- The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz
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To judge by the velocity of its reception—I first heard it cited at an academic conference within three months of its publication—Ramzi Fawaz’s The New Mutants will be an influential and welcome contribution to the growing field of comics studies. Challenging commonplace assumptions that superhero comics can only serve as reactionary power fantasies, Fawaz suggests how they can instead fantasize alternative politics, identities, and intersectional alliances. In so doing, he expands the critical discussion of popular but underexamined titles such as Fantastic Four and The Uncanny X-Men, but while he focuses primarily on comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Chris Claremont, Fawaz’s approach is anything but auteurist. His readings, though dextrous and highly inventive in [End Page 111] their attempts to link the development of the superhero genre to the rise of the New Left and other postwar social movements, for the most part do not attribute these ideological convergences to the comics’ creators, their publishers, or their readers. Fawaz assigns them instead to the political imaginary, a phrase that receives a great deal of circulation in The New Mutants and a construct that allows its author to link the comics to roughly contemporaneous historical events without accounting for their specific production or historical contexts. In Fawaz’s book, political meaning springs fully-grown from a history that has been thoroughly dehistoricized.
The first chapter sets the terms for the project with clarity by establishing the liberal ground against which later superhero comics emerged. Fawaz demonstrates how the early issues of Justice League of America promote a cosmopolitan internationalism, but he also traces the hard limits of that cosmopolitanism in the comic’s highly normative view of identity, a view highlighted by its patronizing depiction of disability. After that chapter, however, Fawaz increasingly builds his arguments around associative readings that he tethers only intermittently to isolated examples selected from lengthy and varied creative tenures. His readings instead follow the incontrovertible precepts of critical theory, as if the only purpose of the comics was to prove the theories correct. In one of the more notable examples, his argument that the male members of the Fantastic Four subvert traditional concepts of masculinity depends on constructing a normative masculinity so narrow that it excludes even the hot-rod driving, girl-chasing Johnny Storm (a.k.a. the Human Torch). Fawaz makes this claim on the basis of a single line of dialogue uttered in the first issue and an anachronistic association of Johnny’s fiery powers with the “flaming” homosexual, a slang term that would not enter popular usage until the 1970s, a decade after his creation.
Most of Fawaz’s readings unfold in this manner: imaginative projections (and they are genuinely imaginative) presented as critical analyses without the benefit of textual or contextual support. Thus, Fawaz can suggest that “perhaps no contemporary image attended Johnny’s flaming body more immediately” than the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in protest of the South Vietnamese government in June 1963, almost two years after the Human Torch debuted.1 The New Mutants provides no concrete link between the two flaming bodies, no indication of how the fantasy image might have responded (or not responded) to the horrifically real one; they simply happened within a couple years of each other, and for Fawaz that is enough. He asserts a similarly vague connection between Fantastic Four and various New Left political movements, claiming an affinity with the radical internationalism of groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. Bradford Wright and Sean Howe have demonstrated that Marvel Comics at this time was deeply suspicious of radical movements, preferring the liberal mainstream instead, but these arguments, which are confirmed by countless examples from the comics, do not appear anywhere in Fawaz’s book.2
The few textual examples Fawaz does enlist to support his political claims prove no more...