Subscribe via RSS Feed

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 9: The Mutant Metaphor (Part I)

[ 87 ] April 14, 2016 |

people's history week 9

This particular issue  is a long time coming – and fair warning, it’s going to be part one in a multi-part series; this topic is way too big to be covered in one go – because the “mutant metaphor” is absolutely core to the intersection between politics and Marvel Comics, and thus to the brief of this series.

A lot of people have discussed the manifold ways in which the “mutant metaphor” is problematic, but what I’m going to argue in this issue is that a big part of the problem with the “mutant metaphor” is that it wasn’t clearly defined from the outset, in part because it wasn’t anywhere close to the dominant thread of X-Men comics.[i] While always an element of the original run, as much time was spent on fighting giant Kirby robots or stopping the likes of Count Nefaria from encasing Washington D.C in a giant crystal bubble. And this was always problematic, because in the shared Marvel Universe, you need to explain why it is that the X-Men are “feared and hated” and must hide beneath the façade of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester, whereas the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were treated as celebrities and could live openly on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, respectively.[ii]

So what did the “mutant” metaphor mean initially?

AMP14

One of the best ways to understand how the “mutant metaphor” was originally understood is to look at depictions of anti-mutant prejudice. In the early Lee and Kirby run, anti-mutant prejudice is described almost entirely as a mass phenomenon, a collective hysteria that takes hold of large groups of people. You can see this especially in the way that crowds of humans descend into violence in contexts that you wouldn’t normally expect them. Like sports events:

AMP36

I haven’t been to many track and field events, but the normal reaction to record-breaking accomplishments is usually excitement rather than blinding rage. Likewise, what college football fan’s first reaction to a star running back’s Conference Championship-winning drive would be to assume that they must be super-powered, rather than be overjoyed. The text here suggests that part of the underlying psychology of anti-mutant prejudice is a kind of tall-poppy syndrome, where mutant abilities threaten the collective ego of humanity in ways that other superhumans do not. The Fantastic Four and Avengers et al. are largely the provenance of accident or super-science, which means that your average man on the street can either chalk them up to the whims of chance or aspire to join their ranks. But mutant abilities suggest that some people are born better than others.  And this theme of popular resentment of those with superior abilities was a common theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction that Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” was satirizing, and certainly found its way into Marvel Comics via Steve Ditko’s objectivist approach to Spider-Man.

However, anti-mutant prejudice goes further than mere envy of this kind, to the point where it manifests instantly in situations where mutant powers have literally just been used to save human lives:

AMP35

Especially in a world in which superheroes are a common occurrence, especially in New York City, it’s highly unusual that saving a child who’s trapped on top of a water tower or preventing an air conditioner from falling down onto a crowded sidewalk (albeit accidentally due to Scott’s mutant powers) should elicit such instant violence. Why is it that New Yorkers would react this way to Beast and Cyclops when they don’t toward Daredevil or the Human Torch?

By examining the text of these pages, I think we can get a better understanding of how the “mutant metaphor” originally functioned. On the left, the woman in the crowd says that mutants are in hiding among the human majority, “waiting to take over the world.” (A theme I’ll discuss in more detail in a future issue on the relationship between the “mutant metaphor” and especially the ideology of “evil mutants,” and the nuclear age) A man brandishing a fist puts forward the bizarrely illogical argument that Beast saves children as part of a nefarious plot to convince the human race that mutants are benevolent. Likewise, on the right, a crowd of people who were previously seconds from being squashed to death suddenly decide that their savior is “far more dangerous than a falling crate” and immediately try to murder him.

This particular line of dialogue speaks to a more specific form of mass hysteria and moral panic, a frequent theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction (Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, Day the Earth Stood Still) reacting to the Red Scare of the 1950s, where commies were supposedly lurking around every corner ready to sap the vital fluids of god-fearing Americans. And indeed, mutants share a key aspect with the feared commies – in the minds of ordinary humans, they are the hidden enemy who disguise their identity behind a façade of normalcy, and are plotting to overthrow . Indeed, this is one of the ways in which the link between the “mutant metaphor” and the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t quite work – outside of the phenomenon of passing, the visibility of blackness was one of the chief mechanisms of maintaining the color line.

