Mar 15 2013 12:00pm

Scholar Uncovers the Fantastic Four’s Secret Identity Politics

To be a fan is to place oneself apart—or perhaps to be apart is to find a community of what enthuses you while the mainstream passes by. This is a model that forms a natural affinity between the outlying culture of comics and the outcast social status of queer identity. As both of those communities assume a central place in society while they retain their fringe perspective, it’s worth examining the unnoticed path they took and the widened futures it points to.

Comics could not have a more enthusiastic close-reader than George Washington and Georgetown Universities’ Dr. Ramzi Fawaz, who addressed a City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center classroom this week (March 13) with his lecture “‘Flame On!’: Nuclear Families, Unstable Molecules, and the Queer History of The Fantastic Four” (open to the public and sponsored by the university’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies [CLAGS]).

Gay superheroes are becoming a staple of comic-universe populations—and comics companies’ hardworking press-release departments—and Fawaz’s lecture examined not the surface that normalizes difference but the subtext in which differences can act more freely to affect change in the world. The original Lee & Kirby Fantastic Four existed in an era of American consensus where dissent was coded in pop culture (especially rock-music rebellion), and Fawaz sees this mutated family unit as a symbol of the differently-adapted individual, the nucleus of a chain-reaction of counterculture that would overtake the real-universe America by the end of the same decade.

His idea that comics about social variation can be “queer” in sensibility even if they have not one queer character—perhaps more so, rather than having a handful of gay heroes that can be reabsorbed into the overall order of a status-quo superteam—is one that’s been echoed by New York Times editorialist and race-relations historian Brent Staples, who has remarked on how archetypal loners, literally caught between worlds, like the Silver Surfer, resonated with his experience as a Black reader in a racially divided country more than did the handful of “minority” characters introduced in those times ostensibly for readers of color to identify with.

Star Trek producer Rick Berman used to answer gay and gay-positive fans’ calls for more representation of sexual difference in that franchise by saying the creative team would rather provoke thought by dealing with the issue metaphorically, and it wasn’t just a matter of “having two men or two women in [the Enterprise lounge] holding hands”; at the time I thought it totally should be, because abstract and one-time big deals are not as important as full-time images that make us deal with it.

After Fawaz’s lecture I wasn’t so sure—the fanfare that follows various superheroes’ outings may well keep their real-life counterparts in a niche while the overall solidarity of misfits, minorities of one, in classic Marvel may have been more inspiring to isolated queer kids in a repressed era. (There is a sweet spot between invisibility and one-dimensionality, of course—when, in the brilliant current reboot of Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, a gay hero says to the worried boyfriend who’s asked him, unsuccessfully, to avoid dangerous crimefighting, that “I’m not going to spend my life in the phone booth,” it’s a resonantly absurd reference that takes us into a full world of what it must be like to be in that story, not be plucked out of it for one trait we recognize in our own world.)

Fawaz detailed the wardrobe of masculinity among the FF’s three leading men—pliant, effete intellectual Reed Richards, hardbodied but insecure Ben Grimm, literally flaming, unruly yet envied Johnny Storm—and the assertive femininity of Sue Storm, in control of what males can see through her invisibility and able to literally repel them with her force fields. Lee & Kirby certainly explored the spectrum of possible personality types in an age of blurring and redefining roles—Thor’s sidekicks the Warriors Three alone are almost like a male burlesque troupe of available identities, with the fastidious Fandral, grim hypermasculine Hogun and hedonistic man-bear Volstagg.

I’d be interested to see what Fawaz has to say about the latter-day Fantastic Fours—and Fantastic Four types—in which the gender balance is flipped and there are three main female characters to one often unwise and impetuous male (Casey & Scioli’s Gødland, Fraction & Allred’s FF). It’s worthy of further study, and Fawaz is doing the homework, with his upcoming book The New Mutants: Comic Book Superheroes and Popular Fantasy in Postwar America (forthcoming from NYU Press as part of its series “Postmillennial Pop”).

The book will no doubt open more eyes about the worth of fantasy and the essential community embedded in the fact of each of us, ultimately, being different than anyone else. The world, and we, are changing daily, and if you are your own person but wish not to be alone, then, however you think of yourself, you’re on the team.

Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comicbooks for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip, the acclaimed indie broadsheet POOD, and GG Studios, blogs regularly for and ComicCritique and posts at his own risk on the recently launched Fanchild. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements.  His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises. 

