Thursday, June 2, 2011

X-Men and the "Mutant Problem"

Karen: With the new X-Men: First Class movie out tomorrow, we figured it was time for some X-Men talk!

Karen: One of the things that has got me excited about the film is the fact that it's set in the early 1960s. The trailers suggest that the general public isn't aware of mutants, at least not at the beginning
of the film. I'm sure they will be by the end, and the classic 'persecuted mutant' theme will come into being.

Karen: It's this idea, this fear and hatred of mutants, which has defined the X-Men more than anything else. Originally they were a teen team, and not all that different from the Teen Titans or Legion in many ways. They even worked with the FBI way back when! But gradually, the idea of mutants being despised simply for existing came to dominate the book. Certainly by the time Thomas and Adams did their Sentinel story (X-Men 56-58) it was firmly entrenched.

Karen: When Chris Claremont came on the title, he revised Magneto from being just another villain obsessed with personal power to being obsessed with saving his race, usually at the expense of Homo sapiens. This set up a diametrical opposition between Magneto and Xavier, which has often been described in terms of the two most influential figures in the civil rights movement of the 60s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Xavier, like King, seeks to integrate mutants into society, believing that peaceful co-existence is possible. Magneto on the other hand, echoes Malcolm X's statement of "Freedom by any means necessary."

Karen: Marvel's mutants have come to serve as a metaphor for any group that has faced oppression and bigotry. It can be a powerful story device. But how do you feel about it? Has it been over-used? Does it still work? Is there any thought that, in a world filled with people who got powers by outrageous accidents, or that harbors a number of hidden super-powered races, the singling out of mutants is ridiculous? Let's hear what you have to say about it.


dbutler16 said...

Claremont changing Magneto’s motivation was one of the greatest moves in comic history, in my humble opinion. I was surprised in re-reading the Silver Age X-Men comics how much of a standard “evil” super-villain Magneto was in those tales. Now he’s one of the best baddies out there.

I think the X-Men have almost always been a metaphor. Early on, mostly for racism, but I think later on also for homophobia, and perhaps also religious intolerance.

To answer Karen’s question, I do think the X-Men bigotry metaphor has been overused, like just about everything else regarding our merry mutants. Too much of anything is bad, and if you pour it on too thick, you will lose much of your audience. I’d like the X-Men to be superheroes first and bigotry fighters second, but that’s just me. It can still work, as long as bigotry exists, but I think the mutant haters need to be shown as having some other motivation than “kill all muties” which often seems to be the situation in the Marvel universe.

david_b said...

Having never been a X-Men fan, I liked the bigotry angle the writing staff used for years. I think is added a nice, subtle layer of intrique that made it easy for writers to play upon and maintain interest with the readers. DC never had any comparison, so it helped shape the Marvel Universe in a lot of ways as far back as the mid-60s, keeping the team more as outcasts than genuine heroes like the FF or Avengers.

I do believe however, with all the convoluted storylines over-used in the early 80s, it reached a cessation point which ultimately worked against the mutant book expansion, and Marvel suffered accordingly.

An early fan of X-Factor, I presumed (and hoped) it would be a return to what we liked about the X-Men originally (from what reprinted Silver Age stories I did manage to read..), albeit sillier costumes. But it got all caught up in the other story lines until it lost any resemblance of distinction.

dbutler16 said...

One other thing. I think that the X-Men were despised for simply being mutants fairly early on. I seem to vaguely recall Cyclops being chased by a mutant hating mob, though I admit I have no idea what issue this occurred in.

ChrisPV said...

I love the metaphor, but I always thought that it was strained. Really, would Joe Sixpack of the Marvel Universe really give a crap if Ben Grimm got his powers from birth or from cosmic rays? The distinction doesn't make a lick of sense for those angry, mutant hating mobs.

I think that's part of why, as the mutant books became more and more popular and numerous, they became more insular as well. As the MU grew, and superpowered individuals were turning up left and right, it just doesn't make sense for mutants to be singled out for hatred like they are. Hence, very few non-mutants in the X-books, and very few appearances of the Friends of Humanity in the other MU books.

