Columnists Joe and Kevin take you through the experience of learning to read comic books. Each week they alternate as Joe (the teacher) explains why he picked a specific book, and Kevin (the student) gives his impressions.
The first book in our series, The Death Of Superman, exists in a very different universe than this week’s. I don’t just mean that the former is the DC universe and the latter is Marvel; I mean that the entire way the regular (read: non-super) people relate to and exist alongside the superheroes and supervillains of their universe is radically different. And that relationship puts the very concepts of good and evil on shaky ground.
In the early days of comics, “good” and “evil” were clearly defined: Superman, Batman, and Captain America were good; bank robbers, mad scientists, and Hitler were bad. There was no moral ambiguity in the final panels, when a crook’s plot was foiled and he was delivered to the police to be locked up. It was always “heroes and villains,” a concept that was essential to the development of the medium.
But as time went on, writers started to wonder more about that grey area between good and evil. At what point does a character’s motivations call into question his or her actions on a small or large scale? What really defines a hero, or a villain, or anyone, for that matter? After all, aren’t they all just weirdos running around in capes and masks? And how could anyone be purely good or purely evil?
Source: Michael B. Duff
I’m fuzzy on the history of how this shift occurred, though I have read Michael Chabon’s fantastic The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, which discusses the idea of the tortured hero, struggling with humanity in that grey area, in beautiful detail. I also know it had quite a bit to do with The X-Men, whose central themes often call into question the very ideas of what it means to be human, and gives us a number of examples of figures who don’t quite fit into the predefined “hero” and “villain” roles so easily.
Take Magneto, the central figure in Fatal Attractions. As the story unfolds we learn a few details of his history: survivor of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, father who lost a child, husband to a woman who left him out of fear of what he had become. This history colors everything Magneto does, from his attempts to build a human-free “paradise” for mutants in space, to his magnetic pulse wave attack on Earth.
It’s critical to his story that he’s a Holocaust survivor, because The X-Men’s universe is one that finds itself eternally on the brink of genocide. Unlike Superman’s world, where heroes are revered and relied upon to save them from one crisis after another, the mutants of X-Men are outcasts, hated for who they are and what they represent. It’s fair to say that not everyone feels this way, but the world’s governments have numerous protocols in place—The Sentinels, for example—to wage war on mutants at a moment’s notice. To them, mutants aren’t heroic, godlike protectors, but a constant threat to their very existence.
Fatal Attractions poses a very important question about this world: How far should we go to prevent another Holocaust? For Magneto, genocide is inevitable, so it’s kill or be killed, mutants vs. humans. He would gladly accept any mutants into his flock and leave the world of humans (Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Homo Superior, the mutants), but it’s not enough to simply leave them, they must be wiped out.
Charles Xavier certainly understands this attitude, and I’m not sure he entirely disagrees with it. But Xavier’s goal is to find ways for humans and mutants to coexist, if not work together—one that Magneto finds predictably naive. So their inevitable battle is more than just “good mutants” vs. “bad mutants,” it’s an ideological one in which Magneto’s us-or-them approach is put up against Xavier’s can’t-we-all-just-get-along beliefs.
And who wins? Well… that’s complicated. But before I get to that, I can’t talk about Fatal Attractions without mentioning what happens to Wolverine. Joe rightly points out in his article that Wolverine is probably one of the most beloved comic book characters of all time, which makes Magneto’s crushing final blow all the more devastating (although it’s not like it was entirely unpredictable—I mean, dude controls metal).
After Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton is ripped from him, the character is fundamentally changed: his iconic metal claws are gone, and only bone remains. The scene in which we discover this is illustrated very intensely, but it’s immediately followed by a quiet, touching scene with Jubilee, before he says goodbye. There’s a lot of confusion, violence, and life-or-death in this story, but it’s moments like this that reveal the most about who our characters really are.
Ultimately, Magneto has to be defeated, although it’s hardly the fair-and-square victory you’d expect in another story. Xavier only really defeats Magneto by first screwing with his mind, altering his memories, and finally taking it away completely and putting him in a vegetative state. It’s the most literal interpretation of psychological warfare, and although it works, some of his team is hardly thrilled at his actions.
So, all’s well that ends well? Wolverine is alive but broken, striking off on his own in a moment of confusion and self-discovery. Colossus leaves his team and his love, returning to Avalon with the Acolytes. Cable is hardly the man he was, and near as I can tell, get knocked out on Muir Island. Another Holocaust is—for now—prevented, but at what cost? And what else has been lost?
What I Liked:
- The artwork. All the illustrations are fantastic, particularly the Wolverine scenes I mentioned above. There are dozens of little touches, such as the way some of the pages in Uncanny X-Men #305 need to be flipped sideways to read, that make the books so visually interesting. Wolverine #75 is also an extremely fun book, and I’m sure the artists had a blast with the surrealist imagery inside Logan’s mind.
- On that note, I have to also point out the quality of the writing. While The Death Of Superman was noticeably repetitive and overly explanatory, Fatal Attractions was much more conversational. So many of the characters speak with dialects, which are consistently represented in the dialogue. And there are so many small scenes, only one or two pages, that deliver a lot of important information without seeming heavy-handed, even when they’re between two “non-essential” characters (say, Bishop and Banshee).
- There’s an interesting parallel between what Magneto does to Cable and what he does to Wolverine, which is certainly intentional. Right now I can’t really say what that parallel means, but I wanted to point it out because I’m sure it’s relevant in later stories.
- I also didn’t get a chance to mention the drama between Magneto and his son, Pietro. For Magneto to be so motivated by the loss of his family, his complete inability to connect with his son was a nice touch.
What I Didn’t Like:
- Honestly, not much. There were times when the pages were a little claustrophobic, and I got the sense that the writers had a lot of information to deliver and a limited amount of space. Scenes like the ones inside Magneto’s mind or the attack on Illyana’s funeral are a bit of a mess, due to the near constant dialogue and the sheer volume of characters. But the writers do a great job keeping the story moving, and it was all I could do to keep up.
Odds & Ends:
- I’m adding this section as a way to point out a few stray things I’ve noticed and questions I have, and maybe the readers can help me make sense of them.
- I don’t think I quite understood Cable’s storyline, particularly after his encounter with Magneto. When he comes back, he has Xavier’s “consciousness” in him (which I get that he took from Avalon, somehow), but how does that relate to the actual Xavier? Is he communicating in real time, or is it something else?
- The Captain Britain stuff was lost on me, particularly when Rachel “turns into” him. That might be one I never quite figure out.
Fatal Attractions is obviously an iconic story in The X-Men universe, not just for what happens to Wolverine but for the drawing of lines in the proverbial sand. Other stories might be more infamous, such as The Dark Phoenix Saga and the upcoming Age Of Apocalypse, but Fatal Attractions gets at some of X-Men’s central themes, and the story always feels bigger than the characters. This is the kind of storytelling I was looking forward to in this project.
Read along with Joe and Kevin!
Next up: Spawn: Vol. 1 and Gen 13 Vol. 1
- Batman: Knightfall
- X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Vol. 2-4
- Zero Hour
You can also hear Joe and Kevin on their podcast.