Monday, 3 April 2017

American Theology, Superhero Comics and Cinema: Susan Storm gets visible

Despite using the films (which were consistently panned by critics and shunned by fans) rather than the legendary Lee-Kirby comic books, Antony R. Mills recognises The Fantastic Four as 'unique journeys of discovery that each of the four main characters experience as they grow from individuals... into a genuine, if unconventional family' (2014: 162). These journeys, performed by Mr Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing remained at the heart of what became known as 'the world's greatest comic book' until its recent cancellation - a cancellation, it is rumoured, caused by the characters' film treatments.

Mills' interest in superheroes lies in their relationship to theology and, in the case of The Invisible Woman (Susan Storm), her moral behaviour. Arguing that her conduct removes her from being a mere side-kick to the male characters, Mills sees her as an exemplar of Christian virtue, providing a standard that other characters struggle to achieve. 

A crucial scene for Mills - again, from the films - is when the Silver Surfer is captured by the military: it is Susan Storm who acknowledges the person-hood of this alien visitor, while the military are preparing to torture him. Storm takes the role performed by Alicia Masters in the comic books, showing the Surfer that humans are capable of compassion. Having mentioned Reuther and Keller's objections to the model of the heroine, who is defined exclusively in her relationship to others and lacks 'an autonomous identity' (2014: 162), Mills argues that in her selflessness, Storm becomes a heroine in her own right. 

It's a complicated reading of virtue, and forms part of Mills' attempt to 'subvert the anthropology of the American monomyth': he sees The Invisible Woman as forging a new kind of heroic identity, grounded in traditional and stereotypical female values: when she gives her life to protect the Surfer, the inevitable Christian overtones make her a more compelling protagonist for this theologian than her team-mates. And while the use of Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) may allow a more condensed reading of Storm's journey, the themes that are discussed are echoes of a more detailed development within the Lee-Kirby comics of the 1960s.

As these panels (from 2013), Susan Storm does not always get a feminist treatment in the comics - even the Lee-Kirby issues featured her in a domestic role. Nevertheless, the Invisible Woman frequently revealed herself as a capable hero, with her powers, initially perceived as merely defensive and passive, taking on increasingly powerful manifestations. Even if Mills makes an odd choice to privilege the films over the comics (well, I think it is odd), there's still something in his analysis of Susan Storm's approach to heroism.

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