In the eyes of its most fervent fans, Marvel has assassinated Magneto, arguably the most beloved villain the comic book company has ever created. And they did it with just one cover.
This past week, Marvel revealed variant covers to its upcoming crossover event “Secret Empire,” an event in which Steve Rogers’s allegiance to the Hydra criminal organization will be revealed. Magneto appears on one of those covers, suggesting he’s been in clandestine cahoots with Rogers and Hydra. And being that Hydra is an organization with comic book roots in Nazi Germany, the cover links Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, to Nazis by way of Hydra.
Fans are upset.
Their gripe: Marvel has miscarried the character, jettisoning decades of storytelling and fundamentally misunderstanding Magneto’s very nature by aligning him with Hydra.
The apparent editorial move — which at this point is still speculation based on a variant cover — comes on the heels of last year’s Marvel reveal that Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, believes himself to be a Hydra agent. That decision was also met with fan resistance, and insistence that Marvel diminished the work of Rogers’s creators. Magneto’s similar twist makes it seems like Marvel is doubling down on the prospect and also not listening to the feedback the company has received.
For people who aren’t comic book readers or casual fans, the vocal fight over the origins of fictional characters can seem confusing, or even trivial, considering real life white supremacists have become fixtures in the current national political conversation, and bad fiction happens all the time.
But the fight goes beyond the comic book history of Captain America and Magneto and deeper into the significance of art’s connection to morality. It’s an embodiment of how powerful fandom can be, and the ever-challenging question of who owns art: the artists creating it or the fans purchasing it.
Why Magneto’s Hydra alliance is upsetting to fans
The key to understanding Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, is that his worldview is shaped by his childhood, a brutal experience that took place in Nazi concentration camps. Many of the X-Men movies have fleshed this out, but the writer who transformed Magneto was writer Chris Claremont, who’s considered the godfather of the X-Men comics. In 1981 and throughout the decade, Claremont conceived and developed Magneto’s origin story, which begins in Auschwitz:
The brutality Magneto witnesses, combined with the death of his family, shapes his understanding of men: They can’t be trusted, they can’t be given power, and their default setting is inhumanity. Though you don’t have to agree with him, his disenchantment with mankind makes sense given his backstory.
The trauma Magneto experienced at the hands of Nazis is why he could never fully be an X-Man. Throughout his publication history, he’s occasionally joined the X-Men for a stint or helped them out, but he never stays for long, because he can’t reconcile their optimistic view of mankind with what he knows firsthand. In Claremont and artist Brent Anderson’s God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel, you see this distinct crystallization of Magneto’s viewpoint and the clash with what the X-Men believe:
Magneto believes that mutants need to rule over men (how strong this viewpoint comes across depends on who’s writing him) because he knows that they’re capable of genocide. It’s core to his character, which is why his sudden allegiance to Hydra, an organization with ties to Nazis, came as a bitter surprise to fans.
But this apparent revelation about Magneto and Hydra is further complicated by the current goings-on in the Marvel comic book universe.
How Marvel is rewriting Hydra’s Nazi history
Magneto’s Hydra business comes on the heels Marvel’s reveal last May that Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, believes he is a Hydra agent. The condensed version: A character named Kobik restores the aging Rogers’s youth and powers, but also rewrites his earliest memories. We later find out that the Hydra leader, a Nazi known as Red Skull, influenced Kobik to corrupt those memories.
When Marvel published that reveal, fans felt that the character and, more importantly, his creators had been wronged.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Steve Rogers and myriad other comic book superheroes, were of Jewish descent, as were many of their colleagues and fellow comic book creators. Their comics reflected their life experiences and how they saw the world.
Rogers in particular is famous for punching Hitler on a comic book cover nine months before the American intervention in WWII. While America isolated itself and debated intervening in Europe as the Holocaust raged on, Captain America stood up for injustice when his country would not. Aligning Cap with Hydra in 2016 drastically impacts this aspect of the character’s history, and seemingly contradicts Kirby and Simon’s original vision of the character.
However, this interpretation of events is complicated by the question of whether Marvel currently considers Hydra to be one and the same with the Nazi regime.
In the Marvel cinematic universe, Hydra is portrayed as having its roots in the Third Reich, as seen in the Captain America films. The comic book version of Hydra has those same roots, but also states that Hydra predates the Nazis. In Secret Warriors no. 1, published in 2009, Nick Fury’s files state that Hydra was formed in Ancient Egypt:
Hydra has had leaders and prominent members who are definitely Nazis — Red Skull, for example, has been portrayed as deeply anti-Semitic. What’s less clear is if Hitler’s views are also Hydra’s views.
The argument exists that Hydra is an opportunistic organization, and that it in order to tap into power, it aligned itself with Hitler and the Nazis because of the resources they offered. One way to read Hydra’s involvement in WWII is that it has a fascist and totalitarian worldview, and its members therefore saw the Nazis as a means to an end.
Nick Spencer, who writes Captain America: Steve Rogers, the comic where Rogers’s Hydra reveal was published, got at this on Twitter:
One last thing for now on this subject. One of the reasons the Hydra=Nazi argument is so flawed to me, is how selectively it's deployed.— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) March 8, 2017
All of these stories and countless others depict Hydra as a super-secret organization bent on world domination.— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) March 8, 2017
They are very, very bad people, and unquestionably villains. But Hydra's goals, beliefs, and membership criteria simply aren't the same.— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) March 8, 2017
One of the most incisive readings of Marvel’s current Cap-Magneto-Hydra-Nazi storyline is from Kieran Shiach, an assistant editor at the site Comics Alliance. On Shiach’s personal site, he explains that regardless of whether readers believe Hydra is a Nazi organization (Shiach believes it to be), Marvel is trying to put distance between Hydra and Nazism.
