The Mutancy Meme (An Essay)


Well-Known Member
Feb 28, 2005
Metro Manila, Philippines
Reposting this from a group blog that I write for, in case anybody might be interested...

The Mutancy Meme, Part 1: The (Not-So) Secret Origin of the Species

What makes you think
you can cure our disease?
Maybe its just our biology
Maybe its time to make room
for another species
This is the 21st Century!

"Modern Day Catastrophists",
Bad Religion (1993)

[IMGl][/IMGl]In the past decade, Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has become an established talking-head of pop sociology, largely due to the unexpected success of his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In it, he details how "social epidemics" take place, bringing about radical, sudden and often chaotic shifts in the state of affairs within a particular social network.

Indeed, Gladwell's theories apply rather neatly to the changing perception of mutant society within the fictional Marvel universe (MU) from the start of the new millennium onwards -- at least within the continuity designated as "616" by loyal fans.

However, I'm jumping the gun here. Before I get into that, a quick recap...

When the concept of mutants was first developed in the MU, it was simply a matter of people born with a unique genetic quirk -- an "X" factor -- that bestows them with amazing, frequently dangerous powers (usually manifested during adolescence). In all likelihood, the whole "Children of the Atom" schtick was probably a timely, catch-all narrative device that allowed creator Stan Lee to free himself of the responsibility of writing elaborate origin stories for each character with superhuman abilities. However, as part of the concept, Lee decided that these mutant youths should deal with all the usual mundane teen bull**** that "normal" kids go through, ostensibly to better cope with everyday realities, in the face of their overwhelming power. And so that proto-Hogwarts -- the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters -- was created as the home-base for the nascent X-Men.


When the X-Men series was revived in 1975 after prolonged hiatus, subsequent writers made a conscious effort to use mutancy as a kind of narrative short-hand for discussing the prevailing social and ethical mores of the era. Advances in the field of genetics and theories of evolution led to the concept of mutants as homo superior -- the next step in the progress of evolution. And this, in turn, informed the separatist agenda of totalitarian arch-villain Magneto. He is depicted as a Jewish holocaust survivor, and father to a pair of half-Roma (gypsy) children, definitively announcing their outsider status within 'proper' Western society. Like the veterans of so many resistance movements, the spurned victims had embraced the megalomania of their oppressors, seeking to establish an insular society of Nietzchean uber-men.

In contrast, Professor Charles Xavier advocated his MLK-esque "dream" of a quasi-utopian world of harmony between mutants and 'baseline' humans, echoing the Civil Rights disputes of the previous decade, whose legal repercussions were only starting to be felt across the fabric of everyday American society.

Interspersed within this over-arching framework were allegories of multiculturalism (including the creation of a handful of culturally diverse -- if tokenistic -- mutant adults), ghetto isolationism (via the deformed, sewer-dwelling mutants known as the Morlocks), environmental conservation and neo-Darwinism (by way of the Savage Land, a verdant jungle landscape where dinosaurs have survived extinction). It was all very topical, but couched in the visual and textual language of "soft" sci-fi and four-color pulp adventure.


As the 80s wore on, the series had largely grown out and franchised, on the strength of heavy character development and over-dramatic soap opera dynamics. But it also gradually lost its focus on mutancy as a theme, with memorable but non-topical epics (the Dark Phoenix Saga), intergalactic campiness (the Shi'Ar, the Starjammers) and quasi-mystical themes (Inferno, the Shadow King).

Mutants were still hated and feared by a world that refused to understand them -- but it was mostly in a vague, general, foreboding kind of way. Still, you'd get the occasional return to form -- such as the one-shot graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, which inspired Bryan Singer's second X-Men film, and threw religious fundamentalism into the mix. But for the most part, the mutant-as-outsider leitmotif receded into the background, usually invoked during single tales as a metaphor for everything from the nascent recognition of Gay/ Lesbian/ Bisexual/ Transgendered identity, to the difficulty of living with AIDS (by then, already a burgeoning epidemic).

Which all leads me back to Gladwell's Tipping Point...
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The Mutancy Meme, Part 2: Do the Evolution


Borrowing from Gladwell, one may posit mutancy as a kind of "social innovation", in the fictional culture of the Marvel universe. So, over time, it should (theoretically) gain acceptance within the broader population, down an echelon of levels:

... from a limited number of "early adopters" (the first batches of the X-Men and the rival Brotherhood of Mutants),

... to a larger number of "secondary adopters" (the pan-cultural 'Second Genesis' that was initiated with Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975),

... and from them to "tertiary adopters" (the younger New Mutants; and even later, Generation X, who probably came of age with the experience of mutancy as a fairly common occurrence),

... then to "quadranary adopters" amongst the general non-mutant population, etc.​

This diffusion of "the mutancy meme" within 616 society follows (appropriately enough) the self-replicating nature of a virus, as it spontaneously adapts to its host bodies.

This process was further egged on by the paradigm shifts taking place in the "real-world" comic industry that keeps the X-men franchise in business. A handful of innovative writers started to recognize that mutancy's central tenets needed to be retooled and updated to fit the increasing complexities of a globalized world. Unstable trans-national boundaries and the spread of information across the world marketplace made the over-simplistic tropes of past decades now seem like hoary clichés -- was it honestly conceivable that a large and potentially influential minority would remain despised and marginalized forever? Not likely.

Nevertheless, it would be an uphill struggle to present mutancy as a respectable condition, when the species' most prominent radical terrorist group, the Mutant Liberation Front, looked as hokey as this sorry bunch:


Something urgently needed to change. And so, after the line-wide "Revolution" campaign in 2000, we began to see a more nuanced vision of mutancy. Mutants are still hated and feared by the public at large, but they're also the subject of much fascination and envy. They're marketed, branded, and commercialized, in the same way the mainstream culture has deigned to adapt specific aspects of other minority cultures (the design sensibilities of queer aesthetics, for instance; or the macho posturing of black American hip-hop).

Joe Casey introduced the X-Corporation as a way of establishing mutant presence in the realm of transnational business -- a concept that was sadly never fully realized (in the Marvel universe, anyway). Meanwhile, Brian Bendis conceptualized the synthetic Mutant Growth Hormone as a lethal means for humans to simulate the mutant experience, mimicking the advent of "designer drugs" in the 'real world'.

But perhaps nobody redefined the scope of mutancy quite like Grant Morrison, over the course of his run on New X-Men. Yeah, I know -- the hype! But you know what? It's almost entirely deserved. Srsly.
Let me count the ways:

:: He took the concept of unchecked evolution a step further with the innovation of secondary mutations.

:: Morrison's run brought to life an entire mutant-centric youth culture, with its own music, iconography, slang, and (perhaps most radically) fashions catered to mutant physiology.

:: His stint replaced the sewer-dwelling Morlocks with a more believable immigrant-style community of lower-income mutant outcasts. Known informally as Mutant Town, the neighborhood was later fully realized by crime writer David Hine, in District X.

:: He posited the idea of the U-Men, a contraband paramilitary organization that harvests mutant organs to bestow powers on wealthy human clients. These memorable villains combined the real-world horror of illegal medical trafficking with the outlandish notion of a uniform-wearing sci-fi death cult.​

And that doesn't even begin to cover individual figures like Sublime and Xorn, each of whom are inspired by the key themes of the franchise, in their own unique ways.

Of course, all of this would soon be undone by the (completely misguided) advent of House of M, and the resulting Decimation storyline. But i'll save that for my next installment...
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I really enjoyed this. It's well written, sophisticated, and well thought out. This really shows you've put great work into this. I'd love to read more of this if you have on this subject, or any subject for that matter.

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