The real world just got a lot more like a superhero comic, and not in a good way. I write on November 13, 2016; one of the many things that came up in my panicked, angry, sometimes despairing social-media feed on November 9 was a link to x-meninyourface.tumblr.com, where I read this:
The Orange Mojo/Reverend Stryker ticket got elected. We are hurting. We are reeling. But we can be heroes … Please share this post and if you make a donation, take a screengrab of your honored X-Man like above and post it and tag it with XMen For PP (no hyphen!) and I will reblog all of your awesome donations right here.
A way to donate online to Planned Parenthood follows. Reverend William Stryker—the silver-haired, gentlemanly evangelical from Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)—advocates the persecution of super-powered mutants in the name of God’s plan for normal human beings; Mojo—the loathsome, cruel, loquacious, blob-like being created by Ann Nocenti and Art Adams in 1985—presides as absolute ruler over a universe ruled by television ratings, and tries to capture the X-Men in order to put them on reality TV.
The X-Men aren’t real. But realism seems to have failed us, and so the times ahead require help from non-realist genres: not just to project dystopias like Mojo’s universe, but to imagine social hope, as superhero comics have recently and explicitly tried to do. Take Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther (a notable sales success), or take G. Willow Wilson’s two-years-and-counting run with Kamala Khan, the teenage, urban, Pakistani American shape-changer known as Ms. Marvel. Khan is the second hero to bear that title. Carol Danvers, the first, changed her supernym in 2012—dropping the “Ms.” to become Captain Marvel—when Kelly Sue DeConnick’s feminist, feel-good storylines attracted enthusiastic, even reverent, support. For readers and journalists new to mainstream comics (those who wrote features on Coates in particular), these titles looked like something very new in a field dominated by macho punch-outs, and by what Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, belittled as “power fantasies” aimed at straight boys.
The scholar Ramzi Fawaz shows otherwise. For him progressive or left-wing arguments have energized superhero comics for generations, letting the best of them embody visions of diversity and community, and (not by coincidence) helping them stand up as art. He has precursors: Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation made a historian’s case for early superheroes as “super-New Dealers,”1 while Geoff Klock, Grant Morrison, Roz Kaveney, and Douglas Wolk have all written persuasively on superheroes from literary perspectives. (Richard Reynolds’s still valuable Superheroes: A New Mythology appeared as early as 1992.) Fawaz’s The New Mutants, however, appears to be the first scholarly book to view and defend superhero comics on both literary and political grounds. Fawaz can look at panel constructions, at line work, and at point of view, and he’s made clever if sparing use of archives, including Claremont’s at Columbia University. But Fawaz gets his bread, butter, and jam from reading Marvel and DC superhero comics alongside queer theory and political philosophy: Kwame Anthony Appiah on cosmopolitanism, Jose Muñoz on utopias, and Michael Warner on counterpublics.
Superheroes can provide a model for queer community-building in real life.
Chapter by chapter, it’s appetizing fare. Apparently the first comic to team up preexisting heroes (like Batman and Superman), DC’s Justice League of America (launched in early 1960) exemplified anticommunist, rights-oriented, consensus-based liberal internationalism. The Marvel comics of the 1960s—Fantastic Four most of all—challenged that consensus by depicting not-quite-human, non-normative bodies, arranged into extended or chosen families that read as vaguely or figuratively queer. Reed Richards’s bendy body and Ben Grimm’s stony one defy and parody, respectively, “the ‘hardened,’ masculine male subject of postwar culture”; as for the Human Torch, the hot-rodding “hypersexualized teenage rebel” who yells “flame on!”—flamma ipsa loquitur. Letters from readers, printed in each comic book, helped to create “a participatory reading public”; fans critiqued writers’ decisions from right and left, and writers took note. As liberal programs faltered, or failed, or revealed their contradictory assumptions, Marvel and DC writers explored those contradictions in new subgenres that included stories of melancholic would-be messiahs like the Silver Surfer (created in 1966); open-ended, transnational, multispecies space opera; and “urban folktales” that relied on familiar constructions of straight masculinity but made claims for social and racial justice.
Fawaz shows that superhero comics do for their fans what no other genre can; they welcome “nonconformity” and “phenotypic and physiological difference,” and they make that “otherness desirable” (as horror films, say, cannot). At less than his best, Fawaz turns his favorite terms—“cosmopolitics,” “counterpublics”—into hammers for which all things are nails. But he also sees how comics talk back to their own industry, suggesting, for example, that the early 1970s adventures of Luke Cage, “Hero for Hire,” speak to legal controversies over comic book art as “work made for hire.” Such matters of business history guided Sean Howe’s terrific, and nonacademic, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2012) and they provide welcome side trips here.
