Uncanny Bodies: Superhero Comics and Disability 9780271086323

Superhero comics reckon with issues of corporeal control. And while they commonly deal in characters of exceptional or s

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Uncanny Bodies: Superhero Comics and Disability

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Susan Merrill Squier and Ian Williams, General Editors editorial collective MK Czerwiec (Northwestern University) Michael J. Green (Penn State College of Medicine) Kimberly R. Myers (Penn State College of Medicine) Scott T. Smith (Penn State University) Books in the Graphic Medicine series are inspired by a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed “medical.” For health-care practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers dealing with illness and disability, graphic narrative enlightens complicated or difficult experiences. For scholars in literary, cultural, and comics studies, the genre articulates a complex and powerful analysis of illness, medicine, and disability and a rethinking of the boundaries of “health.” The series includes original comics from artists and non-artists alike, such as self-reflective “graphic pathographies” or comics used in medical training and education, as well as monographic studies and edited collections from scholars, practitioners, and medical educators. other titles in the series: MK Czerwiec, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers, and Scott T. Smith, Graphic Medicine Manifesto Ian Williams, The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James Peter Dunlap-Shohl, My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s Aneurin Wright, Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park: . . . When You’re 29 and Unemployed Dana Walrath, Aliceheimers: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass Lorenzo Servitje and Sherryl Vint, eds., The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image

Henny Beaumont, Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up Beth MK Czerwiec, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 Paula Knight, The Facts of Life Gareth Brookes, A Thousand Coloured Castles Jenell Johnson, ed., Graphic Reproduction: A Comics Anthology Olivier Kugler, Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees Judith Margolis, Life Support: Invitation to Prayer Ian Williams, The Lady Doctor Sarah Lightman, The Book of Sarah



the pennsylvania state university press | university park, pennsylvania

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Smith, Scott Thompson, editor. | Alaniz, José, editor. Title: Uncanny bodies : superhero comics and disability / edited by Scott T. Smith and José Alaniz. Other titles: Graphic medicine. Description: University Park, Pennsylvania : The Pennsylvania State University Press, [2019] | Series: Graphic medicine | Includes bibliographical references and index. Summary: “Explores how superhero comics, with their creative fusions of fantasy and realism, provide a flexible visual form for engaging issues of disability and intersectional identity (race, class, gender, sexuality) as well as for imagining and valuing different physical and cognitive ways of being in the world”—Provided by publisher. Identifiers: LCCN 2019027765 | ISBN 9780271084749 (hardback ; alk. paper) | ISBN 9780271084756 (paperback ; alk. paper) Subjects: MESH: Disabled Persons | Graphic Novels as Topic | Personal Autonomy | Sociological Factors | Graphic Novels Classification: LCC HV1551 | NLM HV 1551 | DDC 362.4—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019027765 Copyright © 2019 The Pennsylvania State University All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America Published by The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA 16802–1003 The Pennsylvania State University Press is a member of the Association of University Presses. It is the policy of The Pennsylvania State University Press to use acid-free paper. Publications on uncoated stock satisfy the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Material, ansi z39.48–1992.

In memory of Eric Sweet, super friend. (Scott) For Kristin and the family, with love and gratitude. (José)





Introduction: Uncanny Bodies josé alaniz and scott t. smith

1 “Mechanical Boys”: 35 Omega the Unknown on the Spectrum josé alaniz

2 Sane Superheroes: Mental 59 Distress in the Gutters of Moon Knight charlie christie

3 Echo: The Silence Between 79 the Notes sarah bowden

4 Mistress of Cyberspace: 95 Oracle, Disability, and the Cyborg marit hanson

5 More than a Retcon 111 Replacement: Disability,

Blackness, and Sexuality in the Origin of Operator lauren o’connor

6 “Okay . . . This Looks Bad”: 125 Disability, Masculinity, and Ambivalence in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye daniel pinti

7 The deaf Issue: Hawkeye #19 141 and Deaf Accessibility in the Comics Medium naja later

8 That Hawkguy: Deaf and 157 Disability Gain in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye sarah gibbons



9 Dialectical Identity: Silver 173 Scorpion as Disabled/

11 Unraveling the Supercrip: 205 Superheroes as Subversion,

10 “Of Course, I Am a Hero”: 187 Disability as Posthuman

Superhero deleasa randallgriffiths and daniel j. o’rourke

Ideal in Cece Bell’s El Deafo lauranne poharec

a Personal Essay in Comic Form andrew godfrey-meers

217 Fearsome Possibilities: An Afterword charles hatfield

225 List of Contributors 227 Index


We are grateful to the good people at the Penn State University Press for their guidance throughout the long process of conceptualizing and completing this project. We want to give thanks especially to Kendra Boileau, editor extraordinaire, and to Alex Vose, editorial assistant without peer, for all their help and discernment. And we feel fortunate to be part of the Graphic Medicine series, which is a fine home indeed for this book. Special thanks to Charles Hatfield for providing an afterword that is full of crackle and insight, and most of all, thanks to our wonderful contributors, whose hard work and diligence have made this collection a compelling contribution to comics studies and disability studies both. And finally, we express gratitude to all the creators of the works examined in these pages. José Alaniz wants to acknowledge and commend the leading role played in this project by Scott T. Smith, who imagined it, proposed it, and performed the lion’s share of the labor on making it real—with all the tenacity of the Black Racer.

Introduction Uncanny Bodies

José Alaniz and Scott T. Smith

Michael Bérubé has reminded us that representations of disability are “ubiquitous, far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes.” Moreover, Bérubé argues that these diverse narrative deployments offer “powerful meditations on what it means to be a social being, a sentient creature with an awareness of mortality and causality—and sentience itself.”1 This essay collection looks specifically to how superhero comics can offer the kind of considerations envisioned by Bérubé. José Alaniz has claimed generally that “the superhero body incarnates the anxieties and desires of the age” and considered specifically how representations of disability in superhero comics reflect and/or resist broader cultural conceptions about disability.2 Some conventions of the superhero genre have proven especially conducive to key issues within disability studies (the common element of disguise in secret identity and passing, for example). The figure of the superhero itself has become a trope for considering issues of ability and disability in the culture at large (e.g., the “supercrip”), and superhero comics have provided material and inspiration for activism and community building (especially the wheelchair-using character Oracle).3 This collection of essays explores the genre of superhero comics as a flexible medium for considering disability as well as for imagining and valuing different physical and cognitive ways of being.

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While many books on comics and graphic novels have appeared in recent years, discussions of disability in superhero comics remain relatively new. Disability is largely absent in many recent studies of the superhero, suggesting a space for new conversations.4 Conversely, comics have generally not been included in larger conversations about the representation of disability in literature.5 Uncanny Bodies brings superhero comics more fully into the conversation, regarding them as complex texts that merit, and reward, serious analysis. As popular entertainment and serial narratives, superhero comics also present us with fascinating and occasionally conflicted intersections of corporate interest, editorial directive, tangled continuity, creative collaboration, and fan investment. They clamor for serious attention all the more so given the superhero’s commanding role as transmedial entertainment properties; the genre offers a “seemingly inexhaustible resource for commercial artists, publishers, moviemakers, animators, radio and television dramatists, videogame designers, and other cultural entrepreneurs looking for fantastical, larger-than-life archetypes, tropes, scenarios and what-ifs.”6 In short, the figure of the superhero has become a prominent and malleable part of our cultural imagination, capable of manifesting and signifying in complex and meaningful ways. Historically, superhero comics have typically represented disability in limited or stereotypical ways, much like other contemporary entertainments. We recognize that the presentation of disability in superhero comics can be problematic, especially when disability appears as an impermanent condition, something that must be cured or erased through narrative reversals that undermine the realities of living with impairment.7 Still, superhero comics have proven an adaptable form for representing different forms of ability and disability across different physical and social environments. To better acquaint the reader unfamiliar with the genre’s history, we offer a selective chronology of disability representation in superhero comics.

Armless Tiger Man In superhero comics’ formative era, the so-called Golden Age,8 the disabled figure almost never steps out from under the penumbra of perfidy. Disability as a facet of human corporeal/cognitive existence entered the genre as a blatant and simplistic marker of evil. The first supervillain, the UltraHumanite, is a wheelchair user. In “Superman vs. the Cab Protective League” (Action Comics #13, June 1939), the bald mad scientist glowers



Figure I.1. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “Superman vs. the Cab Protective League,”

Action Comics, no. 13 (1939): 10.

menacingly at his archfoe the Man of Steel during their first encounter. A textbox reads: “The fiery eyes of the paralyzed cripple burn with terrible hatred and sinister intelligence” (see fig. I.1). Other early supervillains such as the Joker (1940) and Red Skull (1941) similarly presented as disfigured, inhuman Others, their maleficence going hand in hand with their deviation from the superhero’s physical ideal. Pre–World War II racist, ableist, and dehumanizing sentiments of various sorts coalesced in popular beliefs and state policies that clearly informed supervillain depictions. Eugenics, a pseudoscience that purported to purge the healthy population from “degenerate” elements— almost exclusively racial, ethnic, sexual, and class Others—had broad public support. By 1937 (around the time of Superman’s debut), more than thirty states had passed eugenicist forced sterilization laws targeted at the “feebleminded,” the insane, and the criminal, among other groups.9 As noted by historian Kim Nielsen: “Proponents of sterilization argued that it was a patriotic cause, and a better solution than long-term institutionalization. For the health of the nation the electoral body had to be protected against the degenerative elements.”10 Supervillain deformity as a contrast to nonpareil superheroic physiques also owes much to the conventions of the newspaper comic strip, especially crime and adventure series such as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (1931), Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (1934), and Lee Falk’s The Phantom (1936). (At the time superhero comics launched, the strip format still dominated the market.) In their turn, these authors were deriving such “body dichotomy” tropes from the pulp fiction still popular in the 1930s.11 And of course, the pulps had themselves inherited the Gothic legacy of

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Figure I.2 Paul Gustavson and Al Bellman, “The Angel and the Case of the Armless Tiger

Man,” Marvel Mystery Comics, no. 26 (1941): 1.

representing interior states through outward appearance.12 In short, by the time of superhero comics’ explosive popularity immediately before and during World War II, readers took it as basic “common sense” that good guys were handsome and bad guys ugly, disabled, maimed, insane, or otherwise defective. Let a rather obscure and puerile example stand as illustration: Armless Tiger Man. Debuting in “The Angel and the Case of the Armless Tiger Man” (Marvel Mystery Comics #26, December 1941, Timely Comics13), the supervillain begins life as Gustav Hertz, a young worker in a Munich “mechanical laboratory” whose arms get mangled in a machine (7). After amputation, hospitalization, and training with superhuman élan, he comes to perform amazing feats of strength with his feet, while “over developement [sic] of the jaw muscles twisted my face into a hideous mass of bone and flesh! People avoided me in horror . . .” (8). The embittered Hertz also


cultivates “a terrible obsession against machines” (8), which leads him to sabotage. This brings him to the attention of the Gestapo, which sends him to the United States to “wreck machines there to your heart’s content . . . and for the greater glory of the Reich!” (9). He eventually crosses paths with the Angel, a non-superpowered costumed crusader who defeats the German menace. The Armless Tiger Man, created by Paul Gustavson and Al Bellman, seems almost a self-parody of bad disability tropes. They portray him as a dangerous ethnic Other, a wartime “Hun” caricature (though with his top-knot-like hairstyle he more resembles a Cossack), in his yellow leotard, “Orientalized” face, pointed ears, raised eyebrows, and slitted cat’s eyes cutting a grotesque figure, to compare all the more unfavorably with the debonair Thomas Halloway / Angel, a David-Niven-by-way-of-ErrolFlynn type. Furthermore, the narrative takes every opportunity to depict the amputee villain as subhuman and bestial: he delights in smashing victims to death with his feet (2), takes bloody bites of their bodies with razor-sharp teeth (2), slides down a chandelier chain with his mouth and feet (4), and digs, worm-like, under a cyclone fence with his mouth (5). Finally, his joyful cries of “Yah! Yah! Yah! Yah!” as he wrecks a steamworks (scalding several workers in the process) proclaim him an enemy of twentieth-century civilization itself: “The shriek of mad laughter cuts through the groans of the injured as the Tiger Man hurls tool after tool into the delicately adjusted machines!” (6). It is fitting, then, that our hero Angel neutralizes this threat to industrial modernity with a piece of metal pipe, using it to jam open the Tiger Man’s mouth—“employing a trick used by pearl divers fighting sharks,” according to the caption (8). The move also dislocates his jaw, causing him to “emi[t] wild, animal cries of pain” (9). It will hardly surprise the reader that such linkages between disability and animality formed a pillar of prewar eugenicist thought.14 For all its drawbacks, though—and they are legion—the Armless Tiger Man’s representation does contain a redemptive kernel of verisimilitude. Hertz experiences a very common working-class phenomenon of the machine age: his disability results from an industrial accident of developed capitalism.15 Similarly, we can trace his “terrible obsession against machines” to documented psychological reactions such as “traumatic or accident neurosis,” described by Andreas Killen as “a form of nervous disability associated with the after-effects of industrial trauma.”16 Intentionally or not, Gustavson and Bellman’s ludicrous creation actually touches on the realities of life for disabled people at mid-century. Crudely


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offensive,17 Armless Tiger Man represents a textbook image of disability representation in early superhero comics, whose eugenicist underpinnings often equated bodily difference with wickedness and subhumanity.18 A minacious bugbear constantly imperiling white, able-bodied America, the disabled villain called for only one possible response: punch it. Hard.

Golden Age Daredevil The foregoing makes the rare Golden Age superheroes with physical differences all the more intriguing. First we may point to masked crime fighters such as Mart Bailey’s the Face (debuted in Big Shot Comics, May 1940, Columbia Comics) and Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman (Detective Comics #27, May 1939, National19), both of whom use “creepy” costumes to frighten criminals. Derived from similar pulp vigilantes such as Walter Gibson’s the Shadow (1930) and Harry Steeger’s the Spider (1933), such liminal figures do not really count as disabled, however, in that they can easily doff their “scary” personae and resume their lives as, respectively, Tony Trent and Bruce Wayne—handsome, white, able-bodied men. Leave it to creator Jack Binder, then, to create the most notable, truly disabled superhero of the era. The opening splash page to “The Daredevil, Master of Courage” in Silver Streak Comics #6 (September 1940, Lev Gleason Publications) introduces the yellow-and-gray-costumed crusader: “Orphaned by thugs who ruthlessly killed his parents and left him speechless by the torture they inflicted on him, Bart Hill grew into manhood possessed with the determination to destroy the forces of crime and evil!”20 The character’s origin story, compressed in a single text-heavy page, explicitly combines mental and physical trauma: witnessing his parents’ murder as a child motivates Bart Hill to fight crime as an adult, while his mutilation at the hands of those same killers (they brand him with a hot iron) “caused the boy to lose his voice.” The burn mark on his chest resembles a boomerang in shape, which inspires young Bart to play with boomerangs and later to adapt them as weapons in his war against criminals. Accordingly, disability (mutism) and ability (extraordinary skill with boomerangs), both of which spring from a common source, distinguish the character in this debut story. This situation exemplifies Mitchell and Snyder’s concept of narrative prosthesis, in which impairment provides an impetus for storytelling, a catalytic device in which disability marks a “character as distinctive and worthy of the exceptional tale.”21 Genre


convention easily trades on trauma as an originary event for the superheroic protagonist; here it does so with the novelty of a concomitant disability explicitly referenced and incorporated into the plot. The story utilizes many visual and verbal cues for upholding and reconfirming Hill’s disability. In fact, the narrative represents Daredevil’s 7 mutism by recurrently alerting the reader to it. The first panel of the story proper announces: “Note: Since the Daredevil cannot speak, the artist has indicated ‘thought balloon’ to show you what goes on in his mind” (42).22 This visual device is distinct from later thought balloons in its use of dotted borders and its lack of a connecting tail or icon, although the story-art does on two occasions provide icons that resemble traditional speech balloons.23 The eight-page story compensates for these small visual inconsistencies with repeated verbal reminders that Daredevil cannot speak: he is described in captions and narration as “the speechless crime fighter” (43, 46), “the mute crime fighter” (44), “the speechless law enforcer” (47), “the silent figure” (48), and “the voiceless scourge of crime” (48). In such ways, the text works to ensure that the reader does not forget that its lead character is mute, even though that disability never registers within Figure I.3 Jack Binder, “The Darethe diegetic action of the story itself. Nor does devil, Master of Courage,” Silver Binder depict Bart Hill in his civilian identity, Streak Comics, no. 6 (1940): 2. thus occluding any lived experience of disability. Ultimately, perhaps what makes the Golden Age Daredevil most notable and exemplary of disability representation in the superhero genre is the fact that his disability only lasts one issue. Hill’s mutism vanishes without explanation in the second Daredevil story, scripted and illustrated by Jack Cole.24 Binder’s replacement effectively reboots the character, giving Bart Hill a new playboy persona that jettisons entirely the trauma-induced impairment established in the debut episode. (We hear no further mention of Hill’s boomerang-shaped scar, either.) Cole repositions the character securely within standard “patriotic” genre conventions, giving him speech as well as a full civilian identity, a love interest, and a racially tinged foreign antagonist, the Claw.25 At the beginning of “The Claw and the Daredevil,” we

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see an agrarian, peaceful United States with the clouds of war looming. Hill and his lady friend Tonia enjoy a picnic by an idyllic stream, our hero reminding us—out loud—that peace is “worth fighting for.” No thought balloons; no narrative reminders of mutism.26 On one level, the switch simply reflects a reality of serial narrative in this era, whereby publishers maintained a very loose brand of continuity. Golden Age superhero creative teams told their stories in self-contained units, with only the most tenuous of links from episode to episode, issue to issue. As Umberto Eco famously put it in his landmark 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman”: “The stories develop in a kind of oneiric climate—of which the reader is not aware at all—where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy. The narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what had already been said.”27 Or, as it happens, to subtract details. Furthermore, a hierarchy clearly pertained in this process: while Bart Hill’s race, gender, and even hair color remain constant, other “details,” such as the design of the Daredevil’s costume, which undergoes a yellow-to-red makeover, and his mutism, seem far more dispensable. Such inconsistencies of depiction further reflect the low status accorded to disability, especially an invisible one, as a character trait for a hero in this era.28 As we have seen with the Armless Tiger Man, the case was the exact opposite for villains; their disabilities in large measure defined them. The revamped Daredevil would quickly become a lead character in Silver Streak Comics, and soon thereafter move into his own series, with his short-lived mutism decidedly left behind29—oddly literalizing the model of disability as narrative prosthesis, in which, as Mitchell and Snyder describe it, “the deficiency inaugurates the need for a story but is quickly forgotten once the difference is established.”30 The case of the Golden Age Daredevil confirms the minor consideration accorded to disability in early superhero comics, at least for disabled superheroes themselves.31

The Black Racer A radical change in superhero comics’ disability representation occurred with the advent of the so-called Silver Age in the late 1950s/early 1960s.32 Suffice it to say that such changes, reflecting new postwar attitudes toward the disabled and minorities of various sorts, made disability a central aspect of many new characters’ civilian identities, including those of


Marvel heroes Ben Grimm / the Thing (1961), Bruce Banner / the Hulk (1962), the X-Men (1963), and Matt Murdock / Daredevil (1964), as well as of DC creations like the Doom Patrol (1963). For the first time in the genre’s development, a consistently portrayed disability did not automatically consign a character to the ranks of villains. Which makes a late-career creation by superhero comics’ greatest master in this era particularly striking—and distressing. The Black Racer appeared intermittently in Jack Kirby’s short-lived but monumental New Gods series, part of the Fourth World books produced by Kirby during his 1970s tenure at DC Comics.33 Kirby’s frenetic creativity is on full display across the Fourth World titles, which can be described as both operatic and erratic, a heady fusion of grand concepts and improvisational energy. Charles Hatfield has observed that the Fourth World oeuvre “at once reflects Kirby’s conscious shaping—there’s a basic symmetry, a symbolic neatness, about the whole saga—and at the same time keeps branching off suddenly into seeming tangents and what would turn out to be unexplored dead ends.” This is especially true of New Gods, which “proves the most shiftable of the Fourth World titles, plastic enough to give rein to Kirby’s constant improvising.”34 Indeed, Mark Evanier, who worked as an assistant to Kirby at DC, has observed that “New Gods was the most frustrating book because it was the most overpopulated, and characters disappeared in it.”35 Such is certainly the case with the Black Racer, who had a featured debut in New Gods #3 but otherwise appears only briefly in issues #4 and #11 of the series (and in a short backup story in #8). The character accordingly represents a nascent but never fully formed concept that presents a vexed case of disability and intersectional identity in the superhero comics of the early 1970s. “Death Is the Black Racer!” (New Gods #3) begins with a bombastic caption in the characteristic Kirby style: “Like the very source of all things, he is an ever-present fear that sweeps through the universe on swift, silent skis. The charred husks of great stars are left in his passing . . . and small lives vanish with their dreams at his touch! Yes, even the New Gods fear the Black Racer! For he brings . . . oblivion!” In the opening pages, the hero Lightray flees the Black Racer across a dimensional space, desperately trying to escape (literally and allegorically) the touch of death. Visually, the scene also suggests a racial dichotomy—the Black Racer appears as a person of color and Lightray as a blond white man—in which blackness presents as a threatening force.36 At the last moment, the enigmatic Metron intervenes to save Lightray, opening a Boom Tube that sends the Black Racer to a city on Earth, “a place of black men! Those who fight to


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Figure I.4 + Figure I.5  Jack Kirby, “Death Is the Black Racer!,” New Gods, no. 3 (1971): 13.

live—others who risk my presence!” (11). Again, the comic calls attention to race and associates the Racer with blackness. The Racer next comes upon Sugar-Man, a black criminal who shoots down an informer before he can go to the police. Through a nearby window, Sugar-Man sees an immobile black man lying in bed and wearing a heavy neck brace. This is Willie Walker, a fully paralyzed veteran who lives under the care of his sister and her husband in an urban neighborhood that the story identifies only as “the ghetto” (22).37 Whether by accident or design, the character’s name sounds much like “will he walk or [?],” which can be read as a bit of insensitive sound-play or as a forecast of events to come (or as both).38 The Black Racer intervenes to save Willie and then restores his speech and movement with an outreached hand. “In your despair—you summoned me,” the Racer tells Willie, who then stands and removes his brace, saying, “It’s happened! I’m whole! I’m strong! I’m no longer halfalive!” (14). After the Black Racer crumbles to dust, Willie dons the figure’s abandoned helmet and himself assumes the cosmic mantle of death. “I’m changing—I - I am more than Willie Walker!” he exclaims as the


transformation begins (14). Having now become the Black Racer, Willie says, “Destiny has opened all barriers to the most helpless of beings!” (15). This scene suggests that the Black Racer comes to Willie Walker because the paralyzed veteran would rather die than live with a severe disability.39 Disability here appears as a form of living death, a confinement of body and spirit. Moreover, the episode presents a fantasy of overcoming, a complete restoration of movement and speech that figures disability as a tragic limitation to be set aside through one instantaneous miraculous act. Even more troublingly, the scene forcefully juxtaposes disability, death, and blackness within one forbidding figure. The subsequent action of the story has the Black Racer stopping SugarMan from detonating a bomb in a terrorist plot, after which he reassumes human form. This closing scene presents a paradox of free movement and full immobility. As the Racer enters Willie’s room, he declares, “There are no barriers for him now! Willie Walker now has the freedom of the farthest dimensions!” (22). On the next page, however, the final in the comic, Willie again lies in bed, his paralysis and brace restored as his sister and husband worry over his care. Even as he has become a vessel of the Black Racer, in his civilian life Willie Walker embodies a decided lack of freedom as he faces severe impairment. Willie Walker / Black Racer accordingly presents a more complex instance of disability as narrative prosthesis than what we have seen in the 1940s Daredevil. Whereas the Golden Age character’s disability disappears entirely from his serial narrative, Willie’s disability endures as a continual point of return, an inescapable interim between his times as Black Racer. In this sense, his rehabilitation is impermanent, reliant upon the manifestation of Death, thereby reiterating the story’s equation of disability with death. Finally, Willie Walker presents a striking case of intersectional minority identities: he is a black veteran with a severe disability, whose living conditions suggest poverty.40 In this sense, he occupies a determinedly marginal position. As Nirmala Erevelles reminds us, “People with disabilities have lived through a history of segregational practices . . . that have constructed them on the outside limits of intelligibility.”41 Several such practices converge in and around the figure of Willie Walker. Due to his paralysis, Willie can no longer communicate with others and he lives in physical isolation in his sister’s apartment. He has neither voice nor agency. Additionally, he appears only with other black characters in the story, which creates a racial segregation in narrative terms. Accordingly, he is kept separate in terms of both disability and race. Such a negative conflation is troubling, as is the penultimate panel of the comic,


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which transforms disability into an existential threat to the abled. Above a close shot of Willie’s staring eyes, a caption exclaims, “Willie Walker’s eyes grow wide! He is aware! He now knows his next quarry! Who is it? him?—her?—you?” (23). Willie Walker assumes a menacing presence, an embodiment of Death seeking its next victim, be it the “normal” characters in the story (his sister and her husband, in this case) or the readers themselves. Here the character forcefully fulfills the “disruptive potentiality” that Mitchell and Snyder claim for disability in narrative,42 as the most powerless become the most powerful, capable of bringing death to mortals and gods alike.43 In the Black Racer, then, we see a compellingly fraught representation of disability. In many ways, the story uses disability as a narrative device in negative ways, with Willie Walker / Black Racer providing an embodied metaphor for the inescapability of death. At the same time, Kirby presents social conditions in empathetic ways, calling attention to those disabled through war, and more generally to the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised. In many ways, Kirby’s Black Racer fulfills the model of disability as narrative prosthesis as outlined by Mitchell and Snyder, but the character would also seem to challenge their observation that “the reliance upon disability in narrative rarely develops into a means of identifying people with disabilities as a disenfranchised cultural constituency.”44 Kirby does incorporate a number of regrettable stereotypes, but the Black Racer / Willie Walker storyline nonetheless contains an element of intersectional identity that hints at a more complex representation of the economic challenges of disability and caregiving.

Doom Patrol Redux Deep into the Bronze Age, writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case’s celebrated 1989–93 run on the new Doom Patrol specifically sought to revive the 1960s original’s “weirdness.” The first series, written by Arnold Drake and illustrated by Bruno Premiani, involved a team of misfit heroes with different disabilities led by a man in a wheelchair, which engaged in bizarre, often absurdist adventures.45 In a letter to his readers published in Doom Patrol #20 (March 1989), Morrison wrote, “I wanted to reconnect with the fundamental, radical concept of the Doom Patrol—that here was a team composed of handicapped people. [. . .] This was a group of people with serious physical problems and, perhaps, one too many bats in the belfry” (Morrison and


Case 1992, n.p., emphasis in original). Morrison goes on to cite various sources of inspiration for the new series, including the oeuvre of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer and Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 opus on human cognition, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid—though, notably, no works on disability history and culture (of which there were precious few in the 1980s). Morrison thus saw the disabled as exotic, strange, even perverse, though not unsympathetic; they are eternal outsiders, confronting “normal” humans with the mysteries of reality beyond the everyday. As leader Niles Caulder / the Chief says in his bid to reunite the team: Don’t you see? There are areas in which only we are qualified to operate. When the rational world breaks down, we can cope . . . because we’ve been there, in ourselves. We have known madness . . . and delirium . . . and we are no longer afraid. The world has turned its back on us, but it’s time to stop being victims, time to show we’re more than just “freaks,” more than just “cripples.” Believe me, they need us. And we need each other.46 Here disability presents as a superheroic advantage, a defining feature of the self, a unique capacity the world can ill do without (“they need us”)— quite a distance traveled from the Golden Age Daredevil. It promised endlessly productive storytelling as well. As the Morrison scholar Marc Singer notes, the new Doom Patrol brought together a “host of freakish, impossible anatomies capable of addressing a limitless range of ideas.”47 In addition, Singer points out, the series’s creators “restore the Doom Patrol’s eccentricity primarily by recalling and amplifying the body traumas that made Drake and Premiani’s team not only memorable but frequently unsettling.” Among other things, Morrison first treated Cliff Steele / Robotman, a human brain in a metal body, as an amputee, experiencing phantom limb pain and at the beginning of the run turning to a mental institution for help in dealing with his bodily and mental traumas.48 Morrison and Case also introduce a highly generative and exciting contingent element into superhero narrative through characters like the Quiz, a villain who has only the superpowers her opponents have not thought of; Sleepwalk / Holly McKenzie, another villain who gains superpowers only while asleep; and the characteristically unpredictable Brotherhood of Dada, who instigate a “crime wave so bizarre it doesn’t break any laws.”49 For all its absurdist parody, however, Doom Patrol presents its characters as resolutely intersectional, their bodily/cognitive


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differences inextricable from their race, gender, class formations, and physical/cognitive differences. Genre innovations proliferated over the series’s four years, such as the evolution of the character previously known as Negative Man: its alter ego, Larry Trainor from the original team, fuses with an alien intelligence and an African American doctor, Eleanor Poole, to form Rebis, a tripartite life-form eroding gender, corporeal, racial, and identity boundaries; Rebis is at once female, male, black, white, and ultimately beyond good and evil. Other figures, such as the villains John Dandy (who wears, and hurls, multiple faces), the Fog / Byron Shelley (who contains the minds of all the humans he has ever absorbed, which he has trouble keeping quiet), Brotherhood of Dada leader Mr. Nobody, and new Doom Patrol team member Danny the Street (a teleporting, transgender piece of urban real estate),50 bring into question not only the distinction between superheroism and villainy, but the very notion of a unified self—all through image-text strategies available only to graphic narrative. Humorously, the creative team leaves the conventional “tough guy” Steele at an utter loss when confronting all these developments (“I can’t take any more of this,” he says more than once);51 the eternal straight man, he keeps calling Rebis “Larry” and has to be corrected repeatedly. In short, this series— like no other and on multiple fronts—mounted a sustained challenge to the eugenicist, “rational,” hetero-masculine foundations of the superhero genre itself. The aforementioned serves as prologue to a discussion of one of Morrison and Case’s most original contributions to the superhero canon in Doom Patrol: Crazy Jane, a figure whose cognitive differences, gender politics, and “random” powers make her/them dispense with monadic identity altogether, as well as with superhero business as usual. In creating the character, Morrison consulted When Rabbit Howls, a 1987 autobiography purportedly written by the ninety-two separate personalities (called “the Troops”) of Truddi Chase, a woman diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder). Superheroes, of course, have had dual (or multiple) identities, generative of much narrative drama, since Superman / Kal-El / Clark Kent.52 Morrison and Case explode that generic convention in Crazy Jane, whose sixty-four selves constitute independent separate individuals, each endowed with separate superpowers, all housed in one mind. Like Chase, Kay Challis is raped as a child by her father. This leads to the creation of a separate identity, Miranda, who as an adult woman is raped again by a stranger, in a church at Easter. This second event leads



Figure I.6 Grant Morrison and Richard Case, “Crawling from the Wreckage,” Doom Patrol

2, no. 19 (1989): 18.

to the death of Miranda and the final psychotic break, which produces Crazy Jane and the other selves.53 With the detonation of a “gene bomb” in a storyline preceding Morrison and Case’s run, each of the sixty-four personae develops a different superpower, with such sobriquets as Driver 8, Black Annis, the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Brain Rain, Baby Doll, Mama Pentecost, Flit, Spinning Jenny, the Secretary, Sex Bomb, Pretty Polly, Hammerhead, the Point Man, Jill-in-Irons, the Engineer, Sylvia, Daddy, the mysterious Lady Purple, and the eternal torture victim Butterfly Baby. Steele meets the predominant personality, Jane Morris / Crazy Jane, while both are receiving treatment at a mental asylum.54

