X-Men ex nihilo? The Secret Origins of Marvel’s Mutant Superheroes

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the X-Men to their lineup of new and innovative superheroes, they did so without recourse to that staple of the superhero genre: the origin story. The Fantastic Four were bombarded with cosmic rays as they rocketed into space; Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider; and Hulk took the brunt of a gamma bomb explosion. The X-Men had no such origin. When their story opened in the pages of X-Men #1 in September of 1963, the team was already mostly in place. Angel, Beast, Cyclops and Iceman were introduced to readers as super-powered teenagers enrolled in the private school of Professor Charles Xavier, Professor X, where they were training to fight evil in matching blue and yellow superhero costumes. Half way through the first issue they were joined by a new student, Jean Grey, who quickly assumed the superhero identity of Marvel Girl. And that was all there was to it. No origin stories to speak of, just X-Men ex nihilo.

Of course, there was an explanation for the strange superpowers of these otherwise normal teenagers: they were mutants. In other words, they had been born that way. They were born, as Professor X explained to Jean in the first issue, with extra powers. The Professor himself was a mutant, he informed her, perhaps the first, and was therefore well equipped to train young mutants to use their powers for the good of humanity.

Lee and Kirby also avoided the other staple of the superhero genre – namely the supervillian origin story – by making the villains mutants as well. In the first issue, the X-Men battle the mutant Magneto who hopes to use his mutant powers to conquer the world. His plan is to make Homo sapiens bow before the mutant strength of Homo superior. By the fourth issue of the series, Magneto, like Professor X, has his own band of mutants to fight by his side: the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Within a couple of years, Magneto’s evil mutants served as the inspiration for the other classic conflict in the X-Men universe, the conflict between mutants and the humans who feared them. In X-Men #14, Bolivar Trask unveiled his plans to stop the mutant menace through the deployment of his robotic Sentinels. And with that, the three-way conflict that has been at the heart of X-Men comics and movies for the last fifty-plus years was fully in place: mutants against mutants against ordinary humans. Those who followed Lee and Kirby, creators such as Chris Claremont and Bryan Singer, would find in this conflict the seeds of some of the most powerful and socially relevant superhero stories of all time.

It is a little bit misleading, however, to insist that all of this came about from nothing. The X-Men and their villains had no classic origin stories, that is for sure, but Lee and Kirby were able to tell their stories sans origin precisely because the concept of mutant humans, of Homo superior, was already a part of the science fiction landscape when the X-Men first arrived on the scene. If we want to understand the true origin of the X-Men, we have to take a look at the idea of the mutant human as it appeared in the pages of science fiction novels and short stories during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, a quick look at a few of these earlier stories about mutants reveals that Lee and Kirby, and the X-Men mythos, owe a great deal to what went before.

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon’s novel Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) is the story of John Wainwright, a mutant human who is identified both as a superman and as a member of the new species Homo superior. Like Charles Xavier, John is a scientific genius and a gifted telepath. Like Professor X, he uses his telepathic powers to identify and locate other mutants from around the world and, in one case, from the past. He builds both a super-plane and a super-yacht that he uses to travel the world and gather together this team of mutants. Like John, these mutants are not only incredibly intelligent but also physically distinct from ordinary humans.

Despite the similarities with Professor X, there is a lot about Odd John that is more reminiscent of Magneto, however. Indeed, Stapledon does a fine job of exploring the moral complications that might arise for a person who is clearly superior to those around him, and John is not afraid to kill in order to achieve his goals. Like Professor X, Odd John gathers his fellow mutants to live and learn together. But unlike Professor X, he has no interest in helping the world. Instead, like Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, John establishes a secret hideaway on an undiscovered island and designs a cloaking system to hide it from discovery. His plans falter, however, and when the island is discovered by Homo sapiens conflict is the only possible outcome.

Slan by A. E. van Vogt

Serialized in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction in 1940, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan was first published in book form in 1946. Slan is set in the future, when a new species of humans, known as Slans, are hated and hunted by the ordinary humans who fear them. Slans are identifiable by the tendrils which grow from their scalps and are distinguished by superior intellect, superhuman strength and endurance, and the ability to read minds and communicate telepathically.

Slan follows the adventures of young orphan Jommy Cross, who first uses his abilities to stay alive on the streets and then to develop plans to save his species from certain death. Along the way, Jommy discovers another group of Slans, this one without the telltale tendrils, who have their own agenda that is at once dangerous to ordinary humans and to other Slans.

This conflict between two different groups of mutants with sometimes competing and sometimes complimentary goals is surely a precursor to the mutant versus mutant conflict that is at the heart of the X-Men story. Likewise, the human effort to destroy the Slan menace – in this case under the leadership of Slan hater, chief of the secret police, and political opportunist John Petty – is clearly reminiscent of the threat to the X-Men and other mutants exemplified by Bolivar Trask.

Mutant By Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

The stories in Kuttner’s and Moore’s Mutant (1953) first appeared, like van Vogt’s Slan, in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. The similarities do not end there. The mutants in Kuttner’s and Moore’s stories are called Baldies because of their total lack of hair (shades of Professor X), an identifying trait which some of them disguise by wearing wigs. Like Slans, Baldies are telepaths who are themselves divided into competing factions. One group wishes to blend into society and protect their new species through gradual acceptance. The other group, called the paranoids, plot and scheme to take over the world, their core philosophy expressed clearly in their slogan: “We are supermen! All other species are inferior!” Magneto couldn’t have said it better himself. The sane Baldies work hard to counteract the actions of the paranoids for fear that their plans might lead to the extermination of the new species known, once again, as Homo superior.

Children of the Atom Wilmar H. Shiras

As with other mutant-themed books, Astounding Science Fiction was the original home of the stories that grew to become Wilmar H. Shiras’ 1953 novel Children of the Atom. The mutants in Children of the Atom are the offspring of scientists who died because of exposure to nuclear radiation. These children, now orphans, were characterized from an early age as incredible geniuses. When school psychologist Peter Welles examines young Timothy Paul, the child’s secret abilities are unearthed. Together, doctor and patient unravel the mystery and track down the other “wonder kids.” Like Professor X, Dr. Welles founds a school in order to bring the teenagers together so that they can be protected from the world and benefit from friendships with those who share their talents.

Children of the Atom is not the most exciting story on this list, in part because Shiras spends a lot of time spouting mid-century psychological theory and because she keeps the conflicts to a bare minimum. Welles does wonder at one point about the possibility that some of the kids might turn out to be bad apples, but his confidence in the powers of psycho-therapy quickly put him at ease. A potential threat does develop from outside the community, however, when television preacher Tommy Munday, somewhat like X-Men villain Bolivar Trask (and exactly like evangelist William Stryker in the pages of Claremont’s 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills), convinces his followers that the mutants are the work of the devil and a threat to civilization.

Taken together, these four books clearly exerted an influence on Lee and Kirby and their mutant superhero team, the X-Men. While in some sense the X-Men were brought to the pages of comic books ex nihilo, that is without a traditional origin story, it is not the case that the situations and plots that distinguish the X-Men from other superhero groups came purely from the, admittedly boundless, imagination of Lee and Kirby. I don’t know if the X-Men creators read any or all of these books, but it makes sense to believe that they knew about these stories and their classic science fiction themes.