With great power comes great disability
- 24 June 2014
As long-running American comic Archie announces the introduction of a new disabled character, we look at how disability is portrayed in comics.
A broad range of disabilities have been represented in comics over the years. From the 'Golden Age' of the 40s and 50s, they have included superheroes like Doctor Mid-Nite who is blind, and Freddy Freeman, the alter ego of Captain Marvel Jr., who uses a crutch when not in hero guise, as well as characters such as Misty Knight who is an amputee and Echo who is deaf.
Doctor Mid-Nite, developed by DC Comics, is widely considered the first disabled superhero character, appearing for the first time in 1941. His vision is "inverted" after an owl - which he later adopts as his sidekick - crashes through the window. This means he can see in the dark but is blind in the daytime unless he uses infrared glasses.
Marvel Comics' Daredevil, also a 2003 Hollywood film starring Ben Affleck, was blinded by a radioactive substance. While he can no longer see, his other senses are superhumanly heightened meaning he can "see" more than sighted people.
Though these superhero characters are disabled, some feel they can't really be categorised as positive portrayals because they are so fantastical.
"Characters like Daredevil have superpowers that compensate for their disability," says graphic novelist Al Davison from Newcastle. "This is not realistic or fair."
"We need more comic book characters who are believable representations of disabled people, rather than ones whose disabilities are negated by superpowers."
Davison has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair himself. His own graphic novel The Spiral Cage is an autobiographical work which he hopes will bring a bit of reality to comic book representation of disability.
The comic characters Rogue, Wolverine and Mystique from the X-men, who have a renewed popularity thanks to the movie franchise, have anxieties brought on by their differences, for example a feeling of isolation.
"X-men is a story about alienation and marginalisation," says Dr David Huxley, a lecturer at Manchester University who specialises in comics and graphic novels. "It directly responds to the way in which disabled people can be made to feel."
The moral compass for the X-men is the wheelchair-using Professor X. "The fact that he's in a chair is irrelevant to the plot," Huxley says adding that he believes this is an entirely positive thing. "Brain power is the most important aspect of his character, and this is a key message."
The Archie comic strip is not fantasy. It tells everyday stories and has been running since 1939. It has become known for its diverse characters but it has only recently brought in a disabled character after a long absence of disability from its pages. This is all down to one person who was annoyed that people like her were not represented.
At a 2013 Fan Expo in Toronto, long-time reader Jewel Kats knew that Archie artist and writer Dan Parent was there and tracked him down. "I had a bone to pick with him - so I did," she says. "I wheeled right up to him, I looked him square in the eye, and I said to him, "why isn't there a character with a disability in the town that Archie lives in? How is that possible?"
Kats was there promoting a reality web comic strip she produces based on her own life called DitzAbled Princess. Parent used her as inspiration for a new disabled character who was given the name Harper and has sought her advice on development.
Harper Lodge is a fashion designer; she's of mixed race and uses a wheelchair following a car accident when she was a young girl. Kats and Parent were keen that she isn't just a "disability character" but that she is, as Parent says: "part of the gang" that just happens to be disabled."
For Kats she is an important addition. "I've always wanted figures growing up that I could relate to, and now Harper exists. She's here for every kid with a disability and is a role model," she says.
Back in the mainstream, when Batgirl (or Barbara Gordon) was shot by The Joker in 1988 and became paralysed, a superhero was re-born. She became Oracle, a wheelchair-using computer genius who exploited her technical expertise and was soon embraced by comic book fans like B.A. Boyd who uses a wheelchair due to her spina bifida.
"When I found out that Oracle also uses a wheelchair I was so happy, she says. "I finally felt included and broke away from the shell I had encased myself in."
In 2011 however, a DC Comics re-launch led to an editorial refresh. After two decades of being disabled, a cure was found for Oracle's paralysis but the move was not popular with all fans.
"I was broken-hearted when I discovered that we were losing Oracle," says Boyd. "It is something that still pains me, to this day."
Writer Gail Simone, who developed Oracle while the character was recovering from her disability, was to be the writer on the new title which took her back to being Batgirl.
She opened up a conversation with disabled and non-disabled fans to find out what their views were and how to take the character forward.
"She now provides representation of disabled individuals who are able to find and come to recovery," says Boyd. "She still carries it with her, and is forever changed by what happened to her, which is valuable, and, to me, very appreciated."
Disabled characters are in many comics out there but - since Oracle at least - haven't successfully broken through into the mainstream.
The Movement, a DC Comics series, focusing on a group of diverse teenagers, features the character of Vengeance Moth, a 19-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair, because she has muscular dystrophy. It was written by Simone who again sought advice from disabled fans, including Boyd and Davison, to make sure the wheelchair was not just a surface detail. The series proved unpopular though and was cancelled in February.
"I'm in a wheelchair and a fifth degree black belt in Kung Fu," says Davison. He believes that his skills prove that disabled people can be great comic book characters in their own right and that they don't need super powers which effectively neutralise their disability. "Mainstream comics need many more disabled people full-stop. They have the ability to reflect real-life in all its diversity and quite often are failing to do so for financial reasons."