Fans of X-men: Days of Future Past excitedly point to the film’s overt “social commentary” as a major reason for its success. We always equate the X-men with these kinds of subjects – race, social injustice, politics – but why is that? Where does that stuff come from?
After the success of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee described his pre-X-men eureka moment as “What am I gonna do next?” Lee worked up a concept called “The Mutants” that he pitched to publisher Martin Goodman. It was soundly rejected. According to Lee, Goodman said: “Nobody is gonna know what a mutant is. You can’t call them the Mutants.”
So Lee changed it to “The X-men.” But in 1963’s X-men #1, he kept the word “mutant.” Why? Because Goodman was wrong. Lee, who read plenty of pulps and magazines, knew what the word meant. Most people did.
It was the Cold War and people were scared of radiation. A 1956 Times article titled “Atomic Mutants Unseen in Japan” tried to persuade readers that long-term fears were unfounded, though there might be “some other subtle change” in human physiology over time. Even when articles such as these were trying to assuage fears, their words inflamed them.
At the same time, Japan was watching the first Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (“Radon”) (1956) movies. Vague fears over “some subtle change” were enough to make pop culture monsters.
The most popular geneticist of the time was a University of Indiana professor named Dr. Hermann J. Muller. He won the 1946 Nobel Prize in “Physiology or Medicine” for discovering “that high energy radiations such as x-rays will produce mutations.” In his acceptance speech, entitled “The Production of Mutations,” Muller makes the claim that “there are sudden jumps, going all the way from one ‘elementary species’ to another” that he called mutation. Muller argues that mutation happens because of the application of “X-radiation.” He was quoted — and pictured — widely in newspapers and magazines.
In a March 1960 issue of Popular Science, an article titled “How to Breed Supermen” notes that “blunt-spoken Hermann J. Muller . . . wants to upgrade the tired old human race into a world-wide family of paragons – upright, loyal, tolerant, kindly, and very, very smart” Muller adds that “Physical improvement is needed, too [including] a ‘third eye’ [that] would display thoughts as pictures.”
Mutants, bald scientists, and telepathy? All included in a “wide family of paragons.”
Though some letter-writers labeled him a Nazi, Muller is insistent of his version of the future. Though he admits that mutation will take “billions of years,” he still debates the education of these mutant children as if it were beginning that coming fall:
The chief aims in the bringing up and education of children – more robust health; keener, deeper and more creative intelligence; genuine warmth of fellow feeling and cooperative disposition . . . All these faculties require the proper environment and education for their development, but it is the genetic endowment of an individual that forms the basis of their realization.
In fact, stories about “special educational facilities for the so-called ‘the gifted’” were also being hotly debated in the press. Schools like Hunter Elementary in New York that limited “its enrollment to children with I.Q.’s of at least 130, [were] revolutionizing its entire approach to the teaching of the intellectually gifted child.”
Could Muller and his radical ideas about radioactive mutants and their education have influenced Stan Lee in his creation of the X-men? Of homo superior? It turns out there are many more possible sources, but given the provocative, protective Muller, it is hard to miss the obvious parallels. Talking about genetics was necessarily imaginative back then. Muller’s popularity shows that it was a topic that people were interested in. It is 2014 and two of the top movies of the summer are X-men and Godzilla. We still fear the future.
This is an excerpt of a much longer essay from The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times © 2014 Edited by Joseph J. Darowski by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com. The book will be available next month.