Had Fawaz’s book stopped in the 1970s it would be a fine, interpretively daring extension of books like Wright’s and Howe’s. As fans will guess from his title, though, Fawaz goes further; his grandest—and most original—claims are reserved for the X-Men and their teenage affiliates, the New Mutants, in the stories Claremont wrote or co-created between 1975 and 1991.2 All these characters got their superpowers from mutations whose effects emerged at puberty; visible mutants face stigma and discrimination from non-mutant human society, though some—the X-Men—defend society anyway, “feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect.” The original X-Men, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, were white American teens at Professor Charles Xavier’s school (though one of them later grew fur and turned blue). The revamped, larger, multiracial, and international version of the X-Men introduced (by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum) in 1975 were almost all composed of adults, and it was this team (including Wolverine and Storm) that Claremont made famous. The New Mutants, introduced in 1984, were teens under Xavier’s tutelage, who reside in the same world as the X-Men but navigate it differently; they learned to control their powers and protect each other, and weren’t supposed to try to save the world.
Claremont-era mutants, Fawaz contends, “forged alliances across difference,” modeling intersectional political organizing, and queer society, in real life. Where other liberal-minded superheroes (and the original 1960s X-Men) can behave as white saviors, parachuting into trouble spots to fight “segregation, sexism and xenophobia,” these mutants’ stories were more complicated. For Fawaz, they display “an ethical commitment to protect one another” that could include “strategic essentialism” and a troubled commitment to sexual liberation. X-Men and New Mutants comics also used plenty of BDSM imagery and just-barely-subtextual queer romance; if anything, Fawaz underrates the queer oddity that their best nonacademic critics—Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes of xplainthexmen.com, for example—play up.
Simple readings of X-Men comics (whether from the 1960s, the 1980s, or the 2010s) tend to see mutants as stand-ins for real-world minority groups. The metaphor doesn’t work well, and can get offensive, when it makes white mutants represent race (Xavier as Martin Luther King); it works somewhat better for sexuality, much better (as Edidin points out) for disability. When the mutants are members of real-world minority groups, the comics can tell more complicated tales. Thus Fawaz’s title: Claremont and Bob McLeod’s (later Bill Sienkiewicz’s) New Mutants were, apparently, the first team in mainstream comics with a majority nonwhite cast. In their arcs, “mutation intersects with multiple axes of identity,” including race, age, temperament, religion, indigeneity, and social class.
Andre M. Carrington—whose new study Speculative Blackness overlaps in purpose and audience with Fawaz’s—writes that while the 1960s X-Men were “an allegorical presentation of superhuman difference as a metaphor,” Claremont’s New Mutants “became a staging ground for confrontations between existing social formations that were rendered even more complicated” by superpowers. Team leader Dani Moonstar (Cheyenne) could manifest, as vivid hallucinations, other people’s hopes and fears; the much-revered “Demon Bear” saga, by Claremont and Sienkiewicz, lets Dani examine her own nightmares, and through them, the genocidal history of Native presence in the American West. Another New Mutant, Illyana Rasputin, spent much of her childhood trapped in a dimension ruled by demons; whenever she uses her superpowers, she must return to that dimension, so that her stories look like (or just are) stories about recovering from child sexual abuse. Dani’s and Illyana’s “mutant abilities do not grant them liberation,” as Fawaz explains, “but reveal the wounded attachments that have formed their identities.” Their wounds—to misquote Adrienne Rich—came from the same source as their superpowers.
Nor are Dani and Illyana exceptions. In the best X-stories, characters make multiple, difficult, revocable, and sometimes regrettable choices about who they are and who they say they are, choices that invoke their complex pasts. Can Nightcrawler be, at once, a pious Catholic, a loyal internationalist, a German, a refugee, a brave team-leader, a visible freak? Is Kitty Pryde a headstrong teen, a loyal friend, a Jewish American, the junior partner in a dangerous team? Is she bisexual? (Fans say yes.)
The narrative world of Marvel Comics mutants, the world of the X-Men, New Mutants, and their early spinoffs—what Stokes and Edidin call (with justification) “comics’ greatest superhero soap opera”—indeed explored intersectional, multiple identities throughout the 1980s, and sometimes afterwards. In its best-known, most influential episodes, though, sexuality and gender rule. Fawaz writes that 1980s-era “demonic possession stories” such as “Inferno” and the “Dark Phoenix Saga”—in which women seem unable to control their growing powers and appetites—both revel in and warn against feminine, kinky, and queer sexual desires, “linking the psychic corruption of their central superheroic characters to the machinations of global capitalism.” Stories set in a patriarchal society—so the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” for Fawaz, reveals—must “render female power” (Fawaz means power possessed by women as women, or power in women’s sexuality) as negative, antisocial and riven by ambivalence,” if they depict it at all.
