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Heroic Measures: Comic Book Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America Open Access

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This dissertation examines how the American superhero became a cultural embodiment of the political aspirations of racial and gendered minorities in the postwar period. During WWII, the superhero appeared as an idealized icon of American patriotism and masculinity. In the Cold War, however, comic book creators reinvented the figure as a genetic and species outcast, no longer a legitimate citizen of the state or identifiable member of the human race. These superheroes' mutated bodies and strange powers revealed that the innovations of molecular engineering might unravel the biological integrity of the human, producing political subjects whose abnormal anatomies rendered them unfit to perform the duties of proper citizenship. Rather than condemn these figures, superhero comics visually celebrated the pleasures of bodies that manifest their deviation from social and political norms as a literal extension of the flesh. In so doing, comic books produced a visual lexicon of alliances between a variety of "inhuman," yet valorized subjects, constructing a cultural corollary to the cosmopolitan worldviews of movements for international human rights, civil rights, and women's and gay liberation. Attending to these sites of creatively imagined alternative communities "Heroic Measures" re-narrates the history of postwar liberalism, locating the radical politics of left social movements beyond the communities of political activists by exploring how radical visions flourished, and were transformed, in everyday American popular culture. Among my case studies I explore the birth of the "superhero team" as an embodiment of postwar internationalism and cosmopolitanism in The Justice League of America (1960) and The Fantastic Four (1961); the emergence of the "mutant superhero" or species outcast as a corollary to racial and sexual minorities in The X-men (1974) and The New Mutants (1983); and the alliances forged between black and white inner-city superheroes in "social consciousness" narratives like Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1972) and Captain America and the Falcon (1974). I show how the fictional depiction of alliances across difference that readers experienced in small-scale encounters with comic book texts, elicited broader affective investments in wide-reaching political values including anti-racism, anti-sexism, and radical democracy over the latter half of the 20th century.

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