The other day I started thinking about Magneto. A summary of Magneto’s comics career (as understood by me) illustrates the qualities and perils of a character-led approach to comics, I reckon.
In Magneto’s earliest appearances it’s safe to say the character is pretty much without nuance. A mutant with magnetic powers, he is in charge of the brazenly-named Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants, who exist to give the X-Men something regular to fight. The name of this gang gives a subtle hint as to their ‘motivation’. Magneto fulfils the role of regular villain with a fair degree of verve, and also serves as a vehicle for the development of a few other characters: his children became superheroes, causing much dinner-table disagreement. As for Magneto’s own personality, he falls squarely into the ‘arrogant’ rather than the ‘crazy’ or ‘tragic’ villain set, but that’s about it.
In the 1970s Chris Claremont took over writing the X-Men, and in a few years had permanently changed how superhero comics – in particular team comics – were written. The complex interlocking of ongoing subplots wasn’t new: the emphasis on characterisation was. Re-reading Claremont’s classic stories now, they seem pompous and trite (though many disagree) – his genuine gifts for pacing and cliffhangers subverted and eventually smothered entirely by the dollops of clumsy soul-searching. But however crassly expressed, his characters tended to have motivations and stick to them, and as he continued his unprecedently long run on the comic they were able to in some cases grow and change.
At first meshing this approach and Magneto was a problem: credible motivation was hard to come by for the Master Of Magnetism. In his first Claremont story he kidnaps the X-Men from the clutches of another villain (who has enslaved them in a circus) and then removes their powers and – naturally enough – locks them in the crater of a volcano to spend the rest of their days in the care of a sadistic robot nanny. Top story, but why? Ummm. By the time of his next appearance, though, Claremont had worked out how to lend this ridiculous creature some credibility, and had hit on a master plan.
Magneto decided to conquer the world, so far so blah. He abandoned his plan when it looked like he had accidentally killed one of the X-Men, a teenage girl who Claremont and his readers were very fond of. It turned out that Magneto’s motivation was born out of his family’s persecution by Nazis, and he wanted to stop humans doing the same to mutants. It was a bit sudden but was stirring stuff by the standards of the time – and it rounded the character out a bit, with the coda that chief X-Man Professor X thought that Magneto might become a changed, wiser man after all this.
And so he did. Claremont’s X-Men comic was at this point comfortably the biggest-selling comic in America, and its spin-offs sold healthily too. He had a free hand in writing terms, and used it to tell some pretty intelligent (if often overwritten) stories. The mid-80s X-Men is the comic’s strongest period, I think – with the caveat that it’s also when I started reading. One of the good things Claremont did was to slowly reform Magneto: he started having doubts, got involved with a human woman, and ended up surrendering to human justice in “The Trial Of Magneto”. A chastened Magneto on trial did not excitement make, and so naturally proceedings were disrupted by mutant terrorists, but the point was that he was a Changed Man – and at the shock ending a dying Professor X handed over control of his school for super-mutants to Magneto (now referred to as “Magnus”).
Magneto’s character arc was developing nicely – in fact it had the potential to be a prescient and neat reflection of how 70s terrorists slipped through the next decade and emerged into the 90s as international political figures. For a reader like me, the Magneto plot was a prime example of how even mainstream comics were clever, character-driven, not afraid to change.
Complete nonsense, I’m afraid to say. The X-Men franchise was expanding fast: Claremont couldn’t keep control of it all, and his grip started to loosen. There were three monthly comics (there are now 15 or so as far as I can tell) and he couldn’t write all of them. And meanwhile the editorial people weren’t too happy: they liked Magneto as a villain. He sold well that way. And so, after a few years of being quite subtly scripted, he started to backslide. They handled it pretty well – there were fatalities at the mutant school; his paranoia resurfaced and he turned to dodgy characters to protect the students. And eventually away went the elegant grey suit and back came the purple helmet.
It was Magneto’s flip-flop from hero to villain that taught me not to trust mainstream comics. There is no more conservative form of popular art: the situations that exist when a character is created or first finds an audience are by and large the only situations that audience will accept. So Magneto is forever a villain. Fair enough: but mainstream comics don’t like to admit that. And so you get “the illusion of change” – characters endure stories in which their circumstances seem to radically alter and the next few stories are a weary clamber back to the status quo. That turns a reader cynical, but those stories can – sometimes – still be entertaining. What really fucks things up is that since the 60s and 70s the great Grail of comics storytelling is characterisation – characters whose personality and behaviour and motivations make sense.
But these ingredients – audience conservatism; stories driven by fake change; credible characters – can’t mix. Either Magneto is credible or he’s a pantomime villain – and once you’ve chosen the former (as the audience demands) you shouldn’t go back: but the illusion of change (and more audience demands) makes you go back. The result is characters who stay ‘in character’ only as the plot demands, and plots which are still encumbered by pages of fatty ‘character stuff’ – the evident reversibility of which makes them a meaningless chore. The worst of both worlds.

As the 90s got going, the era of long-tenure comics writers faded. The newer writers were keen to use all the most recognisable elements of a property to make their mark on it: in the case of the X-Men, that meant Magneto. And so when a new X-Men comic launched – coinciding with Claremont’s then-last work on the property – there was Magneto, as villainous as ever, scheming away in his personal asteroid. As a throwaway plot twist, the story revealed that Magneto’s previous reformation had been down to another character tampering with his DNA. That was the final straw for me: even when a character was allowed to change, that change could be explained away by some ridiculous story gimmick for the sake of preserving continuity.
Over the next ten years, as I read comics less and less, I stayed dimly aware of what was going on with the X-Men. Writers came and went and so did their takes on Magneto. Some had flickeringly good ideas which faded away: Magneto as a mutant martyr; Magneto as president of a mutant homeland – with these you can clearly see the legacy of Claremont’s cred-grab move of tying the character’s origin to the Holocaust. At one point there was a sexy long-haired clone of Magneto running around. It wasn’t exactly dignified.
The latest on Magneto I heard from my brother. He had come back again at the climax of writer Grant Morrison’s stint writing X-Men. This Magneto was a faintly pathetic ranter, a bitter old man who had the power to conquer but no good idea for what would happen when he did. The X-Men stopped him and killed him. It seemed a decent and fair ending for a much-abused character. But there is never an ending. Morrison leaving the X-Men coincided with Claremont returning (not for the first time), and Claremont didn’t like Morrison’s story, so the very next month decided that this Magneto had been an impostor (quite a good one, given his amazing magnetic powers) and that the real Magneto was alive and well and ready to continue his meandering political discussions with Professor X. And there we leave him.
ADDENDUM: When I first read the X-Men they were selling 400,000 copies a month. Now they struggle to top 100,000 – and the level of sales at which a Marvel comic is put out of its misery is around 20,000. (Slightly less, in other words, than the number of unique visitors Freaky Trigger gets each month.) During this time the X-Men have enjoyed the marketing boost of a prominent toy range; a successful cartoon series; and two enormous hit feature films. There are an awful lot of reasons for the decline in comics sales – and I can’t prove that a big-name character’s story being contradicted month-on-month as part of a writers’ turf war would put any curious X-film reader off. But it would have put me off.