesn’t stop to think about where he might have learned physical coercion as a means of getting his way from, or even that he might have done wrong in that instance. This sort of thing is repeated in New Mutants Vol. 1 #35, when he attacks Danielle Moonstar's would be rapists. While the scene was vicerally enjoyable for the fans to read, it was not the wisest, nor most mature, nor even morally right course of action, yet Magnus never questions it.

Magneto is a reactive person, letting the events around him control his attitudes and choices rather than being proactive and making choices for himself. Or at least, he wishes to deny the responsibility for the choices he has made. The denial of responsibilty for his fate creates a feeling of constantly out of control in his life which lies at the root of the second major fault in Magneto’s character…

Control Freak

Magneto has lost two families to events beyond his control, his first to the Holocaust, his second to a fire. Because of this, because he feels so out of control in his own life (because he refuses to take responsibility for it), Magneto has become extremely controlling of everything outside himself to compensate. For instance, he decided to control what he saw as the inevitable war between Mutants and Humans’ by starting that war. Not content to be a cog in the machine of change, he needs to be at the head of the government in his “New World Order”. He was exacting and abusive to the Brotherhood (he learned to treat the Acolytes much better). He attempted to keep the New Mutants confined to the School towards the end of his Headmastership. The most illustrative example of this trait is in X-Men Vol. 2 #85 in which Magneto conducts an "experiment" to see if co-existence between humans and mutants is possible before he tries to blackmail the world into giving mutant a homeland. In the guise of a businessman, he interviews a "Joe average construction foreman" named Bill trying to ascertain his feelings about mutants, relentlessly badgering the man until Magneto is forced to threaten him outright so that Bill gives the answer Magneto always expected to hear: Magneto and, in Magneto's mind by association, all mutants are monsters.

And if you ever want to see Magneto completely lose it on panel, put him in a situation in which he has been manipulated or controlled. He exacted revenge on the X-Men for the time he spent as an infant in Moira MacTaggart’s care (something which he pretty much caused himself) in Uncanny X-Men #112. He is furious when he discovers Emma Frost and Empath’s manipulation of him in New Mutants Vol. 1  #39. He is utterly enraged when he discovers Moira MacTaggart’s experimentation on him as in infant in X-Men Vol. 2 #2, the possibility that his Reformation period the product of genetic manipulation being especially galling (it wasn’t).

After spending his adolescence with his life completely in the hands of the murderously abusive Nazi’s, Magneto cannot and will not be controlled or manipulated. It is THE hot button for him, sure to send him flying right over the edge. Unfortunately, it is that trigger Pietro tripped in House of M #7. When Magneto discovered the twins has manipulted reality and him, he beat his own son to death in a blind rage.


“That some of us hold onto guilt and shame far too long. There’s a strange security in misery. It’s almost comfortable. Taking the risk of moving on. That’s terrifying. Applies to Erik. Applies to me. For Erik, it has always been about family. Building a home, a world, where he can feel safe. Where he need never again feel afraid.” ~ Charles Xavier Excalibur (Vol. 3) #14

When Chris Claremont wrote the above quote, a lot of pieces to Magneto’s character fell into place for me. The Holocaust has never been the only event motivating Magnus. Mentioned as often, if not more so, is the death of his eldest daughter and the abandonment by his wife. Remember that Magnus had done everything possible to leave the Holocaust behind while living in the U.S.S.R.. He had married the woman he loved and saved at least twice, protected and provided for her for years, and had a child with her that he absolutely adored.

“Her questions never stopped, bursting from a sense of wonder that awed him. And that made him vow repeatedly that he would never allow the world to make her suffer as he and Magda had. Anya was his hope, his talisman. She made everything he had gone through worthwhile.” ~ Classic X-Men #12.

And then she died, and within minutes the woman he loved abandoned him when he needed her the most, calling him a monster, because he had revealed himself to be something beyond human. (Now it is entirely possible that Magda fled because she just watched her husband become a mass-murderer, but this is how the incident is perceived by Magnus)

If the Holocaust laid the foundation, this event was the catalyst. Not only did his failure to protect his family spur Magnus to find another way to justify his existence, Madga showed him that it doesn’t matter how much you love someone, how much you have proven yourself to them. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, humans hate and fear difference, no matter what. In fact when he first states his manifesto to Charles in Uncanny X-Men #161, it is not only the Holocaust he cites, it is her:

"Even those you love will turn from you in horror when they discover what you truly are."

She gave him the core of his anti-human philosophy. In fact one has to wonder if it was her calling him a “monster” that subconsciously spurred him to act monstrously later.

Yet this period between the Holocaust and Vinnisita is the most happy period of his life, the one he yearns to go back to the most, and in his highly dysfunctional way he has attempted to recreate that with Wanda and Pietro. Magneto may not love his children as most would define it, but he certainly cares about them and feels the responsibility of fatherhood most keenly. When he first discovered that Pietro and Wanda were his children in the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries Vol.1 #4, he ran off immediately to tell them. He didn't even stop to think, "Wait. I treated them horribly. They hate me." He had to make contact with them. Now.

