When you think of disability in comics, a few prominent names come to mind: Barbara Gordon, Matt Murdock, Charles Xavier, and Clint Barton. Each of these individuals experiences disabilities in different ways, but they make remarkable use of their other abilities in coping with disability.
However, what we see isn’t always what can be disabling. Sometimes, our emotions or neurology impact how we move about the world, and those of us who experience such things deserve a spotlight, too. Representation of disability is a double-edged sword, but also a place where we can expand our notions of disabilities as well as the people who live with them.
When Barbara took up the cowl again in the New 52, I, and many others, had mixed feelings. Sure, it was great to see her as Batgirl again, but who said she couldn’t be Batgirl, or ever stopped, in her wheelchair? As Oracle, Barbara was a linchpin of the DCU, but she also was more than capable of kicking ass. Turning her back into an able-bodied hero sent a confusing message, especially considering that she was training Wendy Harris, who became paraplegic after being attacked by Wonder Dog in Titans Tower. Wendy went on to become Proxy, assuming a similar role as Oracle in helping heroes like Stephanie Brown.
We have some pretty infantilizing views of disabled people. They must always be cared for, they always need our help as able-bodied people, or their lives are inspiration for us to draw from. In trying to be kind, we can actually end up being very invalidating. Comic books can be a useful way to change this framework by showing characters who live with their disabilities rather than suffer from them. Yes, being disabled in an ableist society can definitely be difficult, but maybe we need to move beyond constantly looking down on disabled people with pity and instead see them as human. Or heroes. Disabled heroes could be a wonderful way to explore being heroic with different barriers.
For a look into the power of disabled comic book characters, check out the story of Blue Ear. A young deaf boy became sad about wearing his hearing aid and eventually refused. After his mother reached out to Marvel, they created the hero Blue Ear, who gave the boy the confidence to wear his hearing aid.
Imagine what it could do for other people, from children to adults, to see themselves represented in a disabled superhero. For people who do struggle with disabilities in their day to day lives, having someone live out their experience on a page could be cathartic. And, in the case of Blue Ear, Marvel responded to a young child’s issues with his hearing aid and delivered for him. In the case of disability, and other identities, maybe they can begin to deliver in bigger ways.
There is one tricky aspect of portraying characters with disabilities: healing them. While it can be helpful to show people with disabilities as “getting better,” we also should not underestimate the value of disabled characters. When we change them to become able-bodied, we lose an important narrative that is so often left out of our conversations. Having disabled characters can help us to stop pitying them, which can easily come from a place of ableism. They also show us that they are more than their disabilities and can manage more easily than we give them credit for. Essentially, disabled people are people whose disability is one part of their lives, not people who live in spite of disability.
Much of my advocacy for disabled people comes from working with people who have mental illnesses. Disability is often framed as physical, when in reality it can manifest in many ways. I’ve seen people so depressed it’s monumental they make it to therapy, and sometimes that may be the only place they are willing to go. I’ve seen people anxious enough that they severely restrict what they do because of the intensity of their fears and anxiety. In my own life, I have experienced the type of anxiety that is invisible, but is hellish in your own mind. Mental and emotional issues can sometimes impair our functioning, making everyday tasks more challenging. Yet, there’s also something powerful in having the words or images to describe your experiences.
So often, people become frustrated or dejected at the difficulty of describing a painful inner world. Sometimes, something as simple as having the words helps them reduce their level of distress. Comic books could easily create those words, giving a framework for understanding mental and emotional challenges and possibly solutions for managing them. However, a major caveat here is that the information must be accurate and the language precise.
The label ‘schizophrenic’ gets thrown at Moon Knight a lot, and is often confused with multiple personalities. Based on what I know, Moon Knight actually has dissociative identity disorder, or what is commonly referred to as multiple personalities. So often people misuse mental health terms, in particular OCD, bipolar, and schizophrenic. This kind of misinformation is dangerous and helps to contribute to unnecessary struggles for people with mental illnesses. Negative terms such as crazy serve the same dangerous function of viewing people with mental illness as unstable.
I think there’s a grand opportunity to use comic books specifically for healing when it comes to mental illness. It seems as though the most common illness that pops up is dissociative identity disorder, in which individuals manifest distinctly different personalities and experience fugue states, or periods of time where they are not conscious of and cannot remember what they’ve been doing. Characters with this illness include Rose/Thorn, The Sentry, and Legion. Dissociative identity disorder is often used in a very sensationalized way and can lend to erroneous understandings of the disorder. Comics as a visual media could easily begin to show other illnesses, such as OCD and depression, in ways that are uncommon in the media. Not all people with OCD clean or check, and not all people with depression are tearful.
Comic books have a great potential to provide cathartic experiences for people with disabilities. Whether neurological, emotional, or physical, comic book characters can provide a mirror for exploring difficulties associated with disabilities, but also seeing disability as one more aspect of being human. Rather than suffering, there could emerge a narrative of thriving, existence, and resilience. I’d love to see more comics fully examining disability in the context of everyday life without involving narratives about suffering.
As always, I hope that more disabled creators will make comics. Their experiences are helpful in framing stories and how disability can show up in many different ways. They also reduce the capacity for ableism in stories involving disabled people and could convey a sense of nuance about living with a disability. While I am more familiar with disability in one domain, I don’t fully know about what it’s like to be neurologically atypical or to have different motor functions and capabilities. Disabled people have a better understanding of their own experiences and I truly feel they could provide some excellent depth to characters in general, but especially disabled characters.
Who are some disabled creators making awesome stories with disabled characters? Who are some disabled comic book fans already having this discussion? What would you like to add to this conversation? What disabled characters did I miss?
Let me know in the comments!