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.


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