But as for whether or not it's been overused, I'm not sure. I really liked Grant Morrison's run from a decade or so back, which took it to the next level. Mutants were numerous enough to have a culture now. They had heroes, fashion designers, musicians, the works. It really echoed who homosexuality had moved from this shadowy other into its own distinct culture.

Of course, then House of M had to screw it all up. But hey, now the X-Men live on an island and have a death squad of their very own!

Karen said...

I would agree that the change in Magneto was brilliant and elevated him to a top tier status.

I think that the mutant hatred theme was sort of subtle until the first Sentinel storyline -issues 15 and 16? - but really didn't dominate the book yet the way it would during the all-new, all-different era. "God Loves, Man Kills" was probably the strongest example, and that to me felt like Claremont's indictment of Christian fundamentalists and their attacks on gays. As dbutler said, I think that the mutant=gay metaphor was pretty strong in the 80s on up.


Edo Bosnar said...

The mutants as a metaphor for any persecuted minority is indeed a powerful story-telling device, but I have to agree with ChrisPV: if you really think about it, it doesn't make any sense in the Marvel U. Why would mutants be so specifically hated and feared in a world where other super-powered folks like the FF or Avengers are celebrities - and in the latter case, when Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver (both former members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for pete's sake!) or Beast joined, they suddenly gained public acceptance as heroes rather than being hated and feared.
So I'm not so much sure if the whole concept was overused as kind of forced in the Marvel U. However, I have to say, I think many of the individual stories using this device were fantastic, from the Thomas/Adams Sentinels story, through the original "Days of Future Past" story to "God Loves Man Kills."

J.A. Morris said...

Karen & dbutler16 said just about everything I was gonna post.

To answer dbutler16's question, there was a back-up "origins of X-men" story published in the 60s around issue 45 or so where Iceman is jail for using his powers to defend himself and his girlfriend. Cyclops breaks him out of jail(Iceman wanted to stand trial, they fight, it's a dumb story). Iceman & Cyclops are chased by a mutant hating lynch mob, Xavier saves them with his mental powers and mindwipes the bigoted mob. So yeah,the anti-mutant bigotry stuff was around long before Claremont.

One problem I always had with the "bigotry" angle was this:
What about the Avengers? When I was a kid, I'd read a comic about evil Senator Kelly trying to jail mutants, the same month, here's Beast and Scarlet Witch in the (Government sponsored)Avengers and helped save the World multiple times. When Beast and Wonder Man went out on the town, no anti-mutant mobs or government spooks attacked them.
Didn't make any sense, it felt contrived,like an "idiot plot" device.

dbutler16 said...

To J.A. Morris' response to my question - you're right, but there was also an incident earlier than that where Cyclops used his eyebeams to save someone from a falling girder (or something) and then, once the crowd saw his powers, regardless of the fact that he just saved someone's life, they chased him. However, I think this may have been part of Cyclops' origin story, which would have been just a couple of issues before the Iceman origin that J.A. is referencing.
I may have to rumage through my Essential Classic X-Men tonight.

dbutler16 said...

Oh yeah, I had meant to mention the other point brought up by others (Chris & Edo) here - it makes NO SENSE for people in the Marvel universe to love the FF, Spidey, and certain members of the Avengers whilst despising the X-Men. They've all got super DNA now, the only difference is that the X-Men happen to have been born with it (not their fault at all, unlike some of the beloved heroes).

Alpha Omega said...

I think this relates to the most interesting question about superheroes in general: if you were super-powered, why would you be as unambitious as most comic book heroes are, at least in the silver/bronze ages? Why are the most ambitious supermen always the villains? It’s the same issue as was Khan really a villain in Star Trek, and why didn’t Data and Spock take over the Enterprise instead of taking orders from irrational human idiots like Kirk and Riker? Why shouldn’t a superman should seek to rule rather than be a servant of common humans?

Apparently these kinds of Nietzschean/Randian ideas have been addressed more recently in comics, though I haven’t read them. Max More, a Nietzschean transhumanist philosopher, has a list of comics with these themes here:

I think comic book readers of the old school need to ask themselves whether the old Marvel morality plays are actually valid, and if Magneto’s ambitious agenda was actually more visionary than Professor X’s rather tepid one.

