“Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!”

by cominsitu


Mutant Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America

by Ramzi Fawaz

The single best-selling superhero comic book of the late twentieth century, the X-Men tells the story of an international cadre of superpowered beings known as “mutants,” genetically evolved humans outcast by a bigoted and fearful humanity. Circulating in the mid-1970s at the zenith of post–Civil Rights left social movements including liberal and radical feminisms, environmentalism, black nationalism, and gay liberation, the comic book’s transnational cast and visual and narrative articulation of “mutation” to social and cultural difference more broadly underscored the tie between expressions of popular fantasy and the ideals of radical politics in the postwar period.

With the proliferation of identity movements that emerged out of the internal conflicts of the New Left, the comic-book industry, long committed to the antiracist and antifascist ideals of democratic politics, used visual culture as a space for modeling new modes of radical critique that offered alternatives to direct-action politics and the discourse of civil liberties. Creators used the biologically unstable body of the superhero to explore, and potentially bring into being, the states of bodily and psychic liberation espoused by a variety of countercultural movements in this period. Whether in the “getting loose” philosophy of the hippie generation or the consciousness-raising projects of liberal feminism, the ecstatic physical states of disco culture or the spiritual communion with nature celebrated by popular ecology, the call for a countercultural politics grounded in felt experience was visually manifested in superhuman figures whose powers literally materialized these ways of being as physical extensions of the self. Like the figure of the superhero, these forms of elevated consciousness circulated through a variety of cultural genres including science fiction, fantasy, and myth; understanding the productive link between the seemingly disparate worlds of superhero comic books and left political world-making projects requires a reassessment of the political uses of fantasy outside of these discrete categories.