Jeff S.
1. Jeff S.
Not having read the full thesis, I'm not disputing it; but I do think that a cautionary note is necessary. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Since the FF comic was created in the 60's in what was then a market for children, it might be possible to read too much of a subtext into it. The kids who read comic books in that (or today's) era, often saw themselves, and were seen by their peers, as misfits and minorities of one whether gay or straight.
Jeff S.
2. scottyy
That's quite the load of pseudo-intellectual claptrap there.
Jeff S.
3. BenjaminJB
The debate over whether texts should invest in metaphoric otherness vs. specific otherness slightly reminds me of a very interesting quote from a paper on gayness in Heinlein's Puppet Masters. ::Riffling through papers, finding it::

In Christ West's "Queer Fears and Critical Orthodoxies: The Strange Case of Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters" (Foundation 86 (Autumn 2002), 17-27), the academic, sf fan, and homosexual West argues against previous critics who praised Heinlein for not marking some effeminate incompetents as outright queer. He notes, "Still, in resisting this logic the gay man vanishes, and to my mind this is too high a price to pay. I'd rather have a history, even one of ridicule and vilification, than not have one at all."

Now, this takes a totally different slant on things, that of the villain rather than the hero as identificatory object; but as other critics have noted, villains often mirror their heroes or have some good qualities.

But let's put that all to the side for a slightly different identity politics. That picture up there of the Thing complaining about being called a sissy--that street that he's on is Yancy, which is a fictional form of Delancey, which is on the Lower East Side, known for its working-class and immigrant (and Jewish) inhabitants.

Maybe I feel this more strongly since I share two names (Benjamin Jacob) with the Thing, a pretty golemy mensch who pals around with the most goyische WASPs. But I wonder how ethnic/religious and class identities play with Fawaz's thoughts about queerness? Are the Thing's Jewish and working-class identities more or less easily escaped than an LGBTQ identity?

(Of course, the production side of Marvel at this time probably features more working-class-raised Jews than any other identity, but maybe that muddies the water.)
Jeff S.
4. SF
As a transgender comic book reader, while in my teens and twenties, I found great comfort in the X-men and later in Morrison's Doom Patrol (among other titles). If lesbian and gay characters have been rare, and are still rare, trans characters are almost non-existent, in the mainstream at least. So you tend to find yourself cross-identifying, or situationally identifying, or metaphorically identifying, with characters who do not overtly represent your own experiences or align with them in a simple, direct manner.

Obviously, then, I agree with some of the ideas presented here and in Dr. Fawaz's presentation. And I'd guess that the "idea that that comics about social variation can be “queer” in sensibility even if they have not one queer character" is familiar to and has been employed by other LGBTQ readers. The idea of queer readings of straight-seeming texts also has a tradition in film and media studies (Alexander Doty, etc.). And I've seen those sorts of readings applied by various non-academic comics bloggers. In my experience, the potential and potentially helpful connection between superheroes and the queer experience is kind of a given.

I'm wondering, then, is this a new-seeming idea for readers who are straight, cis-gendered or non-academic? I don't mean this as a criticism of the article (and I don't mean to presume anything about either your or Dr. Fawaz's sexual or gender identity), but as a genuine question. It's just that I'd assumed people were generally aware of the applicability of superheroes in this regard.

I think I do disagree with this part of the article: "the fanfare that follows various superheroes’ outings may well keep their real-life counterparts in a niche while the overall solidarity of misfits, minorities of one, in classic Marvel may have been more inspiring to isolated queer kids in a repressed era."

I understand what you're saying, that fear of breaks with the status quo being subsumed by and rendered inert within the status quo (as happens with musical rebellion again and again). But, again speaking from personal experience, seeing representations of oneself in fiction, or even knowing that there is a possibility of seeing one's own self represented in fiction, is still important.

Or to counter the Berman example, my life isn't a metaphorical issue. Metaphor can be powerful, effective, useful, but so can simple, direct representation. It would be nice if both avenues were available. And keep in mind that representation can help not only the represented, but also those who are not familiar with, or usually don't think about, the represented. And if commonality of representation (or the common possibility of representation) reduces some of the potency of the metaphorical approach, that may be a good thing in the long run.

