Friday, September 30, 2005

The Superhero and the Supercrip: Yes, I'm Allowed to Say That

Since a lot of people who might be reading this don't know me in real life, I have to back up and explain some stuff before I get to talk about supercrips. I am an undergraduate student double majoring in Social Relations and Film Studies at Michigan State University. (Yes, both Amy and I drink the same water/breathe the same cyclotron particles that made Geoff Johns what he is...) Social Relations is an interdisciplinary political science/sociology major focusing on race, class, and gender analysis. I love it. I am currently taking my senior seminar in it, the capstone class for my degree, and the topic of my seminar is "The Politics of Normal: Rethinking Disability".

The main assignment for the class is a 30-35 page research paper on some topic relating to disability studies. Most people are doing policy analyses, as everyone in my college (subdivision of the university) is very politically oriented, and most are going to law school. I, on the other hand, loathe policy analysis. It quite literally makes me want to stab myself through the hand with a pen. However, I do love cultural studies, and fortunately we get to do a lot of more of that than policy stuff. You know what counts as cultural studies? Comic book analysis. You know who has the largest catalogued collection of comic books in any library, anywhere? Michigan State. Is there any other topic that I would rather write thirty-five pages about? Probably not.

Which brings me to the title of this entry. I am currently writing the rough draft of my research proposal for a paper studying the various and changing portrayals of people with physical disabilities in mainstream American superhero comic books, from 1960 to the present. I AM SO EXCITED. This is such a cool project. And it's even more exciting that I can't find anything else written about it. That's a good thing, because there's a possibility that I might be able to get an American Studies/pop culture studies journal to publish the thing when it's done.

I doubt any disability rights activists or historians of disability read this blog either, so it might come as a surprise to you that "supercrip" is a fairly commonly used term to describe a particular portrayal of people with disabilities. It has two threads: the idea that people with disabilities should be admired because they are "superheroes" just by participating in everyday activities (living independently, dating, going to school, holding a job), and also the image of people "overcoming" their disabilities to achieve superhuman feats that most able-bodied people do not attempt, such as a blind man hiking the Appalachian trail or performing a ballet in a wheelchair.

Part of my paper will interrogate this cultural myth and to what extent it is present in portrayals of disabled characters in comics. Is Barbara Gordon a supercrip? What about Daredevil? Professor X? What about disabled villains? In my opinion, it is really comic book writers who have had to overcome their characters' disabilities in order to write them as complex human (or mutant) characters, instead of relying on stereotypes.

Then there are models/themes/myths about disability that do not occur in the real world, but only in the realm speculative fiction. There are characters who have a disabled alter-ego but turn into a superhero; I can only think of two off the top of my head, Thor and Captain Marvel Jr., but I want to see if there are more. There are characters whose superpower is also disabling, such as Rogue. Similarly, there is the common image of characters who have a brilliant mind or great psychic power "trapped" in a disabled body: Charles Xavier, Oracle, Hector Hammond. (This myth reminds me a lot of portrayals of Stephen Hawking IRL.) Then there are people whose bitterness about becoming disabled leads them to become supervillains, like Zoom. There is also the difference in portrayal between characters who are disabled from the time they are created, or very nearly their first appearance, and the use of disability as a plot device, ie. Knightfall, Killing Joke, and Wonder Woman's blindness.

A useful tool of analysis I am using is the list of the "Six Pitfalls of Disability Fiction". They have been articulated in the works of other authors but the following succinct list comes from "An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children" by Isabel Brittain, published in the journal Disability Studies Quarterly:

1. Portraying the character with an impairment as "other" than human: otherworldly in a negative or positive sense—extremely "evil" or "good", likening the character to vegetable matter, forging links between the character and animals
2. Portraying the character with an impairment as "extra-ordinary": the character's ordinary humanity is not described but is represented either as a negative or positive stereotype
3. The "second fiddle" phenomenon: the character with an impairment is neither the central character within the narrative nor fully developed, merely serving to bring the central character/s to a better understanding of themselves or disability
4. Lack of realism and accuracy in the portrayal of the impairment: the author neglects to properly research a particular impairment resulting in inaccuracy of portrayal
5. The outsider: the character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation
6. Happy endings: the author fails to see a happy and fulfilled life being a possibility for a character with an impairment

My hypothesis is that early portrayals of disabled characters were more likely to fall into these stereotypes than contemporary ones, and that permanently disabled characters are portrayed more progressively than what happens when an able-bodied character becomes disabled through a "grim and gritty" plot device. But I don't know for sure--I have a lot more research to do. And on that note, I invite comments and suggestions from anybody who has any ideas whatsoever. I will be posting extensively about the project on here, now that I have something I'm passionate to write about, and hopefully it should be a nice distraction from all the Infinite Crisis and House of M bother that's pissing me off right now.

I missed you, Intarweb! I'm back!


Anonymous Erika said...

Wow, this is really interesting...I'm a disability rights activist who read comics quite often as a preteen, and I'll be interested to see what you come up with.

