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Comic Relief: 'X'-Raying the Holocaust on Screen

June 29, 2011 By:
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Emma Frost -- chill out, January Jones -- and the morally footloose Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) plan evil doings Photo by Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Does Magneto magnetize or stigmatize the hallowed issue of heroics in the Holocaust?

Magneto of "X-Men: First Class" is not the first, just the latest, character to jump from the comic book pages to the screen, as he has done in this summer's sizzler of a box-office hit.

Born as Max Eisenhardt in the Marvel Comics empire back in 1963 -- making his debut with the premiere issue of X-Men -- the character has devolved from a non-kryptonite superboy corrupted by a barbarous Nazi in the camps, to a villain with that certain X factor who may just be trying to save the Mutants from forces beyond their otherwise extraordinary control.

As the first scene opens on screen, it evokes the history of the Holocaust horrors introduced in Marvel's first issue by comic icon Stan Lee, alongside artist Jack Kirby.

Watching as his mother is shot to death by Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon, playing morally footloose here) in the camps, Max unfurls the fury of his mutant talent, impressing Schmidt with his evil potential as a lethal weapon Third Reich.

Max is taken in eventually by the morbidly magnetic appeal of the evil doctor (the two older characters are subsequently known as Sebastian Show -- Bacon -- and Erik Lehnsherr, portrayed by Michael Fassbender.)

The evil that men do soon fills the heart of the naif waif, who turns on his Mutant mentor decades later.

Does "X" hit the spot or does it detract from it in this latest caricature of Holocaust hegemony? Indeed, what is the magnet that draws comic books to concentration camps? And can graphic novel characters actually convey the graphic horrors of the Holocaust accurately?

A history of comic books shows that the two are inextricably linked. Superman had super problems dealing with Nazis throughout the 1940s, often with a BAM! POW! SPLAT! of a solution: "I'd like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw," Superman says as he manhandles none other than Hitler as part of a "How Superman Would End the War" comic in 1941.

He's in good anti-Hitler company. The Butcher of Wulfhausen, City of Slaves, Thou Shalt Not Kill were just some of the titles during the war and postwar periods that evoked the battle between good and evil.

What's in a Name? 
Indeed one of the central figures in Marvel Comics' X-Men Alpha (1995) goes by the handle of "Holocaust," whose origins will not be myth-taken as Shakespearean (although they may cause Elie Wiesel to blanch): The son of Apocalypse and a member of the Four Horsemen, he also goes by the pseudonym of Nemesis.

With all the superheroes out there battling evil and eviscerating Nazis over the years -- there have been scores scoring for our side, including the locally created Shaloman, a comic book by Philadelphian Al Wiesner -- surely one of the most prominent was not a vanquisher but a victim, playing out life as a mouse in an anything-but-Disney-esque landscape. Art Spiegleman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a two-volume graphic novel completed in 1991, was the sole comic book ever to take the Pulitzer Prize, which it did in 1992 for its portrayal of Jews and the Germans in the ultimate cat-and-mouse chase.

On the literary front, a printing of Anne Frank: The Graphic Biography, with an imprimatur from the Anne Frank Foundation, was welcomed by critics and historians when it appeared last year, delving as it did into Germany's "back story," starting out with the explosion that was World War I, and working its way up to the icon's legendary diary.

So, yes, there have been popular precedents for what "X-Men" now brings into play. But how appropriate is this graphic X-ray of a sordid history?

Chris Clarement, who penned Magneto's origins, told Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the author of Up, Up, and Oy Vey! -- a tome about those superheroes who sport Jewish roots -- that creating Magneto's Reich-rotted roots "allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his people," allowing the writer over a long drawn-out period "to attempt to redeem him, to see if he could start over, if he could evolve in the way that Menachem Begin had evolved from a guy that the British considered 'shoot on sight' in 1945 to a statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978."

And in 2008, the Anne Frank Foundation pursued a project, in addition to the previously mentioned biography, to bring young readers into the pages of history, using comic books to introduce them to the Holocaust: "The comic book brings children closer to a difficult subject," according to the foundation's Julia Franz.

"Nazism and the Holocaust stop being abstract history. People begin to take these matters very seriously, as something real, which actually occurred, and not so long ago."

But then, maybe looking for historical touchstones in a comic/film such as "X-Men" -- as good as it is, and it is very good -- is seeking significance not meriting the search.

Scholarly analysis to go along with the Jujyfruits? Large sodas and doses of the SS?

After all is said and told, it's only a movie.

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