Superhero Academy 101: Mutations (Mutants, Mutates, and Other Transformations)
People ask Good Questions
People want to know things.
Recently, I went to Quora.com to answer some Marvel questions. Quora.com poses questions for regular folks to answer. For me, it's a place to draw inspiration. I do superhero stuff because I’m an obsessive geek who does nothing but read comic books like a monk studying religious texts.
It's what I do. You’re welcome.
The questions were, “Why aren't The Fantastic Four considered mutants? Why would a society fear mutants but accept characters who achieve superpowers by other means?”
Within a few hours, I’d gotten 1,500 hits on my response by clarifying the definitions of mutant and mutate, but also how such people could overcome the natural prejudices of either.
That said, I realized people wanted to know more about 1) mutants and 2) what other types of meta-humans the Marvel Universe had and 3) how they're different. There are subtle differences between what people think mutants are and people born with special abilities.
Mutants: Those Who Carry the X-Gene
Marvel says mutants possess an "X-gene" or "mutant gene".
It's part of evolution. Professor Xavier put it best in the first X-Men movie back in 2000.
“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
This gene makes them different. These mutations, when beneficial, allow an organism to survive better. Ultimately it gets passed down to that mutant's offspring. It is the long-term species survival adaptation to its environment.
Such is evolution.
Within the Marvel Universe, these changes are directly (or indirectly) the result of a parent's exposure to atomic radiation. This happens in real life, too - often with disastrous effects - resulting in birth defects.
Typically, mutants are born with latent powers that manifest themselves during puberty – when the body goes through its most dramatic changes. Some mutants manifest their physical deviancies at birth and then the changes become more pronounced later on.
An example: The Mandrill and Nekra Sinclaire.
Both were born with unusual features. The Mandrill was born with black skin and thick hairy tufts to Caucasian parents. His powers manifested slowly when he began to develop monkey-like features and could secrete female dominating hormones. Nekra Sinclair was born with chalk white skin to a black couple. At puberty, she developed fangs. Her powers manifested into super strength when she felt intense hatred.
Both mutants came through a parent exposed to high doses of atomic radiation.
Examples of mutants in the Marvel Universe are most of the members of the X-Men, The Morlocks, X-Factor, X-Force, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the New Mutants.
Mutates – Normal Humans Exposed to Exotic Radiation
Let’s say you’re a typical human teenager exposed to a radioactive comet. This radiation has no negative effect on you. Instead, you immediately develop super strength and can now run at one hundred miles per hour.
Are you a mutant?
No, you are a mutate. Mutates are like most of the meta-powered heroes in the Marvel Universe. They are not born with powers. Mutates happen when radiation changes a person’s anatomy for good or for ill. The radiation causes latent mutagenic changes throughout the person’s body. The changes can 1) kill them, 2) mutate them into something monstrous, 3) change them into something cool while giving them meta-powers, or 3) all of the above.
When we think of mutates, we should think of heroes like The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Daredevil, and (partially) Spider-man. All of these characters were changed dramatically through radiation accidents.
In the case of the Hulk, his unstable mutation requires another biological trigger. Initially, when Doctor Robert Bruce Banner first changed into the Hulk, the change came at night. Gradually, after Banner subjected himself to higher doses of gamma radiation, the change came from stress and adrenaline. This caused a body-wide transformation which physically added eight hundred pounds of muscle and bone (that came from an extradimensional source) coupled with a psychological breakdown (where he emotionally and intellectually became a five-year-old child), fueled by gamma radiation and fury. When the adrenaline levels leveled off and the Hulk calmed down, the change would go into remission and he would revert back to his human form.
With heroes like Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, the changes are stable.
The Fantastic Four's mutations grant them great control over their powers. Mister Fantastic’s stretching ability and the Invisible Woman’s transformation to her transparent self (or her ability to create force fields) come naturally to them. Most readers presume that Ben Grimm’s transformation into the Thing seems to be a permanent irreversible change, however, Reed Richards believes his inability to revert to his human form is psychological rather than physical. Hence, his adaptation to the mutation either not intuitive or requires practice.
Spider-man’s changes have been relatively stable throughout his career (although the incident where he turned into a six-arm freak is certainly an exception). In a fairly recent development, readers discovered that Peter Parker’s origin story, where he was bitten by a radioactive spider, has been both scientific and mystical. These two attributes have the distinction of being both shamanic in primal spider medicine and radioactivity based in science. Whether the mutagenic change for Parker was due to the radiation or the spider “voluntarily” giving its powers to him is a matter of debate. The real question is “Is Spider-man a man mutated by radiation or is the mystical beneficiary of a spider’s totemic power?”
Only the spider that bit him knew for sure.
