Ramzi Fawaz | The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics | New York University Press| January 2016 | 25 minutes (6,662 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The New Mutants, by Ramzi Fawaz, which examines “the relationship between comic book fantasy and radical politics in the modern United States.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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We’ve changed! All of us! We’re more than just human!
—THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)
We might try to claim that we must first know the fundamentals of the human in order to preserve and promote human life as we know it. But… have we ever yet known the human?
—JUDITH BUTLER, Undoing Gender (2004)
Who might legitimately represent the human race?
In November 1992 Superman died. The Man of Steel would fall at the hands of the alien villain Doomsday, a thorny-skinned colossus who single-mindedly destroys life throughout the cosmos. Arriving on Earth seeking his next conquest, Doomsday meets his match in the planet’s longtime guardian, known to few in his civilian garb as the meek journalist Clark Kent but beloved by all as the caped hero Superman. After an agonizing battle in the streets of Metropolis, Superman’s urban home, Superman and Doomsday each land a final fatal blow, their last moments of life caught on camera and broadcast to devastated viewers around the world. The fictional media firestorm surrounding Superman’s death mirrored real-world responses to DC Comics’ announcement of their decision to end the life of America’s first superhero earlier that year. Months before the story was even scripted, national print and television media hailed Superman’s death as an event of extraordinary cultural significance, propelling what initially appeared as an isolated creative decision into the realm of public debate.
Public opinion ranged widely, from those who interpreted Superman’s downfall as a righteous critique of America’s moral bankruptcy to those who recognized it as a marketing stunt to boost comic book sales. In an editorial for the Comics Buyer’s Guide years later, leading comic book retailer Chuck Rozanski claimed that upon hearing about the decision, he had called DC Comics editor Paul Levitz, pleading with him that “since Superman was such a recognized icon within America’s overall popular culture . . . DC had no more right to ‘kill’ him than Disney had the right to ‘kill’ Mickey Mouse.” According to Rozanski, by choosing to kill Superman for sensational purposes, DC would be breaking an implicit promise to the American people to preserve the hero’s legacy as a “trustee of a sacred national image.”
Compounding such hyperbolic claims to Superman’s national iconicity, Superman #75, the famed death issue, was visually presented to readers as an object of national mourning. The issue was wrapped in a sealed plastic slipcover containing a series of memorial keepsakes: a foldout obituary from the Daily Planet (Metropolis’s official newspaper), a trading card in the form of a tombstone declaring the Man of Steel’s last resting place, and a black armband embroidered with the red Superman logo for readers to wear as a public symbol of shared grief. As potentially valuable collectibles, these keepsakes targeted hardcore fans who coveted memorabilia linked to beloved characters and narratives. As performative objects associated with and intended to elicit public displays of mourning and commemoration, they captured the attention of a wider national audience. Through these items virtually anyone could articulate affective attachments to a popular culture icon that embodied a dense network of feelings, ideals, and fantasies about the nation itself; indeed in news media, the comic book press, and print culture, everyone from fans to cultural critics and to ordinary Americas did just that.
The public debates over the meaning of the death of an American icon would be redoubled in the fictional narrative following Superman’s passing. In subsequent comic book issues, Superman’s seemingly stable identity as an emblem of American values—in fact the paragon of public service to the nation and a broader global community—would fracture beneath the weight of competing claims to his mantle. In his absence four mysterious figures appeared in Metropolis vying for his title as the city’s heroic representative. These potential “supermen” included the teenage clone Superboy, the African American engineer turned construction worker John Henry Irons, a cyborg known as “the Man of Tomorrow,” and a humanoid alien calling himself “the Last Son of Krypton.” At a moment when Americans were embroiled in conflicts over multiculturalism, the ethics of genetic science and new medical technologies, immigration reform, and the proper education of the nation’s youth, it was fitting that Superman’s identity crisis would be embodied in four primary figures of the American culture wars: minorities, cyborgs, aliens, and teenagers.
