As you meander through the crowded San Diego Convention Center during this year’s Comic Con, most of the characters that you will see were in fact created by Jews. One is Stanley Martin Lieber. You may know him better as Stan Lee, co-creator of various comics including Spider-Man and the X-Men. According to Arie Kaplan’s history of Jews and comic books “From Krakow to Krypton,” Jews built the comic book industry. Unlike newspaper, advertising and other agencies that had quotas for Jewish employees, the comic book industry did not discriminate.
Over the next few decades after the invention of the comic book in 1933, the comic book characters were not explicitly Jewish. Other than having a Hebrew-sounding birth name (Kal-El), Superman, the most widely-known representation of the Jewish experience, held no other Jewish characteristics. Not surprisingly, the creators of Superman were also Jewish and their story would inspire Michael Chabon, an alum of our very own UC Irvine MFA Creative Writing program, to write “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Comic books evolved from children’s entertainment with Jewish allusions into historical narratives with openly Jewish characters taking form as award-winning graphic novels, such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.”
Comic books aren’t the only medium to grasp the attention of mainstream culture. It seems every year there is a new comic book adapted into a film. The latest installment of the X-Men franchise, “Days of Future Past,” was released in theaters at the end of May. Magneto’s Jewish background is touched upon in all of the films and explored more intimately in “X-Men: First Class.” The fact that he is a Holocaust survivor is given to us in the opening scene of the first film, “X-Men.” Within the comic books, Chris Claremont, who took over writing X-Men after Stan Lee and who is also a Jewish writer, revealed Magneto’s background in August1981, issue #150.
Some would argue that the portrayal of the Holocaust with entertainment purposes is disrespectful; however, there are others, like Danielle Berrin from the Jewish Journal, who argue the more Holocaust imagery that is integrated into mainstream culture, the better. The mantra “Never Again” cannot exist without “Never Forget.” Within the films especially, we see Magneto fulfilling these mantras and protecting his people, the race of mutants. The way he enacts his goals (trying to turn humans into mutants regardless of the fact that it will kill them) makes it seem like he is a villain. As I watched each film, my opinion of Magneto became even more conflicted. I like Magneto and even respect him. He fulfills a revenge fantasy for many Jews, but does that make his actions okay? Is he a hero? Or is he a villain?
I set out to gain a better understanding of Magneto’s character and spoke with Keri Hughes who is not only an X-Men fanatic, but also has a Master’s in Religious Studies from the California State University of Long Beach and has written conference papers on the righteous demon archetype. She pointed out an important comparison between Magneto and the wrongs inflicted upon his people: “His revenge against the Nazis and those who wronged him are a major driving force for him, but it becomes problematic when his actions parallel the Ubermensch mentality of Hitler. He even refers to the mutant species as ‘Homo Superior.’” In contrast to Hughes’ statement, Magneto’s actions can also be seen as proactive and comparable to the stories of preservation found within the Hebrew Bible, in order to ensure the safety of his race. In response to my question about where Magneto stands, Hughes stated, “Magneto is a more engaging and relatable character when he’s at his worst, and a more heroic figure when he’s at his best, because he has to overcome so much more than traditional heroes like Xavier and the other ‘good guys.’”
Depending on which argument you side with, Magneto can be seen either way. Perhaps, the proper label is anti-hero — a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless.
Deborah Lewis recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Jewish Studies. Starting this fall, she will be pursuing a Master’s in Library and Information Science with an emphasis in Archival Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.