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Zombies vs. Superheroes: The Walking Dead Resurrection of Fantastic Four Gender Formulas

By Chris Gavaler

Tales of superheroes and zombies, whether in comic books or other pop culture media, contain implicit attitudes about gender and other social constructs while simultaneously obscuring them by focusing reader attention on the pleasures of fantastical subject matter and action-oriented plotting. Stories often reflect current norms, presenting them in a larger, reinforcing social context that further obscures their presence. Social norms, however, may evolve, while plot formulas remain static. A story structure that reflects 1950s-era gender roles does not need a 1950s context to support it.

Changes in gender norms over the last half century are well documented. In 1977, a majority—74% of men and 52% of women—believed husbands should earn money and wives stay home; thirty years later, a minority—40% and 37%—held those opinions (Galinksy). In 1950, a minority of women, 34%, worked outside the home; fifty years later, the figure rose to a majority, 60% (Toossi). Despite such attitudinal and behavioral shifts, the clichés of 1950s gender stereotypes still linger—if not in actual families then in their pop culture representations.

Two popular comics series originating nearly a half-century apart, The Fantastic Four and The Walking Dead, provide a unique case study. Because there is no evidence of direct influence or intent at homage, the two works illustrate how fully and independently a plot formula and the social attitudes contained in it can be reproduced. Marvel Comics debuted Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's The Fantastic Four in 1961; Image Comics introduced Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's The Walking Dead in 2003. Despite the four decades between, the contemporary zombie tale resurrects the Silver Age superhero narrative's gender formulas, figuring the six-issue story arc of The Walking Dead Vol. 1 as a thematic reboot of The Fantastic Four Nos. 1-8. Where Lee and Kirby imbed attitudes popular in their time, Kirkman and Moore work against current social trends by producing a retrograde but otherwise identical story structure.

The first Marvel superhero team, routinely analyzed as a family unit, began as a love triangle: foils representing opposite definitions of masculinity fight over a weak but prized wife, with a third, younger male in a familial and therefore uncontested relationship. Lee and Kirby amplify the conflict with cosmic rays, mutating their family into fantastical self-representations. Kirkman and Moore amplify the same triangle by mutating the surrounding world. Zombies, like superpowers, heighten gender politics to hyperbolic proportions. Both stories resolve the love conflict by eliminating the more violent male and so promote a definition of masculinity that includes a gentleness paradoxical in a hyper-violent context. The non-violent wives are framed as arbitrators who implicitly select their mates from the onset of the conflict and pass final judgment on the rejected males. Kirkman and Moore kill the tragically violent rival where Lee and Kirby transform him into a version of the preferred mate, but both acts of closure reflect and promote the same gender values. Whether superheroes or zombie-fighters, men must protect helpless women from monsters while not becoming too monstrous themselves.

Marvel editor and writer Stan Lee inherited superheroes from his Golden Age predecessors, adding radiation—a culturally pervasive Cold War fear of the 1960s—as a source for superpowers. Robert Kirkman inherited the zombie genre from George Romero, whose second zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, Kirkman references in his introduction. Romero largely invented the figure of the zombie in his 1968 Night of the Living Dead, released seven years after Marvel introduced The Fantastic Four, its first Silver Age superhero title. After its success, Lee applied further radiation to transform the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and, via genetic mutation, the X-Men. Romero, sharing the Cold War context, chose radiation from a Venus space probe as the source of his zombie plague. The Walking Dead provides no alternate explanation, and so its zombie apocalypse generically shares its origin point with Romero's.

Kirkman also shares Lee and Romero's mid-century social attitudes, reproducing not only the Night of the Living Dead's flesh-eating ghouls but the gender dynamics surrounding them. Romero depicts a near-catatonic female protagonist who literally can only watch as two males vie for group leadership. The film, observes Gregory A. Walker, "would seem to support certain sexist assumptions about female passivity, irrationality, and emotional vulnerability" (283). Yan Basque draws a similar conclusion about the "essentialist view of gender roles" in The Walking Dead:

Kirkman seems to think that men and women are fundamentally different in ways that go beyond the physical/anatomical, and those differences include men being generally more action-oriented, better leaders, and more rational, while the women are more passive, emotional, and better at domestic tasks … (Basque)

Kirkman, however, does not replicate Romero's attitude toward family. Night of the Living Dead, observes Kendall R. Phillips, presents "a clear message about the failure of the domestic structure fashioned around the nuclear family" and how it has "lost its capacity to ground and protect us" (31, 32). Kirkman instead champions the family, echoing Lee, the first comic book writer to introduce a family structure to a superhero lineup. "The family dynamic," writes Simcha Weinstein of the Fantastic Four, "was unmistakable from the start" and had never previously "been explored within the comic book genre" (74).

