Home / General / A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 11: The Mutant Metaphor (Part III)

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 11: The Mutant Metaphor (Part III)


people's history week 11

Face front, true believers!

In Week 9, I discussed the link between “the mutant metaphor” and 1950s and 1960s science-fiction. One of the most important of these links was the overwhelming presence of the nuclear threat in the post-WWII world – almost as soon as the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sci-fi creators began to think about the dangers of the new atomic age, and whether mankind’s future was to travel the stars in ships powered by atomic energy or to see their species and their civilization end in nuclear fire.

And the X-Men are part of this tradition, as the so-called “Children of the Atom.”

children of atom

When Lee and Kirby were designing the X-Men back in 1963, the original idea was to have mutants be an unintended consequence of the nuclear age – having been changed in-utero starting with the first atomic bombs in the 1940s and then the prevalence of nuclear tests throughout the 1950s, nuclear energy would explain the common origin of Xavier’s team and allow for the creation of new mutants as needed:



Eventually, this close of a connection to atomic energy was moved away from when later writers and artists realized that having every mutant’s backstory involve parents working in the nuclear power industry was actually somewhat limiting, but it was very much a part of Silver Age X-Men comics. What persisted from the Kirby/Lee era through to the Claremont era was the fear that mutants would take over the world after a nuclear war. For Magneto, and indeed with other “evil mutants,” the idea of a nuclear war took on the same significance that colonial wars would for revolutionary Marxists.

While the X-Men frequently fought evil mutants, there was really only one particular arc where the conflict was both political as well as physical; namely, the Factor Three arc. This arc is largely disappointing in classic Silver Age over-promising fashion – the Factor Three had been acting from behind the scenes for months, sending Kirby robots and a kidnapped Banshee and a jailbroken Juggernaut after the X-Men, only to turn out to a bunch of characters we’d already seen before: the Blob, the Vanisher, Mastermind, and Unus the Untouchable, plus the mysterious Changeling and the Mutant Master. However, in issue #37, Factor Three capture the X-Men and decide to put them on trial for betraying mutantdom:


Like all trials, this judicial process raises political questions as well: here, the charge against the X-Men reflects the political ideology of “evil mutants,” who believe that solidarity between mutants requires a united front against humanity. And it raises the central problem of the Silver Age X-Men – that with the exception of their fight against the Sentinels , they primarily fight against other mutants on behalf of that world “that hates and fears them.”

Similarly, when the Mutant Master passes sentence against the X-Men, his peroration reveals a good deal about both the political ideology of “evil mutants” and the role of atomic weapons in both their thinking and in the “mutant metaphor:”


The dominant mode of “evil mutant” political thought is a kind of cod-Darwinian logic that sees the struggle for survival as a zero-sum game in which only one species can win.  Hence the idea that “too long has the inferior species called homo sapiens held sway on the earth,” and that in order for that species to be replaced so that “homo superior shall inherit the earth,” it is necessary that “there must be a total destruction of the power of the human race.” Now there’s a lot to be said about how Marvel’s idiosyncratic grasp of science has shaped the X-Men (I’ll get into this more in a future issue where I discuss the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon analogy in X-Men comics), but there is a certain resonance here to the use of quasi-Darwinian arguments for eugenics and racial nationalist politics.

However, it is the “evil mutant” embrace of the atomic bomb as the instrument of natural selection where we can see the strongest link between the mutant metaphor and anti-nuclear science fiction. The mutant threat, called into existence by atomic weapons, will use “their own mightiest weapon – the hydrogen bomb!” to bring an “end for all time of the civilization of homo sapiens.” The analogy between the plans of the Mutant Master and the potential outcome of Mutually Assured Destruction is hardly subtle, but there is a crude power in Ross Andru’s pencils and Don Heck’s inks, of cities falling into a Miltonian lake of fire, of the planet itself cracked open by a mushroom cloud.

Moreover, we can see in Roy Thomas’ writing a view of the Cold War that comes straight out of the anti-nuclear science fiction of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Rather than a struggle of ideologies or a struggle between Good and Evil, the Cold War is seen as a dangerous weakness that a third party (or maybe a third factor…) can manipulate through “an infallible plot which shall soon lead east and west into a vengeful and destructive nuclear war,” thanks to a series of false-flag operations designed to convince the US and the USSR that the other is to blame.


The contrast with Stan Lee’s rah-rah all-American leanings, back when the Fantastic Four went into space to “beat the commies” in the Space Race, is quite striking. And while I doubt that this particular issue was in the minds of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman when they were writing X-Men: First Class, the resonances between the plans of the Mutant Master and Sebastian Shaw to escalate US/Soviet tensions and bring about mutant ascendancy through nuclear war are strong.