Sadly, because Magnus cannot trust (and perhaps cannot trust Magda's children most especially) and needs to remain in control, he often has attempted to bind Wanda and Pietro to him through loyalty rather than love. Not only in the Silver Age, when he would reject Wanda's sympathy and claim that he needed no one and that it was better to rule by fear, but later after he knew the twins were his. He would manipulate Wanda after the death of the Vision in West Coast Avengers #56, and make Pietro think his presence was necessary on Genosha in Magneto Rex #3. But perhaps Magneto is not entirely unjustified in being so manipulative. When he did offer his open hand with sincerity during his Reformation Period the twins slapped it away. Truthfully, he should have been more apologetic and more patient with them, but Magneto probably feels emotionally safer approaching the twins by dominating and controlling them than leaving himself vulnerable to hurt. However, because dominating and controlling a person and a relationship is inherently destructive, Magnus hurts them and in turn is hurt by their continued rejection.

Yet, despite their rejection of him and the painfully destructive relationship he and the twins share, Magnus has kept trying to connect with them. He adores Pietro's daughter Luna unreservedly and unconditionally (which is more than her own father has done), and was eager to be a part of the lives of Wanda and the Vision's twins, Thomas and Wliiam. He continues to try to rebuild the family he has lost, even if there is no love lost between the survivors of it.

Despite the hell he put them through, and they put him through some in return, he still cared enough, still felt the responsibility of fatherhood enough, to run off to save Wanda (who had taken Anya's place as "the daughter who must be saved") when he saw the events of Avengers Disassembled unfolding. For one of the few times in his adult life, Magnus did the right thing. He saved his daughter, and then stayed by her side, seeking help for her rather than rushing off and fighting something or someone. To sit by watching Wanda's sanity degrade, being able to do nothing, must have been incredibly difficult for such a reactive and controlling person.

Family matters a great deal to Magnus, and yet it is not only because of his control issues, his fear and mistrust, that he can never let himself have it. His guilt and self-hatred may play a role as well, creating a mobius loop of subconscious reasoning in his head that says: "I want a home and family, but I am a horrible person as I took part in the murder of one family (the Jews) and failed and was rejected by a second (Anya and Magda). Ergo I must prove that my life was worth saving by saving the mutants, but I can never let myself have the security and warmth I so desperately need because I am such a horrible person, so I must always fail."


Despite working at a mental hospital in Haifa, Magnus never sought help/therapy to deal with his experiences during the Holocaust and his loss of his wife and child. Given Magnus’ inability to trust and his fear of being manipulated, this is not surprising. He is simply not the type to lay himself out on a psychiatrist’s couch and pop anti-depressants. That is not going to happen.

As we have seen with our own veterans in real life, untreated post traumatic stress disorder can be very emotionally debilitating. Magneto seems to suffer from some of the classic symptoms, though perhaps not all. He is emotionally cut off, unable to form and maintain close relationships (with one very odd exception: Charles). He certainly is often irritable, aggressive, and violent. He constantly relives his negative experiences from the Holocaust and night Anya died and his wife abandoned him, in both his dreams and his conscious thoughts. He is very quick to make associations to those experiences, they rule his perceptions, and he regularly experiences flashbacks. Perhaps the only difference between Magnus’ case and the classic definition of PTSD is that Magneto does not avoid associations with these events. He visited Auschwitz on a certain date in X-Men Flashback #-1, he visited the grave marker he set up for his wife in X-Men Unlimited #2, and he positioned Avalon over Anya’s grave in Fatal Attractions. Magneto does not seem avoidant of the events that caused his PTSD, he seems to court in them. 


In order to explain Magneto's widely varied characterization over the years, in X-Men (Vol. 2) #2, Chris Claremont proposed an ingenious theory: That Magneto was suffering from a kind of power-induced bi-polar disorder.

While Magneto was under Dr. Moira MacTaggart’s care as an infant, she made a discovery.

Moira: “There were indications of an instability in your nervous system, as though yuir body could’na quite handle the the energies you were processing through it. Akin to a power line unable t’cope wi’ loads beyond its design capabilities. There was a possibility of progressive degradation that could in turn affect the electrochemical balance of your brain.”

Magnus: “What, with great power comes certain madness?”

Xavier would comment on that theory later in Excalibur Vol. 3, #2:

Magnus: “Just…just a headache. Nature’s reminder to me to keep my temper. Also an excellent incentive not to use my powers.”

Charles: “You’ve been prone to headaches ever since I can remember.”

Magnus: “Ever since I can remember too. Or at least ever since my power became active.”

