Monday, 25 August 2014

UXM #200: "The Trial Of Magneto!"

("The whole freaking system is out of order!")


A trial, of course, is the last thing this is.  Diagetically, at least. A trial implies a ruling; a decision as to how much punishment you actions warrant, if any.  And here, that's precisely what we don't get.  The judges of the UN Security Council get no opportunity to comment decisively on Magneto's innocence or otherwise. But of course this hardly matters, because the aim here isn't to demonstrate Magneto's innocence to the court, but to demonstrate to us his viability as a hero.

With hindsight, and I presume to anyone at the time keeping an eye on the solicitations, this must have been an obviously necessary step.  Magneto is about to take charge of the New Mutants, with the "dying Xavier" storyline coming to an end here (with Corsair and Lilandra whisking Charles off for a bit of space healing). That means some effort has to go into persuading the audience that the new status quo makes at least a little sense.

The issue attempts this in two ways.  By far the less interesting of these is the inclusion of Andrea and Andreas, AKA Fenris, AKA the twin children of Baron Strucker.  Magneto's arrest and trial has at last pinned him down for long enough for the malevolent siblings to take a break from shooting random Africans in Kenya and slap together a plan for revenge.  The thing is, though, that said plan makes very little sense.  Committing acts of terrorism and claiming them as acts of support for Magneto might help sway the judges against him, but even if it looked like those judges needed any help in disliking the defendant, Fenris' aim isn't to get him locked up, but to find and assassinate him.  What good does a bombing campaign do for them?  The only advantage is has is that they ultimately use a fake attack to distract the X-Men whilst they try to finish of Magneto, but it's only the bombing campaign (which the terrorists have made to look like attacks by our heroes) that actually means the X-Men need distracting in the first place. It's like warning someone they're going to be robbed so you can distract them with a fake robbery whilst you rob them [1]; it's just a mad closed circle.

But all that only really matters if we're supposed to be concentrating on what Fenris is up to.  We're not.  We're just supposed to be remembering that there are far worse villains out in the Marvel Universe than Magneto, and some of them are his sworn enemies. It's an attempt to redeem Magneto in part through the "bigger asshole theory", and whilst there's almost no rhetorical heft in the "at least he hates the Nazis" in general, it does at least remind us that Magneto's history and motivations have always (well, since UXM #150, anyway) been more complicated than the label "villain" would suggest.

Which brings us to the second method for selling Magneto to us: the trial itself.  There's no doubt on who's side Claremont is here, resulting in the entire process being used to justify and exculpate Magneto, whilst chief prosecutor James Jaspers (the UK's attorney general, which I didn't know we had one of) reveals himself as an unhinged racist.  This deck-stacking is obvious almost from the first.  Jasper's opening statement is actually pretty good. I mean, it's awful from a progressive perspective - all about how oppression doesn't exist if it isn't codified into law and the oppressed have an obligation to work within the system to clear whatever hurdles that system has placed in their way, exactly the sort of shit the US Supreme Court has been spouting recently, and which the events in Ferguson these last weeks have brought the lie to once again - but at least it lines up with the opinions of an awful lot of people who we could legitimately call well-intentioned.  "You should do it like MLK did it" is both a bad thing for the oppressors to tell the oppressed, and tends to rather smooth the edges off what MLK was up to in any case, but it can genuinely come from people who wish to be of help, especially in the context of a legal case, which by it's very nature is concerned with the application of authority as it currently exists, rather than how we might wish it did.

