Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Thursday, September 15, 2011

5 Ways to Magically Cure a Disabled Character, Part 1: Conspicuous Assistive Technology

In the comments section of my Batgirl review, it was asked why Barbara never used the DC Universe's supertech or magic to fix her spine. This is a question that comes up often around this issue, and is valid. Granted, it's a slippery slope towards removing any sense of dramatic urgency from the world, when you can just Phlebotnium any infirmity away, but it stretches disbelief a bit too far when characters bemoan their tragedies but don't go for the genre solutions right in front of them.

Of course, as another comment noted, supernatural injuries would be treated by supernatural medicines, and every medicine has its side-effects. So I'm doing this series of blogs to examine the ways in which these magic cures can be used to further the story and explore issues of disability, rather than simply swipe them under the rug and pretend they don't exist.


This might stretch disbelief as well, because if the universe has technology sophisticated enough to replace a lost limb with a superhumanly strong prosthesis, it could go just a little further and replace it with one that looks human as well. However, it's a good symbolic way to show that even though the character has regained their mobility, they remain affected by the experience. It also makes the notion of "fixing" a disability less appealing, because disability is a social construct. This is a reason given for why Barbara Gordon never asked her pals in the Justice League to make her a walking exoskeleton; a wheelchair is hardly as conspicuous as a clunky robot suit that gives the wearer enough strength to crush a man like a paper cup.

BEST EXAMPLE: Cyborg of the Teen Titans. Victor Stone's life was saved from a life-threatening injury by replacing most of his body with metal parts. However, Vic wasn't very happy about this, and the fact that his father did the operation further intensified his daddy issues. He was kicked off of his high school football team, was abandoned by his girlfriend, and basically got cut off from society. It wasn't until he met the Teen Titans that he found a purpose to live again, fighting alongside other outsiders, saving lives, and taking out his anger on people who had it coming. But he was still mostly robotic, his human parts limited to half his face and bits of his torso.

What's also worth noting is that even though Victor's new body let him be a superhero, it also had a spectacular downside; it ruined his ability to be an athlete. When Vic was human, he loved football, and trained intensively so he could get stronger and stronger. But his cyborg body was not only superhumanly strong, but limits were built into his mechanical muscles. Several stories touched on the fact that he didn't like how he was robbed of the ability to improve himself with exercise. An episode of the cartoon even had this as the central conflict (though it ended with Cyborg beating the villain through the power of determination, presumably because his meaty bits gave him a boost of strength....somehow).

Other Sci-Fi/Fantasy Examples:

Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 4; The much-loathed replacement Snake from MGS2 got a major upgrade in MGS4, becoming a Cyborg Ninja. But he looked even less human than any of the other cyborgs, with claw-like hands, cloven feet, and the lower half of his head replaced by metal. At the ending he gets his combat limbs replaced with more realistic prostheses, but you can see all the seams. Raiden's most human appearance since his cyborganization still makes him look like a Ken doll.

Robotman from Doom Patrol: Poor Cliff Steele is an even greater extreme of the "disfiguring prostheses" trope; he's a brain in a jar, attached to a robotic body. Not only is he treated as a freak (even despite his heroic exploits; the Doom Patrol are some of the most Marvel-like characters in DC), but the amount of everyday human sensations that he's lost is profound. Cliff's described his predicament as phantom pain for his entire body.

Barret from Final Fantasy VII: The JRPG analogue to Mr. T lost his hand when being shot at by Shinra goons, the same goons who destroyed his hometown and killed his wife. The replacement for his hand was a huge cannon he used in vengeance. This is an odd version because Barret intentionally chose an intimidating weapon instead of a prosthetic hand, not caring about much beyond killing all of Shinra. In the Advent Children animated movie, he mellows out and gets a regular prosthetic, a metal hand that's conspicuous but actually functions like the original limb.

And again, you could just invent perfect replacements, but if it's a perfect transition, where's the story? An amputee might be pitied, but a cyborg is more likely to be feared and hated. It's a good metaphor for the way the experience of such trauma changes a person; once it's there, you can't be the same person you were, and others will pick on that.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Newsarama on Batgirl: Excerpts from Yours Truly!

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Vaneta Rogers of Newsarama regarding the Batgirl fiasco. I have hardly been quiet about this series of unfortunate events, but I was honored by the request. Vaneta's piece is up, which also includes quotes from Denny O'Neil, John Ostrander, and Professor James B. South.

It is a high honor to be quoted alongside these industry legends. :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New 52 Batgirl #1 Review: Wasn't That Paralysis Just A Hassle?

The new Batgirl comic is finally out, and it's simultaneously not as repellent as I expected, yet still inherently repellent.

In all fairness, the story is still unfolding, and it's well-told. I'm not objecting to the abilities of Gail Simone as a writer or Adrian Syaf as an artist. It's the fact that the team involved is so talented that makes this book so galling. They should be able to do something better, and avoid the pitfalls.

Because at this point, it looks like the new Barbara Gordon was still shot in the spine, but got better. She says that she was in a wheelchair for three years after the Joker attacked her, but then " a miracle" happened. We don't hear what that miracle is, and I imagine we'll find out. But I don't see how it could be anything more than a quick Phlebotnium fix. The way Barbara's narration frames the miracle, it sounds like she spent the three years without her mobility just sitting on her ass moping in a dark room, but then she found this cure and she's back in the game.

Credit should be given to Simone for at least making Barbara's "recovery" believable, in that she's not recovered from the psychological aspect. She still knows what it's like to have been in a wheelchair, and finds herself bothered by ablist remarks people make without thinking ( such as the whole "being in a chair is worse than death" bullshit). She still has nightmares about the shooting, and she's very nervous on the battlefield after the incident. The cliffhanger even has Barbara freeze up and fail to save someone thanks to a PTSD flashback from a criminal pointing a gun at her just the way the Joker did.

However, the fact remains that Barbara can walk now, and she's used that opportunity to go back to being a more famous character's distaff counterpart. The theory that she wouldn't be able to walk without her new armored costume is debunked by the images of Barbara walking around in her civvies. Perhaps the costume helps her with mobility, since her legs would've atrophied in the three years of paralysis. It could be similar to Old Snake's Octocamo suit in Metal Gear Solid 4, adding a slight boost in strength to help with her impairments but not actually making her superhuman. Of course, wacky textures on costumes are everywhere in the rebooted DCU, so it might just be Barbara jumping on this "HR Giger meets Victoria's Secret"* bandwagon.

The disability aspect is present, but it's a past-tense motivator, a handicap used to make her able-bodied self look stronger. But the things Barbara accomplished as Oracle, without leaving her chair, were much more impressive and meaningful. The comic is interesting enough and well-written enough that I'm going to keep reading it for the time being, but I sincerely hope the representation of disability goes beyond "Origin Story Tragedy". It's a deeper handling than most writers would attempt, but it's not enough to compensate for the semiotic ableism inherent in "fixing" Barbara Gordon.

* A description I saw in a ComicsAlliance comments thread, which seems especially apt when looking at the new Batgirl.