Almost everyone I know who has ever been a fan of comic books has collected The Uncanny X-Men and/or its various spin-offs at one point or another. It’s also the title that has gotten many, including me, addicted to comics in the first place.
It’s not hard to see why. More than any other superhero title, it’s the one that speaks most profoundly to the angst-ridden adolescent that lives permanently within us all.
Mutants, as we all know, are people born with genetic mutations which manifest as various physical and mental powers. This has caused them, throughout their hapless history, to be feared, mistrusted, condemned and hated by normal humans.
Critics and commentators have pointed out the obvious parallels between the X-Men and social issues like racism, genocide, religious intolerance and homophobia.
In this post, however, I examine the X-Men not so much as social-political symbols (which they indeed are) but as deeply personal, psychological archetypes that apply to everyone regardless of race, creed, circumstance or environment.
The Adolescence Connection
There’s a strong symbolic connection between mutant-hood and adolescence. In the Marvel mythos, mutant powers most often reveal themselves in adolescence, particularly during periods of intense stress and tumult.
Children obviously have a sense of self and act primarily out of an instinctual self-interest. But identity during childhood still tends to be more oceanic and elastic. It is usually sometime during adolescence that a stronger awareness of self begins to form and the search for a more individualized, crystallized identity begins.
There’s also the intense, even desperate, need to be accepted and valued alongside fears and insecurities of being rejected and ostracized. The ones who aren’t able, for whatever reasons, to fit into the social groupings of their choice either find another niche group to fit into or become loners.
We see examples of all of the above in the X-Men comics and films in which the mutant experience is virtually identical to – indeed, inseparable from – the adolescent experience. Only here, the ordinary changes and stresses of adolescence are symbolized by more dramatic physiological and biochemical mutations.
The reason that the X-Men remain attractive and popular characters with adults is that many of us never truly outgrow adolescence. Physically, we do, but emotionally and psychologically most do not, at least not completely and not until much later in life.
The yearning, insecurities and emotional roller-coaster experiences may not be as intense as in adolescence, but if you look carefully and honestly at the hidden motivations underlying the actions of both ourselves and the people around us, they are essentially the same as that of teenagers: the desire to belong, to be accepted, to be loved and adored.
Coexisting with the desire to be accepted is the desire to be authentic and true to oneself. Unfortunately, these two desires can often clash with each other.
The struggle of the X-Men and all mutants – and, by extension, us – can be expressed as the constant balancing act between honoring oneself for who one is vs. doing what it takes to be accepted by society at large and by the specific social groups we want to be a part of.
Since these are themes that become most pronounced during adolescence but remain with us throughout our lifetime, the X-Men always have and will continue to speak to people of all ages.
Crisis as the Catalyst for Mutation
Looking at superheroes as a whole, the difference between mutants and non-mutants makes sense in terms of plot, storytelling and highlighting the particular issues of alienation vs. acceptance.
If you think about it, Spider-Man is also a “mutant” in the sense that the radioactive spider bite that gave him his spider-like powers caused his cells to mutate.
For non-mutant superheroes, traumatic accidents or crises serve as the catalysts for their powers. Even for characters with no supernatural powers – like Batman, Iron Man and Green Arrow – it is a traumatic event that puts them on the trajectory toward becoming a hero. And even after they’ve already become heroes, periodic crises put them back on track when they go astray.
Now, let’s compare this side by side with how mutants’ powers announce themselves. First, it’s usually during adolescence which is already inherently tumultuous. Next, it’s often triggered during a time or period during that adolescence that’s particularly stressful.
Hence, Colossus discovers his powers while trying to save his sister from a runaway tractor; Iceman, when a bully tries to forcibly take away his girlfriend; Jean Grey, when her best friend is hit and killed by a car. The examples are many.
Even the radioactive spider bite that causes the non-mutant Spider-Man to mutate doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It occurs at the height of his teenage angst as he struggles with feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy while being rejected by girls and ridiculed, even bullied, by his classmates.
Stress and strain isn’t limited to unpleasant events, however. For instance, something that we normally associate with pleasure, falling in love, if you think about it, is a kind of crisis in the intensity and constant fluctuation of extreme emotions. And, indeed, Rogue’s powers manifest during the rapturous moments of her first kiss with a boy.
And so it is with periods of trial, intensity and difficulty in our own lives. Unpleasant and challenging as they can be, they nevertheless force us to tap into hitherto unrealized depths of real-life talent and abilities (powers) that we did not realize we had.