Also like Lee, Kirkman is primarily concerned with transformation. "I want to explore people who deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them," he explains in his introduction (n. pag.). The Fantastic Four undergo their transformations in a similarly extreme context. Ben receives his superhero name from Sue's inability even to describe his change: "He's turned into a—a—thing!" Johnny, unaware that he is bursting into flames himself, shouts: "You've turned into monsters …" (Lee 1:13). The Walking Dead's characters describe the transformed zombie population in identical terms. Morgan's son attacks Rick because he "thought you were one of those … things." "'Things?'" asks Rick, "You mean those monsters […]?!" The change to Kirkman's non-zombies is equally profound. "It's never going to be the same again. We're never going to be normal," laments Lori; "Just look at us." Sue, looking at her fellow survivors, draws the same conclusion: "We've all been affected […]! All of us!" (Lee 1:11), and the Thing voices the same longing "to be normal […]! I want to be Ben Grimm again!" (Lee 3:16).

Novelist Colson Whitehead analyzes the zombie genre through the narrator of Zone One, who reflects that "It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends and neighbors as the creatures they had always been. … Now I'm more me" (243). Superhero tropes operate on a similar principle of exaggeration, especially in cartoon form which, Scott McCloud argues, amplifies "by stripping down an image to its essential 'meaning'" (30). In his story treatment written to Jack Kirby, Lee describes Ben as "a huge, surly unpleasant guy" (Marvel Firsts 484), and the Thing both externalizes and amplifies those qualities. Ben has transformed into an extreme version of his previous self, heightening traditional gender stereotypes. The Thing is super-strong and hyper-masculine, a trait generic to male superheroes, who, Mila Bongco observes, are commonly drawn with "muscles that would shame the most serious bodybuilder" (191). Sue, in contrast, becomes Invisible Girl, a character Trina Robbins labels "a caricature of Victorian notions of the feminine" (114) and Laura Mattoon D'Amore calls "the superhero equivalent of the suburban housewife" (D'Amore).

While in the clutches of a giant monster on the cover of her debut issue, she shouts: "I—I can't turn invisible fast enough!!" Kirby draws the bottom half of her body vanishing, literalizing the notion that women should not be seen outside the domestic realm. Where male bodies expand—into rock or flame or elastic flesh—transformative radiation instead reduces female bodies. The first female body in The Walking Dead is similarly lessened. Though Moore renders the zombified bicyclist fleshless and organless, she retains, like Sue, her long and presumably blonde hair, her marker of femininity. Women's bodies are physically reduced while remaining figuratively maternal, the feminine quality Lee and Kirby champion. While reading fan letters, Sue sobs: "A number of readers have said that I don't contribute enough to you … you'd be better off without me!" (Lee 11:9). Reed breaks the fourth wall to scold us: "See this bust of Abe Lincoln? Remember his famous remark about his mother? The time he said that all that he was—all that he ever hoped to be—he owed to her?" (Lee 11:10).

Kirkman and Moore follow the same model, reducing women's roles to traditional domestic tasks. Short-haired Donna complains: "I just don't understand why we're the ones doing laundry while they go off and hunt. When things go back to normal I wonder if we'll still be allowed to vote." But the long-haired, more attractively drawn Lori champions the gender division as an inevitable norm: "This isn't about women's rights. … It's about being realistic […]" Lori is "just looking forward to the possibility of clean smelling clothes." Kirkman's laundry scene has received wide criticism. Jennifer Smith cites it as an example of "issues of gender inequality" being "present, questioned within the text, and then summarily dismissed" (Smith), and Kay Steiger calls it "unsettlingly, perhaps even distastefully, retro" (107).