For nearly twenty issues each of these figures took center stage in one of the four Superman comic book titles. Each series, respectively, explored what Superman would be like if he was an African American vigilante fighting crime in Metropolis’s black ghetto, a rebellious and egocentric teenager using his powers for media publicity, an alien wanderer encountering life on Earth for the first time, or a cyborg war machine programmed to maintain law and order by any means necessary. By depicting the literal proliferation of Superman’s body in these four alter egos, comic book creators presented the superhero as a dynamic and contested figure through which readers and creators alike could make claims about who might legitimately represent the American people, and the wider human race, as their heroic ambassador. Ultimately it was revealed that Superman never really died, his body hibernating to allow him to heal before making his miraculous return. For those who followed the story to its conclusion, however, it was clear that despite the Man of Steel’s triumphant return, the “reign of the supermen” would forever shatter the national myth of a one true Superman.
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Where were you when Captain America died?
In April 2007 Captain America died. Where little more than a decade earlier Superman died a martyr to the human race, now the nation’s ultimate patriot would die a traitor to his country, assassinated on the steps of a New York City courthouse. Captain America’s patriotic legacy would be eclipsed by his support of the Superhuman Liberation Front against the regulatory powers of the U.S. government. In the months leading up to his demise, a civil war between Marvel Comics’ greatest heroes would place Captain America on the wrong side of the law with fatal results, fighting against a superhuman Registration Act requiring all masked superheroes to list their identities with the government, becoming a new arm of the security state. In the early 1990s the death of Superman unfolded a story about the changing contours of national citizenship by projecting an expanded vision of who might legitimately count as part of the national “circle of we,” including racial and class minorities, youth, immigrants, and even yet-to-be-realized cyborgs. In the midst of a war on terror, the death of Captain America offered a scathing critique of the radical narrowing of citizenship to the mere exercise of state power in the years following 9/11. That Captain America, the paragon of citizenship, would die as a result of exercising his democratic right to dissent was an irony few could miss.
Yet where DC’s controversial publicity stunt in killing its banner superhero had garnered widespread hostility for its glaring opportunism, Cap’s death was treated as a serious cultural critique of the war on terror and the dramatic undercutting of American civil liberties in the twenty-first century. Financially secure, Marvel Comics did not need to kill Captain America to boost comic book sales; rather the decision appeared to be an attempt to use the heightened cultural capital of the company as an opportunity to develop a genuine dialogue about the deleterious effects of American nationalism. The visual advertising for the story was telling in this respect. In its second printing the cover to Captain America #25 featured Cap bleeding out on the steps of the courthouse, his body riddled with bullets while his colleague and lover Sharon Carter cradles his head. They are surrounded by the dropped protest signs of the crowds who had only minutes before been demanding either his death or his release. The picture is framed by a white border with the words “Captain America: The Death of the Dream,” printed at the top against a folded American flag in an upside-down triangle. On the back cover a white page features this triangle insignia with the words “Where were you when Captain America died?”
The cover links Captain America’s death to national public culture in at least two ways. First, it invokes the image of empty or hollow protest in the face of a violent security state. The front image displays Cap surrounded by the kind of dissent he believed American political culture should foster—indexed by the protest signs that appear at the edges of the frame—yet his dead body speaks to the evacuation of political meaning from these gestures of protest, less arguments for social change than battles over ownership of Cap’s symbolic history. At the same time, by placing Cap’s dying body on the steps of a New York City courthouse, the creators underscored the irony that the very institutions meant to protect citizens and foster justice under the law had become sites of political violence and oppression. Second, the front cover symbolically links Captain America’s death to that of another national icon, John F. Kennedy, and the back cover invokes the question most commonly associated with the president’s assassination: “Where were you when JFK died?” The repeated visual reference to the folded American flag, a traditional icon at the funerals of public officials and military personnel, associates Captain America with the highest levels of national service.
If JFK’s passing signaled the death of one kind of American dream—a vision of liberal progress defined by racial equality, economic prosperity, and political consensus projected by Kennedy’s New Frontier campaign in the early 1960s—Captain America’s demise signaled the death of a related dream, that of a democratic public life where dissent could galvanize social transformation. The meaning of Captain America’s death, however, was not limited merely to the unjust murder of a freedom fighter; the broader narrative surrounding his assassination unfolded an elaborate story about government corruption at the highest levels of power that threatens to undermine the political freedom of every American citizen. In the events leading up to Marvel’s civil war, Captain America traces a vast conspiracy orchestrated by his archnemesis, the Red Skull, to bring about the ruin of the United States. This conspiracy is linked to Kronas, a transnational corporation, and its global affiliates, all culled from former cold war alliances among a network of terrorist organizations, bribed politicians, and corrupt scientists. In this way the creative producers positioned Cap’s body as one node within a locus of points that collectively reveal a secret national history tying global capital, cold war political intrigue, and government corruption to the geopolitical realities of the post-9/11 period.
