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When the X-Men movie stormed into the charts as last year's summer blockbuster, mutants came back in fashion. As a plot device, they are eminently suited to the exploration of a number of wider issues, including the societal effects of rapid evolutionary change, the persecution of feared but virtuous outsiders and its darker reverse, of urban and racial decay spawning a generation of inhuman, bestial children who will arise, like the zombies in a thousand horror movies, to torment and prey on their parents. They encapsulate deep fears of racial threat and salvation, promising an apocalypse of horror or an Olympus of new gods to defend a wayward humanity. So, it's about time the phenomenon of mutants in comics and elsewhere was examined, to see if we can lay bare the reasons why they remain one of Science Fiction's favourite subjects.
The X-Men themselves were the latest variation on the superman genre of SF which had begun with works like J.D. Bereford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), and A.E. Van Vogt's Slan (1946), though in a sense it was a return to this earlier tradition. While Superman was an accepted and respected member of society, 'Odd John', Slans and the X-Men were outcasts, feared by society for the tremendous powers they possessed. Jommy Cross, the mutant hero of Slan, was a superman with two hearts and vast intelligence, but raised in secret because of persecution by normals. In the end, though, he won out and at the end of the novel his father is revealed to be the President of the World. Odd John is a pessimistic tale about a telepath who gathers other, similarly evolved people around him on an island. When the normals attack, however, they are unable to retaliate, having evolved out of such violent impulses. As a result, they are all killed and humanity remains stuck in its lower level of evolution. The mutants of the X-Men are similarly described as Homo Superior by virtue of their powers, and are also under constant suspicion and assault by normals. This persecution was originally largely meted out by the 'Sentinels', monumental robots created by a paranoid scientist to purge humanity of the mutant menace. The comicstrip's eponymous heroes, the X-Men, however, have been founded by Professor Xavier, played with patrician aplomb in the movie by Patrick Stewart, a wheelchair-bound telepath, in his School for Gifted Youngsters, as an institution pledged to help such mutants control and develop their powers, and put them in the service of all humanity, with whom they must live in harmony. Radically opposed to this philosophy was Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Magneto, or, to use his real name, Magnus Lansher, as shown in both the comic and the film, was a survivor of Auschwitz, though in the comic it was hinted that his wife, Magda, had not been so fortunate. Convinced that homo sapiens would never trust and accept homo superior, he believed that it was homo superior's destiny to rule normals, and set about this with a vengeance. Eventually, after a confrontation in which the young Kitty Pryde was nearly killed, Magneto realised the error of his ways and began the road which would eventually lead him to join his former foes. This background in the death camps certainly explained Magneto's violent antipathy to humanity, but is based on a major misunderstanding of Nazism. Far from fearing or hating superpowered mutants like Magneto, the Nazis would have embraced them as part of the new, eugenically sound master race. The main proto-Nazi idealogue, Joerg Lanz Von Liebenfels, in his book Theozoologie oder der Elektron der Goetter (Theozoology or the Electron of the Gods) stated that the Germanic gods had been an earlier, Aryan race who had possessed special electric organs which gave them a form of radio telepathy. These powers had been lost through interbreeding with dwarfish, subhuman apelings.
In the coming Reich, it was to be the state's duty to breed out these racial imperfections and restore the lost electric organs to the aryan people. Hitler took his violent antisemitism, fascination with eugenics and even the symbol of Nazism, the swastika, from Liebenfels. Although after the Nazi seizure of power the pre-Nazi pagan sects, including Liebenfels' were banned, his ideas were still highly influential, particularly in the SS. Himmler himself was keenly interested in subjects like mesmerism and telepathy, and after the War there were rumours that the bodies of dead Tibetan lamas had been found at his HQ. The Nazis had believed that Tibetan civilization, based on pure Aryan principles, had managed to preserve these organs. If Magneto had lived during the Third Reich, rather than being extirpated as an enemy of the race, he would have been encouraged to pass his genes on to as many offspring as possible, unless, of course, he was Jewish. Then the likeliest possibility is that he would have been dissected as part of the Reich's infamous programme of racial experiments. These historical inaccuracies, however, are largely immaterial. Lee and the succeeding writers were merely trying to make a valid point about humanity fearing and hating the outsider, and they made it well. To make the Nazism subtext even more explicit, a character was later introduced who may have been the son of two of the heroes from a future in which mutants were incarcerated in concentration camps. Meanwhile, there was a touch of Slan's presidential father in the revelation that one of the X-Men's own father had been an alien starjammer. Claremont's writing was intense, and concentrated on making the protective bonds between the mutant characters stronger. As a persecuted minority, they had no one on whom to rely except each other. As a society of outcasts, they became a subculture in their own right. Claremont himself said that the comic book was "about racism, bigotry and prejudice ... It's a book about outsiders, which is something that any teenager can identify with." In their constant battles there was much that united Xavier and Magneto, and their conflict wasn't a simple struggle of good and evil, but between assimilationist and separatist, the kind of internal debate that has characterised the plight of marginal groups from Jewry to Blacks.
