What Should Be Done with the Mutant Menace? Part 3:

Losing (and Regaining) Control

In Part 1 and Part 2, we’ve seen how Prof. Xavier’s dream for the peaceful coexistence of humans and mutants depends upon mutants being able to control their special powers. To this end, mutants must relentlessly police themselves and practice self-mastery, lest they lose control of their very biology and become an existential threat to others.

We’ve also seen how X-Men began in media res, and lacked an origin story. It also lacks a predictable ending, being instead analogous to a soap opera, in which various elements continuously change, but the broad strokes of the story remain the same. Villains seek to control the fate of the mutants, and the mutants respond by exercising control over themselves.

These two aspects of the comic — Prof. X’s dream, and the endless nature of the book — combine in a very reliable narrative, which the writers and artists behind the book have been using for over fifty years to keep the comic fresh. Simply put, Xavier’s mutants gain control of their powers only to lose control again, continually becoming threats to those around them — a condition that can be overcome only by means of more training, more discipline, more punishment. Complicating things is the fact that the villains are also seeking to disrupt whatever state of harmony the X-Men manage to achieve. And in this part, and in Part 4, I want to look more closely at how this never-ending plot — of repeatedly losing and regaining control over one’s biology — plays out.

Although the X-Men story begins in media res and, on the whole, lacks an origin story, its individual characters do have earliest moments. Typically, each character first appears in the comic at the moment when her or his power first manifests itself, usually when he or she is a teenager. And it has become a cliché that when a mutant’s power first manifests itself, the character cannot control it. The mutant becomes a threat — a menace — at which point Prof. X shows up and whisks the poor creature away to his school. In this way, the character sets out on the book’s endless narrative cycle of gaining and losing of self-control. In other words, an individual X-Man’s origin story is less about the gaining of a new ability (like Spider-Man did when he was bitten by the radioactive spider), and more losing control of one’s biology.

A few examples:

Cyclops’s powers first manifest themselves (told by means of a flashback in X-Men #38, November 1967) [1], he causes a construction crane to drop its cargo toward a crowd. Cyclops manages to destroy the falling crate before it injures anyone, but he is hounded by a lynch mob (4). A few issues later (X-Men #42), he is rescued by Professor X, who equips him with a visor and a pair of glasses by means of which he can control his eyebeams, and also codenames him “Cyclops.” The character thus embarks on the twin path of self-mastery and military training.

Xavier’s second recruit, Iceman, accidentally uses his powers while out on a date; taunted by a trio of bullies, he freezes one of his tormentors, which leads to his own hounding and imprisonment (X-Men #44, May 1968). Interestingly, Iceman has already known about his powers, as have his parents, who have admonished him to never reveal them in public. Rebuffed by his date, Judy, Iceman thinks, “My parents were right! I should never have revealed my powers … regardless of the reason!” (3).

Once again, Professor X comes to the rescue, sending Cyclops to break Iceman out of jail, as well as erasing the memories of the lynch mob; In X-Men #46 (July 1968), he telepathically tells Cyclops, “Don’t worry about the mob, Scott! They’ve been taken care of! Just bring the Drake boy [Iceman] to his home! Everything is under control!” (5). Professor X then invites Iceman to join his school, promising the teen the ability to control his power:

“There, your mutant powers will be developed to a fine point … and I will teach you to use them in combating the forces of evil! You will be safe there … and it will afford you the chance to do something with your powers!” (ibid)

When Iceman accepts the offer, Professor X tells him, “I will wipe out their memories of your mutant powers! They will only know that you are a student at my school!” (ibid). Xavier’s model of military self-mastery thereby overcomes Drake’s model of inactivity — he will do something with his powers. (Once again, we see that the mutant menace necessitates that something be done.) [2]

The mutant gains a power and loses control; this leads to training at Xavier’s mansion. Eventually, he or she graduates, and wins a spot in the X-Men. However, this is hardly the end of the story. Sooner or later, the character will once again lose control. In general, there are four ways in which this happens:

  1. A character’s power, once turned on, cannot be turned off. This is the most drastic case: the character can never fully control his or her power, and function as a regular human being. Examples of this include Angel / Archangel, Beast, Cyclops, Havok, Nightcrawler, Polaris, and Rogue. (Since some mutants appear non-human, they will always be marked as mutants, and always obvious threats.)
  2. A character’s power, despite having been controlled, next starts increasing, ultimately spiraling out of control. Examples include Angel / Archangel, Beast, Havok, Iceman, Jean Grey, Polaris, Prof. X, Psylocke, Storm, and Wolverine.
  3. A character who can transform between two states becomes stuck in one of those states (essentially a variation on #2). Examples include Angel / Archangel, Colossus, Iceman, Kitty Pryde, Polaris, Psylocke, Rogue, and Wolverine.
  4. A character loses his or her mutant power altogether. Examples include Angel / Archangel, Banshee, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Prof. X, Storm, and Wolverine.

These narrative crises are of course eventually resolved, generally in one of two ways:

  1. The character submits to additional training, which allows them to regain control over their powers.
  2. The character acquires a prosthetic device that provides the needed control.

