The Intellect of Superheroes: Comics Scholar Ramzi Fawaz on the Genre's Future

The author of 'New Mutants' discusses why Fantastic Four is queer, the cultural juggernaut of Comic Con, and all things comic culture. 

Everyone knows the latest Fantastic Four movie was terrible, but the average person probably wouldn’t attribute the film’s failure to the fact that it ignored the group’s queerness. Comic book scholar and American Studies expert Ramzi Fawaz would beg to differ. Fawaz has a lot to say about how comics interact with the larger culture.

In his just-released book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, Fawaz explores narratives such as X-Men and Fantastic Four, discusses how comics affect identity for individuals and societies, and why Fantastic Four is queer. Fawaz got on the phone with Inverse to share his thoughts on a wide range of comic-related topics.

On the root of the book and how comics connect to individual identity

Fawaz recalls opening his first issue of the X-Men and feeling an immediate sense of recognition — “seeing the characters and seeing myself in them,” he says. “That was a very odd experience for me because as a young gay guy, I was watching television, I was watching movies, but I had never seen myself in any of those. It was odd to read the X-Men and feel an immediate sense of identification, especially since none of the characters at the time identified explicitly as gay or as a Lebanese immigrant, as I was.”

“There are so many different kinds of people who can identify with X-Men,” he says, “Even if the character doesn’t reflect them. I could look at a character like Psylocke and feel intense identification, even though I don’t identify as a woman or a ninja. That was kind of the root of my book. Then the project went in lots of different directions after I started asking that, so I started asking other questions about worldview and imagination of American comics starting in the ‘60s.”

On why Fantastic Four is queer

Even those with the most cursory comic book knowledge think of X-Men as the narrative that most easily lends itself to a queer reading.

But Fawaz says X-Men is far from the only franchise that’s apt for queer readings — and the films adaptations have failed to recognize Fantastic Four’s queerness, leading to a string of lackluster Fantastic Four films.

“The Fantastic Four is such a brilliant, beautiful, exuberant comic book, and it’s extremely queer in surprising ways,” he says. “This is a comic book that visually looks like it presents its readers with the most normative, traditional nuclear family. Even though they’re related in different ways, upon first glance they look like a mother and father pair and two children living this beautiful 1960s space-age life. But what we discover is that they’re an incredibly dysfunctional family unit bound together not by blood, not by lineage, but by shared values. They’re always rethinking their bond, and they also flexibly open and accommodate a lot of other different kinds of people. The team is very queer because their own sexuality is always in question.”

Fawaz cites Sue Storm as a primary example of a character to examine through a queer lens.

“For a long time Sue does not know if she really wants to be married to Reed or if she wants to pursue a love affair with a person of another species,” says Fawaz. “And the Thing is always being questioned around his sexuality. Does his rock-like form allow him to be intimate with a woman, get married, have children — what will his future look like?

“I write a lot in my book about The Thing,” Fawaz continues. “I talk a lot about how the Thing is deeply queer, because even though he looks like a physical embodiment of the hard, tough, macho man, his hardness actually makes him deeply emotionally vulnerable. He feels like his hardness alienates him from love and intimacy and family, so he’s actually a softie. In many ways, his gender presentation is always in flux. It’s no surprise that 40-plus years after he was invented, someone like Matt Fraction invented a character named Ms. Thing, who puts on a fake Thing suit so that she can act like the Thing. What a brilliant idea. Matt is playing on this long history on the Thing’s struggle over gender and sexual identity by imagining what it would be like for a woman to inhabit his hard exterior shell. This woman gets to act like the Thing and she gets to take this facade off and underneath is a woman. There’s something really beautiful and playful about that.”

The Thing portrayed by Jamie Bell 

“For each of the characters, their future as traditional heterosexual people is always in question,” he says. “Instead of always seeking out traditional forms of intimacy, marriage, child-rearing, home ownership, they actually develop incredible friendships and bonds with all kinds of people: the Black Panther, the inhumans, the mutants. They’ve embodied the values of a queer ethic, which would be thought of as an orientation towards a world that values multiple forms of intimacy beyond the family — different kinds of connection and engagement across species, galaxies, cultures. But at first glance they seem like ordinary white people. It’s an exciting, unusual, unexpected queerness that comes out of a classic comic book”

To Fawaz’s reading, the Fantastic Four films are notorious failures precisely because they fail to capture this dynamism.