The X-Men's outcast nature made them mascots of other disadvantaged groups as well. The persecution, intense comradeship and peer bonding within the mutant culture attracted a strong gay following. They were also heroes to the disabled. The X-Men published a letter from a young disabled student who found an ennobling reflection of her own condition in the Satanic appearance of Nightcrawler, who was feared because of his resemblance to Auld Clootie. Nightcrawler was also blessed with only two fingers and a thumb on each hand, which may well have given him a more than superficial resemblance to certain forms of existing physical deformity.
A similar science fictional exploration of segregation and ghetto culture forms an important part of Jack Womack's 1987 novel, Ambient. The third novel in a series of five - Heathern, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, Ambient, Terraplane and Elvissey, the story's set in a nightmarish alternative future America dominated by the brutal and Fascistic Dryco corporation. This is a social darwinist jungle of capitalist meltdown, in which Christianity has been discredited by the discovery of the original 'Q' gospel and mainstream society destroyed by the passion for downsizing and mass-redundancy to bolster share prices which were such a prominent part of Reagan and Thatcherite corporate culture. This has resulted in massive swathes of urban decay populated by a deprived, brutal and brutalized underclass, prone to outbreaks of extreme violence. The Ambients of the book's title are mutants, spawned by the original Long Island incident, and their self-mutilated imitators who have erected their own subculture, including a cant using elements of Spanglish, and obsolete English, along with other terms adopted or coined by the mutants themselves. It reads, in the words of Richard Calder, like 'bad Beat poetry'. From Womack himself comes a description of its raison d'etre - "only in word and not in image could true beauty by found." It's an apt analysis of the linguistic and oral literature of socially deprived groups. The poverty of Black ghetto life produced a vivid poetry in Blues, Jazz and rock lyrics, while Cant itself was the original parlance of the 16th century tramps and criminal underclass. Its 19th century synonym, Flash, lays bare the underlying motive behind the language's existence: it is partly to provide a disinherited, deprived marginal group with an inclusive, compensatory culture of their own, to clothe the poverty and brutality of their existence with linguistic exoticism.
This world, an exaggerated panorama of urban decay and corporate greed, extended far outside the narrow confines of Womack and Cyberpunk writers like William Gibson. It was, after all, the science fictional projection of contemporary fears about the possible excesses of laissez-faire, minarchist capitalism. The Ambients and other denizens of this asphalt jungle were merely an extrapolation of the street gangs and violent youth cults which had exercised the minds of the respectable classes since the Peaky Blinders of the 1890s. This again is born out by the name Frank Miller gave to the future, mohican-topped gang terrorising Gotham City in his Dark Knight Batman limited series: the Mutants. In this sense mutants here represent society's image of the perpetrators of the new wave of collective violence as subhuman others, grotesque parodies of ourselves. It also represents the fears of society undergoing acute and protracted change that senescence has finally crept in, racial decadence expressing itself in the twisted minds and bodies, and malformed genes of the last, succeeding generation. There is, however, a redemptive aspect to Miller's tale. The Mutants are tamed, and harnessed by Batman, to become a vehicle for good and the enforcement of order, in the same way that the mutant rebellion of Strontium Dog overthrows Kreelman and replaces his Nazi eugenic state with a marginally less brutal pre-1960s segregationist eugenic state.
This superheroic exploration of Fascistic persecution also found its way into Marvel's Captain Britain comic, in which the good Captain, blessed with a new costume and heightened powers, fell through the dimensions to the lowest world in the great chain of being, an alternative Britain under the heel of a National Front-style dictator where the aristocratic 'Mad' Jim Jaspers carried out a brutal persecution of superheroes. Eventually, Jaspers is revealed to be another mutant, like the world president in Slan. Unlike Slan, there is nothing kindly about Jaspers. He is destroying heroes so that he can rule, unchecked, as a mad god who plays dice with reality. This he does, killing the Captain and his companion, Jackdaw, in the process before the extradimensional court in charge of keeping order throughout the dimensions destroys that reality as a threat to the others. Back in our world, this dimension's version of Jaspers follows his predecessor down the same path in brutal repression. Again, Jaspers sets up the same infrastructure of concentration camps and a special, anti-superhero police, as in Strontium Dog.
