The Visibility of Heroes with Disabilities
I love comic books. They are a great place for stories to exist because they are never ending. Things can always change for a character much like life. Sometimes the hero dies, sometimes they come back to life due to the power of comic books. However, just because something can be changed doesn’t mean it should. So often, we see characters, usually heroes that become disabled due to their line of work. This disability may last for a few issues or a few years before they are miraculously healed through a comic book plot that requires a suspension of disbelief.
When we speak of representation (I’m speaking of comic books but media in general) a lot of the time, it’s like the scene with Kevin Garnet and Adam Sandler from the movie Uncut Gems. In the scene, Kevin is shown a stone and he wants to buy it but can’t because it’s set for auction. He then says, “Why the fuck would you show it to me If I can’t have it.”I personally hate seeing a character go through a physical or emotional journey, just for it to be changed/retconned/ in order to move a story forward. I want the energy of that journey to be kept as part of a character’s story and history. Why show me a character that becomes disabled, then take it away/reconn it down the line as if it never happened? That’s not how life works. I know it’s comic books and anything can happen but if art imitates life, there are some things that need to be handled respectfully. The biggest example of this is Barbara Gordon's evolution from Batgirl to Oracle.
In Alan Moore’s 1988 one-shot ‘The Killing Joke,’ Barbara Gordon was shot and paralyzed by The Joker. I won’t get into the rest of the horrific events of this story as it traumatizes Barbara as a plot device for advancing a story centered around men (an example of women in refrigerators). Not liking how Barbara Gordon was depicted. John Ostrander & Kim Yale created the Oracle alias for Barbara in their Suicide Squad series. Oracle becomes the top hacker in the superhero community. We then see different creative teams adding to Barbara Gordon’s new reality as a woman with a disability, most notably Gail Simone (with artist Ed Benes). Barbara's journey is one she traveled for two decades. As Oracle, Barbara becomes wildly popular as a hero for disabled people. She represents something for all people, regardless of our abilities, as we get to witness someone go through their day-to-day experience, an authentic emotional journey, and most importantly we get to see her still get to be a leader and head of her own operation, The Birds of Prey.
I clearly remember seeing Barbara learning Arnis (Eskrima sticks) to defend herself when in a wheelchair and noticing this was the first time I've seen a person in a wheelchair learning a martial art. It needs to be said that even when without a weapon or computer, or wheelchair, we’ve seen her show she can still get it out the mud in a fight. Barbara was Oracle for twenty-two years before she regained the use of her legs due to an experimental neurosurgery and became Batgirl again.
For me, It is a heartbreaking investment in a character’s experience, just to have it taken away by a new direction for a character that eliminates the growth and journey that’s become a huge part of the character. All of which is to say, “Why the fuck would you show me a narrative for Barbara Gordon’s journey, if you weren’t going to keep that journey as a day-to-day reality for Barbara Gordon?”
However, recently we have seen occurrences where a character regains a disability they had. For instance, back in 1983, (Hawkeye vol. 1 #4 by Mark Gruenwald) Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, used a sonic arrow at point-blank range during a battle which cost him 80% of his hearing. We then see him receive hearing aids at the end of the issue, but this is retconned around 1996-98 when the Marvel heroes are reborn. A few essays back, I wrote about Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2014 Hawkeye series where we saw Clint Barton literally fighting for affordable housing in Brooklyn, New York. During one of those fights, Clint was injured by an enemy (The Clown) sticking an arrow in each of his ears. The next issue shows us Clint in a doctor’s office with his brother Barney. In a flashback we see that Clint has been partially deaf as a child due to the abuse of his father.
This current injury leaves Clint completely deaf and in use of hearing aids once again. We then see Clint having to adapt to his new reality. Artist David Aja shows Clint being unresponsive to his brother Barney using sign language to communicate with him. The signing gestures Barney uses without any translation for readers not fluent in ASL. The entire issue (Hawkeye #19 ) is written in ASL. In an interview with Lizzy Garcia from But Why Tho, the writer, Matt Fraction talked about being a guest in the hard-of-hearing and deaf community and wanting to honor the language.
When Mark Gruenwald had Hawkeye using hearing aids, it was the first time Matt Fraction saw something like that in comic books, having deaf friends within the hard-of-hearing community, he wanted to give them that representation back with Hawkeye.
It is here where Fraction and David Aja do something with Hawkeye here not often seen in comics. They restored a disability to a character, something that he originally lived with day to day. They did this in 2014, and as of 2023, it still stands for Hawkeye. Other creative teams have showcased him wearing hearing aids and it even appears with Jeremey Renner’s Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In comic books, more often than not, we usually see someone gain a disability through an injury just for it to be a moment or for a few years in their life before they are “healed.” However, this current Krakoa era of X-Men offers something we don’t often get to see. Mutants opting out of “fixing” their ability which serves as a disability. The X-Men have found a way to bring their people back to life when they die through a resurrection process made possible by five mutants' abilities working together in unison. If you die, you are able to go into a queue to be brought back to life along with any alterations to your body and powers to suit your needs.
Wiz Kid (pictured in the opening image) talks about re-learning physicality as a result of his paralysis since childhood. Wiz Kid also chooses not to die just to be resurrected to have his legs intact. Though he can control technology, he takes Krakoan medicine to help with his dyslexia which is a huge struggle for him when it comes to written language. The mutant Firestar (Angela Jones) has a different reality. When Firestar joins the X-Men, there is a mission that comes up when she wants to help out at a medical center having issues with the delivery of Krakoan drugs. Cyclops (Scott Summers) makes this a two-person team effort and joins Angela. This is the first time she has taken initiative on the team instead of just taking orders (as if Scott was Captain America from her days on the Avengers).
They get into a discussion which leads to Angela being reminded of when she had cancer. Her ability to manipulate the electromagnetic field of earth and convert it to microwave emissions. However, her ability doesn’t protect her from the radiation caused by her gifts, which is what caused her to have cancer. Firestar asks Cyclops if he ever thought about having the disability of his ability (damage to the area of his brain that controls his eye blasts constantly having them on) “fixed” upon being resurrected. Cyclops answered, “Naaah, fuck that.”
The moment may seem or feel small, but it’s something monumental, in my opinion at least. So often living with a disability in comics or media being given a “fix” for their condition as if that is their ultimate goal or to show that now they are all better, when that isn’t the case across the board. Cyclops who has died and had that chance to come have his ability “fixed” not doing so gives not only more range to characters with disabilities but gives the writers more range in displaying how characters interact and move in a world in regard to the disability they live with day to day. This is more of a showcase of art imitating life, where someone’s disability isn’t magically healed to make them feel whole.