Reviews

'The New Mutants' Is Rooted Both in Scholarship and in the Rich History of Superhero Narratives

Books about comic books, even scholarly ones, should be fun; The New Mutants certainly is.


The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics

Publisher: New York University Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: Ramzi Fawaz
Price: $29.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-01
Amazon

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen burst on the comic book scene in 1986 and set the standard for complicated, mature and politically sophisticated comic book storytelling. This politicization of graphic storytelling felt like something new and was treated as such in the press. As it turns out, it wasn't so new after all.

Superhero comics have always been political. Jack Kirby's and Joe Simon's Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw way back on the cover of Captain America #1 and he did it months before the attack on Pearl Harbor sent the United States headlong into war. Thirty years later, after superhero comics had boomed and busted and then boomed again, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams brought Green Lantern and Green Arrow together to confront the reality of injustice in American life.

"I been readin' about you," the elderly African American man says to the cosmic superhero, "how you work for the blue skins and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there's skins you never bothered with! The black skins! I want to know how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern."

Ramzi Fawaz's marvelous new book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, digs deep into the long history of superheroes and unearths a radical political tradition that has mostly gone unnoticed until now. Captain America's battle with Hitler is there as well as Green Arrow's and Green Lantern's improbable road trip to discover America. There's a whole lot more.

Beginning with the Golden Age of superhero comics, when superheroes were "an embodiment of nationalism and patriotic duty", Fawaz traces the transformation of the very character of the caped hero. He explores the early days of DC's Justice League of America, between 1960 and 1965, and makes a convincing case that the superhero team "transformed the superhero from an icon of American nationalism to a champion of internationalism and universal citizenship." They may have been the Justice League of America, but their team was diverse, international and, for that matter, intergalactic in nature.

Wonder Woman was an Amazon, Martian Manhunter was from another planet, Aquaman was the king of Atlantis, and Green Lantern was the representative of a galactic peacekeeping agency. Fawaz argues that the JLA of that period repeatedly invoked the language of universalism over nationalism. Like the United Nations they may have been headquartered in the United States but were hardly an organization representative of the interests of that one country.

Likewise, Fawaz argues that over at rival Marvel Comics even more radical politics were at work in the pages of their flagship superhero team title. According to Fawaz, Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four, through their bodily transformations and increasingly complex personalities "grew to embody a host of 1960s countercultural figures -- the left wing intellectual, the liberal feminist, the youth activist, and the maladjusted queer -- all nonconformist figures that flatly contradicted the teammates' original self-presentation as patriotic, traditionally gendered, family-oriented anti-communists."

Furthermore, the Fantastic Four, according to Fawaz, were actively engaged with diverse human and trans-human cultures. From the Black Panther and his technologically advanced nation of Wakanda to the Inhumans, a race of beings seemingly distinct from the human race, the Fantastic Four continually pushed up against the wall of otherness and found openings and opportunities for solidarity.

Fawaz is most interesting when he then turns his attention to developments of politicized comic book storylines in the '70s, a time when, as he argues, the most important stories of the day took the form of space operas and urban folktales. Focusing on Marvel's Silver Surfer and the X-Men, he traces the development of the space opera from "a melodramatic narrative of lament for the moral degradation of mankind to its regeneration as a cosmopolitan story of interspecies encounters across the cosmos." Chris Claremont's X-Men, in particular, explored issues of feminism, queer identity, and trans-cultural human kinship in ways that were both unique and compelling.

While the X-Men explored politics against a cosmic backdrop, other heroes of the '70s focused on America's urban landscape. In addition to the O'Neil and Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories at DC, Marvel's Captain America and the Falcon also took on the form of what Fawaz calls an urban folktale in which "the formerly taken-for-granted relationship between the superhero and national culture had to be reconceived in relation to an emergent discourse of identity-based politics and an ethnic revival that celebrated America's ethnoracial diversity." Writer Steve Englehart, in particular, turned the nationalist icon Captain America into the epitome of the disillusioned American citizen who, at one point, gave up the mantle of the red-white-and-blue to assume the heroic identity known as Nomad.

Fawaz' arguments throughout are heady, despite his failure to document the academic scaffolding on which his thesis obviously rests; this is arguably a good thing that makes the book far more accessible than it otherwise might have been. One consequence of this aversion to spelling out the theory, however, is that his case sometimes seems less substantial than it could have been, and more reliant on the sheer creativity and fan-boy enthusiasm that he brings to the table. It’s a fair trade, I think. After all, books about comic books, even scholarly ones, should be fun; The New Mutants certainly is.

Other criticisms are minor: the focus on the radical politics at the heart of the superhero story ignores, or passes quickly over, the deeply conservative trends that have also been present from the very beginning. Marvel's Lee and Kirby may have espoused a simplified form of liberal humanism but artist Steve Ditko -- co-creator of Marvel's most popular creation, Spider-Man -- regularly snuck his Randian Objectivism into the storyline. Likwise, the post Dark Knight Returns / Watchmen landscape was filled with heroes in the mold of Clint Eastwood's or Charles Bronson's violent individualist.

Fawaz might also be guilty of imparting more intentionality and agency to creators like Lee and Kirby than was actually the case. Whether Lee, in particular, was expressing his own political beliefs in the pages of The Fantastic Four or attempting to write stories that matched the landscape of the youth counterculture of the day in order to sell more books is an open question that Fawaz does not address.

These are minor objections, however. The New Mutants is an eye-opening read, and Fawaz offers a way of reading superhero comics that is rooted both in scholarship and in the rich history of superhero narratives. It's clear that Fawaz is both a scholar and a fan, a dynamic that results in book that should be appreciated by academics and true believers alike.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image