Here we see another way in which the X-Men are unique: they are superheroes who routinely require the use of prostheses in order to effectively use their powers:

  • Angel / Archangel initially strapped his wings to his back in order to hide them. Later, after his natural wings were amputated, he was given a pair of metal wings (which he couldn’t entirely control, as they seemed to possess a mind of their own).
  • Banshee wears a special costume to help him fly.
  • Beast initially wore custom-designed shoes to hide his oversized, prehensile feet.
  • Cyclops needs to wear special glasses or a visor to regulate his power.
  • Havok wears a special costume to regulate his power.
  • Iceman temporarily wore a belt to regulate his power.
  • Nightcrawler occasionally uses a machine to make him appear human.
  • Professor X uses Cerebro to enhance his telepathic power.
  • Rogue wears extensive clothing in order to reduce her chances of touching her bare skin to that of others.
  • Storm wears a specific costume to help her fly.
  • Wolverine has an unbreakable metal alloy bonded to his skeleton, which enhances his natural powers (including his otherwise bone claws).

The existence of these prosthetic devices of course provides additional opportunities for subplots involving the losing and regaining of that prosthetic. For instance, Cyclops, who can’t control his optic blasts, needs to wear a special visor or a pair of glasses made of “ruby quartz,” the only material known to inhibit his eyebeams. And so a frequent subplot sees Cyclops lose that visor or glasses and become unable to open his eyes. (He has trained himself to keep his eyes closed until he knows that he is wearing his visor or glasses.)

In similar plot lines, Angel gained and lost a pair of metal wings, and Wolverine lost and regained his metal skeleton.

The comic also sometimes sees subplots in which some force turns off a character’s powers. Again, Cyclops will provide a suitable example: in Uncanny X-Men #149–150 (September–October 1981), he was captured by the villain Magneto, who temporarily turned off the man’s optic blasts by means of an inhibitor field.

Finally, Cyclops demonstrates an additional way in which the comic’s creators can rewrite the very idea of a power’s inability to be turned off. For most of the comic’s history, it’s been understood that Cyclops cannot control his power due to a head injury he suffered as a child. Later, this plot element was revised (or “retconned”) with the revelation that Cyclops instead formed mental blocks over his power while a child, leaving open the possibility that he may someday learn to control his powers (presumably by means of more training).

What’s more, all of these narrative events can be adapted to include characters whose powers are not threats to anyone — i.e., mutants who are not obviously menaces. For instance, the occasional X-Man Forge is a genius inventor, able to analyze and synthesize technological knowledge more rapidly than a normal human can. Another student, Doug Ramsey (a.k.a. Cypher), can rapidly learn any language, his mind operating in a manner similar to Forge’s.

Both of these characters were later given plot lines in which their abilities spiraled out of control, effectively making them threats. Forge, in addition to being a mutant, is a Native American shaman, and it was eventually revealed that he once cast a spell that released a powerful evil force into the world (“the Adversary”). A plot line then revolved around the X-Men having to drive the Adversary into another dimension (“Fall of the Mutants,” Uncanny X-Men #225–227). Forge has also seen his inventions stolen by others and abused — for example, he designed a gun that was used by a villain to strip Storm of her powers (Uncanny X-Men #185; she later regained them, in Uncanny X-Men #226).

For his own part, Doug Ramsey played only a minor role in The New Mutants, his linguistic superpower not readily lending itself to combat. (Recall that Xavier’s dream of self-mastery is synonymous with the achievement of military power; any other usage is peripheral. Thus, while certain powers may be suited for more ordinary, everyday tasks — Cyclops has been depicted using his beams to split firewood; Iceman has used his powers to rapidly chill frozen drinks — it tends to be the exception, rather than the norm.)

Unsurprisingly, Ramsey was eventually killed off, in New Mutants #60. Later, he was resurrected when his corpse was infected with a “techno-organic” virus from outer space [3]. He then returned as a monster unable to prevent itself from spreading that virus, who had to be subdued (Excalibur #77 onward). Since then, he’s been a more regular character in the X-Books, and he must always be on guard against his powers spiraling out of control — a prime example of the “his potentially threatening powers are always on” motif.

Beyond this, there are X-Men who have never been subjected to any of these plot lines — secondary characters whose powers are never portrayed as threats, such as Dazzler, Jubilee, and Longshot. And it might be the case that it’s precisely because their powers can’t be exploited in this fashion that writers have largely relegated to the sidelines.

In the next part, I’ll look more closely at how this endlessly cyclical narrative of losing and regaining control over one’s powers has played out in the character of Iceman.


[1] Flashbacks are common in early issues of X-Men, due to the book having started after a great deal of significant story had already occurred.

[2] Professor X later constructs and uses a telepathy-boosting device, Cerebro, to seek out emerging mutants. As such, doing nothing becomes even less of an option.

[3] Alas, even given Ramsay’s language-based powers, any deliberate allusion to Burroughs would appear unintentional.

Works Cited

Uncanny X-Men #149. Chris Claremont (w), Dave Cockrum and Josef Rubenstein (a). “And the Dead Shall Bury the Living!” (Sep. 1981), Marvel Comics.

Uncanny X-Men #150. Chris Claremont (w), Dave Cockrum, Josef Rubenstein, and Bob Wiacek (a). “I, Magneto…” (Oct. 1981), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #38. Roy Thomas (w) Werner Roth (p), and John Verpoorten (i). “A Man Called … X.” (Nov. 1967), Marvel Comics.

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

X-Men #44. Gary Friedrich (w), George Tuska (p), and John Verpoorten (i). “The Iceman Cometh!” (May 1968), Marvel Comics.

X-Men #46. Gary Friedrich (w), George Tuska (p), and John Tartaglione (i). “…And Then There Were Two.” (Jul. 1968), Marvel Comics.

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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.

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