Fantastic 4-Body-ings: Ideal Grotesqueness in the Comic-Book Culture
I. Introduction: Comics as a U.S. Cultural Index
A view of America as a culture of images,1 especially metaphors, metonymies, or mutations of the body, is not complete unless one looks at comic books. With their gaudily costumed superheroes sporting superpowered bodies and brains, and their fantastic landscape allegories of America, comics sprang from a rich ancient satirical tradition2 via cartoon strips to evolve into an independent genre. The genre reflects pop Americana culture and history,3 aesthetic and even intellectual trends,4 a neo-mythology,5 and the post-millennial angst about transformations of human identity, the layperson’s hopes and fears.6 Most comics are still searching for legitimization because of their “unrealistic” form and theme (a fallacy explored by Thierry Groensteen),7 their mainstream lapses into literary and artistic infantilism, and commercial exploitation—since, in the words of Alan Moore, “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated they are, they’re still about men with their underpants over their trousers.”8 However, their authentic appeal and their synchronization with the American pop mindset shows in the huge and ongoing success of the comics industry. Because of its simplicity and use of fantasy, the comics image may be viewed as a Jungian archetype, a vulgate myth-like (thus immediately communicable) signification of a basic idea (e.g., heroism) sprung from the collective unconscious. At the same time, as a conscious artistic effort, it reflects the cultural-political zeitgeist as perceived within itself since, according to W. J. T. Mitchell: “It should be clear that representation, even purely ‘aesthetic’ representation of fictional persons and events, can never be completely divorced from political and ideological questions; one might argue, in fact, that representation is precisely the point where these questions are most likely to enter the literary work.”9 As Klaus Kaindl notes, comics are a genre “very strongly governed by conventions,”10 and that furthermore, as regards their “multimodal” nature:
[Umberto] Eco, (1972:202) for one, has demonstrated that pictures have a code which is governed by conventions, and these conventions may be shaped by cultural constraints. This also means that the visual representation of objects, gestures, facial expressions, etc. can be interpreted correctly only if the significance of these elements has been defined in the particular culture (cf. Eco 1987:65).11
Comics run the gamut from teenage boys’ fantasies of ghastly quality (given that “90 per-cent of mainstream readers are adolescent males ranging in age from about twelve to twenty”—12 to thoughtful artistic masterpieces.13 The only thing all comics seem to have in common is that their particular philosophy, or lack thereof, is primarily conveyed through a specific code of bodily representation, as often the illustrational background is immaterial (a tradition probably inherited from the blank squares of early cartoon strips). Still, as Sigmund Freud opined, human truths lurk especially in bad, “egocentric” art,14 while artistic quality, especially after the 1980s, is no longer the sole privilege of alternative comics. Some mainstream comics that have written history in the genre continue to evoke respectful interest even in present age of savage competition. One of these is the 1961 book that actually “revolutionized comics...and gave birth to what is now called the Marvel Universe,” creating the phenomenon of Marvel Comics (today part of the colossal Marvel Entertainment Group).15 It was the vehicle for the innovative art of two giants in the field:16 creator/author, comic-book icon and Marvel President, Stan Lee, and the man who “quite simply...is American comics,” celebrated artist Jack Kirby—17and its title was The Fantastic Four.18 The recent blockbuster film with the same title that premiered July 8, 2005, as well as its 2007 sequel, have given rise to much talk about aspects of the book and its adaptation, mostly among aficionados.19 What this essay intends to show, however, is that the unique value and appeal of the FF lies in that its characters were the first to present to their audience a new (mainly bodily) heroic form, one that challenges prescribed forms of beauty by deconstructing them with technoscientifically-generated hyperbole to the point of grotesqueness. Furthermore, it wants to suggest that this new, mutated heroic model reflects the changing aesthetic and cultural attitudes of U.S. teens then and now.