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A marvelous corpse that unravels the national fantasies that attach to its previously vital skin.
In the deaths of Superman and Captain America we can identify a figure that has propelled the American superhero into the new millennium, a marvelous corpse that unravels the national fantasies that attach to its previously vital skin, pointing us toward unsettled national identities, irreconcilable histories of state and corporate violence, and the visual politics that struggle to articulate them. Since the early 1990s the highly publicized deaths of iconic heroes like Superman and Captain America have garnered passionate responses from both non-comics-reading audiences and fans who have mourned the passing of these characters as symbolic of the loss of American political idealism. More important, the deaths of these iconic figures gained their cultural meaning alongside a broader trend in superhero comics to depict superhumans as perpetually threatened by mass extinction, genocide, and hostile conflict with humankind. In the 1990s and 2000s the cosmopolitan world-making projects celebrated by superhero comics after World War II have been increasingly depicted as running up against the limits of postnational tolerance. I want to suggest that the contemporary obsession with images of the superheroic body subjected to physical torture or death is intimately related to public perceptions of citizenship as a bankrupt category of political life and the failure of postwar human rights discourse to prevent mass suffering and global violence.
Simultaneously the narrative profusion of “crisis” events in postmillennial superhero comics symbolizes the full absorption of the comic book industry into the workings of neoliberal capital. Rather than being exceptional narrative occurrences that punctuate broader stories of fictional world making, earth-shattering crisis events—including the deaths of iconic heroes, the destruction of alien planets and star systems, the erasure of fictional timelines, and the extinction of entire populations of humans and superhumans—are now the primary storytelling mode of superhero comics. These narratives are relentlessly exploited for their ability to sell comics because of their visual spectacle and violent unmaking of fictional worlds. They embody in fantasy form the actual temporal rhythms of the neoliberal security state, which unfolds historically as a series of seemingly never-ending political crises, economic shocks, acts of local and state violence, and mass death in the name of corporate profit and upward mobility for the privileged few at the expense of the world.
Historically Marvel and DC Comics have offered a host of reasons for “killing” their characters: to encourage new readership, to reinvent a character by dramatizing a transformative resurrection, to increase sales figures, to highlight supporting characters, or to decisively end a series. The most telling of these, however, is the desire to imagine what kind of world might emerge when an iconic figure no longer occupies it. Superheroes die when they no longer to make sense in a particular world. Their return signals either an attempt to reinstate the authority of the heroic liberal fantasy—to claim, for instance, that the world “needs” Superman—or a demand that the body of the superhero perform a new kind of discursive work. In texts like Robert Morales’s Truth: Red, White, and Black or Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, writers have imagined alternative histories for iconic characters, including an originary black Captain America and a Soviet Superman. These stories rely on the conceptual (if not actual) death of characters to clear a space for narrating alternative stories of heroic development that highlight the erasure of complex racial and national politics in the production of American superheroes. Morales’s Truth follows the lives and deaths of four African American soldiers exploited by the U.S. government as guinea pigs for the superserum that would ultimately transform Steve Rogers into the officially recognized Captain America. The narrative explicitly links the image of the white nationalist superhero to histories of medical violence, exploitation, and murder of black bodies in the name of national security. In this way the marvelous corpse can reveal the superhero to us anew, staging a scene of misrecognition whereby we may see in the image of the superhero not ourselves, uncritically sutured to the ideals of national culture, but rather the uneven material realities that unfold from such a fantasy. The deaths themselves open up spaces, both discursively and literally on the comic book page, where national culture can be redefined and inhabited by new figures. Consequently the visual dramas that ensue from the deaths of figures like Superman and Captain America are battles over who will ultimately hold power over these new spaces of possibility.
