Comic books have always been an art form for the underdogs of society. They find parts of themselves in the stories of extraordinary individuals who constantly overcome odds that aren’t in their favor. Add on struggles with identity and loneliness? It’s no wonder that comic books have an especially important place in the hearts of those in the disabled community.

People with physical disabilities are grossly underrepresented throughout all forms of media. However, some outlets do a better job of giving them the spotlight than others. In comics, particularly Marvel, there is a wider array of interesting and empowered characters sporting disabilities. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things they could be doing better.

READ: Want more representation? Check out this article about diseases in comics.

When the topic of disabled comic heroes comes up, characters like Daredevil and Professor X come to mind immediately. The two of them are often portrayed off the page as well, making them far more notable. However, there are lesser known disabled characters, like Echo or Misty Knight, or even characters who are depicted as disabled in their comics — such as Hawkeye — that don’t retain their disabled identity in other adaptations.

The Revolving Door of Disability

Professor X’s disability is steeped in controversy. In his first appearance in THE X-MEN #1 in 1963, Xavier is depicted in a wheelchair. However, throughout the length of his character development, he has found himself in and out of the chair. 

What I have always admired most about Charles Xavier as a character is the power of his convictions. The strength he holds within his mind is incredible, both in terms of his intelligence and his psionic powers. He has proven time and time again that paraplegia isn’t a hindrance to his worth as a man. It isn’t a hindrance to his worth as a hero. So why are writers so insistent on repeatedly taking away such an important part of him? It’s a bit like an unruly child kicking over a tower of blocks every time the disabled community gets somewhere with building it.

THE UNCANNY X-MEN #167
Image from THE UNCANNY X-MEN #167, courtesy of Marvel

In THE UNCANNY X-MEN #167, Charles’ mind transfers into a clone version of his own body — A body that can walk. With this he declares himself finally “whole.” To implicate now, after giving him such an amazing amount of power and wisdom, that it is only the use of his legs that can complete him is beyond offensive. It would be one matter if such a statement portrayed his own struggle with his disabled identity, but it’s clear that plenty of writers feel the way he does, as they keep lifting him out of his wheelchair. To erase Xavier’s ability is an easy out. An out that real people don’t get. Those of us in the disabled community don’t get to write away our disabilities. Those characters who represent us shouldn’t either.

Finding Real Limitations in Blindness

Another complicated disabled hero is Daredevil. The extent of his powers is often argued to render his blindness obsolete. His echolocation is so accurate that he can see the detailed shapes of the world surrounding him. While his powers don’t lend to the most accurate representation of blindness, it’s hard to say if it’s altogether a poor portrayal.

I’d like to give attention to a few points in Daredevil’s favor. It’s true that Matt Murdock doesn’t move through the world in the same fashion that a real blind person would. Still, the way his world treats him holds authenticity. His true identity is so well concealed because no one would ever suspect a blind man of Daredevil’s capability. More often than not, no one would even spare a second thought to a blind man. This is a small glimpse into the inherent invisibility of the disabled community in society.

Additionally, there is a moment in DAREDEVIL (2015) #4 that I find particularly interesting. While on a mission with Steve Rogers, Daredevil comes face to face with a bomb. Rogers tries to talk him through defusing the bomb, but Daredevil comes up short when asked to find the yellow and green wires. What strikes me about this, is that it illustrates that there are indisputably things that people with disabilities can’t do. A blind man, even one with super powers, isn’t going to be able to discern colors. But that doesn’t mean he’s helpless. Daredevil finds a goon and beats him until he disables the bomb for him. It’s certainly an unconventional approach. Nonetheless, it proves that just because people with a disability can’t do things the typical way, it doesn’t mean that they are powerless. Disability doesn’t have to equal weakness.

DAREDEVIL (2015) #4
Image from DAREDEVIL (2015) #4, courtesy of Marvel

Intersectionality

Maya Lopez, also known by the aliases Echo and Ronin, is another interesting character in the Daredevil universe. She’s an especially important example of representation due to her intersectionality. In addition to being a deaf woman, Echo is also one of the few Native American — more specifically of the Cheyenne nation — characters across all forms of media.

DARE DEVIL: ECHO - VISION QUEST
Image from DAREDEVIL: ECHO – VISION QUEST, courtesy of Marvel.

When Echo is young, her father is murdered by Kingpin (Wilson Fisk). After the murder, Fisk then takes her in and raises her as his own. However, through Fisk’s manipulations, Echo believes that Daredevil is the one who murdered her father. She engages in a plot of revenge, eventually turning her rage on Kingpin when she learns the truth. While Kingpin is depicted as having genuine love for his adopted daughter, I find his scheming an intriguing toe dip into the truth that is the deep pool of abuse that disabled people experience at higher rates than their “able-bodied” counterparts.