“The comic book is so rich and so complex and demands a very creative, open-ended vision that can capture some of the queer exuberance of the text,” he says. “The first set of movies were actually quite humorous and fun and captured some of the playfulness of the original comic, but they didn’t deal with the complex family dynamic and the queerness of the original.

“The new version’s failure is that its vision is so dark, it takes itself so seriously, that it becomes a farce. When you look at the trailer to the new Fantastic Four, you don’t have any of the original comic book — because the original comic is not about the end of the world, it’s about the free, playful, exuberant unraveling of these people’s’ bodies as they go forward into a diverse, exciting world.”

On what gets lost in translation when comics go on the big screen

“Classic American comic books were less invested in the question of visual special effects than movies are,” says Fawaz. “Even though comics from the ‘60s onward innovated lots of beautiful visual and aesthetic innovations, comics were not being produced only for the purpose of creating visual effects. They were using those new innovations and effects to represent superheroes in more complicated, diverse, elaborate, world-making ways.

“The movies capitalize on the fact that we live in a moment when screen and cinematic technologies are so advanced that we can now actually visualize superpowers. That becomes such a central concern of the movies that narrative complexity, character development, rich debate, and dialogue become highly reduced. When you watch the Avengers movies it’s like a battle between people who are about democracy and freedom and people who want control. There’s no middle ground, there’s no complexity.”

Fawaz continues, “Because comic books unfold over many years, you have thousands of pages of product, which allows for these complicated, elaborate things to unfold. One example is Civil War, the famous story line that comes out of Marvel. Whatever you think of the original eight-issue Civil War series, the debates that come out of that are about whether or not the State should control super humans, whether or not the government should be able to use superheroes’ powers as weapons of war.

“These are interesting and complicated questions that ultimately have affected the Marvel Universe so much that 10 years after the publication of that miniseries, those debates are still happening. But when you look at previews of the movie, it’s reduced down to a battle between Iron Man and Captain America.”

“The comic medium allows for certain kinds of conversations that I don’t think cinema allows for,” Fawaz says. “But it isn’t to say that I don’t get a lot of joy and from the movies, but I also find them extremely depressing. They are very much about the end of the world, about apocalypse, about the unraveling of political possibility. They’re very dark visions.”

On why comic films today are so damn gritty

The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Suicide Squad: Fawaz has a point that modern comic book films are preoccupied with destruction and toil, the dark and the dirty. About why that might be, Fawaz says it starts with Americans’ collective sense that their government is no longer responsive to their needs. Superpowers, it always seems, are a remedy to that frustration.

“Even when you watch movies like Captain America and Superman — you have a sense that these people are able to have an effect on the world, even if it’s limited,” he says. “That harkens back to the origin of the superhero. It’s no surprise that Superman is invented in the Great Depression, where individual Americas felt deeply vulnerable and unable to have a direct positive effect on democratic life, because they no longer seemed to have the means or resources to engage in public life. I think that’s why many of the movies have such a dark vision about government. A movie that I actually really like is Captain America: Winter Soldier.”

Fawaz adds that the second historical factor is global environmental catastrophe.

“It’s so big,” he says, “It feels beyond the ability of individual human beings to grasp. Superheroes allow us to fantasize what it would be like for one super human to be able to save millions of people who are going to drown in a tsunami or have their world destroyed by fire or climate change. The environmental crisis feels so big that superhero stories help us blast it.”

The third factor, Fawaz explains, is America’s international presence today.

“The American military power around the world is more and more visibly violent, unfair, and imperialistic,” he says. “Sometimes, superheroes give people a sense that their cause is righteous and worthwhile — in the face of the historical reality that maybe the kinds of military actions that the U.S. takes around the world are deeply unethical. Superheroes make us feel better about some of those political realities.”

On the cultural stronghold of villains

The Joker remains one of the most enduring figures in pop culture. On our continued fascination with the Clown Prince of Crime, Fawaz says, it’s his nihilism that makes him so dangerous and captivating.