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Throughout their run, Morrison and Case utilize several visual-verbal strategies55 to depict such an unusual disabled character(s), among them different text box fonts for various personae56 and a jigsaw puzzle motif (as in Doom Patrol #30, March 1990), referencing the puzzle young Kay was working on immediately before her rape. (Jane also sometimes wears stockings with a jigsaw pattern.) The figure, in fact, is composed of several transmedial puzzle pieces: her name comes from a “mad” folk character in British ballads and poetry, most famously that of William Butler Yeats, while Jane’s physical appearance (black curls, black eyes, pallid skin, lanky build) recalls an 1855 watercolor, Sketch for an Idea of Crazy Jane, by the schizophrenic English painter Richard Dadd, who killed and tried to decapitate his father and spent much of his life in a mental institution, where he painted his sketch. Morrison makes these linkages explicit in “Going Underground” (Doom Patrol #30: 13), the story that delves most incisively into Crazy Jane’s psyche(s). Such exploding of the dual identity trope makes Crazy Jane among the most outlandish (and genre defying) of superhero creations. She also exemplifies like no other figure the contingent element that Morrison and Case consistently inject into Doom Patrol: Jane’s personalities, and hence powers, seem to appear almost randomly in battle; first she’s teleporting as Flit, next ripping bodies apart as Black Annis, then casting fireballs as Sun Daddy, a giantess with a flaming orb for a head. The tying of superpowers to unpredictability and chance further subverts the “rational” genre status quo; while superheroes do manifest different abilities over time (DC gave Superman himself two new powers in 2015 and 2016),57 Crazy Jane does so as a matter of course, and with little to no premeditation. As with the Quiz, her abilities are contextual and fluid, with no reliability as to which of her will greet you from one day, one hour, to the next58—and what powers they will bring with them. Superhero as Dada. It bears emphasis that Morrison and Case predicate this remarkable rewriting of generic boundaries on Jane’s neurodivergence; her disability makes such a subversion not only possible but endlessly inventive. In the case of another disabled Doom Patrol member—unlike Jane, one present since the origin of the team and in fact its founder—the upending of genre convention through disability takes on a decidedly darker cast. Niles Caulder / the Chief ’s stunning transformation late in Morrison and Case’s run cleverly returns us to the disabled figure’s originary villainous function in the genre—with a twist. A gruff, self-centered but fair father figure, the bearded, wheelchair-using Caulder brought together the original team: Larry Trainor / Negative Man, Rita Farr / Elasti-Girl,


and Steele/Robotman, all victims of accidents and mutations that had turned them into “freaks.” Under his leadership, the first Doom Patrol made strengths of their disabilities as the ultimate outsiders fighting for a “normal” society they could never rejoin. But in “The Nature of the Catastrophe” (Doom Patrol #57, July 1992), Caulder reveals himself to Steele not only as the redeemer of the original team’s disabilities but also as their cause; he secretly engineered the accidents (Steele’s racing disaster, Trainor’s aviation crash, Farr’s exposure to mutagenic gases) that led to the birth of the Doom Patrol, as part of a years-long experiment in “catastrophe theory” to create new forms of life. Having just murdered recent addition to the team Joshua Clay / Tempest, the Chief now intends to unleash his advanced nanotechnology on a global scale, so as to manufacture a new catastrophe, which he hypothesizes will result in an improved world. In other words, he is a sociopathic megalomaniac playing god, intent on mass homicide. Caulder’s near-issue-length exposition ranks as the genre’s most remarkable instance of the “villain’s rant” convention, in which the malefactor reveals his or her elaborate plans for world conquest before a captive audience. The sequence radically reenvisions and redefines the entire history of the Doom Patrol, with Caulder recast as a sadistic puppet master and “bad father” (as pointed out by Singer, the new series made abusive father figures a central theme). In retrospect, however, this astonishing turn nonetheless feels true to form; Morrison manages to make the hubristic Chief ’s betrayal both appalling and completely within character.59 Shock follows upon shock in “The Nature of the Catastrophe,” starting with the revelation that Caulder is actually able-bodied; he healed his paralysis with nanotech and has been passing as disabled for some time to conceal his schemes. In a double-page splash, he calmly stands with arms crossed before a befuddled Steele in a conventional superhero “ready for action” pose. “What’s going on?” Steele asks. “Why, Cliff,” Caulder teases. “I don’t know what you mean.”60 To cement the point he turns to his futuristic electric chair, saying, “This old chair has served me well over the years. I would, however, be lying if I said I’d miss it.” Then he roughly kicks it away.61 Clearly, Caulder never identified as disabled but saw his condition purely as a defect to be corrected.62 In a nifty reversal, the Chief later paralyzes Steele (since he designed and built the Robotman body, he can exert complete control over it at any time through a failsafe mechanism) so as to continue his demented apologia unhindered (179). Nothing quite like this had ever happened in the genre before, certainly not in a continuity-driven series. To better appreciate Morrison and Case’s


Uncanny Bodies


Figure I.7 Grant Morrison and Richard Case, “The Nature of the Catastrophe,” Doom

Patrol 2, no. 57 (1992): 4.


root-and-branch reinscription of superheroic norms in this story, we turn to the concept of “crip time.” Developed by Irving Zola, Carol Gill, Margaret Price, and others, and elaborated by Alison Kafer, crip time makes “a wry reference to the disability-related events which always seem to start late or to the disabled people who never seem to arrive anywhere on time,” due to such exigencies as inaccessible public transport, breakdowns in caregiving schedules or the flexible time periods needed to complete tasks.63 With reference to the life writing of the late disabled lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson, Kafer cites many disabled people’s obligatory scheduling for anticipated needs, including toileting, as characteristic of crip time; such scheduling “requires a different orientation to one’s body, a foregrounding of physical needs—eating and sleeping and shitting—and the ways in which they shape our days. It is a literal projecting of one’s body as a body into the future even as one inhabits one’s body in the present.”64 In sum, disability often engenders “a reorientation to time . . . Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.”65 Or as Ellen Samuels puts it, perhaps more apropos of Caulder: “Crip time is vampire time. It’s the time of late nights and unconscious days, of life schedules lived out of sync with the waking, quotidian world.”66 Crip time exists in sharp contrast to what we might call “supe time,” too. The superhero body connotes action, beating the clock, last-second saves, “faster than a speeding bullet.” With the exception perhaps of the nightslong stakeouts undertaken by Batman (a character often described as mentally unstable), supe time normally does not entail long waits, supernal patience, extended contemplation of one’s next move, long-term preparation, incremental progress. These fall more readily into the purview of villains, whose world domination master strategies often unfold over a stretch of time, and after careful planning. And so, from the perspective of what Jack Halberstam calls the “normative narratives of time” (the white, ableist, compulsory heteronormative structures and rhythms that predominate under late Capitalism),67 crip time and villainy have much in common: they both counterpose the “here and now” of the superhero with a “there and then” of the other. Strikingly, throughout his rant, Caulder references time, through such phrases as “You see, Cliff, ever since I was young I have been driven by one blazing ambition. To create life”; “My whole life has been a journey to this moment, Cliff ”; “I spent some time looking for a perfect subject for these new experiments”; “I’ve kept all this to myself for so long.”68 Two


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exchanges in particular highlight the clash between the Chief ’s unhurried “crip” orientation to time and Steele’s frantic immediacy. The first:


Steele: But you’re walking . . . Caulder: Yes. I’ve been able to walk for quite some time now, but it seemed easier to maintain the deception of invalidity. It saved me from having to explain myself prematurely.69 Later, Caulder remonstrates with Steele: Please try to calm yourself, Cliff. You always want everything now. What you have to learn is that, if you wait long enough, “now” will come to you.70 Given the character’s decades of history, Caulder’s portrayal in “The Nature of the Catastrophe” never quite descends into a full-on “malevolent cripple” stereotype of the sort we have already seen in Armless Tiger Man. As noted, the Chief ’s turn is so shocking partly because it seems so plausible. That said, Morrison and Case reveal Caulder as acting in some measure out of bitterness over his paraplegia—reductively so. “Perhaps because of my own misfortune,” he tells Steele, “I wanted to show the world that ‘freaks’ and ‘cripples’ had as much to offer as the so-called ‘able-bodied,’ if not more.”71 In reference to Elasti-Girl / Farr, he offers, “Well, perhaps now I can admit to something like envy. I wanted to see this fabulous, gilded creature brought low. Impotent in my wheelchair, I wanted to exert control over a beautiful woman.”72 In sum, the portrait cleaves closer than needed to the sort of disability-equals-evil misrepresentation the genre had had plenty of by 1992.73 Caulder’s decades-long build-up to his betrayal’s revelation presents a fascinating instance of crip time, demonstrating its close association with villainy in the genre, its intolerable breach of the superheroic order of things. Heroes act and react in the now; their nemeses take their time with superhuman patience and malevolence, unfolding their plots over much longer periods. In this and other regards, Morrison and Case’s three-year run on Doom Patrol, rife with figures such as Crazy Jane and stories like “The Nature of the Catastrophe,” reads more like a disabilitypremised manual for the deconstruction of genre shibboleths. As Singer notes, “The damaged bodies and shattered psyches of the Doom Patrol


subvert the power fantasy that underwrites most superhero comics.”74 It is worth noting, too, that Morrison and Case’s rewriting of the Doom Patrol (and of the superhero genre itself ) followed soon after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This is not to say the series was wholly progressive (it was not), but it coincided historically with a growing awareness and acceptance of disability in the United States. Indeed, the Morrison and Case run ends with a refusal of the normal, as Kay / Crazy Jane abandons the real world (she has been “cured” through violent treatment in a mental institution) and returns with Cliff to the “better world” of Danny the Street. In its final panels, the series forcefully contrasts a vibrant space of difference with the numbing sameness of the ordinary, even if that contrast draws a hard and exclusive line between those states of being.

Ms. Marvel In the new millennium, changing demographics and closer ties to the rest of a post-9/11 world made diversity a key value in U.S. culture and art, with superhero comics reflecting the new mainstream. At Marvel, editor Sana Amanat, a Pakistani American, spearheaded many of the recent changes at the company aimed at expanding diversity. With editor Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson (who is Muslim) and artist Adrian Alphona, Amanat co-created Ms. Marvel, the most important and vibrant superhero of the twenty-first century. It proved a tremendous hit for the company, especially on digital platforms and among young female readers.75 In 2015 it won a Hugo award and the 2015 Eisner Award for Best New Series, and it continues to enjoy fan-favorite status and an outsize cultural impact.76 The first story arc, No Normal (issues 1–5), introduces New Jersey teen Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American born into a devout immigrant family.77 As the result of a bomb that releases mutagenic “Terrigen Mists” throughout the world, to which her genes react, Khan joins the ranks of superhumans. Her new shapeshifting powers allow her to appear as other people, fantastically extend her limbs, and grow separate body parts (like her hands) and her entire body to gargantuan size. The series, dealing with teenage girlhood, nerd culture, the immigrant experience, and living as a Muslim in the United States, made intersectionality a central concern. And yet while recent disability studies scholarship and crip theory have turned to consider disability identity’s intersections with other “disabling” categories, such as sexual orientation, religion, and race,78 no superhero


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scholars that we know of have examined Kamala Khan in this light.79 Yet as we maintain with the present work, a disability studies lens brings an important critical light on the ideological underpinnings and intersectional identities of superheroes—including the first female Muslim American hero to lead her own series. In Ms. Marvel’s initial narrative arc, Khan is still mastering her powers, which erupt at odd moments—prompting embarrassment, quick-witted explanations, and sudden rushings-off. For example, in the third issue, while at her high school, Khan notices her hand suddenly altering in size. She hastens from class to the seclusion of the gym locker room, thinking, “Hide. I’ve got to hide.” Once there, and despite her best efforts to “get control of this thing,” her physique erupts to giant size and acts up in other ways, largely destroying the space. Scholars have read scenes like this as allegories of the struggle for assimilation by racial and religious others, yet what also stands out is the portrait of an unruly body. Note, too, how this locker room episode recalls Kafer’s discussion of the disabled Eliza Chandler’s description of falling in public while trying to walk “normally”: “It is the falling that identifies her to others as disabled, plunging her into categories and identifications that trip her up. Falling makes passing impossible, even as she moves from one to the other moment by moment, even as she inhabits one category in her mind at the same time as she inhabits another in the eyes of others” (36). Similarly, Khan tried to “fit in,” to the extent of impersonating her idol, the white, blonde, blue-eyed, revealingly attired Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel. At these moments, however, she discovers she is at her weakest, enduring psychological and physical harm in order to conform. But she slowly comes to realize she achieves her greatest power when embracing her own uniqueness, healing from mortal wounds only as herself, not as her Danvers avatar. Only once Khan accepts herself as the brown-skinned, brunette, disabled Pakistani American she is does she fight crime effectively. Khan’s breakthrough— self-acceptance—shapes No Normal’s emotional climax. As she concludes in issue 5, “I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero. . . . I’m here to be the best version of Kamala.” Khan’s shape-shifting abilities—and her struggle to come to terms with them—figure the fluidity of identity, along with the will to assimilation experienced by many “outsiders.” It also highlights the procrustean dangers of such a desire to conform. That many lionize the new Ms. Marvel as an icon of diversity, feminism, and girl power, but not of the disabled (though her body mutations would seem right at home among the Doom Patrol, as her powers to some extent mimic those of Elasti-Girl / Farr),


reminds us of the resistance many still feel toward disability as an identity category. Yet an intersectional disability studies emphasizes how Khan’s self-acceptance—however spectacularly “freakish” she may appear—also extends to a demand for acceptance from others, that the world itself come to see hers, too, as a superheroic body.

Uncanny Bodies We intend the title Uncanny Bodies to evoke a range of traditions simultaneously. Most generally in theoretical terms, the idea of the uncanny indicates the coexistence of the ordinary and extraordinary, a condition in which the familiar and unfamiliar occupy the same position.80 In his foundational essay “Das Unheimliche” (1919), Freud explained that the uncanny “belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.”81 Disability studies has often figured the term “uncanny” in a negative sense. Lennard Davis, for example, has argued that “the feelings of repulsion associated with the uncanny, das Unheimlich, the unfamiliar, are not unlike the emotions of the ‘normal’ when they are visualizing the disabled.”82 In this sense, the disabled body is at the same time familiar and unfamiliar, and it is this uncanny double state—following Freud’s psychoanalytic concept, with its lexical play on simultaneous absence and presence—that disturbs the spectator. Likewise, in his analysis of disability stereotypes in classic film and television, Martin Norden uses Freud’s theory to examine how disability and disfigurement have provided crude physical markers of evil that play upon and magnify “the able-bodied fear of disability.”83 In this sense, for the normate84 beholder, the disabled body has often manifested as a troubling presence, what Robert Murphy has described elsewhere as a “fearsome possibility” that unsettles those conditions that have been socially constructed and maintained as the physical and cognitive status quo.85 This collection of essays suggests that superhero comics have the potential to reconceptualize or challenge this view of the uncanny within the context of disability studies. Indeed, our title hearkens to the precedent of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s landmark Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997). Thomson has recently described her choice of the adjective extraordinary (rather than disabled) as carefully considered: the word, she says,


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“suggests superabundance rather than lack and implies the blandness of the ordinary.”86 Thomson’s language evokes the vocabulary and concepts of superhero comics (i.e., superabundance), while her (de)valuation of the ordinary recalls the creative politics of the Morrison and Case Doom Patrol series. Moreover, Thomson’s early sense that the ordinary “was aesthetically boring and that disability was a baroque representational form that might compel more than repel” neatly flips the script on the Freudian uncanny.87 The term uncanny has been most prominent in superhero comics as a descriptor for the X-Men, the team(s) of mutant heroes within the Marvel universe. The Uncanny X-Men series boasts a long-standing reputation for diversity in its changing roster of heroes, in terms of race, gender, religion, sexuality, and corporal difference.88 Within the context of this particular superhero property at least, uncanny signifies in complex ways, ranging from expressions of persecution and mistrust to affirmations of virtue and community, from Wolverine’s berserker rages to Bobby Drake / Iceman’s coming out as a gay man.89 We may thus resituate Murphy’s “fearsome possibility” within the superhero genre as a species of empowerment or even as a provocative alternative to “the ideology of ability” that informs the many assumptions of ableism.90 The superheroic uncanny can also offer a productive counterpoint to constructs of normalcy, working as a mode of amplification that employs the fantastic to (re)consider the social constructions of the normal. In superhero comics, the notion of the uncanny, with its interest in what is simultaneously known and unknown, also opens new ways to think about categories and markers of identity. If the Freudian uncanny “has to do with a sense of ourselves as double, split, at odds with ourselves,” as Nicholas Royle has argued, then how might common tropes of disguise and secret identities within the superhero genre provide terms and concepts for examining identity formation and intersectionality in broader social terms?91 Freud’s claim that the uncanny appears most fully “when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced”92 seems especially appropriate for the creative fusion of the fantastic and real that is the modus operandi of superhero comics. As the following essays demonstrate, superhero comics present continuums of ability that suggest an appreciation rather than condemnation of different ways of perceiving and being in the world. The essay contributors write from a range of perspectives and experience with disability, as well as from different academic and creative fields. Accordingly, Uncanny Bodies aspires to answer the call for “a more


inclusive perspective of medicine, illness, disability, caregiving, and being cared for,” as issued in the Graphic Medicine Manifesto (2015).93 Graphic Medicine imagines and advocates for diverse communities of readers, writers, and creators, “different groups of folks with different interests and backgrounds talking about comics in new ways.”94 The essays gathered here represent such a range of voices, with specific attention to intersections of disability, identity, gender, race, and sexuality in superhero comics. We present the essays in a sequence of clusters. The first three essays variously consider the ways in which different creative teams engage past characters, stories, and tropes within particular superhero properties. José Alaniz reads the 2008 miniseries Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple, and its revision of the original series from the 1970s, with specific attention to how the later series represents issues of autism and cognitive difference implicit in the original series. Charlie Christie next examines how three different creative teams during the 2010s have portrayed Dissociative Identity Disorder in the Marvel character Moon Knight. Christie considers how each series employs different genre conventions in order to rationalize the mental experiences and identity of the titular character. Like Alaniz, Christie raises important questions about the representation of cognitive and mental difference in superhero comics, and the ways in which those representations matter for how we think about cognitive and mental difference more broadly. Finally, Sarah Bowden presents a study of the character Echo / Maya Lopez, who debuted in Marvel’s Daredevil series in 1999. When David Mack and Joe Quesada introduced the character, she initially followed the precedent of two other female characters (Elektra and Typhoid Mary) who had played the dual role of love interest and deadly adversary for the series protagonist. Over two storylines, however, the story of Maya Lopez develops in a much different direction, as her intersectional identity as a Deaf Latina / Native American woman leads to an independence from series and genre conventions. Notably, these three essays all demonstrate how different artistic and visual styles are crucial to our appreciation and interpretation of superhero comics. The second cluster of essays focuses on characters or series that have attracted significant attention for their representation of disability. Two essays consider the DC character Barbara Gordon / Oracle / Batgirl, focusing not on the controversy over the recent erasure of her disability but on other aspects in two series that feature the character, prior to and after the change in her status as a disabled person. First, Marit Hanson examines a storyline from the Birds of Prey series, in which Oracle contracts a


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cybernetic virus that transforms her briefly into a hero that is at the same time disabled and cyborg, a development that raises questions about the alteration of disabled conditions through technology. Second, Lauren O’Connor considers the character Frankie Charles, introduced in the revamped “Burnside” Batgirl series in 2014, as a progressive case of intersectional identity (black, queer, and disabled) that represents disability and diversity in nuanced and affirmative ways within a changing superhero genre. Together these two essays demonstrate how the serial narratives of superhero comics can develop over time, incrementally opening and closing new possibilities for disabled characters and their storylines and supporting casts. Next, we present three essays on representations of disability in the critically acclaimed Hawkeye series (Marvel, 2012–15) by Matt Fraction and David Aja. Daniel Pinti reads the series within the context of post9/11 narratives of American masculinity, with specific attention to the depiction of the protagonist’s hearing disability and his superheroic ambivalence. Naja Later next writes from a film studies perspective in order to consider issue 19 of the series, which features significant amounts of untranslated American Sign Language, as a silent text that foregrounds issues of accessibility and design not only in comics but also in other constructed and controlled environments, including cinema and architecture. Finally, Sarah Gibbons draws from several methodologies (rhetorical studies, disability studies, comics studies, fan studies) in order to consider the many innovative ways in which the Hawkeye series builds a sense of community around and through disability, both within the story narrative itself and within a participative and invested fan community. These three essays each employ different theoretical frames, and in doing so collectively demonstrate the value of working from multiple perspectives when approaching a common disability theme. The third and final group of essays considers how superhero comics can provide a discourse and vocabulary for conceptualizing disability more broadly in social terms. First, Deleasa Randall-Griffiths and Daniel J. O’Rourke tap rhetorical and communication theory to examine the disabled superhero Silver Scorpion, created by an international group of youths with disabilities in the Open Hands Initiative, working in partnership with Liquid Comics. In this transnational project—the collaboration of comics professionals and comics fans from a number of Middle Eastern countries—the figure of the superhero provides a vehicle for education, affirmation, and advocacy. Next, Lauranne Poharec draws upon comics studies, disability studies, and posthumanist theory to examine the use


of superhero tropes in El Deafo, Cece Bell’s 2014 graphic memoir for young readers, as a way to interrogate dominant conceptual and visual modes of representing changing twenty-first-century definitions of the human. As Poharec convincingly argues, “Through the use of comics’ anthropomorphic and superhero rhetoric, Cece Bell demonstrates some of the ways in which disability can represent a posthuman ideal.” Finally, Andrew Godfrey-Meers contributes a visual essay that combines theory with autobiographical reflection to explore the use of the superhero trope as a humorous, often subversive critique of mainstream attitudes toward disability and chronic illness. Godfrey-Meers raises important questions about the potential and limits of appropriating different discourses as modes of critique, and for affecting change. Taken together, it is our hope that the essays in this collection incorporate the familiar and unfamiliar (or at least the less familiar), topically and methodologically, to achieve a broad engagement with the place of disability in superhero comics. The superhero genre has been charged at times as being one of stasis, in which change is temporary or illusory, and in which innovation remains subordinate to the marketplace.95 While it is true that superhero comics are often beholden to commercial forces and to entrenched genre conventions, the following essays demonstrate that superhero comics are also open to innovation and capable of speaking to diverse audiences.96 Grant Morrison has enthused that superheroes bring “new ways to see and hear and think about everything,” including, we contend, the place of disability in our culture.97

Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. ———. “Standing Orders: Oracle, Disability, and Retconning.” In Foss, Gray, and Whalen, Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narrative, 59–79. Baldanzi, Jessica, and Hussein Rashid, eds. Ms. Marvel in America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, forthcoming. Banks, Joy. “Invisible Man: Examining the Intersectionality of Disability, Race, and Gender in an Urban Community.” Disability and Society 33 (2018): 894–908. Barker, Clare, and Stuart Murray, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, Understanding How Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: New York University Press, 2016. Binder, Jack. “The Daredevil, Master of Courage.” Silver Streak Comics, no. 6 (Lev Gleason, 1940). Reprinted in Silver Streak Archives, 1:41–48. Dark Horse Comics, 2012.


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Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Callahan, Timothy. Grant Morrison: The Early Years. Edwardsville, Ill.: Sequart Research & Literary Organization, 2007. Chase, Truddi, and Robert A. Phillips. When Rabbit Howls. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. Clell, Madison. Cuckoo: One Woman’s True Stories of Living with Multiple Personality Disorder. Portland: Green Door Studies, 2002. Coogan, Peter M. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: MonkeyBrain, 2006. Cooke, Jon B. “The Road from Apokolips: Jack Kirby’s Search for the Awesome in the Fourth World.” Comic Book Creator 12 (Spring 2016): 17–31. Czerwiec, MK et al. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normality: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995. Duncan, Randy, and Matthew J. Smith. Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2013. Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman” [“Il mito di Superman e la dissoluzione del tempo”]. 1962. Rev. version trans. Natalie Chilton, Diacritics 2, no. 1 (1972): 14–22. Erevelles, Nirmala. “In Search of the Disabled Subject.” In Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture, edited by James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, 92–111. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. Evanier, Mark. “To and from the Source.” Interview by John Morrow. Jack Kirby Collector 6 (1995): 22–32. Fawaz, Ramzi. The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. New York: New York University Press, 2016. Foss, Chris, Jonathan W. Gray, and Zach Whalen, eds. Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1919. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by James Strachey, 17:218–52. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. 1st edition published 1997. Gavaler, Chris. On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015. ———. Superhero Comics. Bloomsbury Comics Studies. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Gerber, Steve, Mary Skrenes, Jim Mooney, et al. “The Hottest Slot in Town!” Omega the Unknown 1, no. 10. New York: Marvel Comics, 1977. Gibbons, Sarah. “‘I Don’t Exactly Have Quiet, Pretty Powers’: Flexibility and Alterity in Ms. Marvel.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 8 (2017): 450–63. Goodley, Dan, and Rebecca Lawthom. “The Disavowal of Uncanny Disabled Children: Why Non-Disabled People Are So Messed Up Around Childhood Disability.” In Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies: Critical Approaches in a Global Context, edited by T. Curran and K. Runswick-Cole, 164–79. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Gustavson, Paul, and Al Bellman. “The Angel and the Case of the Armless Tiger Man.” Marvel Mystery Comics, no. 26. New York: Timely Comics: 1941. Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. New York: Routledge, 2016. Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Hatfield, Charles, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester. The Superhero Reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Introduction Killen, Andreas. “Accidents Happen: The Industrial Accident in Interwar Germany.” In Catastrophes: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept, edited by Andreas Killen and Nitzan Lebovic, 75–92. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2014. Kirby, Jack. “Darkseid and Sons!” New Gods 1, no. 11 (DC Comics, October–November 1972). Reprinted in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, 4:55–77. New York: DC Comics, 2008. ———. “Death Is the Black Racer!” New Gods 1, no. 3 (DC Comics, June–July 1971). Reprinted in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, 1:316–39. New York: DC Comics, 2007. ———. “The Ryan Gang and the Deep Six,” New Gods 1, no. 4 (DC Comics, August 1971). Reprinted in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, 2:36–59. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Knittle, Susanne C. The Historical Uncanny: Disability, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Holocaust Memory. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder. 2000. “Narrative Prosthesis.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 222–35. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Morrison, Grant, and Richard Case. “Crawling from the Wreckage.” Doom Patrol 2, no. 19 (DC Comics, 1989). Reprinted in Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage, 11–32. New York: DC Comics, 2004. ———. Doom Patrol: Planet Love. New York: DC Comics, 2008. ———. “Going Underground.” Doom Patrol 2, no. 30 (DC Comics, 1990). Reprinted in Doom Patrol: The Painting That Ate Paris, 104–28. New York: DC Comics, 2004. ———. “Magic Bus,” Doom Patrol 2, no. 51 (DC Comics, 1992). Reprinted in Doom Patrol: Magic Bus, 8–32. New York: DC Comics, 2007. ———. “The Nature of the Catastrophe,” Doom Patrol 2, no. 57 (DC Comics, 1992). Reprinted in Doom Patrol: Magic Bus, 164–204. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Murphy, Robert. The Body Silent. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. Nama, Adilifu. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Nelson, Camille A. “Racializing Disability, Disabling Race: Policing Race and Mental Status.” Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law 15 (2010): 1–64. Nielsen, Kim. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Norden, Martin F. “The ‘Uncanny’ Relationship of Disability and Evil in Film and Television.” In The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television, edited by Martin F. Norden, 125–43. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. Preston, Jeffrey. The Fantasy of Disability: Images of Loss in Popular Culture. Interdisciplinary Disability Studies. New York: Routledge, 2017. Roman, Zak, and Ryan Lizardi. “‘If She Be Worthy’: The Illusion of Change in American Superhero Comics.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society 2 (2018): 18–37. Rosenberg, Robin S., and Peter Coogan, eds. What Is a Superhero? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2017). http://​dsq​sds​.org​/article​/view​/5824. Sanderson, Peter. “The Secret of X-Appeal.” Comics Journal 74 (1982): 62–67. Schalk, Sami. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10 (2016): 71–86. Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Siegel, Jerry, and Joe Shuster. “Superman vs. the Cab Protective League.” Action Comics, no. 13 (DC Comics, 1939). Reprinted in The Superman Chronicles, edited by Anton Kawasaki, 1:181–93. New York: DC Comics, 2006. Singer, Marc. Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Slavishak, Edward Steven. Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.


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Soule, Charles, and Ron Garney. Daredevil 1, no. 598. New York: Marvel Comics, 2018. Soyinka, Wole. “Disability, Maimed Rites, and the Systematic Uncanny.” In Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, edited by Ato Quayson, 115–46. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Turner, David M., and Daniel Blackie. Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780–1880. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018. Wilson, G. Willow, and Adrian Alphona. Ms. Marvel 3, nos. 1–5. Reprinted in Ms. Marvel: No Normal. New York: Marvel Comics, 2015.