However, there is a flaw at the heart of mutant extremism in Silver Age X-Men. Because of the relative absence of anti-mutant prejudice in early X-Men comics, we don’t’ really get a context for why “evil mutants” view humans as their enemies, let alone why they should describe themselves as “evil.” (This is much the same problem that the original Magneto had. Hence in these issues, we see the members of Factor Three describe in vague and nebulous terms that their “hatred for normal humans” stems from humans’ “fear and hostility toward us,” but we don’t really see mutants suffering the kind of oppression associated with this kind of radicalization.  Thus, we as readers side with the X-Men’s arguments that nuclear obliteration is a bit of a steep punishment for “mistrust of mutants” by humans, which strikes me as a bit of a strawman to say the least.


And this weakness is a continuing problem, because it means that there isn’t really a foundation for why “evil mutant” politics should exist. And a result, you get a half-hearted and ultimately condescending end to the story; the X-Men free themselves and thwart Factor Three’s plans for nuclear holocaust by showing that, just as the US and USSR were being egged on by a third party seeking to profit from their conflict, the “evil mutants” conflict with the X-Men was due to them being misled by an alien “outside agitator.” (Which clever readers might have guessed from the earlier page that suggested that the mutants would only inherit the “remains of the earth”) And at the end of the day, “my ideological opponents are dupes of evil aliens” is still an ad hominem attack rather than a full response to the arguments of mutant extremists.


On the other hand, there’s more than just condescending paternalism that emerges from this reveal. For all that Professor X. gets criticized for his high-handed approach to politics, it is interesting that in this moment, Xavier saves the world through an appeal to mutant solidarity, convincing his former enemies to band together with the X-Men, as “there is no need for mutant to battle mutant.” Moreover, once the X-Men and the former Brotherhood of Evil Mutants have defeated the evil alien from Sirius, Xavier’s closing dialogue looks to the possibility that the dichotomy between good and evil mutants might be transcended, as long as we “remember the day when there were no evil mutants, no good mutants, only a handful of men fighting side by side to protect our planet from a common foe.”

This ending probably owes more to JFK’s argument for a nuclear test ban that “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal,” than it does to a fully-thought-out vision for Professor X’s mutant politics. However, it is good to see Xavier thinking and talking in these kind of terms, because it’s something of a rarity in Silver-Age X-Men comics.

Indeed, as “blinded by hatred” the ideology of the “evil mutants” might be, they do kind of have a point in their indictment of the X-Men, in that the Silver Age X-Men are an organization acting primarily in defense of human interests by defending them against “evil mutants.” This is a major problem with the Professor X as MLK analogy, because however committed he was to non-violence as a tactic, King was always engaged in political activism on behalf of African-Americans. And while King was surveilled and harassed by the FBI, Xavier works with them:


I’m sort of surprised that this wasn’t entered into evidence as Exhibit A in the case against the X-Men, because here we have Xavier proposing to “help you…and the human race by tracking down myself the mutants in this country.” On the other hand, we do see that Xavier is trying to shift government policy as a result – he’s actively trying to persuade the FBI that “mutants may be either good…or evil,” and that “if [mutants] are hounded…persecuted…they may band together to become the very menace that you fear,” and that there is a better way for humans and mutants to interact.

One could also interpret this interaction tactically – through this cooperation, Xavier (rather than the FBI) is the one tracking down mutants, and then enrolling them in a paramilitary organization. And in an era before Cerebro, Xavier’s collaboration gets him access to files about emerging mutants across the country:


And here’s where the protean nature of the “mutant metaphor” kicks in – Xavier’s dialogue that “the anger of society turns him into the very menace it fears” is far more reminiscent of a liberal social worker or psychologist arguing for gentler treatment of juvenile delinquents in the 1950 than anything having to do with civil rights, or indeed atomic weapons and science-fiction.

It’s all a bit of a mish-mash, which both offered an opportunity and provided a pressing motive for Chris Claremont to put his own stamp on the “mutant metaphor” – but that’s a topic for another People’s History of the Marvel Universe

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  • Like, I assume, many others of a certain age and bent, I spent many fruitless, pre-abeBooks hours trying to figure out if this (as it turns out, 1953) book https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_the_Atom really exists (eta because I’m sure the expense is killing you, it’s mentioned in Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines WHICH HE HANDED ME IN PERSON IN 1977). Could there be a connection?

    Cute kitty on the book jacket btw.