On the other hand, this same hidden, underground quality gives rise to other meanings of the “mutant metaphor.” As many other writers have talked about before me, long before the idea of the X-Gene entered into the Marvel lexicon, mutancy’s grounding in inherited physiology gave it a link to adolescent sexuality. Ditko and Lee’s Spiderman had already began Marvel’s link between super-powers and puberty, but whereas Peter Parker’s mutation had an exterior cause and had no visible signifiers (prior to the time Parker accidentally gave himself four extra arms), homo-superiority came from within and had to be hidden away. Thus the birth of the mutant closet:

AMP11

AMP23

Both the Comics Code and the generational politics of the original creators meant that any link between Warren and Hank’s realization that their mutant bodies have to be hidden from human society and the experience of LGBT teenagers coming to grips with their sexuality in the 1960s and feeling forced into the closet by heteronormative society had to remain sub-textual, one can see the foundations that Chris Claremont would build on in the 1980s (more on this in future issues) and that Bryan Singer would gravitate to in the early 2000s. In this sense, the protean character of the “mutant metaphor” works to its advantage, allowing the X-Comics to contain multitudes.

At the same time, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the “mutant metaphor” had nothing to do with race or the Civil Rights Movement (my opinion about Magneto to the side). Given that the first X-Men comic was published in 1963, it would have taken some deliberately unobservant and disconnected creators to prevent there from being any allusion. Rather, I would argue that the connections were gradual, building (over the course of five years) on initial resonances through a series of back-matter stories from issue #38-49 focused on exploring the origins of the X-Men. And one common thread in all of these stories is the omnipresence of anti-mutant prejudice – Scott Summers running from a mob hurling the newly coined epithet of “mutie,” Beast’s parents worried about their son being perceived as a freak, and Bobby Drake facing mob justice when he defends himself and his date from bullies:

AMP37

Whereas the travails of Scott Summers or Hank McCoy often featured lone individuals against anonymous mobs, Bobby Drake’s story shows an evolution of the theme. Iceman’s origin story roots itself in the story of a rural community that embraces a familiar form of vigilantism:

AMP21

AMP22

A mob of rural whites whose first response to an incident between a young minority man, a young woman from the majority who he’s dating, and a group of toughs is a “lynching,” a sheriff trying to stand up for the rule of law being dismissed as a “mutant-lover” – literary post-modernism be damned, there really isn’t any other way to read this scene than as an explicit reference to racism in 1960s America. And if there’s going to be a “mutant metaphor,” far better that it be a metaphor with some real teeth than a vague hand-waving in the direction of prejudice.

Trying to make the “mutant metaphor” into a vehicle that could explore race is obviously a task that is beyond what could be done in the back-matter of a comic book on the decline. And so much of the work of developing the “mutant metaphor” would fall to Chris Claremont, which is a subject for a future issue. But at least the original run gave us a teenage Bobby Drake as James Dean:

AMP20

And given the importance of Rebel Without a Cause to the gay canon, both for the themes of the movie and James Dean’s own bisexuality, it’s kind of amazing that people ever thought Iceman was heterosexual…

[i] After constructing a Zotero database of the original 93 issues (keeping in mind that issues #67-93 were reprints and not original stories), it’s noticeable that depictions of anti-mutant prejudice only appear in 21 issues, and discussions of mutant identity only appears in 25 issues.

[ii] While there are some who argue that the different reactions to mutants and other superheroes mean that the X-Men don’t really fit in the Marvel Universe, I’ve never been of that opinion. We can see many examples in the real world of celebrities who are considered to be exceptions to public attitudes toward their ethnic or religious group or their sexual or gender identity. Rather, I think there’s room for stories that confront that differential treatment – that raise the question of why the Fantastic Four haven’t been more vocal about mutant rights given that Franklin is a mutant, and so forth.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

Comments (87)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Steve says:

    My memory is hazy on this: aren’t there, in some stories, some tensions between mutants who can pass as “normal” humans and those that can’t? That opens up a whole other can of worms.

    • Yes, the Morlocks. I’ll discuss that in a future issue.

      • Steve says:

        It does seem the different kind of mutants lend themselves to different analogue hate movements:

        The secret, superhuman mutants hiding among us and plotting to control the world= anti-Semitism.

        The folks who are just a little “off” or “weird” = homophobia

        The folks who are readily identifiable as different and thought, perhaps, as inferior/ugly/brutish=racism/ethnic hatred.

