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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blogging Against Disablism: The Mighty Marvel Handicapped

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and I thought I'd seize upon the opportunity to bring this topic into a context that's dear to my own interests-- specifically, Marvel Comics, the company whose fictional superhero universe has inspired a larger portion of my life than I normally care to admit. But musing upon it in light of the issue of disablism, I figured out the core reason why it's such an appeal, and so obvious in My Own WorkMore than the power fantasies, the flashy visuals, the entertaining and sometimes brilliant stories, or even the the convoluted narratives that prey upon the obsessive mindsets of the autism spectrum.

The classic Marvel story is about a disabled character, disadvantaged physically and/or psychologically, forcing their way into society.

The X-Men are the most obvious example, because most of the mutant powers have an element of deformity to them. Some, like the Beast and Nightcrawler, look monstrous and are prejudged on that no matter how kind and heroic they act. Others have traits, like Archangel's wings or Rogue's life-draining skin, that they have to take pains to cover. Even the characters with powers that don't have an obvious drawback have to hide them in order to pass, being normal but realizing they're not being themselves. The villains of the X-Men tend to be bigots, using tactics ranging from giant mutant-killing robots to PR-friendly promises for a mutation cure ( Autism $peaks, anyone? ) Before the X-Men simply tried to prove their heroics as Robin-Hood type outlaw heroes, but since Grant Morrison came to the book, they've been out. The X-Men stand in front of the world for everything that they are, and everything that mutants can be. Like mutants or not, now you have to deal with them.*

Daredevil is another explicit example. As a boy, he was blinded by radioactive waste, but radioactive waste that enhanced his other senses a thousandfold. Mixing this with his martial arts training and analytical mind, Matt Murdoch became an ace lawyer by day ( who the public knows as blind ) and vigilante by night, cleaning up his crime-soaked childhood home. At the same time, even though he's not handicapped per se, Daredevil is disabled. The way he sees the world doesn't have any visuals, and the heightened impressions he gets from his other senses are difficult to block out. He's inherently alone in his perceptions, no matter how much good he does.

Then there's the heroes who received disabilities as a humanizing effect. Tony Stark pays for his war profiteering via the shrapnel to his chest; he builds a metal heart to survive and a suit of armor with which to redeem himself, but his source of power is prosthetic, and he's got a big, shiny, metal lump in his chest to remind him of his difference. Thor was punished by his father Odin for his arrogance by being forced to share an identity with a mortal, a doctor with a limp. Half of his life may be as an ass-kicking god of thunder, but the other half is as a man who lives with a handicap, but sees people with illnesses and imperfections every day, and must show them ( and possibly, himself ) compassion and understanding. And Bruce Banner, like Iron Man, paid for building WMDs by being caught in his gamma bomb test and carrying a borderline personality disorder in the form of a rampaging green monster that comes out when he loses his cool. It's a burden he, like many people with mental illnesses, has to struggle with on a day by day basis.

We can go down the list of prominent Marvel characters whose powers double as a disability metaphor all day. The first Captain America, a sickly young man in the Depression era who bravely risked his life taking a serum that made him America's best weapon against Hitler. The current Captain America Bucky Barnes, who fills the role to cope with his massive post-traumatic stress disorder ( he even has a prosthetic metal arm from a tremendous war injury ). Wolverine, whose healing factor means he has endured pains that would easily have killed anyone else, and has to live with that. We can even go by villains who represent forms of ableism; Doctor Doom, hiding his " imperfect " facial scars behind an ominous iron mask, preferring to be an emotionless machine than a flawed human; Magneto, taking mutant solidarity into a eugenic crusade against humans; Norman Osborn, who has displayed all seven deadly sins, but most commonly greed, his lust for power and his cruelty towards anyone without it ( and as we've seen, implicit hatred for his own weaknesses ).

The bottom line is that if you are a Marvel fan, your childhood heroes easily qualify as handicapped. And compared to most real people with disabilities, they have it better, because they have the luxury of attached super-powers. So overcome your prejudices; for those dealing with daily physical and psychological disabilities, and worse yet the societal stigmas imposed on such conditions, simply functioning can be an act of heroism.


  1. I would also include Peter Parker, bullied for his intellect, socially outcast, bitten by the radioactive spider which gives him the proportionate strength and speed of the spider - yet it is his intellect and scientific brain which carries him through as much as his superpowers - whom I see as a classic Asperger character. Pete has such difficulty negotiating the social world, that in a purely social context he almost always manages to misunderstand what is expected of him, but he still manages to succeed as Spidey, even when all the chips are down and the whole world is against him.
    Well, that's the way I like to read him anyway :)

  2. I'd also suggest Sleepwalker and Darkhawk.

    Rick Sheridan is an example of how just about anyone can end up in the types of circumstances described here. Anyone can get in a car accident, have a really bad fall, be afflicted with something like multiple sclerosis, and so forth. Anyone can be subjected to massive, overwhelming changes in their lives, that they didn't want and have no control over.

    Sleepwalker himself has a different problem, namely became so angry and depressed over his loneliness and the hostility humans showed him because of his appearance that he became addicted to a Fantastic Drug. His desire for the special frequency of light became so bad that he nearly killed Rick trying to get exposed to more of it.

    As for Darkhawk, Chris Powell himself didn't have any real problems. Instead, the issue was his trying to hold together a family that was slowly falling apart after his policeman father was accused of taking bribes. His mother began suffering a nervous breakdown from the stress related to her family and her job, his brothers became more and more out of control, and the family lost so much money they ended up living in a cheap motel.

    In these guys' cases, it just goes to show that anyone can end up in these circumstances, even if they don't have any inborn disabilities.