By Ashley Manchester
Fawaz, Ramzi. The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. New York University Press, 2016.
In The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, Ramzi Fawaz offers a refreshing and much-needed analysis of post-World War II superhero comics, applying queer theory to mainstream superhero stories and arguing for the profound world-making potential of these comics. Fawaz centers his analysis around the idea that the 1950s saw a major shift in superhero identity from the nationalist icons of the Golden Age to the “cultural outsiders and biological freaks” of the postwar era, heroes who were suddenly “capable of upsetting the social order in much the same way that racial, gendered, and sexual minorities were seen to destabilize the image of the ideal U.S. citizen” (4). In making this claim, The New Mutants highlights the overlaps between real and fictional worlds, citing fantasy as a “dynamic aesthetic and social phenomenon” with the subversive potential to create change in postwar America (27). Fawaz provides new insight into the uses of fantasy in postwar superhero comics, drawing parallels to women’s and gay liberation social movements, changes in notions of American masculinity, and the shifting global relations following the World Wars. Because of Fawaz’s astute narrative analysis, careful archival research of fan letters, and intuitive examinations of historically-produced fantasy, The New Mutants is certainly a welcome addition to both queer theory and comics studies.
The introduction to The New Mutants, titled “Superhumans in America,” sets the bar high for the rest of the book by providing the most in-depth dialogue with queer theory concepts, such as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s theories of “queer worlds” and world-making. Fawaz’s central claim utilizes queer world-making by arguing that postwar superhero comics functioned as a form of fantasy where dissenting voices could debate social topics and reshape the production of culture (14). Indeed, Fawaz argues that these fantastical superhero comics differed from their predecessors in important ways: “in shifting the creative weight of superheroic fantasy from a focus on individual power and agency to bodily transformation and the question of collective belonging, postwar superhero comics contested and imagined alternatives to the cold war political logics of containment and integration” (13). Postwar superheroes engaged in radical politics, Fawaz argues, and through these heroes, readers came to imagine “alternative modes of queer belonging” and actively engage in the social world (33). Here, Fawaz makes a bold claim—that the postwar superhero functioned as a queer figure. In making this claim, Fawaz stakes his position in a debate about the politics of naming within queer theory, but fails to fully address the implications of disembodying queerness from actual lived experience. Most of these heroes have historically been depicted as rejecting or ignoring same-sex romantic or sexual interactions through explicit hyper-patriarchal masculinity; in times where queerness has been coded through their figures and interactions, homosociality often precludes actual embodied queerness. Claiming that these superheroes functioned as queer figures is an emboldened argument that might not fully interrogate the politics of separating queerness from the lived experience of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other non-normative sexual or gender identity. Nonetheless, Fawaz’s discussion of superhero comics as building counterpublics is carefully-articulated and the introduction to the text provides a compelling foundation for the rest of the book.
While the introduction to The New Mutants provides the theoretical grounding for the book, each chapter thereafter applies such theory to a particular postwar superhero character, team, or narrative style. Chapter One, “The Family of Superman: The Superhero Team and the Promise of Universal Citizenship,” looks at The Justice League of America‘s 1960-1965 run and argues that this storyline “shows how the comic book transformed the superhero from an icon of American nationalism to a champion of internationalism and universal citizenship” (39). By fighting for all people in the universe and exploring the conflict between global justice and national affiliation, the Justice League enacted “ethical citizenship” to show teamwork and global responsibility to humanity (47). In connecting the Justice League to American and global politics, Fawaz highlights the use of science in the series and claims that part of the liberal, world-making potential of these comics was that the series advocated for international free use of science, no doubt a contentious position to take following the scientific and weaponry advancements made during WWII.
Chapters Two and Three both look at what Fawaz calls the “queer history” of The Fantastic Four. In Chapter Two, Fawaz outlines the representative figuration of the members of the team, describing Reed Richards as “the liberal,” Ben Grimm as “the neurotic,” and Johnny Storm as “the queer.” Sue Storm, Fawaz argues, represents a complex interaction of radical feminism and hyperfemininity, where “the outcome was to make her body matter to audiences but also to matter forth on the page though the extension of her powerful body into space” (86, emphasis in original). Each of these figures contribute to an amalgamation of biological and chosen family, a nonnormative kinship structure that challenged the consumerism of the time and marked a loss of democracy in America. While this analysis of the Fantastic Four is compelling in terms of its connection to the social changes of the 1960s, it is not without its faults. Fawaz spends the majority of the chapter focusing on the men of the team, leaving the Sue Storm discussion lacking the same depth of attention. Additionally, Fawaz makes some analytical leaps in linking Ben Grimm’s discomfort with his rock body to early discourse around transgenderism, citing “transitioning” as the fundamental term of comparison between Grimm’s experience and that of actual transgender individuals. This analysis would not necessarily be problematic if Fawaz had thoroughly attended to the more nuanced discursive productions around transgender identities and lived experiences yet, without this discussion, the comparison seems troubling. In the end, though, Fawaz makes an interesting claim that the Fantastic Four problematized issues of the body and showed the “body’s failure to present a specifically fixed gender identification” (80).
