Comic books have long reflected a great deal about societal values. Who is good? Who is evil? What is heroic? And what is villainous? For far too long heroism has been synonymous with able-bodied, male, white, Christian and heterosexual. Anyone else, everyone else, was either relegated to the role of side-kick or villain. Or they simply did not appear at all. And quite frankly, how fun is that? A whole community of people were left out of comics. People with Disabilities simply did not get to be heroes. When M. Night Shyamalan deconstructed the superhero archetype in Unbreakable (2000) it was no coincidence that Mr. Glass was a villain with a Disability. Mr. Glass is the quintessential bitter cripple out to hurt the world that hurt him. And a lot of the time in comics, people with Disabilities didn’t even get to be villains. Minorities and women finally began to make substantial appearances in comic books during the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics. From that time forward comic books continued to improve their representation of minorities and carry on expanding that representation into the modern era.
But what is the relevance of Disability in the context of comics? Well, it is about who is allowed to be a hero, who is allowed to be a villain and who is allowed to be seen at all. The growing presence of Disabled characters in comics is likely a result of the increase in visibility of people with Disabilities, their activism and the creation of media. And though mainstream comic books have a long way to go with their depictions of people with Disabilities, there are already quite a few notable Disabled characters. In fact, in 2013 Syracuse University will be holding what is believed to be the very first ComicCon aimed at people with Disabilities. For more information about this upcoming event check out www.crippingthecon.com.
The author wants to thank all of his cool friends with Disabilities for inspiring him to write this article.
Batman often has a very simplistic and problematic manner of depicting people with disabilities. Most notably, mental illness. One only need peek down the halls of Arkham Asylum to see that, in the Batman universe, mental illness and evil go hand in hand. But Batman doesn’t really get great marks for its depiction of people with physical disabilities either as we will see with the depiction of Oracle and Two-Face embodies what it unfortunately means to be a villain with disabilities. Two-Face goes from mild mannered District Attorney to crazed killer. All due to a horrible acid scalding (are guns banned in Gotham City? Why does everyone get scalded with acid?). People have speculated that Two-Face must have schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder or bipolar disorder. But one thing is for sure; becoming physically disability turned Two-Face into a criminal.
A character straight out of the era of Blaxploitation and Kung-Fu, Misty Knight is one kick ass lady in the Marvel Universe. After being blown up by a bomb during her job in the NYPD (we told you she kicked ass) Misty Knight resigns from the police force. Iron Man, her fellow superhero with a disability (and we’ll get to him!), makes Misty Knight a bionic arm. Now do you think she just goes back to being a police officer? Oh hell no. Misty Knight becomes a Kung-Fu master and fights crime. One of the great things about Misty Knight is that, while she is very stereotyped and comes from an era of Blaxploitation, Misty Knight is one of the few women of color with disabilities in comic books. And she is portrayed as smart, sexy, talented and tough. Misty Knight is a well rounded character with friends, lovers,and a complex back story. All of this while sporting a pretty awesome bionic arm.
Oh Marvel. You make us so happy. Not only do you give us another amazing representation of a woman of color, but she is Deaf too! Echo appears in Daredevil as a woman torn between her love for Matt Murdock and her hatred of Daredevil. She believes Daredevil is responsible for the death of her father and seeks revenge against him. After finding out this is in fact a lie, that Daredevil was not, in fact responsible for her father’s death, Echo does some soul searching and finds a way to forgive herself for the actions she took under false pretenses. Echo’s visual senses are heightened allowing her to mimic movements and read lips. Her ability to communicate is, however, sometimes limited by her Deafness. We’d love to see Echo learn ASL but the fact that she is a Deaf character in comics and goes through all the drama of your typical comic book character is amazing.
We know some of you just went, “wait, what? Iron Man is Disabled?” Of course Iron Man is Disabled! Tony Stark took some pretty massive shrapnel to the heart and now relies on an implanted device to keep it from killing him. Not only is Iron Man another wonderful example of a character with a Disability (who uses a medical device!) but he is also an innovator for other superheroes with Disabilities (see Misty Knight above). Did we already talk about how much we love Marvel’s fairly positive portrayals of characters with Disabilities? Oops. But here it is again. Yes. Iron Man relies on this medical device to keep him alive. But Iron Man is also, in his own words, “A genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.” These two things can coexist and it makes Iron Man an awesome example of how characters with Disabilities should be portrayed.
Superheroes with Disabilities are fairly rare in the comic book universe. And some people may question why it even matters to have characters with Disabilities. They might argue that these are superheroes; they aren’t supposed to really represent what it means to be human. But we beg to differ. We think media matters. And media affects how we feel about ourselves and people who are different from us. Hawkeye is a perfect example of a superhero with a Disability and why it matters. In 2012, a 4 year old boy began to refuse to wear his hearing aid. He argued with his mother that superheroes don’t wear hearing aids. Well, his mother wrote to Marve,l desperate about what to do. Marvel was wonderful and did the right thing by creating a superhero named Blue Ear who uses a hearing aid. Just like this 4 year old boy. But even better, Marvel pointed out that Hawkeye is Deaf and uses a hearing aid. We hope that this little boy became a Hawkeye fan that day. Though we were disappointed that this was glossed over in The Avengers (2012) it still shows that superheroes matter to all of us. Hawkeye is very capable marksman, fighter and archer. And perhaps for a little Deaf boy, Hawkeye is someone to look up to.