Notes 1. Bérubé, Secret Life of Stories, 1 and 3. Likewise, as Mitchell and Snyder observe, “Once a reader begins to seek out representations of disability in our literatures, it is difficult to avoid their proliferation in texts with which one believed oneself to be utterly familiar” (“Narrative Prosthesis,” 226). 2. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 18. 3. See ibid., 69–86; Schalk, “Reevaluating the Supercrip”; and Alaniz, “Standing Orders.” See also Jill Pantozzi, “Oracle Is Stronger Than Batgirl Will Ever Be,” June 6, 2011, at https://​ www​.newsarama​.com​/7749​op​ed​oracle​is​stronger​than​batgirl​will​ever​be​.html. 4. While many books on comics and graphic novels have appeared in the last decade and a half, discussions of disability in superhero comics remain relatively new. Rosenberg and Coogan’s What Is a Superhero? (2013) contains no discussion of disability, for example, while Gavaler’s Superhero Comics (2018) offers a single passing mention. Fawaz’s New Mutants (2016) discusses the 1965 Justice League of America story “The Case of the Disabled Justice League” but does so without citation of the earlier discussion in Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero (2014). Alaniz’s Death, Disability, and the Superhero (2014) largely focuses on comics from the 1960s into the early 1990s, leaving abundant room for work on more recent (and earlier) texts, creators, and developments. More recently, Foss, Gray, and Whalen, Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives (2016), examines representations of disability in comics and graphic novels more broadly, with four of its twelve essays dedicated to superhero comics (featuring the characters Oracle, Batman, and Cyborg) or to comics that creatively explore the concept of the superhero. 5. Hall, Literature and Disability (2016) and Barker and Murray, Cambridge Companion (2018) are two recent surveys that pass over comics and graphic novels entirely. 6. Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, Superhero Reader, xiii. 7. Charles Xavier and Barbara Gordon / Batgirl are two well-known examples of characters who have shed disability through dubious turns of storytelling. 8. Most comics scholars accept (perhaps grudgingly) the designation Golden Age for the period from the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 to roughly the late 1950s. See Coogan, Superhero, chap. 9, for a discussion and critique of the ages model. 9. Nielsen, Disability History of the United States, 113. 10. Ibid., 115. 11. See Coogan, Superhero, chap. 6. 12. See Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, chap. 2. 13. The company is much better known in its current incarnation, Marvel Comics. 14. Disability historian Douglas Baynton traces the association to late nineteenth-century anxieties over Darwin’s decentering of humanity as the pinnacle of creation, arguing, “If disability was a reminder of the animal nature of humans, of their physical frailty and the

Introduction inevitability of decay and death, it is not surprising that segregation, rejection, and fear of the disabled should have grown at the same time” (Defectives in the Land, 108). 15. On industrial accidents and disability, see Turner and Blackie, Disability in the Industrial Revolution, chap. 1 (Britain); Slavishak, Bodies of Work, chap. 6 (United States); and Killen, “Accidents Happen” (Germany). 16. Killen, “Accidents Happen,” 79. 17. Marvel has struggled to revive problematic older characters such as Armless Tiger Man, whose considerable baggage is difficult to disavow. Nonetheless, the villain appeared in the 2010 Captain America / Black Panther miniseries Flags of Our Fathers, set during World War II. Armless Tiger Man continues to inspire ableist humor from fans like Mike Miksch, who in a 2016 blog post on the character opined: “No one can stop him? Have you tried just putting him in a room and shutting the door?” See “The Case of the Armless Tiger Man!” Superdickery, July 13, 2016, at http://​www​.superdickery​.com​/the​case​of​the​ armless​tiger​man. 18. This eugenicist understanding of the body continued into the Silver Age and beyond. For example, Yuri Topolov / the Gargoyle from Hulk #1 (May 1962), a grotesquely deformed Russian super-scientist, betrays his Soviet masters once restored to “normality” (read: good) by Bruce Banner. A similar dynamic played out in Fantastic Four member Ben Grimm / the Thing, whose monstrous outward appearance presumes evil intent—often leading to destabilizing the team. See Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, chap. 4. 19. Today known as DC Comics. 20. Binder, “Daredevil, Master of Courage,” 41. 21. Mitchell and Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis,” 232. 22. That the publisher felt the need for an explanatory editorial note denotes the novelty of the thought balloon in this era. 23. In the second panel, the balloon maintains the dotted border but provides a connecting speech tail. Later, the balloon appears in a cloud shape with a solid border and with a connecting speech tail, presenting a shape that resembles a hybrid thought/word balloon (47). Accordingly, Daredevil communicates to the reader through a visual device that approximates both thought and speech, while he communicates with other characters through handwritten notes (never through ASL). 24. “The Claw and the Daredevil,” Silver Streak Comics #7 (Lev Gleason, January 1941). Cole went on to greater renown as the creator of Plastic Man. 25. Such fast-and-loose changes were not uncommon. Jack Cole also revamped the Silver Streak character for his second appearance in Silver Streak Comics #4, discarding certain plot and character elements and introducing new powers and a new costume design for the hero. 26. In combat, this new Daredevil natters away as much as any superhero of the era; he delivers kicks to Claw’s face with the rejoinder, “How’s that for a snappy comeback?” 27. Eco, “Myth of Superman,” 17. 28. And not only in this one. The appearance/disappearance of Hill’s mutism anticipates the fluctuating nature of Hawkeye / Clint Barton’s deafness in the Bronze Age and beyond (explored at greater length in this book by Pinti, Later, and Gibbons). 29. Daredevil Comics began publication in July 1941 and ran into 1956, although Daredevil no longer appeared in the book after issue 70, having been replaced by the Little Wise Guys, who had begun as kid sidekicks to the hero in 1942. See Jones, Men of Tomorrow, 187–93. In 2008, Dynamite Comics began publishing Project Superpowers, which featured several Golden Age superheroes, including the Death-Defying Devil, a stand-in for the 1940s Daredevil. The series notably restores the character’s mutism. 30. Mitchell and Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis,” 229. 31. Excepting the hyperpowered leader of the Inhumans, Black Bolt (1964), the next prominent mute character in the genre is Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s Jericho (debuted in Tales of the Teen Titans #43, June 1984). While itself a problematic representation in


Uncanny Bodies


many respects, the hero’s consistent depiction as mute and his use of sign language showed how far the genre had come in forty years. 32. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero. 33. The interlocked series, published between 1970 and 1972, included New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle, with material from Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal. All the books were written and drawn by Jack Kirby. For the Fourth World comics, see Hatfield, Hand of Fire, 172–227; Cooke, “Road from Apokolips”; and Morrison, Supergods, 121–27. 34. Hatfield, Hand of Fire, 176 and 188. 35. Evanier, “To and from the Source,” 23. 36. Kirby, “Death Is the Black Racer!,” 1. For the representation of black characters in superhero comics of the 1970s generally, see Nama, Super Black, 9–35. Nama does not include the Black Racer in his discussion. 37. New Gods #4 describes Willie’s home as “a tenement of fading brick” located in “the ghetto district” (9). 38. Kirby characters often feature such sound- or wordplay. Other examples include Scott Free (civilian identity of escape artist, Mister Miracle), Darkseid (totalitarian villain of the Fourth World comics), and Buddy Blank (everyman host of the superhuman OMAC in OMAC: One Man Army Corps). 39. In “Darkseid and Sons!” (New Gods #11), Willie’s brother-in-law Ray suspects that “nothing here has any meaning for him now!” (12), conjecturing a desolate interior life for Willie through the evidence of his external body. 40. New Gods #11 describes Willie’s neighborhood as “a shabbier district of the city” (11). His sister also acts as a substitute nurse, implying that the couple cannot afford other care for Willie. 41. Erevelles, “In Search of the Disabled Subject,” 97. 42. Mitchell and Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis,” 224. 43. In the final issue of the New Gods series (#11), the Black Racer takes the life of Kalibak, monstrous son of Darkseid. 44. Mitchell and Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis,” 228. 45. In many ways the original Doom Patrol went beyond its Marvel coeval The X-Men in disability representation. See Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, chap. 5. 46. Morrison and Case, Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage, 106. 47. Singer, Grant Morrison, 88. 48. Ibid., 73–74. For the Morrison and Case Doom Patrol, see also Callahan, Grant Morrison, 141–238. 49. Singer, Grant Morrison, 81. See Morrison and Case, “Magic Bus.” 50. Danny the Street was inspired in part by drag artist Danny La Rue, whose name, Morrison says, “conjured the image of a transvestite street with tough macho stores all done up with fairy lights.” See Callahan, Grant Morrison, 177 and 260. 51. See, for example, Morrison and Case, Planet Love, 27 and 29. 52. On the genre’s dual identity trope, see Coogan, Superhero, chap. 3. 53. Morrison and Case, Doom Patrol: Magic Bus, 148 and passim. 54. Morrison and Case, Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage, 28–29. 55. Compare these to Madison Clell’s 2002 graphic memoir Cuckoo, which deals with their Dissociative Identity Disorder. 56. For example, Morrison and Case, Doom Patrol: Magic Bus, 150–51. 57. Jesse Schedeen, “Superman Gains Another New Power in Action Comics #49,” http://​www​ .ign​.com​/articles​/2016​/02​/04​/superman​gains​another​new​power​in​action​comics​49. 58. Once more, poor Steele plays the straight man in this dynamic, often taken aback by personalities he has not met presenting themselves. This only adds to his confusion as he comes to develop romantic feelings for Jane. 59. Morrison has said that his writing of Caulder as “evil mastermind” was inspired in part by a story from the original Doom Patrol series (vol. 1, #88 [1964]), in which the Chief destroys his longtime robot assistant after it saves his life by performing emergency surgery.

Introduction Caulder does so to protect the secrets of his scientific research from his nemesis, Immortus. See Callahan, Grant Morrison, 260. 60. Morrison and Case, “Nature of the Catastrophe,” 166–67. 61. Ibid., 168. 62. Caulder operates according to what Alison Kafer calls a “curative imaginary,” a perspective on disability that “not only expects and assumes intervention but . . . also cannot imagine or comprehend anything other than intervention” (Feminist, Queer, Crip, 27, emphasis in original). 63. Ibid., 26. 64. Ibid., 39. 65. Ibid., 27. On the same page she writes, “Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies. We can then understand the flexibility of crip time as being not only an accommodation to those who need ‘more’ time but also, and perhaps especially, a challenge to normative and normalizing expectations of pace and scheduling.” 66. Samuels, “Six Ways of Looking.” Emphasis in original. See also Jared Gardner’s remarkable blog on his journey through U.S. healthcare, Patient Time, at http://w ​ ww.​ patientt​ ime​ .com. 67. See Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 35. 68. Morrison and Case, “Nature of the Catastrophe,” 182, 183, 189, and 198. 69. Ibid., 168. 70. Ibid., 171. 71. Ibid., 195. 72. Ibid., 193. 73. An alternative reading of Caulder’s betrayal would emphasize his passing as disabled, thus exploiting the low expectations with which the able-bodied regard the disabled, in order to hatch his scheme (for more on passing in the superhero genre, see Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, chap. 3). However, even as a disabled man Caulder historically was loathe to exhibit “weakness” and in fact figured as the most active, violent, and “macho” of any wheelchair user in comics (see Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, chap. 5). Thus his teammates do not suspect him of evil not because he is disabled (they are disabled, too), but because he is their long-standing leader and paterfamilias— which makes his betrayal among the most astonishing in the genre’s history, and “The Nature of the Catastrophe” among its most radical tales. 74. Singer, Grant Morrison, 74. 75. No Normal, the first trade paperback collection for the series, was the top-selling graphic novel of 2014. See https://w ​ ww.​ diamondcomics.​ com/​ Home​/1​/1​/3​/237​?articleID​=156090. 76. “Comics Heroine Ms. Marvel Saves San Francisco from Anti-Muslim Ads.” NBCNews .com, January 27, 2016, https://​www​.nbcnews​.com​/news​/asian​america​/comic​heroine​ms​ marvel​saves​san​francisco​anti​islam​ads​n294751. 77. Wilson and Alphona, Ms. Marvel. 78. See Banks, “Invisible Man”; and Nelson, “Racializing Disability, Disabling Race.” 79. Sarah Gibbons (“‘I Don’t Exactly Have Quiet, Pretty Powers’”) attends closely to the representation of the characters’ body, though primarily through a metaphorical mode that highlights its economic nonconformity under neoliberalism. See also Baldanzi and Rashid, Ms. Marvel in America, for a variety of approaches to the character. 80. Nicholas Royle describes the uncanny as “a peculiar commingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It can take the form of something familiar unexpectedly arising in a strange or unfamiliar context, or of something strange and unfamiliar unexpectedly arising in a familiar context” (Uncanny, 1). 81. Freud, “Uncanny,” 224–25.


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82. Davis, Enforcing Normality, 141. See also Knittle, Historical Uncanny; Preston, Fantasy of Disability; Goodley and Lawthom, “Disavowal of Uncanny Disabled Children”; and Soyinka, “Disability, Maimed Rites, and the Systematic Uncanny.” 83. Norden, “‘Uncanny’ Relationship of Disability and Evil,” 129. 84. The term is Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s, who partly defines it as “the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them” (Extraordinary Bodies, 8). 85. Murphy, Body Silent, 117. 86. Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, xi. 87. Ibid. 88. Fawaz argues that the early X-Men series “revalued physical disability and visible difference from ordinary humanity as the ground upon which new forms of social and political community could be articulated” (New Mutants, 144). The series began as The X-Men in 1963, with a title change to The Uncanny X-Men in 1978. The book changed dramatically with 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men, which replaced the original team (all of whom were white, with a single female member) with a more racially and internationally diverse cast (but still with a single female member). See Sanderson, “The Secret of X-Appeal” (1982). Scott Bukatman has observed that the X-Men series “present ethnically, sexually, generationally, and genetically diverse companies of humans, mutants, and aliens taking their places within flexible structures of cooperation and tolerance” (Matters of Gravity, 73). As this collection of essays demonstrates, this phenomenon within superhero comics is not limited to X-Men titles. 89. On the “X-books’” commitment to an inclusive, pluralistic vision, see Fawaz, New Mutants. 90. The phrase “ideology of ability” appears in Siebers, Disability Theory, 14. 91. Royle, Uncanny, 6. 92. Freud, “Uncanny,” 244. 93. Czerwiec et al., Graphic Medicine Manifesto, 2. 94. Ibid., 7. 95. See Eco, “Myth of Superman”; and Roman and Lizardi, “Illusion of Change.” 96. In the letters page of a 2018 issue of Daredevil, for example, two readers with disabilities describe their appreciation of reading about a blind superhero. “It’s encouraging to see a comics character who’s also not letting what society sees as a drawback stop him,” one writes (Soule and Garney). 97. Morrison, Supergods, xiv.

1 “Mechanical Boys” Omega the Unknown on the Spectrum

José Alaniz

The unremittingly bizarre 2008 Marvel miniseries Omega the Unknown, by novelist Jonathan Lethem and independent comics artist Farel Dalrymple, sought to remake and reboot a series of the same name canceled mid-stride in 1976–77.1 Like its successor, the original Omega written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, with art by Jim Mooney and others, dealt with the relationship between a mute2 alien superhero and a socially awkward Earth boy raised by androids, who (seemingly) repel an extraterrestrial robot invasion while exploring their mysterious linked origins. Both series functioned as arch deconstructions of superhero genre conventions and—through repeated references to the possibility of the alien and boy having autism or some sort of mental illness—as critiques of neurotypicality itself. This chapter examines Omega the Unknown (with emphasis on the later series) in light of recent scholarship on the representation of autism and an evolving U.S. societal outlook regarding neurodiversity over the last thirty years. What limits do comics and superhero stories face in depicting cognitive difference? What role does a culture increasingly cognizant of autism as a condition and mode of living in the world play in the politics of producing such fictions over time? In a post–Americans with Disabilities

Uncanny Bodies

Act (1990) country, where “living on the spectrum” has become common parlance, can Omega ever be the Known?


Mechanical Boys In 1959, Scientific American published the article “Joey: A Mechanical Boy” by popular Austrian émigré psychologist and author Bruno Bettelheim. The piece, later elaborated upon at length in his book The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967), detailed the case of a nine-year-old boy, known only as Joey, whom he described as a human machine. Throughout the schizophrenic3 child’s years-long treatment at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, Bettelheim observed, Joey relied on an elaborate array of tubes, wires, and imaginary threads to “power” his body, enable his digestion, and prime his excremental functions. “Even while he performed actions that are intrinsically human,” wrote Bettelheim, “they never appeared to be other than machine-started and executed. . . . To do justice to Joey I would have to compare him simultaneously to a most inept and a highly complex piece of machinery.”4 Ever attuned to the “perfect” order and predictability of mechanical devices, the boy seemed to live by his credo: “Machines are better than the body. They don’t break; they’re much harder and stronger.”5 Bettelheim’s article included several of Joey’s drawings along with their psychoanalytic readings; a self-portrait shows a boy made of electrical wires, while in another sketch we see a house with an “elaborate sewage system” that Bettelheim linked to his subject’s excretory anxieties.6 Just as disconcerting as the boy’s beliefs, Bettelheim argued, was this behavior’s etiology: “Joey had created these machines to run his body and mind because it was too painful to be human.”7 The psychologist, a Holocaust survivor, had formulated a theory on childhood autism that involved the erection of mental defenses in response to a perceived existential threat;8 in the case of Joey, as a means of protesting his mother’s intolerable denial of love, his “pathological behavior seemed the external expression of an overwhelming effort to remain almost nonexistent as a person.”9 Bettelheim described Joey’s mother as “fey” and “preoccupied with herself ” rather than with her child. “I did not want to see or nurse him,” he quotes her as saying. “I had no feeling or actual dislike—I simply didn’t want to take care of him.”10 In short, Joey, starved for human contact due to parental neglect, had “attached himself to machines because they offered the more significant experience. Though dangerous, they were

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at least tangible. More important for his efforts to gain autonomy, they were predictable: they started up with a roar, and when they stopped, all the roaring stopped too. At least they were tangible compared with the ‘fey’ quality of his mother and her aloofness from Joey.”11 Writings such as Bettelheim’s most famous case study and those of the key researcher Leo Kanner (who coined the phrase “refrigerator mother”) cemented the link between autism, mechanization, and bad parenting. Kanner eventually disavowed his term, while Bettelheim’s work has been almost entirely discredited for, among other things, the revelation that he had fabricated his credentials.12 But today, even among social workers and some experts, the belief persists that “autism results from a failure in maternal bonding.”13 Perhaps even more troublingly, the notion of the condition as somehow beyond the bounds of the human still often frames discussions of autism and autistic people well into the twenty-first century. “It is, we might say, the condition of fascination of the moment,” writes Stuart Murray, “occupying a number of cultural locations that reflect a spectrum of wonder and nervousness—the allure of potentially unquantifiable human difference and the nightmare of not somehow being ‘fully’ human.”14 Such discourses need not go so far as labeling autistics amoral and malevolent—though they often do that as well15—to advance harmful stereotypes centered on what Murray calls the “difficult difference of autism” that destroys relationships, especially families.16 As Bergenmar et al. argue, such framing relies on “normative conceptualizations of the cognitive and emotional functions of the ‘human,’ and of being a ‘real’ and ‘normal’ person.”17 Furthermore, a cognitive difference that can involve repetitive behaviors; identification with animals and nonhumans; self-harm; the failure to understand and/ or relate to the emotional and mental states of others (what Bergenmar et al. call the “affective deficit” model of autism);18 and occasional savantism has led to popular narratives focusing on the ontological status of the autistic, in other words, whether or not to count them as people.19 In response, recent life writing by autistics (“autibiographies” and related works) tend to interrogate and even refute the imperative to fit in with the neurotypical and prove one’s bona fides as homo sapiens (to the extent of claiming a posthuman status). Discourses that accentuate affective difference rather than deficit, positing autistics as a human Other to neurotypicals,20 validate what Murray calls “autistic presence.”21 We see such representations in recent literary works by and about autistic people, such as Mark Haddon’s celebrated Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), Cynthia Lord’s Rules (2006), Siobhan Dowd’s


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The London Eye Mystery (2008), and Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World (2009). Relying on a “biological citizenship” model stemming from Foucauldian notions of biopower as a further challenge to “impairment” and “deficit” models, Charlotte Brownlow and Lindsey O’Dell likewise contend: “The neurodiversity discourse functions as a critical tool with which people with autism may engage with negative and disabling mainstream models of autism . . . [It] can offer the potential for autistic individuals to construct alternative understandings of autism, ones that are not dominated by a deficit-model focus.”22 Many comics that address Autism Spectrum Disorder, like the young adult fiction cited above, focus on the effect of the condition on both the subjects and their families.23 Graphic memoirs and quasi-autobiographical works such as Paul and Judy Karasik’s The Ride Together (2004), Karen Montague-Reyes’s Circling Normal: A Book About Autism (2007), and the late Keiko Tobe’s manga series With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child (2000–2009)24 engage the medium’s visualverbal techniques for what Susan Squier terms a “thick” representation of mental difference through graphic design.25 But it was left to a very odd mid-1970s superhero series to satirize most trenchantly and unsentimentally the postwar Bettelheimian triad of refrigerator mother, machine, and purported inhumanity of the autist.

“A Pre-Pubescent Robot” Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney’s inaugural, eponymous Omega the Unknown story (March 1976) opens with a grim-faced, silent superhero battling robots on an alien world—to incongruously philosophical captions: “An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow.”26 A page-turn “match-panel” sequence27 visually links the black-haired, spandex-clad hero, sporting a distinctive diadem, with James-Michael Starling, a hyperintelligent, serious, and well-spoken terran twelve-yearold.28 While being driven to a new school in New York by his unusually formal parents, Starling winds up in a terrible traffic accident. He regains consciousness by the road, his mother’s detached head before him; wires and circuits dangle from her shattered neck. Revealed as a robot, the mother advises her son: “You’ll be all right, James-Michael . . . the world may confuse you . . . but you’ll be all right . . .”29 The head then melts to slag.

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Through such verbal-visual yokings—“free-flowing” captions that apply no better to a homeschooled young man going to a new high school than to alien combat; repeated cross-panel pairings between boy and hero; sheer weirdness30—the tale cements the uncanny bond shared by Omega and Starling. Eventually the two meet in Starling’s hospital room to fight off a robot threat together. It is then we learn of the adolescent’s own superpowers: he fires energy bolts, just as Omega does. (The feat leaves stigmata-like wounds, shaped like the Greek letter omega, on his palms.)31 From these pulpy premises, Gerber et al. construct a weirdly affecting mystery tale that touches on blurred identities; extraterrestrial menace; and, through a subplot dealing with the fatal bullying of James-Michael’s friend Nedly, the brutality of school violence. None of which led to strong sales.32 Despite—or perhaps partly because of—its sudden and ignominious cancellation with issue 10,33 the series achieved a cult status among collectors and fans. As writer Jonathan Lethem, an admirer, put it, Omega the Unknown “implied stories too awesome, too inflected, and too grim ever to be completed on the terms of comics circa 1976.”34 The series derived much of its humor—and poignancy—from Starling’s “stranger in a strange land” struggles to express (or even experience) appropriate emotional responses. In “Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen!” (OTU #2, May 1976), the boy has the following discussion with Dr. Barrow: DB: James-Michael, are you sorry your parents are dead? J-M: I—I don’t know. Should I be? I appreciated all they did for me . . . all they taught me . . . the home we shared in the mountains . . . But engaging in grief will not reverse what has happened, will it?35 The black gutters between the top-tier panels that record this exchange accentuate Starling’s affective disconnect, signaling something “wrong” (the rest of the page’s panels have conventional white gutters separating them). Furthermore, here and throughout the original Omega series “split” or “half ” portraits of James-Michael visually mark his “alien-ness” and mental difference.36 Even his dual name suggests a muddled identity. The strong implication: Starling was raised by robots and he himself may be an emotionally impoverished alien, along the lines of Bergenmar et al.’s “affective deficit” model. Along with descriptions of the child as “quite calm,”37 “a twelveyear-old—enigma!,”38 “a forty-year-old midget,”39 and the like, such


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representational strategies capitalize on the popular conception of autism as a “robotic” or “mindblind” disorder beyond the human.40 In fact, James-Michael more than once gets referred to as a “robot” by acquaintances straining to connect with him. His nurse, Ruth Hart, finding her efforts fruitless, lashes out at him in frustration: “Yeah, sure. I understand. Stupid of me, wasn’t it—to worry over a prepubescent robot.”41 As blogger Thom Dunn bemusedly opines in his review: “His difficulty in understanding human interaction is always endearing.”42 Other episodes in the Omega saga point to its twin heroes’ mathematical prowess and facility with mechanical devices, as when the hyperintelligent James-Michael masters a pinball machine on his first try.43 Late in the series, in “The Hottest Slot in Town” (OTU #10, Sept. 1977), Omega and his friend Gramps travel to Las Vegas. There—in a scene anticipating Raymond Babbit’s similar foray in Rain Man (d. Barry Levinson, 1988)44—they win big at the casinos (absurdly, Omega continues wearing his diadem while in a tuxedo).45 Such depictions advance the notion of people with autism as gifted with superhuman “savant” powers. But in this same issue we observe perhaps the most salient and original example of Omega the Unknown’s representational strategies for depicting cognitive difference: the authors’ disjunctive use of captions, alluded to above. The scene begins with Omega flying out to the Nevada desert to escape people. “He’s spoken more words this day than in all the days since his arrival on Earth,” says a caption. “And he’s found it . . . debilitating.”46 A long text-box soliloquy on solitude follows—albeit one spread out over two and a half pages showing a battle between Omega and the demonic creature Dibbuk, who ambushes him. As the hero and the monster slug it out with blows, tosses, and laser bolts, the peculiarly sardonic narration reads, in part: Ordinarily, of course, the intrusions are less obvious than this one. But it’s in their covert nature that their potency reside [sic]. Their strength is their plasticity. Try it: attack any intruder into your personal space. And, invariably, you’ll learn that pillows have feelings, too! And you’ll shudder as the pillow drives the point home (usually, but not always, verbally) . . . Reviling your aloofness, your insensitivity . . . Your self-centeredness, your tendency to brood . . . ! . . . You cad!47

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Figure 1.1 Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, Jim Mooney, et al., “The Hottest Slot in Town!,” Omega the Unknown 1, no. 10 (1977): 7.

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Gerber and Skrenes’s off-kilter narration, which seems both to parallel the visuals and go off blithely on its own (“You cad!” adorns a panel in which Omega is flung into a ravine), Otherizes routine superheroic derring-do. It introduces a destabilizing irony and discontinuity into the generic space—a distinctly comics correlate to Murray’s “autistic presence.” The words and image don’t quite “line up,” affording an oblique (if you will, “neurodiverse”) view on both. However, even as he heaps praise on this last and “greatest” of the “Omega soliloquies,” Lethem again links such aesthetic choices to something beyond the realm of people. “Gerber seemed to verge on writing his way not only out of comics,” he tells an interviewer, “but out of the human race.”48 Omega the Unknown in its original series incarnation reflects some of the inchoate and vaguely sinister popular presuppositions regarding autism in the 1970s: the widely held belief, thanks to researchers like Bettelheim, that bad parenting led to the disorder (the “refrigerator mother” literalized here as a maternal android); the idea of autistics as machine-like, unemotional, and robotic; and the presumption of them as superhuman savants. Despite a backlash to Bettelheim’s theories, including the 1969 founding of the National Society for Autistic Children (NSAC) by parents angry at the cultural stigma placed on them for “causing” their kids’ conditions,49 the old thinking endured. But the legal landscape was already shifting. In 1974 West Virginia became the first U.S. state to make public education for the disabled mandatory, while 1975 saw the signing into law of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the forerunner to today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which in theory guarantees an education to all disabled children.50 These developments would slowly lead to some wide-scale (if uneven) social reassessment regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder, a change discernible in Omega’s twenty-first-century reboot.

“These Forms Are So Dreadfully Familiar” For their 2007 iteration, writer Jonathan Lethem51 and alternative comics artist Farel Dalrymple channel, remix, and transform Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney’s vision nearly beyond recognition, though the pillars of the story remain: a homeschooled fourteen-year-old, now named Titus Alexander Island, learns as a result of a traffic accident that his dead parents are robots; a mute, spandex-clad superhero from another world seeks out the boy as part of a mysterious plan to foil an alien attack.

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What had changed most radically in the intervening thirty years, of course, was the cultural worth placed on comics in a post-Maus, post-Watchmen, post-Jimmy Corrigan milieu. If the original Omega was best viewed by general readers as above-average trash, the new version—written by a “real” author and eventually packaged as a handsome hardcover “graphic novel”—was art, or something reasonably like it. Lethem, a respected novelist with a professed devotion to the comic books of his youth,52 brought more than a whiff of respectability to the pulpy proceedings.53 Not dissimilarly, public discussions of autism had evolved in a post– Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) United States. Being the parent of an autistic child now brought not vilification and shame but sympathy (and more rarely, a version of understanding). Meanwhile, the post–Rain Man valorization of autistic savantism (though profoundly misguided)54 signaled a widespread acknowledgment of life on the spectrum as something other than necessarily or exclusively tragic. The validity of neurodiversity as a concept for encompassing the many mental varieties of being in the world had begun to take hold.55 The 2006 founding of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), the first such organization run by autistics themselves (rather than by their parents), emblematized the new reality.56 As if in keeping with the times, the 2007 Omega the Unknown sharply deviates from standard genre fare; in fact, the series looks and acts like no previous Marvel title. Critics took note, highlighting its “spare and somewhat deadpan style,”57 Dalrymple’s “tremulous and twitchy” linework, and Paul Hornschemeier’s “muted colors,” all of which contribute to “a sense of human frailty to their characters that inverts the muscles-and-action tradition.”58 Blogger Justin Giampaoli wrote, “Dalrymple’s style suits this story of mental illness and crumbling pop fiction archetypes very well,” adding, “in a few corners of the blogosphere, it has even been suggested that the work is, in part, an attempt at graphic depiction of the feel of Asperger’s Syndrome (on the autism spectrum) and a child navigating an existence fueled by that affliction.”59 Writing for the Comics Journal, Ken Worcester likewise emphasizes the project’s liminal status: it “effectively straddles, and complicates, the line between mainstream superheroes and indie comics.”60 Indeed, from Omega’s opening panels, we find ourselves in a disorienting genre/story world space, one both familiar (hero fighting robots, boy woken by “night terrors”) and exotic (scratchy, “unpolished” pen-andink work, coloring that renders forest sunbeams as a dun brown). We see


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Omega in the first of four page-wide frames, feeding a campfire in the woods. Subsequent panels show his crashed spaceship in a stream, his robot pursuers, and (through a window) Island’s parents putting their son to bed.61 All of this is conveyed without words, complicating the reader’s perception of how much time passes (presumably enough for Omega to catch, cook, and eat two geese, and for Island to fall asleep). The usage of silent panels (here, in several other scenes, and in most of the final issue) conveys first and foremost an “alien” mentality, one amplified when the authors “intercut” wordless frames with more mundane fare. They also, I argue, visually connote an autistic Weltanschauung. For example, a scene in which Omega breaks his bonds and confronts his robot captor (two silent panels at top and bottom tiers) is brought into contiguity with the language-filled repartee of the neurotypical nurse Edie Fallinger and a flirty cop, secretly an agent of the Mink (middle tier). Such page compositions highlight the paradoxical proximity and chasm between banal “normality” and the action-filled milieu of the mute, “autistic” superhero.62 Words first enter the proceedings on the third page of chapter I, as battle breaks out between Omega and the robots in the woods: “Yes. / You’ve been here before, however much you might like to pretend otherwise. / These forms are so dreadfully familiar.” Critics have argued for the metatextual function of these captions, whether as wry commentary on genre formulae (“Yep, it’s another superhero fight scene, we’ve seen this a million times before, haven’t we?”),63 or as Lethem’s own acknowledgment of his work’s reiterative status.64 While not disputing that, I would draw attention to the “disembodied” nature of the captions—they pertain to no speaker, no particular voice, not even, necessarily, to Lethem’s. Yet these second-person utterances are clearly “spoken” by someone to someone else (“You’ve been here before”). In this respect, they duplicate Gerber and Skrenes’s “off-kilter” narration previously discussed. Both homage and parody (as elaborated below), these text boxes operate first and foremost as Lethem’s version of the “Omega soliloquy,” tying them to the fractured, contrapuntal, “neurodiverse” sensibility of their precursors. Other markers of an “autie” zeitgeist abound, evocative of the new era. In a “fish out of water” motif common to autism narratives,65 Island has to have the slang term “flick” explained to him by Clare Weiss, a hospital administrator: “A flick is a movie, Alex. Flickering images on a screen. Some people think they’re fun.”66 While some of these “autemes” carry over from the previous series, in other episodes Lethem’s characters exhibit a fresh, twenty-first-century comfort level with neurodiversity. In short, the latter series incorporates more technical language related to Autism

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Spectrum Disorder, which had seeped into the culture over the decades. In chapter III, Island’s doctor, Vikram Desani, assesses his patient: “Lack of affect leans to Asperger’s Syndrome—a high-functioning form of autism.”67 At the same time, Lethem’s script betrays the fact that some autism stereotypes endure; Desani’s very next line reads: “Not that I’d want to make a snap diagnosis based merely on affect, but you must admit, he can seem a trifle robotic” (my emphasis). That and similar lines, along with images like robots marching in single file with nanotechnology-possessed humans on a college campus,68 demonstrate the continuing cultural link between autism and the machine—here presented as a visual joke about computer science students being indistinguishable from automata (this blasé conventional wisdom is underscored by the fact that others on the campus mostly do not notice but keep playing Frisbee, picnicking, reading).69 Bettelheim’s mechanical boys (and girls) live on. More subtly, Lethem and Dalrymple routinely link mise en page to an autistic sensibility, to, among other things, heighten a mood of hyperrationality and control. Symmetrical nine-panel and six-panel grid compositions appear at key moments: Island’s highway accident; his robot-mother’s dying words; the robots’ first assault on Island, at the hospital; the revelation that Island’s palms bear the Omega stigmata.70 Such uber-symmetrical page designs appear throughout the work, and even Omega’s own mini-comic (discussed further) utilizes only six-panel grids and two splash pages (counting the cover). Through these instances of repetitive, highly regimented form, Dalrymple’s graphic narrative infuses a nonnormative consciousness even to standard superheroic action pieces, both augmenting and transcending plot.71 Omega the Unknown 2007 deploys another facet of comics grammar, framing, to further convey an autistic subjectivity. After Island and his companions rescue Omega from the Mink’s maze, supporting the emaciated hero on their walk to Minister Upward T. Bell’s residence, only the tails of their speech balloons fall within the panel borders. The device persists, as the minister welcomes and feeds his starving friend, throughout the nine-panel grid. The focalization through Omega’s awareness/consciousness mirrors the state of hyperconcentrated attention reported by many autistics as a means of screening out excess stimulation and chaos.72 Intriguingly, the page opposite this “Omega-centric” grid continues the scene, though now in “neurotypical” mode, with dialogue accessible via normal speech balloons and the page design less symmetrical (seven panels of varying shapes). Omega, somewhat recovered after eating, resumes interacting with people.73


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Figure 1.2 Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, Farel Dalrymple, et al., Omega the Unknown 2, no. 8 (2008): 16.

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Windows, doorways, and expressionistic touches serve as additional instances of framing within the diegesis, to similar effect. While held prisoner by the Mink, Omega sits in a corner as the villain rants about the alien’s unresponsiveness: “Pain doesn’t work on this kind of animal. He just goes into an autistic trance. I mean, deeper than his usual autistic trance.” All characters in this large panel appear as pseudo-silhouettes, their figures mostly blacked out, save for Omega’s costume highlights and the Mink’s prosthetic hook-hand, while the room itself remains lit. Once more, we can read the image as filtered through Omega’s consciousness, as he retreats deeper into himself under torture.74 More prosaically, in chapter II Island calmly looks out a window at Omega and some robots clashing below, all the while continuing his conversation with Edie. The window frame, repeated in three panels, renders the scene outside into a sort of superhero comic book that Island is “reading”; the windows/panels both connect and isolate. Similarly, when languishing in the Mink’s prison, Omega comes to equate the grid structure of the comic books he has been given with the iron grating over the window, through which he sees a fluttering seagull. (The sequence appears as a nine-panel grid, more or less mirroring the grating.) The foregoing in mind, it should not surprise that the mute Omega’s sole act of written expression comes in the form of comics, whose pictorial narrative techniques allow him to tell his origin story as an alien hero fighting a robotic menace. Climbing through the window and flying away to freedom, so to speak.75 But, as with Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney’s original, the rebooted Omega resorts to severe image-text disjunction as its most salient “autconscious” strategy. As Omega contends with a gaggle of nanoviruspossessed Butterdog’s franchise employees over five panels, the following monologue descends along the page in bluish captions: Wearily, you answer the line, even knowing that some folks just won’t take no for an answer, and that it’s impossible to get your name taken off their list. What they’ve got going for them is a certain dull persistence, a can’t-beat-’em, better-join-’em philosophy that’s proven sadly persuasive over the long haul. After all, how many can say they’ve never pulled off the interstate for a Superbutterdog burger? That is, apart from vegetarians, and other posers. Even those have been known to succumb to the hard sell.