This, however, gave Moore the opportunity to explore the mythic logic behind superheroes, as the poor and oppressed of this new Britain relate stories and rumours about the Captain to counterbalance the terrible reality of their condition. It's the same literary trick which permeates the Russian author, Mikhail Bulgakov's, The White Guard, where several chapters are devoted to crowd conversation and speculation about the main protogonists in the historical drama of the Russian Civil War in which it is set. These protogonists are never seen, except for extremely brief flashes as they plan their action. Both Moore and Bulgakov in these passages are intensely interested in mass psychology and urban legend as it seeks to apprehend contemporary events in a mythic way. Eventually, good wins out as Jaspers is fought and killed by his extradimensional counterpart's hero-hunter, the Fury, which in turn is killed by Captain Britain's own female counterpart from the Fury's reality, Captain UK. Within the fantastic constraints of the superhero genre, Captain Britain was by far the grimmest and most realistic of the treatments of antihero Nazism outside of Art Spiegelman's holocaust metaphor, Maus. Captain Britain was set in the contemporary United Kingdom of the 1980s. As a backdrop to the heroes' battles were the grim, mundane conflicts of gangs on council estates and the bleak reality of dole queues. It's a vista of squalor and urban decay of the same type as the emergent Cyberpunk genre, though less extreme, more characteristically British, than the concrete killing-fields of Womack's NYC. The Fascist police themselves would choose to intimidate normal citizens for their own amusement, much as the Nazi, Fascist and Communist apparatchiks were prepared to wield their own brutal clout in their institutionalised bullying. It was Thatcherite Britain pushed full-scale into organised Nazism, and the resulting portrait had a grim, punkish verisimilitude about it.
The devastated America of Judge Dredd was rather less harsh on mutants. Although prevented from entering the Megacities, the good lawman was not indifferent to their plight when he entered the mutant territories of the mid-West, frequently acting to protect his genetically-challenged allies from exploiters and tyrants such as Philmore Faro, the garbage god, who was building his own ancient Egyptian-style tomb in Memphis with mutant slave labour.
Multinational corporate marketing, as well as an idealistic desire to combat racial and nationalist intolerance, strongly influenced the ethnic composition of mutant supergroups like the X-Men. The racial mixture in the New X-Men was a deliberate ploy by Marvel's then chief to appeal to the citizens of the various countries he was trying to penetrate with his comics. This approach did not pay off without solid characterisation and the type of quality storytelling and market packaging which comic readers, whatever their nationality, wanted. Certain characters also transcended their strictly nationalist appeal. The Wolverine was intended to bring in readers from Canada, by virtue of being a fellow Canuck with the characteristics of this most Canadian of beasts. Wolverine's rough masculine humour, savage violence and intense struggle to preserve humanity and dignity in the face of his killing rages won him a fan audience far beyond the confines of narrow Canadian nationalist interest. This process could also work in reverse as well. When Marvel tried to appeal to a Mexican immigrant audience with a Latino hero, El Diablo, the book flopped and was eventually cancelled as by then the majority of Hispanic Americans had joined the mainstream fan audience and were enjoying the adventures of WASP heroes.
Regardless of the precise ethnic makeup of the X-Men, the strip continually addressed the problem of how society would handle rapid evolutionary change. Several times the strip bluntly asked the question "What did the last Neanderthal say to the first Cro-Magnon?" Mutants, as homo superior, the ultimate teletechic advance on normal humanity, provided a useful science fictional tool to address this problem. Apart from the aformentioned Slan and Odd John more recent novelistic explorations include Karen Haber and Robert Silverberg's The Mutant Season, and Greg Bear's 1999 story, Darwin's Radio. Other expositions of the likely effects of such change include the classic Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood's End, in which the mutant children of the last human generation, forged into a single gestalt group creature, consume the Earth and their parents in an apocalypse as they launch themselves into the parapsychological domains of the Universal Overmind. Despite his militant atheism, the book, or at least its original version, was directly inspired by the evolutionary theories of the French Jesuit and New Age guru, Teilhard de Chardin, which predict such a final union when an evolved humanity, transformed into a socially aware, active group creature, finally achieves complete harmony with the divine will to merge with the Ethical Imperative. Clarke has since rewritten the book, though the central problem remains in this and the rest of the science fictional literature: how will human society react to the emergence of a new race of genetically advanced human beings? Will they be feared, shunned, the targets and instigators, by their mere presence, of a fresh wave of intolerance, bigotry and genocide, the two species wrestling for dominance and their place on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder, a bitter war with extinction the only result for the loser. Or will they be heroes, subcultural titans, stamped with the image of new evolutionary gods, using their powers to protect the weak and helpless? Or both, simultaneously objects of fear and admiration, protagonists of violence and exponents of peace? In an age when new advances in cybernetic prosthetics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology are laying the foundations for a generation of human beings radically different from their forebears, in which the emergence of this transhuman condition are already being seriously debated, mutants provide an accessible, science fictional arena for such debate. Whether outcast supermen, or simply outcast, they seem set to continue as an SF staple for a long time. Comic sales have plummeted since the boom years of the mid-eighties, to the point where those in the industry are seriously contemplating its eventual demise. The X-Men, meanwhile, march on, from comic book, to cartoon, to film. Such is their fluid, multifaceted appeal in an increasingly heterogenous, fragmented society.
In the meantime, one question remains: What did the last Neanderthal say to the first Cro Magnon?
tZ X-Men review of Bryan Singer's movie
tZ The Genre Greats: The Peculiar Genius of Alan Moore - author profile
tZ Cladogenesis: Extraterrestrial Colonisation by Post-Human SF Fans - genre essay
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