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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

X-amining Magneto #1-4

"Return of the Messiah" / "Atonement" / "Kill Zone" / "Specters"
November 1996 - February 1997

In a Nutshell
Joseph battles Exodus and comes to terms with his past as Magneto. 

Plot: Peter Milligan
Script: Jorge Gonzalez
Penciler: Kelley Jones
Inks: John Beatty, Mark Heike & Jim Sanders III (issue #4)
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colors: Brad Vancata
Separations: Graphic Color Works
Editor: Kelly Corvese
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras
Separations: Digital Chameleon

Haunted by his past as Magneto - a past he doesn't remember - Joseph seeks out the ruins of Magneto's fallen space station Avalon. He encounters a group of Acolytes being hunted by Humanity's Last Stand. They decide Joseph is indeed Magneto reborn. Reaching Avalon, Joseph is horrified after he reviews Magneto's personal logs. Elsewhere, Exodus remains the leader of another group of Acolytes, who plan to launch a New Avalon which, when launched, will kill millions of humans. Determined to stop Exodus, Amelia Voght grudgingly makes an alliance with Fabian Cortez, telling him about Joseph. Cortez locates Joseph and convinces him to pretend to be Magneto in order to stop Exodus. Joseph's efforts to pass himself off as Magneto reborn are strengthened when he helps fight off Humanity's Last Stand, but the Acolytes are perplexed when he spares the life of their commander, Colonel Armstrong. However, Armstrong ultimately dies of his injuries anyway. 

Joseph agrees to lead his Acolytes in an attack on New Avalon. However, Exodus has tortured Voght, and learned the truth about Joseph. Before leaving for New Avalon, Joseph visits the family of Armstrong, hoping to end the cycle of anti-mutant violence. However, he gets exposed as a mutant and chased off by Armstrong's family and neighbors. He then leads his Acolytes to New Avalon. He almost convinces Exodus he actually is Magneto, until he kisses Voght on the advice of Cortez, which proves to Exodus he is an imposter. Cortez shifts allegiance, trying to win favor with Exodus, while Joseph comes to believe he's Magneto more than ever. Just then, Humanity's Last Stand attacks New Avalon. As Exodus and Magneto repel the attack, Voght captures Cortez. When Joseph finds himself unable to kill, he accepts that he truly isn't Magneto anymore. When Voght tells him more about his past self, allowing him to truly understand who Magneto truly was, he orders the Acolytes to disperse and find salvation in themselves. He then returns to the X-Men, finally at peace with himself and who he was. 

Firsts and Other Notables
After skirting around it a few times (notably during "Onslaught"), this limited series attempts to tackle head on Joseph's relationship with his past as Magneto (all of which reads a little bit differently now; at the time, the intent was that Joseph was indeed the one and only Magneto, whereas later stories established he's a clone and thus a completely separate being). It does so by putting Joseph in the middle of a civil war amongst the Acolytes, Magneto's followers, and a group swearing allegiance to Magneto's former right-hand-man Exodus and another group fighting against Exodus. 

It also features the return of Fabian Cortez, the former Acolyte who contributed to the brief death of  killed Magneto in X-Men (vol. 2) #3 as part of the Upstart competition, and was then seemingly killed in turn by Exodus in "Bloodties". He will stick around this time, popping in various Magneto stories off and on before becoming a regular in the first ongoing volume of the Krakoa era S.W.O.R.D

Exodus launches a new Avalon in this story, but by the end, Joseph has destroyed it. 

In addition to pre-existing ones like Amelia Voght and Scanner, it also introduces a bunch of new ones, including some that are physically much weirder and non-human looking, most of which go unnamed and are never really seen outside this series. 

It concludes with Joseph telling the Acolytes to break up and stop worshipping Magneto, but of course, they will be back (along with the real Magneto). 

Humanity's Last Stand, the anti-mutant group similar to but distinct from Graydon Creed's Friends of Humanity and led by Simon Trask, brother of Sentinels creator Bolivar Trask, serves as a sort of third faction in the story, attacking both Joseph and Exodus' factions. 