  2. twbb says:

    “Why is it that New Yorkers would react this way to Beast and Cyclops when they don’t toward Daredevil or the Human Torch?”

    Poor planning and/or writing. Origin stories were always hidden from the general public; there was no earthly reason in the Marvel Universe for the general public to accurately differentiate the guy flying because he’s a mutant and the guy flying because he was struck by lightning while standing in a pool of toxic waste.

    Anyway interesting history you’ve shown; I got into comics in the 1980’s, when the mutant metaphor seemed to be almost entirely ham-handed pandering to disaffected teen nerds rather than relating to ethnic or racial paranoia. Even as a disaffected teen nerd I preferred the Avengers to the X-Men largely because that metaphor was so over-the-top.

    By the way, the Bobby Drake origin story is the most unrealistic thing I’ve ever seen.

    Galactus is more believable than Marvel’s depiction of Nassau County, Long Island, as the literal wild west.

    • Steve says:

      Mostly hidden, right? Wasn’t Reed Richards a public intellectual and wasn’t their trip into space (and the aftermath) well-publicized as to be expected in the “Space Age?”

    • EliHawk says:

      That’s one reason i appreciate Fox has the X-men license and the movies are totally seperate from the broader Marvel Universe: it gets rid of that whole double standard problem. (Of course, the other problem of mutancy as metaphor for discrimination is that it’s actually more like gun control: A random guy can destroy a city based on getting too mad? Yes, regulate him please, government!)

      • Steve says:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_War_(comics)

        The focus of the next Captain America movie, actually.

      • I think the double-standard is actually interesting and should be explored more.

        Also, the gun control comparison kind of falls down on the point that people aren’t born with guns.

        • twbb says:

          But regulation is sometimes needed even when the person regulated is not responsible for what happened to them; a better analogy might be placing restrictions on someone who contracted a very contagious disease.

        • royko says:

          I think it’s interesting, too. Obviously, the main reason for the difference is just editorial — most superhero books didn’t really explore the implications super-powered individuals would have on society because that didn’t really fit the fantasy that these books were playing to. But eventually, fans and writers are going to start wondering about these questions, and the mutant storyline explores them. It’s just a quirk of telling different stories in a shared universe.

          But I think you’re right that the writers chose to portray mutants differently than celebrity heroes so that they could tell these new stories. Having powers from birth, passed genetically, seems to color the stories in interesting ways. Is it running up against fears of eugenics or evolution? Does it remind people of birthright caste systems? Even though there should be no practical difference between the Fantastic Four and the X-mutants, we see the latter much differently in the context of their stories. Even Spider-man, who shares some similarities with X-mutants, doesn’t generate the same kind of fear in the stories and the same type of complex questions about his place in society.

          It does occur to me that both Smallville and Superman the Movie dealt with concerns about the fairness of Clark participating in sports. Nobody thinks twice about Spider-man taking down poor Bone Saw for money!

          • LeeEsq says:

            Marvel might have touched on the issues lightly but they did always deal with how the government and wider society would deal with supers and mutants. Naturally, the response is a mess. Some are perceived as heroes and legitimate because the work for the government, Captain America, or at least try to work under the color of law like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Iron Man. Others are hated or feared because they made one wrong enemy like Spider Man. Mutants might as well just be despised.

          • Definitely the caste system is there from the beginning as you can see from the text of the panels where they’re talking about ego.

          • I don’t know the comics, but there’s a thread that runs through the X-Men movies that holds that mutants are seen – by both sinister government authorities and the more militant factions among them – as the next step in human evolution. And that they thus represents a threat to humanity, presaging our extinction in the same way that we killed off the Neanderthals.

            It should go without saying that this represents a massive misconception of how evolution works (or, for that matter, of prehistory, though in fairness it’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve begun to explode the narrative that Homo sapiens destroyed the Neanderthals; that the 60s and 70s-set X-Men movies repeat it, for example, is actually accurate to the period). No one ever explains the mechanism by which mutants might outbreed or outperform humans, much less in such a way as to counteract the effects of the modern way of life.

            • Yes especially on that point. Given that we all have Neanderthal DNA in us, prehistory points to the human/mutant divide being solved with a lot of sex.

              And let’s be honest, in a world where superhero fights happen all the time, who wouldn’t want their kid to have a fighting shot? Parents should be lobbying for X-gene activation technology, not a cure!