Shiach details that in Spencer’s comic, one of the main themes is a fight between “Real Hydra” and the Hydra that’s been portrayed all this time — that unbeknownst to readers, there was a clandestine internal conflict between Hydra’s most powerful members about joining Hitler in WWII.
“Yes, Elisa Sinclair [the woman who recruits Rogers into Hydra] voices her opinions about how Nazis are bad, but that’s all she does,” Shiach writes. “Even at my most charitable, Elisa Sinclair, Steve Rogers and their entire faction are collaborators at best, and as a friend said, collaborators get hanged until dead.”
Shiach sees Magneto’s Hydra membership not as some kind of shocking surprise or dumb misunderstanding of the character, but rather as a conscious Marvel decision to dissociate Hydra from Nazis — possibly as a reaction to the Captain America fallout from 2016.
“What’s the best way to do that?” Shiach writes. “Have your most Nazi-hating character ally with them, you can point at him and say ‘Look! Magneto’s with them! Magneto would never ally with Nazis!’ like he’s a character that has his own agency outside of what you as a writer tell him to do.”
Though Shiach and Spencer have completely differing views about Hydra’s loyalty to Hitler, their arguments are actually quite similar: The people who read comic books and the people who create comic books are completely subjective.
What Kirby, Simon, Stan Lee, and their colleagues created back in the day has been paved over and over by writers, artists, and editors after them. Writer Brian Michael Bendis can write something in 2009 that says Hydra is found in Ancient Egypt, and similarly, Spencer can write a 2016 story calling into doubt Hydra’s Nazi involvement.
Marvel’s continuous narrative depends on artists to continually rewrite, redraw, and recreate history. Depending on who’s writing and drawing a certain comic and their personal influences, it’s natural to see variance in how a character, a supergroup, or a super-villainous organization like Hydra is portrayed.
And for readers, it’s natural for them to be as subjective as Marvel’s creators, and not surprising that they will gravitate toward stories that they consider more important.
Who owns Magneto?
Officially, Marvel hasn’t specifically stated Magneto’s upcoming affiliation or storyline. The company’s release reads:
Things are heating up in the Marvel Universe as the threat of the Secret Empire looms. As heroes far and wide stand united against Hydra’s tyranny, the villains have assembled their own forces! Today, Marvel is pleased to reveal the first five villains to be featured – Hydra’s secret weapons in the war against the super heroes!
But Marvel’s decision to flip Rogers, and now apparently Magneto, has sparked ire in fans and writers who believe the company is being tone-deaf about both the characters and the current cultural climate. And that ire raises an important question about the responsibility of art to its consumers.
“The idea of a Nazi Cap was objectionable in the first place. But the fact that Marvel has continued despite the fierce and legitimate criticism speaks to the company’s tone deafness,” Tegan O’Neil wrote for the A.V. Club in January. “Now that Donald Trump is president and approximately half the country lives in a state of heightened terror, the idea of Captain America being a Nazi and infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. will be, for many, simply dispiriting, unsettling, and too close to home to be fun. It’s demoralizing. It’s a very sad and upsetting comic, but not how anyone intended.”
I understand where O’Neil is coming from.
On the day following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the debate of the day was whether it was okay to inflict bodily harm upon an actual Nazi. (Spencer actually tweeted out in January that we shouldn’t punch Nazis.) It was a completely surreal moment for anyone who never really thought that in 2017 we’d still be punching Nazis, much less debating the morality of doing so. And further, I’m of the Grant Morrison mindset that comic books and superheroes have a power to be as influential in shaping a person’s morality as religion.
But I’m also not sure where to draw the line in regard to Marvel and its creators’ responsibility to give us stories that aren’t, in O’Neil’s words, “dispiriting, unsettling, and too close to home to be fun.”
Horrendous stuff has always happened in comic books. A few personal stingers just from the X-Men universe: Kitty Pryde was trapped in a bullet that was just orbiting aimlessly in space. Mutants known as Morlocks were massacred. Magik, Colossus’s little sister, died from a virus that was an allegory for AIDS. Religious fanatics blew up a bus full of de-powered mutants in front of a school. And as of this week, Emma Frost has been turned into genocidal widow.
Superheroes wouldn’t be super if horrendous things never happened to them. Superhero comic books are about selling, and twists like these sell.
But the bigger question is whether fans have a say in the fates of the characters they love, and what does Marvel or DC (see: Batgirl, the Joker, and The Killing Joke) or any comics publisher owe to them? How does Marvel balance what fans want versus what upsets them? This tricky ambiguity over the cross-section of artistic ownership and moral responsibility is what’s fueling the Magneto controversy — though, as with so much internet-born and -bred controversy, it may end up being premature.
The Magneto outrage is anger over an issue that hasn’t even been published (yet)
The most important factor to take into account here is that the Secret Empire crossover, and the Magneto issue in question, hasn’t even published yet. (The crossover event goes to print in April.) And covers — especially variants — don’t necessarily spell out the entire story. (Magneto could very well be a double agent or undergo some kind of Kobik mind-warping.)
Yet people are already passing judgment on something they haven’t seen, not unlike the people protesting or cheering the remake of Beauty and the Beast for re-imagining one of its characters as gay. This sort of sight-unseen outrage is unfortunately how we operate now.
Further, because comic books are released by issue instead of volume, there an inclination to judge an entire story before it’s completed. Comic books are not like a television show where you can binge a season, or an artist’s album where you can listen to all the songs, or a movie that wraps when the credits roll.
Comic books are living, continuous things. And it’s important — for both creators and fans — to respect that.