A Few Thoughts on Disability and Super-Heroes

Note: in this article I’m addressing physical impairment, rather than mental disability – which will need an article of its own.

Last week’s news that Archie will be introducing a disabled character, Harper, to their Universe, is heartening. Because for all that comics may be getting better in the portrayal of minorities in their stories, disability remains the one topic which isn’t being discussed. harper1

New character Harper will be arriving in Archie #656, by writer/artist Dan Parent. The result of a chance meeting with comic fan Jewel Kats, she’s a fashion designer, and also the cousin of pre-existing character Veronica Lodge. Already looking like she may be yet another woman with the inexplicable hots for young Mr Andrews, the character is in a wheelchair, and the comic discusses why that doesn’t dampen her ability to be a full, rounded, interesting and exciting personality for the Archie Universe.

Which makes her a stark contrast to the Marvel and DC Universes, each of which have one prominent wheelchair-bound character – and each of which brought the character out of that wheelchair. Disability in the Big Two seems to be portrayed as a hindrance which’ll be overcome if the character waits long enough, as a magical contrivance will come along and give the character back their walking ability before too long.

Over at Marvel, Charles Xavier was introduced in a wheelchair, which allowed the writers to make him the man who stayed at home, whilst his students went round the world and fought his battles for him. This eventually started to define the character for subsequent writers, and the increasing use of the character as a manipulative figure rather than inspiring mentors can be directly traced to this aspect of his first appearances. But as time went on, writers also decided that they wanted to take him out of the wheelchair, and have him walk. Why? No particular reason.

No writer – except possibly Grant Morrison, whose reasons to have Xavier walk were slightly more of a meta-commentary on this exact problem than an example of it – knew what to do once Xavier was walking. He was defined to be the figure who stays back and doesn’t get directly involved, but making him able to walk meant that he no longer had an excuse not to get his hands dirty. But more than that, it meant that Marvel were removing a disabled character from their books.

When DC comics relaunched as The New 52 a few years ago, one of the biggest pieces of news was that Gail Simone would be writing Batgirl – but more notably, that she’d be writing Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Barbara Gordon hadn’t been in the Batgirl alias for decades, having been shot by the Joker back in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s ‘The Killing Joke’ storyline. The shooting meant she had to use a wheelchair ever since, and stopped physical crimefighting in order to utilise her genius-level hacking skills and become a new figure – Oracle.

Oracle become an iconic figure in the Batman mythos, as writers told stories about a woman who refused to be kept away from helping those in need just because she couldn’t physically fight villains anymore. As Oracle, she became more important and popular than she ever was as Batgirl – and yet here we are now, and Barbara is walking again, and Oracle is gone. The two most well-known disabled characters in comics are walking around again.

Disability takes many forms, of course, and despite these two instances and the almost-infinite number of times a DC character has had their hand cut off and then reattached, there are instances of comics providing representation of disabled characters. Marvel injured Karma, one of the original New Mutants, and she had an artificial leg made. Yukio, a long-term ally of Wolverine, suffered spinal damage and moved to a wheelchair. Where she still gets in on the fighting:




And then of course, we also have Daredevil, the most prominent character in comics to have a disability. But nobody would ever say that his disability has negatively affected him as a character – if anything, it’s raised his profile, defined the character for decades, and proven an inspiring and affecting aspect of his personality and life.

For every character like Daredevil though, comics have taken away many of the disabled characters they did have. Echo, a deaf character, was killed off twice by Brian Michael Bendis – the second time having stuck. Hawkeye’s hearing aid appears to have been written out of the character’s life, Dr Mid-Night has not yet appeared in the New 52 anywhere, Destiny is dead. Time and again, we’re seeing disability being written out of comics.

This is a huge problem, because physical impairment is horribly ignored by the media already. That current comics are choosing to under-represent even more than before is cause for alarm, as whole generations of fans are growing up without anybody that represents them. As has been discussed many times at better sites, racism, sexism, homophobia are all present and problems, and comics are slowly attempting to redress a balance there. Ableism doesn’t appear to be on the agenda anywhere.

And it needs to be. We need there to be representation of disabled characters in comics, and at the moment the Big Two don’t seem to have any interest at all in helping with this. So instead, bravo and thank you to Archie Comics for attempting to bring this back into the discussion, where it needs to be. Let’s hope we can see more openness about the subject over the next few years.



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