          • JG says:

            most superhero books didn’t really explore the implications super-powered individuals would have on society

            I think that tactic could always be interesting but you don’t wanna end up like BvS…

        • L2P says:

          All of my cousins would disagree with you on that! Born with fingers on triggers…

          Isn’t that one of the arguments the heroes are having in Civil War? To Cap, it’s not gun control because they’re registering people who are just doing people things. It’s wrong to him that Bruce Banner (pre-Hulk) wouldn’t have to register, but the Hulk would. Arguably Banner is more dangerous than the Hulk. It’s unfair! And UnAmerican!

          To Iron Man, though, it IS gun control because there’s no difference between a guy who kills you with a gun and a guy who kills you with mutant eye lasers. To Stark (who uses a super suit that is essentially just a big ole gun) it doesn’t matter whether you can kill people with your mutant mind power or your alien ESP helmet; what matters is whether you are dangerous or not.

          It’s interesting that the writers thought Stark was obviously right and Cap obviously wrong. I think because of that they didn’t do a great job drawing out WHY they thought Stark was right, but spent a lot of time on why Cap could reasonably see a lot of injustice in the registration program. Stark and Reed spend a lot of time just looking befuddled that Cap is fighting this.

          • CP says:

            I think one of the big things they’d need to clear up about the Civil War argument is this – are they regulating everyone with superpowers, or just those who choose to wear capes and become vigilantes? To me that’s kind of a huge difference between regulating people who just want to be left alone and those who insist on becoming super-cops without an Internal Affairs department.

            And really, the writers thought Stark was obviously right and Cap obviously wrong? It didn’t seem that way to me at all in the comics, where practically everyone writes Stark as an out-and-out fascist (and then calls him that explicitly, not trusting the audience to get the point). I ended up kind of leaning more on Iron Man’s side, but I never got the sense that the writers were pushing me there. Quite the opposite.

            • JMP says:

              It seemed Mark Millar, who wrote the Civil War miniseries itself, thought that Stark was obviously right; while just about every other writer at Marvel disagreed, and instead wrote Iron Man as an outright villain.

            • JMP is right. Millar was absolutely pro-Iron Man, the issue is that the other writers vehemently disagreed and as a result the SRA became internally inconsistent – either it was just a gun registration thing, or having powers meant involuntary servitude in the Initiative.

            • Halloween Jack says:

              are they regulating everyone with superpowers, or just those who choose to wear capes and become vigilantes? To me that’s kind of a huge difference between regulating people who just want to be left alone and those who insist on becoming super-cops without an Internal Affairs department.

              According to the Wikipedia entry, it looks like the former.

    • Yeah, the Nassau County stuff is weird.

      But I don’t think it’s poor planning and/or writing – I think there’s more intentionality there.

      • twbb says:

        It’s probably a mix; some writers were probably trying to bring in current events and teenage angst. And some writers just weren’t very good, or at least were more focused on the story-of-the-week than maintaining a coherent narrative over all their comics.

      • Steve says:

        have you ever been to Port Jefferson? Right out of Deliverance, I tell you!

      • LeeEsq says:

        On the other hand Nassau and Suffolk counties remained very rural places with actual farms for a good chunk of the 20th century. Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island also had rural swathes into the mid-20th century.

        • twbb says:

          By the 1960’s, when the X-Men books came out, Nassau would have been mostly residential; remember, Nassau County is quite literally the birthplace of the modern American suburb.

          It NEVER would have been a desert frontier town with a town sheriff who tells people, and I quote, “this isn’t the wild west anymore.”

          • True, but keep in mind whenever Marvel writers are describing an area, they’re describing what that area was like when they were growing up. Hence why Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery never gentrify in Marvel.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Los Angeles and Westchester County are also contenders but you are basically right. Fisherman and farmers might have made more sense. Marvel writers might also be doing things for the benefit of non-New Yorkers.

    • LeeEsq says:

      With non-mutant superheroes, the public can imagine that they could be like the superhero if they get into a freak accident or find the right gadgets. Anybody bit by the radioactive spider could become Spider Something. This makes them more approachable. Mutants come across as different because you are born a mutant. You have to be born Magneto to be Magneto.

      • Yeah, I think this is it. With gadgets and accidents, you can dream that you might be special one day. The existence of mutants says that you’re either born special or you’re not.

