Ramzi Fawaz on the Fantastic Four and American Studies, Part 1.

In my day job, I'm a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Texas. Although I have a continuing interest in comics studies (and am, for example, hoping to present at this year's Comic Arts Forum), I find that the work I do for this blog and the work I do as a graduate student don't cross very often. Sometimes, though, I get lucky, like at the beginning of February, when Ramzi Fawaz, a professor of English at UW-Madison, came to UT to give a talk that's right from the pages of his upcoming book The New Mutants: Comic Book Superheroes and Popular Fantasy in Postwar America. The talk, on queer theory and the Fantastic Four, was excellent, and I got a chance to speak with him both before and after it; the fruits of those conversations are now up on the UT American Studies Blog, AMS :: ATX. Besides comics, Fawaz also discusses the importance of interdiscplinarity in teaching and scholarship, and how American Studies is the study of how people fantasize themselves as being American. I'm going to post one excerpt now, and another later in the week. If you find your interest is piqued, please mosey on over to AMS :: ATX to read the whole thing

JK: I want to switch gears back to the specific project. I’m curious if you have an elevator pitch for the talk that you gave at UT. Could you give it? 
RF: Absolutely. The talk that I gave last week, “Flame On” explores some of the ways in which the Fantastic Four reinvented the American superhero from its previous figuration as a figure of white, masculine vulnerability, to one of intense vulnerability, body transformation and mutation. The way in which the comic book did that was by imagining a kind of fantastic family formation, four characters who appeared to be normative social types, mother and father, two bickering children, or, you might say, the child and the uncle. It imagines what would happen if the normative family was transformed into mutants, their bodies literally absorbing some of the textures and objects of the material world of the 1950s and early 1960s. Part of what I try to do in this talk is to trace the comic book’s investment in presenting these normal bodies as monstrous or mutated, to actually try to imagine what it would mean to take pleasure in those mutations, to want to be out of the ordinary, to want not fit into the nuclear family. And so I argue, essentially, that the comic book is an extended visual meditation on forms of non-normative or queer embodiment in the 1960s. 
Because of that, in the talk, at least, I argue that this allows comic books to be conceived of as a kind of proto- or early form of gay and lesbian literature, even though the comic book, because of the constraints of its historical moment, never actively identifies any of its characters as gay or lesbian. My point is to say that superhero comic books in this moment reject this broader zeitgeist to identify non-normative or non-traditional ways of inhabiting things like family form, gender and sexuality, which ultimately became the purpose of radical gender and sexual movements the 1970s and after. So that’s part of what I’m doing in the talk. I’m also trying to lay bare the way comic books functioned, at this moment, as a really elaborate primary source in the history of sexuality, as an object that actually shaped popular conceptions of sexual cultures as they got articulated to more radical politics, the politics of the New Left, with gay liberation. I don’t know if that does that trick, but that’s my elevator pitch.

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