Anyways, thanks for the article. Happy to see this kind of thing getting discussion.
Jeff S.
5. Dr. Thanatos
I don't know about the gender thing. I just wonder about a guy who gets super-powers and the first thing he does is name himself Mr. Fantastic and calls his fiance the Invisible Girl. Seems to me his issue is less gender identity and more narcissistic personality disorder...
Jeff S.
6. Jeff S.
SF - Re: your questions as to whether this is a new idea for straight readers, try to find a copy on DVD of "The Tick" tv series that ran for about nine episodes (I'm sure Amazon will still have it). There are two episodes that play into this: one that presents a superhero and his sidekick (both male) as an abusive spousal relationship; and one in which the family of the Tick's sidekick commit him to a mental institution to cure him of his "abnormality."
Jeff S.
7. SF
@Jeff S. - Thanks. I was thinking less of things like that, where there seems to be a reasonably clear queer subtext, or a clear and apparently intended one, and more of things like what McGovern was writing about and Fawaz was speaking about - the potential for non-queer texts (texts that are not overtly or intentionally queer in their construction) to sustain queer readings. And the awareness of non-queer (or more generally non-minority) readers of that potential utility readily existing within the superhero genre.

Maybe I was just caught up with what McGovern was using as a hook to talk about Fawaz's presentation.
Jeff S.
8. AdamMcGovern
@BenjaminJB, I think Marvel heroes could find space for multiple layers of identity under their street-clothes, so to speak; the not-so-subtext of Kirby's ethnic and geographic upbringing was always present, and I've long felt that Peter Parker is metaphorically Jewish (perhaps because I am, not so metaphorically, under my Irish name), and in his talk Dr. Fawaz noted Parker as more a signifier of class identity and challenges, though I know Gail Simone insists that Parker's dyspeptic lovelife and general anxiety are due to the fact that he hasn't come out, which brings us full-circle :-).

@SF, I think the gay subtext, or resonance, has always been in superhero fiction and that recognition of this, from the haters (Wertham) to the sympathizers (Chabon, in Kavalier & Clay) is long-standing, as I assume comprehension in the "general" population is -- I process the world so metaphorically I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car :-), but whenever shades of interpretation are involved I disclaim it a bit to bring all readers up to speed just in case it doesn’t seem as natural to them as it does to me.

Though there is a danger in tokenizing LGBTQ characters, so Dr. Fawaz's theme of the sensibility having a lot more room to inhabit superhero lit is still, I believe, an urgent and useful and in some ways unusual one. On the other hand, yeah, nobody wants to get allegorized out of visibility or existence, which is why I included the Young Avengers example; recent Batwoman is another good case where LGBTQ characters are new-normal, not normalized away, and I personally don’t think specific LGBTQ characters, or characters of color, need be in an either-or dynamic with abstractions. As a reluctantly white and essentially straight male (with gender expression that covers the map), I’d rather see many shades of personality and perspective, and just 'cuz entertainment corporations can exploit it doesn’t mean a range of real people won’t win out in the end -- and to win, I agree, they have to be there.
Jeff S.
9. SF
@AdamMcGovern - Thanks for the reply. And I agree with the pitfalls of potential tokenizing. It's tricky ground to maneuver through. Young Avengers and Batwoman are both good, successful examples.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
I agree with the premise that one of the unspoken themes of comic books is to value and appreciate the outsider or the person that is different from others, the loners and the awkward. As a youngster, I was small for my age, slender, wore glasses from a young age, was uncoordinated, softspoken and bookish, and was sometimes bullied because of that. So I took to comics like a duck to water.
I was one of many people who felt like an outsider, and understand many folks who have different sexual preferences share with me that feeling of being excluded from the crowd. So I see that all of us might have been drawn to a genre that values and celebrates 'otherness' and dirversity. But to jump to the assertion that it means there is a gay subtext to comics is kind of like saying that if all trout are fish, therefore all fish are trouts.
And Adam, I have to admit that some of the discussions up above were just a bit too academic for me--there are so many terms being used in different ways, and assumed knowledge and premises, that I wasn't following all of the arguments (for example, I think I understand what you mean by the term 'gender expression,' but I don't think I've ever seen the term before).
Jeff S.
11. AdamMcGovern
It may be more sidetext than subtext, @AlanBrown; not necessarily an *intent* of the comics' authors, but a way into their work for readers of many different perspectives. Public art becomes a kind of shared public head-space, in which the meanings start to become two-way between creator and fan. I don't think Dr. Fawaz is saying that all of what he sees in a Marvel comic was necessarily "in there" from the writer & artist's perspective, but he is asserting that there's *room for* what he sees in it, which speaks to an expansiveness that may be one reason these comics have mattered to so many people for so long. Not that they're being simplified for any one agenda, but that there's more and more that readers can get out of them.

I enjoy it when people get something from one of my own comics or poems that I hadn’t perceived, and sometimes it clicks so perfectly that, while *I* may not have "meant" it to be in there, I get the feeling that *the story* meant it to be in there -- the essence of anything that any of us creates is that it’s mysterious and certain things may be at work in it -- ideas we forget having heard, events in our childhood we've forgotten, etc. -- that we didn’t have in-mind when we were in the zone making it, but we may well have had in the *back* of our mind, or were there as traces from this kind of communal mind we are more and more sharing as we all participate in forums like this thread.