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Figure 1.3 Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, Farel Dalrymple, et al., Omega the Unknown 2, no. 9 (2008): 7.

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Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. Engulf and devour. Don’t play with your food. What makes you think you’re exempt from this special one-time offer? “The individual” is one of our preferred marketing categories.76 In keeping with the series’s anti-consumerist stance (see below), this free-floating, highly opinionated harangue attaches to no one voice—not even to that of the Overthinker, a Greek chorus–like, fourth-wall-breaking figure (sort of an irritatingly sarcastic Watcher). The text both parallels and deviates from the illustrated battle to the point of narrative destabilization, heightening comics’ inherent “art of tensions”77 to a metafictive, device-baring extreme. Lethem’s overdetermined, multilayered “Omega soliloquies” function both as fond homage to Gerber and Skrenes and as “serious parody” (as he puts it) of superheroics. But more than that, their “missed encounter,” the gap they create, and trouble between graphic narrative’s image-text “tracks,” intimate at a “trans-human” mentality, a profound cognitive difference traditionally associated with mental disorder.

“You’ll Be All Right” In the 1976 Omega, the disembodied head of Starling’s mother, just before it self-destructs, advises him over three panels: “You’ll be all right, James-Michael . . . the world may confuse you . . . But you’ll be all right . . . / Only . . . the voices . . . can harm you . . . / Don’t listen to the voices . . . / It’s dangerous to listen . . .”78 Throughout the sequence, the focus remains on the two of them, and when Starling loses consciousness immediately after, it occurs on the next page. The 2007 version does something very different. Here the mother, Lydia, and Island converse over a nine-panel breakdown (as noted above), lending an air of both dramatic “flatness” (no one panel is weighed more than any other) and an “aut” sensibility to the action. More intriguingly, now “cutaway” panels show more of the pair’s surroundings: the smashed father-robot jutting through the burning car’s windshield; a policeman and civilian (possibly the truck driver) in the distance, gazing over the ruptured railing. Lydia’s speech: “You’ll be all right, Alexander. The world may confuse you . . . But . . . / That’s true of everyone you’ll meet. Just promise me . . . / you’ll accept their help . . . / You’ll need it.”79


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This android mother does not melt into slag; instead, she simply shuts her eyes in panel eight—colored darker than the preceding panel, signaling Lydia shutting down. The next, concluding panel goes completely black. What is key: Island too has closed his eyes in panel eight; the sequence lends itself to a dual reading: the darker and black panels correlate with both the robot and the human’s80 loss of consciousness. The overlap in subjectivities and the wider narratological frame that takes in other actors point to a major theme unique to Lethem/Dalrymple’s version: connection, community, continuity, from machines to (different sorts of ) neurodiverse to (different sorts of ) neurotypical humans. In short, this Omega resides on a spectrum—but like Lydia says, “That’s true of everyone you’ll meet.” And indeed, Lethem et al. populate their story world with characters whose psyches confound notions of the “normal”: the socially awkward nurse Edie; the suicidal Hugh; the prim Dr. Desani, who says of Island: “Perhaps I do see myself in him”;81 various stereotypically insular robotics department college students (Island: “Admittedly, science people are sometimes odd”);82 the ultra-efficient Dean Quiller, who reminds Island of himself;83 the psychopathic councilman Alfonso Edgardo; even the megalomaniacal Overthinker. But, besides Omega and Island’s, no figure’s cognitive alterity is explored as deeply as that of the quip-happy, pathologically self-involved Rex Kansur, who successfully brands his Mink identity in comic books, TV shows, and a superhero business empire, but who cannot relate to others on any meaningful level.84 Even his name (“King Cancer”) bespeaks an inhuman subjectivity. Perhaps, the series suggests, these behaviors are adaptive, symptomatic of life under neoliberalism (the real “cancer”). We arrive at a portrait of a twenty-first-century U.S. population so emotionally stunted by late capitalism, it reduces every encounter to spectacle, consumption, and instrumentality—a place where the logic of buying, selling, and “entertain[ing] us” has turned all into sarcastic, disaffected pseudo-robots. A scene in which Omega disrupts operations at a Butterdog’s franchise overrun by nanovirus-infected humans depicts postmodernity’s flat affect through a crowd of bemused bystanders. As an employee flies through a window, we read the following exchange: Bystander 1: Dang. Bystander 2: Always wanted to do that. B1: Some ticked-off superhero’s busting up the joint. B2: Dude’s going back inside. That’s so cool.

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B1: I think that guy’s called “Doc Digestion.” B2: Yeah. Yeah, from Astonishing Tales of Nutrition, right?85 The gawkers don’t even consider running for cover, preferring to watch the action from up close. Neither do the police and firemen do anything to protect the crowd, which never budges from its prime vantage point. Thus Omega the Unknown links the “robotic” drives, repetitive routines, voyeurism, anhedonia, and other psychopathologies of advanced capitalism to “the spectrum.”86 Neoliberalism: the “refrigerator mother” par excellence. More insidiously, and in a supreme satire of contemporary corporate food culture, citizens unknowingly ingest alien nanospores every time they bite into a fatty Butterdog, turning them into mindless slaves. (Yet another way in which capitalism numbs, deadens.) Lethem et al. do temper their problematic Bettelheimian consumerist critique with an antidote: interdependence, community, locavorism. Our hero Omega, as pointed out by David Coughlan, only eats what he kills and prepares himself, and he works for the Reverend’s food truck rather than for the nanotech-infested Butterdog’s franchise, which he infiltrates and destroys.87 He and his Earth companions save the day through its food system, one sprinkle of nanospore-killing salt at a time. Victory. Nevertheless, that all this doesn’t translate into a happy ending tells us much about the enduring prejudices and inequalities regarding autistic people, even in our enlightened age.

Conclusion: Lost in the “Nowh-Area” Autistics in narrative, like monsters in Gothic fiction, are a “technology of subjectivity . . . which produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy and the pure can be known.”88 Also like monsters, autistics in fiction, as in life, pose the threat of transgression, of borders dissolved, of contagion—particularly in light of what it means to be a person. “To discuss autism,” writes Stuart Murray, “is necessarily to discuss the condition of being human.”89 In fact, as conveyed by Steven Shapin, contemporary discussions have centered on “whether autism is a medical condition at all, whether what was discovered was a disease, a disability or another mode of normalcy.”90 As people on the spectrum make greater strides in the new century toward independent living, employment, and social capital (as opposed to the more common institutionalization and home shut-in realities of


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previous generations), a further possibility arises. Referencing journalist Harvey Blume, Steve Silberman suggests, “It wasn’t just that more autistics were becoming visible in the world, but the world itself was becoming more autistic—and this was a good thing.”91 Along with the “good thing,” however, comes the widespread discomfort with autism’s challenge to the neurotypical status quo—which continues to animate debates over “autie rights.” Again, the definition of humanity itself, is up for grabs. “One possibility that always seems to provide unease is that the spectrum of autistic subjectivity,” adds Murray, “might be as wide as the spectrum of non-a utistic subjectivity.”92 Both versions of Omega to various degrees engage with these questions, while parodying popular conceptions of autism as “robotic” and the product of bad parenting. But it is the 2007 iteration that capitalizes on a greater public awareness for a vision of ASD that is both more inclusive and, in its own way, chilling. For Lethem and Dalrymple’s world, where so many are benumbed by capitalism, poses disaffection and cynicism largely as coping mechanisms, as mental illness, as inhuman (the authors seem to follow Bettelheim’s contention that extreme emotional privation leads to the psyche’s erection of “wholly debilitating defenses”93 on a societal scale). David Coughlan goes so far as to suggest that Island’s initials, A. I., hint at his true identity as a form of artificial intelligence.94 All of which leads to Omega the Unknown 2007’s tragic dual ending, where we come to see the very troubling implications of Murray’s wide “spectrum of autistic subjectivity”: the high-functioning Island goes on to a career in advanced robotics (recreating his parents, adding value to the system), while the mute, inexpressive Omega—the titular savior, who delivers the world from extraterrestrial invasion—winds up reduced to life on the streets. Wandering the city after the story’s explosive climax, the mute, alien superhero (costume mostly burned away), gets taken in by a homeless underground community—the opposite of Kansur’s neoliberal corporatism. Except that, strangely, these peripherals ape the world above, erecting a mock studio set of Kansur’s TV show, Mink of the People. Constructed of pallets and cinder blocks, the Hollywood Squares–like set functions as a sort of 3-D comic book—specifically a nine-panel grid, with each panel housing a different “contestant.” Carried into one of the squares on a wheelchair, Omega takes his place in this odd structure, having entered his own comic at last.95 Thus, recounted in silent, mostly symmetrical panels (replicating the graphic novel’s “autistic” devices), the hero’s final journey stands revealed as that of any unproductive unit in capitalism: swallowed

“Mechanical Boys”

up by the system’s bowels, caught up in someone else’s pattern, someone else’s show, unmourned. Along with the bold new vistas for humanity’s redefinition, then, the wide “spectrum of autistic subjectivity” brings along with it many of the same old human divisions. We wind up with a sort of neurological apartheid based on one’s high or low “function.”96 In this respect, the two versions of the story coincide. In both, Omega dies: literally in 1976 (largely for meta-textual reasons) and reduced to social death in 2007. But it is Dalrymple’s portrait of the hero in his final incarnation—haggard, scraggly, gaunt, a picture of suffering—that haunts me most. In an act of interplanetary kenosis, the Christ-like alien sacrifices himself and disappears into the depths, forgotten. Into a place, curiously, not unlike the Nowhere Man’s nowh-area, a sort of Phantom Zone visited by Island, in which he interacts with the deceased Hugh. The nowh-area, we learn, is a space where you go “to talk to a person you couldn’t otherwise. Someone dead, say, or imaginary.”97 A shame neither Island nor any of the other main characters ever ventures there again. More prosaically: the two Omegas, like so many of the neurodiverse (still), fall victim not to their mental difference but to the frayed social safety net of a neoliberal state they challenged but could not overcome. Omega, ever unknown, could not cope with something even larger than the spectrum: the twenty-first-century imperative to produce. For all the new freedoms, he remains trapped in a world that, in the end, cannot see him as fully human.

Bibliography Alaniz, José. “Chris Ware and ‘Autistic Realism.’” International Journal of Comic Art 13 (2011): 514–28. ———. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. ———. “‘The Monster’s Analyst’ and Binomial Self.” In The Ages of the Incredible Hulk, edited by Joseph Darowski, 62–77. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2016. ———. “‘People Endure’: The Function of Autism in Anton’s Right Here (2012).” In Cultures of Representation: Disability in World Cinema Contexts, edited by Benjamin Fraser, 110–25. London: Wallflower Press, 2016. Bergenmar, Jenny, Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, and Ann-Sofie Lönngren. “Autism and the Question of the Human.” Literature and Medicine 33 (2015): 202–21. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. New York: Free Press, 1967. ———. “Joey: A Mechanical Boy.” Scientific American 200 (1959): 116–27. Birge, Sarah. “No Life Lessons Here: Comics, Autism, and Empathetic Scholarship.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2010). http://​dsq​sds​.org​/article​/view​/1067​/1255.


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Brownlow, Charlotte, and Lindsey O’Dell. “Autism as a Form of Biological Citizenship.” In Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, edited by Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini, 97–114. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Coughlan, David. “Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Omega: The Unknown, a Comic Book Series.” College Literature 38, no. 3 (2011): 194–218. Crippen, Tom. “Steve Gerber: Sept. 20, 1947–Feb. 10, 2008.” Comics Journal 291 (July 2008): 14–20. Gerber, Steve, Mary Skrenes, Jim Mooney, et al. Omega the Unknown 1, nos. 1–10 (Marvel Comics, 1976–77). Reprinted in Omega the Unknown. Edited by Jeff Youngquist. New York: Marvel Comics, 2005. Groth, Gary. “An Interview with Steve Gerber.” Comics Journal 41 (August 1978): 28–44. Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Hodler, T. “The Fly in the Ointment: Steve Gerber and Marvel Comics Part 2.” Comics Comics 3 (2007): 12–13. Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. New York: Harper, 2012. Letcher, Mark. “Autism in Young Adult Literature.” English Journal 100, no. 2 (2010): 113–16. Lethem, Jonathan. “The Return of the King, or, Identifying with Your Parents.” In Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! Writers on Comics, edited by Sean Howe, 2–22. New York: Pantheon, 2004. Lethem, Jonathan, Karl Rusnak, and Farel Dalrymple. Omega the Unknown 2. New York: Marvel Comics, 2008. McDonagh, Patrick. “Autism and Modernism: A Genealogical Exploration.” In Autism and Representation, edited by Mark Osteen, 99–116. New York: Routledge, 2008. Murray, Stuart. “Autism Functions / The Functions of Autism.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30, no. 10 (2010). http://​dsq​sds​.org​/article​/view​/1048​/1229. ———. “Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism.” In Autism and Representation, edited by Mark Osteen, 245–55. New York: Routledge, 2008. ———. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008. Peeters, Benoît. “Four Conceptions of the Page.” Translated by Jesse Cohn. ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 3, no. 3 (2007). http://​imagetext​.english​.ufl​.edu​/archives​ /v3​_3​/peeters. Postema, Barbara. “Silent Comics.” In The Routledge Companion to Comics, edited by Frank Bramlett, Roy T. Cook, and Aaron Meskin, 201–8. New York: Routledge, 2017. Rimland, Bernard. Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1964. Severson, Katherine DeMaria, James Arnt Aune, and Denise Jodlowski. “Bruno Bettelheim, Autism and the Rhetoric of Scientific Authority.” In Autism and Representation, edited by Mark Osteen, 65–78. New York: Routledge, 2008. Shapin, Steven. “Seeing the Spectrum.” New Yorker, January 25, 2016, 65–69. Silberman, Steve. Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. New York: Avery, 2015. Singer, Marc. “Embodiments of the Real: The Counterlinguistic Turn in the Comic-Book Novel.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 49 (2008): 273–89. Squier, Susan. “So Long as They Grow Out of It: Comics, the Discourse of Developmental Normalcy, and Disability.” Journal of Medical Humanities 29, no. 2 (2008): 71–88. Thompson, Steven. “Joey the Mechanical Boy.” In The Transtechnology Reader, edited by Martha Blassnigg et al., 85–97. Plymouth, U.K.: University of Plymouth, 2010. Worcester, Kent. “Omega the Unknown.” Comics Journal 297 (April 2009): 143.

Notes 1. For background on the series, Gerber’s career, and his disputes with Marvel, see Coughlan, “Fortress of Solitude and Omega,” 200; Crippen, “Steve Gerber,” 18; and Hodler, “Fly in the Ointment.” 2. Mostly in the original series, entirely in the reboot. 3. Bettelheim, like other psychologists of the era, tended to use the terms “schizophrenia” and “autism” interchangeably, though today specialists make a sharp distinction between the conditions. 4. Bettelheim, “Joey,” 117. 5. Ibid., 120. 6. Ibid., 122. 7. Ibid. 8. Elsewhere he writes: “I believe all childhood psychoses, but in particular infantile autism, can be traced to the child’s conviction that his life is in mortal danger. Short of this conviction one simply does not erect such wholly debilitating defenses” (Empty Fortress, 248). 9. Bettelheim, “Joey,” 119. 10. Ibid., 118. 11. Ibid., 247. Startlingly, in his other writings Bettelheim blames kids themselves for not taking action, putting the onus on infants to heal themselves: “Such children stop trying . . . [I] believe it was not directly the mechanical, impersonal care that was given them, nor even the low stimulation they experienced, that accounts for their shriveling up and withering away. I think it was rather their failure to become active in their own behalf. Though poor nursing care was at fault in not activating them, it was their not becoming active that led to their emotional, intellectual and often physical death” (Empty Fortress, 45). 12. Bettelheim, a psychologist who wrote for the popular press, holds a “villainous” reputation among autism researchers similar to that of Frederic Wertham for comics scholars and fans. Though unlike Wertham, Bettelheim did not actually earn the professional credentials he claimed (not even a degree in psychology). Once exposed, he was expelled from nearly all psychoanalytic associations, though the professional rejection of his theories did not wholly diminish his standing with the public (Severson et al., “Bruno Bettelheim,” 68). See also Shapin, “Seeing the Spectrum,” 66. 13. Severson et al., “Bruno Bettelheim,” 66. 14. Murray, Representing Autism, 5. 15. See the conclusion to Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, for such representations in superhero comics. 16. Murray, Representing Autism, 15. 17. Bergenmar, Rosqvist, and Lönngren, “Autism and the Question of the Human,” 203. 18. Ibid., 204–5. 19. Murray, Representing Autism, 13. 20. Bergenmar, Rosqvist, and Lönngren, “Autism and the Question of the Human,” 206. 21. Murray, Representing Autism, 16. 22. Brownlow and O’Dell, “Autism as a Form of Biological Citizenship,” 97–98. 23. See Birge, “No Life Lessons Here.” 24. See also Alaniz, “Chris Ware and ‘Autistic Realism.’” 25. Squier, “So Long as They Grow Out of It,” 82. Representative works include Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me (2012); David B.’s Epileptic (1996– 2003); Allie Brosch’s blog-turned-book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (2013), on depression; and Jesse Reklaw’s LOVF: An Illustrated Diary of a Man Literally Losing His Mind (2016). In the superhero genre, mental illness appears in the guise of, among others, Bruce Banner / the Incredible Hulk (Dissociative Identity Disorder) (See Alaniz, “The Monster’s

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Analyst”); Tony Stark / Iron Man (alcoholism); and the more recent Rob Reynolds / the Sentry (schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder). 26. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 4. All emphases and ellipses in original comics unless otherwise indicated. 27. Ibid., 5–6. 28. Howe calls Starling “hyperintelligent and nearly autistic in his cold manner” (Marvel Comics, 174). 29. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 8. 30. In this regard, Marvel journeyman artist Jim Mooney’s artwork played an unusual role in the series. As writer Karl Rusnak notes: “The reality warpage is enlivened by Jim Mooney’s direct, rather prosaic 1970s-Marvel ‘house style.’ If the book had been drawn by someone more adventurous, it might have telegraphed all the weirdness” (Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, n.p.). By 1976, Mooney had been working in comics for over thirty-five years. Incidentally, a similar dynamic ensued between Gerber as outlandish writer and Sal Buscema as “generic superhero artist” on The Defenders in the mid-1970s. 31. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 19–20. 32. In a 1978 interview, Gerber described the series as “an attempt to depict a certain ambiguity about a lot of the characters and a lot of the situations that were occurring—and it fell flat on its face. Everyone, anyway most everyone, interpreted everything we did literally. . . . Omega, then, was a massive artistic failure and too small a financial success” (Groth, “Interview with Steve Gerber,” 39). 33. The story’s dangling plot threads were later tied up by another writer, Steven Grant (without input from Gerber and Skrenes) in the pages of The Defenders. See Howe, Marvel Comics, 194 and 207. 34. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, n.p. See the Lethem/Rusnak discussion in the book’s back matter. In fact, according to Howe, Gerber and Skrenes planned for Omega to fall prey eventually to many human “weaknesses,” including drugs (Marvel Comics, 194), recalling Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). 35. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 24. 36. See ibid., 16, 17, 30, 52, 63, 114, and passim. 37. Ibid., 12. 38. Ibid., 15. 39. Ibid., 12. Such language recalls Bettelheim’s descriptions of Joey: “Often it took a conscious act of will to make ourselves perceive him as a child” (Empty Fortress, 235). 40. A telling caption from “Into the Cat’s Lair!” (OTU #5, November 1976): “such a mind, unaccustomed to dealing with the emotionality of a violent situation, rapidly overloads” (76). 41. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 97. 42. Thom Dunn, “Double Review: Omega the Unknown,” Daily Genoshan: A Weekly Book Review, December 10, 2010, http://​dailygenoshan​.blogspot​.com​/2010​/12​/double​review​ omega​unknown​.html. 43. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 106. These vignettes lead Dunn to call Starling an “autistic orphan savant.” 44. The film made for a major touchstone in the (mis)representation of autism in U.S. popular culture; see Murray, “Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism.” 45. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 177. 46. Ibid., 171. 47. Ibid., 172. 48. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, n.p. See back matter. 49. Silberman, Neurotribes, 296. Groups like NSAC found a basis for their claims in Bernard Rimland’s Infantile Autism (1964), which first sought to reorient understandings of the condition away from “toxic parenting” and toward genetics and neurology. See Silberman, Neurotribes, 261. 50. Ibid., 304.

“Mechanical Boys” 51. Lethem collaborated on the script with Karl Rusnak. 52. Lethem had written of his childhood enthrallment by Omega the Unknown and called Steve Gerber a “mad genius” (“Return of the King,” 16). All of which made Gerber’s angry denunciations of the new project awkward for its writer. Gerber did eventually relent and gave Lethem his blessing; see Coughlan, “Fortress of Solitude and Omega,” 200. 53. The author had earned accolades for his novels, including Motherless Brooklyn (1999), The Fortress of Solitude (2003) (in which a character mentions Omega, calling it “weird, worse than unsatisfying”), and the short story collection Men and Cartoons (2004). See Coughlan, “Fortress of Solitude and Omega,” 197, and Singer, “Embodiments of the Real.” The invitation of prose writers to pen superhero comics series represented a trend in the industry, which has continued with novelist Jodi Picoult on Wonder Woman for DC (2007); novelist Margaret Atwood on the Dark Horse series Angel Catbird (2016); and essayist/ journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther for Marvel (2016–). 54. Given that savantism among autistics hovers at only about 10 percent, Murray points out, “Hollywood’s concentration on savant skills actually exemplifies a tangential and misguided understanding of cognitive difference, and betrays the use of such difference for fictional ends. . . . [T]he savant figure becomes a peculiarly narrative-driven phenomenon, often an opportunity to modify the plot or character relations” (Representing Autism, 249). 55. Silberman, Neurotribes, 453. On the role of the internet and social media in the process of popularizing “neurological pluralism,” see Silberman, Neurotribes, 441–42 and 454–56. 56. Ibid., 456–64. 57. Worcester, “Omega the Unknown,” 143. 58. Douglas Wolk, “The First Action Heroes,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2009, http://​www​ .nytimes​.com​/2009​/03​/01​/books​/review​/Wolk​t​.html​?mcubz​=0. 59. Justin Giampaoli, “Graphic Novel of the Month,” Thirteen Minutes, October 1, 2008, http://​ thirteenminutes​.blogspot​.com​/2008​/10​/graphic​novel​of​month​.html. Other critics picked up on the “autie” theme. Wolk, calling Omega a “splendidly bizarre fable about profound alienation,” describes Island as “so detached and obsessive that it’s suggested he’s autistic.” As discussed, the zeitgeist had shifted to the degree that both the authors and their readers could overtly declare what in the original series had remained largely latent and implied. 60. Worcester, “Omega the Unknown,” 143. He concludes: “It’s the kind of high-prestige, low-sales product that attracts the attention of book critics and gets editors fired” (ibid.). 61. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, I. Since Lethem/Dalrymple’s Omega the Unknown contains no page numbers, I will cite passages through chapter number in Roman numerals (as the work itself labels chapters). 62. Ibid. On contemporary alternative silent comics as inherently “metafictional,” see Postema, “Silent Comics,” 204. 63. Giampaoli, “Graphic Novel of the Month.” 64. As David Coughlan puts it, “Lethem acknowledges that his Omega: The Unknown is itself an iteration, a paraphrasing as he described it, of Gerber and Skrenes’s. Indeed, the first words of his first issue indicate that it is not an ‘original’ work but a repetition” (“Fortress of Solitude and Omega,” 202). In fact, the work itself repeatedly announces its own status as reiteration; for example, in chap. VII the Mink / Rex Kansur humorously notes while at the movies, “I’m not sure I understand. Is this a sequel, or a remake?” 65. See McDonagh, “Autism and Modernism,” 114. 66. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, III. 67. Asperger’s syndrome was first admitted as a separate disorder into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) edition in 1994. In 2013, it was folded into the broader diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-V edition. 68. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, VIII. 69. That scene, in which Island, his friend Amandla, and others intervene in the aliens’ plans to infect all humanity with a nanovirus, typifies Omega the Unknown 2007’s affectually


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stylized and stilted ambience; Lethem/Dalrymple produce a demented mash-up of science fiction, superheroes, and a Wes Anderson or Whit Stillman film. 70. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, I. 71. In other words, Dalrymple overlays a “neurodiverse” sensibility to Benoît Peeters’s “rhetorical” category of comics page designs (see the taxonomy in Peeters, “Four Conceptions of the Page”). 72. Shapin, “Seeing the Spectrum,” 65. 73. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, VIII. 74. Ibid., VI. 75. This wordless comic book within a comic book contains art by the alternative cartoonist Gary Panter, and as mentioned tells its story primarily through wordless six-panel grids. 76. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, IX, emphasis in original. 77. See Hatfield, Alternative Comics, chap. 2. 78. Gerber, Skrenes, Mooney, et al., Omega the Unknown, 8. 79. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, I. 80. Though, true, in this version of the story Island is an enhanced, superpowered human, he does not realize his abilities until the end of chap. I and does not learn of his true origins until much later. 81. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, III. 82. Ibid., VI. 83. Ibid. 84. Kansur bears comparison to Charlie Babbitt, the businessman brother of Raymond, the autistic in Rain Man. As described by Murray: “Charlie’s self-absorption, seen as the personification of a 1980s excess, is characterized by a range of behaviors that, in a different form, fall within the diagnostic criteria used to identify autism” (“Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism,” 87). 85. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, V. 86. In an interview to discuss the graphic novel, Lethem even seems to adapt the dissociative mien of his characters. Sounding like the Mink, he nonchalantly described the plot as “teenagers with problems, evil robots, corrupt and borderline-autistic superheroes, hamburgers, that sort of thing” (Jeffrey Renaud, “Lethem Exits the Unknown with Omega,” Comic Book Resources, July 18, 2008, http://​www​.cbr​.com​/lethem​exits​the​unknown​with​omega). 87. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, V. For an extended discussion of the neoliberal versus artisanal theme in the graphic novel, see Coughlan, “Fortress of Solitude and Omega.” 88. Halberstam, Skin Shows, 2. 89. Murray, Representing Autism, 16. 90. Shapin, “Seeing the Spectrum,” 68. 91. Silberman, Neurotribes, 454. 92. Murray, Representing Autism, 3. 93. Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 248. 94. Coughlan, “Fortress of Solitude and Omega,” 201. 95. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, X. 96. For detailed discussions of the concept of “function” in the context of autism, see Alaniz, “People Endure” and Murray, “Autism Functions / The Functions of Autism.” 97. Lethem, Rusnak, and Dalrymple, Omega the Unknown, VIII.

2 Sane Superheroes Mental Distress in the Gutters of Moon Knight

Charlie Christie

Moon Knight is a minor character in the Marvel Universe, first created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin in 1975 for the Werewolf by Night series. The first eponymous title was published in 1980, by Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz. In many ways, Moon Knight seems an unremarkable example of the superhero genre: in costume he is Moon Knight, a vigilante hero who uses physical violence and Batman-esque technological tricks to “protect those who travel by night.”1 The character trait that makes Moon Knight compelling, and of interest to disability scholars, is that he lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).2 In early Moon Knight comics, DID was still referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), and various other nonscientific names have also been applied by characters and narrators over the character’s history.3 When discussing the character in the aggregate, I shall use “Moon Knight” for ease of understanding, rather than picking one persona or alter to gain primacy in this discussion, and allow each alter to be referred to individually (the DID and medical communities commonly use the term “alter” to refer to individual personalities within the personality system). Moon Knight’s initial identity, host, or Normal Appearing Personality is Marc Spector, a mercenary, who remains the primary host and Moon Knight’s foremost civilian identity. Jake Lockley is a New York cabbie, and the alter with street credibility and knowledge.

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Steven Grant is a rich Hollywood producer who funds the Moon Knight endeavor. Occasionally, the character also answers to Mr. Knight, who acts as the alter who is Moon Knight, the superhero. Khonshu, an Egyptian god who saved Marc Spector’s life and allowed him to become Moon Knight, alternatively appears as one of Moon Knight’s alters, a delusion or hallucination, or a tangible reality within the Marvel Universe and a source of power for Moon Knight. Different creative teams over the years have variously conceptualized and presented the concept of multiple identities, change of mental states, and medicalized treatment within the Moon Knight series. Significantly, the comics often employ the concept that the character exhibits a diagnosable set of symptoms, and these symptoms play out in a way unrelated to the metaphysical possibilities of a world with mutants, magic, and comic book science. In short, Moon Knight often experiences mental illness in the same way a regular human would experience mental illness, with his symptoms unrelated to outside forces. In this paradigm, mental experience has the potential to be inherently controlled, harnessed, and understood, by either the individual or the medical community. However, on occasion the alters are also a result of divine intervention, with Khonshu’s influence on Spector’s life causing the personality splits to occur, or the alters are manifestations of Khonshu’s multiple aspects on Earth. Such presentations of psychosis and DID expect mental illness to be created and influenced by sources outside the individual’s mind; in this paradigm, mental distress is seen as external, something that acts upon the individual, rather than a reaction to emotional and psychological events. Moreover, the comics frequently prioritize the narrative or metaphoric possibilities of mental illness over its real experience, similar to ways in which some superhero comics can employ disability primarily as a narrative prosthesis. When superhero comics use mental distress as an easy plot device, or primarily as an examination of the trope of masks and hidden selves, they can do its characters and readers a disservice.4 The three most recent Moon Knight series show remarkable range in their presentation of DID and mental distress: Bendis and Maleev’s Moon Knight, volume 6, 2011–12; Ellis, Shalvey, et al.’s Moon Knight, volume 7, 2014–15; and Lemire and Smallwood’s Moon Knight, volume 8, 2016–17. This essay considers how these three separate runs—produced, remarkably, within a seven-year period—employ stereotypes, tropes, expectations, and metaphorical concepts related to psychosis, mental illness, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Not surprisingly, the comics frequently present DID, often problematically, as a drama of multiple or fractured identity.

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Jennifer Michelle Taylor defines one of the common misconceptions of DID thus: “The condition of multiple personality is not the surplus of personalities or identities. The condition is the lack of a cohesive memory, sense of time, and linear biography.”5 The presentation of DID within Moon Knight comics at times lends itself more toward the “surplus” reading, contributing to what Taylor considers “the skeptic perspective, [when] multiple personality is a form of modern-day hysteria, promulgated by sensationalized mass-mediated representations of this disorder in novels, films, and television that serve as templates.”6 Bendis and Maleev’s Moon Knight series (vol. 6, 2011–12) generally follows this latter “skeptic” mode: Moon Knight’s experience is diminished and inconsistent, and he is almost always able to distinguish between reality and mental construction; his mental distress therefore functions as trope rather than representation. Ellis, Shalvey, et al. (Moon Knight, vol. 7, 2014–15) present an experience of lost self and identity, more closely representing mental distress, but also rely on a mental illness version of retconning in the interest of plot progression. In contrast, the 2016–17 Moon Knight series (Lemire and Smallwood) examines Moon Knight’s DID from a psychological and experiential perspective, utilizing the visual potential of the graphic form to explore variations in mental perception through focalization, thereby creating a more nuanced and empathetic presentation of DID.

