Friday, November 09, 2007

The Mutancy Meme, Part 1: (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)

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 bullshit 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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