    • Huh. That is interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the writers had read the book back in the 50s.

      • Bruce B.

        It’s obscure now, but if you ask someone who was reading a lot of sf in the ’50s or ’60s, the odds are very, very good that they read it, and that’s true even on into the ’70s, when I read it. I’d be surprised if various folks at Marvel and DC hadn’t read it – Kirby, maybe Thomas, some others.

    • Halloween Jack

      Interesting, and I wouldn’t be surprised that Lee and/or Kirby had at least seen the title before they started X-Men; see also Slan. (That book gave rise to the SF fandom trope “fans are slans”, i.e. better than “mundanes.”)

  • CP

    I never realized that so much of X-Men: First Class was based on actual comic books. From the “mutants are children of the atom” thing to the X-Men’s origins as a paramilitary team helping the government to identify mutants and fight the evil ones (albeit on Xavier’s own terms).

    As for this,

    Indeed, as “blinded by hatred” the ideology of the “evil mutants” might be, they do kind of have a point in their indictment of the X-Men, in that the Silver Age X-Men are an organization acting primarily in defense of human interests by defending them against “evil mutants.”

    It’s still kind of that, except nowadays, at least in the film franchise, it tends to oscillate between “protect humankind from mutant supremacists” (X-Men, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class) and “protect mutantkind from human supremacists” (X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Though there’s usually an element of both. Even the Hellfire Club was turned the Brotherhood of Mutants 1.0 for the purposes of the movie.

    • JMP

      While First Class was pretty fun, I was disappointed with the way the dealt with the Hellfire Club. They’re supposed to be a group of rich and powerful mutants who don’t care about mutant rights, but have joined to use both their powers and wealth for their own gain, a mutant version of the various private clubs for the wealthy in the real world. The movies though have decided that all mutants must be either mutant supremacists or integregationists.

      • Agreed! In addition to the Club itself being rather boring, First Class wasn’t really about the Hellfire Club at all – if Joachim Schmidt never changes his name to Sebastian Shaw, the movie works just as well.

        • JMP

          Bacon was fun, but all the movie Shaw had in common with the Shaw of the comics were name and powers; otherwise they basically made him a character with Magneto’s agenda and the Red Skull’s background.

          Plus I kind of wish he had grown the muttonchops.

          • A bit more Zola than the Red Skull, whose background in the comics is actually really interesting for reasons I’ll get into in a future installment, but yes, he’s not really Shaw.

          • Halloween Jack

            If they really wanted to make him more like the comic Shaw, they should have found some modern-day equivalent to Robert Shaw to play him; Ian McShane would have done well, as would have Nick Offerman.

      • CP

        Basically. But I kind of understand why. In the comics, the Hellfire Club feels kind of like another take on HYDRA and AIM and the Secret Empire – the Top Secret Yet All Powerful Organization Of Mostly Old Rich White Guys Who Want To Rule The World. Which is a trope that’s been done to death both in and outside of Marvel Comics, if not in the X-Men-movie-verse specifically. I can understand why they’d think the mutant nationalist/proto-Brotherhood angle was more interesting than using Bond villains.

        • HYDRA’s way more ideological, AIM is science without any conscience.

          The Secret Empire is way closer.

          • CP

            I do like that they work to give them all their own personalities and identities. HYDRA is the original Nebulous Evil Organization, rooted in the WW2 Axis (though that matters less and less as time goes by). AIM is HYDRA with a mad scientist bent. The Secret Empire is HYDRA with a political/conspiracy bent. The Hellfire Club would be HYDRA by way of old world gentlemen’s clubs and secret societies (with a hat tip to Steed and Peele’s Avengers), basically what The Secret Empire would be if it had been founded a century or two earlier. And by mutants.

            But at the end of the day they’re all Bond villains by another franchise who want to rule the world. Which is why I can see why the movies would decide they wanted something more interesting than that.

          • Halloween Jack

            I tend to associate them more closely with Nixon and Watergate, courtesy of Steve Engelhart, who made great use of them. Before them, they were just another HYDRA splinter group. The Hellfire Club, on the other hand, were based on a series of clubs with that name which existed either to make fun of the established religions of the time or for the members to have kinky sex, or both, hence Shaw and others affecting Regency wear and the “queens” (Emma Frost, Jean Grey) wearing the corsets and kinky boots. Chris Claremont may have had a glance or two at The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and put it to somewhat different use than Grant Morrison did in The Invisibles.

