Looking back on my early reviews of Cullen Bunn’s Magneto, the word that comes up again and again in the crucial lines is ‘breathless’. It’s a word that called to my mind a physical pressure in the pacing of a story and a conscious awareness of how long everything takes. In the context of those associations, I have to say that I agree with my initial interpretation and that Bunn still has it.
At long last, Magneto has come to an end and Cullen Bunn delivers an impressive, if occasionally rote, look at what a life flashing before ones eyes looks like when you’ve survived the holocaust, a de-aging, a sovereignty, and more.
The twin joys of this issue are Magneto’s final monologue and the chance to look back upon some of the Master of Magnetism’s greatest hits with a fresh eye. The flashbacks weave Bunn’s distinctive style into these classic moments rather seamlessly, to the point were I had to dig out my Marvel Masterworks collection to prove to myself that the opening monologue wasn’t built upon a Stan Lee original. Though the age of this series’ Magneto has suited Bunn quite nicely, it’s fun to see him tackling the classic era once before we say goodnight. It’s also interesting that in this moment of self-loathing, seeing Magneto at his most tyrannical actually serves to highlight his humanity more than watching him struggle to save the world. As Polaris reminds us, Magneto is excellent at letting ends justify means, but Bunn grasps the core intrigue of the character by showing how fervently he believed in his own justifications.
Of course, the arc of the story lies in examining how Magneto imagines his legacy now that his story is coming to an end. More than most that I’ve read, Magneto’s “Last Days” really feel like they’re taking advantage of something that simply can’t be done with a near miss apocalypse. Though I honestly wish that we could have gotten a little more of a sense of Magneto’s final thoughts, Bunn ends the series as poetically as it began and, unsurprisingly, with the same sense of loneliness.
But while the writing remains strong, this is the fourth issue of this arc and it was clear where this was leading from the first. We all knew that Magneto was seeking to increase his power enough to hold off the Incursion and we knew that the existence of “Secret Wars” meant that he, at least, wasn’t getting a traditional happy ending. The lack of a shocking turn in the narrative only drives home how over-decompressed this arc has been and draws attention to one of the major flaws of Bunn’s storytelling. You see, while there is some gravitas about the whole thing, there’s no tension in the present day scenes. Magneto holds his arms out as lightning crackles toothlessly around him, but neither Bunn nor his collaborators manage to channel the slim hope of a successful outcome or the aching panic of the last line falling. It’s intentionally fatalistic, but such moments need contrast and, after four issues, it just feels like there’s nothing but grim certainty left in the audience or the creators.
I’m so grateful that we get a full issue of Gabriel Hernandez Walta to see this series off. Bunn would have made Magneto a fascinating read with more or less any artist, but describing Walta’s art as anything less than an immense draw would be an insult to the man. Working with a popular pick for best colorist in the business, Walta crafts something appropriately world-weary and beautiful to mark the end of this old man’s eighty-five year tragedy.
There’s no denying that these panels are beautiful and they combine nicely into a series of lovely pages. Walta and Jordie Bellaire work marvelously together and each of their contributions feel innately linked. I will say that Polaris and Briar Raleigh are looking a little heavy, which would be fine if it were intentional but I can’t imagine why it would be here. The only problem with the storytelling, however, is the aforementioned lack of energy in the present day sections.
It helps that Magneto practically defined the classic ‘above it all’ villain posture, leaving Walta countless engaging choices to make about the mutant savior’s body language that, in turn, give the compositions a certain sensuous flow. The flashbacks are also a genuine gift to Walta and Bellaire. Beyond the inherent weight that comes with comics’ reverence towards nostalgia,the art team really contributes immensely to the story through the contrasts between past and present and this issue and the original stories. Admittedly, I could just look at the final panel of the first flashback for ages, but how Walta and Bellaire depict Magneto’s ‘triumphs’ is as essential, if not more so, than their aesthetic beauty. These versions of the classic scenes are from Magneto’s point of view and that distinction is paramount. Most obvious is the increased gore and weight of the scenes. It’s fascinating how unambiguously evil Magneto was back in 1963 when he merely threatened to do wrong yet how sympathetic he remains now, when you’re forced to look his offscreen victims in the eye.
While it’s easy to miss in the visual splendor and lyrical dialogue of a first read, each of these scenes actually contains a critical moment of doubt or reassurance for Magnus. The fact that Bunn trusted these critical story beats entirely to his artists is a testament to what has made this series so excellent and allows those moments where you recognize what’s happening an appropriate solemnity. Walta depicts a Magneto who is not immune to the suffering of others, but rather consciously dismissive. We talk all the time about how the ends justify the means for Erik or how he doesn’t realize what he’s become, but these small moments of doubt, the acknowledgement that he knows he’s a monster and doesn’t care, help elevate the final moments of this issue from a well-written but largely standard monologue to a fitting capstone for this series.
Magneto #21 is not without problems. This arc stretched out waaay too long and there is a crucial lack of drama in many of the present day scenes. However, the quality of the writing itself is of the same vintage as the rest of this excellent series and, here, at the end, the collaboration between words and pictures has never been stronger. A gorgeous look back on one of comics’ most well considered lives awaits those who pick up this final issue and those who love the fundamentally tragic or ironic elements of Magneto will adore it. The issue ends beautifully and so does the series.