Charles: “Moira MacTaggart and I discussed that often. It was something she worked on while you were in her case. She had a theory…”

Magnus “Don’t go there Charles. I know you loved the woman, but my memories those days and the good late Doctor are not fond.”

Charles: “It’s just how can you wield the energies you do, on the scale that you do, without equivalent cost to the body?”

Magnus: “You’d think nature would have taken that into consideration when she designed us.”

Charles: “Unless we truly are an evolutionary work in progress.”

Magnus: “Homo sapiens not-quite superior? That’s a bit cruel, even for her.”

We also see these debilitating headaches in the add on story to Classic X-Men #19, which takes place in the period between Magnus and Charles' time in Israel, and Magneto's appearance at Cape Citadel. Even Magnus started to make the connection.

“Never been so bad. These seizures strike now whenever I use my powers. More extreme the usage, the more debilitating the attack. I wonder am I pushing myself too hard? Trying to run, before I have learned to crawl?”

Yet, we have seen Magneto wield electromagnetic power on a near planetary scales. Shortly after Magnus and Charles conversation in Excalibur Vol. 3, Magneto creates a traversable wormhole without effort. At some point, the endorphins in his system must kick in to counteract the headaches, allowing Magneto to access and wield great amounts of power. This sends the chemistry of his nervous system out of whack, which leads to the moments of megalomania so commonly associated with the character. At the same time, it also explains the Reformation Period and Excalibur Vol. 3. during both of which Magneto was running on “low”, not wielding the vast amounts of power so typical for the character, and was acting relatively normal. The more power he slings around, the crazier he is. 

In the Silver Age, following the ravages in the Holocaust, Magneto’s body would have been less able to cope with the strain and his repeated abuse of his power set the neural connections and chemistry levels in stone. Magneto was a hysterical self-aggrandizing madman. After he was reduced to infancy and re-aged by Eric the Red, Magneto started out with a healthy nervous system, the damage done by the rampaging neural chemistry erased. Magneto appeared saner, more focused and in control. And it was because of this he was able to see his mistakes in Uncanny X-Men #150, able to defend himself so eloquently at his trail in Uncanny #200.

But the potential for the neural chemistry becoming unbalanced still exists, as we see during the Fatal Attractions, Magneto War, Eve of Destruction story arcs. In Excalibur Vol. 3 #11. When Magnus returns from New York with Wanda, there follows a very interesting conversation between Charles and Magneto as Magnus “powers down” from his trip. It would take too much space to recount it here, but Magneto begins the conversation in costume, making his dramatic pronouncements as usual, and as the conversation goes on, the costume is exchanged for street clothes and Magnus becomes calmer, more conversational, even showing a touch of humor.   

Revenge and Ambition

People often dimissively characterize Magneto as driven by these two forces, sometimes even the writers themsleves.

“It always gets twisted because the child in him can’t escape those nightmares, and wants revenge.” ~ Charles Xavier Excalibur (Vol. 3) #14

I’m not so sure about “revenge”, same as I am not sure about the charge Charles leveled at Magnus in Uncanny X-Men #309.

“You were born with arguably the most powerful mutant ability that ever manifested itself. You might well be considered a force of nature. Yet how do you wield your genetic birthright? Selfishly. For all your posturing, your claims that you act in the best interest of the rest of the mutant race, I believe you act, you pose, strictly as a matter of self preservation.”

Though certainly in the second instance, Charles might have been doing a little projecting.

If Magneto wanted to act strictly in a matter of self preservation and ambition, he could easily retire with stolen millions (and/or honestly earned via patents) to Asteroid M and tell the planet to go screw itself (though he would put it far more eloquently I’m sure). If Magneto was motivated merely by revenge, Germany would be a smoking crater. While I have no doubt that a need to lash out against the world fuels his rage as it does with all victims of abuse, and ambition and self protection form a part of his motivations, they are small motivators compared to the guilt and control issues. 

A Few Words to Sum it All Up

Understanding is not condoning. Magneto’s murderous actions are unforgivable. Despite his mistrust and fear of being controlled, he should have seen he had problems and sought help a long time ago before he started down the path to violence and mutant supremacy. After 80-odd years on the planet, he should be taking responsibility for his choices by now. As an intelligent man, he should be able to see the patterns of behavior in the use of his power. These omissions of responsibility and his violent acts are inexcusible. However, the audience being able to understand his motivations and dysfunctions make him a more believable character that the readers can connect to. A power induced bi-polar disorder, untreated PTSD, rejection/abandonment issues, control issues, survivors guilt, rage, passion, intelligence…it easy to see why Magneto does what he does without vilifying him as a one-dimensional madman. Damaged, dynamic, paradoxical, and growing, Magneto is an extremely complex character who’s motivations are far deeper than can be described in a few casually applied words. It is this complexity that makes the character so rich, so compelling, and one of the most popular villains in the comic book world.

Tags: kiplingkat7, magneto, workshop

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