In this story, they pilot large Mandroid-esque suits of body armor called Razors. 

Creator Central 
Peter Milligan writes this miniseries, while the pencil art comes from Kelley Jones, whom I know mostly from his Batman work (he did, amongst other things, most of the "Knightfall" covers that were my introduction to Batman comics).

The Chronology Corner
This story takes place between X-Men (vol. 2) #57 and Uncanny X-Men #338

A Work in Progress
The remains of Avalon (destroyed by the Exodus/Holocaust fight in X-Men #42) are in the Andes Mountains. It's noted as having crashed "several months ago".

Cortez plans to form a harem once he wrests control of the Acolytes from Exodus and Joseph, which just seems like a weird, random beat for the character to take. 

Human/Mutant Relations
After Joseph tries to console the family of one of the Razor pilots and break the cycle of anti-mutant prejudice, he gets chased out of the neighborhood by an angry anti-mutant mob. 

Austin's Analysis
I'm not gonna lie: this one almost broke me. I have read some bad comics in the nearly 15 years I've been doing this, but little has been as much of a slog to get through as this miniseries. Some of that is down to the simple fact that it is a spotlight miniseries for an iteration of a character that was retconned out of existence. Watching Joseph struggle with the past crimes of Magneto while he tries to walk a different path loses all its impact, retroactively, when you know he's not Magneto, but rather, his clone. But even independent of the retcon, the story is overlong and unnecessarily complicated. Key figures are written out of character (Voght is too heroic, the self-serving Cortez too much of a zealot), while others seem largely unnecessary to the plot; Trask and Humanity's Last Stand are around to give Joseph and the Acolytes an external threat, but the story doesn't really need one, except to pad the page count and setup the thematic conclusion the story doesn't really earn. 

Yet for all that, the major issue here is the art. In Kelley Jones' Batman work his figures are by no means realistic, but they at least conform to basic standards of anatomy. Here, whether because he was rushed or suffered a poor inking partner, his work is atrocious. Figures are distorted, becoming grotesque masses in seemingly random ways (unlike, say, the stylized and not photorealistic but still consistent and readable work of Bill Sienkiewicz). Character's lips change size (and location) from panel to panel, for example, their bodies often looking like they were assembled via collage. Backgrounds are largely nonexistent, with close-ups of figures playing out against solid color backgrounds. Certain panels are inexplicably cast in shadow. Basic storytelling and panel-to-panel flow is non-existent. It's some of the worst art I've ever seen in a comic book. A tremendously well-written, engaging story might have been able to overcome it, but this is not that, and the whole thing is an utter, forgettable mess.  

Next Issue
X-Factor goes underground in X-Factor #132!

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  1. This is the kind of '90s comic people point to when they discuss how bad that decade was for comics.

    Even when I (and the creators) thought this was Magneto it didn't seem to serve any purpose. We'd already seen Claremont de-age Magneto and have him struggle with his past self.

    This really was a strange time in X-Men comics. Characters being killed then brought back with no explanation, major character developments that are never referenced again (Starjammers), or just outright contradict other stories. I know Marvel wasn't in a great place at this time but Bob Harras really should have been more on the ball. After all, he was one of the writers on Bloodties just 3 years earlier.

    I know I'm being hard on this series but it has no redeeming qualities. It's like Peter Milligan and Kelly Jones got together to see who could phone it in the most.

    Honestly? It's a good thing that Joseph turned out to be a clone. It means Magneto has never had a terrible solo series.

    1. Oh, I’ve got some bad news for you…there’s Magneto: Dark Seduction and Magneto Rex upcoming. Magneto still had two bad solo miniseries.

      I don’t know how to explain Peter Milligan’s writing at times. He has written some of the finest comics of their time, but most of his work-for-hire projects, he doesn’t even try. I’m assuming he told Kelley Jones, “Listen. I’ve got some easy money for you. Doing artwork on this Magneto series I lucked into. What do you mean you don’t care about a Magneto series? You think I do? Listen, I’m getting wasted down the pub later and writing this thing in my hotel room later. Yeah, I suggest you do this one while you’re in the middle of other things you have to do during the day. Don’t worry about what it looks like. After the Batman job, you’re set, mate.”