4:59 PM, September 30, 2005  
Anonymous Conn-Tiki said...

Oh. My. God.

Can I go back in time six years and steal this topic? Because really. So awesome.

6:02 PM, September 30, 2005  
Anonymous Betty said...

Neat! I'm certainly going to be following what you do here.

9:44 PM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger walaka said...

Great topic and great starting ideas. Are you going to consider other portrayals of disabled people in comics, besides the superheros? I can still remember a particular sequence from almost 30 years ago between Captain America and a guy who had lost his arm in Vietnam - fits right into the 'supercrip" model. Good luck!

BTW, when I was cleaning house last year, I donated my collection of magazines about comics (Amazing Heroes, The Comic Reader, etc.) from the 1980s to MSU. Glad to see some of the student body there is using that great resource you have.

Nice blog - keep it up!

11:40 PM, September 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very, very, cool, and thank YOU for posting this. I'm eager to see this explored further.

I've never seen Oracle's disability as what makes her noble, at least not beyond the functions of her character that make her strong in the first place; her will, motivation and determination. It is an aspect of her life, not her life encapsulated, and I prefer the Oracle who smiles sometimes to the brave little soldier ideal, working her computer through her tears.

At the same time, it's darn near impossible to be a non-disabled person and not be a little bit in awe of those disabled who live bravely and fully regardless of whatever it is they have to deal with physically.

But definitely, person first, disability somewhere down the list, as far as Babs is concerned.

Anyway, great stuff. Thanks!

Gail Simone

11:32 AM, October 01, 2005  
Anonymous Ratbat said...

Wow. This sounds like a really interesting topic. I'll be very interested to see what you come up with... my work (and interest) is in the disability area, and my other love is fiction, especially the creation thereof... so, dream topic! Keep us posted...!

11:14 AM, October 07, 2005  
Anonymous alschroeder3 said...

I don't want to blow my own comics' horn, but if you extend this to MENTAL disabilities, my webcomic qualifies, which is MINDMISTRESS----
a sort of cross between FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON and Athena---where the heroine's alter ego is mentally challenged.

Again, not doing this to plug my own comic, but it fits the Captain Marvel Jr. /Thor mold, where the alter ego is disabled, although mentally, in this case.

1:59 PM, October 11, 2005  
Blogger Rolling Filmmaker said...

This is an excellent idea. I am a filmmaker with a disability who is breaking the Hollywood stereotypes of characters with a disability.

I think the "Six Pitfalls of Disability Fiction" is right on the mark! Although I do not write comic books if you want a film perspective, which does fall into the fiction category, I invite you to visit my site I honestly believe that the media is a way that significantly helps in breaking all kinds of stereotypes - or it can perpetuate it too! From Black characters prior to Sydney Poitier to Tom Hanks and gay characters prior to Philadelphia. Unfortunately those characters a disbaility seem to remain or be perpetuated by Hollywood - Got to change it!

The more talk about it in the terms you are working on are a great contribution. By identifying the way things were and are we can help in changing the way it will be! Keep up the good work and I look forward to reaading your updates here!


5:23 PM, October 25, 2005  
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12:35 PM, October 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the comics front, I'd suggest the old X-men story 'Lifedeath' as a very interesting portrayal of the hero cliche of being 'crippled'. Storm loses her powers and identifies with the crippled guy, Forge.

And Doom Patrol. The genesis of the group (brought together by a wheelchair cripple) is bonding through their various disabilities.

Maybe early Teen Titans, when Cyborg was dealing with his prostheses.


6:42 PM, October 29, 2005  
Anonymous Te said...

Ohhhh, man, I'm dying to hear more on this. It's been fascinating to read various Oracle-related back-issues, and ponder the ways various authors have and haven't fallen into the traps you described above.

In any event (and randomly), one of the things I've found heartening is that, in recent years, more and more writers (this is, of course, hella relative) seem to be getting comfortable with the idea of Barbara Gordon as a person who'd be hopelessly screwed-up whether or not she was paralyzed -- which is, as far as I'm concerned (as a partially disabled queer black woman), the Holy Freaking Grail:

The chance for people who are 'like' me in one way or another to be portrayed *as* people.

1:08 PM, November 25, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The New God avatar of death, The Black Racer, is paralyzed African American Vietnam Veteran Willie Walker when he's not off death dealing.

Navaho super-hero Black Crow (Marvel, at least one appearance in Captain America)is paralyzed construction worker Jesse Black Crow when he's not super heroing. His mortal form does not know about his super hero identity.

The movie Unbreakable might also be helpful to you.

Mike Condon

8:34 PM, January 06, 2006  
Blogger ilovewords said...

Hey, this is brilliant! You're clearly very passionate about this - which is half the battle with a research paper!! I am currently in my final year of uni studying sociology and am taking a class on disability studies. I am writing an essay on the representation of disabled people in film, literature and popular tv. so it has been very interesting reading this post. if you don't mind, i would love to be kept up to date with what you come up with!! all the best, jade

4:50 PM, January 14, 2009  
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