Profiles

Why The World Needs More Disabled Superheroes

Becoming a superhero is every kid's dream... but when it comes to disability, it's a dream not reflected in most comics. That's something a new wave of comic creators is looking to change.

In the comic book multiverse, anything’s possible. Characters with X-ray vision, superhuman strength or invisibility occupy each page and no one bats an eyelid. However, despite their extraordinary qualities, our heroes are flawed: they make mistakes, they have very human problems, which tempers their invincibility and makes them relatable.

Unless, of course, you’re disabled. While mainstream characters have chinks in their armor, disabled characters are usually either missing completely, or lazy stereotypes: grotesquely deformed villains, or damaged characters with an axe to grind. There are exceptions, of course–Daredevil is a famously blind superhero, albeit one whose superpowers compensate for his disability to such an extent that he might as well be sighted, and the X-Men’s Professor X is a paraplegic–but by and large, disability has largely been forgotten by comic makers.

But this could be changing. With more awareness of disability representation in the mainstream media, perhaps the superhero multiverse is due a shake up.

A Superhero With Down Syndrome

David Walker’s well known in the comic universe, having written Luke Cage and Nighthawk for Marvel Comics and Shaft for Dynamite Entertainment. As an established author and as a black man who knows what it feels like to be an outsider, he feels a responsibility to bring representation to his work.

David Welker has written comics for Marvel, Dynamite, and more.

“As a kid growing up, I did not see an adequate amount of representation that made me feel like I had a place in these large, make-believe worlds. And I still remember what that feels like. And so now that I’m in a position to create comics, I feel the least I can do is work to make other people included.”

When publisher Lion Forge approached Walker to write for Superb, a new comic about a meteor giving people all over Earth superpowers, Walker was initially on the fence. However, when he heard one of the lead characters, Jonah, had Down Syndrome, he was sold.

“I thought, if someone was going to write a character with Down Syndrome, I wanted to see it done right. I figured if someone was going to mess it up, I would rather it was me messing it up trying to do it properly than somebody to not give the character the love and attention they deserved.”

I thought, if someone was going to write a character with Down Syndrome, I wanted to see it done right.

Having volunteered with children with different developmental abilities, Walker felt well placed to tackle someone who is often misrepresented, misunderstood, or not represented at all.

“I think that everybody deserves characters they can relate to, and those characters should be painted in pictures that are as human as humanly possible.”

Walker read up on Down Syndrome, and ran workshops with children and their families. Then he got down to work. He’s not afraid to admit that creating Jonah meant confronting his own prejudices and preconceptions of what Down Syndrome was.

The cover of the Superb trade paperback, showing Jonah, a superhero with Down Syndrome.

“To admit this is embarrassing and shameful, but there were times I was writing him and I would think, did I make him sound too smart? It’s a difficult thing to admit. I realized afterwards, wow, how prejudicial is that on my part? This assumption that just because a kid has Down Syndrome means he can’t use big words or say things that are really smart, or really funny. And I got mad at myself for thinking that way. That’s our societal condition. And I just had to acknowledge that and grow.”

One concern was giving Jonah the humanity he deserved, in an interesting and engaging story.

“Jonah spoke to me a lot even before I started writing him. I know that might sound odd, but as a writer, you want your character to talk to you and to express themselves in a way in your imagination that makes it easy to write.”

“I think that everybody deserves characters they can relate to, and those characters should be painted in pictures that are as human as humanly possible.”

He also wanted to subvert the idea that disability is a hindrance.

“I wanted to make sure the message was, just because he has superpowers, his powers don’t negate his condition. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the Down Syndrome doesn’t have to be a weakness, just part of who he is.

“Jonah’s greatest strength is that everyone underestimates him because of his Down Syndrome, which makes his Down Syndrome his greatest strength.”

Most importantly, Walker’s looking to do what he does best: to entertain, with plenty of action scenes and gripping plots. After all, that’s what his readers like, no matter who they are. “If a kid’s in a wheelchair or if they have autism or Down Syndrome, they’re still a kid, not some other, separate thing.”