Lee and Kirby's Sue, however, is not retro but a direct product of the 1950s social norms that immediately influenced her creators. Like Lori, Sue is clothes-focused. In their third issue, she tells her teammates: "Never mind those monsters, boys! Look what I've got!"

REED: "Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!"
SUE: "And for you, too! It's time we all had some colorful costumes!"
REED: "Say! This isn't half bad, Sue! Ever think of working for Dior?"
SUE: "I've got enough to do acting as nursemaid to you three!" (Lee 3:7)

Alan Moore, recalling reading Fantastic Four No. 3 as an eight-year-old, describes the "wimpy and fainthearted" Sue as looking "as if she'd be much happier curled up in an armchair with a bottle of valium and the latest issue of Vogue" ("Blinded by the Hype"). Despite gaining superpowers and facing enemies every issue, she proves an incompetent fighter who is routinely captured—as the first cover establishes. Twelve issues later her skills have not improved. After the team is shown a picture of the Hulk, Reed shouts: "Sue! Where is she?" Sue answers: "Right here, Reed! Forgive me! The—the sight of that monster unnerved me so that I lost control of my visibility power!" (Lee 12:6-7). If "visibility" is her power, then Sue is naturally invisible and so must struggle to be seen at all.

Lori, despite the constant threat of zombie attack, also remains a useless fighter: "I can't shoot a gun. … I've never even tried." Kirkman also implies her lack of intelligence, especially in contrast to her husband: "We kept in touch while he finished college and I attempted to last more than a year at mine. … I didn't." Unable to complete a year of school, she is also unable to learn to operate a weapon, even when she and her child are in danger, and cannot hold a gun without dropping it. Her pre-pubescent son, however, shoots expertly. Kirkman seems to agree with Ben's defense of Sue: "If you readers wanna see women fightin' all the time, then go see lady wrestlers!" (Lee 11:10). Both narratives present fighting as a masculine activity. The two groups of males—Reed, Ben, and Johnny; and Rick, Shane, and Carl—excel at combating monsters, the organizing principle behind both the superhero and zombie genres.

All men, however, are not equal experts at violence. Ben, an "ex-war hero," shouts: "I'm always ready!! Next time I get within grabbing distance of that guy, I'll make mincemeat of him!" (Marvel Firsts 484, Lee 3:14). Reed, though a skilled fighter against a range of monsters and villains, also prevents violence, restraining Ben and, in the first demonstration of his powers, saving Johnny from a fatal fall (Lee 1:8). Kirkman and Moore follow Lee and Kirby's formula, foiling their lead males by differentiating their relative levels of violence. Moore exaggerates Shane's hulking width and Rick's skeletal thinness—visually echoing Kirby's rendering of the preternaturally wide Thing and stretched Mr. Fantastic. Shane's skill as a marksman is also presented in contrast to Rick, who admits he is "nowhere near as good." Though a trained police officer, Rick calls for a "Nurse!" upon waking in the hospital, cries for "Help!!" at the sight of a corpse, and begs "Please!" when first attacked. When finally reunited with his family, he is shaking: "I've been so worried about finding you and Carl … and getting here in one piece … I haven't had time to be scared." Reed and Rick, however, are introduced as superior leaders, despite, or possibly because of, their less aggressive tendencies. The first page of issue one demonstrates Reed's authority as he calls the team: "It is the first time I have found it necessary to give the signal!" (Lee 1:1). Rick, also on his first page, assesses threats and gives orders too: "We're sitting ducks behind this car. … Cover me. … I'm going to try and make it to that ditch so we can surround him." Though superior in combat, both Ben and Shane obey their less violent partners.