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The marvelous corpse offers to bear the burden of death so that others may be free of the fear that prevents them from claiming their political liberty. The marvelous corpse… [encourages] one to fear the loss of liberty more than the threat of death.
Despite its many variants, the marvelous corpse has found its most generative expressions in two related figurations: the physically enervated corpse and the superhero’s diseased body. The former has been popularized in the deaths of Superman and Captain America, which depict the violently murdered body of the superhero as a visual metaphor for the political enervation of democratic citizenship, while the latter has become most visible in the X-Men series whose introduction of “The Legacy Virus” in the early 1990s, a comic book corollary to the AIDS epidemic, links the mutant superhero to the suffering of racial minorities, the working poor, and sexual and gender outlaws murderously neglected by government and medical institutions. In both cases the marvelous corpse has offered a visual meditation on what it would mean for the superhero to develop an antisocial relationship to the state and the national community, to embrace the value of death as a way to galvanize public action against constricting political possibilities.
The marvelous corpse overturns one of the single longest-running assumptions of liberal political thought: the idea that life is indicative of political freedom and agency, while death signals the ultimate limit of political recognition. In the marvelous corpse, superhero comics have vitalized a figure of political impotence through the recognition that the vulnerability of the body can be a site for developing an ethical responsibility for one’s fellow companions on Earth. Within the logic that animated the Golden Age superhero of the World War II period, the very idea of the dead or dying superhero would have been impossible, or at least illegible; after all, the constitutive fantasy of the superhero in its original form was its physical invulnerability and its symbolic immortality. For superheroes to face death was to suggest that they were not superhuman to begin with. The marvelous corpse, then, is a figure whose conditions of possibility were forged with the reinvention of the superhero in postwar America as an icon of vulnerability existing at the limits of the human. In this framework the superhero’s death implies that the figure has become like any other citizen, capable of harm and needing the collective protection of others. Through their deaths, these figures place the onus of responsibility for thinking alternative modes of political community in the hands of reading audiences rather than in the fictional worlds of superhero comics.
The death of Captain America offers a paradigmatic example of the marvelous corpse as a figure that demands action in the face of political despair. Murdered in the midst of uncovering a vast conspiracy that ties the U.S. government to corporate espionage and fascist political organizations, Captain America leaves behind a political mystery that is taken up by his heroic friends and colleagues. At the same time, his corpse becomes a visual index of the failures of public culture, demanding readers to acknowledge the real-world networks of power that deny the possibility of public dissent and constrict the alternative practices of citizenship. In the death of Captain America the narrative returns to his corpse only twice following his assassination: in the hospital he is taken to immediately following the shooting, where a vacant eye stares out at the reader from a bloody gurney, and then on an autopsy table where Sharon and Tony Stark (Iron Man) stare in disbelief at the remains. In this disturbing second image, Cap’s body is displayed before the reader as a husk of its former vital self, having degenerated beyond recognition in a matter of days. Echoing iconic images of holocaust victims from World War II, the scene jolts the reader’s memory of the very people Captain America had been tasked with liberating in the 1940s. Stark suspects that the superserum injected into Cap by the U.S. government in 1941 has reversed its effects following his death. In Captain America’s emaciated cadaver, we see the national subject reduced to a body significant only as a corpse carrying the trace of a former life vitalized by the state. Not a monolithic symbol, Cap’s body bears the burden of time as it deteriorates before our very eyes across the span of the comic strip. Here the narrative grants Cap a corporeal history previously denied him by the state, which sought to preserve his body as a youthful simulacrum of its own symbolic immortality.
In “The Death of Superman,” we learn that Superman’s body remains vital even after his passing, as though his symbolic and corporeal status could easily stand in for one another. Here there is no reconsolidation or vitalizing resurrection to be had; there is only the fact that death unfolds as a corporeal reality of the symbolic politics of national security. If the fear of death is what allows the security state to maintain power over its subjects, continually reminding them of threats to their physical security as a way of legitimizing the dismantling of civil liberties, the marvelous corpse offers to bear the burden of death so that others may be free of the fear that prevents them from claiming their political liberty. The marvelous corpse reverses the logic of political security by encouraging one to fear the loss of liberty more than the threat of death.
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The genocidal destruction of mutants has made billions for Marvel.
