What Should Be Done with the Mutant Menace? Part 1:

The Lack of an Ending

A curious yet distinguishing feature of the X-Men family of comics is their lack of an origin story, typically an essential element in superhero comics. Usually, the superhero’s identity and power is formed by a single inciting incident. Batman’s grim determination to battle crime was provoked by his having witnessed his parents’ murder. Superman was sent to Earth by his father to save him from the destruction of their home planet, Krypton. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. The Fantastic Four were exposed to cosmic rays during a spaceflight gone awry. The Hulk was a scientist caught in a gamma bomb explosion—and so on.

The X-Men’s lack of an origin story stems from a plot device Stan Lee employed when creating the book:

“We’re always looking for new superheroes—not so much for new heroes as for new explanations of how they came about, and I was getting tired of radioactive accidents. I felt, why not get some people who were born the way they are, who had mutant powers. So we created the X-Men.” (Pitts 96)

This “it just happens” device freed Lee (and later writers) from having to constantly invent unique accidents and events [1]. However, it also left the book without an origin point that it could later return to. Mutants simply are [2].

Thus, X-Men #1 (September 1963) begins in media res. Four of the main characters (Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, and the Angel) are already in possession of their powers, and are already students at Professor X’s private school—they are, in fact, on the verge of graduating, having been training for some undisclosed length of time. One year later, X-Men #7 (September 1964) sees them graduate, although neither the comic nor their training ends there. Indeed, as we shall see, X-Men #8 shoulders on in pretty much the same way as the previous issues.

Because the central X-Men narrative lacks a true beginning, it also lacks the potential for a true ending. In theory, Batman might someday find peace, and put down the mantle of crime-fighter (as he does in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises). Dr. Bruce Banner might eventually manage to free himself of his alter-ego, the Hulk, and regain a normal life. But because the X-Men have no origin, there is no way to formally resolve the story pattern underlying the comic. Because they were born mutants, the X-Men will be mutants all their lives, and will therefore have to cope with their extra powers as long as they exist.

Because of this, the X-Men comics function rather like a soap opera, in which the only constant is change. While the basic concepts remain broadly the same over the years, the writers and artists keep the book fresh by routinely changing individual details. Thus, characters come and go, die and get reborn, change costumes, change relationships, change allegiances—and, most interestingly, change their powers. And it’s here that I mainly want to focus, because I think it reveals something crucial about how the X-Men comics operate.

The mutants featured in the various X-Men comics are, as we’re frequently reminded, not Homo sapiens, but Homo superior, the next step in humanity’s evolution. Possessing a mysterious “X-Factor” in their genes, these creatures are blessed with supernatural abilities that traditionally manifest themselves during puberty—extra powers that form the basis of their name. As Stan Lee explained it in 1999, he named the team the X “because they have extra power” (Cangialosi 170). This idea is plainly stated in the very first issue of X-Men, when Professor X tells his newest recruit, Jean Grey: “You, Miss Grey, like the other four students at this most exclusive school, are a mutant! You possess an extra power … one which ordinary humans do not!! That is why I call my students … X-Men, for ex-tra power!” (8).

However, even a cursory reading of the comics reveals the situation to be far more complicated than that. While the X-Men for the most part do have superpowers, like many other comic superheroes, it would be disingenuous to leave the matter there—because the abilities that the X-Men possess often function as disabilities. Left unchecked, they can present an existential danger to themselves and others, and thereby necessitate some measure of control. For this reason, the X-Men routinely find themselves at the center of a debate over their fate: “What is to be done with the mutant menace?” This singular question preoccupies all of the book’s characters and precipitates all of their conflicts.

Interestingly, no one ever advocates doing nothing—the existence of the mutants, unlike that of Spider-Man or Batman—is always portrayed as a threat, or a potential threat [3]. From the book’s beginning, the word “menace” has been closely associated with “mutant”; thus, for instance, in X-Men #14 (November 1965), the anthropologist Bolivar Trask assembles a group of reporters to state:

“We’ve been so busy worrying about cold wars, hot wars, atom bombs, and the like, that we’ve overlooked the greatest menace of all! Mutants walk among us! Hidden! Unknown! Waiting—! —Waiting for their moment to strike!” (3)

Even the X-Men frequently think of themselves as menaces, as threats. In the final panel of X-Men #42 (March 1968), Cyclops—who has just acquired his signature ruby quartz visor—sits alone and muses, “Perhaps one day I’ll lose the super-power that makes me a menace to all who come near me!” [4]

This anxiety is of course typical of 1960s Marvel Comics; one of Stan Lee’s chief innovations was to create heroes (Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man) who were insecure about their lives—their finances, their futures, their relationships. As Lee summarized it:

“The big formula, if you want to think of it as a formula, was just saying to myself, suppose a real, flesh and blood human has thus and such a super power? What would his life be like anyway? What would happen in the real world?” (Pitts 88)

However, with the X-Men, Stan Lee extended this insecurity to the characters’ very biology [5]. These heroes must deal with the burden of their menacing ex-tra powers not because of anything they’ve done, but simply by virtue of having been born.

The book’s villains are, by and large, those who would control the book’s heroes in some grossly unpleasant fashion. Many of them represent institutions trying to cope with the mutant threat. Thus, Dr. Bolivar Trask invents giant, mutant-hunting “Sentinel” robots. The United States Senator Robert Kelly argues that mutants should be registered and interred in concentration camps (to which end he acquires some of Trask’s robots). Another set of villains, the government and military of the fictional East African country Genosha, enslave their mutant population, using a mixture of genetic engineering and brainwashing to transform mutants into docile servants whose powers are exploited technologically. In addition to this are rogue villains, such as the Hellfire Club, an elite group of capitalists who secretly manipulate governments and corporations, to which end they are willing to sacrifice both mutants and humans alike, profiting from fear-mongering. (Their leader, the mutant Sebastian Shaw, owns the company that builds the Sentinel robots.) And there are mutant supremacists like Magneto who seek to subjugate humans, justifying Bolivar Trask’s worst fears. All of these groups, in one way or another, seek to exercise control over the collective fate of mutantkind.