Lori and her son, Carl, like Sue and her adolescent brother, Johnny, are untrained and so unnecessary in the adventures of the two primary males. Before their space launch, Reed argues: "Susan, Ben and I know what we're doing … but you and Johnny …" She and Johnny, however, insist on "taggin' along" (Lee 1:9). Kirkman and Moore seem to follow Reed's urging and begin The Walking Dead with only their two male cops. In both pre-transformation situations, the male partners are defending their homes against invaders. In a Cold War context, Reed and Ben represent the U.S. against "the Commies" in the military space race (Lee 1:9). Rick and Shane are caught in a highway shoot out with "run-off" from another county's new prison. Both sets of partners are also isolated in their efforts, Rick and Shane because "back-up is more than ten miles away," Reed and Ben because they sneak past soldiers to launch their rocket: "No time to wait for official clearance!" (Lee 1:9). The result is the same: transformative injury. The Fantastic Four's bullet-shaped ship crashes from radiation exposure, and Rick is shot. The first is the explicit cause of change: "It's those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!" (Lee 1:13). And in terms of sequential effect, the bullet that strikes Rick in the last panel of page one also triggers the zombie apocalypse. Page two is a single, borderless panel showing Rick waking, his first conscious moment since injured. The entire zombie apocalypse falls into the between-page gutter. Where cosmic ray injury externalizes personality traits, Rick's internal injury parallels transformation at a global scale.

These transformations also heighten interpersonal conflicts. Although the Fantastic Four has been described as a family unit, it begins with only three members. "Ben's relationship to the group is unclear," writes Rafiel York, creating "the biggest problem for reading this superhero team as a family" (208). Ben begins outside of the family unit and wishes to enter it by replacing Reed. Lee states in his treatment that Ben "is jealous of Mr. Fantastic" and "has a crush on Susan" and so is "interested in winning Susan away from" him (Marvel Firsts 484). Lee later has Ben state this explicitly: "I want Sue to look at me the way she looks at you!" (Lee 3:16). Kirkman employs the same triangle. After reuniting with his family, Rick is warned about Shane: "He's had his eye on Lori for as long as I've known them." The love conflict spurs the more violent male to challenge his rival for group leadership. Lee dictates that "there is always friction between Mr. Fantastic and The Thing" (Marvel Firsts 484), and Kirby draws Ben challenging Reed in the first panel before the space launch (Lee 1:9). After their transformation, Ben continues to criticize Mr. Fantastic's leadership: "C'mon, Reed, what are we waitin' for? Let's pulverize him!" (Lee 3:19). When Rick joins the camp, Shane also attempts to assume a leadership role, giving Rick orders his first morning: "You and I are going hunting today." When Rick decides they need to move camp location, Shane challenges him: "Are you crazy?!" Neither Ben nor Shane, however, are portrayed as fit to command. As the Thing, Ben is too destructively volatile, and Shane fails to understand the depth of their problems: "I thought this thing would be over in a week." He believes the government will rescue them and that their situation "won't last."

Despite the love rivalry, neither narrative offers suspense about its outcome. Sue and Lori make their choices early and explicitly. Sue announces to Reed before the launch: "I'm your fiancée!" (Lee 1:9). After reuniting with Rick, Lori rejects Shane's touch: "Don't. Rick is back now. … He's alive. … And he's my husband." There is no contest. Psychologist Eric Berne published his first book on transactional psychoanalysis in 1961, the same year as the first issues of The Fantastic Four, and in his follow-up book he categories this kind of love triangle as a transactional ritual, "a stereotyped series of simple complementary transactions programmed by external social forces," because "it is society and not the woman who sets up" the transaction; "Custom demands that the two men fight for her, even if she does not want them to, and even if she has already made her choice" (36, 124). Because the triangle is ritualistic and its outcome predetermined, both narratives instead play out the repercussions of spurning the more violent male.