As to “gender expression,” I’m sure the term has been around for a lot longer than I knew it myself, but it’s pretty widespread and google-able these days; you’ll see it in a lot of articles or news reports about kids who want to identify as the sex opposite to the one they physically are, and refers in general to the range of behaviors that are assumed to correspond with one gender or another. It’s a concept that has become more prominent as parents come to terms with boys who want to wear dresses or girls who want to be called “he,” etc., and don’t want to persecute their kids either if it turns out they’re gay or want gender-reassignment treatments or are not trans or gay but just exhibit a mix in how they act (say, Raj on Big Bang, to name one simplified example of someone who doesn’t exist but whom we all know :-)).
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
Adam, speaking of new words, I looked for 'sidetext' on and came up with nothing. But I see exactly what you mean. ;-)
The world of the 'outsiders' is a big one, and I would hope an understanding one. Regardless of why they feel that way, because of my own experience, I feel empathy with anyone who has felt excluded or picked on. And the world of comic book heroes speaks to many of us.
Jeff S.
13. BK Munn
The major themes of super-hero narratives are class anxiety, identity, sexuality, and violence. Love these discussions. I recommend Ken Parille's Comics Journal article on Super-Sexism for a discussion of costumes and body image.
Alan Brown
14. AlanBrown
Gee, and all this time I thought they were about good guys versus bad guys! ;-)
Jeff S.
15. AdamMcGovern
Yes, but how does that represent Magneto, @AlanBrown? :-)
Alan Brown
16. AlanBrown
Well, back when I started reading comics, it was easy, because he was a self-described member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. And Cyclops was as straight an arrow as ever was. Lately, not so much.
Ah, for the good old days... ;-)
Jeff S.
17. TheAdlerian
What silliness.

The Fantastic Four personalities, minus Sue, are a direct copy of Doc Savage's gang of adventurers. There's nothing more complex than that going on.
Jeff S.
18. AdamMcGovern
@AlanBrown, I guess even in Marvel's earliest days many of their heroes (let alone the ambiguous villains) were not so much goodguys as good-as-it-gets guys :-).

So @TheAdlerian, this means both Monk and Renny are Ben Grimm, and Long Tom and Johnny and maybe Ham and definitely Doc himself are Reed? Ham's a fashionplate so I guess we could peel him off to be hipster Johnny Storm (who bickers with Ben like Ham does with Monk). "Minus Sue," though maybe she could be Pat Savage, at least in Sue's modern assertive iteration. Not sure of the math though you're right about the folkloric roots of the FF in Doc and the "Fabulous Five"'s skyscraper headquarters and love of gadgets and their public identities and roving-adventurer rather than caped-crusader model -- one thing that makes the Fantastic Four so unique in the super-era and endearing to readers is, I think, their grounding in the slightly more real-people era of pulp action, making them both more durable than some comics fans realize and more relatable than many a spandex demigod. Though personally I always found Doc Savage's stories and cast to be explicitly, not subtextually homoerotic, so I'm not sure what we're agreeing to disagree about. :-)
Alan Brown
19. AlanBrown
I would definitely like TheAlderian explain that analogy further! Although, when you think about the skyscraper headquarters, wicked smart leader, bickering sidekicks, etc, there are quite a few commonalities.
When I was a young boy, first reading the Bantam paperback editions of Doc's adventures, back in the days where girls had cooties, Doc and his band of adventurers made perfect sense to me, but I have to admit, looking at their adventures from an older perspective, Doc's monkish existance does seem a bit odd.
Jeff S.
20. AdamMcGovern
Well, odd in the context of the macho standard it was supposed to represent at the time -- the male camaraderie of Doc and the Fabulous Five is just fine though today we'd probably just accept that they're like Spartan soldiers bonded in more ways than one, but they and their creators would have to deny it up and down in the 1930s, to the detriment of pop-culture honesty and perfectly-okay gay identity...
Jeff S.
21. TheAdlerian

You can find lots about it on the web and I'm pretty sure a few years ago I read something where Stan Lee mentions it.