Professor X is likely one of the most prominent comic book characters to use a wheelchair. Professor X’s chair is nearly iconic in the Marvel Universe. He is one of the strongest mutants in the X-Universe and the founder of the X-Men. Professor X has almost always been portrayed as being Disabled. His character was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and represents the desire for harmony and a better world. In the X-Universe Professor X is a teacher, a gifted speaker, a diplomat and a civil rights activist. And Professor X’s Disability is very much normalized, even a “given.” Professor X is an incredible powerful telepath. And the fact that Professor X isn’t miraculously cured (we’re looking at you Oracle), isn’t relegated to a “very special episode” and isn’t a villain makes his character very progressive. We will be interested to see how the new X-Men trilogy tackles a young Professor X using a wheelchair.
Now here is a controversial item on the list. And the controversy is not whether or not Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, is at some point considered a superhero with a Disability. She most certainly is. After being shot in the spine, Batgirl begins to use a wheelchair. She is transformed from Batgirl to Oracle. And that is where the controversy begins. Batgirl/Oracle uses her sharp intelligence and ability as an information specialist (go superhero librarians) to fight crime. Oracle leads Birds of Prey and is a kickass representation of a crime fighter who uses a wheelchair. But then Oracle falls prey to the “it’s a miracle” syndrome found in many representations of people with Disabilities (in particular, people using wheelchairs). And in 2011 Oracle is magically “cured,” gets up from her wheelchair and becomes Batgirl once more. And that is the controversy. Is it acceptable to magically “cure” a superhero with a Disability? And why can’t Batgirl use a wheelchair? With so few representations of people with Disabilities (let alone, who use mobility devices and are women) it is a shame that Oracle is no more.
Daredevil is probably one of the most iconic superheroes with a Disability and one of the few characters who has a film in which his Disability plays a major part (yes, we know how you feel about the Daredevil movie). Daredevil was blinded at a young age by a passing truck that spilled radioactive material on him (seriously? where do these trucks come from?). The material leaves Daredevil blind but enhances his other senses. After his father, a boxer, is killed for refusing to throw a fight, Matt Murdock becomes Daredevil, The Man Without Fear. Daredevil; becomes one of the very few (and perhaps the only major) superhero who is blind. Daredevil’s day job is fighting criminals in a Court of law and his night job is fighting crime in the street. Daredevil uses his walking cane as a weapon and is incredibly skilled when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Daredevil engages with the Disabled community and at one point is in a serious relationship with Echo. Furthermore, Daredevil is taught to fight by a blind mentor named Stick. Again, a unique representation of a superhero with Disabilities.
When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, he set out to do what most geeks would weep over; he wanted to destroy the Superhero. His task was very easy. All Moore had to do was show what superheroes would be like in real life. Watchmen is not only widely considered to be the best graphic novel ever written, it is also considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. Rorshach is one of the best examples of a character who transitions from superhero to real life with horrific consequences. Rorschach is exactly what we would expect from a hero; smart, resourceful and fights on the side of justice. Unfortunately, translated into the real world, Rorschach is mentally unstable. He shows sociopathic tendencies, especially in his very black and white view of the world. Things are either good or evil; righteous or corrupt; pure or filthy. There is no middle ground and Rorshach’s inability to see a middle ground makes him quite scary. We’re torn because Rorshach often does do what is right, but for the wrong reasons. It is clear that Rorshach has mental illness, but he’s a hero. This ambiguity is what draws so many people to Rorshach’s character. Yes, Rorshach is completely mad, but he truly believes he is on the side of righteousness. Rorshach clearly suffers from some distorted thinking. It’s an interesting perspective on sociopathy and not one we often see in media. Most of the time sociopathy is characterized by evil. But in this case, Rorschach may just be a mentally ill antihero.
A group of people discriminated against, hated and pushed to the margins of society because of physical differences. Hmmm…we don’t see a metaphor for Disability here at all! But seriously, many Geeks in the Disabled community have felt an affinity for the X-Universe. It seems like a very obvious parallel: a group of people who are hated just for being physically different and who are fighting for access to society. The X-Universe contains the perfect metaphor for Disability. With some characters being highly, visibly mutant (Nightcrawler, Beast, Angel) and others having more subtle physical differences (Storm, Magneto, and Dazzler). Some mutants even have a difficult time engaging with the larger society due to physical differences (Rogue, Cyclops, Chamber). In many ways the X-Universe reflects the great diversity and reality of the Disabled community. Because of this, many people with Disabilities have found a whole universe of people not unlike them. And, as we’ve seen, media matters. It matters that people can see themselves in our cultural heroes and icons. The X-Universe not only stands for people living with Disabilities but for all those who have been subjected oppression.
Honorable Mentions: Spiderman (chronic illness caused by spider bite), Superman (astigmatism) and Thor (temporarily Disabled as a punishment for pride)