These crises may literally occur during our adolescence, but we are certain to run into them throughout our entire lifetimes. Adolescence itself thus becomes a symbol for any period of crisis, change and tumult. And mutation becomes a symbol for forced growth and adaptation.
Discovering Your Own Mutant Powers
We now understand the connection between mutant-hood and adolescence. We also understand that while physical adolescence comes and goes, spiritual adolescence is something that remains with us and recurs throughout our life. We can therefore entertain the idea that we are all, in a sense, mutants.
Next, we’re going to see how all this is relevant insofar as finding and cultivating your own “mutant powers.” Here are the basic principles:
(1) Embrace periods of crisis and upheaval
Uncomfortable as they are, difficult times are nevertheless opportunities for either discovering talents and abilities that you didn’t know you had or for further cultivating ones that you already know about.
The next time you find yourself in a very difficult situation, take refuge in knowing that it’s your opportunity to grow, to “mutate,” in ways that you simply could not if everything was going well. You can’t welcome growth while shunning pain. It’s just a law of human experience that pain brings out more creativity and resourcefulness and forces us to tap deeper into our potential than pleasure does.
It doesn’t mean you have to enjoy difficult and painful periods. Just recognize that there can be a silver lining if you approach it the right way.
(2) Embrace your uniqueness
Being a mutant means being different and unique.
Of course, we are all unique and different. Acculturation and socialization may make people look, act and speak in similar ways, but this is just part of the survival mechanism that, historically, has been largely necessary for people to be live harmoniously within their social groupings.
Today, in many cultures, this is not so much the case anymore. We live in different times in which uniqueness is increasingly becoming a celebrated quality, not a stigmatized one.
At the beginning of the first X-Men film, we hear Professor X say that every so often, “evolution leaps forward.” The genetic evolutionary leap he’s referring to symbolizes the real-life cultural evolution that we as a culture are undergoing.
Diversity is multiplying exponentially. Everywhere one looks, remarkably unique individuals are transforming the social and cultural landscape. They are the “mutants” who have “come out of the closet,” expressing their individuality and difference.
Many other mutants, out of fear, are still in hiding, covering up their uniqueness just as, in X-Men: The Last Stand, Angel binds his wings to his back so that he can fit into regular clothes and look normal – until, that is, he learns to spread his wings and fly. Interestingly, it is the aforementioned periods of crisis that often force us to discover we have the gift of flight.
Also, accepting yourself doesn’t mean flaunting your eccentricities, necessarily (though if you do that and you are young, it might be one stage of your growth so it’s okay). To accept oneself just means to not feel ashamed or apologetic of one’s uniqueness, realizing that there is a way to do good with it, and then figuring out how.
(Note: Being a rude or mean-spirited ass and then chalking it up to your “uniqueness” doesn’t count. Learn to tell the difference between being eccentric and simply being an ass.)
(3) Your freakish qualities are the source of your power
Even for people who enjoy being unique and believe in embracing it, there may still be certain aspects about themselves that they’re not quite as proud about. Or some of their quirks and eccentricities might be so extreme as to border on the freakish. Yet even these can be good places to look for your talents and abilities. I can say for a fact that this is certainly the case with me, and Pop Mythology would never have been born were it not for my… let’s just say “different” qualities and ways of looking at the world.
Rogue has the ability to absorb other people’s abilities, life-force and memories just by touching them. It’s an awesome power that has saved the X-Men on numerous occasions but it’s the very thing that has caused all the pain and loneliness in her life.
Wolverine has tried, in the past, to repress the animalistic side of his nature. But this is the very source of his power, and, when harnessed wisely, it makes him the X-Men’s fiercest warrior.
The key difference between Wolverine and Rogue versus a character like Mystique is where their loyalties lie. They follow different paths and philosophies which I’ll talk about in my next post about the X-Men.
In the meantime, what I hope you can take away from this first post is that the X-Men’s struggle is essentially your own struggle.
It’s the struggle of how to cope with the tumult and confusion of crisis and change (“adolescence” and “mutation”). It’s the struggle to find one’s identity and the unique combination of talents and gifts that one has to offer (“powers”).
It is the struggle to balance the need to be true to oneself, on one hand, with the natural desire to be accepted and loved, on the other, and through it all to shine with dignity and grace.