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July 27, 2012 1:57 pm

“The First X-Men” Takes Aim at Nazi War Criminals

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avatar by Rafael Medoff /

From the demented geneticist known as Mr. Sinister to the evil giant Juggernaut, the X-Men have battled some pretty wild foes over the years. But in an upcoming five-issue mini-series called “The First X-Men,” one member of the Marvel superhero team will take on some villains seen more in the real world than in the world of comic books: Nazi war criminals.

“The First X-Men,” which will debut in August, marks the return of one of the most famous and beloved artists in the heroes’ 60-year history, Neal Adams.

During his tenure as artist on Marvel’s X-Men comic book in 1969-1970, Adams’s ultra-realistic artistic style and innovative composition stunned the comic book world. Those issues are still widely regarded by comic fans and professionals alike as the high point in the history of the X-Men.

The Holocaust unexpectedly appeared in the biography of the X-Men’s arch-nemesis, Magneto, in a five-issue Marvel miniseries in 2008, called “Magneto: Testament.” The writers showed how Magneto discovered his powers as a result of his experiences as a child prisoner in Auschwitz.

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Also included in that “Testament” miniseries was Adams’s graphic depiction of the real-life plight of Mrs. Dina Babbitt and her family, in their battle for the return of portraits that she painted while a prisoner in Auschwitz, and which is being held by the Auschwitz Museum in Poland.

Mrs. Babbitt was forced to create the paintings by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” under pain of death and to spare her mother’s life. “The return of this artwork is an ongoing campaign for all involved, and worthy of a major media campaign,” Adams tells “The history of the abuse of the state over the individual dies slowly, and is always out there, to again rear its ugly head.”

The Magneto-Nazis theme was also included in the most recent X-Men movie, “X-Men: First Class” (2011). Now it returns to the comic books in the upcoming Adams miniseries.

A poster from "The First X-Men." Photo: Marvel.

The new series, coauthored with Christos Gage, will be a prequel, focusing on the activities of an earlier set of X-Men, led by one very special member of the current X-Men, who team up to undertake an unusual mission. Also reluctantly on the team is the young Magneto, who at that time had not yet emerged as a villain, and was instead devoting himself to hunting down Nazi war criminals.

“The Nazi war criminal angle is not the focus of the story, but it figures into the plot in some interesting ways,” says Adams, careful not to give away too much before the release of the comics.

Adams has more than a passing interest in the Holocaust. Raised on a U.S. military base in postwar Germany, Adams learned about the Nazi genocide close up and at an early age. “In school, they showed us some pretty harrowing stuff—newsreel footage of what the Allied troops found when they liberated the camps, severely emaciated prisoners, huge piles of dead bodies,” he recalls. “It was very hard for a 9-year-old to take. I came home from school and wouldn’t speak to anyone for a full week.”

Coincidentally, Adams’s own mother-in-law, Ruth Susser, was also a Holocaust-era artist who used her artwork to save lives. Ruth fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940 and eventually made her way to the relative safety of Tangiers, Morocco. While waiting for permission to immigrate to the United States, she helped the Polish Embassy in Tangiers design counterfeit documents to help other Jews escape Poland.

Adams is the artist on a series of animated shorts about Americans who spoke out against the Holocaust, created with Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The first five episodes of the series are available online at The next five will include an installment about U.S. policy concerning war criminals, both during the Holocaust and in response to the recent Darfur genocide.

The issue of Nazi war criminals has surfaced in comic books on occasion over the years. Adams points to a 1955 comic strip called “Master Race,” drawn by Bernie Krigstein and published by EC Comics, which featured a confrontation between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal. “Both the story and artwork were groundbreaking, and ‘Master Race’ remains one of the most influential comic strips of all time,” Adams says.

He hopes that the upcoming “First X-Men” series will help keep the issue of war criminals in the public eye. “Sadly, the problem of war criminals evading justice is a major problem in today’s world,” Adams notes. He says he was heartened by the outpouring of public interest in the recent YouTube video “Kony 2012,” which documents atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan terrorists known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The video has been viewed more than 91 million times since its release in March.

At the same time, Adams is disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in capturing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for sponsoring the Darfur genocide, yet remains a free man.

“If we had a genocide survivor with powers like Magneto, bringing Kony and Bashir to justice wouldn’t be a problem,” Adams remarks. “But this is the real world, which means we need real people to care, and to pressure their governments to take action to capture these mass murderers. Perhaps ‘The First X-Men’ will help get more people to start thinking about that.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

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