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

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.[1] 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.[2]

So what did the “mutant” metaphor mean initially?

peoples week 9 1One 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 Stan Lee and Jack 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:

peoples week 9 2I 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:

peoples week 9 3Especially 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 Spider-Man 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:

peoples week 9 4 peoples week 9 5Both 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 a form of mob justice when he defends himself and his date from bullies:

peoples week 9 6Whereas 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:

peoples week 9 7 peoples week 9 8A 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:

peoples week 9 9And 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…


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

5 comments

  • Do you plan to deal with Objectivism’s influence on Steve Ditko’s run on Spiderman, based on your references? There’s a lot of pro-Ditko sentiment on the Left as far as Spider-Man goes?

    • I may in the future. I don’t know if I’d say pro-Ditko, exactly. A lot of people admire his art more than his ideas, and in terms of his anti-populism, there was a pretty big shift from the public hating Spiderman to “you mess with him, you mess with us!”

  • I would be super interested to read your thoughts about the X-Men (created in 1963) and the Inhumans (created 1965). Why did Marvel feel the need to create 2 overlapping groups? How have they explored different themes? Probably other questions I grab thought of.

    Sure is convenient for them in 2016, given the movie rights issues, though!

    • Haven’t read a bunch of Inhumans. From what I know, a lot of it had to do with Kirby’s fascination with Alien Spacemen theories of human development.

      • As they originally appear in the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, the Inhumans are not in any way a metaphor for oppressed groups. The Inhumans as an alternate way of getting super-powered characters is almost entirely a product of 21st century marketing disputes between Disney and Fox.