Back in 1963 Marvel introduced its readers to a new group of super heroes, the X-Men. What made the X-Men different from other heroes of the time was the shared origins of their powers. They were all MUTANTS. Some 35 years later, the X-Men remain hugely popular.
What's the recipe for their continued success?
Well, first off, mutants are simple to define. They are humans who were born with a quirk in their genetic structures. Such quirks remain dormant until puberty, and then burst out uncontrollably. The reason for these quirks are twofold; one is the sun, the second is evolution. Basically, the accumulated and increasing solar radiation has sparked the next step in the evolution of man, from homo- sapiens to homo- superior. Very scientific stuff.
From a marketing point of view, this was (and still is) gold! How many of us were rocketed away from our home planet, crashed on earth, and raised by a kind couple in Kansas? How many of us were born on a Greek island out of sync with the rest of the Earth? Yes, I someday hope to be bitten by a radioactive spider (and often hang around CANDU nuclear reactors looking for small glowing insects in my spare time.)
But look at this staggeringly identifiable concept. The 14 year old reader is in puberty and feels out of control. Who doesn't like sunshine? (And today, who doesn't fear getting too much sun? Can you say "SP 30"?) And of course these changes we undergo at puberty make us feel superior. At 13, I was sure I was much smarter than my parents.
From such humble beginnings, came the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. Currently there are about 10 monthly mutant comic books, plus numerous mutant mini-series and one-shots. And if another comic book is not selling well, than you can boost its sales simply by having the X-Men make an appearance in it. Yes, a marketing gold mine!
From a writers standpoint, this too was gold! No more having to think up new origins for new heroes. Let's look at the original X-Men. This guy can turn himself into a creature of ice, a guy who can fire destructive blasts from his eyes, a guy who possesses beyond 'olympic level' agility, a woman with mental powers, and a guy who can fly because of wings growing out of his back - how come? - they're all mutants!
Even better, these mutants have bonded together to protect humanity from, you guessed it, evil mutants! Yes, ready-made villains. This guy has absolute control of magnetism - why? - because he's a mutant! He leads a group, 'the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants'. Who's in the group? How about: a guy with super speed, a woman who manipulates probability, and another guy who possesses beyond 'olympic level' agility - why? - they're all mutants!
There have probably been 101 mutants who have been members of the X-Men, and the spinoff books: "the New Mutants", "X-Force", "Generation X", "X-Factor" and "Excalibur". (And there is a "No Prize" available for anyone who can name 101 of them). These 101 mutants need at least 101 evil mutants to fight. I would wager that at any given time, half of all the heroes and villains active in the Marvel universe are mutants. Imagine, such a large group of heroes and villains around, who exist -because?- they're all mutants! Yes, a writers gold mine!
Okay, this proliferation of mutants has been beneficial in one regard. In the last decade, the `anti-mutant hysteria' storylines have been quite prevalent at Marvel. Why? Well, it allows writers to explore stories on racism and not have to fear repercussions from the readership. Hypothetically: if you wrote a story about the racism faced by the Japanese in America today, then you could receive hate mail and/or a lawsuit from either side on the issue. But if you do the same story with mutants, you're safe, as there are no mutants out there (insert your own joke here).
Mutants = misunderstood adolescents. Mutants = ready made origins. Evil mutants = easy villains. All this makes for reliable Marketing, and a creative free zone. It is readily apparent why comic book readers and writers continue to explore this concept.