“When you watched the Joker in one of the recent Batman movies, there’s an extraordinary moment when he’s amassed a huge pile of money and pours gasoline on the entire pile of money and sets it on fire,” Fawaz says. “He is so uninvested in some of the central values of our culture — money, power — that he is dangerous and scary because he reflects back at us the drive to destroy everything we’ve created.

“He’s fascinating because he says to Batman, ‘What I’m trying to show you is that you think you believe in law and order, but you could care less because you’re a vigilante. You actually already believe that this system is a failure, that it will never work — because if you believe that law and order and democracy works, why would you need to exist?’ The Joker and characters like him are compelling because they embody extended meditations about whether or not the extended beliefs of our culture are actually true. Whether or not we’ve lived up to the promise of certain values like freedom, like justice — they remind us that maybe we haven’t actually fulfilled those things.”

On the Joker’s other half

Harley Quinn has also long been popular. It might seem strange that a woman in such a dysfunctional relationship has captured the imagination of so many female-identified individuals, but Fawaz has an explanation.

Harley Quinn portrayed by Margot Robbie in 'Suicide Squad' 

“Harley Quinn is a high-femme,” he says. “She’s this over-the-top hyper-feminine fatal beauty. Instead of refusing femininity to be powerful or in control, she allows a certain readership to imagine what it would be like to inhabit that hyper femininity and be playful but also powerful and dangerous. There’s something risky and exciting about that. There are all these stereotypes in our culture about fatal beauty. Harley Quinn is seemingly a playful ditzy version of that, but totally serious and will cut you like a knife.”

On why comics often beat society to the punch

As Fawaz said in his discussion of The Thing, comics explore issues like gender identity and sexuality many years before the wider culture gets the memo. On why this might be, Fawaz says,

“Comics are perceived as trash culture by the dominant culture. So because comics are seen as trash, they work under the radar. People don’t take them seriously, so in fact these comics can address very serious societal issues and also represent alternative ways of being in the world because people don’t expect them to do so.”

On whether their rising prominence on movie screens and Comic Con endangers this under-the-radar concept

“I think it’s a mixed bag,” says Fawaz, “Because the more they are no longer niche, the more that they are beholden to market trends and to the demands of the market. It used to be that the movies stole all their ideas from the comics. But now, the movies make so much money and they exert such a powerful force on our culture — the comic has to be in line with the movie. That means the creativity and the freedom that was afforded to the comics is now limited. The only people who can be creatively free tend to be very established, famous writers who are able to sell so many comics on the basis of their name brand recognition that they can tell whatever stories they want.”

On Comic Con

Like comics themselves, Comic Con has grown from a niche convention to a cultural juggernaut. On whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, Fawaz says,

“I think it’s a beautiful thing to see how comics produce such amazingly creative worlds for over 40 years that they influenced every other major media in our culture: Television, film, radio, visual culture. I think the danger of the event is that, because it’s now so about the production of hype around up and coming media spectacles, that it is less about creative world making and more about the production of value that people will spend an exorbitant amount of money on, and it becomes a venue that’s less accessible to people without money.”

“You buy costumes and regalia and pay to stay in San Diego, then you have to spend tons of money at the event for tickets to panels — it means a smaller number of people of a certain strata can go, and it loses some of its meaning because of that. It’s a mixed bag: It represents the beautiful ways in which comics influence our culture, but also some of the ways in which the industry becomes extremely corporatized.”

On the possible sequel to New Mutants and how our modern era in comics will be known in the future

“I’ve considered writing a sequel that looks at the comics from the 90s to the present,” says Fawaz. “My sense is that when we look back, we’re going to see it as the era of unraveling and world-unmaking. Comic books from the 1960s to the 1990s were on world building. But starting with Crisis On Infinite Earths in the late 80s, there was increasingly this turn towards destruction; the unraveling of universes, the erasure of different timelines. I think that right now, when you look at storylines of the last 15 years of the X-Men, they are repeatedly stories about the end of the world; about the mass obliteration of mutant and outcast populations. I think we should ask ourselves why are we so invested in watching and reading about the destruction of the creative worlds that we fell in love with. There’s something really telling about our interest in that.”