If you ever run into any tabletop game lovers who were big into games at a certain point, it’s an all but certain guarantee they’ll have a copy of the Breeder Bombs adventure module. And if you buy out collections, you’ll find this adventure as numerous as Topspin and Twin Twist jumpstarter figures are to Transformer toys. It’s as if this module can breed. I own three copies myself, just from picking it up from collections.
Why was this adventure everywhere? Well, most of the TSR Marvel Superheroes game was about the “core marvel universe,” and at the time, that was not quite as popular as the X-Men. Or perhaps I should clarify: in the 1980s, the top selling Marvel hero was Spider Man on the spinner rack and newsstands, GI Joe, a rural favorite, was the top seller by subscription, but X-Men was the top seller to the fan audience through the new development of comic book stores. That audience of superfans had COLOSSAL overlap with people who were tabletop gamers.
And this one was catnip to the superfan: it had both Magneto AND the Sentinels, perfect to get the “core X-Men experience,” and finally resolved a nerdy, nitpicky point of order that went unsolved in X-Men comics itself: what was the deal with the Magneto robot who employed Mesmero and captured Lorna Dane in Mutant City? This mystery went unsolved by the comics themselves for literally a decade and it wasn’t even resolved in X-Men comics proper, but by an offhand little clue in Byrne’s Captain America (much like how Nefaria’s lost Ani-Men mystery of Dragonfly went unsolved in X-Men but was instead resolved in Gruenwald’s Quasar run 15+ years later).
I wrote before about the sources of inspiration behind King
Kong and Conan the Barbarian, as both of these were so far back in time the
things that inspired them are not really read much.
With the X-Men, it’s important to remember that a subgenre
of science fiction once existed about mutants who we identified with because they were
persecuted and feared by normal humans, which allowed authors to use science
fiction to explore the idea of alienation. X-Men is a part of this trend, and
seems unique because it’s the only one from this long-standing trend that is actively discussed today. Really, this is a kind of story all people who feel gifted or alienated are compelled to create.
Slan by A.E. van Vogt
Slan is a story about Jommy Cross, a young boy who watches
his parents die in front of him in the first chapter, hunted by the government
because they are a telepathic, superintelligent and superstrong subrace of
humans with antenna on their heads known as Slans. Slans are hunted to
extinction by the corrupt government ruled by the world dictator, Kier Gray.
Jommy has to go into hiding, wearing a hat to hide his tendrils.
It’s a good bet that if you think about other planets a lot,
it’s because you think this one is somehow a painful and unsuitable place to be
for you. Slan is an extraordinarily well written novel that is still intriguing
and mysterious even today, it always tops my list of recommendations when
people ask me about pulp scifi because it absolutely holds up. What makes it so
important is that scifi fandom responded with an unusually strong sense of
identification. The circumstances and history of the Slan are not exactly like
that of outsiders who are ostracized and “different,” but we relate to emotions,
not specific life details. A lot of people who were homosexual, who’s parents
are drunks and like to beat them, who were sexually abused, or extremely poor
and alienated from richer peers, or just “on the outside looking in” can relate
to the Slans. Scifi fans, who’s culture was incredibly fringe, called
themselves “Slans” for years in fanzines an fan communications.
It’s no exaggeration to say that for the 1940s to the 1950s,
Slan was the most beloved and widely read and influential science fiction
novel, and maybe one of the best, too.
Mutant (aka the “Baldies” stories) by Henry Kuttner
Maybe one of the best of scifi’s forgotten geniuses of the
1940s, Henry Kuttner’s Baldies books are actually a post-atomic story, about a
community of telepathic mutants known as “baldies” who hide away from a human
race that fears and hates them. All Baldies were linked in a telepathic
uni-mind, so none of them were ever alone. The narrator is the last surviving
member of his species; the enemy is the prejudice and paranoia of the
self-destructive human race.
Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras
The idea of a school as a setting where mutant children can
get refuge and hide from a prejudiced world that doesn’t understand them comes from this book.
In this one, due to atomic radiation, a sub-race of superintelligent
humans emerges. They don’t have any mental powers except their
superintelligence. The Children of the Atom take refuge in a school who’s true
purpose is unknown. In the finale of the book, a human preacher leads a mob to
the door of their school, which makes the Children realize they can’t isolate
themselves from the rest of mankind.
Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
Olaf Stapledon used to be a big deal. He inspired Asimov,
C.S. Lewis, and Heinlein with his extraordinary “Last and First Men,” a story
set over a billion years about the entire sweep of human history. But one of
his more interesting novels was “Odd John,” a novel about the first “evil
mutant.” Odd John is a charismatic and sometimes truly creepy antihero, an
unusual mutant born ahead of his time; he switches between sympathetic and
monstrous. We see his brutal mistreatment at the hands of the human race, but
then see him use his powers on women in eerie ways, and see the hardened person
he became, who created an island kingdom and base separate from the rest of the
human race, a move that the evil mutants in Marvel, in imitation of Odd John,
often did several times.
A lot of people identify the evil mutants with militant
black leftists, but in the actual comics themselves, their worldview had way
less to do with Marx and Malcolm X (as with “Dune is about oil,” that a
giveaway someone hasn’t read it and just knows about it), and way more to do with some combination of Nietzsche
and Captain Nemo. Like Nietzsche, their worldview is that traditional human
morality doesn’t apply to them as another species. Each evil mutant is Nietzsche’s
conception of the superman, elevated beyond good and evil and a “sovereign
citizen” laws can’t govern. Nietchean “will to power” thinking is found in
every single speech by Magneto. Likewise, like Captain Nemo, they are often
driven by an urge for solitude in places they can’t be commanded by the small
mindedness and petty tyranny of humans. Odd John combined both of these together:
he was a Nietzchean superman who had a cruel disdain for ordinary morality,
who’s strongest desire was to be left alone.
He That Hath Wings by Edmond Hamilton
The Angel has a very specific point of origin: a wonderful
and tragic story about a mutant born with wings by “Planet Smasher” Edmond
Hamilton, who was always fascinated by notions of mutation and human evolution;
he invented the story about the “guy who invents an evolution ray.”
The titular mutant is a man born with wings, who, when he
falls in love, cuts them off to blend in with the normal human race. He loves
his wife so much he gave up flight for her, but unexpectedly, his wings grow back at the end. He knows he has to get rid of them to blend into society, but he is allowed one last night of flight.
Gladiator by Philip Wylie
Fans of Superman probably know this novel as one of the
major inspirations for the creation of Superman (possibly THE major
inspiration), with Hugo Danner, an artificially created mutant who is
superstrong, invulnerable, and able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
I’d compare Philip Wylie to Michael Crichton: he was the one
“bestseller” scifi novelist at a time when scifi was ghettoized. His work was
regularly on the best seller list, including “When Worlds Collide,” a novel
that created the “disaster” genre as we know it today, and is still influential
through it’s film adaptation.
Philip Wylie’s Gladiator didn’t just create Superman. The
angst and anger over being in a world you never made that later became a big part of the superhero story was all right there from the
beginning. Hugo Danner was a misanthrope who’s attempts to help were stopped by
a senseless and incomprehending mankind that feared and hated him. Like Slan,
this is yet another novel from the past that is surprisingly readable and good
The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
This is where the Sentinels came from.
To be clear: Jack Williamson did not invent the idea of
robots who turn on the human race. But the very specific kind of robot the
Sentinels are comes from the Humanoids, a novel about robots that take the
instruction to protect mankind incredibly literally to the point they become
dictators and ruthlessly command us, and battles consist of them adapting
instantly to whatever strategies the human race uses.