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.


  1. IIRC, the Doom Patrol were indeed originally introduced as DC's response to the X-Men.

    By the way, you might enjoy the "Demon's Lexicon" series by Sarah Reese Brennan. Not to give any major spoilers, but twice in the series someone tries to magically "cure" a loved one's disability only to have it rejected.

  2. "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)."

    Yet another TT villain beaten through the power of Heart.

    Now, I actually think that in comic book terms, this type of plot device actually works really well. It's taking an existing concept, prosthetic limbs, and extrapolating it a step or two beyond what currently exists. It's still identifiable, but with the added element of the fantastic. Which, when you think about it, is what good super hero comics tend to be.