The leader of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) opposes these various villains by promoting a vision of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Typical is the moment in X-Men #14, when the Professor debates Bolivar Trask:

“Before giving way to groundless fears, we must first consider—what is a mutant? He is not a monster! He is not necessarily a menace! He is merely a person who was born with different power or ability than the average human! … No one knows what causes mutations! Your own children may be mutants! You must not let ignorance, rumor, or unreasoning fear stampede you!” (7)

However, I want to point out that while Professor X’s vision of tolerance and coexistence is more sympathetic than those of the villains—he’s ostensibly “the good guy,” the one we readers are meant to agree with—his means, upon closer inspection, also begin with the assumption that mutants are threats, and must be controlled in some fashion. But where his foes would externally police mutantkind with robots and concentration camps, Xavier would have the mutants police themselves—something we’ll examine more closely in Part 2.


[1] Narrative expedience also determined the composition of the team. As Stan Lee put it: “When you write, you want variety, so I wanted about five or six characters and I wanted them all to be different. I wanted one guy who flew, and that became the Angel. As I said, I always liked the Human Torch, but I didn’t want to do another hot guy, so I figured; Why not a cold guy? And we came up with Iceman. Then a girl with mental powers, who became Marvel Girl” (Cangialosi 170). The comic has since then worked to preserve and expand this kind of diversity, with the book constantly enfolding mutants from various countries and walks of life. Its first major expansion, in the mid 1970s, saw the team swell to include an Apache Nation Native American (Thunderbird), a Canadian (Wolverine), an Irishman (Banshee), a Japanese man (Sunfire), a Kenyan (Storm), a Soviet Russian (Colossus), and a West German (Nightcrawler) (Giant-Size X-Men #1).

[2] The comic has occasionally hinted that radiation from atomic bombs somehow triggered an outbreak of mutations. The X-Men have sometimes been called “The Children of the Atom,” and Professor X made the connection more explicit in X-Men #1, where he tells his students, “I was born of parents who had worked on the first A-Bomb project! Like yourselves, I am a mutant…possibly the first such mutant!” (10). Seen in this light, Stan Lee’s innovation was to transform a single, individual “radioactive accident” into a radioactive event affecting whole populations. However, it should be noted that the book later dropped this plotline, and has since then extended the first appearance of mutants further backwards in time; Xavier was wrong in believing himself first. Mutants, as the story now goes, are less some sudden new phenomenon, and more a special kind of person that has always existed alongside non-mutant humans (akin to the wizards in Harry Potter).

[3] Heightening the sense of mutants to provoke unease has been their long association with the word “uncanny”, which appears in the very first issue, wherein an army general pronounces the X-Men’s abilities as such. A few issues later, the title of X-Men #8 (“The Uncanny Threat…of Unus the Untouchable!”) clarifies that the word’s relationship to threat and menace. Finally, starting with issue #114 (October 1978), the comic was officially retitled “The Uncanny X-Men,” although the book’s splash page (or opening page) had taken to calling the characters “the Uncanny X-Men” starting with issue #95 (October 1975).

[4] Cyclops is able to fire a kind of energy beam from his eyes, an “optic blast.” But he cannot turn his power off, due to a childhood accident in which he suffered brain damage—more about which later.

[5] This insecurity is another element fairly unique to the X-Men. Other superheroes do not necessarily suffer from their powers. Superman’s and Spider-Man’s and Daredevil’s powers, for instance, are rarely presented as liabilities. That said, there are a few other Marvel characters echo this idea of power as curse, such as the Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner cannot control his transformations into that monstrous being. But Banner, unlike the X-Men, can theoretically be cured of his condition (his origin can be undone), and as such Banner tries mainly to prevent the outbreak of his powers, while the X-Men train in order to not only master but strengthen their powers—a tension that drives the entire X-Men narrative.

Works Cited

Cangialosi, James. “Writing for Himself: Stan Lee Speaks.” Stan Lee: Conversations. Ed. Jeff McLaughlin. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. 166–173.  Print.

Giant-Size X-Men #1. Len Wein (w), Dave Cockrum (p), and Peter Iro (i). “Deadly Genesis!” (May 1975), Marvel Comics.

Pitts, Leonard, Jr. “An Interview with Stan Lee.” Stan Lee: Conversations. Ed. Jeff McLaughlin. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. 85–100.  Print.

X-Men #1. Stan Lee (w), Jack Kirby (p), and Paul Reinman (i). “X-Men.” (Sep. 1963), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #7. Stan Lee (w), Jack Kirby (p), and Chic Stone (i). “The Return of the Blob.” (Sep. 1964), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #8. Stan Lee (w), Jack Kirby (p), and Chic Stone (i). “The Uncanny Threat…of Unus the Untouchable!”  (Nov. 1964), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #14. Stan Lee (w), Jack Kirby (p), and Chic Stone (i). “Among Us Stalk…the Sentinels!” (Nov. 1964), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #42. Roy Thomas (w), Don Heck (p), and George Tuska (i). “If I Should Die…!” (Mar. 1968), Marvel Comics.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


A D Jameson is the author of three books: the story collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), the fantasy novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, Inc., 2013). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Unstuck, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, PANK, and dozens of other journals. Since August 2011, he has been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he contributes to the group lit blog HTMLGiant and the film blog PressPlay, where he frequently writes about geek culture. He's also written a series of articles on Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

See more, including free online content, on .

Leave a Reply