Chapter Three, “Comic Book Cosmopolitics: The Fantastic Four‘s Counterpublic as a World-Making Project,” shifts the focus from narrative analysis to archival research. In this chapter, Fawaz looks at the growing correspondence between fans and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, arguing that the narrative fantasy opened up spaces for readers to discuss changes at Marvel and the U.S. culture more generally with the comics’ creators. In this way, fan letters and correspondence show a new counterpublic emerged in the 1960s and ’70s where readers could advocate for social change and writers would take those concerns seriously. Through these letters, writers and readers encourage political engagement, resulting in a more racially diverse cast of characters at Marvel and, according to Fawaz, the creation of a new social world (98).
The book shifts focus again in Chapter Four, “‘Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!’ Mutant Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of the Comic Book Space Opera,” to centralize genre trends in the 1970s. During this time, Fawaz claims, two genres emerged that revitalized a liberal progressive worldview: the Space Opera and the Urban Folktale. These genres opened characters up to larger global and universal relations and emphasized “affective attachments to egalitarian principles rather than institutional reform and social activism” (127). The Space Opera “explored how these species [mutants, cyborgs, and aliens] exiles and social minorities dealt with the existential experience of being adrift in a limitless cosmos,” with the X-Men emerging as the main cast of characters who explicitly addressed issues of inequality and exclusion (127). Fawaz argues that the X-Men comics, through their space operatic endeavors, formed a “queer mutanity” kinship through three main narrative strategies: centralizing feminist approaches to forging alliances, organizing ideals through the politics of feminist and gay formations, and foregrounding the intersectional nature of identity.
Fawaz continues his analysis of 1970s superhero comics by examining the Urban Folktale in Chapter Five, “Heroes ‘That Give a Damn!’ Urban Folktales and the Triumph of the Working-Class Hero,” as it “looked to the superhero’s roots in American culture as a populist icon upholding the nation’s democratic traditions” (166). While America’s power was waning, superhero comics of this era distanced themselves from scientific and state-based narratives and instead “stressed the superhero’s quest to embody a form of authentic national citizenship based on individual will and agency distinct from government intervention” (166). Thus, Fawaz claims, the emergence of the Urban Folktale marked a distinct change in superhero comics’ relationship with American culture and politics. To make this claim, Fawaz specifically looks at 1970s titles such as Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Captain America and the Falcon, stories that acknowledged the “heterogeneous cultural experiences that define a distinctly American identity” (183). Overall, the topical shift that occurs within the first five chapters of The New Mutants demonstrates Fawaz’s strong ability to juggle several different types of analyses, including literary, social movements, and archival research, all the while linking theoretical discussions to historical production.
The final two chapters of The New Mutants rearticulate the thematic and social concerns laid out in the introduction of the text. Chapter Six, “Consumed by Hellfire: Demonic Possession and the Limits of the Superhuman in the 1980s,” continues Fawaz’s genre analysis by looking at the connections between possession narratives and debates about sexuality and perversion in the ’80s. These texts, Fawaz argues, “used the superhuman body to visualize the link between nonnormative or queer desires and larger structures of economic and political power in 1980s America” (206). Similarly, Chapter Seven, “Lost in the Badlands: Radical Imagination and the Enchantment of Mutant Solidarity in The New Mutants,” looks at the titular series and how it “abandoned the underlying assumption that the purpose of alternative community building was to improve the world or bring justice to those wronged by social and political oppression” (235). Instead, The New Mutants series imagined other possibilities for solidarity amidst the neoliberal cultural moment. In these chapters, each addressing the social, political, and global changes occurring in the 1980s, Fawaz looks more towards the possibilities of superheroes during this time in American culture, arguing that these comics asked what the very fundamentals of superheroism are and, more importantly, what they should be.