Masks and Superhero Identity Conventions One of the ways the metaphor of split identities can take precedence appears in the ways in which creators have used Moon Knight as an elaboration on the dual-identity trope of superhero narratives. This reduction of a mental health condition to an extended plot device encodes the idea that mental distress can follow narrative conceits and therefore be both logical and controlled. In addition, patients and others often already consider diagnoses with psychological or psychogenic causes as “less physical, less real,”7 and this perceived unreality is enhanced when a mental health experience is primarily seen through worn narrative tropes, such as those that feature shifting identities or those that link mental distress and violent behavior. This in turn contributes to stigma and internalized ableism. Peter Coogan considers two of the primary defining traits of the superhero to be creation of a dual identity, such as Bruce Wayne and Batman, and the donning of a costume that identifies the hero or vigilante to the world.8 Usually, this dual identity, along with the importance of the


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costume, keeps the two identities distinct; Spider-Man and Peter Parker, or Bruce Wayne and Batman, are separated by their masks but are essentially the same person beneath the necessary separation of public and private selves. Neither forgets their motivations, powers, or life events according to which mask is worn. Moon Knight, however, explicitly deals with the power of masks in superhero comics, as the separation of Spector’s alters require the mask in order to function as a hero. Moon Knight uses multiple masks, his alters, to utilize different functions of the character. Indeed, the idea of combining all functions of the superheroic team (the intelligence gatherer, the monetary backer, and the violent vigilante) into one split self was explicitly part of the character design, as outlined by creator Doug Moench.9 In this way, Moon Knight becomes the manifestation of a superhero identity trope, and if his mental distress is simply a trope, then it exists only within the realm of drama, not reality, thereby minimizing the lived experience of people with DID, casting the condition as something “less physical, less real.”10 Additionally, Moon Knight’s construction of the mask allows him to inhabit a more “true” self and move between alters and conceptions of self as they become useful to him, implying control over the experience of DID. This implied control can be seen in the Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey run (2014–15), which creates a Moon Knight who experiences memory lapses and communicates with his alters in a mental construction. Shalvey begins the stylistic convention of drawing Moon Knight as a bright white costume outlined in ink, without shadowing or shading; Steven Grant and Jake Lockley are drawn in blue-gray shades that match the walls behind them, as well as the tones on Spector’s bare face, but they do not speak; Khonshu, his coloring between Spector’s white and the ghostly Grant and Lockley, wears Spector’s suit, his face a bird-skull, with spider-web-like filaments connecting him to the blackness behind and below him.11 If we examine Shalvey’s gathering of Moon Knight’s alters through Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri’s understanding of focalization within graphic forms,12 we can see the attempt to represent an understanding of Moon Knight’s alters and therefore his sense of self, as seen by the visually distinct but merging alters. However, this example of focalization implies a single viewpoint for the character (that being Spector’s), which implicitly denies the existence of other personalities having their own focalization or narrative within the text. This representation reduces the plausibility of the alters as entities with their own perceptions: they are background entities, ghost characters, in terms of both plot and visual representation. Moon Knight’s alters in Ellis’s run, therefore, are only

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masks that give the character the freedom to explore and use his powers under that alter, rather than being separate legitimate selves. This allows for Moon Knight’s most cohesive identity to be a superheroic one. We can see this concept solidified in Ellis’s “Scarlet” (issue 5), when Moon Knight appears in his white suit, collar unbuttoned, and sleeves rolled up, fighting as Mr. Knight against human villains. A child he rescues reaches out to touch Moon Knight’s mask; she says: “It’s not a mask. It’s your face,” to which Moon Knight replies, “Smart kid.”13 The background has faded from realistic detail to entirely black, much like Khonshu is backdropped in Shalvey’s art. Moon Knight rejects the alternative, that his human face is his reality, when all his power and coherent identity lies behind his mask. When he wears the mask, he can access the power of Khonshu, as well as all past and present aspects of himself. The mask allows Moon Knight to present as “sane,” with a unified personality. The conversation between self and mask has been blurred before in comics, often while using mental illness as a trope to explore shattered identity, with a mask being the avenue to power and agency, leading to the primary sense of self being attached to the mask. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Rorschach from Watchmen (who also ends up in psychiatric treatment) experiences something similar to Moon Knight, referring to his civilian self as “my disguise” and his mask as “my face.”14 When Spector attempts to reestablish agency in Lemire and Smallwood’s issue 1 (2016), he creates a mask for himself out of bandages, which allows him to see behind the masks of his doctor and orderlies and perceive their animalheaded selves beneath.15 When the mask is ripped away from him, reality (either real, or another delusion, discussed further below) reasserts its dominance, causing his power and ability to resist to disappear. Either the mask allows him to become Moon Knight and see through the masks of others, or the mask allows him to embody the idea of Moon Knight and create his own new reality so that instead of orderlies and doctors, he now faces animal-headed gods and minions. A masked Moon Knight can flit between his different alters according to who is the most useful at any one point, as the mask allows him to choose which self to present.

The Evolution and Misrepresentation of DID When we look at Moon Knight as a character, not just as an extreme example of superhero identity confusion, we can see some of the problematic aspects of Moon Knight as a representative of mental distress. Moon


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Knight series have had a complicated history in how they have represented and misrepresented Spector’s mental distress over the years. In some of the earlier texts, accurate portrayal of mental distress was a negligible priority, and the premise was that Spector gained DID by pretending too well to be his various civilian identities.16 A correction to this misrepresentation appears in Ellis and Shalvey’s issue 1 (2014), when Marc Spector is told by his doctor that he doesn’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder, as “you don’t ‘catch’ DID simply by pretending to be other people,”17 which is, of course, a reasonable psychological and medical statement. By shifting the diagnosis away from DID, the creators unintentionally place judgment upon Spector’s mental distress, invalidating his experience in a similar way to how some famous DID (previously MPD) patients have been discredited as frauds, which has in turn called the entire diagnosis into question (one of the contributing factors to the level and type of stigma attached to DID). Mental distress usually lurks at the bottom of what community and activists refer to as the disability hierarchy, by which I mean how much validity, prestige, empathy, or credibility we give to someone else’s experience of disability, and therefore how many changes or concessions society and individuals give to them18 under either a medical or social model of disability.19 In such a hierarchy, “low prestige is accorded to the conditions associated with mental illness or symptoms that cannot readily be localized or, in some cases, verified.”20 Within the disability hierarchy, mental illnesses also have different levels of prestige, and a condition such as DID “might be interpreted as reflecting problems of credibility, stigma and deviance.”21 Perceived deviance from a social contract of illness leads to a patient being responsible for the continuation of their suffering, which is a common form of external and internalized forms of stigmatic ableism for those experiencing mental distress. Mental illness becomes a matter of weakness, with willpower or “snapping out of it” being the suggested solution. Bearing in mind the problems of stigma, credibility, and deviance affecting the social and personal negative status of a condition such as DID, we can see how the elimination of mental distress in Ellis’s volume 7 reinforces the idea of quick solutions to mental distress. In this storyline, Spector’s mental distress experience was eliminated entirely, as Ellis’s Spector was possessed by an alien entity, a plot point that moved Spector’s experience from the realm of the mental to the metaphysical. For the reader, it changed Spector’s experience from a mental one to a fantastic one, moving his symptoms from intangible and subjective toward the concrete “illness” version of alien possession. The presented experience

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now has the qualities of a more prestigious disability: tangibility, effective treatment, objectively verifiable symptoms, and significant representation of the experience (at least in the world of comics). Another elimination of mental experience occurs in Bendis and Maleev’s 2011–12 run, when Moon Knight gains alters of Captain America, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Echo, all of whom are presented in a manner more consistent with schizophrenia or psychosis (which further questions the legitimacy of DID as a diagnosis). Spector sees the alters in hallucinations, and they talk both to him and to one another within his head. He even tells his technology specialist, Buck Lime, “I hear voices.”22 However, there is a rejection of his mental health problems within the narrative as he refuses to confide in Echo, even when she explicitly asks on multiple occasions, “What is wrong with you?”23 Perhaps there is internalized ableism within the character of Spector, who recognizes and responds to Echo’s limitations due to her deafness, but who is unwilling to examine or communicate his mental experiences, as one has validity within the disability community, while the other is shrouded in shame. In addition, by rejecting DID in favor of a simpler and more self-aware version of Moon Knight, who hallucinates but who is also almost always able to determine between reality and mental construction, the creators accept and reify a mental health hierarchy where an experience of DID is more bizarre and alienating, and more controversial, than a psychotic experience where reality can still be determined (which by definition means it is no longer a psychosis experience). A further judgment takes place in the editorial summary of issue 10, when the alter Wolverine kills the internal Captain America and Spider-Man alters: “Moon Knight falls into an uncontrollable berserker rage.”24 This plot point misrepresents the psychosis Spector had been experiencing through the rest of the text, as Spector does not appear to have DID in this particular series; therefore, the idea that an internal, violent voice takes control of his body is more analogous to the misleading stereotypes of the violent individual with schizophrenia, who is overtaken by the whims and voices within and becomes a “berserker,” an idea alluded to when Buck Lime asks, “What do the . . . voices tell you to do?”25 By laying these ideas side by side—uncontrollable violence and mental illness—the writers distort the real experience of mental illness and evoke stigmatizing stereotypes that encourage people to fear mental illness in others and themselves.26 Bendis and Maleev’s Spector is also the first to point out any possibilities of his own perception being altered, asking other characters, “You see him, too?”27 and “Are you real?”28 and referring to himself as “crazy.”


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He attempts to regain control of his own image, as well as of how others perceive and interact with him, all in reaction to the stigma of mental illness. However, the way to do this is to distance himself from previous iterations of his character, as well as the idea of being “crazy.” If he can reject his past as Khonshu and Marc Spector, and also his alters and mental experience, then he in some ways can prove himself “normal.” Spector tells Buck Lime: “I dress up like a little-known moon god and strike fear in the hearts of men . . . Did you really think I was normal? Do you think that any of us . . . any of the costumes are normal? We’re all crazy.”29 If Spector has only two identities, the costume and the civilian, then he is part of the superhero community, an acceptable variation on the “crazy” of being a costumed vigilante. Tony Stark supports this view: “We all have to be [nuts] to do what we do.”30 This might be read as an internal joke, a self-referential musing about reality, ridiculous character arcs, and comic-book logic, but it also plays into a wider conception of how society perceives mental distress: if Stark and Spector are the same type of “crazy,” then Spector has achieved normality, or at least a passable facsimile of it. Spector is back to being a metaphor for identity crises, an extension of a trope where all superheroes struggle with their identities and where everyone is “nuts.”

External Causes of Mental Distress A further way that Moon Knight’s DID is minimized as part of a superhero identity trope is when Spector’s mental state is created and controlled by outside entities, similar to possession and brainwashing narratives that frequently occur in superhero comics. This allows for the premise that instead of DID being created internally—in other words, constituting a psychological phenomenon—it can be either the manifestation of an invasive entity or the creation of an outside force. Spector’s doctor in Ellis and Shalvey’s issue 1 (2014), after dismissing Spector’s previous diagnosis of DID, goes on to clarify: “You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space-time.”31 The creators use an invasion metaphor to explain and rewrite a mental experience: to be colonized is for the invaded to assume the faces, masks, and aspects of the invader. This choice of words, to misdirect from mental creation to colonization, allows for another simplification of the experience. Mental distress is no longer something that happens within the mind, but something that is done to the character. The idea of possession or invasion as the origin

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of alternative voices or identities allows for the possible extraction and eradication of the outside presence, restoring a status quo. If an external voice or entity can become internal, and then be removed by force, mental illness becomes something that can be easily excised.32 An example of the possibilities of removing mental distress occurs in Wood and Smallwood’s Moon Knight run, when Spector’s psychiatric doctor, Elisa Warsame, guides him through hypnosis on the role Khonshu has had in his life.33 In issue 9 (“Doctor”), when Warsame and Spector are negotiating within the hypnosis, a bone-armored Spector creates an Egyptian night landscape across four tier-wide panels, a visual representation of the safety and control Spector has over the session.34 Warsame turns the session and leads Spector into her past, which shatters the scene into fifteen-panel pages, colored in warm yellows and reds; Moon Knight crosses some panels, sometimes changing aspects or representations over the transitions, existing in multiple states on the same page.35 By disrupting Spector’s mental landscape, Dr. Warsame gains control over Spector’s experience and asserts her own. By the end of the treatment session, Spector is alone. Khonshu has abandoned Spector as his aspect on Earth and chosen the doctor instead. This episode positions mental illness as something that can be easily fixed or even relocated, part of the superhero tradition of retconning, resetting reality and characters. If the goal of psychiatric treatment is to excise the mental variations experienced by a patient, then Dr. Warsame is successful. The alters, and the voices that Spector experiences, are eliminated. However, this sequence can be viewed against the idea that psychiatric abnormalities can be valued by the patient, bringing something important to their sense of self. This view is explicit in Moon Knight, volume 6 (Bendis and Maleev, 2011–12), when Buck Lime suggests Spector could get treatment to even out his voices, and Spector replies, “I don’t want to.”36 If, however, the goal of a psychiatric treatment is to empower the patient, then the doctor fails, and shatters Spector’s sense of self in the process. For Spector, Khonshu is where he gets his power, and the doctor explicitly steals that power by seducing Khonshu into picking her as his aspect. Spector: “Khonshu is me and I am Khonshu.” Dr. Warsame: “Are you sure? Why don’t you show me that bone armor of yours?”37 The doctor strips him of his armor, which gives him protection and the power to fight. This sequence follows a genre tradition in which doctors,


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especially psychiatrists, are often portrayed as villainous, deceitful, or “mad” themselves. The halls of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, for example, are populated by psychiatrists who fall into evil and madness, such as Harley Quinn, the Scarecrow, and both Amadeus and Jeremiah Arkham. Such characters not only perpetuate a link between mental illness and crime but also showcase the use of disability as an ironic device in superhero narratives. Those who attempt to heal the mind lose their minds.

Asylums, Doctors, and Authority Figures Psychiatric treatment in superhero comics is likewise often arcane, cruel, and outdated. Spector even latches onto the contradiction of modern treatment versus comics treatment as evidence that the asylum in volume 8 of Moon Knight (Lemire and Smallwood 2016–17) is not real: “Hospitals like this don’t exist anymore.”38 However, the myth of perfectly effective treatment still exists within the comics, as it does in the real world. In this storyline, Dr. Emmet (goddess Ammut) manages to inject Spector on multiple occasions, which immediately breaks Spector’s ability to see alternative identities, restoring reality (the asylum) as Spector expects to see it.39 This normalizes the idea that mental experiences can be switched off through drug regimens or treatment. This version of reality, controlled by drugs (and retconned in the comics as dreams) is more easily accepted as part of a hierarchy of validity that doubts the voices and experiences of those with mental distress, and that can lead to patient abuse and marginalized individuals. This scenario can be of particular importance when the role of the doctor might be secondary, as police officers are often frontline when dealing with people experiencing mental distress, an issue that plays out in Lemire and Smallwood’s issue 8 (2017). Ammut-as-Emmet returns in this issue as a police detective interrogating Jake Lockley in a scene that blurs delineation between authority, jailers, and doctors. Detective Emmet establishes the assumption that Spector is violent because of his mental illness when she says, “Your file says that you have a long history of mental illness, Mister Spector. This accident . . . It was a delusion.”40 However, as with the assumption of violence, the interaction between justice and the individual can break down. Lockley asks for his lawyer but Detective Emmet refuses. The abusive orderlies, Billy and Bobby, who smirked down at Spector during electroconvulsive therapy in issue 2,41 now become dismissive police officers: “You know what I think, Bobby. He’s guilty as sin.”42 The art

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Figure 2.1 Jeff Lemire and Francesco Francavilla, “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 8 (2016): 4.

underscores this reading: we see Lockley sitting at a table within a triangle of light, from a perspective located behind the officers, who loom intimidatingly over Lockley. Detective Emmet also offers an intriguing example of reaction to other’s mental illness: in a close-up, full-width panel focusing on her eyes, we see the reflection of Lockley looking defeated in Emmet’s glasses, while her visible eye shows fear. Lockley defends the Moon Knight costume, “The costume is not part of any delusion! That costume is—it’s the only thing that keeps me—” and Emmet finishes with, “Sane?” while the expression on her close-up face shows disgust.43

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The idea that Lockley might have the delusion of sanity is part of what repulses Emmet. However, her character within the Lockley reality is not a villainous goddess; she is simply a human detective who assumes that a mask and a cape and a fake mustache are the signs of a psychotic murderer. This interaction takes place within the mindscape of Lockley, which might qualify it as a creation of narrative drama alone, not intended as a reflection of reality; however, the mental landscape for those experiencing mental distress is one where law, justice, and doctors are not necessarily to be trusted. This distinction can play out in reality when in the United States “the risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness than for other civilians approached or stopped by officers.”44 Moments like this more accurately reflect the complexity of lived experience, in comparison to the superheroic escapes from police that occur in Bendis and Maleev’s series.45 The power imbalance between Emmet and Lockley echoes the way that Marc Spector interacts with authority and doctors in Wood and Smallwood’s issue 10 (“HQ”), when after being apprehended as a vigilante by a United Nations tactical team, they proceed to beat him with truncheons and the butts of weapons.46 He is not dressed as Moon Knight in these encounters. He more closely resembles a homeless man, dirty, bloodied, and bearded, an image closely associated with those experiencing mental distress. Spector is taken into custody, where he is medicated, injected, and has his hair shaved. The guards wear black body armor and face masks, while the doctor/authority figure wears a white mask reminiscent of Moon Knight’s own.47 The jailors are anonymous and interchangeable, acting behind masks that give them power and status over Spector. The power dynamic plays out further when Spector says, “I’m being detained illegally. My Miranda rights were not read to me. My requests for a lawyer continue to be ignored. I’ve had medical procedures done to me without my consent.”48 Before he will answer these charges, the authority figure demands Spector’s “Obedience. Acceptance. Compliance.”49 He only answers once Spector’s hair has grown out perceptibly, to show the passage of time: “Your doctor has filed the paperwork necessary for us to keep you here.”50 Under the guise of safety and help, Spector can be entirely removed from society. Presentations such as this, which rely on extreme power differentials between patients and doctors, exemplify some of the fears and stigmas associated with mental distress, fears that have an impact on the likelihood of seeking treatment and therefore individual outcomes.

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The Asylum as a Liminal Space Between Reality and Madness The use of the asylum trope in Moon Knight, volume 8 (2016–17) is more complex. The asylum, a focal location of the Lemire and Smallwood run, is a place that both creates and undermines reality. It acts as a liminal space where all previous recurring Moon Knight characters wait for their part, equally mad or at least equally incarcerated, except that Spector can see the reality of the asylum.51 The asylum provides a lens of possibilities: either Spector is mad, and the asylum is real, or the asylum is a construction to control Spector by telling him he is mad, and therefore his reality is unreliable. The asylum is part of the convention that allows all the actions, experiences, and the Marvel universe to fall into the cliché of “it was all a dream,” explicitly used in the final panels of issue 5, where Steven Grant wakes and looks out upon the “real” Hollywood.52 Lemire unsettles the boundaries between the mental and physical spaces of the comic, which allows the reader to enter a liminal space between the two. The series figures Spector’s mental illness as a trope as well as an experience, with the text able to be read simultaneously as both reality and a mental construction. This allows the reader to be pulled into Spector’s internal experience, doubting the truth of what they see on the page— which echoes the experience of doubting what you see or hear as someone experiencing mental distress—encouraging in the reader an uncertain understanding of the “reality” of the text. When Steven Grant wakes from the dream of having committed suicide to escape Khonshu, it creates the possibility of erasing past events through discovering they were dreams: the real world is one where fantasy is created by Hollywood writers and producers, by creative minds rather than gods. Lemire’s run repeatedly rejects the idea of simple solutions to the complexity of mental distress: by attempting to escape the “false” reality of the asylum and the straightforward villainy of Khonshu, Spector’s understanding of reality and sense of self fractures further. This is itself an inversion of the simplicity of deus ex machina solutions and retcons that often occur within the superhero genre, and in previous runs of Moon Knight. Lemire and Smallwood strategically use spatial positioning and point of view to design panel compositions53 that create a nonlogical focalization of the narrative through Moon Knight’s perspective, in order to reflect a more complex experience of mental distress. Lemire and Smallwood intertwine the mental experience with reality, drawing the reader into a rabbit hole of not knowing which parts of the story are literal, if any, and which are entirely mentally constructed. In the tenth issue the


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reader has to literally turn the comic upside down when they reach the final pages:54 Spector has landed in a new dimension of reality, flipped or spun away from a straight and logical plane that works according to the accepted conventions of reading a Western comic, left to right, top to bottom. Lemire and Smallwood encourage the complicity of the audience in the construction of Spector’s experience, directing the audience’s confusion and engagement. This textual mode effectively interrogates the practice of using mental illness as only a metaphorical trope: mental distress is the structure of both the plot and the text itself, demanding both empathy and confusion from the reader in order to be understood.

Creating a Polyphonic Narrative Greg Smallwood, the primary artist of the 2016–17 run with Jeff Lemire (as well as of issues 7–9 and 11–12 in volume 7, with Brian Wood), draws both Moon Knight and Khonshu with a sketchy style that emphasizes the drawn nature of the comic. Moon Knight, in any of his white costumes, is a bare sketch of pencil, charcoal, or India ink lines on a white void, with a background of characters and settings rendered in a more detailed style. When Moon Knight’s mask is removed, his face sits above the sketch of his body, more real than the body, itself giving the appearance of a mask: the details of his face become the incongruous aspect, as does the idea of reducing Moon Knight to a single identity, as each face or body is always Moon Knight, and simplified facial identity does not apply perfectly here. Smallwood creates Moon Knight as a white construct that emerges from white gutters into borderless panels. Scott McCloud considers the gutters to be the places where the reader creates the meanings and connections between panels,55 so in this way Moon Knight acts as a mental construction directed in part by the reader’s expectations. In figure 2.2, Spector reaches out toward Khonshu’s skull, but also out of the page, his hands emerging from the gutters toward the reader, as he confronts Khonshu’s construction and manipulation of Spector’s mental instability. In this panel the reader sees from within Khonshu’s skull: we are part of the oppression that Khonshu represents when we look at a character with mental distress only as a trope to be manipulated to further the storytelling. Lemire and Smallwood’s run also uses a polyphonic visual narrative when the work is split between four artists during issues 5–9 to differentiate between experiences of different alters. This explicit shift, with different artists presenting each alters’ world, allows the text to explore focalization

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Figure 2.2 Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood, “Death and Birth,” Moon Knight 8, no. 14 (2017): 15.

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through personalities other than Spector, which gives a visual resonance and credibility to the alters’ distinct existences. In turn, this credibility creates complexity to the presentation of DID, as the reader is no longer examining Moon Knight’s alters through the single focalization of Spector. Greg Smallwood remains with the primary plotline of Marc versus Khonshu, Wilfred Torres draws Steven Grant, Francesco Francavilla draws Jake Lockley, and James Stokoe draws a version of Marc Spector who is a fighter pilot on a moon base. Each artist brings a distinct style in order to represent the world as four alters with their own experiences, expectations, and backgrounds, helping to recreate the dissonance between alters. Jake Lockley’s world is simultaneously bright and noir, with block four-color printing and thick ink shadows, as well as the entire background tinted to appear like aged, matte comic paper; this establishes the connection between pulp comics and the street-smart, rough character-type of Jake (see fig. 2.1).56 We can see that Jake’s experience of the world is different from Steven’s by its visual representation. This allows the reader to experience multiple worlds and their construction simultaneously, creating an experience of jarring realities: the boundaries between different artists bleed, with the same experience playing across two worlds,57 echoing a confusion of not knowing how parts of reality and perception fit together. Readers are drawn into experiencing the panic and confusion of DID, rather than just watching it from a distanced perspective, as well as experiencing the tangibility of different alter perceptions as represented through the differing visualizations and styles of the four artists.

DID Treatment and Self-Determinism The most significant step in establishing Moon Knight as an intriguing example of how to talk about DID, however, comes in Lemire’s Moon Knight attempting to integrate all his alters into a single self. In issue 9, Spector eliminates each of his alters: space-fighter Spector through confrontation with his “newness” and lack of character depth; Jake through violence; Steven through conversation.58 This is an expected method of treatment for DID: confronting alters as groups or individuals until they integrate back into the host identity.59 Spector walks from the final page of this issue, thinking, “I have to go back to the hospital . . . I have to kill Khonshu.”60 Once he’s reached an integrated state, he has to confront his “demon” as well as confront the place that represents his own madness. The interesting commentary on Spector’s integration with

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his alters comes in issue 12, when Spector welcomes his alters back when he needs them in a fight.61 We could read this as an example of continuity demands, where major changes to a character are overturned to maintain status quo; however, it also showcases a more complex (and modern) version of DID treatment. In issue 13, when Spector says, “Call me Mr. Knight,”62 he is taking back a name and identity he thought he had to eliminate to be “sane.” And in the climax scene of the fourteenth and final Lemire issue, each alter has to confront Khonshu in order to destroy his influence over them, with Jake saying, “We are going to live with who we are.”63 This choice to negotiate with alters, after examining the events and experiences that each alter holds without relying on elimination, is a rather modern method of accepted treatment for DID.64 Lemire’s run ends with Spector looking up at the moon, the page layout with its four wide horizontal panels echoing the preceding pages where Spector allowed each alter to have its own moment. Spector says, “For the first time in a long, long time, our mind is quiet. And I . . . I just let it wash over me. I let it be quiet. Then doubt starts to creep in . . . Is this real?”65 Moon Knight can share his mind, while still maintaining a single identity at any one time; importantly, he is not “cured” and will always have some doubts about his perception of reality. The character is not suppressing or eliminating his alters, as attempted in issue 9, but instead moving forward in a way that acknowledges their place in his mind and life. The role of personal attitudes toward barriers and oppression has a significant influence on individual experience of disability,66 and Lemire’s dénouement demonstrates the remarkable potential for comics to examine the roles of stigmatization and self-stigmatization productively. There is a move toward acceptance of different experiences of the world being valid, and a nod to the idea that different treatment methods can reflect the patient’s wants and goals, as opposed to following social constructions of what a “normal” experience of identity and self should be. The final issue of Lemire’s Moon Knight shows us a character experiencing mental distress being allowed to choose their own treatment: it is self-directed, rather than externally driven, and it is ultimately successful when a functioning form of self emerges, even if this is not “normal” or without alters. Mental illness in popular culture is too often used as a simple signifier for instability, danger, or threat. Comic books, however, can portray the concepts of split identities, shaky realities, and isolation with empathy, in situations where characters have agency. The long running nature of Moon Knight, and the willingness of different creative teams to separate new stories from what has come before, demonstrates changing expressions


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of mental health in popular culture. Lemire’s run allows the character of Moon Knight to reassert his individual rights and powers: as one who is able to acknowledge, cope, and choose his own medication and therapeutic treatments, and one who is able to create his own reality.

76 Bibliography Acker, Ben, Ben Blacker, and Evan Shaner. “Madcapped!” Deadpool Annual #1. New York: Marvel Comics, 2013. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. Bendis, Brian Michael, and Alex Maleev, et al. Moon Knight 6. New York: Marvel Comics, 2011–12. Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: MonkeyBrain, 2006. Ellis, Warren, Declan Shalvey, et al. Moon Knight 7, nos. 1–6. New York: Marvel Comics, 2014. Grue, Jan, Lars E. F. Johannessen, and Erik Fossan Rasmussen. “Prestige Rankings of Chronic Diseases and Disabilities: A Survey Among Professionals in the Disability Field.” Social Science and Medicine 124 (2015): 180–86. Horstkotte, Silke, and Nancy Pedri. “Focalization in Graphic Narrative.” Narrative 19 (2011): 330–57. International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. “Guidelines for Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder in Adults, Third Revision.” Journal of Trauma and Dissociation 12, no. 2 (2011): 115–87. Jutel, Goldstein, and Peter Conrad. Putting a Name to It: Diagnosis in Contemporary Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Lemire, Jeff, Greg Smallwood, et al. Moon Knight 8, nos. 1–14. New York: Marvel Comics, 2016–17. ———. Moon Knight: Lunatic. New York: Marvel Comics, 2016. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Mikkonen, Kai. The Narratology of Comic Art. New York: Routledge, 2017. Moench, Doug. “Shades of Moon Knight.” In “Ruling the World from His Basement.” Epic Collection: Moon Knight, vol. 2, Shadows of the Moon. New York: Marvel Comics, 2015. Moench, Doug, et al. Moon Knight 1, nos. 1–38. New York: Marvel Comics, 1980–84. Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. “Fearful Symmetry.” Watchmen, no. 5. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Shakespeare, Tom. Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2014. Stuart, Heather. “Violence and Mental Illness: An Overview.” World Psychiatry 2 (2003). Taylor, Jennifer Michelle. “Know Thyselves: Theorizing Multiple Personality Through Social Movements.” Ph.D. diss., University of California Santa Barbara, 2013. Wood, Brian, and Greg Smallwood. Moon Knight 7, nos. 7–11. New York: Marvel Comics, 2014–15.

Notes 1. Lemire, Smallwood, et al., Moon Knight: Lunatic, introductory blurb. 2. The DSM-IV details DID as a “disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states, [ . . . a] marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in affect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception,

Sane Superheroes cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning” (298). Moon Knight’s experience only occasionally causes significant distress and impairment in regular functioning, as these fluctuate in importance with each creative team. 3. Moench’s authoritative 1980s run of Moon Knight (vol. 1, 1980–84) barely meets the DSM criteria for DID, because although the character has different identities who act and speak differently, they usually work with a common sense of self and agency, following the goals of a primary self. Moench mentions having read the discredited book Sybil, which propelled DID (then Multiple Personality Disorder) into the public consciousness shortly before Moon Knight’s creation (Moench, “Shades of Moon Knight,” 262). 4. Just as physical (especially temporary) disability is utilized to further character or plot complications, mental distress can fulfill a similar role, providing temporary threat and conflict. Although there is some resistance within the disability community to consider mental distress as a disability, the World Health Organization’s definition of disability makes the inclusion of mental illness both necessary and justified: “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations” (http://​www​.who​.int​/topics​/disabilities​/en). 5. Taylor, Know Thyselves, 6. 6. Ibid. 7. Jutel and Conrad, Putting a Name to It, 13. 8. Coogan, Superhero, 32–34. 9. Moench, “Shades of Moon Knight,” 260–62. 10. Jutel and Conrad, Putting a Name to It, 13. 11. Ellis and Shalvey, “Box,” Moon Knight 7, no. 3, 7–8. 12. Horstkotte and Pedri, “Focalization in Graphic Narrative,” 334. 13. Ellis and Shalvey, “Scarlet,” Moon Knight 7, no. 5, 18. 14. Moore and Gibbons, “Fearful Symmetry,” 18. 15. Lemire and Smallwood, “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 1, 21. 16. Doug Moench explained the character design of Moon Knight as “any man [. . .] seeking to become a new and better man—verily, a super hero—would logically be prone to role-playing. I’ve merely tried to stretch the ancient concept to further limits . . . while still keeping the character sane” (“Shades of Moon Knight,” 262). 17. Ellis and Shalvey, “Slasher,” Moon Knight 7, no. 1, 17. 18. Other intersectional factors such as gender or ethnicity also have an impact on where an individual might fall within the hierarchy, which affects quality of life, diagnosis, and access to services. 19. Crippledscholar, “Fighting My Internalization of the Hierarchy of Disability.” August 23, 2015, https://​crippledscholar​.com​/2015​/08​/23​/fighting​my​internalization​of​the​hierarchy​ of​disability. 20. Grue et al., “Prestige Rankings,” 183. 21. Ibid., 184. 22. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 7, 2. 23. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 6, 11. 24. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 10, introduction. 25. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 7, 3–4. 26. Stuart, “Violence and Mental Illness.” 27. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 4, 7. 28. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 6, 10. 29. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 7, 3–4. 30. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 12, 15. 31. Ellis and Shalvey, Moon Knight 7, no. 1, 18.


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32. An example of this occurs in the 2013 Deadpool Annual #1, as a retcon of Deadpool’s dueling internal voices. The white caption box is revealed to be the villain Madcap, who was accidentally absorbed by Deadpool’s healing factor; the problem is identified, Deadpool is literally ripped in two, and each half regrows as their own separate bodies (Acker, Blacker, and Shaner, “Madcapped!”). 33. Wood and Smallwood, “Doctor,” Moon Knight 7, no. 9, 2–16. 34. Ibid., 2–4. 35. Ibid., 8–12. 36. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 7, 3–4. 37. Wood and Smallwood, “Doctor,” Moon Knight 7, no. 9, 15. 38. Lemire and Smallwood, “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 2, 3. 39. Lemire and Smallwood, “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 3, 6–7. 40. Lemire et al., “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 8, 3–4. 41. Lemire and Smallwood, “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 2, 5. 42. Lemire et al., “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 8, 1. 43. Ibid., 4. 44. Doris A. Fuller, H. Richard Lamb, Michael Biascotti, and John Snook, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” 3 (Treatment Advocacy Centre, 2015), http://​www​.treatmentadvocacycenter​.org​/storage ​/documents​/overlooked​in​the​undercounted​.pdf. 45. Bendis and Maleev, Moon Knight 6, no. 5, 4. 46. Wood and Smallwood, “HQ,” Moon Knight 7, no. 10, 20. 47. Wood and Smallwood, “Rendered,” Moon Knight 7, no. 11, 1–2. 48. Ibid., 3. 49. Ibid. 50. Ibid., 7. 51. Lemire and Smallwood, “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 1, 10–19. 52. Lemire, Smallwood, et al., “Welcome to New Egypt,” Moon Knight 8, no. 5, 19–20. 53. Mikkonen, Narratology of Comic Art, 155. 54. Lemire and Smallwood, “Death and Birth,” Moon Knight 8, no. 10, 18–20. 55. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 66–69. 56. Lemire and Smallwood, “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 6, 4. 57. Lemire and Smallwood, “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 7, 6–8. 58. Lemire and Smallwood, “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 9, 6–18. 59. Alters in Dissociative Identity Disorder, http://​/traumadissociation​.com​/alters​.html. 60. Lemire and Smallwood, “Incarnations,” Moon Knight 8, no. 9, 20. 61. Lemire and Smallwood, “Death and Rebirth,” Moon Knight 8, no. 12, 11. 62. Lemire and Smallwood, “Death and Rebirth,” Moon Knight 8, no. 13, 2. 63. Lemire and Smallwood, “Death and Rebirth,” Moon Knight 8, no. 14, 16. 64. International Society, “Guidelines for Treating,” 132–34. 65. Lemire and Smallwood, “Death and Rebirth,” Moon Knight, no. 14, 19. 66. Shakespeare, Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited, 82.

