A "Testament" to Art in the Face of Death

A few years ago, after the sudden lunge Marvel Comics made to capitalize on the upcoming Fox Studios X-Men movie "X-Men: Last Stand" and their soon to be announced prequels "X-Men Origins: Magneto" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (one of which got made and one of which didn't) a very special project was started.

It wasn't "Wolverine Origins" and it wasn't "X-Men: First Class" and it wasn't "X-Men: Origins". It was a five issue mini-series about one of their most central villain's origins.

I'll give you a few hints:

It was about the villain who appeared in the very first X-Men comic. (Pictured to the right.)

A character who never got his movie probably because Fox didn't want to do a movie about the Holocaust. Hitler's Final Solution. The genocide of six-million people. Whether Fox Studios (or Marvel Studios) may still someday make a film out of the shell of this project is yet to be determined.

It was written by Greg Pak, drawn by Italian comics artist Carmine Di Giandomenico, and edited by Marvel editor Warren Simons.

It was, of course, "X-Men: Magneto- Testament".

In 2008, almost as an aside from all those aforementioned "Origins" projects, both the comics and the films, Warren Simons began talking about the idea of a historical fiction project detailing the harrowing childhood of the character of Magneto before he became 'Magneto', even before he began calling himself Erik Lehnsherr. Greg Pak signed on as writer; he said: 'I knew from the start this was a project I had to do'. It seems that we should all be glad he did, since the book has earned a great deal of praise since its release.

I have, shamefully, yet to read all of "X-Men: Magneto- Testament". It was one of the rare occasions I chose to 'wait for the trade' and because I rarely pay attention to those releases, I never bought it. I now know a great deal about it because The Simon Wiesenthal Center (an organization devoted to keeping Holocaust studies alive) held a great event on December 8th at The Center For Tolerance here in NYC titled: "An Evening with the Author and Editor of X-Men: Magneto Testament". It was a fascinating presentation of the thought process, historical research, blood, sweat, ink, and tears, that went into the writing and production of "Magneto: Testament".

It was one of those really strange nights in which you just lean back and marvel at how two completely different spheres of interest can come together so perfectly. I didn't realize how little I knew about the Holocaust and about the character of Erik Magnus' involvement in it. I took World History II in high school and read Art Speigelman's "Maus" but it didn't cover the sonderkommando, prisoners drafted into helping the extermination process in return for better treatment for themselves and their families, or the deceptive signs convincing soon to be executed prisoners that they were about to take a shower. I'd read "X-Men" #1 and seen the X-Men films but I didn't know that Magneto had a child who died at a young age between his survival of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the birth of his living twin children Wanda and Pietro or that it had been established years and years ago that the future supervillain was one of those sonderkommando at Auschwitz. Magneto (a.k.a. Magnus, a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Xorn?) is revealed in "Testament" to have began life as Max Eisenhardt. The new name was chosen because it was discovered by way of their historical consultant with the Simon Wiesenthal Center that neither of the names Magneto had gone under until that point were truly Jewish, nor were they popular names for boys in Germany at that time.

Probably the most remarkable moment of the presentation came during the question and answer session at the end, when an older woman who hailed originally from Pak's native Texas told us that when she moved to New York City after high school (possibly it was even after college, I can't remember) she had never been told about the Holocaust at all. She personally thanked the writer and editor for creating a work of art that tells the story of what the average Jewish person underwent during WWII in a visual medium that often grabs the attention of children. To this Pak responded that it has been proven that different people learn best through different media and that is why it is worthwhile and important 'to tell these stories again and again'.

So these are some of the things I learned last week. Warren Simons (the editor; pictured to the left), Greg Pak (the writer; pictured to the right), and Mark Weitzman (the historical consultant; not pictured) gave us a wonderful conversation about the careful balancing act that had to be played between aggravating old-school Magneto fans and accidentally feeding the fires of the Holocaust deniers with any inaccuracies. The nightmare of scheduling something with subject matter requiring this delicate accuracy on a printing schedule for a major comic-book publisher sounds as if it would have tried the nerves of anybody. According to the two men, it was artist di Giandomenico (unfortunately not present at the talk) who most kept them on track, in the words of Simons: 'He never missed a day'.

December 8th was an eye-opening and fascinating evening and I wouldn't be surprised if the Wiesenthal Center's other programming is equally interesting.

P.S. ~
There is, by the way, an excellent essay available online here detailing Magneto's life as seen in the comics published up to that time and classifying him as a sufferer of Bipolar Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Think about that.

P.P.S. ~
I was told about the event at the Wiesenthal Center by my good friend and fellow member of the blogosphere (and consummate Jew!) Matt Rosza. (He blogs about things that cross his brain at: Risking Hemlock. Although comics are not the driving force of his interests, they do intersect with the world of history/politics in surprising ways, like in this post about the photoshopped image super-imposing the scars and make-up from "The Dark Knight" version of the Joker over the face of Barack Obama. Check the blog out.)

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