        Although what I find strange is why there are so many plotlines about people trying to cure the X-Gene and so few about people using genetic engineering to active latent X-Genes or construct synthetic X-Genes.

        • LeeEsq says:

          Why do more people want to get rid of nuclear weapons than increase the number of nukes? We have enough problem with weapons of mass destruction. People of mass destruction with emotions would be worse.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      I grew up in Nassau County and had a friend in college who grew up in Manhattan. He absolutely refused to step into Nassau County. So a New York snob might view Nassau as the wild west ;)

    • CP says:

      Anyway interesting history you’ve shown; I got into comics in the 1980’s, when the mutant metaphor seemed to be almost entirely ham-handed pandering to disaffected teen nerds rather than relating to ethnic or racial paranoia. Even as a disaffected teen nerd I preferred the Avengers to the X-Men largely because that metaphor was so over-the-top.

      Meh, I think that’s a huge part of what’s kept X-Men so popular and relatable for so long. At its core, it’s a story about people who don’t fit in finding a surrogate family in each other. You can go beyond that into metaphors for racism, antisemitism, homophobia or the Red Scare (or, in my case, left wing politics – like I said a few threads back, the thing Xavier/Magneto has always reminded me the most of is the Social-Democrats vs. Communists argument). But that basic core is what keeps it so broadly relatable, more than if it were commenting on any particular issue.

      • Steve says:

        Yeah, I think the core is sufficiently malleable that the story can be reinvented/reinterpreted to keep it freshly relevant. A very specific analogy might have relegated it to period-piece status.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      Okay I looked at the last panel and it is completely odd looking. There are still farms and rural areas on Long Island but the last panel seemed to show dirt roads and a barn next to some very urban buildings.

      • Very strange. I wonder why they didn’t have Bobby just come from somewhere genuinely rural.

        • twbb says:

          “Let’s pick someplace REALLY rural; like even beyond Queens!”

        • LeeEsq says:

          Because the only upstate location Marvel writers would know is the Catskills and the probably lacked the budget for a research field trip to Suffolk County.

          • Halloween Jack says:

            I used to think, based on the way that a lot of comic book artists portrayed teenagers, people of color, and just about any group besides the overwhelmingly white male cishet nerds that made up (and still largely make up) comics creatordom, that many of them had not left their homes or offices in the previous ten years except to go to comics conventions. I’d pick up a copy of Nova in the seventies and the kids in the high school looked like they were from the pre-hippie sixties; black characters looked like the most outré characters from blaxploitation movies. Then there were the crypto-dykes from this notorious Wonder Woman story.

  3. Quite Likely says:

    The double standard is weird but I generally quite appreciate the vague nature of the mutant metaphor. Much better to just write the story as “there are mutants, and people are prejudiced against them” and think through the implications of what that means in context to build the setting. Parallels to real world prejudice and civil rights struggles should come naturally given the parallel situation. There’s no reason to try to force it. The mutant struggle is sort of like the black struggle, sort of like the gay struggle, sort of like gun control, and also just its own weird hypothetical thing that doesn’t exist in the real world.

    Now that I write this I’m sort of wishing for a political focused comic set in the Marvel universe that brings this stuff to the forefront rather than having it be a backdrop to this week’s superheroism.

    • I actually have an idea about that comic: to me, one of the major shortcomings of both Xavier and Magneto is that neither of them actually do the work of building a social movement. So what if someone did, around the same time that the X-Men were hanging out in San Francisco?

      • L2P says:

        Didn’t Magneto spend a lot of time making his various mutant societies? He wouldn’t care about convincing non-mutants to do anything, but he seems to spend a lot of time on “mutant” organizaing. It’s a lot like some of the separatist movements.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Xavier is a WASP and most likely incapable of creating a social movement because that isn’t what WASPs do. They find exclusive prep schools and clubs instead just like Xavier did. Magneto might be capable of doing so, being a Jew born in the Interwar period would expose him to many different social movements, but is too angry and his powers give him a more direct route to getting his way.

  4. LeeEsq says:

    Its amazing how something born out of laziness, Stan Lee said that Marvel created the idea of mutants so they wouldn’t have to come up with creative origin stories for their characters every time they introduce somebody new, led to so many interesting implications.

  5. NewishLawyer says:

    What if the “mutant metaphor” works better for anti-Semitism than racism?