“Do not be afraid. Evolution is merely taking place. Just as man replaced ape, so now must you give way to your evolutionary masters… We are not murderers, we are not terrorists and our attacks upon human decadence are far from evil. The Brotherhood of Mutants is simply here to take our place at the top of nature’s food chain. I will keep this message brief because I disliking speaking to you. It feels ridiculous, like conversing with a toad or a common earthworm… you have six calendar months to surrender your world to Homo Sapien Superior. During this time, we will prepare your new society and decide which of your races should be kept as slaves, which should be fuel, and which should be saved for our larder. Magneto has spoken.” --Magneto, Ultimate X-Men

dbutler16 said...

Well, I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and was not terribly impressed with Nietzsche's viewpoint. I can see why Hitler and the Nazi admired him (I'm not implying that anyone who likes Nietzsche is a Nazi - I do agree with some of his points, I'm just sayin') but I tend to think it's the duty of the strong to protect the weak, rather than to conquer, subjugate, and dominate the weak.

Having said that, I would also say that Magneto has a point, as I think that humans have sort of short-circuited evolution. It used to be that the cleverest, strongest and most adaptable people would stand a greater chance of surviving and reproducing, but nowadays, and moron can reproduce, and in fact, is more likely to reproduce than intelligent "fit" people are, I would imagine.

Anyhow, I do agree that it’s an interesting alternative viewpoint to the old fashioned Golden & Silver Age comic superhero ideals. That’s what makes Magneto so great – from a different viewpoint, he’s not really a villain at all, though you could certainly question his methods.

Karen said...

dbutler said: "I tend to think it's the duty of the strong to protect the weak, rather than to conquer, subjugate, and dominate the weak."

hear hear!! Well said sir.

I'm with Magneto when he's trying to protect his own kind. But not when he's trying to do that by subjugating Homo superior. What's that old saying about two wrongs?

As those great philosophers, the Beatles, once said:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out


Hoosier X said...

I used to think the anti-mutant sentiment didn't make a whole lot of sense in the Marvel Universe. (And it certainley got to the point where it was overused.)

But, then again, bigotry in general doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and the people who succumb to racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. are, by and large, idiots.

So the Marvel Universe is just as likely as the real world to have people - politicians, political commentators - who will create and exploit fear and bigotry for their own interests. I could easily see - in the Marevl Universe version pf Fox News - Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly going on and on about the mutants all being on welfare or wanting to impose Mutant law or desiring to have SEX with non-mutant women.

Andy said...

Looking over the history of the X-comics, it seems like the bigotry angle works best as an undercurrent that occasionally bubbles up to be the basis of a particular story (e.g., the Sentinels, Days of Future Past), but when they try to gear the entire series around it it quickly becomes tedious. It got especially bad in the 90s when the X-Men were seemingly constantly beset by angry mouth-frothing mobs, with the mansion representing a fortress amidst an infinite ocean of pitchfork-wielding bigots.

I like the spontaneity of the X-Men in the Bronze Age, when they could still conceivably have a fun adventure in space or some other odd place without people screeching that the series's premise was being violated.

William said...

Basically the whole mutant paranoia angle is a valid plot device, but it's been beaten into the ground until i's become incredibly forced and contrived and that's all the book is about anymore. It got to the point in the 80's where the X-Men weren't really even super heroes anymore. All they ever did was fight off menaces that attacked them personally. Like the Morlocks, Sentinels, mutant hunters from the future, cyborgs with a grudge, etc., etc. They almost never went out and actually helped anyone else in need. Selfish bastiches.

Also, I'd like to put in my two cents on the fact that the average idiot wouldn't really know the difference between a mutant and a "regular" human who gained their power by some freak accident of science. This was touched on by Bendis in Ult. Spider-Man, when once in a while Ult. Spidey would be accused of being a mutant. Bottom line, if there were actually beings like super heroes in the real world, regardless how they came to be, the government would try to control and/or sanction them in some way or another. And let's face it, if suddenly the world was turned into the Marvel or DC Universe, we'd all be bowing down to some kind of "superman". Bet on it.

Doug said...

First off, FANTASTIC conversation here today, gang! Kudos to Karen for getting the ball rolling, and to all commenters for making today a fun bit of lurking for me!

I definitely do not want to hijack the good stuff going on here, but given our X-focus today I thought some of you might also want to peak in on Shooter's Dark Phoenix post today. See it at:



Redartz said...

