What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part Three)

You discuss the “queerness” of certain superhero characters — notably the Fantastic Four. In what senses are you using this term and what does it capture about these characters and their relationship to the dominant construction of American family life during this period?

I use the term queerness broadly to describe modes of being in the world that thwart the direction of presumed heterosexual desire and life outcomes, including monogamous romantic coupling, marriage, and reproduction. The terms strikes me as an incredibly powerful and compelling descriptor of comic book superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s because these characters’ stories focused so intently on the ways that misfit, outcast, and mutant superheroes constructed alternative kinships, struggled with competing romantic desires, found themselves more invested in relationships with other outcasts (as opposed to traditional marriage and romance), and often sidelined the goal of reproduction for other practices of world-making.

The Fantastic Four is a brilliant example of the queerness of superhero comics in the 1960s because it depicted four heroes who’s family bond is a chosen kinship (two of the characters are bound by blood but they are orphans). The four become a family both because of their shared experience of being mutated by cosmic rays, but also because of shared ethical values and investments.

The flexibility of their kinships allows them to pursue relationships of affinity and common cause with all manner of life in the universe so that, within the first decade of the series publication, the characters had made allies and community throughout the cosmos. Finally, because queerness references questions of intimacy, sexuality, and kinship, it allows us to talk about how comics successfully projected new kinds of bodily fantasies through these categories, and by making the superhero more vulnerable to human needs and desires.

There has been a concerted effort by Marvel in recent years to diversify their cast of superhero characters, thus we have a black Spider-man, an American Muslim Ms. Marvel, an all-female superhero team, a female Thor, in comics and the emergence of Jessica Jones and Agent Carter on television. In what ways is this push to diversity an outgrowth of the developments you discuss here? In what ways are the underlying approaches to diversity different?

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Ultimately, I think the difference between today’s diversification of characters in Marvel Comics versus the diversity presented in 1960s and 1970s comic book worlds is a distinction between the goals of representational diversity on the one hand, and the investment in exploring the problem of difference on the other. In other words, the mere expansion of different kinds of characters—women, ethno-racial minorities, the disabled etc.—is distinct from the project of exploring how people are different from one another and what they do in response to those differences.

Certainly, the creative world-making of 1960s and 1970s comic book production involved an expansion of the representational diversity of superhero characters—including the introduction of African American, Native American, and international casts of characters and increasing numbers of women superheroes—but this diversification took place within a broader ethos of exploring difference, encountering a range of people throughout the universe, and responding to their unique worldviews.

There are many elements of today’s increasingly representational diversity that are compelling, but this push lacks a fundamental attentiveness or interest in the problem of difference—that is, how people negotiate the fact of their differences from one another—which leaves the diversity of contemporary superhero characters flat and, frankly, boring. I discuss the distinction between these two models of diversity at length in a piece I wrote for Avidly the LA Review of Books blog: http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2016/01/28/the-difference-a-mutant-makes/.

What is interesting about a character like Jessica Jones, to take one example, is not simply that she is a woman superhero, but that she is different than most superheroes in the Marvel Universe because she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to use her powers for a broader ethical mission. She is, at core, a good person, but she doesn’t have grandiose visions of her own heroism.

This is a difference that matters, in a sense, because it means her motivations, investments, and actions are guided by totally different criteria than most of her fellow superhumans in the Marvel Universe. Her gender plays a role in this difference and significantly shapes how she views hero work, but it isn’t the single or most important variable in the formation of her character.

The series explores the multiple articulations of her difference from other Marvel heroes, including but not limited to her gender, and paints a beautifully complex, gritty, and sometimes unpleasant portrait of this deeply divided character. Her series, then, addressed a substantive difference while also diversifying the ranks of superhero comic books. This is the kind of diversity I find compelling, what I would call true heterogeneity, and that I argue superhero comics championed in the 1960s and after.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies