Editor's note: X-Men: The Last Stand opens in theaters this week, and we thought we'd take a closer look at these fascinating mutants—and what we might actually learn from them. This chapter is abridged from H. Michael Brewer's book, Who Needs a Superhero?: Finding Virtue, Vice, and What's Holy in the Comics (BakerBooks). The book is available at Christianbook.com.

In 1963, Marvel giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a new comic book series about a bunch of outsiders who never fit in: mutants, the children of the atomic age, born to parents genetically damaged by exposure to atmospheric radiation.

Thus were born the X-Men.

In the comic book version of genetic mutation, the mutant children invariably gain superhuman abilities, often at the cost of some physical oddity that sets them apart from others. The recurring theme in X-Men is alienation, the plight of people who are too different to fit in comfortably with the crowd.


The mythology of the X-Men universe is simple. Normal human beings belong to the species Homo sapiens. Mutants represent the rise of a new species, Homo superior. Mutants have gifts that set them apart from others, and the world at large resents and even fears those mutant powers. This tension is the heart of the series.

In X-Men stories, frightened humanity expresses its escalating distrust in myriad ways. Mobs attack mutants who publicly display their powers. The U.S. Senate debates a mutant registration act. Monstrous robotic Sentinels scour the world on a mutant-extinction mission. In the nation of Genosha, mutants are tattooed, numbered, and sent to forced labor.

Being a mutant carries a heavy cost. Threading through years of individual stories is a larger saga about how mutants find ...

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