The X-Men are among the most popular and acclaimed franchises in modern comics, in no small part because they serve as a potent allegory for disenfranchised minorities dealing with institutional bigotry. The X-Men (for the five geeks who don’t know) are mutants, a group of human beings simply born with superpowers, rather than acquiring them through the typical comic book tropes of advanced technology, magic, or artificial biological enhancement. As such, “normal” humans are threatened by mutants and often act to restrict, imprison, or even exterminate them.
The X-Men react to this antagonism by serving as both protectors of their fellow mutants, and superheroes intent on demonstrating that mutants can use their powers for good. The X-Men’s selfless credo is “protecting a world that hates and fears them.”
This fertile premise has borne out some of the most enduring characters (Professor X, Wolverine, Storm, Magneto, Rogue) and compelling storylines (The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past) in comic book history. None of these ideas strays far from the central theme of prejudice and persecution for the simple crime of having been borne different. Along the way, the X-Men have raised relevant questions about what precisely makes one human, and how we treat those who challenge the conventional notions of normalcy and personhood.
These “fictional” questions, you might be surprised to know, have been clumsily answered by a real-life court of US law, which ruled that mutants like the X-Men are definitively non-human — a position with which Marvel Comics, publisher of the X-Men, steadfastly agrees.
WHY (AND HOW) DID THE REAL-LIFE U.S. GOVERNMENT RULE THAT THE X-MEN AREN’T HUMAN?
For you lawyers out there, go look up the 2003 decision Toy Biz, Inc. v United States, where you’ll find that the U.S. Court of International Trade ruled that the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man are all non-human. This is pretty strange, and not just because neither Spider-Man nor the Fantastic Four are mutants — they’re human beings granted superpowers via a radioactive spider bite and cosmic rays, respectively.
At the time, Toy Biz was the toy manufacturer that owned Marvel Comics. The former bought the latter in part because they wanted to create and sell action figures based on Marvel properties without paying royalties. Those action figures were manufactured in China and imported to the United States, subjecting them to import tariffs. For reasons defying common sense, toys categorized as “dolls” — defined as realistic toy depictions of human beings — faced higher tariffs than all other toys under US law. Thus, Toy Biz went to court to argue that the X-Men, and every other superpowered character, were decidedly non-human, and thus toy versions of said super-beings were most assuredly not dolls. (Hey, at least the prejudice wasn’t mutant-centric, for once.)
The court agreed, though the ruling was rather arbitrary about which characters were inhuman and which weren’t (and no, there’s no evidence that the Marvel superteam known as The Inhumans was specifically cited). The X-Men weren’t dolls, but the mutant villain Silver Samurai was. As such, the X-Men toys were just toys, and could be imported more cheaply.
While the tariff law has since been revised to eliminate the distinction between toys and dolls, there is nonetheless case law on the books holding that some mutants (and most superhumans) are less than human. That’s the sort of precedent our future mutant overlords (whom I, for one, welcome) are not apt to take lightly.
That’s not just some laughable legal legerdemain, it’s an iconically ironic inkling of Geek Trivia.
The quibble of the week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.
This week’s quibble comes from the Jan. 27, 2012 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked what Apollo 1 practical joke became unofficial NASA policy after the loss of that mission’s crew?
Apparently, I can’t do math, as member oldbaritone (among others) pointed out:
“2011 – 1967 does not equal 55. Try 45. I was 11 and I remember it. I don’t remember anything from age 1.”
Fellow contributor Chip Camden tried to run interference:
“Jay writes these articles ten years in the future…… and then sends them back in time for publication. It’s an artifact of procrastination.”
Dude, if I had a time machine, I can promise scamming deadlines would be far from my primary use of the device (link is NSFW).
Thanks for the correction (and the cover story), and keep those quibbles coming!