And yet. If the mainstream comic book industry has been willing to explore the deathly underside of contemporary citizenship, it is in part because it has survived, even thrived, beyond its own figurative death. In 1994, after years of ceaseless character licensing, successful corporate marketing campaigns, and the diffusion of direct-market publishing, Marvel surprisingly filed for bankruptcy. Despite their relative success in reviving the comic book industry in the 1980s, both DC and Marvel had invested themselves in the speculation markets that had sprung up to take advantage of increasing comic book values, especially those of vintage and rare issues of classic Golden and Silver Age comics. Both attempted to create expanded value in their contemporary comics by overproducing collectible special editions, so-called variant and holographic covers, memorabilia, and limited-run licensed products. Ultimately they invested in high-cost products that a newer generation of young noncollectors could not afford to buy. The speculation bubble they helped produce inevitably popped, leaving both companies in a massive economic slump. Yet, in the most exceptional of neoliberal comebacks, both companies, rather than fold, managed to flexibly accommodate the shifting market trends of the mid-1990s. Kept afloat by their larger corporate ownerships (Marvel Entertainment Group and Warner Bros., respectively) during their economic tribulations, the comic book production arms of Marvel and DC shifted the focus of their operations toward the film and television industries, global branding, and character licensing campaigns. These areas of production have dominated the industry ever since. In 1994 Marvel was bankrupt; in 2009 Walt Disney bought the company and its stable of characters for over $4 billion. This was arguably one of the greatest feats of flexible corporate management of the late twentieth century, a death and resurrection to rival that of any superhero.
In the realm of comics the real-world economic upheavals of the market that Marvel and DC have managed to weather find their fictive corollaries in the countless crisis events that superhuman characters must survive, manage, overcome, or be obliterated by since the mid-1990s. These cataclysms shock the fictional worlds of both companies, yet they have also proven to be best-selling narrative events that encourage Marvel and DC to make each apocalyptic crisis outdo the last. Since the late 1980s DC Comics has rebooted (or erased and restructured) its fictional universe at least four times in narrative crossover events, including “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985), “Zero-Hour: Crisis in Time” (1994; in which the formerly benevolent Green Lantern becomes a god-like psychopath, Parallax, who destroys time itself), “Infinite Crisis,” (2005–6), and “Final Crisis” (2008). Similarly Marvel Comics’ X-Men franchise, which was once driven by rich character development and visually exuberant adventure stories, is now narratively organized around a series of escalating mutant extinction events. As the titles of just some of these stories since the late 1980s suggest—“Fall of the Mutants” (1988), “X-tinction Agenda” (1990), “Age of Apocalypse” (1995–96), “E Is for Extinction” (2001), and “Endangered Species” (2007)—mutants no longer have much time to engage in cross-cultural encounter and global humanitarianism since they spend most of their days trying to survive genocide. Despite its production of mass superheroic deaths, the narrative and visual rhetoric of crisis might be seen as the political antithesis of the marvelous corpse. The narrative rapidity of crisis narratives, and their visual imperative to depict acts of world-rending violence, leaves minimal creative space to address complex political categories like citizenship, the nation, race, human rights, and democracy. If the marvelous corpse makes citizenship and its uneven distribution visible by locating the dead superhero’s body as the site of an undemocratic injustice that must be redressed, crisis reduces the complex field of superheroic action to flexible survivors or unlucky victims. In a recent issue of the newly revitalized New Mutants, the X-Men team leader Cyclops tells Dani Moonstar, “Managing change is our specialty.” Against the former depiction of the mutant as a figure of radical flux, negotiating multiple identities and affiliations in a complex social world, the mutant has now become a stolid icon of neoliberal flexibility, adapting with clenched jaw and an instinct for survival to the heightened crises of late capitalism. Such crises now repeatedly include the genocide of socially undesirable or economically unviable mutant populations. Of course, representing the genocidal destruction of mutants has made billions for Marvel.