3 Echo The Silence Between the Notes

Sarah Bowden

Superhero narratives are written by the body. Flip through the pages of any tights and flights book, and you will observe rippling biceps, massive hamstrings, and chiseled faces, all fighting for your attention. Vulnerability—physical, emotional, or mental—is rarely represented outside of tragic origin stories. Even then, the scars left on our heroes hold little consequence. Batman may be a lost child eternally mourning the death of his parents, but his psychological anguish is muted by iconic poses, gymnastic feats, and deductive triumph. Archer Hawkeye displays hearing loss when it is convenient for his ongoing plot, but few creators examine how he copes with the everyday challenges that accompany his disability. Superheroic stories require a feint toward what society perceives as disadvantage, but it is rare that visible or invisible disabilities are championed as positive attributes for a costumed crime fighter. One great exception is Marvel Comics’ Maya Lopez, codenamed Echo. A Deaf Latina / Native American woman, she transforms the traditional superhero narrative into something more open and vulnerable, by embracing her difference and using her unique perspective to connect with others. Maya is best known as a foil for Daredevil, though it may be more accurate to describe her as the superhero’s opposite. That is certainly how creator David Mack views Echo in his twin Daredevil tales “Parts of

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a Hole” (1999–2001) and “Vision Quest” (2003–4). Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s alter ego, was blinded by radioactive waste as a child, an accident that heightened his remaining senses to superhuman levels. Daredevil may provide the gold standard when it comes to canceling out physical disability. He passes as a blind man in his everyday identity, but in pursuit of an assassin, he will trace the trajectory of a gunshot by the smell of powder on the air; he can hear the killer’s cell phone call from blocks away.1 Matt Murdock may not see, but he perceives more than a sighted man ever could, thus negating his lost vision and introducing readers to a uniquely powerful frame of reference. Maya, on the other hand, has been Deaf since birth. “My life is a foreign film with no subtitles,” she tells the reader. “You are forced to learn the language.”2 Unlike Matt, she does not receive the advantage of compensating superpowers as a child. She must study body language and read lips in order to understand the world around her. She must push against others’ assumptions about her intelligence and ability, and she is shuttled between various special education schools before her talent for music and performance are recognized.3 Because she has worked so hard to comprehend the hearing world, she is able to “recreate any complex physical action” that she observes; she is a prodigy by necessity.4 Her Deafness becomes her strength, rather than her weakness. Mack also ties Maya’s Deafness directly to her Native American heritage. Whereas Matt’s blindness is attributed to accident and masquerade, Maya’s ability to communicate with others is linked to her father’s use of Indian Sign Language with his daughter, and to the Native American tradition of storytelling. “My Cherokee uncle inspired much of Echo’s story,” Mack states in one interview. “He would tell me Native stories when I was very little, and he would ask me to draw the stories and icons from the stories. It was a subject I was immersed in as a child, and I continued to be a part of it when I was older. The storyteller as guide, and the artist as shaman are subjects that I appreciated from my uncle’s stories.”5 In Mack’s artwork, scenes from Maya’s childhood are rendered in sketchy pencils, with her father William Lincoln’s face the only photorealistic and fresh image within a series of panels. Lincoln teaches Maya sign by telling her shadow puppet stories at bedtime; often, these narratives are Native American folktales. Mack situates these nighttime panels in a particular sequence for “Vision Quest.” First, the viewer sees Lincoln’s hand creating the shadow image of a wolf. The following panel displays a photorealistic image of a wolf, then a raccoon, and then an owl. Thus we interpret the changing shadow just as Maya’s imagination does; the shape becomes the true image itself, and it helps her understand the narrative being


shared.6 These stories teach Maya how to read lips, but they also teach her the importance of her cultural history and allow her to connect with her father on a deeper emotional level. His effort to communicate with her about their shared tribal past inspires her to become a performer and storyteller later in life. Mack often highlights characters with unique perspectives in his work, which explains why he chose to introduce Maya into Daredevil’s narrative. “You can put a character with a strong view next to another, and you get to have them brush up against each other,” he says. “Some people think this character is my definite point of view, but it allows me a playground to let these points of view go against each other.”7 Mack’s artwork is a study in conflict. He prints real-world materials on a page alongside two-dimensional comic panels, juxtaposing what stands out to a character with what catches the audience’s eye. He employs various art styles, from sketchy figure drawing to fully realistic paintings, often placing one style against the other on the same page. Joe Quesada, the artist for Mack’s writing on “Parts of a Hole,” adopts Mack’s penchant for moving between styles, saving the detailed scenes for private moments and depicting the public superhero showdowns in his own exaggerated, stripped-down cartoonist’s style. Thus Echo is visually showcased as a study in contrasts. She sees the world differently from those around her; she focuses on faces and movement, and the audience is encouraged to do the same, generating a strong connection between the character and the reader. Lukas Etter hypothesizes that the subjectivity of the artist informs the perception of drawn figures.8 How an image is completed tells us more than the image itself. Mack’s choice to depict Maya in varying art forms across various panel layouts proves that she is a changing and changeable character, someone whose internal experiences become visual when married to Mack’s examination of comics as a medium for storytelling and conflict. Mack defines both Matt and Maya by how they interact with the world, often through music, and this influences how the audience perceives each character. Matt Murdock plays the piano by ear. Music is as close as he comes to seeing. “I don’t mean knowing where you’re going, I mean seeing, the way you’d look at a painting,” he explains. “Every chord has color—the way memory has a color—the way memory has a scent.”9 The visual depiction of his musical notes contains references to the sounds and smells of his origin story. For Matt, music provides a sensual picture of the world, one he cherishes secretly, as a solo player. For Maya, playing the piano unlocks something much more potent. She has had no experience with


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the instrument as a child, when a pianist visits one of her schools for the developmentally disabled. This scene is presented in both “Parts of a Hole” and “Vision Quest,” and the artists’ differing approaches to the event tell us much about the interpersonal connection that music brings to Maya’s life. In Quesada’s depiction, the pianist performs a concert for her classmates, and the other children and the teacher are scrawled stick figures, as if a young Maya drew the scene in crayon. Only the pianist’s hands retain Quesada’s cartoony, three-dimensional style. Maya finds herself mesmerized by the pianist’s movement, and in one panel, she places her hand on the piano. A separate, in-set panel calls attention to her face at this moment, which colorists Richard Isanove and David Self highlight using colored pencil to shade her now-photorealistic features. Maya and the pianist enter a world of their own in visual terms; they are more solid, more connected than anyone else. The vibration of the instrument’s notes rebound into Maya’s body. “I had never felt anything so direct,” she tells the reader. “It penetrated the barrier of isolation.”10 It is no coincidence that these lines of narration repeat in “Vision Quest”; this breaking of a boundary changes her life. In Mack’s rendition of the scene, the pianist is presented as a shadowy, sketchy figure. Much of the flashbacks in “Vision Quest” are told in simple pencil lines, with minimal shading or detail defining the characters. But when Maya places her hand on the piano, Mack gives the reader a startling close-up of her young face, focusing on her reaction. Her eyes are full of wonder and surprise. Her discovery is more important than even watching the pianist’s hands, though she describes his fingers dancing along the piano keys like sign language. Mack gives a full page to Maya’s next action. She climbs onto the piano bench and plays the exact same melody she just felt. The music notes emanating from her playing resemble the Native American symbols that Mack used during storytelling scenes with William Lincoln. “Now to make my own vibrations feels like poetry. Freedom. Fullness. Satisfaction,” she states.11 Music allows her a voice in both the hearing and Deaf worlds and allows her to connect others to her heritage. Mack’s depiction of the moment displays her deliberation. Maya’s origin story is a choice, not an accident. And it inspires her eventual career. She becomes an expert pianist, boxer, and performance artist and uses her skills to reach multitudes. She attracts audiences wherever she goes, and their enthusiastic responses to her work provide the comfort and connection she missed as a girl. Further visual cues draw the reader into Echo’s perception, starting in “Parts of a Hole.” “Because the Echo character is deaf, most of her understanding of the world is through sight,” Mack says of his, and



Figure 3.1 David Mack, Joe Quesada, and Jimmy Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9 (1999): 9.

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often Quesada’s, art choices. “Her focus on visuals translated really well to comics for me, and she gave me something to push against how Daredevil sees the world,” often through scent or sound.12 The reader first encounters Maya in the middle of a performance. We see her crayon-drawn memories of William Lincoln as she performs a concert; Native American symbols and her father’s face emanate from her piano and paste onto a background piece of sheet music. The childhood drawings of her father repeat as she K.O.s an opponent in the boxing ring.13 Neither the spectators or audience members understand her thoughts, but the reader perceives her preoccupations and inspirations right away. This is by design. “I wanted you to be able to see things the way she is seeing things,” Mack points out.14 In contrast, when Maya makes her way to Matt’s law offices later in the story, the reader is forced to view her journey externally, primarily through sound. Quesada breaks Maya’s crossing of a busy street into three panels. In the first panel, we see Maya’s shoes sauntering between cars, in no hurry to reach the other side of the street. Just behind her, a car’s tires are shown screeching to a halt, rubber burning the road. The resulting “scrrreeee” sound, along with the “beeeeep” of the driver’s horn, take up a third of the panel in aggressive lettering. The next panel shows her shoes stepping safely onto the sidewalk, while a red car in the background slams into the stopped-short car with a loud and yellow-colored “krash.” In the third panel, Maya continues on her way, eyes closed, while a driver shouts from off-panel: “What are you, deaf ?!”15 In this moment, we get a glimpse not of Maya’s perception, but how Matt might have experienced the scene, his ears attuned to the slightest change in traffic. The reader perceives each experience through visual placement and contrast. Matt and Maya’s points of view may separate them from the rest of the world, but their differences also draw them together. “They’re both detectives in a way, deciphering—like we all are—all of their input, but in very different ways than most people are,” Mack says.16 Matt and Maya meet due to the machinations of Wilson Fisk, a hulking businessman secretly known as the Kingpin of Crime. The Kingpin knows Matt Murdock’s secret identity, and in storylines before Mack and Quesada’s work on the character, Fisk attempted to destroy Matt Murdock’s personal life, in order to derail Daredevil’s nighttime raids against his underground empire. Facing discovery due to Matt’s actions as a lawyer in “Parts of a Hole,” the Kingpin realizes that despair, rather than hope, drives vigilantes. Daredevil thrives when he is most alone, always in pursuit of another wrong to right. “To destroy a man like that you must fill the void with what he is searching for,” Fisk reasons.17 He must distract his rival


with romantic happiness, courtesy of Maya Lopez. Matt’s previous loves all reflected individual parts of his personality, but none related to his experience of the world as a man with a disability. Though Maya is Deaf, not blind, Fisk believes her unique perspective will attract his enemy. So he asks Maya to defend his phony public reputation, without revealing to her that Matt is actually Daredevil. Maya needs little convincing to help Fisk; he served as her legal guardian in childhood, and she views him as a surrogate parent in adulthood. He attends all her performances and knockout bouts. She craves the attention a thunderous audience brings partly because of his presence in the seats. “I feel the echo of the audience like one unified vibration,” she remarks, and the vibration only amplifies the sheer force of Fisk’s applause. “It takes a whole room full of people yelling and clapping to make the echo feel really good,” she admits.18 Echoes serve as a leitmotif throughout Maya’s life. They haunt and affirm, die and recur, fill space and leave it hollow. During the boxing match, where crayon memories of her father come to life, Quesada intercuts exaggerated images of Maya landing punches with the arrival of a photorealistic gun in the childhood drawings. As Maya rains blows on her opponent, the gun grows in size. Just before the final punch, the gun is fired by a mystery assailant. As Maya’s opponent falls to the mat, her father is shown dead on the ground in her thought bubble.19 No accomplishment or surrogate can replace what Maya has lost, and echoes from the crowd, or even seeing her face reflected in a black TV screen, often remind her of the last moments she shared with her dad. “I remember being in the ambulance with my father,” she narrates, as Quesada intersperses the line on a heart monitor going flat with the picture of Lincoln’s hand touching his daughter’s face. “His hand falls lifeless . . . ,” Maya recalls, a handprint made of blood lining her girlish cheeks, “and he leaves me with only his echo.”20 Maya is both an expert mimic and a shadow of her father, equally an accomplished woman and an abandoned soul. Quesada connects the audience to these ideas by contrasting her thoughts with simple imagery. Maya echoes Matt in grief, because he too lost his father at a young age, also due to a gangster’s bullet. “I realized that what motivated them as adults was a traumatic experience they had in childhood. An experience that they were not in control of,” Mack states. “And then they spend the rest of their adult lives reliving that experience by confronting it in a way in which they are in control.”21 Both channel their pain into martial arts and high-wire gymnastics. When they meet, each presents a carefree


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persona to the other, but they also sense that their opposite number might cancel out that endless echo in their hearts. Maya arranges a coffee date because she has never “unlocked the secrets of the telephone,”22 and while defending Fisk’s innocence, she finds herself drawn to the lawyer. “He’s a man of faith and optimism, whose values and ambition re-energize my own,” she confesses.23 Matt feels their connection, too, and ponders how it has come about: “Her impairment sets her apart. Brings her a different perspective. She knows what it’s like to be detached. Does she remind me of myself?”24 The two move from coffee to lunch to dinner, and then they attend a movie. Matt repeats dialogue for Maya when she in unable to read lips, and Maya describes the events onscreen for Matt. The surrounding audience reacts impatiently, hurling popcorn at the noisy pair, until they finally exit the theater.25 Their mutual experience of ableism is shrugged off, but that does not mean the two understand one another implicitly. When Matt first meets Maya, he repeatedly forgets to face her so that she may read his lips. He is also surprised that she can play the piano so well, given her disability.26 Matt cannot fathom how Maya deals with her disadvantages because she lives without his compensating superpowers. And he is not above using her disability against her. In “Vision Quest,” Matt cruelly refuses to face Maya while they discuss their complicated relationship. Mack paints the nighttime scene with vibrant blues and reds, highlighting Matt’s loner persona, as he stands far away from Maya on the edge of a rooftop. Moments of deep realization are always painted in “Vision Quest,” signaling a sensuous and startling clarity for both the characters and the reader; here, the audience sees just how much distance lies between the two lovers. Maya reminds Matt “I can’t read your lips when you are not facing me.”27 He turns, and his lips become the reader’s focus, as they would for Maya, who is concentrating on scant visual cues in the darkness. As Matt rejects Maya’s romantic overtures, he turns away from her again, sharing a measly profile view with her. Mack intersperses Matt’s half-turned body with piercing close-ups of Maya’s face, as she chastises him for his behavior, even lashing out at his dating a blind woman immediately after dating a Deaf woman. Mack presents smaller and smaller depictions of Matt’s face, until Maya turns away from him, taking his previous position at the edge of the roof. She disappears once he turns his back on her a second time.28 Fisk is equally willing to use Maya’s experience against her. He is the man who murdered her father, and he plans to solve his Daredevil problem by turning her into a weapon. Before Maya meets Matt for their date,


the Kingpin appears at her art studio, carrying a videotape of Daredevil fighting assassin-for-hire Bullseye. He tells Maya that Daredevil is the man who killed William Lincoln and hands her the gun that committed the crime. He leaves Maya with “the echo of the past.”29 Fisk knows that Maya can hurt his enemy, given her ability to mimic great fighters; her skills, coupled with her grief and connection to Matt, make her a deadly opponent. As with other private moments in “Parts of a Hole,” Quesada draws Maya’s mourning at this news in photorealistic pencils, with Isanove and Self providing a subdued palette of greens and browns to match her mood. Unlike her childhood experience with the pianist, Maya does not share her grief with others. She performs a new play on the night that Fisk tells her about Daredevil; it is a Native American tale about a shaman who is killed by a devil, so that the demon may possess his shadow. The youngest warrior of the tribe vows to fight the devil. Maya depicts the story through Indian Sign and the shadow puppetry her father taught her, and her penciled movements resemble a fighter leaping against her own shadow, muscles rippling angrily. Quesada infuses the background of her moves with cartoony devil horns and Native American symbols.30 But performing the play does not free Maya; it does not motivate her creatively. She feels applause from the audience without acknowledging her connection to them. In fact, the reader is never given a full visual of the audience, as has happened at every one of Maya’s previous performances, until Maya leaves the stage.31 The reader becomes just as isolated and self-destructive as our protagonist, as she marks her face with a handprint of white paint, an homage to the way her father’s blood once marked her cheek. Through this performance, Maya creates a new identity: Echo. And her only purpose is to destroy Daredevil. Maya and Matt prove opposites on the battleground. Though she strikes at him with billy clubs based on his own design, and though she studied video of his confrontations with Bullseye, Daredevil has the advantage of scent. He recognizes Maya instantly and attacks only to disarm her in their initial rooftop battle.32 Quesada employs his contour-driven style to express the dynamic ways both opponents mirror one another, both in this fight and subsequent skirmishes. On one page, Daredevil leaps from the high ground, arching his back in a way no real-life human would attempt; Echo mimics the exact same posture in the foreground of the image.33 The exaggerated line-work demonstrates how far above mere mortals these heroes fly. In their second bout, Matt uses Maya’s disability against her. He escapes into an abandoned warehouse, blinding Maya in a darkened space. We visualize the encounter via his sensory experience, with Maya looking


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helpless on the edges of each panel. Again, Daredevil has the advantage, as his hearing allows him to track Echo’s movements. In a claustrophobic series of stalker-like panels, Matt lurks in the shadows, tricking Maya by turning a lock and opening a door. This action reveals Maya’s position, as she fires indiscriminately at the quick flash of movement, not understanding Matt has already ducked out of the doorway. He easily evades her grasp after hunting her for three horror film–reminiscent pages. 34 Despite her unique perspective and ability to cope, Maya is still vulnerable in the hearing world, and Quesada proves it by isolating her across multiple panels. Thus Maya must work harder than others must in order to surmount obstacles. When an opponent takes advantage of her, she must respond as a master tactician, turning his vulnerability against him. Maya reasons that an overwhelming series of stimuli might make Daredevil as helpless in a different situation. She places their final battle on a public playground, using nearby jackhammer noise to distract Daredevil’s acute hearing, while setting off a large, smoking bonfire to dull his sense of smell.35 Quesada’s choreography shifts in this conflict to focus on Maya’s perception of the fight. She looms large over Matt, as the flames lick at her, and consume her entire field of vision. It is only when she tears away part of Daredevil’s mask that she really looks at her foe and recognizes the man she has been dating. A close-up of Matt’s anguished face from her perspective provides enough evidence that he is not responsible for her father’s death. And rather than bring Fisk to justice for the murder, she blinds him with a bullet, using the gun that killed her father.36 She goes underground, leaving Matt and her entire world behind, only surfacing years later for an attempt at redemption. Maya’s commitment to self-expression and connection becomes vital in reclaiming her Echo identity, both as a hero and as a Deaf, Latina / Native American woman. Mack favors a mixed media approach in the follow-up “Vision Quest” storyline, drawing the reader even further into Maya’s perception of the world around her. Spoken language is represented by the Scrabble tiles she played with as a child. Maya paints self-portraits that vary in style from Van Gogh to Picasso. She scribbles her sorrow onto sheet music, scraps of which are pasted to the comics page. “My story doesn’t happen in the sound of the notes but in the silence between them,” she writes. “It is the silence between the notes that is important. That is where the magic happens. That silence is where you will find me.”37 She uses art to work through her betrayal and anger, admitting to herself that her unique perspective requires others to enter her world as fully as she enters theirs.


Maya’s cultural heritage takes center stage as she reconciles her violent past with her possible future. While traveling across Europe, and before confronting Matt about their broken relationship, she visits several famous art museums and recreates masterworks as self-portraiture. “Because I’m trying to find myself in the colors,” she admits.38 The mimicry she developed in “Parts of a Hole” is less helpful here. Mack showcases her paintings, depicting our heroine as an Impressionist subject in one panel, then displaying her as an abstract expressionist wanderer in another. Each painting is lined with ribbon for frames, while an uncolored, almost invisible sketch of Maya looks on from the bottom of the page.39 She still relies on vision, Mack indicates, but she can never be whole until she accepts who she is and where she has come from; as she often does, she returns to the memory of her father and her people for guidance. Whenever William Lincoln ran into trouble with the law, he fled with his daughter to what he called the “Rez,” a reservation located in Oklahoma. Maya describes the community as “an interzone of all tribes.”40 Maya herself comes from a mixture of peoples; her father tells her stories about the Trail of Tears and how forced immigration created a blending of tribes. He notes, amidst Mack’s penciled photorealistic depictions of the nation-crossing journey, that his grandfather had to remember his people’s stories, since white men marched his family into boarding school to learn mainstream history and forget their own. Maya’s great-grandfather then married outside his tribe upon reaching the new territory, and he passed the stories along to William’s mother, who married outside the tribe again and “told all of their stories to me.”41 Maya, then, comes from a storytelling culture, and finding her place in that culture as a Deaf woman becomes her purpose in “Vision Quest.” Adrift on her own, she returns to the Rez, whose environment and people are pencil-sketched without added color by Mack, a choice that highlights the place’s connection to the past. Meanwhile, Maya is fully painted, positioning her as a focal point of any given page. Her realizations and discoveries draw the eye, and her changing expression across the page asks the reader to interpret her face, just as Maya must interpret the faces of others in her life. Upon returning to the Rez, Maya seeks out a man known only as the Chief. He was a fixture of Maya’s childhood, a shaman whom people appealed to for guidance. He, along with William Lincoln, taught Maya sign language and shared tribal stories with her. “He spoke to me like firelight speaks to me,” Maya describes, while watching the Chief move his hands, as drawings of Indian Sign waft from his mouth. “He spoke in pictures.”42 Often, images of the Chief and Maya’s girlhood conversations


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are framed by lace, providing the same border that Maya imposed on her adult portraits. But Mack pastes scraps of Native American folklore onto the comics page, providing contrast and variety. When the Chief explains the world to Maya, pictographs of birds swoop past the border, and reallife feathers erupt from his mouth. When Maya shares these stories with her father, her speech bubbles fill with folklore, too, and push past the lace border, invading the reader’s imagination.43 Not only do stories allow her to connect with others, the Chief points out, they allow her to share her unique point of view—one that cannot be contained on the page. “I am a storyteller because I can say things in ways that others will understand the true meaning,” he informs her. “You are like that. You see things in ways others do not.”44 When Maya asks how he knows anyone’s purpose, he replies that he discovered his life’s work on a vision quest.45 Feeling furious in the wake of shooting Fisk, and fighting romantic rejection from her ex, Maya returns to the Rez to embark on her own vision quest. She hopes to rediscover her place in the world, not as an agent of vengeance, but as a storyteller who shares her heritage and perspective with others. During a purification ceremony, the Chief warns Maya that she may see things on her journey. She will stay in the wilderness for four days without food and water, in order to commune with the higher wisdom that surrounds all living things. By paying attention to the world around her, she may find her purpose in it.46 Once in the nearby woods, Maya meditates and dreams, ultimately witnessing the startling sight of two wild dogs fighting right in front of her; Mack traps them in a border of symbols similar to the ones Quesada previously employed and paints them in dark ink, with an in-set panel of Maya’s eye watching. She is paying attention. “They don’t even seem to get tired,” she remarks. “This happens for a long time. Until it goes completely dark.”47 Eventually, she falls asleep and starts awake when she feels the chill of a storm and sees a flash of lightning cross the sky. Standing before her is the Marvel superhero Wolverine (likely included in this unlikely superhero story because his appearance would boost sales). Maya’s reliance on visual cues dominates their interaction. The reader makes out Wolverine’s face only when lightning lights their confrontation. Maya attacks him in fear, and Mack visualizes how lost she is by drawing her two-dimensionally, with an oversized fist reaching toward the audience.48 It reminds the reader of Quesada’s cartoonier hand, and as the fight progresses, Mack boxes the opponents into separate squares, each shape leading into the other like the pattern on a tapestry. The



Figure 3.2 David Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 51 (2003): 13.

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reader must turn the book continuously to understand the moves each character makes across a two-page spread, and as the images become smaller and smaller at the center of the pages, a transformation occurs. Both Maya and Wolverine slowly take on the feral features of dogs, growing ears and tails, and finally, sharp teeth. They become Maya’s vision from earlier, highlighting how her perspective shapes the reading experience at every moment. Eventually, Maya calls a truce, explaining that the lightning tricked her eyes and made her think him a danger. Wolverine invites her to his camp and tells her a story that he learned from the Chief. The echoes of Maya’s past persist in Wolverine’s narrative. His story revolves around the fighting dogs she watched earlier. Wolverine describes his past behavior as that of an animal, so the story makes a certain amount of sense to him. In it, a reckless lawbreaker addresses the leader of his tribe. He tells the chief that there are two dogs fighting inside him; one dog is mean and evil, the other good and pure. When asked which of the wolves wins the battle, the man replies, “The dog that wins is the one that I feed the most.”49 Mack paints Wolverine in a profile view as he shares this moral, and as he speaks, Maya’s face transforms from that of a pencil sketch to a fully fleshed-out portrait, with a single tear rolling down her cheek. The stark contrast preps the audience for a big revelation. Maya recognizes Wolverine’s words as a tale her father told the Chief weeks before he died.50 So the image of the two dogs is not only an echo of Maya’s vision, it is an echo from her life, one that teaches Maya a lesson about embracing the better angel of her nature. “I thank you for telling my father’s words to me in a way that I understand,” she says, before falling asleep and waking alone, ready to return to New York as a performance artist.51 Her place among heroes lies not in donning masks to mimic physical strength, or relying on revenge to soothe her grieving heart. Her place lies in sharing stories, told through pictures and signs and paintings that only she as a Deaf Latina / Native American woman can bring into the world. Rather than grieving over what she has lost, or showboating in order to gain favor from strangers, Maya knows that she must act as “shaman to a tribe without boundaries.”52 She must create art that generates understanding and empathy between people who are not like her. In the final painterly pages of “Vision Quest,” Matt visits Maya in his Daredevil garb to announce that he attended the performance of her latest play, one that involved shadow puppets and sign, dance and music. Much like Mack, Maya must employ multiple visual and expressive mediums to draw others into her story. “I recognized myself in it,” Daredevil confesses.53 Matt and


Maya find common ground in her art, and they leave their rooftop meeting bonded as friends rather than trapped forever as enemies. Few superhero stories end without muscles flexed or poses thrown. But Maya’s odyssey concludes in a performance. She looks out at the reader from the comics page to invite you into the life of a Deaf indigenous woman, asking you to join her in the silence and witness all the good she has to offer the world.54 She is a unique creature in the superhero genre, largely because her story could be any reader’s story. But it is her embrace of individual difference and point of view that makes her strong. It is her acceptance and celebration of her disability that makes her powerful.

Bibliography Etter, Lukas. “Visible Hand? Subjectivity and Its Stylistic Markers in Graphic Narratives.” In Subjectivity Across Media: Interdisciplinary and Transmedial Perspectives, edited by Maike Sarah Reinerth and Jan-Noël Thon, 92–110. New York: Routledge, 2017. Mack, David. “Vision Quest.” Daredevil 2, nos. 51–55. New York: Marvel Comics, 2003–4. Mack, David, Joe Quesada, and Jimmy Palmiotti. “Parts of a Hole.” Daredevil 2, nos. 9–15. New York: Marvel Comics, 1999–2001.


1. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9, 13. 2. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 51, 6. 3. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9, 9. 4. Ibid., 10. 5. Jonathan Kost, “David Mack: Multi-Media, Multi-Talented Creative Force,” Cultural Weekly (February 19, 2014), https://​www​.culturalweekly​.com​/davidm ​ ackmultim ​ ediam ​ ultim ​ edium​ creative​force. 6. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 52, 12. 7. Henry Jenkins, “Comics as Poetry: An Interview with David Mack,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Web-log of Henry Jenkins (April 24, 2013), http://​henryjenkins​ .org​/2013​/04​/comics​_as​_poetry​_an​_interview​.html. 8. Etter, “Visible Hand?” 9. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9, 4. 10. Ibid., 9. 11. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 52, 18. 12. Jenkins, “Comics As Poetry.” 13. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9, 8 and 14–15. 14. Jenkins, “Comics As Poetry.” 15. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 10, 6. 16. Jenkins, “Comics As Poetry.” 17. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 9, 22. 18. Ibid., 10 and 15.


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19. Ibid., 15. 20. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 10, 17. 21. Kuljit Mithra, “Interview with David Mack,” Man Without Fear (June 2003), http://​www​ .manwithoutfear​.com​/daredevil​interviews​/Mack. 22. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 10, 8. 23. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 11, 6. 24. Ibid., 5. 25. Ibid., 9. 26. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 10, 9. 27. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 52, 1. 28. Ibid., 4–6. 29. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 10, 15–17. 30. Ibid., 18–21. 31. Ibid. 32. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 11, 14–17. 33. Ibid., 18. 34. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 14, 14–16. 35. Mack, Quesada, and Palmiotti, “Parts of a Hole,” Daredevil 2, no. 15, 1–2. 36. Ibid., 18. 37. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 51, 3–4. 38. Ibid., 18–20. 39. Ibid., 21. 40. Ibid., 10. 41. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 52, 15. 42. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 51, 11. 43. Ibid., 13. 44. Ibid., 12. 45. Ibid. 46. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 53, 13–17. 47. Ibid., 20. 48. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 54, 8. 49. Mack, “Vision Quest,” Daredevil 2, no. 55, 3. 50. Ibid., 3–7. 51. Ibid., 13. 52. Ibid., 17. 53. Ibid. 54. Ibid., 19–22.

4 Mistress of Cyberspace Oracle, Disability, and the Cyborg

Marit Hanson

In the minds of many readers and viewers, the body of the comic book superhero is synonymous with hardness, with muscles and strength, with speed and agility—in short, with impossible physical perfection. The present study is not about one of those superheroes. Barbara Gordon, as her alter ego Oracle, is known as one of the most well-rounded and best-written disabled superheroes of the Bronze Age (or perhaps any age) of American comics. Unlike other disabled superheroes such as Cyborg, Daredevil, or Misty Knight, Barbara Gordon was not originally written as a disabled character or intended to become one. First appearing in Detective Comics #359 in 1967, Barbara Gordon was introduced as a Ph.D.-holding librarian, brown belt in judo, and the daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner, Jim Gordon, ally to Batman. She joined the group of crime fighters working with Batman (the “Batman Family”) as Batgirl, remaining in that role until May of 1988, when a particularly traumatic mission led to her decision to give up her alter ego in Barbara Kesel’s Batgirl Special #1.1 Instead of retiring the character, however, Barbara Gordon resurfaced under the alias Oracle the next year, making her first (anonymous) appearance in Suicide Squad #23 and later being revealed as Barbara Gordon in Suicide Squad #38 (1990). The character made her true comeback, however, in 1996 with the release of John Ostrander and Kim Dale’s

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“Oracle Year One: Born of Hope.”2 Thanks in great part to Ostrander and Dale’s special, Oracle became one of the faces of the long-running and much-beloved Birds of Prey series (1999–2011) where, as founder of the group—comprising herself, Black Canary, and Huntress—Oracle rose to prominence as the premier “infojock” of the DC universe. With the “New 52” reboot of 2011, in which DC relaunched fifty-two of their titles, erasing or retconning much of the past continuities of many of them, Oracle’s time came to an end. Although the Birds of Prey series remained, Barbara Gordon was reinstated as Batgirl, her legs miraculously cured by an enigmatic experimental operation in South Africa. While much has been written by both fans and critics regarding the retconning of Oracle and its repercussions, the present study focuses not on Barbara Gordon’s controversial return to able-bodiedness but rather on a different form of bodily transformation. During the Gail Simone run of the Birds of Prey series (2003–11), over two story arcs entitled “Between Dark and Dawn” and “The Battle Within,” Barbara Gordon, as Oracle, becomes merged with advanced technology in the form of a Brainiac cybernetic virus. In this instance, if only briefly, Oracle becomes not only a disabled superhero but also a cyborg superhero. In this study, then, I propose to analyze how Oracle’s temporarily cyborg body complicates and problematizes the perceptions of her disability and her status as a disabled woman. Ultimately, the introduction of a cyborg body proves to be an embodiment with ambiguous benefits. Although the cybernetic additions to her body do further empower Barbara and allow her to “go beyond” her normal limitations as an infojock and disabled woman, Barbara’s final attitude toward her cyborg body reflects an affirmation in favor of an “unaltered” disabled body.