Other examples of mutates within the Marvel Universe are “The Savage Land Mutates”, where living so close to the low radiation vibranium deposits within the Savage Land mutated them dramatically. There are also villains like the “U-Foes” and the Red Ghost with his chimps – who all tried replicating the same accident that created the Fantastic Four through cosmic radiation exposure getting different results.
The thing to remember with mutates is that the change is made to a stable genetic structure and through radiation the organism is mutated. They are not born with the mutant gene and the change happens soon after the person is exposed to the radiation.
One of the myths that people believe about mutants is if a character is born with powers he or she is a mutant. While in many instances mutants fit that bill, it isn’t always so. Once again, mutants require the “mutant gene” or “x-gene” to make them what they are.
There are non-mutant characters who are born with powers.
A prime example is the case of Daisy Johnson, best known from the television show “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Her comic book origin came during the five-issue limited series, Secret War, by Brian Michael Bendis. She was recruited by Nick Fury for his secret operation of overthrowing of Lucia Von Bardas as the legitimate ruler of Latveria. Daisy's powers range from creating finely focused micro quakes (sometimes made inside people for a lethal effect) to creating major seismic earthquakes that cause major destruction.
Daisy’s powers emerged when she was seventeen and before she was trained by S.H.I.E.L.D. to control her powers, manifested during times of stress. Her powers, in fact, came as a result of inheriting contaminated DNA from her father, Calvin Zabo aka Mister Hyde and a prostitute named April Johnson.
If you’re familiar with Calvin Zabo and Mister Hyde, you’ll know that throughout his career, Zabo has taken a cocktail of designer drugs to split his soul in two. This transformation happens in the exact same way that it did to the fictional character, Doctor Jekyll.
Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds.
Anyone having a shred of sanity wouldn’t base a scientific hypothesis off of a work of fiction. But Zabo did it and has had a long and terrifying career as an insanely evil powerhouse. The ancillary long-term effect of Zabo taking these drugs was permanent and irreversible genetic damage to his chromosomes.
This, combined with Daisy's discovery of her Inhuman heritage (a human-like species with ancestry to Earthlings that were experimented on by the Kree to produce a new breed of genetically advanced breed), produced her powers.
It should be noted that most Inhumans require exposure to what they call “The Terrigen Mist” to trigger their powers, however, in Daisy’s case, the genetic contamination from her father was the catalyst to her abilities.
In short, a person who has inherited genetically corrupted genes through prolonged exposure to an element or toxin is not a mutant. What they are, is a byproduct of that damage.
Magically Enhanced Beings
There are characters in the Marvel Universe who get their powers from a different source. Some characters get their powers from magic or sorcery.
Characters like the criminal, the Absorbing Man, got their powers from magic potions or from being directly transformed by gods. This method defies the laws of science as we know it.
In the case of the Absorbing Man, Crusher Creel drank a magic potion he got from the trickster god, Loki. The potion allowed him to absorb the appearance and properties of anything he touched.
People altered by magic are altered specifically by the parameters of the enchantment the magic user invoked upon the recipient. It is unlikely that any unexpected or latent results would materialize without there being a previous enchantment already in place or if the magic wielder performed the incantation incorrectly.
There is some amount of speculation regarding inherited magical traits.
It seems that a magical enchantment made to a human being may or may not be limited to that human being unless through the guise of a spell or curse. Hence the child of a person hexed through the Darkhold-generated curse of lycanthropy can expect to transmogrify into a werewolf upon his or her eighteenth birthday. This curse will be passed down from generation to generation until either another enchantment removes the curse or until the werewolf is destroyed. This specific type of curse is also transferred to any survivor of a werewolf attack and his or her descendants.
As much as other types of magic in other-dimensional realms such as the Dark Dimension, where the “royal” family of the Dormammu, Umar, and Clea have ruled that dimension through their intrinsic magical abilities and through their utilization of the royal “Flames of Faltine” for centuries. These beings generate their own mystical energies. It could be said that magical talent runs in that family. The genetic laws in that universe have not been significantly explored in regards to their biology.
Outliers and Exceptions
Not every character in the Marvel Universe comes from these origins, but many definitely do. I haven’t touched on Eternals, Deviants, alien life forms, magicians, gods, and Asgardians. And I’ve specifically ignored anyone who’s taken the soul-crushing burden of working for Galactus. When people work for him they get the awesome perk of phenomenal cosmic powers to aid them in finding life-sustaining planets (preferably unpopulated). It's part of the gig. However, there is the unwritten cost of being party to multiple counts of cosmic genocide. I’m no lawyer, but I’d think that herald volunteers for that job better read the fine print on that contract.
I thought of an alternate title for this article as “How to Become a Marvel Metahuman in Three Steps or Less”. Unfortunately, I also thought some people might take me seriously and would look to expose themselves to varying degrees of carcinogenic radiation or irradiated venomous arachnids for spectacular effects.
You never know.
Which do you find most interesting?
© 2018 Christopher Peruzzi