II. From the Classical to the Grotesque Heroic Body
The story of The Fantastic Four appears on a certain level artistically naive and typical of comic books: four friends, attempting to be the first interstellar travellers on a private spaceship, encounter an accidental storm of cosmic rays and are bodily transformed by the radiation into elemental super-powered beings. Vowing to use their powers for good as a group called the Fantastic Four, they establish themselves in New York and become American icons as well as protectors of the nation, the planet, and the universe.20
The realization of the story has been marked unalterably by the 50s-60s mentality of its creation time: the heroes wear demure full-body uniforms and their attitudes and types reflect a conservative W.A.S.P.-ish set. The book clearly promotes post-War era suburban values such as affluence and complacency, the space-race (as the Marvel Encyclopedia notes, “The Fantastic Four are not super heroes in the traditional sense.[....] They are astronauts, envoys, explorers...trailblazers”21), vigilance against the Communist threat, and the Baby-Boom emphasis on family values, as, “whatever dangers they face, they face as a family.”22 However, a particular infusion of the grotesque in the FF—whose mutated bodies are not the perfect homo sapiens specimens that Superman’s or Captain American’s are—combined with the usual comic-book conventions, oddly serves also as a questioning and caricature of the above values, while engaging in the postmodern anxiety of the human identity grounded on the body, and issues of species versus technology, virtuality, and fictions of the self.23 After all, “the grotesque” is defined as:
decorative art in sculpture, painting, and architecture characterized by fantastic representations of human and animal forms often combined into formal distortions of the natural to the point of absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.... By extension, grotesque is applied to anything having the qualities of grotesque art: bizarre, incongruous, ugly, unnatural, fantastic, abnormal.24
Thus it stands to reason that the combination of human and superhuman, although intended for appeal, may lead to that effect. This is also supported by Rosi Braidotti’s discussion on monsters, “human beings who are born with congenital malformations of their bodily organism [....] defined in terms of excess, lack, or displacement of organs,” evoking both fascination and abhorrence.25 In fact the malformed superheroic may be a particularly American variant of grotesque, if we accept Jean Baudrillard’s claim that the “American ‘way of life’” is characterized by:
its mythic banality, its dream quality, and its grandeur. That philosophy which is immanent not only in technological development but also in the exceeding of technology in its own excessive play...in the apocalyptic forms of banality...in the hyperreality of that life which, as it is, displays all the characteristics of fiction.26
In the FF in particular, comic grotesqueness furthermore can be seen as an attempt to liberate the body from the tyranny of classical form concepts on which comic book artists had been up to that point attached: the “Greek fold” on the pelvis, the foreshortened limbs and the powerful upper torso of the 8th century BCE kouroi that is duplicated in every Batman or Captain Marvel pose well until the 1990s. Given that the origin of the group lies not in some mysterious magical or divine event, but in a scientific experiment, the comic raises in the early 60s questions debunking both the myth of the teleological race of the species to achieve the beautiful, that is, the rationally-understood self, as well as the transcendental signified of the unalterable “naturaleness” of the resulting human beings. After all, according to Arthur Kroker, there is a more-than-symbolic connection between space-travel and the metahuman (or posthuman) self: “Maybe we are already living in another dimension of space travel: in a sub-space warp jump, a virtual reality where we can finally recognize that we are destined to leave this planet because we have already exited this body.”27 Accordingly, one must amend the comic hero representational code as theorized by Umberto Eco, who, in “The Myth of Superman,” speaks of a heroic-comic prolonged destiny:
The mythological character of the comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of certain collective aspirations, and therefore he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable...; but since he is marked in the sphere of a “romantic” production for a public that consumes “romances,” he must be subjected to a development which is typical...of novelistic characters.28
The superhero, then, must “remain ‘inconsumable’ [i.e., fixed, because already consumed and permanently altered by his heroic difference] and at the same time be ‘consumed’ according to the ways of everyday life” to keep the series going.29 Eco, however, oversees the dimension of heroic density in modern comics, where the fusion of, and tension between, the subversive fantastic and the conforming mimetic can create a bodily self that is multifaceted, playful, and “into” the metanarrative of its artificiality. To put it in other words, archetypes are highly complex and compacted items; allowing the possibility that their “romantic” narrative “unpacking” will lead not to some heroic resolution, but to an open-ended exacerbation of their latent bizarreness. Therefore we can speak of an ideal grotesqueness in the sense of a hyperbolic (i.e., hyper-explored, extended) depiction of classical heroic beauty that, clashing with altered notions of the body and what is human in the 20th century, reflects a prevalent existential angst.