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There’s a sweet little story going around about how Marvel Comics has reached out to a hearing impaired child who felt self-conscious about wearing his hearing aid because, as he put it, superheroes don’t wear them. Marvel countered with Hawkeye’s own hearing impairment along with a fun superhero creation based on little Anthony Smith. A superhero someone could relate to made a positive impact on their life. Like I said, it’s a sweet story and a truly nice thing for Marvel to take the time to do. However, it also unintentionally spotlights a pretty disappointing thing about comics today.
See, Marvel had to go to some lengths reaching back to show Hawkeye’s hearing impairment, because it’s not something a casual reader would know about him. I’ve been aware of it for a long time, but I think I picked it up as some random comic book trivia fact. In all my years of reading Marvel Comics, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Clint Barton’s hearing referenced in a story. I’m not even sure whether it’s still an existing issue for him. It could have been retconned away at some point. But whether it goes ignored and has been retconned, the point is the same.
Persons with Disabilities has become a badly underrepresented and misrepresented group in comics in recent years. Both Marvel and DC share the blame for this with their quick fixes and miracle cures.
People in wheelchairs used to have two very prominent comic characters to relate too. Charles Xavier and Barbara Gordon. Forget the fact that Marvel just recently killed Xavier off. He died on his feet because Marvel inexplicably cured his paralysis years ago. They got rid of probably the most well known and iconic comic character in a wheelchair with little more than a handwave. And if you don’t think Xavier was the most well known and iconic, that’s fine. Because the character you think should have that title got the same treatment from DC! Oracle was easily the most inspiring character with disabilities around, because she didn’t get a trade-off. She didn’t get a superpower out of the deal like most other characters do. She became a force to be reckoned with through sheer intelligence and determination. That is, until the New 52 put her back in the role of Batgirl, losing such an important character in order to gain basically a redheaded version of the college-aged Batgirl character readers already had in the blonde Stephanie Brown.
Good lord. I think the New 52 even has Niles Caulder, the wheelchair-bound Chief of Doom Patrol, walking around now.
Besides the issue of getting wheelchair-bound characters up on their feet again, I’ve long had a pretty big problem with how comic books treat amputees. Lose a limb in a comic, and you get rewarded with an awesome bionic limb of some sort. That’s almost always how it goes. There are all these fantastical prosthetic limbs so convenient and better than the real deal it’s a wonder these characters don’t hack off the rest of their limbs. I rarely see Misty Knight or Forge struggle with any everyday limitations of having prosthetics that never need to be maintained or charged and seem capable of doing everything a real limb could do plus more. Is this supposed to be inspiring or offensive to people with actual prosthetics? You know -- with Iraq and Afghanistan -- the United States unfortunately has quite of few more people like that these days.
But I don’t know if the unbelievable bionic limbs are worse than when comics just give characters their flesh and blood limbs back. I genuinely miss Aquaman’s harpoon hand, back before it became one of those miracle bionic limbs. The New 52 gave Roy Harper back his missing arm, and even though Cry of Justice was a truly horrible story as were its follow-ups, I always thought that Roy Harper of all characters could cut it as a one-armed badass. Bishop has made his return in the pages of Uncanny X-Force, sporting two arms again. He was another character who probably could’ve pulled off being one dangerous one-armed man.
As I’ve said, Hawkeye’s hearing impairment is really more of a trivia fact than a substantial character trait anymore. But Marvel did have a deaf character for a little while there. Echo was unceremoniously ousted from New Avengers only to show up in a decent role in Moon Knight, where she ended up getting killed off. On another note, Dr. Mid-Nite, formerly DC’s most prominent blind character, hasn’t been around since the New 52 started.
Daredevil stands alone as a major character with a disability whose disability remains at the forefront, and Mark Waid deserves some serious respect for that. Even some of the really good Daredevil writers have tended to gloss over his blindness in favor of playing up how cool his radar sense is. Hell, I’ve even seen stories where someone sneaks up on Daredevil from behind and that works. Waid actually treats Daredevil’s blindness with the respect a real disability deserves, and it’s a shame that’s so worth noting in comics today.
Too often, comics treat disabilities as something to fix about a character rather than address in honest and interesting ways. Comic publishers will pay lip service to the idea that imperfections are what make their characters so compelling, but in practice, they stick to a narrow view of who can be a superhero in their universes. And if one of their characters strays outside of that view, it usually won’t be long before they come along and slap on a fix that pulls the character back in line.
I hate saying it, but the kid unfortunately had it right. Superheroes don’t wear hearing aids.