For what it’s worth, Echo proves to be a formidable opponent against Daredevil too. Her ability is photographic reflexes, which allows her to master the performance of any movement after observing it once. While that’s a power that has endless amounts of cool factor, one of my favorite parts of Echo is that she actually utilizes American Sign Language in her appearances. She also uses a Native American intertribal system of communication, which relates back to her intersectionality.

READ: For more Native Americans in comics, check out this review of MOONSHOT.

Deaf Diversity

After talking about Echo, it’s good to bring Hawkeye into the conversation for a multitude of reasons. Clint Barton, our resident cocky archer, is hard-of-hearing. It’s important to note that while Echo was born deaf, Hawkeye’s deafness is a result of injury. The distinction of Echo relying mostly on lipreading and Hawkeye using hearing aids is necessary, too. Beyond Marvel being able to claim diversity with the inclusion of disabled people, they also get to claim diversity within the deaf community. That’s the beauty of having multiple people from a group — It allows readers to factor in individuality to marginalized peoples. One character does not speak for the entire community. Experiences, surprise surprise, actually differ person to person.

Of course, when talking about Hawkeye I’m more than obligated to bring up the beautiful “silent issue” that is HAWKEYE #19. This comic captures an emotional journey of frustration and embarrassment and, finally, acceptance (the start of it, at least) of one’s disability. Instead of putting readers in an observational position to Clint’s situation, this issue puts readers in his shoes. With empty speech bubbles and garbled lipreading, those of us who are hearing get a small glimpse into the reality of the deaf community. The untranslated ASL not only embraces the culture of the deaf community, but illustrates the struggles of having to learn a whole new way of life.

HAWKEYE #19
Image from HAWKEYE #19, courtesy of Marvel

Another perk of this issue is that it includes Clint’s brother Barney. At the same time of Clint’s deafening injury, Barney also suffers a spinal injury. Barney encourages Clint to accept his deafness, which is a recurring dynamic in their history. Barney’s condition hasn’t lessened his ability to support his brother. Honestly, it’s just refreshing to see two people with disabilities helping each other.

Adaptational Erasure

However, Hawkeye is another character who has historically fallen victim to the convenience of ableism. Long before HAWKEYE #19, Clint Barton has been depicted as deaf and then had that diversity stripped from him. What’s even more frustrating than that is the fact that in recent on-screen portrayals Clint has no trace of disability. In fact, his deafness is so ignored by mainstream media that most people aren’t even aware he’s supposed to be a deaf character at all.

Why is such a thing necessary? Is this sort of thing done out of pure laziness? Or is it out of a misguided attempt to make a character cooler and more relatable? For the record, taking away a part of a character to make him more like his teammates isn’t relatable. It’s boring.

Ableist Attraction

Here’s the portion of the article where things take a turn, and I get a little more personal. When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. It’s fine — I manage it well, I’m healthy, and I never have any major problems with it. Still, as a twenty-three-year-old woman, there’s a vain worry buried not so deep down that, even though my chronic illness is invisible, it makes me less attractive.

In SECRET WARS: SECRET LOVE, Misty Knight is getting ready for a date with her husband Danny Rand. Though her metal prosthetic arm is visible to everyone, her self-consciousness as she stares into the mirror is hearteningly relatable. She talks about how beautiful the dress looked in the store, but she makes it less beautiful because one of the straps keeps sliding off of her metal arm. With some urging from her friend, she changes into a dress with an asymmetrical cut and regains her confidence. In one page this comic does more for disabled women than most other pieces of media ever do.

SECRET WARS: SECRET LOVE
Image from SECRET WARS: SECRET LOVE, courtesy of Marvel

To be disabled, especially as a woman, is to typically be seen as non-sexual. However, SECRET WARS: SECRET LOVE shows that Misty is still a beautiful woman. It just takes a style adjustment to help her comfort level. The validation of the sensuality of disabled women gives them the chance to be viewed as fully formed individuals, not just cardboard cutouts waiting for pity.

Why is Representation Important?

I’m fortunate enough that there are even more disabled Marvel characters that I could bring into the discussion. The quality of representation needs improvement, but it’s significant that the disabled community gets visibility at all. These unique and important characters are vital in order to keep mainstream society from forgetting the issue of access and acceptance. Beyond that, disabled people deserve to see themselves in characters as much as anyone else.

With superheroes, you see ordinary people with amazing gifts in outstanding situations. These heroes make the everyman feel important and special. For those with disabilities, seeing ourselves in comics just makes us feel normal for once. And why shouldn’t we be allowed to feel normal? In fact, with more authentic representations of diverse disabilities, those in the “able-bodied” majority might begin to foster understanding. Us disabled folks wouldn’t need to look to fiction to feel normal. If people actually accept and understand us, they’ll finally treat us like we’re normal.

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