Unsurprisingly, many contemporary superhero comics appear enamored of both the perils and the mystique of neoliberal capitalism, oscillating between a distrust of corporate power (most forcefully expressed in corporate conspiracy narratives like “The Death of Captain America”) and a gleeful depiction of conspicuous consumption. For example, in the recently revamped Marvel Comics title All New X-Factor, yet another of the many series in the X-Men franchise, readers are presented with a fully corporate superhero team that bears the logo of their company, Serval Industries (read “serve all”), on each issue’s cover. The first collected volume of the series is titled “Not Brand X,” an attempt to rebelliously distinguish the All-New X-Factor from the classic X-Men franchise. Yet in this supposedly ironic move, the comic book openly admits that the X-Men is a full-fledged Marvel Comics brand, while X-Factor’s “rebellion” against that imprint merely involves taking on the name of a fictional corporate brand. This further obscures the fact that both comics are the product of a real corporation, Marvel Entertainment Group, whose logo appears on all X-Men titles. If this weren’t enough, the recent storylines of the X-Men franchise reveal an almost pathological obsession with money: even as they are figured as an “endangered species” fighting for their survival, the X-Men are also repeatedly presented as “kadjillionaires” whose funds come from a variety of corporate ventures that allow them, among other things, to relocate to San Francisco, buy thousands of acres of property in the Marin Headlands, and build a state-of-the-art mutant sanctuary called Utopia, equipped with the world’s most advanced technology, weapons, flight gear, and medical facilities. In light of creative decisions that refuse to acknowledge the realities of global recession, the national wealth gap, and rampant poverty among minority populations, one wonders how the X-Men can continue to be identified with outcasts, misfits, and queers if they are part of the economic 1 percent.
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The mass deaths of iconic characters in numerous crisis events is now offset by the introduction of an expanding list of iconic racial, sexual, and gender minorities.
The answer to this question lies in the comic book industry’s contemporary identity politics, which involves obscuring corporate profits through the spectacular representational diversity of Marvel’s and DC’s character rosters. In the same period that Marvel and DC have recovered from financial loss, made exceptional gains in film, television, and licensing, and upped the stakes of their most popular superhero stories with countless crisis events, both companies have found their previous investment in left-wing political imaginaries dovetailing with contemporary rights-based discourses and the politics of representation, most notably in the form of gay rights advocacy. Unsurprisingly they have unabashedly capitalized on this fortuitous alliance. Both companies have invested huge amounts of creative talent and marketing in depicting gay superheroes and a wider array of racial minorities and women, framing each one of their decisions to expand the range of superhero representation as an expression of their progressive values and their supposedly benevolent attention to the needs of a diverse readership. The mass deaths of iconic characters in numerous crisis events is now offset by the introduction of an expanding list of iconic racial, sexual, and gender minorities: a disabled Batgirl, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, a gay Batwoman and Green Lantern (from a parallel Earth), a teenage gay couple in Marvel’s Young Avengers, a transgender alien teenager in Marvel’s Runaways, a black Captain America, and a female version of Thor, not to mention the late coming out of formerly straight characters like Shan Coy Manh (Karma) of the New Mutants, among countless others. If this trend weren’t clear enough, in 2008 writer Matt Fraction relocated the X-Men from their Westchester headquarters to San Francisco, the unofficial “gay mecca,” finally making explicit the analogy between mutants and gays and lesbians that had been implicit in the series for decades. Of course, even though the X-Men were now framed as an “endangered species,” the analogy did not extend so far as to compare their dwindling numbers to the loss of countless gay and minority lives over the past three decades from AIDS (an analogy the franchise had been willing to make in the early 1990s with the introduction of the Legacy Virus); rather, in the contemporary neoliberal moment, in which gays and lesbians appear to be achieving their full civil liberties with their assimilation into the capitalist economy and the wedding complex, mutants and queers could be compared only if both appeared as economically thriving denizens of the Golden Gate city.
Certainly these representations are not all equivalent, nor do they collectively prove a single, unified philosophy of neoliberal multiculturalism shared by creators and corporate management. Yet they do illuminate a trend toward diversification without creative world-making practices that has undoubtedly dulled, if not wholly undermined, the radical political edge of comic books in the contemporary moment. This is, in part, due to the fact that modern American culture no longer has a visible, clearly defined set of radical political movements that can provide an alternative to both liberal and conservative U.S. politics and consequently offer comics a language of radical difference to address the unique realities and social demands of a world dominated by the logic of globalization. Of course, the popular fantasy spaces of comic books successfully invented new kinds of political imaginaries throughout the late twentieth century when faced with the impasses of left-wing movements. Not only do those movements no longer hold sway on the popular imagination, but comics are no longer motivated to revitalize them. In the absence of attachments to world-making movements such as black power, the Third World left, women’s and gay liberation, and AIDS activism, creators now promise audiences the pleasure of seeing their own diverse identities—as gays and lesbians, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, and African and Asian Americans—represented in their favorite superhero comics, but no sense that the heterogeneity of those identities could and should change the world.
