Marvel’s Trouble with Normal

By Rebecca WanzoApril 12, 2016

Marvel’s Trouble with Normal

The New Mutants by Ramzi Fawaz

WHEN PSYCHIATRIST FREDRIC WERTHAM infamously sounded his 1954 warning about children reading comics books in Seduction of the Innocent, it was presumed that his audience embraced the value(s) of normativity. “I have never seen in any of the crime, superman, adventure, space, horror, etc., comic books a normal family sitting down at a meal.” That might have been a safe assumption — the state and many cultural apparatuses work overtime to sell the heteronormative, nuclear family. In his advocacy for normative outcomes, Wertham argued that comics would corrupt children and send “maladjusted” youth further down a bad path. While he was particularly concerned with the pleasures of decapitation and triumphant villains in horror and crime comics, the possibly queer content of Batman and Robin or Wonder Woman also landed in his crosshairs. Why was Dick Grayson living with this man unrelated to him? Why did Bruce Wayne wander around the house in his dressing gown? What was up with those tights? Wonder Woman and those Amazons? Why did they spend so much time tying each other up and playing bondage games?

Of course, now we know that Wertham was not far off with his intuition about the queer content of Wonder Woman. As both Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage/Feminism is the Marston/Peters Comics, 1941-1948 recount, Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston participated in polyamorous relationships and was deeply interested in BDSM. Berlatsky argues that early issues of the comic present an erotic matriarchal utopia that makes a political virtue of submission. But we could also point to the ways in which the comic repeatedly showed its discomfort with her power. In her secret identity, Marston’s heroine labored in the gendered, subservient work role of secretary, and the comic books frequently limited her power. It may be this push-pull between normativity and radicalism that continues to make the comic so compelling. It does so much and not enough at the same time.

But since then — and especially recently — embracing normativity has become something of a mainstay in DC comics, which may be why Ramzi Fawaz’s impressive cultural history of nonnormativity in superhero comics, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU 2016), is primarily about DC’s competitor Marvel. Besides a brief foray into a discussion of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the 1970s, Fawaz’s monograph is predominately a valentine to the alternative family structures and inclusive political communities modeled in the Fantastic Four and X-Men comics.

Fawaz does open the book with the high-profile “Death of Superman” narrative arc that resulted in stories about four possible heirs to the Superman mantle, arguing:

Superman’s death and the subsequent fracturing of his identity bookended nearly three decades of creative innovation in American comics that transformed the superhero from a nationalist champion to a figure of radical difference mapping the limits of American liberalism and its promise of universal inclusion in the post–World War II period.

But this prompt is a bit of a sleight of hand. No one imagined that the pretenders (an African-American hero, an alien, a cyborg, and a truly irritating teenager) were real heirs to Clark Kent’s cape. While I am sure dedicated readers can (and will) point to issues of Superman that make a case for his radical otherness, many people would agree that what the character has most consistently embodied is the outsider who becomes an idealized representative of the nation. Yes, Superman is a citizen of the world, but he models an ideal of what it means to belong.

In contrast, The New Mutants is interested in comics that love the freaks, the suffering outsiders, and the cheeky social rejects. Superman is thus less representative of the story Fawaz tells here than is Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four or the occasionally dangerous and out-of-control Jean Grey of the X-Men. What animates The New Mutants’s excitement for superhero stories is not coming to belong because you attain an ideal. It is belonging precisely because you are perpetually struggling and out of place.

Thus while Fawaz makes a case in The New Mutants for the historical trajectory of superhero comics in general, his emphasis on Marvel comics is most likely a response to the fact that the general public — and at times, scholars — can be quite reductive when they make statements about what superhero comics are or do. As he shows, claims about the genre don’t have to generalize about an endlessly complex 80-year-old history in order to be significant. As scholarship about superhero comics continues to grow, scholars have made clear that what might be most interesting about one of the most dominant popular genres in the United States is not what has been consistent within the superhero tradition, but rather what has stood apart. Such outliers include not just individual examples of idiosyncratic variance, but broad swaths of storytelling and style that illuminate major cultural and narrative shifts.

As we approach yet another major Marvel movie release as well as DC’s (perhaps ill-fated) attempt to mimic the success of their competitor’s team-oriented films, Fawaz’s book proves invaluable in highlighting “the Marvel difference.” As with most forms of popular culture, the source material for superhero films is endlessly more transgressive and adventurous than its adaptations. But it is worth asking in the wake of the playful Deadpool’s success whether, as Fawaz suggests, Marvel’s popularization of “figures of monstrous difference” contributed to an expansion of identificatory potential in popular culture. And while the films reflect a turn toward the apocalyptic that Fawaz mourns as leaving little space to interrogate the themes of “citizenship, nation, race, human rights, and democracy” that made the comics interesting through the early 1980s, celebrated newer Marvel characters like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl preserve the spirit of difference that characterized Marvel’s occasionally utopian embrace of the nonnormative.

