Portraying Disabilities in Comics: The Pros and Cons

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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A few weeks ago I had a conversation on Twitter with a guy about the recently announced Batgirl movie, which has Joss Whedon set to write and direct. The movie is slated to arrive in a few years. While the prospect of a Whedon-helmed Batgirl movie is enough to excite any superhero fan, this guy and I each expressed concerns about the apparent direction of the film.

Regarding the timeline, it seems that DC and Warner Bros. are drawing heavy inspiration from the New 52 version of Batgirl, in which the character (Barbara Gordon) recovers from her paralysis and becomes able-bodied once more. Prior to this, the character was shot and paralyzed by The Joker in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 story Batman: The Killing Joke. Despite the controversy surrounding this moment in the DC mythology, it nonetheless paved the way for Barbara Gordon to become one of the best and most famous disabled characters in comics, the wheelchair-bound technological genius Oracle.

Oracle has become a fan-favorite over the years, aiding the rest of the Bat-family on countless adventures and playing a particularly prominent role in the 2010 series Batman Incorporated. If you’re unfamiliar with the comics, the closest thing we’ve seen to a cinematic adaptation of the heroine is in Arrow, season four, when Felicity Smoak also is paralyzed by Team Arrow nemesis Damian Darkh. Like Barbara Gordon, Felicity becomes confined to a wheelchair, but continues to use her intellectual prowess and technological skills to help her friends protect Star City. It was exciting to see a major character on the show with a disability, and who still retained all of the traits that defined her in the first place — intelligence, humor and sexiness.

Portraying a disabled character as a fearless and attractive individual remains one of the major highlights of Arrow’s history. The writers even dropped the Oracle name at one point, providing a nice Easter egg for comic readers.

Yet, much to the dismay of many viewers like me, by the end of the season the writers dropped a totally unnecessary deus ex machina in order to get rid of Felicity’s paralysis. An entire episode was devoted to Team Arrow using the nanotechnology developed by their friend Ray Palmer to heal Felicity and return her to her “natural” form. It’s a decision that did not sit well with many viewers; now it seems that DC is prepared to do the same thing with its upcoming Batgirl film.

By setting the film in the aftermath of Barbara’s life as Oracle, does this mean we won’t get a good DC movie with Oracle? There’s still the possibility of an animated film, given the post-credits scene in the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. But still, a live-action Oracle is something many fans would love to see. Why not instead set this film in the early years of Barbara’s life, and thus provide a gateway for the character to evolve into Oracle?

Accurate portrayal of disabilities?

This is but one of multiple instances in which a disabled superhero or other comics character is magically healed by some technological or supernatural force. It also raises questions about how accurately comics portray characters with disabilities in general. Check out this 2016 article in Pop Culture Uncovered entitled “Hey Comic Book Writers! Stop ‘Curing’ Our Disabled Heroes!” to read more about how often this happens among comic book heroes.

Oracle is obviously the pinnacle of what a captivating and multi-layered disabled superhero looks like, but let’s look at the other most famous one: Daredevil. The swashbuckling Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is a longtime fan-favorite among comics readers, and without a doubt one of my favorite superheroes. Every time blind lawyer Matt Murdock sweeps into action as his superhumanly enhanced alias Daredevil, I can’t wait to see him take down the crime lords and murderers trying to take control of his city. He’s smart, is an incredibly skilled fighter, and above all, fearless. What’s not to like about him? Especially for the disabled community, shouldn’t a badass like Daredevil be the ultimate symbol for people like us?

Oh, yeah, there’s just the small fact that his life sucks! Sure Daredevil can face numerous obstacles and beat criminals to a pulp, but the fact remains that Matt Murdock is almost always portrayed as a miserable human being. The amount of suffering he endures makes Peter Parker’s life look like a walk in the park.

In what is perhaps the most famous Daredevil story, Born Again, Matt is betrayed by his girlfriend Karen Page and his secret identity falls into the hands of his arch-nemesis Wilson Fisk. From there, Fisk (aka the Kingpin of crime) destroys Matt’s life, piece by piece. Fisk sabotages Matt’s career, relationships and reputation before eventually beating him within an inch of his life. As the title of this particular book suggests, however, the story is ultimately about the character coming back and finding redemption. Yet, if you keep reading Daredevil comics, you’ll find that his life is an endless cycle of brutal trials and tribulations. 

Let’s have some fun!

However, something I would like to see in comics is a disabled superhero, or other protagonist, whose life is fun. What about a comic akin to Valiant Entertainment’s Quantum and Woody or Marvel’s Power Man and Iron Fist, in which one of the characters was either wheelchair-bound or had some kind of noticeable disability? I imagine a hero who’s witty, entertaining, a bit cocky, and whose limitations don’t stop them from having a great life.

I look at my life as a wheelchair-bound young adult with spinal muscular dystrophy, and it’s filled with optimism and fulfillment. I certainly don’t deny the challenges that I and others like me face everyday, but for many of us our lives are not characterized by tragedy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my comic Degenerates, the main characters are deformed extraterrestrials who are born into an ultra-warrior society that tries to dispose of them. When they escape from this planet however, they grow up to become a ragtag group of heroes much like the Guardians of the Galaxy. Their leader is a dwarfish smuggler whose cockiness has no limits, and who gets his friends into all kinds of trouble. The book is a comedic space opera that treats its disabled heroes in a way that generally isn’t seen — as fun characters. My hope is that a comic publisher will be interested in it, but regardless I intend to keep writing this and many other stories.

In general though, I want to commend the comics industry for making strides toward giving disabled communities a voice, more so than any other entertainment industry. All in all, I’m quite hopeful about the future of disabled characters in comics.

My advice to creators and publishers out there would be to simply let these characters have fun. Look at how well the ABC sitcom Speechless portrays a family whose oldest son has cerebral palsy, and how effectively the humor is used on the show. Our lives may be more difficult than others, but I can guarantee you we’re better off than Daredevil.

That said, how about comic creators let their disabled heroes have a little fun, okay?


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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