Superhero comics can teach us a lot about disability representation

Omega The Unknown

Courtesy photo

via The Daily of the University of Washington

An intrinsic part of wellness is taking (or making) the time to engage in activities that bring us pleasure and connect us with others. Storytelling media, like TV and comic books, hold central and powerful positions in our culture because of their ability to satisfy those needs. But for people living with disabilities in the United States, along with those marginalized for their skin color, gender identity, or who they love, mainstream stories can cut just as deeply as they heal.

The experts on Rose City Comic Con’s “Disability in Superhero Comics” panel earlier this month discussed instances of disability representation in comic book stories, both positive and negative, and their impacts on disabled and able-bodied audiences.

Jenny Blenk is a recent graduate of the Masters in English and Comics Studies programs at Portland State University who focuses primarily on the visual representations of invisible disabilities in comics. Most recently, she investigated Frank Miller’s work on today’s most recognizable superhero with a disability — Marvel’s Daredevil.

As a Stan Lee original created in the 1960s, Blenk explains, Daredevil’s blindness was written primarily as a gimmick.

“He was just kind of ‘that disabled character,’” Blenk said. “Stan Lee wrote him as really corny, as kind of a second-rate Spider-Man. His jokes didn’t quite land right, he didn’t have the signature gritty voice for which we mostly know him today.”

Readers knew about Daredevil’s blindness and superpowers because Lee explicitly narrated the action in his dialogue. Frank Miller continued and built upon that expository tradition, introducing innovative visual elements like concentric sonar rings and heartbeat sine waves to give the audience a bit more information. He also darkened the tone of the story, giving the character a bit more gravitas and raising the character’s profile.

But an increase in visibility is not a guarantee of positive representation, as cartoonist and fellow panelist M. Sabine Rear was quick to point out. Rear, who introduced herself as “that cute blind person you gave your seat to on the bus,” opened her remarks with heavy bitterness for Daredevil. Rear recently published “Reverse Flâneur,” a comic zine about her experience being in the world as a person with blindness.

“As a blind body in a public culture that is abled, I really struggled, especially as a kid, to find media in which I saw myself,” Rear said.

When she found out about Daredevil she got excited, only to be sorely let down when she found nothing of her own experience reflected in her reading.

“Daredevil, to me, is the least blind, blind dude I’ve ever encountered,” Rear said. “He’s a blind guy whose superpower is that he can jump and punch like a sighted guy, and I got really frustrated.”

Both Rear and Blenk talked about the detrimental cultural impact of centering Daredevil’s blindness as metaphor and plot device instead of incorporating it into one part of his identity. Blenk described Miller’s heavy reliance on pity to help Daredevil’s alter ego Matt Murdock to win legal cases, encouraging the notion that blind people “can only be loved as objects of pity.”

Rear pointed out that Daredevil’s total blindness reflects only about 10 percent of blindness cases, essentially making the other 90 percent of the blind experience, including her own, invisible to able-bodies audiences.

In contrast, panelist José Alaniz presented the story of another Marvel superhero, Omega the Unknown. Creator Steve Gerber used Omega’s story in 1976 to subvert the cold, robotic metaphors that permeated post-war teachings on autism. The title character is entirely mute at first, eventually only saying a handful of words across the entire series. His alter ego is portrayed as being deficient in social situations. And yet, he is here to defend the earth.

Alaniz is the head of the UW’s Disability Studies program, chair of the International Comics Arts Forum, and author of the book “Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond.” This winter, he will be teaching a class called “Disability and Graphic Narrative” on disability as presented in independent comics. He sees comics as useful tools in exploring the experiences of non-normative bodies.

“Superhero stories are body narratives,” Alaniz said. “They’re full of all these paradoxes. They’re supposed to be physically ideal, but on the other hand especially starting in the ‘60s you see them as physically flawed in all kinds of ways.”