    Who were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby? Jews born in the first quarter of the 20th century in NYC. They were either first or second generation Americans. They knew anti-Semitism and exclusion first hand. Their adolescent and young adult years were spent observing Hitler’s rise in Europe.

    Jews needed to be signaled out on clothing and their passports by the Nazis because Jewishness is not always outwardly recognized. Even today, people who don’t grow up in Jewish heavy areas have a hard time recognizing Jewishness. My girlfriend is from Southeast Asia. She went to grad school in Boston but she still did not know that Michael Bloomberg was Jewish until I told her. Likewise, a lot of her friends are Southeast Asian ex-pats who came to the United States for university or grad school. They are always surprised when I say that there are only 14-15 million Jews in the world. If you go to college in California and/or the Northeast, you probably think Jews are more numerous than they really are.

    The whole lying in wait and waiting to take over the world thing strikes me as a perfect variant of anti-Semitic tropes that come straight out of the Protocols for the Elders of Zion and before. Jews were always the nefarious enemy from within. Anti-Semitism originated as the idea that the Jews would always be a “nation apart” that could never fully integrate into the United States, Canadian, or European society.

    Mass Hysteria being a reaction also seems like it is perfectly in tune with trying to analyze anti-Semitism from the Dreyfuss Affair onwards. Many Jews would probably look at a Nuremberg rally and call it mass hysteria.

    But by the time of the Silver Age, the civil rights battle was the fight in the country. I wonder if people are just misapplying what the mutant metaphor covers.

    • Steve says:

      Like I said above, there are lots of different types of mutants and mutant stories so the metaphor is quite adaptable. I certainly agree that the anti-Semitism analogy is at play in some of the stories but others, (e.g. how beast is treated after he grows blue fur and is clearly not blending in anymore)work better as analogues to racism/ethnic hatred.

    • CP says:

      I think antisemitism definitely works well as an analogy, though not perfectly – same as racism, or most metaphors. It’s an imperfect analogy for any particular real world events, partly because it wasn’t originally designed as that and partly because they probably want to keep it broad enough that it’s not just married to a particular real world problem.

      Also and in a similar vein, I think Islamophobia would fit right in nowadays if they wanted to go that route (not least because Magneto would probably work better as a jihadist metaphor than for most black nationalists). The whole “he saved a baby to trick us!” idea pictured above, and the “lying in wait to take over the world” routine reminds me of all the paranoia about “taqqiyya,” how Muslims are supposedly religiously disposed to conceal their true identities so they can better stab you when you least expect it.

      But I could also more than understand if they think it’s too touchy a subject or don’t trust themselves to handle it properly.

    • Oh, there’s definite elements of that, as I suggested in my Magneto issues. And it gets more blatant once Kitty Pryde joins the X-Men.

      • CP says:

        Since I’m not Jewish and Shadowcat’s religion is often not made a big deal of, it took me years to pick up on the significance of her being the one to finally give William Stryker the “man, shut the hell up!” speech at the end of “God Loves, Man Kills.” Christian fundamentalist reverend hosting a rally for bigotry, put in his place by… a teenage Jewish girl.

        (Please tell me that comic shows up in the future of this series?)

        • Oh hells yeah!

          I don’t know if I’d agree about Shadowcat’s religion. Pretty much any time Kitty has anything to say about the issue, she brings up being Jewish. Or she uses the N-word, which isn’t cool Kitty, even if you are only 13!

    • The one false note in this analogy is that mutants appear seemingly at random within the general population. They aren’t born to other mutants or emerge from within mutant culture.

      Obviously, this is a problem with all applications of the mutant metaphor except gayness, and to my mind it’s part of a greater problem with the basic concept of using fantasy creatures as stand-ins for oppressed groups (aside, that is, from the fact that said fantasy creatures tend to be white or played by white actors). The emphasis on prejudice can make even some well-intentioned people buy into the notion that being black, or Jewish, or Muslim, is a bad thing that shouldn’t be held against you. When really it’s a part of people’s identity that they are quite reasonably fond and proud of. I know that this is something that gets explored later on in the X-Men stories, but in what I’ve seen of them (the movies), it always feels very lacking.

