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The Mutant Metaphor: The Science Of What Havok Said

Comic Books

The Mutant Metaphor: The Science Of What Havok Said

I’d like to pick the scab on this one before the scar tissue totally takes hold. Sure, as time and publication move on, perceived offenses tend to fade quickly, but let’s look at two panels in particular.

Everyone knows about the furor created by Alex Summers (codename Havok) and his well-intentioned speech in Uncanny Avengers #5. The CliffsNotes, in case you missed it: In the aftermath of the attempt by his cosmically-possessed brother Scott, the militant mutant called Cyclops, to remake the world to his liking, relations between the genetic minority and the rest of the world are tenser than they’ve ever been. Captain America, the public face of United States heroism, realized that Cyclops was right about one thing; that the Avengers have never done enough to help the misunderstood group. Thus he created the Avengers Unity Division to show the masses that man and mutant can work together and placed Havok, a former government man/mutant himself, in the visible leadership position.

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Sounds progressive, yeah? On the right track? Long overdue? Alex thinks so, and stated as much in a public press conference.


The Marvel “mutant” as a metaphor of “minorities” has long been a defining characteristic of X-Men stories, and it undeniably makes for gripping drama and scathing social commentary, but does it hold up to in-universe, scientific scrutiny? The origins of the X-Gene are murky, even by the standards of science fantasy, as the Marvel Wikia states that “[t]o test the versatility of human genes,” an unknowable race of space gods called Celestials “implanted strands of a dormant DNA complex which would one day permit uncanny mutations of the enormous scope in humanity.”

It’s hard to pick out much of use from the science fiction-speak, but if we assume that Marvel mutants do indeed share some kind of legitimate genetic mutation that the rest of humanity lacks, we can compare that to real world examples. Genuine genetic mutations don’t give people wings or laser-blasting eyes, although they can manifest in somewhat similar ways, as with polydactyly (the presence of more fingers or toes than usual). Most genetic mutations are either detrimental, as with color-blindness, or inconsequential, like dimples. While support groups do exist for some of the unpleasant conditions, not many possessing such traits considers themselves to be part of a social minority group. Neither does Havok…


He’s right in that Homo sapiens superior, the Marvel taxonomic description of mutants, is a misnomer. Biologically distinguishing between species is difficult, but a practical guideline proffered by Ernst Mayr defines a species as “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.” Some species can interbreed, but produce infertile offspring such as the mule, the unviable love child of a male donkey and a female horse. Marvel’s humans and mutants are clearly not separate species, as Alex Summers observes, when you consider that all manners of pairings between the two groups continue to produce healthy progeny, and that non-mutants can still be born from mutant parents (hello Graydon Creed).

The race analogy doesn’t really hold either. The current scientific consensus states that race itself doesn’t even exist on a genetic level, so the definition we’re left with is a group of people who share anatomical, cultural, ethnic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious or social affiliations. Avoiding itemization, Marvel’s mutants really share none of those characteristics, as they appear somewhat randomly and present differing phenotypic traits. The social affiliation is something they impose on themselves, much like the aforementioned support groups, but that’s a tenuous connection at best.

And even if mutants were a race, Havok’s last statement there is very close to asking they “not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” What’s wrong with that? Alex seems to be making plain and simple sense up to this point. The problem seems to occur as he goes on to ask he not be called a “mutant” (which, come on, is a pretty ugly term) and says, “the ‘M word’ represents everything I hate.” Little People, another group whose condition is often caused by genetic mutation, don’t much like the “M word” they’ve been stuck with, either.

Human-mutant relations as a metaphor of civil rights and discrimination is what drives the X-Men mythos, and it’s brought about some terrific stories, but here is an example where the disconnect between silly comic book science and storybook social justice causes unnecessary enmity. Havok’s position stems from the definition of “mutant” in his made-up world, and it’s hard to reasonably argue against. In the real world, we know fictional mutants are a stand-in for actual minority groups, and Alex’s “M word” nugget sounds a lot like advocating assimilation at the expense of abandoning one’s own culture and history. And it got writer Rick Remender into a lot of trouble.

Few intelligent, caring people would suggest such measures for actual minority groups, so it’s obvious that’s where the metaphor breaks down. It seems to me that the author has chosen to re-examine (perhaps too closely) the basis for mutant marginalization in the Marvel Universe and attack it from a different angle. And should he not be allowed to do that? Must all future stories follow in lockstep from the allegorical structures of their predecessors? I’d tend to argue in favor of creative freedom, but perhaps Remender should have anticipated cognitive dissonance from the passionate fans who take the mutant metaphor to heart. There’s a definite disconnect between the important civil rights commentary in X-Men comics and the mechanics of how they set it up, and this issue may have simply been a victim of that gap.

Special thanks to the awesomely fanatic denizens of the Comic Book Resources X-Men forum for their input on this topic.

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