The depiction of the first gay superhero wedding in comics’ history in the pages of the X-Men is a case in point. In spring 2012 Marvel made the shocking announcement that it would feature its first gay superhero, Northstar (who had come out in 1992 but subsequently remained a minor character until the mid-2000s), getting married to his African American boyfriend, Kyle. Like the deaths of Superman and Captain America, the event made headline news, upping the ante on Marvel’s racial and sexual progressivism by featuring an interracial gay marriage. Yet the story’s purported political progressivism hinged on downplaying these “real” differences in order to highlight a greater fictional interpersonal conflict between the two lovers over their differences as an ordinary human (Kyle) and superhuman mutant (Northstar). The story of their wedding (which depicted the lovers overcoming this fictional difference) was less interesting than the visual advertising for the event, particularly the cover image to the variant edition of Astonishing X-Men #51, the wedding issue. The cover is a double-page wrap-around spread that appears as a wall of family photos. On the back cover we see eight framed photos of famous superhero weddings from the history of Marvel Comics: Storm and Black Panther, Scarlet Witch and Vision, Jean Grey and Scott Summers, among others. They are a motley crew of mutants, aliens, cyborgs, and minorities of all stripes appearing in various romantic unions. On the bottom are two more images: to the left a portrait of Marvel’s first couple, Reed Richards and Sue Storm, on their wedding day, and to the right, the two grooms, Jean-Paul and Kyle, embracing each other in their matrimonial tuxedoes. Above these images of the first and latest Marvel weddings appears an oversize white frame with a stenciled outline, presumably available for the reader to insert a picture of his or her own wedding beneath the famous X-Men logo.
Where Marvel’s cosmopolitan ethos of the 1960s and 1970s offered conceptual tools for readers to scale upward from individual experiences to broader networks of collective life, this image promotes a dramatic scaling downward from the heterogeneous political imaginaries of superhero comics to the personal, sentimental narratives of romantic coupling. Specifically the cover transforms the complex history of Marvel’s various characters into a progressive narrative of interracial and cross-cultural marriages that embody the assimilation of difference in the values of heterosexual life narratives. The blank space allows Marvel Comics itself to be a perpetual bearer of the gift of assimilation, allowing any and all readers to insert themselves into this string of iconic weddings in perpetuity. This is underscored by the fact that the cover is a direct visual echo of the famed 2006 Time “Man of the Year” cover, which featured a square of reflective paper that could effectively make every reader part of Time’s vision of the information age, defined by anonymous identities contributing user content to the World Wide Web. In borrowing this visual iconography, the Astonishing X-Men cover similarly flattens (or at least sentimentally homogenizes) the heterogeneity of individual readers’ life experiences into the traditional image of heterosexual reproduction and generation, another photo to add to the family wedding album.
In late June 2014, nearly two years after the special wedding issue was published, I saw a copy of this variant cover issue displayed at a comic book store in San Francisco’s Castro district, arguably the nation’s most recognized gay neighborhood. It was displayed front and center, at eyeline on the front door, in the week leading up to Gay Pride, the most visible public gay event in the country. Weeks later, in case anyone had missed the point, the display now had a sign attached to it: “Tape your wedding photo on the wedding album inspired cover!” I was mesmerized by the confluence of a highly corporatized gay national event (the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, which city residents have protested for its corporate sponsorship and profiteering) with the gay representational politics of the nation’s best-selling superhero comic book. Who could blame gay comics readers for feeling pride and exhilaration when a beloved series that had implicitly celebrated their experience of oppression for four decades finally came out of the proverbial closet and acknowledged their existence? Yet who could ignore the fact that after decades of queer world-making, Marvel Comics had chosen to capitalize on one of the most conservative political issues of contemporary gay and lesbian cultural life, the demand for assimilation into the institution of marriage? By 2014 queerness, like mutation, had become so profitable as to make a single comic book issue continue to sell two years after its initial publication, and to the very demographic—the LGBT community—that had provided the series with its greatest conceptual force as a distinctly queer world-making project since the 1970s.
