Superheroes & Disability
Spoiler Alert: Green Lantern, X-Men, Batgirl & Daredevil + Batman: Arkham Knight
“A type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents”
Definition of a Superhero
The superhero genre may initially appear to be built on the simple narrative foundation of an eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, a naive escapism or an unrealistic story.
Superheroes are symbols of the human soul, a way to highlight the complexities of human nature, morality and putting it into an easily understood physical form. It is this quality that allows them to remain relevant no matter what time they are in. It has long been common to depict human experience in certain forms, either human or animal or both. In this way, superheroes are vessels to represent our hopes, fears, dreams and emotions so we can learn from their stories. Emotions can be taken to the extreme so we can see the outcomes without going through it. For example, anger is represented in the Hulk (Bruce Banner), loss with Daredevil (Matt Murdock) or order with Batman (Bruce Wayne).
Perhaps the best example of symbolic storytelling is the writer Geoff Johns’ entire 6-year run on Green Lantern. He created a rich narrative by focusing on human interactions and the question of morality through the relationship between Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and his nemesis Sinestro. The Green Lantern corps wield the most powerful weapon in the universe, a ring that can create anything through willpower to police the universe. Johns’ introduced the concept of the emotional electromagnetic spectrum an energy field fuelled by the emotions of all sentient beings. The 7 colours along the spectrum are tied to separate emotions (which have both positive and negative aspects) that are harnessed by 7 different lantern corps:
- Will: Green Lanterns
- Fear: Sinestro Corps (Yellow Lanterns)
- Hope: Blue Lanterns
- Rage: Red Lanterns
- Love: Star Sapphires (Pink Lanterns)
- Greed: Larfleeze (Only One Orange Lantern)
- Compassion: Indigo Lanterns
- Life: White Lanterns
- Death: Black Lanterns
The parallels in our own inner reality are portrayed through the physical embodiments of the emotions intimately interacting with each other. In the story, love proves it can be just as possessive as greed, will and fear can overcome each other and can also work together to stifle the overpowering assault of rage and in the end, all Lanterns have to unite with life to stop the formidable Black Lanterns, who symbolize death. The green lantern series celebrates the power of emotions and their positive and negative aspects, but also how necessary emotions are for life. Folding in old concepts and inventing new ones, Johns is just one example of a writer who celebrates the limitless story possibilities in the superhero genre.
”With great power comes great responsibility”
Spiderman (Peter Parker)
The limitless story possibilities in the superhero genre need talented writers to pioneer the power of storytelling to represent relatable issues such as the representation of women, mental illness, sexuality, ethnicity and my focus topic of disability. This analysis of disability representation in comic books will focus on 3 characters from the publishers MARVEL or DC: Professor X, Batgirl/Oracle & Daredevil. I will also thread in personal insights into how superheroes/comic books have shaped my life as a person who happens to have a disability.
Professor X has been a big media presence since his creation in 1963, his character is well known to be a paraplegic in a wheelchair. I remember first seeing him on the 1992 X-Men: The Animated Series it amazed me that a character with any kind of mobility impairment had an important role. I was 9 years old and beginning to spend more time in a wheelchair so his presence on TV helped my transition immensely. The favourite aspect of mine was the cool hovering wheelchair so I started to accept my own wheelchair. The series presented inclusivity, as Professor X was not defined by his disability but as a powerful leader. Now I realise that Professor X taught me that strength could be measured in many ways such as the strength of mind. This concept blew my mind and began me on my comic book journey.
Following on, the X-Men being classified as mutants was brilliant especially when I discovered that Duchenne was also a genetic mutation, it was definitely an impressive fourth-wall breaking moment. (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are awesome too!) This blurring of lines between comic books and reality is important as it allows you to accept your disability, that you are part of a world where extraordinary things are possible. Comic books have been a type of therapy for me, thinking about where my power would reside.
However, there are a few issues regarding Professor X: his lack of relatability to the younger disabled population. His limited active role in combat as he is usually just in a supportive role using telepathy or only sitting using the Cerebro helmet. I know that a support role would be appropriate due to his power base but it limits how useful disabled peoples are perceived. My main problem with Professor X is a big one, [Spoilers] the fact of his paralysis being temporary as he has had his spine ‘fixed’ twice and damaged 3 times.
- Paralyzed by Lucifer (X-Men #20, 1966)
- Received cloned body (Uncanny X-Men #167, 1983)
- Paralyzed again by Shadow King (Uncanny X-Men #280, 1991)
- Healed by Xorn (New X-Men #126, 2002)
- Paralyzed again by Xorn (New X-Men #146, 2003)
- Killed by Cyclops (Scott Summers) (Avengers vs. X-Men #11)
The above list is indicative of the medical model of disability, that Professor X needs somehow fixing or that if he had a choice he would not stay disabled. The issue is with storytelling practices, using a tragedy such as acquiring a disability as motivation for a superhero to overcome. The experiences of people living with acquired injuries need to be represented but disabilities do not always have to be these great tragedies in a character’s life that need to be cured. Lastly, the only time Professor X has had an active combat role is during his healed stage, which implies that disabled people are perceived as having limited autonomy or effect on the world around them.
“Human beings have that one bit of grace that sustains us all. We adapt… We adapt to the unadaptable”
Oracle (Barbara Gordon)
The DC character Oracle (Barbara Gordon) has been the iconic symbol for disability representation in comic books. Barbara Gordon was initially introduced as Batgirl (Detective Comics #359, 1967); she was a light-hearted departure from the tortured characters of Batman and Robin, each fighting crime to avenge the death of their parents. She was an important figure for positive female representation as she was not afraid to challenge Batman or work independently from him.