Barbara’s Body—or, Flirting with Supercrip Unlike the majority of disabled superheroes in the comics universe, Barbara Gordon as Oracle is a disabled superhero who doesn’t come with a but—that is, an alter ego, superpower, or extenuating circumstance that counteracts or even negates her disability. Daredevil is a blind man, yet with his enhanced senses and “radar-like” ability, his lack of sight goes almost unnoticed by his enemies, and he must “pass” as a blind man when in his civilian identity. Thor, the mighty Norse god of thunder, had in his initial iteration the alter ego of Dr. Donald Blake, a lame man. With the flash of a bolt of lightning, however, Donald’s disabilities vanished, and he

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was replaced with the Adonic able-bodied Thor.3 Oracle, however, has no superpowers or mystical forces to call upon to whisk away her paraplegia. Her powers, so to speak, are her genius-level IQ, her expertise with technology and hacking, her mastery of eskrima (a legless martial art), her leadership, and her unparalleled info-gathering skills (“infojock”). She is Batman without the utility belt and skull cracking. As Oracle, Barbara Gordon’s disability is a central aspect of her character. Central, and yet it does not act as narrative prosthesis, to use David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s concept of a narrative’s “dependency upon disability as a device of characterization and interrogation,” resulting in a character whose “disabilities surface to explain everything or nothing with respect to their portraits as embodied beings” and frequently ends with the deviance or disability being eradicated/cured/“rescued.”4 Rather than forming the core of her character’s story, Barbara’s paraplegia manifests itself most visibly in the banalities of everyday life (what José Alaniz calls “disablemes”): using ramps and curb cuts to get around town and use public transportation, fighting from her chair using eskrima, dreams reliving being shot by the Joker, and so on. Commenting on the portrayal of Oracle and her disability in the Birds of Prey comics, Alaniz notes, “In stories unfolding over the next decade and a half, the (mostly) unremarked acceptance of Gordon’s disability would grow into a consistent aspect of the character’s “business as usual”—it shaped her view of the world and interactions with others, without necessarily determining them, like any other facet of identity.”5 Further distancing Oracle from stereotypical, ableist narratives of disabled characters are her interpersonal and romantic relationships. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson reminds us, “disabled women must sometimes defend against the assessment of their bodies as unfit for motherhood or of themselves as infantilized objects who occasion other people’s virtue.”6 Though Barbara does not have children of her own in the Birds of Prey series, she often acts in a maternal role to her compatriots, guiding them through moral crises or motivating them to press on in difficult times. Far from being infantilized, Barbara is the de facto leader of the Birds of Prey and a well-respected, key member of the crime-fighting world—so much so that in Gail Simone’s “The Death of Oracle,” Barbara and the Birds of Prey fake Oracle’s death so that she can operate with a lower profile. Finally, Barbara defies the ableist assumption that many disabled women face that their disability renders them asexual, unfeminine beings for whom sex and sexuality is now taboo.7 Though in her first appearances


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as Oracle in Suicide Squad comics she is drawn as frumpish and dowdy in ill-fitting sweaters and blouses a woman twice her age might wear, later comics (particularly the Birds of Prey series) portray the character as fit, fashionable, and attractive—even to the point of sexualizing her on par with able-bodied female superheroes. This sexualization, of course, carries its own problematic baggage in its tacit assumption that to be a superhero and a woman, one must also be portrayed in a sexualized and objectified manner. At the same time, however, the fact that depictions of Oracle can receive the same criticism for sexual objectification as other female superheroes indicates that she is considered to be a woman, and a desirable one at that, rather than a sexless disabled Other. Indeed, Carolyn Cocca notes that “many disability theorists would praise the art: Barbara is drawn to be as sexy as she was when she was Batgirl, and as sexy as the other Birds subverting the stereotype of people with disabilities as ‘asexual undesirables.’”8 Barbara also maintains an on-again-off-again relationship with Dick Grayson, whom she began dating before her injury in the guise of Batgirl. Though the two go through several rough patches and separations, Dick finally proposes to Barbara in the alternate-continuity Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle #1, and the two marry in the following issue.9 While Oracle without a doubt subverts many of the negative, ableist stereotypes attached to disabled women and is presented as a well-developed character whose disability informs rather than defines her identity, her characterization is not wholly unproblematic. Some critics, including Cocca, have submitted that despite other, positive elements of Barbara Gordon’s characterization as Oracle, she ultimately falls into the category of a supercrip. Supercrip describes a disabled person or character who is lionized for “overcoming” his or her disability through sheer dint of will, in the process potentially achieving more than when they were able-bodied. As José Alaniz puts it, the supercrip stereotype “represents a sort of overachieving, overdetermined self-enfreakment that distracts from the lived daily reality of most disabled people.”10 Simi Linton adds in Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity: The ideas imbedded in the overcoming rhetoric are of personal triumph over a personal condition. . . . It is a demand that you be plucky and resolute, and not let the obstacles get in your way. If there are no curb cuts at the corner of the street so that people who use wheelchairs can get across, then you should learn to do wheelies and jump the curbs. . . . When disabled people internalize

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the demand to “overcome” rather than demand social change, they shoulder the same kind of exhausting and self-defeating “Super Mom” burden that feminists have analyzed.11 In the sense of overcoming one’s disability, and in the process ignoring the lived experience of disabled people, Barbara Gordon is not a supercrip. Although by the end of “Year One” Barbara has come to accept her condition as a paraplegic, her disability does not disappear, nor do the modifications and inconveniences of her disabled daily life vanish as a result of this acceptance. Barbara does not slavishly overcompensate for her disability by donning the guise of Oracle but instead redirects her efforts to talents she already possessed as Batgirl. As Cocca points out, however, beyond the personal effort to “overcome” a disability, there is another side of the supercrip stereotype that could indeed apply to Oracle: her vast educational, social, and economic resources. Even before becoming Oracle, Barbara possessed a Ph.D., and she later goes on to add law and Master of Laws degrees to her resume. As a former member of the Batman family and a well-known figure of the superhero world in general, Barbara has access to some of the most talented, powerful, and intelligent people on the planet. When Barbara, infected by the Brainiac virus (an event that will be analyzed in greater depth in upcoming sections), needs to undergo emergency surgery to combat the virus, which has begun to shut down her vital organs, no less than Superman, Cyborg, Dr. Mid-Nite (a brilliant physician and vigilante), and Dr. Heinrich-Hinz, the best anesthesiologist in the world, arrive at a moment’s notice to help with the operation.12 Financially, Barbara also benefits from being both exceptionally intelligent and exceptionally well connected. As Cocca observes: [Oracle] taps into villains’ bank accounts and transfers money to her own. She gets grants from the Wayne Foundation (i.e., from Bruce Wayne / Batman) for extremely expensive and difficultto-acquire technology. The weight machines she uses and the pool she swims in and the hot tub she soaks in seem to be in her own apartment, which is the entire top floor of a tower. But in the real world . . . [m]edian family income for people with disabilities was about 60% that of the non-disabled; the employment rates for those with disabilities was about half that for the non-disabled, and the poverty rate for people with disabilities was almost double that of the non-disabled.13


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In many ways, Barbara Gordon breathes a rarified air of educational, racial, class, and financial privilege that the majority of disabled persons do not enjoy. Her endeavors as a vigilante operating primarily in information, surveillance, and cyberspace, her independence, and even her toned physique are made to look effortless when in reality they would not be possible without the vast economic resources and support network she possesses. To this extent, then, Barbara Gordon does fall in line with some aspects of the supercrip trope. I would argue, however, that it must be considered that in the DC universe, exceptional economic resources or connections to benefactors with exceptional economic resources is a hallmark of many (though certainly not all) prominent superheroes without superpowers (Batman, the Batman family, Green Arrow, Savant, Batwoman, Huntress, etc.). This, of course, does not excuse this aspect of Oracle’s characterization, but rather it merely provides context from an in-universe and in-genre perspective. Even with her supercrip-like resources, however, Oracle’s characterization as a non-superpowered disabled woman remains one of the most complex and compelling in superhero comics, integrating her disabled body into the story and affirming the difficulties it presents to everyday life without resorting to narrative prosthetics.

Birth of a (Disabled) Cyborg: Oracle and the Brainiac Virus While Oracle’s characterization may not resort to narrative prosthetics, a different sort of prosthetics, so to speak, becomes central to her development in the Birds of Prey story arcs “Between Dark and Dawn” and “The Battle Within”: cyborg embodiment. Before the story arcs can be analyzed, however, we must first consider the implications of the cyborg as it relates (or does not relate) to disability theory. When Donna Haraway first set forth the cyborg in “A Cyborg Manifesto” as “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” and “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self,” she envisioned a figure that could symbolize a move beyond the binaries and categorizations that defined feminist identity politics at the time.14 While this blurring of nature/culture, organic/inorganic, and particularly the cyborg’s affiliation with prostheses might seem to lend Haraway’s theory well to analyses of disability, the cyborg has an uneasy relationship with disability studies and disability theorists. Tobin Siebers, for example, dismisses the connection between real-world prosthesis users

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and the cyborg out of hand, asserting that “Haraway is so preoccupied with power and ability that she forgets what disability is. Prostheses always increase the cyborg’s abilities; they are a source only of new powers, never of problems. The cyborg is always more than human—and never risks to be seen as subhuman. To put it simply, the cyborg is not disabled.”15 True, yet not unproblematic. The issue with Siebers’s blanket statement on the cyborg—and indeed with Haraway’s manifesto as well—is that in contemporary science and particularly literature and popular culture, what does and does not constitute a cyborg or a cyborg body, and how that cyborg body is integrated (or not) into its world changes from field to field, and even between different story narratives. While Siebers’s assertion that cyborg prostheses—bionic arms, cybernetic eyes, and so forth—are sources of greater power rather than problems roughly holds true across most science fiction and comics, the same cannot be said for his argument that a cyborg “never risks being seen as subhuman.” This may be true for a cyborg that is understood to be a human with technological enhancements and/or implants, who would be seen as trans- or posthuman. In many science fiction narratives, however, there exists another type of cyborg—the cyborg that is essentially human (or almost-human) but is “born” via factory production, producing the cyborg’s organic/inorganic interface (such as the replicants in Blade Runner, or the original Deathlok of Marvel comics, created using cybernetics and a human corpse). As Despina Kakoudaki has noted, for cyborgs, particularly those “born of machines” rather than integrated with technology, “the first use for artificial men has always been to work without a salary (to be slaves) . . . in the case of artificial women, the narratives often become semipornographic”—that is, female cyborgs are frequently portrayed as existing to satisfy male sexual fantasies through “built-in” sexual promiscuity or overt sexual slavery.16 For these types of cyborgs, the ones that exist as tools in the hands of human masters, the label “subhuman” better fits their status than “transhuman” or “posthuman.” Can a cyborg be said to represent disability? Perhaps not, but neither is its image entirely one of empowerment. Both the tropes of the cyborg and the disabled superhero, and particularly the potential for empowerment in the cyborg/disabled subject, come into play and are played with in “Between Dark and Dawn” and “The Battle Within.” In “Between Dark and Dawn,” Oracle sends Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) to investigate a mysterious religious cult that seems to be tied to the sudden disappearances of metahuman superheroes and ostensibly random teenagers committing suicide while dressed in the costumes of


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famous superheroes. During the investigation, Oracle attempts to hack the compound’s computer system, but moments after she gets access to it, she is hit with an electronic/electric pulse that sends her into a seizure.17 Though Barbara recovers quickly and doctors find no damage to her brain, she soon begins to act strangely, creating a mosaic depicting her face as half-human, half-cybernetic, and getting a forceful vision of the next costumed teenager about to commit suicide. Sending a perplexed and concerned Black Canary out to save the teenager, Barbara slumps in her chair, then suddenly straightens and stands as the background flips from black to white and the scene shifts from the material world to Barbara’s mind, which has been possessed by Brainiac, an alien capable of spreading its consciousness in digital form and possessing organic life.18 As Brainiac only currently exists as a cybernetic intelligence, he needs a mind capable of sustaining his possession so that he might gain corporeal form on Earth. As Barbara is clearly an unwilling partner in this endeavor, Brainiac assaults her with illusions to break down her mental barriers. Breaking Barbara’s mental defenses involves Brainiac presenting her with series of visions that prey upon both her past traumas and the stigmas levied against her as a disabled person. First, Brainiac transforms himself to look like the Joker, the villain responsible for paralyzing Barbara. Leering and cackling maniacally, the Brainiac-Joker looms, giant-sized, over Barbara, who cowers as he reminisces about shooting her and declares, “I’ve come back for the rest! I’ve come back for the rest, Babsy!”19 As Barbara curls into the fetal position, Brainiac/Joker’s image shifts into that of Nightwing / Dick Grayson, whom Barbara had recently dumped. Nightwing reproaches Barbara for ending their relationship, implying that she destroyed his life.20 In addition to triggering Barbara’s past traumas, Brainiac’s tactics reflect a desire to strip away her acceptance of her status as a disabled person and refashion her in her own eyes as an ableist stereotype. As the Joker, Brainiac casts Barbara as a victim, vulnerable and helpless to defend herself against his verbal threats as she trembles on the floor. Although Nightwing/Brainiac’s words reveal a lingering affection for Barbara, they also condemn her as the cause of the failed relationship, implying an inability to love or be loved. Only after Barbara has been broken down by these insinuations is Brainiac able to approach her to fully take control of her mind. In spite of the dehumanizing rhetoric Brainiac uses to destabilize and weaken Barbara’s mind, once he has her within his reach, his tone changes. Comparing Barbara to his previous victim—Brusaw, the leader of the religious cult that Oracle and the Birds of Prey were investigating—Brainiac

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Figure 4.1 Gail Simone and Ed Benes, “Material Girl,” Birds of Prey 1, no. 72 (2004): 22.

muses, “We found each other here, in the realm between brain and machine . . . Brusaw has the gift to control other humans—but his mind is woefully inadequate to my needs. Your mind, however . . . your body . . . I almost admire.”21 Being known for her incredible intellect and skill at strategy, it comes as little surprise that Brainiac would covet Oracle’s mind. Brainiac, however, specifically mentions that he “almost” admires Barbara’s body as well, in contrast to Brusaw’s able body. Brainiac does not elaborate further on what makes Barbara’s disabled body appealing to him, but his next lines suggest that he feels an affinity with Barbara that goes beyond her mental capacities. Placing his hands on either side of her face, Brainiac demands that Barbara say her name as a way of giving herself over to him. As she begins to speak her given name, Brainiac cuts her off: “Not what the other meat calls you. Say your name.”22 With these words, paired with his previous praise of her mind and body, Brainiac identifies Barbara as a cyborg being like himself, tacitly likening her mental aptitude for technology and her disabled embodiment—particularly in conjunction with her wheelchair—to his own cybernetically enhanced existence. In the next panel, Barbara comes to physically embody the cyborg identity Brainiac has signaled as her own. With a glazed look, she murmurs “My name is . . .” as green “techno-vines” sprout along her arm. In the splash panel that follows, Barbara’s enunciative shout (“Oracle!”) is accompanied

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Figure 4.2 Gail Simone and Ed Benes, “Material Girl,” Birds of Prey 1, no. 72 (2004): 23.

by her body bursting into full cyborg form. Whereas before her digital avatar had resembled her physical body (human, albeit able-bodied), Barbara’s cyberspace Oracle form is metallic, naked but for the green techno-vines encircling her arms and hugging her hips and thighs, each toned muscle clearly outlined. From her head spring a multitude of long, metal cords. The overall impression given is one of supreme physical strength and fluidity, yet with more than a passing hint of the monstrous feminine evoked by the Medusa-like cords serving as her hair.23

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With Brainiac’s consciousness merged with (and in control of ) hers, Barbara’s mind returns to the material world with the mandate that she become Brainiac’s “mother” and “give birth to him” unto the world.24 Brainiac’s choice of words are particularly relevant, as in an earlier comic (Suicide Squad #48), it was revealed that due to her injury, Barbara is incapable of having children.25 As a cyborg, however, Oracle becomes a literal embodiment of her superhero persona as a mother of knowledge and information, psychically accessing technology from many worlds (“Earth, Mars, Thanagar, and New Genesis”) and synthesizing them into data that will become Brainiac’s new physical body.26 Though still paralyzed from the waist down, Oracle’s material cyborg body is much stronger physically than her normal body: when Black Canary begins to get suspicious of Barbara’s actions, Barbara/Brainiac is able to catch her unawares and— after dealing a blow to her partner’s head—catapult herself/itself from her wheelchair using only arm strength and beat Black Canary, renowned as one of the greatest fighters in the DC universe, unconscious.27 Like many cyborg figures, however, Barbara’s power as a cyborg comes with a price: living in thrall to Brainiac. As Brainiac’s “birth” progresses (putting Barbara in agonizing pain in the process), Black Canary regains consciousness and confronts Barbara/Brainiac with an armful of photographs of Barbara’s loved ones. Despite the cyborg’s physical enhancements, one of the attributes that frequently identifies it as “subhuman” in science fiction and comics narratives is an inability to understand or reproduce human emotions (again, most often occurring with “machine-born” cyborgs). Black Canary’s literal assault-by-sentimentality, then, has the effect of breaking the master-slave connection of Brainiac and Oracle and allowing Barbara to fight back, annihilating Brainiac in cyberspace with a handily conjured sword.28 Barbara returns to herself, assuring Black Canary that the fight is over and that she is at peace with giving up her cyborg abilities in favor of her normal, disabled body. As it happens, however, Barbara gave up nothing at all. After defeating Brainiac, she notices that a small fragment of Brainiac’s essence (his “virus”), symbolized by a patch of skin mottled to resemble a circuit board, did not dissipate when the rest of his consciousness separated from hers. Over the course of “Between Dark and Dawn,” it becomes evident that Barbara still possesses a cyborg body and its abilities. With the aid of a cybernetic mask of her own design, Oracle is able to psychically interact with technology and even physically project her Medusa-haired cyborg avatar into computer systems. She explains the experience as such: “It’s [using the mask] like flying, almost. Let’s hope


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it’s effective. My idea of multitasking is a little different from the norm, lately . . . since Brainiac. I’m currently monitoring the location of every known Thorn sighting—and the admittance list of every hospital within fifty miles, for any patients with blade wounds [. . .] Not to mention monitoring the phone conversations of every suspected 100 member . . . and all the cops currently working that particular gang.”29 What’s more, through her cyborg abilities, Oracle is able to envision herself however she wants in a cyberspace environment. She can run or crouch, float or fly—in short, she can operate independently in any way her imagination dictates, giving her, as she puts it, “a new class of freedom.”30 Much like the users with disabilities in Bloustien and Wood’s study of the simulation (SIM) program Second Life, who reported using the program’s avatar capabilities to fashion an avatar that they felt reflected their “authentic” selves, Oracle’s cyberspace avatar seems to reflect a powerful, resourceful, and of course, able-bodied version of herself.31 Although the Brainiac virus does not cure her paraplegia, and thus she is yet disabled in a physical sense, Barbara’s cyborg body gives her capabilities beyond those of her able-bodied teammates (and, for that matter, any able-bodied human). In becoming a cyborg, Barbara problematizes Siebers’s claim that the cyborg cannot be disabled, for while her cyborg technopathic abilities place her in the realm of the transhuman, she remains wheelchair-using and disabled in the eyes of those who are unaware of her superpowers. At the same time, Oracle’s self-representation in cyberspace is not unproblematic. Indeed, it could be argued that her able-bodied avatar plays into the supercrip fantasy of overcoming: given the choice to configure herself physically in another medium, Oracle fashions herself a virtual body that “overcomes” her physical disability. Her powers— and by extension, her empowerment—are to a certain extent codified by able-bodiedness. This instance is not the only time the story arc creates potentially problematic representation of Oracle’s disability, as will be discussed shortly. In this particular case, however, Barbara’s tenure as a cyborg and also disabled superhero is short-lived, and the final portrayal of her cyborg powers suggests an about-face to their supercrip-esque representation. Though Barbara hides her technopathic abilities from her friends at first, fearing their reaction if they knew the powers’ origin, she ultimately comes clean when it becomes evident that the virus is not compatible with her system and is, in fact, killing her. Seen another way, the virus’s capacity to “overcome” Oracle’s disability is revealed for the fantasy and fallacy that it is.

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Before going into emergency surgery to attempt to remove the cybernetic growths the virus has spread throughout her body, Black Canary asks Oracle to confirm, once and for all, that she wants to go forward with the procedure. Oracle’s response makes it clear that she is perfectly aware of what is at stake: “This thing . . . it’s become a part of me. It’s let me see worlds I never thought possible. It’s a living thing, almost.”32 In the following panel, however, she flips the tables, declaring, “And I want you to cut it out of me and have Superman throw it into the heart of the sun.”33 In her decision to remove the Brainiac virus from her body and destroy it, Barbara simultaneously acknowledges and rejects the advantages of a cyborg body for her own disabled empowerment. Her desire to return to her normal, disabled self demonstrates confidence and pride in a disabled embodiment that does not require superpowers or cybernetic enhancements to be considered whole.

Conclusion In the 2013 documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (directed by Regan Pretlow Brashear), James Hughes, a transhumanist and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, defended his stance of transhumanism—or the desire to elevate humanity via technology to a standard above and beyond what is considered “normal”—by stating, “It’s not possible to separate technology from our being human. Humans are tool creating and using. We are homo fabricus. We are the tool makers. . . . So these [technological enhancements] are all extensions of the human body.”34 In Hughes’s estimation, it is a natural consequence of human nature that we should seek to attain “extrahuman” abilities and that those who have disabilities should also be involved and able to reach “extrahuman” heights. This opinion would seem to be shared by the lion’s share of writers and editors of superhero comics, given that the great majority of disabled superheroes, such as Daredevil, Misty Knight, and Cyborg, have powers or enhancements that not only allow them to live as “normal” humans but endow them with abilities that raise them far above the norm. In “Between Dark to Dawn” and “The Battle Within,” Oracle briefly joins the ranks of disabled-yet-enhanced superheroes—first by coercion through her possession by Brainiac, and later by choice, by hiding the technopathic abilities granted to her by the lingering Brainiac virus. While Oracle’s cyborg body does not “cure” or negate her disability, it does


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increase her already formidable skills as a hacker and info-gatherer, to the point where she is able to psychically hack over a covert satellite owned by Lex Luthor and use it for her own purposes.35 Though Barbara Gordon’s decision to excise the Brainiac virus from her body and give up her cyborg abilities occurs under duress due to the virus’s sudden malignant turn, it still unequivocally reflects a pro-disability stance . . . or it would, if it were not for the final panel of “The Battle Within.” While recovering in bed, the operation to remove the Brainiac virus from her body successful, Barbara suddenly sits bolt upright, realizing that she can wiggle her toes.36 With one panel, the light shone on acceptance of the disabled body in this and the preceding issue is suddenly dimmed, replaced by an ableist idea that because Barbara worked so hard and sacrificed so much to not only defeat Brainiac but also relinquish her powers that she is “rewarded” with a possible cure to her paraplegia. “Between Dark and Dawn” and “The Battle Within,” then, is a case of a “two steps forward, one step back” disability narrative, forming a productive dialogue between disability and cyborg narratives and building up a pillar of affirmation of the disabled body, only to place a giant crack in that pillar with the “hope for a cure” ending to the story arc. Future issues of Birds of Prey, however, did not follow through on this potential of a cure (at least until the New 52 reboot). The writers recognized, as have so many fans and critics, that despite the interesting possibilities offered by technological enhancement and/or superpowers, Oracle needs neither. As one of the only nonpowered, nonenhanced superheroes of superhero comics, and also one of the most compelling, Oracle does not need to be “fixed.” If anything, she shows how the genre might be fixed to better favor and represent disability and disabled people.

Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. ———. “Standing Orders: Oracle, Disability, and Retconning.” In Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives, edited by Chris Foss, Jonathan W. Gray, and Zach Whalen, 59–79. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016. Bloustien, G., and D. Wood. “Visualising Disability and Activism in Second Life.” Current Sociology 64, no. 1 (2015): 101–21. Brashear, Regan Pretlow, dir. Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. United States: New Day Films, 2013. DVD. Cocca, Carolyn. “Re-Booting Barbara Gordon: Oracle, Batgirl, and Feminist Disability Theories.” ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 7, no. 4 (2014): n.p. http://​www​ .english​.ufl​.edu​/imagetext​/archives​/v7​_4​/cocca.

Mistress of Cyberspace Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge, 1991. Kakoudaki, Despina. “Pinup and Cyborg: Exaggerated Gender and Artificial Intelligence.” In Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Marleen S. Barr, 165–95. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Kesel, Barbara, Barry Kitson, Bruce D. Patterson, et al. “The Last Batgirl Story.” Batgirl Special 1, no. 1. New York: DC Comics, 1988. Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Mitchell, David T., and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Ostrander, Jim, and Kim Yale. “In Control.” Suicide Squad 1, no. 48. New York: DC Comics, 1991. Siebers, Tobin. “Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body.” American Literary History 13 (2001): 737–54. Simone, Gail, Ron Adrian, Rob Lean, et al. “Blood and Circuits.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 73. New York: DC Comics, 2004. Simone, Gail, and Ed Benes. “The Cold Light of Day.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 80. New York: DC Comics, 2005. ———. “Huntress/Prey.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 70. New York: DC Comics, 2004. ———. “Material Girl.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 72. New York: DC Comics, 2004. ———. “She Rides the Eye of a Hurricane.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 79. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Simone, Gail, Joe Bennet, and Jack Jadson. “Knock-Out.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 84. New York: DC Comics, 2005. ———. “A New Morning’s Resolution.” Birds of Prey 1, no. 85. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Simone, Gail, Dan Parsons, and Jan Duursema-Mandrake. Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle, no. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2015. ———. Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle, no. 2. New York: DC Comics, 2015.

Notes 1. Kesel, “The Last Batgirl Story,” Batgirl Special #1. Barbara’s decision to hang up the cape, as it turned out, was not without an ulterior, corporate motive. When asked in a 2011 interview if she had been given any pointers by the top brass at DC on which direction to take Batgirl Special #1, Kesel replied, “It was pretty much this simple: ‘She’s getting her spine blown out in “The Killing Joke,” so try to make people care’” (DC Women Kicking Ass, “A Chat with Former Batgirl Writer Barbara Randall Kesel: ‘I Just Wanted to Read Stories Where the Women Didn’t Embarrass Me’” [2011], http://​dcwomenkickingass​.tumblr​.com​ /post​/5871466489​/brkinterview). Initially praised as an instant classic, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke has in more recent years been heavily criticized by fans and critics for its callous treatment of Barbara Gordon, who is shot and paralyzed by the Joker in an act that served the sole purpose of traumatizing her father and, by extension, Batman. 2. In this single-volume special, not only is Barbara given the chance to revisit the events of The Killing Joke from her own perspective, she is able to heal from the depression resulting from her injury and move toward not only accepting her new condition but also embracing the skill sets—information gathering, hacking, eidetic memory—that she always had but did not capitalize upon as Batgirl.


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3. The Donald Blake alter ego has since been dropped and does not exist in the current version of the superhero Thor. 4. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 51. 5. Alaniz, “Standing Orders,” 63. 6. Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, 26. 7. Ibid., 25. 8. Cocca, “Re-Booting Barbara Gordon,” 30. 9. Simone, Parsons, and Duursema-Mandrake, Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle #1, 14, and Simone, Parsons, and Duursema-Mandrake, Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle #2, 24. It should be noted that the Convergence comics from 2015 were published as a special limited series that did not (and does not) reflect the actions and fates of the characters in the main contemporary time line. Rather, the Convergence series was meant to serve as a series of scenarios involving previous iterations of characters spanning across the DC “Multiverse” (a concept that infinite universes exist, each with slightly different doppelgängers of known characters). In main continuity, then, Oracle and Nightwing do not marry. 10. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 31. 11. Linton, Claiming Disability, 18. 12. Simone, Bennet, and Jadson, “New Morning’s Resolution,” 4. 13. Cocca, “Re-Booting Barbara Gordon,” 18. 14. Haraway, “Cyborg Manifesto,” 291, 302. 15. Siebers, “Disability in Theory,” 745. 16. Kakoudaki, “Pinup and Cyborg,” 167. 17. Simone and Benes, “Huntress/Prey,” 19. 18. Simone and Benes, “Material Girl,” 4–5. 19. Ibid., 9. 20. Ibid., 15. 21. Ibid., 22. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid., 22–23. 24. Ibid., 23. 25. Ostrander and Yale, Suicide Squad #48, 12. 26. Simone, Adrian, and Lean, “Blood and Circuits,” 11. 27. Ibid., 10. 28. Ibid., 19. 29. Simone and Benes, “She Rides the Eye of a Hurricane,” 11. 30. Simone, Bennet, and Jadson, “Knock-Out,” 11. 31. Bloustien and Wood, “Visualising Disability and Activism,” 109. 32. Simone, Bennet, and Jadson, “Knock-Out,” 12. 33. Ibid., 13. 34. Brashear, Fixed, 2011. 35. Simone and Benes, “Cold Light of Day,” 7. 36. Simone, Bennet, and Jadson, “New Morning’s Resolution,” 23.

5 More than a Retcon Replacement Disability, Blackness, and Sexuality in the Origin of Operator

Lauren O’Connor

The tradition of “retconning,” or retroactively changing the continuity of a character, is a common occurrence in superhero comics. Typical retcons include changing a character’s marital status, bringing a dead character back to life, or changing a superhero’s powers. Molly Hatcher describes retconning as a sort of “recycling” which is a “defining element” of the superhero genre.1 Hatcher argues that the vast historical trove of material retained by comics publishing houses offers an “open source to their incoming artists and writers, many of whom build upon and mold those stories, characters, and images from the past to create rich and innovative works.”2 One recent retcon stands out, though, due to the swift and volatile fan response: the 2011 retcon of Barbara Gordon, part of DC Comic’s New 52 overhaul. This revamping erased the past twenty-three-odd years of Barbara using a wheelchair and going by the hero name Oracle. Barbara returned to being Batgirl, the role she filled prior to being shot by the Joker in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.3 Although Hatcher hedges a bit on the power of reader response to influence comics, she ultimately concludes that retcons can be pleasurable for habitual comic readers: though “it is impossible to know how readers respond to texts, and reductive to generalize about readers’ responses, it is

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still worth noting how this . . . endless recycling leads to the construction of texts that are set up to offer a payoff to readers who have been long-term followers of comics series.”4 However, as José Alaniz has previously documented, fan response to Oracle was polarized from the beginning. Alaniz describes how some fans expressed frustration that countless male heroes were able to have their spines reset or even rise from the dead, but Barbara remained in a wheelchair. To these fans, The Killing Joke neatly encapsulated the rampant misogyny of the comics industry—further evidenced by the fact that not only was Barbara shot and paralyzed, but in the same moment she was sexually violated and photographed by the Joker. Alaniz writes, “For [these fans], Gordon returning as Batgirl was a restorative move, the righting of a gender wrong.”5 This “restorative move” serves as the potential payoff to which Hatcher refers. Yet Alaniz notes that for other fans, The Killing Joke’s aftermath represented the possibilities for women in comics: Barbara continued her hero work, transforming from Batgirl to Oracle and eventually leading an entire team of women superheroes. By the 2000s, many acknowledged the dearth of representation of disability in comics and celebrated Oracle as a powerful example of a disabled superhero. For these fans, the retcon was a “corporate betrayal of a unique, beloved, empowering figure.”6 The New 52 Batgirl, written by Gail Simone, began in 2011. In the first story arc, The Darkest Reflection, readers learn that while Barbara was indeed shot by the Joker, it had been only three years since, and she had never “been” Oracle. Instead, she had undergone three years of intensive physical therapy and received a cybernetic neural implant. By the time The Darkest Reflection begins, Barbara no longer uses a wheelchair.7 Although Oracle was a beloved character who filled an important role in the DC Universe, it now appeared as though Oracle had never existed. Thus was lost one of the few generally positive representations of disability in superhero comics, and thus was gained the ire of many. What happens when the retcon is a payoff for some fans but a “corporate betrayal” for others? While the recyclability of superhero comic texts indeed gives creators an immense store upon which to draw, one “solution” to this particular case presents as a totally new character: Frankie Charles, a.k.a. Operator. Frankie Charles, a character with progressive muscular dystrophy, was introduced in the second New 52 run of Batgirl. Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, Frankie offers a new and nuanced example of representation of disability in comics, especially for those who continue to follow the exploits of Barbara Gordon and for the younger audience at which this

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particular series is aimed.8 Though expressly introduced to soothe vocal fans who were angered by Barbara’s retcon, Frankie’s creators work to offer not only a replacement for Oracle but also an interrogation of many tropes related to superheroes with disabilities. I argue here that they ultimately succeed: Frankie serves as far more than a replacement for wheelchairusing Barbara. In many ways, Frankie’s development into the superhero Operator blazes a trail for a shift away from stereotypical depictions of disability in comics; she also epitomizes a new focus on intersectionality and portraying heroes whose bodies do not fit the typical superhero mold. Frankie Charles is a black, pansexual, disabled woman, and the representation (and decentering) of these traits sets her apart in the broad genre of mainstream superhero comics. The nature of her queerness and disability defies hegemonic understandings of both sexuality and able-bodiedness. Casual references to her disability and sexuality make these identity markers simply part of Frankie—not characteristics that define her and move her to action. At the same time, the comic illustrates few of the challenges a real woman like Frankie would face, which softens the comic’s potential for encouraging new ways of thinking about the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. Still, Frankie’s narrative arc, in which she transforms into the superhero known as Operator, is indeed a radical departure from traditional origin stories, especially origin stories for disabled heroes. I argue that analyzing the intersections of Frankie’s social identities and her development into Operator reveals a new form of superhero: the activist-hero. The activist-hero is both pro-social and proactive, and she functions within the narrative and in the broader genre to challenge restrictive social identity categories. Though Frankie is a hero with a disability, this essay illuminates how the creators visually and narratively destabilize the label “disabled,” along with resisting typical depictions of black women and queer people. This essay also contrasts Operator to heroes such as Cyborg, who repeat and reify the “supercrip”—a figure with a disability who is celebrated in the media for reinforcing the can-do spirit of American bootstrap mythology by “overcoming” their disability. According to José Alaniz, this figure, “in the eyes of its critics, represents a sort of overachieving, overdetermined self-enfreakment that distracts from the lived daily reality of most disabled people” and therefore aids in making the majority of the disabled community invisible.9 Unlike superpowered supercrips, Frankie’s disability is decentered, elastic, conditional—in short, relatively realistic—and thus provides a roadmap for other creators to include characters who have disabilities rather than characters who are their disabilities.