The New Mutants begins with a look at Superman’s death. The book ends similarly, with an epilogue analysis of Captain America’s death as a critique of the War on Terror. Bringing the text full circle, Fawaz claims, “in the deaths of Superman and Captain America we can identify a figure that has propelled the American superhero into the new millennium, a marvelous corpse that unravels the national fantasies that attach to its previously vital skin, pointing us toward unsettled national identities, irreconcilable histories of state and corporate violence, and the visual politics that struggle to articulate them” (271). In this way, the tortured or dead superhero reflects a perception of citizenship as morally bankrupt. Concluding his analysis with Cap’s death, Fawaz makes a hard and fast distinction between postwar and contemporary superhero comics, arguing that both contemporary superhero stories and identity politics are focusing more on homogenizing once diverse collectives and creating assimilationist narratives instead of advocating for real change. Making his boldest statement of the text, Fawaz ends the book with the notion that contemporary comics lack the queer world-making potential of their predecessors.
In many ways, The New Mutants is exactly the book a lot of us have been waiting for: a sharp integration of a sociological look at queer readership with well-founded literary analysis of the queer potential of a major comic book genre. Indeed, this text is the first full-length queer theory application of comics and sets the bar high for future scholarship on the topic. However, The New Mutants seems overly determined to redeem the superhero genre from some of its heterosexist and patriarchal history, even to the point of ignoring contradictory messages put forth in these stories and painting an overly socially-progressive picture of a fanbase that has, at times, been hostile to LGBTQ individuals, racial minorities, and women. This is especially true in Chapter Three, where Fawaz analyzes superhero audiences as socially aware and politically active and neglects to include other, more conservative voices from that same group. Indeed, Fawaz marks his own nostalgic investment in such a project in the Acknowledgments section of the book, citing the fantasy outlined in the stories of mutant outcasts of the X-Men as providing him with a sense of personal resolve and belonging. While Fawaz’s personal passion for the queer potential of the drama shows throughout the text, the book would benefit from a more nuanced examination of political disagreement and mobilization in postwar superhero comics’ readership.
One other major limitation of The New Mutants is the author’s unwavering focus on narrative analysis of the texts at hand. Fawaz concentrates much more on narrative and genre trends in postwar superheroes than he does the visual depictions of such characters and plots. This is especially detrimental in the few places where he analyzes women heroes, as his analyses lack a more complex look at these heroes’ visual representations. For example, in Chapter Four, Fawaz examines Storm and Jean Grey’s heroic relationship in the X-Men, with Storm representing a women-of-color feminism and Jean Grey occupying a position of liberal empowerment feminism. Fawaz argues that Storm and Jean’s collaboration was “no minor representational achievement” that bridged the gap between various types of femininity and feminism (159). In the end, he claims, these women figured an empowered, feminist team. While this certainly may be a well-established argument when addressing the narrative tropes at play, Fawaz’s lack of attention to the visual elements of the work (i.e. the way the women are drawn on the page, their attire, body position, sexualization, musculature, objectification, etc.) perhaps shows his unwillingness to address parts of this hybrid comic that might undermine his original claims. More attention to the visual elements of these postwar superheroes, especially the women, would provide a more nuanced understanding of the mechanisms and codes at work in the comics medium. Indeed, this focus on the visual would also be beneficial if extended to a discussion about the demographics of comics creators, a discussion Fawaz brings up only once and very briefly in Chapter Five where he acknowledges the “predominantly white, male creative labor” of the industry (197). How, specifically, can a genre be radically world-building when a large majority of its creators have historically represented an already privileged population?
Despite these limitations, The New Mutants certainly delivers a profound investigation of the power of fantasy and the queer potential of superheroes who fight for universal citizenship and social progress. This is a great starting point for the burgeoning conversation between queer theory and comics and this book will no doubt inspire more full-length publications on this and related topics. By its nature, though, this book adds to the ever-present hyper-focus on American superhero comics scholarship. Hopefully, future scholarship will use some of Fawaz’s key concepts and apply them to other underrepresented genres, characters, texts, and themes in both American and global comics, shining light on queer texts that have, even during the Golden Age, directly challenged the nationalist ideals upheld by early superheroes. Nonetheless, both the comics studies and queer theory communities of scholarship are benefitted by the inclusion of The New Mutants, a text that pushes the boundaries of both fields and shows how beloved superhero characters “might remake the world as we know it” (282).