In the 1988 comic Batman: The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore) Barbara is shot in the spine by the Joker, which left her paralyzed. The editors of DC at the time Len Wein and Alan Moore agreed that Barbara Gordon, who was currently in retirement, was disposable enough for her career to come to a permanent end. Although events in The Killing Joke exert a great impact on the character, the story has little to do with Barbara Gordon. She is deployed as only a contrived plot device to cement the Joker’s vendetta against Batman. It seems that there was insensitivity in how she was treated and ultimately the reason behind her paralysis was wrong, disability should not be portrayed as a punishment or a flippant decision. Personally, the only positive aspect of the controversial decision is the aftermath and future transformation of Batgirl.
The revival of Barbara Gordon as Oracle a character living with a disability was an incredible symbol of disability empowerment and pushed storytelling to new unexplored depths. Barbara reinvented herself as a computer expert and information broker code-named Oracle (Suicide Squad #23, 1989). Oracle has become a high-profile figure in the DC Comics universe – moving beyond her ties to the Batman Family and forging alliances with even the Justice League.
Barbara Gordon resonances with disabled people in the ‘real’ world and shows that overcoming adversity is the real concept of a superpower. In Oracle: Year One she says, “I was tired of being a victim. I had skills and abilities long before I became Batgirl. It’s time for me to make them work for me again.” The message that Barbara still has everything required to be a superhero or a whole person after being paralyzed is a powerful one. In the world of superheroes, power often means physical power—the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or even just keeping up with Batman. Oracle demonstrates that a superhero is not only about the body and that a wheelchair is never an obstacle to greatness.
Oracle is so iconic because she signifies that disability is not seen as overwhelming, rather than quitting crime fighting she turned herself into someone more effective as Oracle. She even became the leader of Birds of Prey, a team of female heroes, whom she employs as agents thus demonstrating that disability does not diminish leadership. Oracle has transcended disability tropes in comics, as she is a compelling character first with a disability as an aspect of her persona and I think we need more characters as influential as her.
“I have to find another path. Divine my own future. One uniquely mine. Not a page from someone else’s book. Not a fate that begins and ends on page one”
Oracle (Barbara Gordon)
DC controversially decided to relaunch in 2011 and controversially returned Oracle back into her Batgirl persona; personally, the Batman family has too many analogous characters but no one as unique as Oracle. The new Batgirl series did appropriately acknowledge her 5-year recovery process from her paralysis by the Joker and communicated her PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). However, it was unnecessary to erase a powerful disabled icon, as there was already an existing Batgirl.
Oracle is maybe more of a superhero than Batman; he faced the tragedy of losing his parents by allowing the grief to consume his life and limit it to only his pursuit of justice. Batman’s strength has crippled his ability to interact with people emotionally, running away from his grief. Oracle faced her paralysis head on and let it inspire her to create a superhero persona that supports other superheroes. This inversion of the usual stereotype that disabled people need supporting challenges society’s view of disability along with the idea that ‘we’ are unable to physically protect ourselves as Oracle has been shown to take an active role in her own defence.
On a side note, the Oracle in the 2015 Batman: Arkham Knight videogame was unfortunately underutilised and portrayed using many negative disability stereotypes. [Spoilers] She was kidnapped; used as a plot device to hurt Batman (in a hallucination Batman watches her shoot herself), pushed off a building as a plot device to hurt her father Commissioner Gordon, does not move from the spot Batman leaves her even though she is sitting in her movable wheelchair. The game allows you to play as Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, Azrael, Joker, Red Hood, Commissioner Gordon, Harley Quinn, a random police officer and even Barbara as Batgirl but why not as Oracle? [End Of Spoilers] It would have been the first time a wheelchair user was playable in an active role. Video games need to work on better disability representation, as it is an interesting untapped platform.
“This costume makes me a bit more willing to believe other people can also have special abilities”
Daredevil (Matt Murdock)
I have already written plenty on Daredevil (Matt Murdock) the Netflix MARVEL series but this time I will concentrate on his original platform comic books. Daredevil created in 1964 by MARVEL was a radical character, a blind superhero with enhanced senses. Daredevil is known for heroically overcoming his physical limitations and being a hero “in spite of” having a disability. He turned his tragic accident that left him blind into a superpower. It is important to show that characters with disabilities can do the same jobs as anyone else but Daredevil’s struggles of living with a disability can be glossed over.
The issue I see with Daredevil is that he represents the stereotype of the “heroic” or “inspirational” person with a disability. His superpowers seem to make his disability a non-issue, which defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. His other senses compensate too much and give him sight through other means like his radar sense. The only time his disability is referenced is when he suffers from sensory overload so it is portrayed as a limitation. This contradiction is strange as it suggests that the writers perceive blindness or disability as some sort of choice. This supposed choice is further illustrated by the fact that only selected people are aware of his disability, so his blindness is sometimes selective that can be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’.
Daredevil is an empowering character regardless of some issues. His slogan Man Without Fear! Is a powerful statement. It signifies how Daredevil has worked through his fear to stop feeling like a victim and accept his loss of sight. His life, tragedies and various villains have tried to drive him insane over the years but he ultimately never crumbles. Coping with loss has been prevalent in his life: his sight, his Father, 2 Girlfriends (Elektra & Karen Page) killed by Bullseye. Furthermore, his rogue’s gallery has various villains with physical or mental disabilities, illustrating the differences in coping strategies people have. Plus it demonstrates that being disabled does not stop you living a life you want, either as a superhero or villain.
“You think you can turn me into a blubbering wreck by preying on my fears but I’ve already faced them and come out the other side!”
Daredevil (Matt Murdock)