      • Gareth says:

        There was a back-up story a few years back dealing with the depowering of almost all mutants, and Beast’s increasingly desperate attempts to reverse it, or create new mutants. I was a bit confused at how much Beast cared about the existance of mutants. It only really makes sense if being a mutant is a culturally important thing that it really hasn’t been presented as in the comics.

      • CP says:

        My original frame of reference for X-Men is the movies, too, but when do they ever give the impression that it’s “a bad thing that shouldn’t be held against you” as opposed to “a part of people’s identity that they are quite reasonably fond and proud of?”

        The only people who react that way are the well-meaning-but-clueless humans like Bobby’s mother (of course we still love you, but have you tried not being a mutant?) or Angel’s father (take the cure! It’s a better life!) and the movies consistently show them as being, well, well-meaning, but clueless, and inadvertently offensive as hell.

        “Mutant but proud” has pretty much always been the movies’ stance, in other words.

      • Well, mutants are both born to mutants and to non-mutants.

        And don’t get me started on the movies – they actually said that the X-Gene gets passed down by the father and then never stopped to think how female mutants exist then.

        • hey so says:

          The whole X-Gene thing isn’t really well-explained (shocking!). The comics also strongly imply a mutant child of two mutant-or-otherwise-superpowered parents is quite a bit stronger than the mean (Nathan/Rachel Summers, Franklin Richards) but don’t dwell on it beyond the necessity of creating demigod mutants in the future.

          I want Proteus to show up again.

  6. ralphdibny says:

    I think you are correct that the best way to understand the vague, often contradictory way the X-Men comics use the “mutant metaphor” is to look at it through the lens of anti-communism, if for no other reason than the anti-communistic rhetoric of post-war America was itself a vague and often contradictory catch-all ideology! In the 1950s, if you complained about the working conditions at your job, you ran the risk of being labelled a commie. Or if you thought that women shouldn’t be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen all day. Or if you thought that a black man dancing with a white woman wasn’t the 3rd sign of the apocalypse. Even disliking Hitler could get you labelled a commie, especially if you disliked him before Dec. 7th, 1941–then you were “prematurely anti-fascist,” i.e. a commie. Holding one of these views didn’t mean you held them all, and in fact practically no one did. But voicing any of these views made you visible. Interestingly, all of your examples above of anti-mutant hysteria occur when people not in costume suddenly become visible.

  7. Gareth says:

    The Kuttner and Moore ‘Baldy’ stories are probably a strong influence on the X-Men mutants. They’re about bald mutant telepaths who take great pains to assimilate, live peacefully, and respect the rights of non-telepaths. Well, most of them do.

  8. Tyro says:

    the woman in the crowd says that mutants are in hiding among the human majority, “waiting to take over the world.”

    This was, by the 70s and 80s, the very crux of the issue: that mutants were going to eclipse homo sapiens and rule them or drive them to extinction. And then at the same time that their seemingly random appearance among humans was a physical danger.

    What has blown my mind is how Marvel basically decided to say that after a huge worldwide struggle over this issue that went on for decades, “well, that’s the end of that. Mutants are extinct. Just a temporary 40 year blip in the history of humanity. Moving along…”

    • They’ve gone back and forth on that, though, depending on who’s writing and who’s editing. Yes you get M-Day, but then you get Hope and then the Phoenix Force, then you get the terrigen mists, and on and on into infinity or Marvel gets the rights back from Fox.

  9. Mike in DC says:

    I do think there are inconsistencies regarding the popularity of mainstream heroes and unpopularity of mutants. Thor openly states that he is a mythological god from a pagan pantheon, but he’s one of the most popular heroes on the planet. On the other hand, heroes like the Hulk and Spiderman do not enjoy such acclaim as a rule. Hulk is chased around the country by a special unit of the Army.

    I suppose the best metaphor is the fear of demographic change/loss of power/replacement/extinction. Mutants, after all, are referred to as “Homo Superior”. How would we regard our evolutionary replacements? I suspect there would be a fair amount of fear, suspicion and hostility.

  10. edblum says:

    Love this feature. Keep up the great work.

  11. […] DEFINING X. They say it’s the intersection of politics and Marvel comics: “A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 9: The Mutant Metaphor (Part I)” at Lawyers, Guns & […]

  12. […] LGM, Steven Attewell looks at Marvel’s X-men and the mutant as metaphor. As he points out, while mutants are usually interpreted as a race/gay metaphor, Lee and Kirby in […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.