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.