- The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz
In his ambitious cultural history of American superhero comics, Ramzi Fawaz confronts a conventional reading of superheroes as reactionary nationalist champions. To challenge this reading, Fawaz develops an alternative narrative of the comics of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that highlights the radical potential of comics to imagine nonnormative ways of being and belonging following the Cold War. Offering close readings of Justice League of America, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, and The New Mutants, Fawaz argues that in contrast to pre-World War II comics, these comics enabled the production of an affective counterpublic (consisting of fans and creators). The interaction between this counterpublic and the comics themselves enabled the reimagination of definitions of humanity and citizenship that simultaneously reiterated liberal values of antiracism and antifascism and exceeded these values by absorbing the radical politics of New Left social movements. To ground his argument, Fawaz draws from queer theorists such as José Muñoz, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant, whose works discuss the utopian potential of future-oriented, imaginative worldmaking. Fawaz’s use of “worldmaking” contributes to this body of work as he emphasizes the fact that worldmaking is both aesthetic and social. For Fawaz, these specific comics’ unique affective counterpublics highlight their role as popular fantasy with strong ties to their contemporary social movements: this positioning enabled a radical worldmaking that both responded to historical circumstances and opened up new forms of being and belonging in the midst of Cold War politics, the civil rights movement, and women’s and gay liberation movements.
Looking at select comics of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, each chapter offers a chronological progress narrative of shifting values and political imaginaries. Chapter 1 takes on DC Comics’s Justice League of America (1960), and argues that, although reproducing liberal definitions of the human, the Justice League [End Page 227] superheroes challenge Cold War rhetoric of containment by promoting global citizenship. Although the Justice League superheroes are “American,” they actually defy national boundaries and affiliations and foster a narrative of global egalitarianism. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Marvel Comics’s The Fantastic Four (1961) and argue that these new superheroes challenge notions of the strong, hard, and self-determined superhero in ways that Justice League fails to do. The Fantastic Four’s flexible and mutable heroes undermine normative gender and sexuality and question definitions of the “human” in ways that parallel antiracist and antifascist discourse. Fawaz allegorically reads The Fantastic Four as a critique of Cold War sexual politics and views The Fantastic Four’s championing of bodily deviance as fostering new, queer imaginaries. Chapter 4 examines the genre of the science fiction space opera that came to dominate comic books in the 1970s. Using The Silver Surfer (1968) and The X-Men (1974) as case studies, Fawaz argues that the genre (particularly in the case of The X-Men) enabled new conceptions of difference and solidarity, paralleling the radical movements of the 1970s’ women’s and gay liberation movements. Chapter 5 zooms in from the grand scale of the space opera to examine superhero interventions in poor, inner city neighborhoods—reading Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1970) and Captain America and the Falcon (1974) as prime examples. Fawaz frames the urban folktale as a response to racial conflict and economic inequality following the civil rights movement. Chapter 6 looks at demonic possession narratives in The X-Men (1980) and Spider-Man (1984–89) to frame an argument that neoliberal corporatization in the 1980s coopted the radical movements of the previous decade. Chapter 7 examines the comic series The New Mutants as perhaps the exemplar of radical imagination of identity and diversity.
Although The New Mutants has attentive and imaginative close-readings throughout its chapters, the book is at its strongest in the introduction and epilogue. If the introduction clearly sets up his argument that comics of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s...