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

by Caitlin Rosberg

newmutantsThe New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz (NYU Press 2016) looks like the kind of book I would instantly grab off the shelf, or maybe even get as a gift from my loved ones who are often confused by my obsession with comics, but support it enthusiastically. Billed as an investigation of post-World War II superhero comics through the lens of Fawaz’s background in gender studies and queer theory, it has a striking cover and enticing blurbs from Junot Díaz. Sadly, the book does not deliver on all that promise.

Fawaz has the poor luck of his book finding its way into the hands of someone who is both very knowledgeable about the subject he’s tackling, and also very cynical about both the comics industry and midcentury America. I went to grad school with the intent of writing my thesis on Batman, in particular Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the shift towards anti-heroes that happened in the 1980s and ‘90s. These days I concentrate more on the state of the industry as it is, but I’ve got a lot of backstory, which at first made me excited to tackle this meaty book.

Like many other academics, Fawaz relies far too heavily on field-specific jargon. Even as someone with a background in anthropology and the kind of literature analysis he’s doing, I found myself in turns bored and frustrated by the text, bogged down in redefined terminology and portmanteaus that have no meaning outside of Fawaz’s specific field of study. If I didn’t already have experience reading this kind of text and profound enthusiasm for the subject, I would have probably abandoned the effort before I finished the introduction.

Even beyond writing that would be impenetrable to casual fans, Fawaz’s academic leanings cause other issues. As is the case with many similar texts, his area of research and speciality has done him a huge disservice here: while he flirts with the idea of discussing geopolitical or racial issues during his analysis, Fawaz always shies away quickly, retreating to analysis that is so narrowly focused on gender and queer theory as to be blinded to all other possibilities. Though examples of this arrive on nearly every page, two in particular stand out.

In recounting when the Fantastic Four first meet Black Panther, he doesn’t recognize that the final pages of the book, where T’Challa considers abandoning his superhero persona now that his main foe has been defeated, has profound racial implications. That T’Challa could only beat his foe with the help of four white people isn’t touched on at all; the fact that T’Challa changes his mind and stays the Black Panther only because his new white friends encourage him is similarly ignored.

Perhaps even more ridiculously, Fawaz describes Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk as one that feminizes him, since the shift is caused by a loss of control over emotions, which is a female trait. There’s no discussion at all of the fact that the Hulk could more easily be seen as a coded “savage,” the result of what happens when a white man loses his education and control of himself, he becomes massive and musclebound, a literal person of color (originally gray, not green) in a way that taps into white fears of particularly black men.

Fawaz also uses language that is at best outdated or problematic and at worst phobic without any discussion or explanation. While explaining a Justice League of America story that features children with disabilities, he uses ableist language, not while quoting the comic or other texts, but in his own analysis. He repeatedly uses trans bodies as objects and compares the transformation of all four members of the Fantastic Four to actual trans people, likening the mutations from space radiation to the genuine need to be in a body that represents one’s internal self. Gender is only ever discussed as a binary and Fawaz often lumps homosexuality and femininity together without context or examination.

What really weakens the book as a whole is Fawaz’s lackadaisical approach to the difference between authorial intent and impact. Stan Lee is featured repeatedly as a staunch liberal, a stand up guy who replied to letters from his fans and always upheld the ideals of human equality. Meanwhile, he’s known for cutting his collaborators out of history and generally being difficult to work with.

Fawaz frequently extols the liberal ideals of comics creators, occasionally admitting that they had to make money, and uses characters from the Justice League and Fantastic Four and the X-Men to demonstrate how inclusive they were of minorities, how “queer” and non-normative they were. But none of these characters are explicitly queer, and there was a clear limit to the number and type of women who were allowed to be in these teams. People of color and people with disabilities need not apply.

Ignoring this default of exclusively white and straight, almost always male characters undercuts all of his arguments, Fawaz has some intriguing ideas that are invalidated by this constant reminder that he thinks that Ben Grimm (the Thing) is “queer” because he is androgynous and of dubious ethnic origin simply because he does not appear explicitly male and white. There’s no mention of the fact that, while they may have espoused liberal ideals of human equality, the creators of these books were just as white, straight, and male as their characters. Particularly insulting is the idea that Sue Storm has “agency” of her own, ignoring that she is a woman being written by men, subjecting her to the male gaze not because she wants to play with gendered expectations, but because they are men who are drawing and writing her that way.

The idea that a fictional character has any sort of say in their behavior is laughable at best, and in the case of justifying the actions of a minority character written by white men, particularly egregious.

Fawaz idolizes Lee and his colleagues in almost the exact same way the Beats are often idolized, without examination or criticism. Both the Beats and these creators are reified for “queering” America, making it think beyond the heteronormative nuclear family towards a new equality of man based on intellect, all while erasing the women, people of color, and plenty of actual queer people from their movement. In this way, success is only defined by “intellectual” white men, and any noncompliance is punished with erasure and replacement with a more acceptable version of “queer.”

The final nail in the coffin for me came on page 9, far too early in the book. In writing “…DC Comics (creator of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) and Marvel (creator of Captain America)…” Fawaz shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how the industry works and what individual actions may have meant.

DC and Marvel did not create these characters, instead they own the trademarks for them. The characters were created by people who sold their intellectual property to these publishers, who continue to own it in perpetuity.

In an age where we’re fighting to make sure artists get the recognition they deserve, so soon after Bill Finger finally got credited for co-creating Batman with Bob Kane, the fact that Fawaz can’t keep this straight didn’t bode well for the rest of his book, and my instincts turned out to be correct. This book is proof that, while academia may finally be embracing the serious study of comic books as a legitimate and worthwhile effort, more knowledgeable editors and writers to are needed to tackle thorny, complicated issues.

Bottom line: do not recommend, not even if you can get it for free from the library. Go read The Ten-Cent Plague or Comic Book Nation or The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay instead. Better yet, go buy a comic in your local comic shop. Support small publishers. Write a letter to the creators of your favorite comic to let them know

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