With that nod towards fair-and-balanced dealt with, though, things quickly slew in one direction. The opening gambit of Gabrielle Haller, as defense counsel, is to move that all Magneto's crimes committed before his forced rejuvenation at the hands of Mutant Alpha be stricken from the record.  In legal terms, this is an utterly absurd suggestion. OK, it's clearly true that we lack the technology-  at present - to physically regress an adult back to childhood.  But in the Marvel Universe such a procedure is far less unthinkable. Reed Richards could probably knock up a machine for the job in his lunch hour. The idea that, in such an environment, a person need only get to their rejuvenation machine to have all previous crimes expunged is flatly ridiculous, though I guess the fact that only the richest people could afford such tech would guarantee them at least four votes on the current US Supreme Court. But we don't need to dabble in hypothetical technological breakthroughs here. Current case law does the job for us, with only minimal tweaking. You can't, for instance, escape a trial on the grounds of amnesia; you don't have to remember a crime to be punished for it. And Magneto remembers his past life just fine. Indeed, his entire identity relies upon it. Haller herself is smart enough to realise this, demonstrating that Magneto has been de-aged specifically by referencing his youth in Auschwitz, a fairly blatant attempt to solicit sympathy. Indeed, had Jaspers been more savvy, he might have let this insane suggestion go unchallenged, since the inevitable consequence of holding Magneto's pre-reversion life null and void is that no-one gets to care anymore about his unimaginably horrific childhood.

But that doesn't occur to him. And somehow, the court allows this ridiculous interpretation to pass. Now, it's true that a few years watching the Roberts court piss all over precedent, the Constitution and basic common fucking sense has led me to conclude that there is basically no legal theory sufficiently unmoored from reality for it not to get the thumbs up from someone in a robe, it seems pretty much unarguable that you wouldn't see five humans dismiss dozens of entries on a defendant's list of crimes (including murder; I flat-out refuse to believe Magneto's conquering of San Marco was achieved without a body count) because of an absurd reading of what constitutes culpability. There cannot be a single actual human being in existence who thinks that, for example, the US would forgive a man for trying to steal their nuclear missiles if he briefly became a baby before you managed to arrest him.

All that said, though, it's inescapably obvious as to why Claremont pulls this trick; it's the only way to make use of Magneto from this moment forwards. The murderous, petty douchebag that haunted UXM from its first issue had to be put to rest so that the new improved Magneto, all grey areas and tortured desperation, can take flight. And whilst the specifics of Claremont's action on this matter leave something to be desired, I'm far from convinced any other approach wouldn't have seemed entirely arbitrary, which means we're faced with the choice of either accepting an unconvincing break from the past, or not using Magneto as anything other than that dude who invaded that place pizzas come from one time. If a plausible argument for taking the latter path exists, then I have yet to see it.

With the opening statements having so successfully washed away the majority of Magneto's sins, the trial boils down to the sinking of the Leningrad and the destruction of the city of Varykino. Frankly, both of these seem like slam dunks for the prosecution.  As I mentioned fifty issues back when Magneto did the deed, there's simply no plausible legal theory under which destroying the Leningrad can be claimed as self-defence; it's only self-defence if a failure to act might actually cause you harm. The intent of your attacker is irrelevant, only their capacity. If a madman concludes you are a vampire and tries to kill you with a Super-Soaker filled with holy water, you don't get to kill them and claim they started it. That rather obliterates Magneto's argument in the criminal terms this trial is running on, but even if we looked at it from the rules of war Magneto wants to frame his actions in terms of, the Leningrad was helpless against him and fully under his control, making her crew POWs by any reasonable definition, and we tend to frown on the mass execution of such people.

All of which James Jaspers could have easily pointed out. Instead, he begins screaming at the defendant, demanding he admit his actions were the opening moves in a plan to take control of the world. Which, even if that were true, isn't the smart direction to take this. The point is that whether Magneto is a wannabe dictator or not,  Leningrad is just as lost. Varykino is no less destroyed (and as always the comments on no-one having been killed when the city fell strike me as highly implausible and rather skips over the fact that being a refugee in Siberia isn't something everyone is going to get out of with their fingers and toes intact). Forcing Magneto and Haller into defending the human cost of his actions would be a thread with some real bite to it. Instead, Jaspers' outburst shifts tracks into the field of international politics, which is where Magneto can make his strongest case. Take a look:
 By what right do those self-same great powers hold me hostage, with their nuclear arsenals?! I am a citizen of neither the United States nor the Soviet Union... yet they possess the capability to slay me and mine. I live, I prosper, solely because two men on opposite sides of the globe choose to keep the peace.  I can just as easily, arbitrarily, be condemned.