I'm a bit short on ammunition for this discussion as I stopped reading X-Men in the late 80's. However, consider that one of the group's great strengths has been the genuine likeability of many of the characters.
Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde; all persons we all might enjoy hanging with. This worked well toward emphasizing the irrationality of those who attacked mutant-kind as a group.
Perhaps the times grew more cynical leading the stories to become more hard-edged. It may be naive, but in our society today there seems to be a greater acceptance of differences (not universally, but increasingly). Maybe Professor Xavier's approach to the issue will prove justified.

Fred W. Hill said...

Having read at a few of those early X-Men, it seems Lee didn't really do anything with the "mutant menace" angle until that first Sentinels trilogy. Rather odd considering how the "hero or threat" theme was used in Spider-Man from his first issue, and of course it was a big part of the Hulk stories. And Magneto was really overused in those first 11 issues, much as Dr. Doom was in the FF. Doom didn't really become interesting until after his full origin was told in the 2nd FF Annual and he was used more sparingly afterwards. Magneto, on the otherhad, remained a stereotypical badguy until Claremont fleshed out his background and provided him a unique motive. Lee & Kirby provided the bare bones with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, but that adjective "Evil" didn't help (and did the Doom Patrol's adversaries the Brotherhood of Evil come out before or after Magneto's gang?).
Actually in reading some of those early FF & Avengers stories, I got to wondering just how they got so popular with the general public so quickly considering much of their early heroics weren't exactly in the public eye and they tended to spend more time engaging in grudge matches against vengeful baddies than saving ordinary people. Of course, that tends to be true of many superhero comics.
I think at least up to the mid-80s Claremont kept a decent balance, making greater use of the anti-mutant theme than previous writers but not going too overboard with it. Then again, I stopped collecting in about the middle of the Mutant Massacre cross-over, so maybe mutant paranoia became more dominant in the ever-multiplying X-mags. Excess seemed to be mandated by Marvel management by that time.

Edo Bosnar said...

Since Doug mentioned Shooter's version of the Dark Phoenix story's origin, I should point out that his post generated a response on John Byrne's forum:

dbutler16 said...

I’ve just read the Shooter and Byrne blogs posted by Doug and Edo, respectively. Shooter’s is interesting reading, as usual, though I’d also say it’s a typically one sided reconstruction of events. I do agree with his specific example that Storm, more than any other X-Man, would not be able to sit down and eat dinner with someone who’d murdered billions, regardless of the circumstances. Regarding Byrne’s post, I’m surprised that Claremont didn’t know the X-Men’s history beyond the Thomas/Adams issues. I tend to think Byrne’s retelling is a bit more accurate, though the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Interesting to think of Phoenix as a recurring X-Men supervillain. Actually, that would probably indeed be a first, to have a superheroe become a long time supervillain.
One more note about Nietzsche, I could totally see Magneto reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra (and other Nietzsche works) and really believing that he is the superman mentioned in those works, so Nietzsche is really an apt person to mention.

Karen said...

That Shooter column cracks me up. So he had to teach the writers how to write, the artists how to tell stories, etc?? Wow, I had no idea that Marvel was that bad!! Thank goodness he was there to save it!

Just a wee bit egotistical...

It seems Shooter liked the hero to villain idea so much that we then got to see Hank Pym ruined. And I really don't buy that whole, "It's Bob Hall's fault" explanation for Hank smacking Jan. Seems like when something good happens, it was Shooter's idea; when something bad happens, it's always someone else's fault.


Fred W. Hill said...

Having seen some of Shooter's artwork, in an issue of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, and other comics, I'm sure, but can't quite recall, it seems he read Lee & Buscema's "Drawing Comics the Marvel Way" and pretty much did everything the opposite way, so as to make the story as undramatic and boring as possible. Back in the '80s I read an article in the Comics Journal that really skewered Shooter on this, and it was pretty amusing.
Both Byrne & Shooter have monumental egos, but while they may have been about even as writers, Byrne's artistry considerably outshined Shooter's.

dbutler16 said...

Karen, from what I've heard about what an egomaniac and micro-manager Shooter was as EIC, he probably really did think he needed to teach the writers to write, the artists to draw, et.! LOL

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