The Case for Teaching Superhero Comics via Dazzler
A few months ago, my friend and editor Osvaldo Oyola challenged me to write about my experience introducing superhero comics to students via Dazzler (aka Alison Blaire). While I might write up something longer and more formal at some point, I thought I would share a few thoughts here on my blog while the experience of teaching Dazzler is still fresh. You see, this past summer I taught a condensed, introductory course on "Comics as Literature" and kicked off the class with Alison Blaire. Like many of my colleagues, I include a unit on the superhero genre in my comics courses; unlike most folks, however, my introduction to the genre opens with my favorite mutant superhero. Although it is much more common to begin such units with conventional figures such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—or may take the "graphic novel" approach and use Watchmen to critique the genre—I opted to began in the year of my birth (1979!) and an on-again, off-again member of the X-Men.
Before I discuss the how and why of that decision, however, I feel like I should provide a bit of background on the character. Alison Blaire, "The Dazzler," is a fictional mutant in the Marvel universe with the ability to convert sound vibrations into light and energy beams. She was originally developed as a cross-promotional, transmedia creation between Casablanca Records and Marvel Comics until the tie-ins were dropped in 1980. Although she was originally commissioned as a disco singer, the character shifted to other musical genres over the decades, including forays into rock and adult contemporary music. The character starred in a self-titled solo series that lasted forty-two issues, a graphic novel, a four-issue limited series, and later joined the cast of the X-Men. Personally, I am eager for a new solo series.
One of the most interesting facts about Dazzler is that she was originally modeled after Grace Jones, a Black disco star and icon who was famously referred to by Barry Walters as "about as queer as a relatively straight person can get." Eventually, the film divisions at Marvel Comics and Casablanca Records asked that she be reimagined in the image of the then-popular Bo Derek. The original concept artist, John Romita, Jr. recalled that decision in the following way: "Originally it was supposed to be Grace Jones—a very popular singer at the time, and I wanted her to be the basis of the character, because I thought that was realistic, and then, all of a sudden it became Bo Derek. And that’s when I said, that’s it. They’ve sold out for some whitebread blonde chick." Admittedly, I spend considerable time thinking about what, if anything, remains of that Black, queer potential in the character.
With that background on the table, the question I now want to address is this: if Dazzler did not debut until Uncanny X-Men #130 (1979), was only sometimes a member of the X-Men, and is still not well-known when compared to more popular X-Men such as Wolverine or Storm—why in the world would I turn to her as an introduction to superhero comics?
Here are five thoughts that immediately come to mind in response to that question:
Transmedia Origins. The debut of Dazzler marks one of the earliest attempts to do something that is now rather common: to create a comics property that is distributed across multiple media. Indeed, with contemporary superheroes commonly existing simultaneously in comics, films, television, video games, and more—I have found that my students are quick to see superhero genre as inherently transmedial. By opening with Dazzler, I foreground that transmedia potential in superheroes much earlier.
Timing of Her Debut. Dazzler first appeared in the best-known X-Men story arc: “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” That means that her debut is built into the architecture of one of the most successful superhero comics of all-time. More importantly, her debut as a disco performer at the turn of the decade invites students to examine the politics of superheroism in a cultural moment when the queer politics and racial concerns about disco as a countercultural movement were being sanitized and whitewashed.
Celebrity Status. Dazzler's status as a celebrity performer is, perhaps, one of the most important reasons to consider Dazzler as an introductory figure for students who are studying superheroes. Due to her public status and a career that values visibility, Dazzler eventually becomes the first truly "out" mutant and leads to one of the first storylines in which mutants are actually “hated and feared” by those they have chosen to protect. That storyline raises important questions about ambition and identity.
Cross-Genre Status. Dazzler exists at the intersection of superhero comics and romance comics in ways that complicate a too-clean-and-neat understanding of superhero comics as a stable genre. I love teaching Dazzler because the damsel in distress trope, in particular, is disrupted in complicated ways as she navigates romance, her mutant powers, and her reluctance to be a superhero at the expense of her career. These concerns can open up useful feminist readings of the superhero genre.
Queer Politics and Subtext. I have written about this at length elsewhere, but I also turn to Dazzler as an introduction to superhero comics because her narratives speak to the radically queer potential of superhero narratives, which has been articulated by Ramzi Fawaz and other scholars in recent years. By foregrounding those politics in narratives written with the express intention of being heterosexual, I am giving my students tools for reading and imagining superhero comics via queer studies.
There are many other reasons I might give, as you might imagine, but I think these five provide an initial justification for turning to Dazzler in our comics classrooms. And the reasons provided above do not even include the value I find in using (and complicating) the "mutant metaphor" within Marvel's superhero comics. Still, some of you may wonder which texts I used to teach Dazzler, as—like most mainstream superheroes—she has an expanding history across multiple titles and decades. For those of you who might want to experiment with Dazzler in your own classes, this is what I assigned: introductory narratives from Uncanny X-Men #130 (1979) and Dazzler #1 (1981), Marvel Graphic Novel #12 — Dazzler: The Movie (1984), the Beauty and the Beast series (1984-1985), and Dazzler: X-Song #1 (2018). I chose these texts because they introduce the character and her disco roots, engage with issues of celebrity and rape culture, make explicit the queer subtexts in the character's history, and introduce a version of the superhero narrative that is multiplicitous and multi-genre.
Although I have only just begun to teach Dazzler as an introductory text on superhero comics, my first time experimenting with it was rather successful. I obviously cannot draw broad conclusions, but my students—all of whom happened to be women or non-binary students this summer—did produce their annotations and reflections on these comics that drew attention to the gendered nature of superhero identities, the complicated ways in which our social and cultural assumptions affect women in positions of power, fame, or celebrity, and the challenges inherent in being (or feeling) different from other people.
Moreover, I believe that starting with Dazzler changed the nature of our conversations as we engaged with contemporary superhero comics later in the semester—including selections from Doom Patrol, Runaways, Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, and Far Sector. Rather than imagining superheroes as an evolution of a Superman/Clark Kent narrative or a grim-dark Batman fantasy, my students were quick to locate the transmedia and cross-genre potential of each series, and were attentive to the cultural concerns in each—whether those be tied to race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, or other identity categories. When I next revise my comics course and explore the connections to be made within and without the so-called canon, I am excited to again place Dazzler at the foreground of my superhero unit.