The X-Men Of Disability

Across the Atlantic, in Hampshire, UK, Dan White’s been writing and drawing comics for years, producing the children’s comic Cindy and Biscuit as well as the more dark Terminus and Insomnia cartoons.

But it wasn’t until his daughter Emily, born with spina bifida, was three and Dan began to search television, books, and comics in search of characters in wheelchairs, that he realised how little was out there.

So he sat down at his desk, in his living room, and created The Department of Ability, a universe of characters, each with a disability. There’s Billy, a cat with carbon wheels, a radar and a transmitter. Jacob Claypole, who is blind with super-heightened senses and a weaponized cane, and of course, Emily, in her flying wheelchair.

There was nothing like The Department of Ability out there, Dan says. And as he drew, he realized that his project had potential outside his own living room.

“I didn’t know if the world was ready for a mainstream, fun, accessible story about Superheroes that showcases disability as normal, every day and brilliant, which disability is,” he says.

While authors have good intentions, White says many fall back onto tired stereotypes.

“A lot of authors … become unintentionally patronizing or they don’t flesh out their characters, investigate the reality of what this brilliant, diverse, talented community actually want..”

The Department of Ability is a superhero team of characters with disabilities.

 

All this community actually wants is to be seen, read or written about just like everybody else.”

Children know when they’re being talked down to, he says. “Sometimes authors go overboard in the sympathy or educational stakes, when all this community actually wants is to be seen, read or written about just like everybody else.”

“Treat children with equality of mind and they will astound you, children of all abilities have more imagination, glory, and knowledge than those who eternally dictate to them what they think they want to read and see. Engage and challenge your reader and they will adore you for it.”

As for Emily, she’s 12 now and proud of her dad and the characters he’s created. “She continues to plug the idea and its values to whomever she meets, a rare thing for an almost-teenager and gaming, music obsessive,” White says.

White’s 230-page graphic novel—which he describes as “totally original, loud, groundbreaking and unlike anything ever printed—is doing the rounds among publishers, and is getting nibbles in the UK, the US and Asia.

The publishing industry has been slow to come round to Dan’s idea, which is surprising given the attention he’s had from around the world from social media and mainstream news outlets.

It’s been a long time in the making, and he’d like to see it in print. Seeing themselves represented in print is no less than children like Emily deserve, he says.

Why Diversity In Comics Is So Important

New Jersey writer Erin Hawley—a critic who writes about comics and games on her popular website, GeekyGimp.com—has always loved Superman titles, and Betty and Veronica comics. But growing up with muscular dystrophy, there was never any question of seeing herself reflected in the pages she devoured so eagerly.

“I grew up without a strong notion of disability as an identity, so not seeing myself represented never occurred to me until adulthood.”

Erin Walker, a comics critic with muscular dystrophy, says more needs to be done to make comics more inclusive.

Now, she realizes how important it is for people from different groups to see themselves represented in the mainstream. Seeing yourself on the page; and a fair, empowering image of yourself, is vital for self-esteem. “It lets you know that you matter, that disability is part of who you are—and that’s OK.”

As well as wanting to see more disability representation in comic books and graphic novels, Hawley would love to see better-written characters, as existing characters are an “amalgamation of stereotypes and cliches.”

“Or disability is a catalyst for a character’s actions; their disability gives them a reason to be evil, to somehow get back at society or whatever. It always positions disability as a negative. This is especially true for villains or anti-heroes like Professor X.”

Other characters have their disabilities downplayed. “When we do get an awesome disabled character like Oracle (ed. – Barbara Gordon, previously Batgirl, who was paralyzed from the waist down up until a few years ago), their disability is stripped away.”

“I think I could have used someone like me in comics growing up—it would have made the transition to being proud of myself as a disabled woman much easier”

“When all you see in media is negative stereotypes, it lets you know that folks don’t consider you at all. And that’s an especially damaging message to send to kids and teenagers.”

“I think I could have used someone like me in comics growing up—it would have made the transition to being proud of myself as a disabled woman much easier.”

As White says, the time for change is nigh.

“Children and young adults tell me they are fed up with their media image and they love that my work gives them something of their own at last, which is so fun and accessible it can read by absolutely anyone.

“Representation isn’t hard, trust me.”