    • A balance isn’t a problem necessarily, because Xavier’s politics is about co-existence and fighting both extremes. It’s just that with the exception of the Sentinels, all of the elements that let you do the human supremacist story are post-Silver Age: Kelly and the MRA, God Loves/Man Kills, Cameron Hodge and the Right, Genosha, etc.

      • CP

        They got better as they went, basically.

        I’d love to see Genosha on the big screen. I also really wish they’d kept Stryker like was in God Loves Man Kills, Claremont’s stand-in for the religious right instead of a generic military scientist. But pigs will fly before that happens. Contrary to their perceptions, conservatives benefit phenomenally from the so-called “political correctness” in Hollywood.

        • I would have really liked to have one film that did God Loves Man Kills and another film that did Weapon X, but unfortunately Fox seems determined to two-for-one their storylines.

  • CP

    Rather than a struggle of ideologies or a struggle between Good and Evil, the Cold War is seen as a dangerous weakness that a third party (or maybe a third factor…) can manipulate through “an infallible plot which shall soon lead east and west into a vengeful and destructive nuclear war,” thanks to a series of false-flag operations designed to convince the US and the USSR that the other is to blame.

    Who actually started this trope? I associate it with Connery era Bond, but I don’t know if they were the first ones to use it of if they were just following the trend of the times.

    • Lurker

      I think that this was an inevitable result of the contemporary politics. The Soviet Union was, technologically, on par with the US. It was opening up politically, and its economic growth was very impressive in the late 1950’s. Khrushchev’s USSR was, in many respects, a much more symphatetic enemy than Stalin’s USSR.

      In such a situation, especially with the new-found MAD, it is easy to assume that no one really wants to fight a world war, except some sinister third party, perhaps the Asians.

      • CP

        I think it was also a recycling of the World War One era conspiracy theories, that “the munitions manufacturers” had plotted behind the scenes to bring about the entire war. I was just wondering what the first work of fiction to update that to the Cold War era was.

        • Latverian Diplomat

          Probably not the first, but here’s a well-known version of that idea (with aliens) from 1957:


          One thing about benefitting from a nuclear war, is that it almost has to be either aliens or utopians with big resources who can “inherit the earth” afterward.

  • Hob

    This is all great, and I particularly love the excerpts (I’d forgotten how verbose the dialogue could be!). One thing I think you could get a lot more into, if you wanted, is the roots of all this in ’50s and ’60s science fiction. I mean, you did directly allude to it, but in the current piece I don’t think it really comes through just how much Lee & co. were cribbing from themes that were already very prominent in non-illustrated pulp.

    For instance, after moving away from the premise that most of the mutants’ parents were directly involved with nuclear testing (which, like the origin of the Hulk, seems like sort of an attempt to graft nuclear anxiety onto the existing comic book tradition of “experiment gone wrong -> superpowers”)— but before revising it to “mutants have been around for thousands of years, they used to be super rare but then yada-yada pseudoscience evolution speeds up over time or something”— there was the general idea that there’s just a lot of radiation floating around in the air these days and so even if you’re a farmer in Dogpatch and never went near a lab, you might pick up some fallout and end up with a mutant kid. That was obviously convenient for story purposes and even better as a way to bring in general fears about nuclear testing and the environment… but it definitely wasn’t original to Marvel; it’s more or less how 90% of science fiction writers in the previous decade would justify a premise of weird psychic powers or whatever becoming more and more common. The main difference is that pulp writers were more likely to use a post-apocalyptic setting— or a near-future one where, even if there hadn’t been a nuclear war, things were at least pretty noticeably different— whereas superhero comics were still trying to leave most of the world unchanged even when they brought in fantastic elements that logically would have all kinds of huge consequences.

    The same goes even more so for the general idea of “mutants with cool powers are unjustly feared and hated by society at large.” In a post-apocalyptic setting, probably the most famous version was The Chrysalids (1955); in a contemporary setting, More Than Human (1953). The latter could be considered sort of a prologue to all the Marvel stuff, in that the existence of mutants is still a secret and they’re struggling to keep it that way, telepathically befuddling people who stumble upon them, etc.; it also prefigures the idea of a superhero family or tribe, since the mutants are sort of incomplete beings by nature and only function well in little groups where each person contributes a different psychic power; and it gets pretty deep into the “great power/great responsibility” thing, since the protagonists are generally sympathetic but have trouble developing a socially aware sense of ethics due to their set-apartness. Both of those works were very very famous within the genre, but there were dozens of others with similar premises.

