Why did you throw the jack of hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck I had left to play.
-- The Doors
As far as I know, it was Stan Lee of Marvel Comics who introduced comic book readers to the idea of genetic mutation as the cause of superhuman traits that could convert an otherwise normal human being into a godlike character who could use his or her powers for good or evil. In doing so, Lee inserted a joker into the deck of fate. (Actually, since quite a few of the superhuman powers of Marvel’s superheroes and villains were the results of such mutations, Lee inserted almost as many jokers into the deck as there were regular, or “normal” cards.) Since there have been a rash of motion pictures based upon Marvel Comics (and, for that matter DC Comics) of late, many of the characters in which possess powers courtesy of various genetic mutations, it seems unnecessary to review these powers. For those who are unfamiliar with how the Marvel Comics’ powers-by-genetic-mutation technique works, a brief summary is in order.
According to Marvel, the Celestials, an extraterrestrial race, visited the Earth a million or so years ago for the express purpose of monk eying with human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), implanting a substance, the X-Gene, which facilitated beneficial genetic mutations in the implanted hosts, resulting, in more extreme cases, in such characters as those who swelled the ranks of the The Uncanny X-Men (the first issue of which appeared in (1963) and the Brotherhood of Mutants. For years, this was Marvel Comics’ favorite explanation for superheroes’ and villains’ great powers, explaining the abilities of such characters as Apocalypse, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl, Professor X, Storm, Wolverine, and many others. Collectively, such characters, in the Marvel universe, are also known as homo superior.
What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and but her,
Stuck her with knives
in the side of the dawn,
Tied her with fences and dragged her down. . . .
-- The Doors
Even before Lee introduced genetic mutations as a cause of characters’ special effects, so to speak, horror fiction monsters were spawned, as it were, as a result of genetic mutations. (Most appeared in decidedly bad--no, make that terrible--B films.) Among such creatures are the sea monsters of The Horror of Party Beach (1964) (human skeletons radiated by atomic waste that leaks from an undersea drum, a peril of humans’ disdain for ecological purity); the monster of Godzilla (1954) (an undersea creature that had an origin identical to the monsters of Party Beach); The Being (1983) (a monster who was spawned by the wastes in a disposal dump); Creatures from the Abyss (1994) (teen love makers, whose decision to make out aboard an abandoned yacht equipped with a bio lab causes them to become infected with radioactive plankton); C.H.U.D. (1984) (people become monsters as a result of toxic waste dumped in the Big Apple’s sewers); It’s Alive (1974) (a mutant baby is sought by the authorities, who don’t intend to nurture it); and many others.
Why the popularity of genetic mutations as an explanation for the acquisition of superhuman or monstrous abilities? There seem to be several reasons:
When the still sea conspires an armor
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead.
- When horror films and Marvel Comics introduced the idea, genetic mutation as the result of changes to an organism’s DNA was relatively new, or cutting edge, as was the idea for genetic engineering. However, eugenics was already a well-known concept and attempts at engineering an ideal race were tried by mad scientists during the years of Nazi Germany. (The concept of what constitutes such a race--and, indeed, the very idea of a “master race”--is, or can be, in itself a monstrous notion and involves the same hubris that was demonstrated by Victor von Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau in earlier times.) Writers are always looking for new ideas because new ideas, in and of themselves, are intriguing.
- The origins of good and evil tend to be limited to such causes as divine creation, demonic possession or manipulation of human beings, madness, improper behavior (sin, crime, or anti-social conduct), birth defects, extraterrestrial intervention in human affairs, scientific and technological manipulations of nature and human nature, and the like. When a new cause for good or evil (and not just abilities) is unearthed, it’s apt to be popular and persistent among authors, especially of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, including writers of comic books that involve or are based upon such genres.
- Genetic mutations are real! They actually happen in nature and can be engineered in scientific labs by real-life “mad scientists.” Of course, any scientist worth his or her weight in neutronium will tell one that such mutations, rather than benefiting an organism, are more likely to have a negative, or even fatal, effect upon it. That’s a small detail often overlooked by comic book, fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers, although some do capitalize upon this fact, using genetic mutations as a way of effecting madness or physical deformity that, in return, has monstrous results.
- Genetic mutations that result from scientific and technological manipulations of nature replace miracles as a means of effecting changes to DNA and, therefore, to human nature and behavior, allowing human beings, in their arrogance, to wrest creation from the creator, putting people in charge of a world they never made but one that they are hot to remake in their own image and likeness. From a religious point of view, such arrogance, or pride, is blasphemous and can be expected to result is sure punishment. From a secular point of view, such hubris is presumptuous and, perhaps, premature, and will likely bring about, in its results, its own penalty, for, after all, it’s nice to fool with Mother Nature and it’s even worse to fool around with her.
He was a monster, dressed in black leather;
She was a princess, Queen of the highway.
-- The Doors