Disability in Comic Books: Representations and Gimmicks
We’re living in a more inclusive world than we were twenty or thirty years ago. Not only has the term “normal” become a grey area, but many consider its usage downright offensive. After all, what is normal if not exclusionary in its very nature? And are superheroes normal? How does one be inclusive in books about extraordinary people who are made interesting by their essential differences from the average person? I’m interested in how comic books represent individuals with disability—if they truly set out to represent a very real demographic, or if the disability is used as a gimmick for some origin or power. What’s the difference? Well, I’d ask the question: does the character have to overcome their disability, is it an obstacle that they’re forced to work around? Or, does it make them stronger? Do they have some sort of other power that makes that disability almost non-existent?
Disability isn’t totally absent from comics—to the contrary actually. While there isn’t what I’d call a staggering number of comic book characters with disability, there are certainly some major ones who aren’t confined to a marginalized role. In a sort of an informal way, I’d like to sift through some of these characters, some major and some not so major, to see how their disability affects them, it what ways it doesn’t, and if it could be considered a representation that’s positive, or mere gimmick.
The Blue Ear
The Blue Ear may be as new as his appearances are infrequent—he has none within the Marvel Universe. However, I consider him the absolute greatest effort by a comic book publisher to represent disability. The story behind the creation of the Blue Ear is truly remarkable. A 4-year-old deaf boy named Anthony Smith refused to wear his hearing aids to school. His reason for doing so was that “superheroes don’t wear hearing aids.” His mother reached out to Marvel, and this was their response:
They also resported that at one point in his character history, Hawkeye had lost his hearing and had to wear hearing aids. They sent him a sketch of Hawkeye and the Blue Ear together:
Deafness isn't all that common in comic books. Perhaps that's why they felt compelled to create the Blue Ear. Anthony's story is a great example of the importance of inclusion and of positive representation.
Other Deaf characters
Amputation is perhaps the greatest opportunity that a creative team would have to show a character overcoming great hardship. It’s a disability that you’re guaranteed not to have since birth, and spawning a hero out of this hardship seems to be a golden opportunity for some gold old-fashioned positive representation. Misty Knight was a New York City police officer before she lost her right arm to an explosion. She had a prosthetic limb fashioned for her by none other than the great Tony Stark. Her new arm, of course, provides her with superhuman strength. There are a few amputees scattered throughout the comic book universe, and a good handful of them were given super-bionic prosthetics. Interestingly enough, this isn’t a far cry from the reality of the matter; South African runner Oscar Pistorious was almost banned from the Olympics due to the fact that his prosthetic legs had given him what many believed was an unfair speed advantage, leading to his nickname, “Blade Runner.” He went on to become the first double leg amputee to compete in the standard Olympic games. He didn’t win, but he’s a multiple gold medalist in the Paralympics.
The other, darker, alternative to the amputee in comic books focuses on Lizard (Formerly Curt Connors) and Komodo (formerly Melati Kasuma), the latter of whom stole Connor’s formula. Kasuma was a double amputee before she was turned into Komodo, a transformation that gave her back her legs, super strength, great agility, and the look of a monster.
: Forge, Cyborg, Donovan Caine, Karma.
Daredevil is certainly a tough one. He’s an important character because he’s a title character; he is the star of his own story, one of Marvel’s most well known heroes. The question I have—and I’m not so sure about the answer myself—is if Daredevil’s blindness is a gimmick.
Of course, it wasn’t Daredevil that created the idea that blindness heightens the other senses. But, as a guy who leaps off rooftops, finds and stops crimes, and successfully does battle with Bullseye, a hit man known for his impeccable accuracy, can Daredevil really
not see? Of course, I’m not arguing that he isn’t blind, he certainly is. I’m arguing that he may as well not be, that he can, in some respects, see. When not dressed up like the Daredevil, he hides his identity with a white cane and sunglasses, faking a disability that he has, but that doesn’t disable him. What might make Daredevil’s blindness a gimmick is the fact that it made him a superhero—that and some radioactive goo. What do you think? There are an absolute plethora of blind characters throughout the comic book universe, and a good lot of them are incredible fighters, but not all of them. The ones who aren’t tend to just be regular characters, like Alicia Masters, the love interest of the Thing (was she only made blind because the Thing is ugly?).
Other blind characters
: Blind Faith, Blindfold, Destiny, Destiny of the Endless, Charles M McNide, Geordi La Forge, Hoder, Kay, Libra, Madame Web, Master Izo, Milla Donovan, Professor Ojo, Shroud, Snowblind, Stick.
If you’re going to count out Blue Ear as an actual comic book character with a mythology, published books, and his own universe, then Barbara Gordon is a very close second place when it comes to positive representation. She is, perhaps, the best example of a disability that is not gimmick. Her story is one filled with trials and tribulations beyond imagination, and her paralysis wasn’t the beginning of her costume-clad crime-fighting career, it was the end of it (a controversial reboot of her character made her Batgirl again, but that’s neither here nor there). Professor X might seem like the more obvious choice, being that he’s the leader of the X-Men, and his power has absolutely nothing to do with his disability, but Xavier’s popularity is why I like Barbara Gordon better.
Once a librarian, she dressed as a female Batman for a costume party and found herself stopping a crime. Subsequently, given the attention and her relation to Commissioner Gordon, she became Batgirl for a good stretch of time. That is, until the Joker paralyzed her from the waist down. While this put an end to her costume-clad crime-fighting career, it didn’t put an end to her crime-fighting efforts completely. She then became known as the Oracle, a super genius and computer research expert who would go on to make countless appearances throughout the DC Universe as an invaluable guide and reference in the battle against evil.
Scholarly works have been written about this brutal yet inspiring transformation. In The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book icons and Hollywood Heroes
, Gina Renée Misiroglu writes, “as Oracle…Gordon stands tall as the most empowering disabled superhero. Readers witnessed her tragedy, and watched her rise above it.” She didn’t fit herself with a pair of bionic legs, or turn herself into a lizard, or learn to walk on her hands and move ten-times better than she did before (I’m looking at you, Daredevil). No, instead she found other ways to help, because let’s get real, there are enough kickers and punchers out there, and not nearly enough Oracles.
: Professor Xavier, Ape X, The Chief, Mr. X, Niles Cable, Silhouette.
For obvious reasons, positive representation is a crucial factor that today's comic book writers ought to be considering. Then again, negative representation can be a hard thing to spot. I wouldn't go as far as to label a single one of the characters I discussed as negative. One could certainly argue that Daredevil's blindness is a gimmick; at the same time, one could also argue otherwise, that his strength and power despite his lack of vision is inspiring. It can go both ways. What's important is being aware of these things, and that much like Anthony Smith, there are people out there that look to these heroes as far more than Saturday night entertainment.