The endgame begins with a final group exclusion. Sue and Johnny prevent Ben from entering Reed's lab: "Sorry, Thing! Reed is working on something secret!" Ben: "So what? I'm one of the Fantastic Four, ain't I?" (Lee 8:1). The exclusion reveals to him that in fact he is not an accepted member of the superhero family. Shane is likewise excluded from the intimacy of Rick, Lori, and Carl's family tent. Before Shane's final argument with Rick, Moore draws Shane standing outside the tent and alone. The exclusion triggers an in-group fight, with Ben and Reed facing off once again and Shane punching Rick. Having reached this breaking point, Ben quits the team: "I'm cuttin' out of this combo, as of now! The Fantastic Four can go to blazes for all I care!" To which Reed responds: "Thing, wait! You're making a big mistake!" (Lee 8:3). Kirkman offers a condensed version of the same dialogue: Shane shouts, "Fuck this!" and Rick calls after him, "Shane, wait!" Moore's frame mirrors Kirby's, with both Rick and Reed slightly off balance with a concerned hand raised shoulder-height, fingers spread, and with Lori and Sue posed anxiously behind them. In both cases the rejected male recognizes his inability to win the prized female and so bitterly abandons the goal. Ben yells at Sue, "Now get lost, sister! Save that sob stuff for Reed!" (Lee 8:3). Shane expresses the same failure: "I'm nothing now, Rick! NOTHING!" The realization leads to the final confrontation between the rivals. Johnny warns, "Reed, come quick! The Thing's gone mad!" as Ben charges into Reed's lab (Lee 8:10). Kirkman and Moore play out the same scene with Shane aiming his gun at Rick: "this is the only way!"

The acts of aggression cause the demise of the aggressors. Johnny attempts to protect Reed, but the Thing stops himself when Reed leaps out of his way, declaring, "He crashed right into the chemical vial, as I hoped he would!" (Lee 8:12). Johnny's parallel character, Carl, also steps forward to protect Rick by shooting Shane. "As a ritual," writes Berne, the love triangle "tends to be tragic" (124), but here The Walking Dead partially diverges from its predecessor. Instead of a literal death, Lee and Kirby destroy only the Thing. Reed's chemicals transform him into the fully human and so less destructive Ben Grimm. Shane dies, gasping, "Gak! Guk! Gargle!"—the sounds uttered by the walking dead throughout—but Ben is no longer "just a walking fright!" In both, the excessively violent rival vanishes. Although Ben's physical transformation is brief, Lee kills off the Ben Grimm of his original treatment. The revised Ben reverts to his monstrous appearance, but the team is no longer "always afraid of the Thing getting out of their control some day and harming mankind" (Marvel Firsts 484). Alan Moore describes the later Ben as a "cuddly, likeable 'Orange Teddy-bear,'" completely unlike the original who "was always on the verge of turning into a fully fledged villain" ("Blinded by the Hype"). Instead of rivals, Reed and Ben are retroactively revealed to have been good friends since college. Reed declares at their first introduction: "I have a hunch we're going to get along fine!" (Lee 11:6). This is the status quo Kirkman recreates and then overturns with Shane and Rick.

To further diffuse the love rivalry, Lee and Kirby introduce an alternate but identically drawn Sue. The puppet master's blind step-daughter, Alicia, disguises herself as Sue, fooling all of Sue's male teammates. Reed's chemicals wear off, but Alicia's love for the Thing is permanently transforming: "This man—his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him—there is something tragic—something sensitive!" (Lee 8:9). Shane reveals his similarly tragic side just before his death: "You come to rip my heart of my chest? […] Go ahead and rip it out, Rick! I don't need it anymore!" Because Moore draws no substitute Lori, when Shane's love plot ends, so does he. The Thing, however, transfers his affection to Alicia, who reciprocates and humanizes his previously inhuman character: "the clinker is—she likes me better as the Thing!" (Lee 8:13). Like Alicia, Lori also passes judgment on Shane, wordlessly spitting on his grave at the start of Vol. 2—the judgment of the original Thing implied by Sue's unwavering rejection. Though incompetent at combat, Sue and Lori determine what degree of violence is acceptable in a mate, championing relative male gentleness in a context of hyper male violence.

Janice A. Radway identifies the same gender preferences in popular romance novels. "The heroes in these ideal romances," writes Radway, "exhibit considerably less physical violence and brutality toward the heroines than do heroes in failed romances," and the preferred hero hides a secret "tenderness … behind the façade of his masculinity" (129, 128-9). When successful romance novelists employ a love triangle in which two men vie for the female protagonist, it often includes "a true villain" foil who is "inevitably ugly" and who "attempts to abduct the heroine from the arms of the hero," revealing "the true worth of the hero" (133). Lee and Kirby were well-versed in such romance tropes, having collaborated on dozens of romance stories during the 1950s. In 1960, four of Marvel's sixteen bimonthlies—Love Romances, My Own Romance, Patsy and Hedy, and A Date with Millie—were romances, and a fifth title, Linda Carter, Student Nurse, which premiered two months before The Fantastic Four, was the first Marvel publication to include its new "MC" logo on the cover (Marvel Firsts 6-9, 41).

