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

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.”

phomu 11 1When Stan Lee and Jack 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:

phomu 11 2 phomu 11 3Eventually, 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 Chris 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:

phomu 11 4Like 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:”

phomu 11 5The 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.

phomu 11 6The 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.

phomu 11 7However, 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.

phomu 11 8And 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.

phomu 11 9On 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:

phomu 11 10I’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:

phomu 11 11And 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

2 comments

  • You know there is an incredible 1960 movie “These are the Damned”, a British Hammer Horror movie directed by the American exile Joseph Losey. Losey was blacklisted by HUAC for his communist party membership so he had to work in England under assumed names till the release of Spartacus. So that movie has a British Teddy Boy gang and an American exile stumbling on an island run by the government to quarantine children exposed to radioactivity by parents and have developed some immunity to radiation while still being poisonous to humans. The government intends these children as potential repopulators and restorers of humanity in the event of nuclear catastrophe. That these kids have evolved to become immune and conditioned to radioactivity to better survive the future. I wonder if Jack Kirby were inspired by that for X-Men.

    In the Losey movie, the government sees these mutant kids as guinea-pigs, Plan B, or the last-gasp restorers and guardians of humanity in the wake of fallout…whereas in the X-Men comics, the Children of the Atom are tied to general ideas of how an apocalyptic future challenges our sense of self and identity, with the mutants representing a future that humanity will have no place in. One thing that interests me about X-Men and its appeal to minorities is that the main thing is solidarity between different mutants but there’s rarely a sense of solidarity between mutants and other oppressed minority groups. Like where does mutancy intersect with real-world racism, of whites to blacks/Koreans/Japanese/Chinese…or the treatment of ethnic minorities in China, India and Russia. In actual history, you had a lot of cool moments where different interest groups did stand together, like Coretta Scott King supported gay rights and Bayard Rustin, planner of the March to Washington was both black and gay. Are these issues in that time that tackled stuff like that?