    2. I remember almost nothing about Dark Seduction, but have vague memories of Magneto Rex being okay. It's been ages since I read either, though.

      And the very least, neither feature Kelly Jones' weird puffy lipped, googley-eyed figures.

    3. I don't think Rex or Dark Seduction were terrible. If I recall, they're both passable if not good. The art was definitely better.

      I just don't think Milligan ever got the main X-Men stuff. His Elektra run was decent and his X-Statix stuff is also good. But everything else? Not so much.

    4. My recollection is that I enjoyed MAGNETO REX, though I haven't read it in over 20 years. But it was drawn by Brandon Peterson, so on the artistic front, that was a huge plus for me at the time.

      I never read DARK SEDUCTION, but that one was written by Fabian Nicieza, and I have a hard time imagining he could turn in a bad Magneto story! But I could be mistaken in that belief.

    5. @Matt If you don't think Fabian could turn in a bad Magneto story, go back and read X-Men Unlimited #2 where he retconned Magnus being Jewish, thereby undoing all of Claremont's build-up to Uncanny X-Men #150 and beyond. The implication of that story is a sad stink of anti-Semitism.

    6. @Matt, that's actually funny because I wasn't a fan of Brandon Peterson when that series came out. I have an appreciation for him now, including his work on that series. I can no longer recall why his art didn't resonate with me at the time.

  2. Kelly Jones' work is not made for consistent superhero fare. His Batman covers were meant to evoke the chaos of "Knightfall" (and did so admirably, I felt) and the work a lot of us know him best for are his issues of "Sandman," a series that doesn't rely on concise, consistent imagery in its art. That's not to say Jones' flaws here are replicated there; his inker on "Sandman," (Malcolm Jones III... no relation, I think) knew how to bring out Jones' exaggerated shapes and when those thick black fields would best contrast the rest of the art.

    It probably didn't hurt that this miniseries was probably a Marvel Method work, while Gaiman gave detailed page layouts and panel descriptions, and he's also known for tailoring his own storytelling to best suit the artist he's working with. Seriously, check out Jones's work in "Sandman." Two of his issues - Calliope and A Dream of a Thousand Cats - were the subject of the "hidden" episode of the Netflix series (and the latter is a fan-favorite tale, for obvious reasons) and his work on the multi-issue "Season of Mists" storyline suits the material beautifully.

    1. I somewhat disagree. Even on Sandman, I think Jones' work has some issues. He's great at drawing hell and demons and anything that should be creepy and grotesque (or Dream's flowing cape), but he's terrible at everything else. He's sloppy as hell too, he can't consistently a face to save his life. Almost every character looks like a completely different person from panel to panel.

    2. That is where Kelley’s artwork is at its best, in the horror genre. I really love Jones’ artwork, but it had no business in a mainstream X-Men adjacent story than Richard Corben.
      Kelley did masterful work on the Aliens mini-series he illustrated. He made that Deadman two-parter stand out, much more than anything in the writing. His run on Batman with Moench writing is one of my favourite runs on the character once Moench starting writing plots in the Gothic vein to appeal to Kelley’s strengths as an artist.
      So, yes, I thought he was great on Sandman also.

  3. I did not read this so I have nothing to say about it other than that it sounds like I was wise to pass on it back in the 90s.

    But I do want to note how bizarre it is to see a limited series basically cementing Joseph as Magneto, when we're less than a year from UNCANNY X-MEN 350, which suggests that he may not be. (Still a couple years out from learning he's a clone, but still.)

    I also have thoughts on two of the major players here:

    1. As I noted way back when you looked at "Bloodties", Fabian Cortez should've stayed dead after that story. Really, he should've stayed dead after "Fatal Attractions", but for sure "Bloodties" should've been the end of him.