    I don’t mean to say that the Marvel writers were totally unoriginal, any more than science fiction writers were totally unoriginal; both were building on stuff that lots of other writers had played with. More that this stuff had seeped into the science fiction ground water so thoroughly by 1963 that for anyone who had grown up reading pulps, this was just obviously the kind of thing you’d think of in regard to mutant powers. And some of the odd and awkward aspects of Marvel’s treatment of that idea make more sense if you look at it as taking a premise that was common in a different setting and bending it to fit into the superhero genre, where you had to have big fights and colorful costumes and yet the world couldn’t really change all that much.

    • Hob

      I’m sorry to make such a ridiculously long comment even longer, but it may be worth noting that just as the preoccupations, idiosyncracies, and business strategies of Stan Lee had a huge effect on the direction of superhero comics, many trends in 1950s SF got a huge boost from a similarly idiosyncratic character: the editor John W. Campbell. Campbell was instrumental in encouraging people to think of 1. present-day “I invented a cool thing” stories, 2. stories about people with strange powers walking among us, and 3. far-future space opera, as all fundamentally the same genre— united by a general sense that humanity is destined for awesomeness rather than a specific concern with technology per se. And he was a crank who believed so fervently in various pseudoscience items (and sometimes pressured his writers to reference them) that a whole generation of pulp readers grew up assuming that those things either actually existed or were at least self-evident fictional principles that would naturally be part of any science fantasy. The idea of natural psychic superpowers— indistinguishable from magic, but with a scientific gloss— slumbering within humanity at large, but perhaps destined to burst into the light in the near future, was one of his obsessions; so was the idea of enhancing these through technology, Cerebro-style (or through some new discovery about the human mind, L. Ron Hubbard-style). And he had fairly grandiose ideas about the social consequences of all of the above.

      I’m sure you know all this, I just think it’s particularly relevant to any discussion of the science-fictional trappings of Marvel in the ’60s, where I think Campbell’s strain of SF was a bigger influence than the older pulp traditions that DC held onto to some degree.

      • Gareth

        It’s also relevant that Campbell was a raging bigot, not just in the traditional sense of favouring one human race over another, but also in favour of Homo sapiens itself. He never allowed any story where aliens were superior in any way to humans, and editorialised on how awesome humans were as animals, even apart from their intelligence. He even explained that little girls can hear dog whistles.

    • Lurker

      There was a lot of radiation “floating around”. In the Continental US, states north of Nevada got impressive amounts of fallout.

      In Finland, the reindeer herders got incredible amounts of Cs-137 in their bodies. The reindeer eat mostly lichen, which accumulates cesium, and the herders eat reindeer. This was really unhealthy in early 1960’s, after the Novaya Zemlya tests.

      • Hob

        Oh for sure, I didn’t mean that the fallout was fictional! Just that it became a common part of SF premises to explain why you could just randomly get mad-science-type powers, as opposed to actually running around on a nuclear test site like Bruce Banner. There were also plenty of somewhat more realistic SF stories where the effect of radiation wasn’t helpful at all but just made you sick or deformed, but that didn’t have as much potential for adventure stories.

    • Oh absolutely. Look, any genre work (arguably pretty much any dramatic work, if you want to take it back to classical Greek theater which was almost entirely reliant on using stories people already knew from folklore) is built on borrowing from tropes that work. Hence the Hulk starts as Frankenstein plus Jekyll & Hyde.

      But to answer your question, the reason why I haven’t done more than allude to the sci-fi stuff is that I simply don’t have the time to do the research into 50s and 60s sci-fi, and won’t have the time at least until October.

      • Hob

        Well the first thing that I thought of, which I then totally forgot to say in that absurdly long comment, was that Lee at first didn’t think to crib from SF when it would’ve been easy and helpful to do so, because he had his other foot stuck in more recent comic book tropes. That is, even though “special kids will be born everywhere due to fallout” was already a thing, the first attempt at an X-Men origin was closer to the Spider-Man/Hulk/Fantastic Four template where it was an occupational hazard of scientists.

    • Halloween Jack

      You can go back even further than the fifties; I mentioned Slan above, and the Wikipedia article for the book that bianca steele mentions, Children of the Atom, lists Odd John (which coins the term “homo superior”, which also shows up in the lyrics to “Oh! You Pretty Things” by my beloved Bowie) as a potential precedent. Odd John is pre-Atomic Age, so radiation isn’t listed as a factor (AFAIK, I haven’t read it, and it’s been so long since I read Slan that I can’t remember if that’s a factor in that book either), but there is that feeling that humans wouldn’t be compatible with the next step in evolution. Heck, you could also include Gladiator (whose protagonist gains his powers due to genetic experimentation on his mother by his father).

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