This tension in superhero comics between representing American nationalism and white masculinity, on one hand, and difference, exceptionality, and cosmopolitanism, on the other, is rooted in a countercultural quandary that still haunts various political projects. Is it best, as political “Others,” to embrace being Other as a political identity and point of pride, or is the task to demonstrate that “Others” are normal and that constructions of normalness erase existing differences? Is that a false binary? Do we do both? From antiracist projects to LGBTIQ rights activism, we still can’t find agreement on these questions.

DC comics most often embraced becoming or being seen as normal. In his discussion of DC’s Justice League stories from the 1960s, Fawaz looks at the team’s embrace of a universal human rights model, with its heroes epitomizing cosmopolitan citizenship. However, these characters were so often aligned with state interests that it undercut the series’ claims to advocate for a global constituency. Moreover, in their embrace of liberal individualism, these stories eschewed otherness. In a fabulous reading of a 1965 story, “The Case of the Disabled Justice League,” Fawaz recounts how the heroes become temporarily disabled after visiting some disabled boys. The superfast runner, the Flash, finds that his legs are glued together. Hawkman develops asthma and finds that flying requires too much exertion. The Green Lantern, who needs the power of clear speech to call on the power of his ring, begins to stutter. Green Arrow, the archer, finds himself without arms.

What is striking about these disabilities is that they go to the heart of what allows the heroes to have powers. (Only Superman, who has so many strengths, experiences a disability that is not central to what makes him powerful — he becomes blind.) Rather than imagine that there might be some special ability that being differently abled would confer upon the League’s members, the writers can only envision disability as disabling the core of what makes the heroes who they are. And it is only the “menace” of disability, Fawaz argues, that disrupts the team’s commitment to collective action. When they have to fight the villain Brainstorm, the Flash suggests that they join forces, but Green Lantern and Green Arrow reject this solution. In order to inspire the boys, they need to “learn to depend on themselves, not on others!” They adapt their abilities and fight off Brainstorm, achieving their goal. But their sympathy for the boys only vaguely masks their belief that the only good and worthwhile citizens are those who can completely overcome a disability. Despite the group’s ostensible embrace of a diverse “family of man,” the Justice League did not embrace deviance. This stands in pointed contrast, Fawaz suggests, to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four. Transformed by cosmic energy and struggling with its effects, the team bands together in a nonnormative family structure that gains power from their bodily deviance, as opposed to having to overcome it.

I have to admit that I struggled somewhat with Fawaz’s celebration of comic book series’ embrace of nonnormative bodies that fail “to conform to the proper performance of gender and sexuality” — because the oft-criticized Barbie-like proportions of women superheroes have been prominently displayed in Marvel comics no less than in those of other companies. Stan Lee’s discussion of how to draw women in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way has always stuck with me. He uses The Fantastic Four’s sole female team member, Sue Storm, as an example. “Obviously,” he writes, “we do not emphasize muscles on a female. Though we assume she’s not a weakling, a woman is drawn to look smooth and soft as opposed to the muscular, angular rendition of a man.” Sue is “generally drawn somewhat smaller all over, except for the bosom.” From Marvel’s earliest days to the infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman #1 cover in 2014, which features a pornographic rendition of the title character crawling with her butt in the air, Marvel’s depiction of women has often — dare I say usually? — embraced rather than transgressed normative, sexualized depictions of women.

But part of the pleasure of the popular is that there can be transgression even where traditional ideology is at play, and arguably such is the case with The Fantastic Four. Fawaz’s loving analysis of Lee and Kirby’s playful attentiveness to normative representations of masculinity, in particular, is compelling. Each of the characters brings a different dimension to this counter-normativity: Ben Grimm’s rock-hard body as a parody of hard masculinity, scientist Reed Richards’s contrasting soft and malleable form, and, of course, the “flaming” Johnny Storm’s out-of-control bursts of power and cries of “Flame On!” when he’s ready for action. While it became prevalent in the 1970s, the queer subtext that Fawaz alludes to with Johnny’s “flaming” tendencies would seem to precede its common usage by at least a decade.

Fawaz reads the cultural contexts producing Sue as in conversation with the kinds of feminist issues Betty Friedan would popularize in The Feminine Mystique. Is Sue, created in 1961, a referent to the social invisibility Friedan would speak of in 1963? Sue’s evolution over time would certainly seem to map onto the increasingly cracked facade of idealized domestic roles under pressure from the feminist movement. While I might see Sue’s feminism as much more troubled and less queer in the 1960s than Fawaz does, he certainly makes a compelling case for Lee and Kirby’s recognition of the struggle over normative models of masculinity and femininity, and for the proto-queer dimensions of their playful responses.