Unlike others, however, I have the power to do something about it. I thought, mistakenly, those nations would best understand their own language of violence.  Unfortunately, force begat force -- and, as always, innocents paid the price,  A price -- I discovered too late -- that was too high.
What Magneto is saying here is not without weight, of course. No-one needs to hear the five permanent UN Security Council members hectoring others about believing they have the right to endanger the lives of people who have neither quarrel with nor influence upon them. I'd conservatively guess something like 90% of statements of condemnation from nuclear states boil down to "How dare you do what we do!". That said, though, tu quoque is pretty much the automatic go-to defence for pretty much any dictator who ends up at the pointy end of a tribunal. No-one's hands are clean, not at this level. Which means the only two options is to let criminals punish criminals, or let everyone go free once they reach the point where they're playing with the big boys. Neither choice is palatable, but I know which one I'd rather choke down.

All of which Attorney General Sir Shoutypants might have thought to point out, had he not been so busy pretending he was in a drunken spat at the Bullingdon Club. And alas, the moment is soon wasted, as Fenris attacks, Charles departs and Magneto melts away in the confusion, deciding that Lady Justice isn't someone he wants to dance with after all. But again, justice was never the point. Persuading us we're better off with Magneto out and on our side is. It's one more iteration of that charmingly American idea that redemption is more important than state justice, so long as we get something out of the deal.

And as far as that goes, it's a decent stab, though it does it by making everyone else seem worse than Magneto rather than making him seem all that much more heroic. We can just about consider this job done. And it's certainly a job worth doing for the sake of future stories. And it's probably entirely safe to say that had Magneto's trial reached its conclusion, things would have gotten very bloody and complicated in a way Marvel comics just weren't equipped to handle in the 1980s, and maybe still aren't today. Even so, I can't help wishing the 200th issue of The Uncanny X-Men worked better in its own right, rather than stumbling along in the process of setting later stories up. An awful lot of Marvel Universe traditions have their roots in Claremont's writing. This is not one of my favourite examples.

[1] Which admittedly is most of the plot of The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Scott Lynch has rather more panache on his side than Claremont can claim.


From a comment made by Madelyne, we know that the X-Men spend just over a week back on Earth before Xavier is whisked away into space, so we can reasonably put the time-span of this issue at eight days.

When it actually begins in relation to Magneto's arrest in UXM #199 is a bit trickier, because we have to think about how quickly a criminal trial featuring a team of judges from the UN Security Council can feasibly be put together. It took the UN War Crimes Tribunal for Slobodan Milošević almost eight months to start following his extradition, for example. I don't think it would take quite so long in Magneto's case - when the US and Russia want to nail your balls to the wall, I'd imagine things start moving rather faster - and the fact Maddie was so close to giving birth in previous issues prevents us from moving too far ahead in any case. Nevertheless, I'm going to assume a full month has passed between the last issue and this, and I'm going to move UXM Annual #9 forwards as well as a result.

Which means it's been seven in-universe years exactly since Magneto first tangled with the X-Men, which seems rather fitting, all things considered.


Friday 22nd February to Saturday 2nd March, 1985.


X+6Y+358 to X+7Y+1.

Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.18 standard years.

(Beast is 33 years old)

Contemporary Events

Julio Maria Sanguinetti is signed in as the first democratically-elected President of Uruguay after a twelve-year dictatorship

Standout Line

I'm not sure anything here is going to beat Magneto's little speech, but Colossus reacting to being hit with an energy beam with "As usual, only my costume suffered" is legitimately chucklesome.

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