In Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics (Ohio State UP, 2020), Sean Guynes and Martin Lund have assembled more than fifteen chapters that interrogate our thinking about superheroes, especially those written and created in the United States, and how those heroes participate in reifying the whiteness of American politics, culture, and worldview. Even as we have seen attempts to diversify the representation within the superhero genre, there is a continued reinscribing of the normative whiteness that frames not only the narratives themselves, but the ideas and images conveyed by the authors, artists, and producers of these works. As Lund and Guynes note, much analysis has been done about the superheroes, especially paying attention to those heroes who deviate from the norm in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. But what has been missing in a great deal of the scholarship is an analysis of the predominant whiteness of superheroes and how the constructed narrative of the genre, of defeating a threat to a particular way of life, country, people, continues to reaffirm the overarching whiteness of this genre. As Lund noted in conversation, the marquee superheroes are unhyphenated, they are simply the normal, everyday superhero, and they are also, by default, white. Whereas Black, or LatinX superheroes are classified as such, and they are thus distinguished from the “normal” superhero.
It is not only the characters themselves, in the panels, but also the structure of the story that complies with an understanding of whiteness, and a hierarchy that is often racially structured. The superhero is tasked with fighting for the “good” – but who defines that good, and who benefits from that preserved good? This very understanding of the job of the superhero, to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way” builds on the basis that truth is the same for all members of the society, justice is equally distributed, and the American way is quite clear. Except that none of these are accurate depictions of the reality for those living in the United States (or elsewhere). How we discuss the goals that the superheroes pursue is tied into what it is that we anticipate being restored by a superhero who confronts an enemy. The chapters in Unstable Masks explore this dynamic, focusing on the exceptions as well as those who make up the vast majority of this imaginary space, examining how whiteness informs the understanding of the superhero. The contributing authors not only examine different superheroes at different periods, but they also reach back to examine the way that the superhero genre fits within the American cultural and literary tradition of the western, detective fiction, and the conquest of the frontier where individuals imposed “law and order” on “ungoverned” or “unstable” parts of the continent.
This is a fascinating collection; taken together, this edited volume an impressive consideration of the superhero genre, those who created these characters, and the audiences who consume and interact with these ideas.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @gorenlj.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.