Much of Fawaz’s evidence of Lee and Kirby’s engagement with existing political contexts derives not just from close readings of the issues they produced but also from their careful curation of fan letters and their responses. Lee and Kirby saw themselves as building an extensive, loyal Marvel family of readers who would speak to progressive values. Lee would note that while he was a product of his generation, his values changed over time. He and Kirby struggled with nationalism, binary conceptions of good and evil, the impact of US imperialism and colonialism. Similarly, they worked to incorporate post–Civil Rights Movement discourses into their treatments of race. While their progressivism was undoubtedly messy, they did seem to see power in difference and deviance, something their young and diverse audience could find compelling.

The embrace of deviance as a source of power would find its most popular expression, however, in the Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum run on X-Men. These mid-’70s issues famously began that title’s rise to prominence. With a more diverse cast of characters than in its 1963 launch, the new X-Men’s diversity was its strength. Its new characters were a response to cultural change, directly challenging the old. Fawaz argues that the comic mutated into something else just as US citizens were themselves transforming thanks to feminism, international left movements, antiracism, and sexual and gay liberation. Rather than be utterly divided by powers and identities that marked real difference, the new X-Men explored novel models of family and kinship. As Fawaz elegantly describes it, they illustrated a “desire to reconcile the competing demands of varied loyalties,” crafting a “fantasy of unity amid stunning heterogeneity. As a new decade of threats to the survival of mutant-kind appeared on the horizon, this was one reality the X-Men dared not dream away.”

This “dream” is Fawaz’s primary intervention into what many people get wrong about superhero comics — most particularly some “true believer” fans who decry diversity in comics as a politically correct attack on what they see as the essence of the comics they love. In an already infamous 2015 New York Times op-ed, Umapagan Ampikaipakan argued that “the current push to draw diversity into comics and add variety to the canon is meant to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a superhero. But that only risks undercutting the genre’s universal appeal.” Fawaz’s history makes a powerful case for Ampikaipakan’s deep ignorance of what propelled the comic book company’s success in the first place. The “universality” of its appeal from the early ’60s forward, The New Mutants suggests, was grounded in the sorts of differences that whiteness masked, validating freaks and geeks, identity categories not owned by straight, white fan-boys. In the decades of the company’s rise, fall, and rise again, Marvel has not always been a bastion of racial diversity in terms of creators or characters. But we might imagine the company’s recent moves — giving fans an African-American Captain America, an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, a female Thor, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, among others — as a gesture toward fulfilling its promise. Fawaz’s insight is to recognize that, despite the homogenous whiteness of most of their creations, Lee, Kirby, and others creatively came of age in an era more revolutionary than our current moment, when there were real signs that deep change was going to come. As the US lurched from this period into increasing economic inequality and state refashioning of racial inequality, some comics would continue to dream the dream of kinship amid difference in the pursuit of social justice. However, comics like the 1980s X-Men spin-off The New Mutants, as Fawaz explains in the closing chapter of his book, would demonstrate a perhaps more sophisticated understanding of how to address social justice issues. The solidarity was no longer grounded in the characters’ shared identity as outcasts. Rather, it was relocated in the shared value of fighting the particularity of the injustices they experienced.

At their best, Marvel comics have trouble with and trouble the normal. Challenging a popular understanding of the genre that sees nothing complex or transgressive about mainstream superhero comics, Fawaz produces a rich account of the mutant outsider of the post–World War II cultural imaginary, arguing that this predominant character type allowed diverse readers to see themselves and their struggles. As Marvel’s influence in our entertainment universe continues to expand, it is worth asking how much the pleasures of the company’s products involve embracing the normative and how much is the result of attending to the pains and possibilities of deviance. At the core of what may appear to be the films’ most politically emaciated version of complex storytelling, there may be seeds of the radical imagination that inaugurated the company’s initial success. Counter to some leftist accounts, the transnational success of Marvel’s films may not solely derive from the way they export American nationalism and masculine violence through big-budget special effects. Part of the pleasure they provide may also be located in the resistance to normal that offers a path to remaking the world in a more just image.


Rebecca Wanzo is associate professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling.

LARB Contributor

Rebecca Wanzo is Professor and Chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling and The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging. Her research interests include African American literature, history, and culture; theories of affect; popular culture (particularly the history of popular genre fiction and graphic storytelling in the U.S.); critical race theory; and feminist theory.


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