Doc and his buddies bonded in WWI, not in the bedroom, so there's that too. Not everyone shares the same obsessions.
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
When I said Doc was monkish, I chose that word deliberately. He deliberately avoided any sort of relationship that might get in the way of his mission to serve mankind. It was not a religious vow, but it had kind of religious overtones--he deliberately chose to be celibate.
The companions are all portrayed as having interest in women, and even compete sometimes for the attention of the women who pass through the stories. But no permanent attachments, which I remember being attributed to their adventurous lifestyles.
I do get irritated when people try to read some sort of sexual component in every relationship, an attitude that is all too common these days. Friendship can just be friendship, and bonding takes all different forms.
Jeff S.
23. TheAdlerian
I couldn't agree more Alan!

I'm not religious and have worked in mental health for decades. I decided to live a fairly monkish life because when you get too distracted by your own life it's tough to focus on the mission.

I've known a variety of people like this and their concerns tend to transcend adolescent interests in bodily functions.
Jeff S.
24. AdamMcGovern
It was a common theme in 20th century pop culture to see normative male characters "portrayed as having interest in women," like, say, Rock Hudson; I like there to be no *one* interpretation of any of these works -- pulps, comics, 1950s rom-coms -- 'cuz they're more interesting that way, and they endure in people's affections by having something successive generations and different kinds of fans can connect to. As to the FF's provenance in Doc Savage, I agree; I was only snarking at it being "no more complex" than a one-for-one lift of personalities; Lee & Kirby mutated the source material (as did Siegel & Shuster, in a different way). The comics and sci-fi that this site's readers and writers dig are works that *we* all know are *not* simple (or as the old mainstream might say, simpleminded); they're direct and clear but there's a lot going on in them, and we're the ones who give them credit for it.
Jeff S.
25. TheAdlerian

When you start suggesting homosexual characters are closet heteros, I'll be tuning in. That will be interesting.

Any thoughts on the wait time?
Jeff S.
26. AdamMcGovern
Oh, that's easy: The New 52's Alan Scott. He just said it to get the gig, but in fairness, only after he tried lying about his age.
Jacob Clifton
27. JAClifton
Well-meaning straight privilege wins again!

"Yes, representation would be good, and help the mainstream understand that queer people are people -- but you know what would be even better? Using gay people as metaphors for straight issues, and straight characters as metaphors for gayness. That way, nobody has to feel awkward, and our margins won't suffer, but everybody still wins! Except you."

If I had a nickel for every time these so-called "gay allies" in the straight community -- or gay Uncle Toms just happy for the attention -- pulled this routine, I'd be a millionaire. There is no substitute for the compassion of allowing a minority their subjectivity, rather than abusing your eminent domain to their stories -- on their behalf -- as if it's progressive to do so.

I am not a metaphor for anybody. It's objectifying and fetishizing to make allowances like this when there are real, actual people whose experiences are erased by well-intentioned, but utterly bogus, moves like this.
Jeff S.
28. AdamMcGovern
It may be more a matter of the limitations of the medium, @JAClifton -- LGBTQ characters, like characters of color, have such a history of being introduced sparingly into the general straight-whiteguy continuum of comics, and then on a steep curve from stereotypes or one-dimensional publicity stunts to fully recognizable personalities, that I can see where some queer readers (and scholars) would look elsewhere for the what and why of the way comics still speak to them.

Still, a coded message is a sign of a tyrannical social context, and these sensibilities wouldn’t have to be metaphorical if a range of human types was acceptable. In comics the “acceptability” is getting there (though of course not something which should have to be conferred by the already-powerful to begin with); the recognizability still has a ways to go.

As you say, the “well-meaning” can be as much an impediment as the malicious. Star Trek “never got around to” dealing directly with sexual diversity, and I think it’s an enduring embarrassment to that franchise and its fans that 2010s America is looking more visibly comfortable with varied sexual identity than this supposedly utopian 2300s ever has.

I also rejoice when comics come to grips with the reality of characters who are just themselves and in the mix of human encounter as I experience it in real life, not there to “dispense with” an issue or to be defined by one thing -- the fully human, never predictable Exoristos and Shining Knight in Paul Cornell's Demon Knights; the believable Kate and Maggie in J.H. Williams' (though not Greg Rucka's) Batwoman; the awkward and thoughtful young lovers Scott and Gavin in Roberson & Allred's iZombie; the proud and resourceful Joseph Crane in Aaron & Guera's Scalped. Actual people, if the writers and artists have met any and know how to record real personalities and the issues that arise from their lives, are best, though in this medium traditionally rare.

I think Dr. Fawaz was looking for a context in which such characterizations could ultimately be commonplace, not a substitute for it; the environment in which it can emerge rather than a still-finite list. It’s possible that the everyday real range of human characterizations you speak of will be found the faster it's looked for, without abstraction, though Fawaz's conceptual, contextual approach seems to me the opposite of anything that narrows the search.

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