    2. Exodus's wasted potential in the 90s is so disappointing to me. He appeared to much fanfare during "Fatal Attractions", jumped straight from that into another high-profile appearance in "Bloodties", and then became this sort of ever-looming background threat. Then after "Age of Apocalypse", we had the fall of Avalon and with that, Exodus just vanished from the board, relegated to these little appearances where he's basically "just another bad guy".

    The thing is, I really think he could've been so much more. Scott Lobdell used to talk about how intended Bastion to be as big a presence in the X-Universe as Xavier and Magneto. The "third point on the pyramid," I think he called him. But to me, that could've -- and should've -- been Exodus. He had Avalon, he had the Acolytes, he was this really intriguing and compelling figure using Magneto's legacy to his own ends; he should have been a major antagonist for several years. But it was all wiped away to hype up Holocaust after "AoA" ended.

    Especially annoying to me is that I recently finished reading Bob Harras's run writing AVENGERS, and near the end, he teased a war between Exodus and the High Evolutionary. Exodus wanted something under or inside Wundagore Mountain, and he convinced the Acolytes to help in his quest by fabricating something about it being "hallowed ground" due to its association with Magneto's late wife, Magda. But it was clear Exodus didn't actually believe that; he was after something else.

    Sadly, that never went anywhere. That story was published just before AoA, and soon after, Harras left AVENGERS and, again, Exodus was discarded in favor of the AoA refugees.

    Such squandered possibilities!

    1. Agreed on Exodus' wasted potential (they even brought him forward to the dying 2099 universe at one point, which could have been interesting, but squandered that, too). Especially since Exodus' has been used in some really interesting ways in the current era, which just proves the potential in the character.

    2. Yeah, Exodus has actually been interesting during the Krakoan era. Kieron Gillen is doing some good stuff with him in Immortal X-men.

  4. I brought this series at the time, read it, vaguely remember a scene of Joseph either overcoming amnesia as Magneto or else getting better at pretending to do so, but otherwise can't recall anything of it. One of the general problems Marvel kept encountering in this period was an inability to internally lock down mysteries so writers often didn't seem to know for certain how an identity would be revealed, making it harder to write the character and avoid contradicting the eventual reveal. And retcons just made it worse.

  5. I guess I am in the minority here, because while I can't say this was a great or even good miniseries, I didn't hate it. Certainly the X-office produced far worse material than this during the 90s.

    It does fall under the "interesting ideas, lousy execution" model. It is a bit hard to get invested in this story when it's about Magneto's clone, and not Magneto himself. Had it been an issue shorter, and focused more on the power struggles between Joseph/Cortez/Exodus and the various Acolyte groups, it might have been a better read.

  6. Great review, Austin! I can't imagine the mental fortitude it must have taken to get through those pages of weird Meg Ryan lips floating in front of badly drawn faces.
    This was a rough time for the X-books, but there are a few unpolished gems coming up like Generation X #25. What I mean is that it's a intense and exciting issue with the debut of a frenetic new art style from Chris Bachalo that is and it features the Mondo traitor reveal and Jubilee's capture by Bastion, but so much happens and both the story and art ends up being pretty messy. As a big fan of the Lobdell/Bachalo Gen X run, it's still an issue I enjoy, even if marks the beginning of the end of their tenure on the book. I'm very excited to read your review whenever you get to it.
    I miss the Power Rankings/Upcoming Review Schedule posts that you used to do because they made me excited for what's coming and when. Any chance you'll bring those back?

  7. Something just occurred to me today; this series becomes extremely meta once it's revealed that Joseph is a clone and not the real deal. Since he, you know, "pretends" to be the old Magneto in the series. It's unintentional, so Milligan gets no credit for it, but it at least makes this whole thing just slightly less terrible.

  8. Jorge Gonzalez is the scripter while Milligan is credited as plotter, so I place more of the negatives of the writing at Jorge's feet since it's his words we're reading.

    That said, Milligan is an odd writer. If it's something he created the ideas for like all of his Vertigo work or X-Force/X-Statix, he's "on" but if it's something like this or his X-Men #166-187 run, it's more "phoned in."


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