Why a U.S. Federal Court Ruled That Marvel's X-Men Aren't Humans
Ever since their introduction to the Marvel Universe in 1963, the X-Men have always had to deal with questions about their humanity. While their enemies will stop at nothing to cast them as monsters, the team continues to fight for a world where they are treated just like humans. Of course, that's just a moral on a comic book page; in the real world, it's in Marvel's best financial interest that the X-Men not be considered humans. In fact, they even went to court over it.
According to the podcast Radiolab, the question over the X-Men's heritage began in 1993, when international trade lawyers Sherry Singer and Indie Singh found an interesting provision in a book of federal tariff classifications. It turns out a "doll" can only be a representation of a human being, like a Barbie or Ken doll. A "toy," on the other hand, includes anything else—a robot, monster, demon, etc. Normally this would be nothing more than a technicality, but it turns out there's a marked difference between a doll and a toy when it comes to taxes. When a company imports a doll to sell in the U.S., they are taxed at 12 percent, while toys stand at 6.8 percent. There's no concrete reasoning behind this, but Radiolab speculated that domestic doll manufacturers had something to do with it.
Singer and Singh knew this distinction could be a sizable financial benefit for their client, Marvel Entertainment, who had an ownership stake in ToyBiz at the time. For years, Marvel had been importing its action figures as dolls, despite the fact that the company's cavalcade of brightly colored characters could hardly be classified as human in most cases. The two lawyers went to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, D.C. with a bag full of action figures to try and convince the government that Marvel wasn't importing humanlike dolls, but instead very non-human toys.
The legal battle raged on for a decade, with a judge looking at various Marvel figures (beyond just the X-Men) to decide whether or not individual characters were human or not. Everything from Beast's blue skin to Wolverine's claws and Kraven the Hunter's muscle-bound physique were scrutinized, with lawyers on both sides weighing in on the philosophical ramifications of being human. After all, ToyBiz argued, how can these action figures be human if they have "tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs?"
Official court documents [PDF] from the case are just as surreal, often sounding like overly formal Comic-Con discussions:
"The figure of 'Kingpin' resembles a man in a suit carrying a staff. Nothing in the storyline indicates that Kingpin possesses superhuman powers. Yet, Kingpin is known to have exceedingly great strength (however 'naturally' achieved) and the figure itself has a large and stout body with a disproportionately small head and disproportionately large hands. As it is, the figure is designed to communicate the legendary and freakish nature of the character. Even though 'dolls' can be caricatures of human beings, the court is of the opinion that the freakishness of the figure’s appearance coupled with the fabled 'Spider-Man' storyline to which it belongs does not warrant a finding that the figure represents a human being."
In 2003, Singer and Singh convinced Judge Judith Barzilay that the Marvel characters aren't quite human enough to deserve the taxation of a doll, leading the court to declare, “They are more than (or different than) humans. These fabulous characters use their extraordinary and unnatural physical and psychic powers on the side of either good or evil. The figures’ shapes and features, as well as their costumes and accessories, are designed to communicate such powers."
For the entire Marvel Universe to be catalogued as "non-human" might ring false to some fans, but for X-Men fans in particular, it was downright insulting. Chuck Austen, who was writing Uncanny X-Men when the ruling came down in 2003, said his goal while writing the books was to show the team's humanity, and that mutants were simply "just another strand in the evolutionary chain." Obviously this ruling flies in the face of the themes Marvel spent decades crafting.
Marvel itself had to quell concerns from fans by releasing a statement that read, "Don't fret, Marvel fans, our heroes are living, breathing human beings—but humans who have extraordinary abilities ... A decision that the X-Men figures indeed do have 'nonhuman' characteristics further proves our characters have special, out-of-this world powers."
In the never-ending world of comics, the X-Men will likely always be fighting for their rights to be treated as humans. But in the real world, the decision has already been made.