If some of those stories punish their female lead characters, others use the distinctive features of comics, and the distinctive twists of Claremontian narrative, to model less punishing, more hospitable futures, without promising that we will get there. Thanks to the X-books’ open-ended, serial, soap-operatic plotting, neither Illyana, nor Dani, nor even lead X-characters such as Jean Grey, know in advance what they are going to become. Fawaz believes that mutants can make community from that uncertainty, providing a model (however unlikely) for queer, and intersectional, and teenage community-building in real life. Tens of thousands of X-fans agree.
Yet Fawaz (drawing on Warner) argues that mainstream superhero comics no longer make these nods towards radical listening and community building. Instead, we get mere capitalism-friendly diversity—gay superheroes marry, lavishly. Compared to Fawaz’s carefully argued readings of older X-Men comics, these conclusions seem rushed. Are Marvel and DC really “obscuring corporate profits through the spectacular representational diversity” of their characters? Not literally (you can learn what they earn); and readers who think that contemporary superheroes’ demographic diversity is just box-checking might check in with Kamala Khan’s tween fans. Fawaz—and you, if you’ve read this far—might also dig Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s Strong Female Protagonist, an independent, web-based, superhero comic that is nothing if not alert to intersectionality and privilege.
Fawaz concentrates so intently on comics that he can miss the pioneering work of adjacent genres: 1960s Marvel fandom resembles 1940s science fiction fandom, with its networks of correspondence. “The idea that science … was the linchpin to producing ethical citizens,” which Fawaz finds in Justice League, also animated 1940s SF; Alfred Bester and Edmund Hamilton, among others, wrote for both genres. Some stones stay unturned: what would Fawaz make of Dazzler, the disco mutant who turns sound into light, and wants in the worst way to be a sexy 1980s pop star, not a superhero? Does it matter that most of the New Mutants are legal minors, excluded from independent agency in the eyes of the civilian non-super state? Since Fawaz puts so much stock in transcending the ordinary or normative human body, what does he make of the spacefaring refugee Warlock, a charmingly Protean cybernetic entity who treats toasters as if they were alive?
To say such things is not to poke holes in Fawaz’s book so much as to hope for more like it. It is, ultimately, an ambitious, persuasive, decidedly academic case for superheroes, a robust queer defense. And it leaves almost unsaid (since we’ve already heard it) the case against them as reactionary vigilantes and apostles of violence, a case mulled and answered within the comics themselves. Literary academics who know, or teach, just one superhero book often end up with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s intricately constructed, self-hating, kink-shaming Watchmen, a book out to shred the genre to which it belongs. I’d love to see the “Dark Phoenix” or “Demon Bear” saga on syllabi instead.
I’d also love more attention—especially now, when so much solidarity seems urgent, when so much merely literary interpretation seems like something we don’t have time for—directed to the difference between proven social action, on the one hand, and speculative interpretation, on the other. Letter columns in Marvel titles from the 1960s and early 1970s, as Fawaz confirms, had efficacy: they really created communities in which real, named readers and writers could think together on matters of public concern. The “Dark Phoenix Saga,” on the other hand, symbolized matters of public concern: its plotlines and images represented women’s empowerment, dangerous desire, and illimitable capital. Fawaz shows what these subtleties could have meant to an ideally alert reader (like him, or like me).
And yet the community of X-Men fans—the people who really do, and did, read X-books, during the 1980s and today—really did read these superhero comics in some of the ways that Fawaz has asked us to read them; they really did offer tools for thinking about sexism and feminism and antiracist organizing, in complex, intersectional ways (with lasers). And they are still doing so today: in the fan communities that come together online through Tumblr and Twitter, or through the democratic, participatory exchange of fan fiction (as Anne Jamison, among others, has ably shown), or in person at conventions. In 2015, Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon attracted 80,000 visitors, and FlameCon—“the first-ever queer comic con to be held in New York City”—drew 2,200. These events, these characters, can carry moral force—even if they don’t change the world beyond their readers—not least for the signal the best of them send: that vulnerable young readers can imagine protection and solidarity, that even the strangest outsiders can find one another, defend one another, and find a place, whether or not that place turns out to be 1407 Graymalkin Lane.
- Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 24. ↩
- He did not create them alone. Like Hollywood movies, mainstream superhero comics are deeply, intensely, collaborative: these X-Men and New Mutants were also created by artists—Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Bill Sienkiewicz, Bob McLeod, and Paul Smith, among others—and supervised by editors, especially Len Wein, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, who also wrote scripts. But Claremont, from 1975 until he quit the X-titles in 1991, was the guiding hand. ↩