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Those who believe that superheroes are power fantasies clearly haven’t spent enough time reading Marvel Entertainment’s X-Men comic books, in which life as one of the super-powered mutantkind means a lifetime of persecution, pain and permanent problems instead of a chance to save the day and be beloved of millions. Not for nothing did a long-time official description of the franchise place the X-Men as “feared and hated by a world they have sworn to protect.”
The latest wrinkle in mutant life, as revealed in previews for the October-launching new series Extraordinary X-Men, is that in the All-New, All-Different Marvel status-quo, mutants have been universally sterilized by the same event that activates the powers of Inhumans across the world. Oh, and that the same event has also led to the death of a number of mutants, for reasons that remain unclear. “Our kind is dying and no new mutants are manifesting?” one character asks. “This is all there is,” she’s told by a melancholy Storm. “This is all there will ever be.”
Perhaps surprisingly, this extinction-level plot development isn’t the worst things have ever been for Marvel’s mutants. The 2005 mini-series House of M ended with the Scarlet Witch magically de-powering the majority of mutantkind, leaving just 198 mutants left in existence — a number that, oddly enough, never seemed to change despite characters dying or becoming re-powered through plot shenanigans. As if the severity of that situation wasn’t clear enough from the facts, Marvel tried to emphasize how serious things were with storylines bearing titles like “Decimation,” “Endangered Species” and “Messiah Complex.”
Of course, things had been almost ridiculously disastrous before. In the 1990s, Marvel’s X-Men family of series featured a long-running storyline about the “Legacy Virus,” an artificially-created virus from the far future that would destroy the immune system of any mutant whenever they used their powers after infection — yes, Marvel really created a mutant HIV metaphor. That decade also saw the debut of a government-approved plan called, with great subtlety, “Operation: Zero Tolerance,” in which killer robots were sent out to capture and kill as many mutants on American soil as possible. Think of it as a prescient hint at the drone strikes that would lie ahead in the real world a decade or so hence.
Things were almost as bad in the 1980s, when stories with titles like “The Mutant Massacre” (Ethnic cleansing of mutants by a group of supervillains) and “The X-Tinction Agenda” (a genuinely trippy allegory for South African Apartheid, with added brainwashing, spandex wetsuits and BDSM-overtones) ran across multiple issues of a number of different comic book series. Even in the 1960s and ‘70s, there were villains who would passionately argue that mutants were a blight on humanity that had to be eradicated.
This isn’t to say that it’s only doom and gloom for mutantkind in the Marvel Universe — the New X-Men series that ran from 2001 through 2004 posited the idea that mutantkind really was the next step in evolution, and that it would bring a number of new “mutant cultures” that could revolutionize art, music and other parts of life for humans and mutants alike, and 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men undid the quasi-genocide of House of M by jumpstarting the mutant genome — but such reprieves are always temporary, and often just set-up for even greater calamity lying ahead.
If there’s one constant in the X-Men comic book mythology, it’s that things will always get worse, and never merely on a personal level. Whereas other Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, Captain America or Iron Man have internal demons and external supervillains to tackle on a regular basis, the X-Men and related characters have the added pressure of constantly looming genocide, extinction or any number of existential threats hanging over their heads. At least that’s something that Fox’s X-Men movies have managed to steer clear of — although the title of next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse might suggest that’s about to change. Be warned, movie mutants: it’s only downhill from here on.
Extraordinary X-Men No. 1 will be available in comic stores and digitally Oct. 14.
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