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I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship. I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. ‘Truth, justice, and the American way’—it’s not enough anymore.
The fact that recent creative decisions in superhero comics often lack the cosmopolitan spirit of postwar comic book production does not mean that such possibilities no longer exist. As the figure of the marvelous corpse suggests, those possibilities are now most commonly found at the margins of contemporary superhero fantasy worlds, appearing in bodies, spaces, and narratives of political negativity that resist the demand to flexibly accommodate the attrition of political life in the name of capitalist profit. These marginalized narratives and figures wield the conceptual power of the What if? that creators so masterfully deployed in their reinvention of the superhero as a social and species outcast in the postwar period: What if the superhero was no longer human? What if the superhero was no longer only a national citizen? What if superheroes belonged to no single person, nation, or planet, but to the world? These were the questions that animated the postwar superhero comic book and galvanized a three decades long exploration of the nature and possibility of alternative citizenship, belonging, and affiliation that would define the long Silver Age of comics history.
Contemporary What if? narratives are stories that take place in alternate universes separate from the official fictive timelines of traditional superhero narratives. These stories provide a space where the cosmopolitan political visions of postwar comics make their limited return, sometimes putting enough pressure on the traditional continuity of superhero comics to break through and become legitimate happenings in their own right. They range from the brilliantly conceived and executed—such as Robert Morales’s “historical” recovery of the black Captain America corpse in Truth: Red, White and Black, and Mark Millar’s conception of Superman as a Soviet everyman in Superman: Red Son—to the scattershot, the clumsy, and the bizarre. Regardless of their aesthetic purchase, all What if? stories have the potential to experiment with creative possibilities that remain beyond the political scope of contemporary comic book imaginaries, much as the mainstream comics that preceded them had done across the second half of the twentieth century. The value of What if? stories, then, lies in their imaginative premise, namely the possibility of asking the superhero, and its most compelling fantasies, to do and to be something else.
In May 2011 DC Comics announced that in an upcoming storyline, Superman would officially renounce his U.S. citizenship. Though it was not officially touted as a What if? story, this short nine-page feature presented near the end of the milestone Action Comics #900 (the series that introduced Superman in its inaugural 1939 issue) quickly gained legendary status as a kind of speculative fiction meditating on the future possibilities for remaking the Man of Steel. The story depicts Superman’s decision to repudiate his national ties after being criticized by the Iranian government for supporting nonviolent student protest in the country. The Iranian government lambastes Superman on the assumption that his actions are based on orders from the U.S. government. In a heated confrontation with the U.S. president’s national security advisor, Superman declares, “I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship. I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. ‘Truth, justice, and the American way’—it’s not enough anymore.” While some news media, bloggers, and cultural critics marveled over this seemingly radical creative decision to dislodge Superman’s national loyalties, others criticized the hype around a seemingly minor (and generally immaterial) storyline to the larger Superman mythos. What few, if any, commentators acknowledged was the fact that Superman’s public renunciation of U.S. citizenship simply confirmed his long-standing identity as a citizen of the world, which he had claimed for more than half a century. As I have sought to show in the preceding chapters, this cosmopolitan spirit of global engagement was the defining feature of the postwar superhero comic book, galvanizing its most powerful fantasies and most beloved characters. Such an ethos necessarily relied on the superhero’s material and symbolic vulnerability. For Superman to formally renounce his national ties means that he could potentially inhabit one of the most vulnerable political subjectivities of our time: the stateless subject or refugee. Invoking the marvelous corpse as a symbolic “dead” citizen, this seemingly minor story poses a question of philosophical magnitude: What if the American superhero no longer had a country? The allegiances and solidarities superheroes can forge once they declare themselves stateless subjects and universal citizens remains to be seen. But if the past forty years of superhero storytelling offers any indication, those unwritten encounters might remake the world as we know it.
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