The triangle formula also appears extensively outside the romance genre. "Because of its dramatic qualities," writes Berne, it "is the basis of much of the world's literature" (124). Even the specific permutation of two foils of contrasting levels of aggression vying for group leadership has immediate precedents. J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, published seven years before The Fantastic Four, features a Ben-like Boromir resenting the Reed-like leadership of Aragorn as Boromir fails to claim the prized ring from its child-sized bearer Frodo. In Peter Jackson's film adaptation, released two years before The Walking Dead, a Shane-like Sean Bean vies against a Rick-like Viggo Mortensen. Without biographical evidence, it is impossible to determine what if any overt influence Tolkien had on Lee or Jackson on Kirkman, but film historian Siegfried Kracauer argues that such repetitions "are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimensions of consciousness" (6). Berne similarly attributes the love triangle ritual to "external social forces" and "Custom" (36, 124). Posing a related question of narrative influence, "How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another?," Edward Said writes, "It is as if … a bin called 'Oriental' existed into which all the authoritative, anonymous, and traditional Western attitudes to the East were dumped unthinkingly" (15, 102). Kracuauer's, Berne's and Said's modifiers—"collective," "external," "unthinkingly"—imply an absence of individual choice in the transmission and repetition of social formulas. Steiger similarly employs passive voice when discussing The Walking Dead: "Frustratingly, some of the worst gender dynamics in today's world are replicated" (105-6).

Kirkman, however, stands in contrast to the changes in gender attitudes current in both the superhero and the zombie genres. George Romero wrote and produced a 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead in which the catatonically passive Barbra transforms into a zombie-killing survivalist. Barry Keith Grant argues that the remake, with the revised character's "clearheaded, unsentimental resourcefulness," "attempts to reclaim the horror genre for feminism" (145, 153). Comic book artist and writer John Byrne attempted the same for the superhero genre during his 1981-6 run of The Fantastic Four, transforming Invisible Girl into Invisible Woman and making her the team's most powerful character. Viewing the superhero genre more widely, Kaysee Baker and Arthur A. Raney's 2007 study "investigated whether or not animated superheroes were portrayed in gender-role stereotypical ways" (35) and, contrary to their hypothesis and historical precedents, found few differences between gender portrayals, especially in the category of aggression. "One way to interpret these findings," they write, "would be to proclaim that female superheroes are finally breaking down the gender-based stereotypes that have permeated children's cartoons for decades" (36).

Kirkman then is not simply dipping unthinkingly into a bin that external social forces have labeled "Gender" and filled with layers of collective mentality. "Intentionally or not," writes Steiger, Kirman reveals "that stereotypes about race and gender will pop up again, even when there are no longer social structures to keep them in place" (107). Steiger's verb construction, "will pop up again," implies that Kirkman is a passive agent in his own artistic choices, and while acknowledging that Kirkman "is relying on old stereotypes" and could "genuinely [believe] that women defer to men when it comes to making decisions," Steiger prefers to interpret Kirkman as "commenting on how people rely on stereotypes in times of crisis" (106). Kirkman's collaborator, however, stands in contrast, since "Andrea being a crack shot" was Tony Moore's idea and is the only example of a female character adopting a traditionally masculine trait now prevalent among female characters across genres ("Inteviews").

Kirkman also does more than reproduce an atavistic formula; his narrative reinforces it in a contemporary context. When reviewer Darren Mooney criticized Kirkman for presenting his gender attitudes as "unquestioned near-universal truth," a commenter responded: "Seems fairly natural that the group would default to the standard lineup, where men protect the women. In case you haven't noticed, men are far more aggressive and stronger by nature." The term "lineup" is a superhero team metaphor, and the double reference to "nature" as justification for a cultural belief is an example of a collective mentality—but in this case the process is not anonymous. The reader reached into the bin and pulled out The Walking Dead, a comic book grounded in gender dynamics a half century out-of-date.

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