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Our introduction to Frankie comes in the third frame of the first issue. Artistic clues such as bright color choices, thick outlines, and cleverly depicted digital conversations signal this Batgirl series as one that is geared toward a significantly younger audience than in recent years. The narrative, too, reveals adolescent dreams of independence and hip living: Barbara is 114 moving out of Gotham City proper and into the Williamsburg-esque neighborhood of Burnside. Barbara’s old roommate, Alysia, helps her move into her new apartment, which she will share with Frankie. When meeting Alysia, Frankie mentions that she and Barbara met three years prior, “In physio,” which is shorthand for in physical therapy. Frankie tells Alysia, “I’ve got bad muscles,” but she does not elaborate. Visually, this initial scene gives no indication of Frankie’s “bad muscles.” She descends a concrete staircase and shakes Alysia’s hand with no accommodation, wearing typiFigure 5.1 Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, “Double cal urban millennial clothing and Exposure,” Batgirl 4, no. 37 (2015): 6. accessories.10 This scene represents the first instance of Frankie unsettling the culturally constructed binary of able-bodied / disabled. Unlike Barbara, whose entire identity as Batgirl or Oracle has hinged on whether or not she uses a wheelchair, Frankie’s disability is not a visible or constant presence. It is not until the third issue of the series that we see Frankie using her crutches, and the narrative makes clear that she simply has days when she needs them more than others.11 The moment when the creators first visually signal Frankie’s disability works to subvert hegemonic narratives of disability as it relates to female sexuality: attending a photography exhibit, Frankie, Barbara, Alysia, and Barbara’s friend Dinah (who is also the hero known as Black Canary) are drawn dressed to the nines. The frame shows all four women walking alongside one another, each in a stylish fitted dress. Frankie is depicted in a very modern chartreuse cut-out dress and chandelier earrings and almost carries her crutches like another accessory. In his discussion of sexuality and disability, Robert McRuer notes that often women with disabilities have been cast as innocent or asexual. At the other end of the spectrum are cultural understandings of disabled people

More than a Retcon Replacement

as overly sexual or deviant in some way.12 Likewise, historian David Serlin notes “non-normative children and adults . . . are almost never understood as possessing sexual subjectivities in which they are agents of sexual pleasure.”13 Resisting these tropes, Frankie’s body is portrayed with precisely the same level and tone of sexuality as the other three women. At the same time, this construction of Frankie’s (and the other characters’) sexuality as “normal” relies on hegemonic images of femininity, including revealing clothing, make-up, and jewelry. While this image of Frankie does not invite “staring,” which Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes as a response to the novelty of visible disability, this dis-invitation is accomplished through exchange.14 Rather than readers staring at a woman with a disability, they are instead gazing at women on display as objects valued for their prescribed feminine sexuality. Despite Frankie’s similar sartorial selections, these early issues of Batgirl do reveal a sexual difference between Frankie and Barbara regarding to whom they are attracted. Toward the end of the first issue, Frankie confesses to having hooked up with a man in whom Barbara had shown some drunken interest the night before. She tells Barbara, “I was kind of embarrassed to tell you, you seemed pretty into him but, you know . . . things happen. I just didn’t want you to think less of me.” Barbara replies, “No, it’s fine I guess . . . I just thought you liked girls,” at which Frankie laughs and says, “Ha! Yeah, most of the time.”15 In this scene, the reader learns Frankie’s sexual attraction is not directed at strictly men or women, though she does admit to “[liking] girls” “most of the time.” Here, Frankie offers a nuanced and nonbinary representation by troubling the construction of heterosexual/homosexual. Her queerness pushes further against the concept of compulsory able-bodiedness. Robert McRuer argues that compulsory able-bodiedness requires not only a fully able body but also one that is fully and strictly heterosexual.16 Though these compulsions require repeated performances of able-bodiedness and heterosexuality in which most of society continues to engage, Frankie’s crutches and pansexual attraction position her as a subject outside the bounds of normality. Although the comic constructs Frankie’s disability in such a way that it does not prohibit or aberrate her sexuality, her sexuality must also be analyzed at its intersection with her race. Despite Frankie’s spoken admission of queer attraction, the story never depicts her in a romantic or sexual relationship with another woman; indeed, the drunken hook-up with Barbara’s flavor of the week is Frankie’s only instance of sexual activity throughout the narrative. The creators do not shy away from visually and diegetically portraying queer sexuality for other characters.


Uncanny Bodies


The storyline of the second volume, Family Business, features a lesbian wedding in which Barbara’s ex-roommate Alysia marries her girlfriend, Jo.17 Batwoman, another DC Comics property, is arguably the most wellknown lesbian superhero. Like Alysia and Jo, Batwoman is often depicted in relationships with women. In Marc Andreyko’s Webs, Batwoman is engaged to Gotham City police officer Maggie Sawyer.18 A key difference between Frankie and these other women, of course, is that none of these other women are black (Alysia is Asian American and the other women are white). Patricia Hill Collins describes the intersections of oppression that have led to a specific aversion of black lesbianism. Collins states that since black women “have already been labeled the Other by virtue of race and gender . . . the sexual expression of all Black women becomes regulated within intersecting systems of oppression.”19 In Collins’s description, black women’s sexuality is disciplined in different ways than black men’s or white women’s, and black lesbianism represents too many steps out of bounds. Focusing specifically on black women in comics, Jeffrey A. Brown has argued that depictions of black superheroines “continue to traffic in Orientalist conceptions of exotic fetishism because their portrayal is dictated by the twin burdens of racial and sexual stereotyping.”20 Brown offers examples in comics of black women written and drawn as animalistic jezebels, focusing on the mid-aughts stories of Shuri / Black Panther and Mari McCabe / Vixen. Even as these women received their own titles, which Brown identifies as a still-rare practice in mainstream comics, they are “typical of the way that superheroines are portrayed as sexual objects” and also specifically characterize “African women as the embodiment of abnormal, voracious, and almost bestial sexuality.”21 Likely responding to these characterizations, Stewart and Tarr tread tricky narrative ground in attempting to portray Frankie’s disabled sexuality while not “jezebelling” her black sexuality. Stewart and Tarr resist the animalistic and animistic sexuality of black superheroines by associating Frankie with what is arguably the cultural opposite of animals and nature—technology. Working as a lead coder for the Tinder-like app “Hooq,” Frankie is visually and narratively identified with computers and other electronic devices. She is frequently shown working on her laptop, and when she disappears unexpectedly from her apartment, Barbara and Dinah conclude she must have been forcibly removed because she left her cell phone and her crutches behind.22 In fact, in this issue Frankie was captured by a sentient computer program that believes itself to be Barbara Gordon’s mind and commands an array of Burnside villains through promises of money and fame. Frankie finds

More than a Retcon Replacement


Figure 5.2 Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, “Batgirl vs. Burnside,” Batgirl 4, no. 39 (2015): 19.

herself bound to an office chair in front of a desk full of computers and monitors. Here she discovers the truth about Barbara’s identity and eventually rescues Batgirl remotely by hacking the program and stripping it of its malicious code, thereby preventing it from destroying Burnside. In a rather clever authorial turn, Frankie essentially takes on both the physicality and role of Oracle, sitting in front of a wall of computers and digitally engaging in superheroics. This moment also signals Frankie’s “call to action,” though it is dissimilar to the typical story of personal vengeance or response to witnessing a horrific event that launches the careers of most superheroes. She simply sees Barbara’s role as Batgirl as a point of entry for her own community service—and thus the memory of Oracle passes the baton (or keyboard?) to Frankie. One of Frankie’s earliest solo hero operations further distances her from the Orientalist depictions of black women superheroes described by Brown. In Family Business, Batgirl appears to lose a fight to the Velvet Tiger, a white woman obsessed with acquiring wealth who uses illegally obtained tigers to destroy her enemies. Dressed in a skintight tiger fur mini-dress and sporting sharp fingernails and tiger-stripe makeup, the Velvet Tiger is the picture of animalistic sexuality. Frankie comes to Batgirl’s rescue as Operator, remotely controlling Barbara’s motorcycle via a cybernetic implant at the base of her neck. After wheel-punching the Velvet Tiger unconscious, Frankie directs the motorcycle to carry Barbara

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home.23 In direct opposition to the wild Velvet Tiger, Frankie’s heroic work is aligned with the technological and not voracious, animalistic desires. While the Velvet Tiger wears fitted, sexy attire, Operator appears as a literal machine. Although Operator’s appearance resists some negative depictions of black women superheroes, her general lack of costume echoes concerns articulated by Blair Davis. Davis argues that few black superheroes maintain the visual resonance of white heroes like Superman and Batman, whose “costumes are so visually distinct that they prove highly memorable” and whose colors or accessories communicate specific information about the character.24 Instead, many black superhero costumes are imbued with what Davis calls “signs of blackness” rather than signs of being a superhero.25 According to Davis, heroes like Luke Cage, Black Lightning, and Vixen all sport costumes that incorporate stereotypical images of blackness: “At their best, many of the accessories that make up these costumes are somewhat oddly developed . . . at their worst, they can be construed as the bizarre fetish objects of white mainstream representations of black identities.”26 Yet black superheroes without costumes, like later depictions of Luke Cage, fail to communicate a memorable superhero identity. Likewise, Operator changes her appearance frequently: sometimes she appears as Barbara’s motorcycle, sometimes as a flying drone, sometimes as a giant humanoid robot hijacked from the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD). None of these technologies signifies “Operator” the way Superman’s cape signifies “Superman” or Barbara’s cowl and yellow accessories signify “Batgirl.” However, in having Frankie “inhabit” these technologies, Stewart and Tarr have crafted a unique visual representation of her rejection of restrictive social identity categories. Both Barbara’s motorcycle and the giant robot, Operator’s most frequent embodiments, are visually coded as masculine: they are black, metallic, and heavy and strongly resist traditional female superhero appearances. The robot is an especially clear case, since the GCPD designed it to resemble a larger, more muscular version of Batman himself. When operating these technologies, Frankie is usually drawn wearing feminine athleisure outfits, such as a sports bra, yoga pants, and gym shoes or shorts and a pink hoodie. While Operator may be another black superhero with a less-than-memorable costume, the creators succeed in portraying a hero who is simultaneously masculine and feminine, unsettling yet another culturally constructed binary. Deriving her power from such technologies, Operator is like every member of the Bat family, none of whom has superpowers in the traditional

More than a Retcon Replacement

sense. Frankie’s skill level is revealed through her day job as a coder. Importantly, Frankie gives no indication of having become a computer whiz while all the other kids were outside playing, as a common narrative trope about disability often manifests. According to David T. Mitchell, such tropes frequently use disability “as an opportunistic metaphoric device.”27 When serving as metaphoric devices, disabilities make material that which is unseen or intangible, representing character flaws, social awkwardness, or other forms of lack. However, Stewart and Tarr have flipped this script: Frankie’s disability is inconsistent and elastic, and it does not serve as a metaphor or symbol for any aspect of her character. In fact, the technology Frankie employs when acting as Operator is similar to that which has allowed Barbara full use of her legs, yet Frankie’s neural implant has no effect on her daily experience of disability. Becoming Operator, then, is not a means of “overcoming” her disability, nor does it appear Frankie has any desire to do so. Unlike Barbara, whose neural implant gives her bodily self the extraordinary ability to bypass paralysis, Frankie’s voluntarily limited use of similar technology resists a Harawayan glorification of cyborg capabilities.28 The disconnect between Frankie’s daily experience as herself and her abilities as Operator further deviates from traditional depictions of disability in superhero comics. The history of disability in comics is fraught with unrealistic images of what can best be articulated as the “super-supercrip.” Eli Clare describes the sociocultural construction of the “supercrip” as “stories about gimps who engage in activities as grand as walking 2,500 miles or as mundane as learning to drive. They focus on disabled people ‘overcoming’ our disabilities. They reinforce the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind.”29 Jonathan Gray offers an analysis of the supercrip in comics: Victor Stone, also known as Cyborg. Previously a star athlete, Stone is caught in an explosion that results in him losing his limbs. Gray notes that “Cyborg’s status as a superhero literally derives from the process of rehabilitation” and that “his heroism, then, is marked by the techne that allows him to overcome his disability,” making him a “supercrip par excellence.”30 It is Stone’s disability and his overcoming that disability that makes him a hero—a super-supercrip. Numerous comic characters like Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, and many of the X-Men can be identified as super-supercrips, capable of heroics only because they have a bodily lack, excess, deformity, or other marked difference that simultaneously gives them powers and limits their full participation in society. These characters serve as allegorical “outsiders,” stand-ins for various marginalized groups but rarely for actual disabled people—their disabilities are


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the metaphoric devices described by Mitchell. These characters are often haunted or disturbed by their newfound disabilities, using their powers to help people in hopes that society will then accept them in spite of their difference. Thus their disability also becomes their motivation for engaging in heroics. In significant defiance of these traditional stories, Frankie’s disability is not the source of her power nor the motivation for her crime fighting. In fact, she tells Barbara, “I’m choosing to help . . . because I love Gotham, and I love you.”31 Though this scene approaches the stereotype of black characters as devoted helpers to white characters, Frankie regardless finds motivation for heroic work outside of vengeance or proving her worth to society. Markedly different from the origin stories of most mainstream disabled comic heroes, Frankie is not reactionary or reluctant. Her relative proactivity separates her from legions of heroes past, especially heroes with disabilities. The author of this Batgirl series, Cameron Stewart, has argued that pure intentions motivate Barbara Gordon as well.32 Unlike her mentor, Batman, who seeks revenge on the criminals of Gotham for murdering his parents, Barbara at first appears to be a wholly altruistic hero. Though Batgirl may once have been a proactive character and had no tragic backstory motivating her to vengeance, The Killing Joke altered her character drastically. When Barbara Gordon became Oracle, she only did so because she had been shot by the Joker. Her disability thus redefined her character. Alternatively, Frankie does not become Operator because she has been newly disabled—these two aspects of her character appear coincidental within the narrative. Frankie becomes Operator to help protect her community. Frankie’s position as a black woman also frames her communityfocused hero work in a different light by locating her in a long history of black women activists. Within the narrative, Frankie serves as a new kind of hero—what I call the “activist hero.” Rare indeed is a mainstream comics hero who up and chooses to become a superhero, but in taking on the role of Operator Frankie claims to do precisely that. Outside the narrative, though, the potential for Frankie to serve as a form of activism within the comics community is not quite fulfilled. Consuela Francis argues that “black readers long for black superheroes (as female readers long for female heroes and gay readers long for gay heroes, and so on)” and that black fans “desire for nonwhite heroes to fight alongside existing heroes” to combat hegemonic portrayals of blackness.33 The same, of course, can be said for heroes with disabilities. However, as Jeffrey A. Brown explains in Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, if

More than a Retcon Replacement

“mass-produced texts appear to be too politically informed they are often ignored as merely ideological preaching” or interpreted as “propaganda.”34 While Stewart and Tarr’s Batgirl does not appear too politically informed or preachy, it may actually suffer from the opposite problem: even as the creators decenter Frankie’s disability in refreshingly trope-defying ways, her construction occasionally reinforces stereotypical messages about gender and never directly addresses race within the diegesis. Here we see a black, female, queer character fighting alongside existing white, heterosexual characters, but the depiction does not quite fulfill its subversive potential due to the simplified postracial utopia portrayed in the series. It would seem Burnside is a paradise of social relations—Alysia and Jo encounter zero resistance when planning their lesbian wedding, Barbara’s research partner Nadimah is never discriminated against for wearing a hijab, and Frankie does not encounter any of the entrenched patriarchy of the tech field. The first issue of the series does center around Barbara taking out a villain who runs an illegal website dedicated to slut-shaming insecure males’ ex-girlfriends, but once this particular individual is defeated, it’s as though the problem is solved—systemic sexism be damned!35 The setting can be read as a positive reflection of liberal millennial attitudes toward racial and sexual difference, but it also has the potential to read as postracial and postfeminist, glossing over rather than challenging a pervasively patriarchal and whitewashed genre. Frankie certainly presents a point of identification for readers who otherwise rarely see heroes like themselves, and superhero comics are indeed a fantasy genre, but an opportunity to connect deeply with readers may yet have been missed in portraying Frankie as more or less “just like Barbara,” despite her blackness, queer sexuality, and disability. Although DC responded to fan disappointment of Barbara’s retcon when creating Frankie, she ultimately serves as far more than a replacement for Oracle. The inconsistent nature of Frankie’s disability reveals the inconsistent nature of able-bodiedness. Unlike Barbara, whose entire identity appears to be dictated by her bodily ability, Frankie demonstrates a separation between her superhero activities and her daily experience of disability. Her characterization resists the trope of the super-supercrip: she is not haunted by society’s rejection of her, nor does her disability serve as the source of her power. Frankie chooses to become a hero and apparently chooses to maintain her disability in day-to-day life even when fitted with the technology that allowed Barbara to leave her wheelchair behind. Her hero work is cast as a form of activism, not only pro-social but also proactive. Stewart and Tarr further reject typical portrayals of disabled women


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as asexual, though their struggle to depict disabled female sexuality while not appearing to oversexualize a black superheroine reveals how systems of oppression work together to construct and discipline social identity. The comic’s idyllic setting, in which queer folk and people of color seem to experience no discrimination, has the dual effect of creating space for characters from typically underrepresented identities and erasing the realities of marginalization. Yet Frankie epitomizes a new type of hero whose feminist agency, queer sexuality, and occasional disability may offer fans a more nuanced and complex recuperation of that which they lost in Barbara’s retcon. Operator breaks new and fertile ground for comic creators to portray diverse characters who are more than the sum of their marginalized identities.

Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. ———. “Standing Orders: Oracle, Disability, and Retconning.” In Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives, edited by Chris Foss, Jonathan Gray, and Zach Whalen, 59–75. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Andreyko, Marc, Jeremy Haun, et al. Batwoman 2, nos. 25–34 (DC Comics, 2014). Reprinted in Batwoman: Webs. Burbank: DC Comics, 2016. Brown, Jeffrey A. Beyond Bombshells. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. ———. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Brooklyn: South End Press, 2009. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: MonkeyBrain, 2006. Coogan, Peter, and Cameron Stewart. “Roundtable Discussion with Cameron Stewart.” Wonder Woman Symposium, September 23, 2016, Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland, Ohio. Davis, Blair. “Bare Chests, Silver Tiaras, and Removable Afros: The Visual Design of Black Superheroes.” In The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, edited by Frances Gateward and John Hennings, 193–212. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015. Duncan, Randy, and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics. New York: Continuum, 2009. Francis, Consuela. “American Truths: Blackness and the American Superhero.” In The Blacker the Ink: Constructing Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, edited by Francis Gateward and John Jennings, 137–53. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Gray, Jonathan. “‘Why Couldn’t You Let Me Die?’: Cyborg, Social Death, and Narratives of Black Disability.” In Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives, edited by Chris Foss, Jonathan Gray, and Zach Whalen, 125–39. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge, 1991.

More than a Retcon Replacement Hatcher, Molly. “The Dark Knight Under Revision.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 4, no. 2 (2013): 257–77. McRuer, Robert. “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggeman, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, 301–8. New York: The Modern Language Association, 2002. ———. “Sexuality.” In Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, 167–70. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Mitchell, David T. “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggeman, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, 15–30. New York: The Modern Language Association, 2002. Moore, Alan, and Brian Bolland. The Killing Joke. New York: DC Comics, 1988. Serlin, David. “Touching Histories: Personality, Disability, and Sex in the 1930s.” In Sex and Disability, edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, 145–62. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Shyminsky, Neil. “‘Gay’ Sidekicks: Queer Anxiety and the Narrative Straightening of the Superhero.” Men and Masculinities 14, no. 3 (2011): 288–308. Simone, Gail, Ardian Syaf, et al. Batgirl 4, nos. 1–6 (DC Comics, 2011–12). Reprinted in Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection. Burbank: DC Comics, 2012. Stewart, Cameron, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr. Batgirl 4, nos. 35–40 (DC Comics, 2014– 15). Reprinted in Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside. Burbank: DC Comics, 2015. ———. Batgirl 4, nos. 41–45 (DC Comics, 2015). Reprinted in Batgirl: Family Business. Burbank: DC Comics, 2015. Stewart, Cameron, Babs Tarr, Brenden Fletcher, and Ming Doyle. Batgirl 4, nos. 46–52 (DC Comics, 2015–16). Reprinted in Batgirl: Mindfields. Burbank: DC Comics, 2016.

Notes 1. Hatcher, “Dark Knight Under Revision,” 86. 2. Ibid., 87. 3. Moore and Bolland, Killing Joke. 4. Hatcher, “Dark Knight Under Revision,” 88. 5. Alaniz, “Standing Orders,” 69. 6. Ibid. 7. Simone, Syaf, and Cifuentes, Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection. 8. Prior to Batgirl, Cameron Stewart was better known for his artistic work on titles such as Seaguy (2004) and Batman and Robin (2009–11), both with author Grant Morrison. During their Batgirl run, Brenden Fletcher was simultaneously working on DC’s Gotham Academy and Black Canary. Babs Tarr had not done any previous comics work. Stewart noticed Tarr’s art via social media and, attracted by its modern street-fashion look, sought to bring her onto the team. Stewart is credited with “Breakdown Art” and also drew several covers for the series, while the overall “Art” credit goes to Tarr. Their goal was to create a “spiritual successor” to the 1960s television version of Batgirl, but with a “2014 sensibility,” emphasizing practicality and hip-ness and avoiding oversexualization (Betty Felon, “From Fashion Blogs to Biker Femmes: The Art of ‘Batgirl’ with Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart, and Brenden Fletcher,” Comics Alliance, Nov. 12, 2014, http://​comicsalliance​.com​/batgirl​ burnside​interview​babs​tarr​cameron​stewart​brenden​fletcher​fashion). 9. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 31. 10. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside, 1. 11. Ibid., 51.


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12. McRuer, “Sexuality,” 169. 13. Serlin, “Touching Histories,” 146. 14. Garland-Thomson, Staring. 15. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside, 20. 16. McRuer, “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness,” 304. 17. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Family Business. 18. Andreyko, Haun, and McCarthy, Batwoman: Webs. 19. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 167–68. 20. Brown, Beyond Bombshells, 122. 21. Ibid., 129. 22. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside. 23. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Family Business. 24. Davis, “Bare Chests, Silver Tiaras, and Removable Afros,” 211. 25. Ibid., 195. 26. Ibid., 211. 27. Mitchell, “Narrative Prosthesis,” 15. 28. See Haraway, “Cyborg Manifesto.” 29. Clare, Exile and Pride, 2. 30. Gray, “‘Why Couldn’t You Let Me Die?,’” 125–26. 31. Stewart, Tarr, Fletcher, and Doyle, Batgirl: Mindfields. 32. Coogan and Stewart, “Roundtable Discussion.” 33. Francis, “American Truths,” 141. 34. Brown, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, 55. 35. Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside.

6 “Okay . . . This Looks Bad” Disability, Masculinity, and Ambivalence in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye

Daniel Pinti

Artist David Aja’s vertiginous rendering of a falling Hawkeye, the first page in the first issue of Matt Fraction’s twenty-two-issue run as writer of Hawkeye (2012–15), captures the literally spectacular precariousness of superheroic life. Marvel’s archer at once drops away from and faces toward the reader, shooting upward an arrow armed with a grappling hook and attached to a rope, as Hawkeye makes his last-ditch attempt to prevent himself from plummeting to the street far below. Shards of glass from the window he has just crashed through rain around him, while vehicles collide in the street, some in flames, presumably because of whatever battle has been going on in the building from which the hero falls. Hawkeye’s terse interior monologue appears in two small caption boxes, one in the page’s upper left corner and the other in the lower right, accentuating the line created by Hawkeye’s angled bow, offsetting the angle of the hero’s body, and reinforcing the powerful, X-shaped composition of this splash page. “Okay . . . ,” reads the first box. And the second: “This looks bad.”1 Thus, from the first panel of the narrative, the appearance of the superhero’s body, which ultimately cannot be abstracted from the circumstances surrounding it, is explicitly at issue. Hawkeye, whose real name is Clint Barton, imagines how he must (?) look to the reader to be in such

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dire straits. In the split-second of time represented on the page, in his own “mind’s eye,” as it were, Barton sees his superhero self as he assumes the superhero’s audience sees him, envisaging a rather disappointing spectacle, and initiating an imagined, interpretive conversation focused on perceptions of his own body. The implied dialogue with the reader begun on the first page continues on the next. On its top half, in a sequence of four vertical panels, Aja depicts Hawkeye, having temporarily halted his fall, swinging from the line now secured by the arrow, only to crash into the side of the building and plunge the remaining distance to street level, landing splayed on the roof of a parked car. Hawkeye harms himself even as he saves himself. Four horizontal panels on the lower half of the page transition to the aftermath of the incident, ending with a heavily bandaged Barton supine in a hospital bed, his neck in a brace, his arms in casts, his right leg in traction.2 The interior monologue simultaneously becomes more elaborate: “You cowboy around with the Avengers some. Guys got, what, armor. Magic. Super-powers. Shrink-dust. Grow-rays. Magic. Healing factors. I’m an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick and a string from the Paleolithic era. So when I say this looks ‘bad’? I promise you it feels worse.” While Barton’s thoughts on the first page construct a connection with the reader, those on the second page construct certain distinctions—not only between what the reader sees and what Hawkeye feels but between Hawkeye and his fellow superheroes in the Avengers. If the superhero, generically speaking, constitutes, in Richard Reynolds’s words, “the first (and arguably, so far, the only) new myth to express the expansion of human action and identity in the postindustrial age,” then Barton’s list of his fellow Avengers’ respective powers evokes just that critical claim. 3 His characterization of his own abilities, however, as fundamentally “Paleolithic”—not postindustrial or even preindustrial but prehistorical—is thus the more striking. Barton all but denies his own superhero status. He isn’t really an Avenger, in his estimation; he merely “cowboys around” with them, invoking a different, preindustrial, and distinctly American masculinist mythology, which, as we will see, plays its own subtle role much later in this series. In the case of Hawkeye / Clint Barton—the preindustrial superhero in the postindustrial age—the comparatively hyperpowered is rendered hypervulnerable, and even implicitly a bit of a sham.4 Clint Barton’s vulnerability and masculinity are at issue throughout Fraction’s run, which he primarily, though by no means exclusively, cocreated with Aja.5 Its overarching conceit is that it tells a story of what this Avenger does when he’s not “on the job.” Thus Hawkeye in this series

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”


Figure 6.1 Matt Fraction and David Aja, “Lucky,” Hawkeye 4, no. 1 (2012): 2.

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is portrayed as a kind of “everyman” (a mere “Hawkguy,” as his friend Grills, with unwitting irony, repeatedly calls him), contending not only with a gang of Eastern European mobsters trying to take over the apartment building in which he resides but also with romantic relationships, sibling rivalry, memories of a traumatic childhood, and periods of physical disability. In fact, the creators’ engagement with the challenges of narrating the male superhero in twenty-first-century comics is nowhere clearer than through their diverse depictions of disability, which are integral to the story: Clint is at various times hospitalized, compelled to use a wheelchair, and deafened, and he is wearing hearing aids at the conclusion of the story arc.6 This combined narrative focus on both “labor” (in this case the work of the superhero) and disability participates in what Stuart Murray describes as “a long historical language of absence and loss” in the figuration of disability, with “those with disabilities . . . inevitably seen in terms of deficit, apparently lacking some required element for full participation in civil society”—or, rather in the case of Clint Barton, superheroic society.7 While hardly the only superhero to endure injury or exhibit disability— and, to be sure, hardly the only superhero to wrestle with recognizable, mundane problems—we might well ask, why this Hawkeye now? How might we understand this particular superhero narrative in the context of early twenty-first century American culture? This essay argues that the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye series constitutes, in ways subtler and perhaps ultimately more intriguing than other, more overtly political comics in the superhero genre, a distinctively post-9/11 narrative for male (super)heroism, one that ambivalently exhibits both a challenge to and acceptance of what Robert McRuer has shown to be the longstanding mutual contingency of “compulsory able-bodiedness” and “compulsory heterosexuality.”8 In a recent article in American Literary History, Elizabeth S. Anker delineates key characteristics of what she terms the American “9/11 novel.” Anker describes how the genre consistently renders the attack and its aftermath as a “crucible of middle-aged masculinity,” includes “plot devices and motifs that capture the domestic in jeopardy,” and represents male protagonists “besieged by external forces” even as their “trials in part are engendered by delayed adolescence and near suicidal behaviors.”9 To be sure, Anker’s range of elements found in the “9/11 novel” is wider than this, and Hawkeye does not exhibit all of them. Moreover, it must be admitted that the series does not reference or represent that 2001 terrorist attack in any explicit way. Even with these allowances, however, what Anker observes in such novels can illuminate

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”

Hawkeye, in ways that shed light on many aspects of the series, beginning, not coincidentally, with its opening sequence discussed above. These novels, according to Anker, are “persistently haunted by the ‘falling men’ of the World Trade Center suicides,” and Aja’s opening page allows the image of the “falling man” to haunt Hawkeye.10 The most famous “falling man” image is the photograph taken by Richard Drew of a lone figure falling headfirst, one knee bent, with the towers looming behind him.11 Journalist Tom Junod, in a penetrating essay about the photograph and the search for the falling man’s identity, notes how the photograph was quickly banned from newspapers, whose editors were sharply criticized for publishing it at all, and thus the image became “at once iconic and impermissible.” Junod’s eloquent description of the image is of note, not least because it emphasizes how the human body, the subject of the photograph, looks to the viewer: “In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. . . . If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity’s divine suction or by what awaits him. . . . [He] is perfectly vertical, and so in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him” (emphasis added).12 Of the many images from that tragic morning and its aftermath, Drew’s photograph is one focused on a single body in relation to a building and, by extension, a city, a body at once resigned and defiant, freed yet doomed. Scott Bukatman has illuminated how, as he pithily puts it, the “superhero city is founded on the relationship between grids and grace,” with the urban superhero (particularly in the medium of comics) being at once defined by, yet somehow transcending, his urban surroundings.13 Such a relationship is thrown into stark relief by Drew’s image, and juxtaposing it with Aja’s inaugural image opens a compelling dialogue. Although Aja’s Hawkeye is self-consciously concerned with how he “looks” to the viewer, he is obviously not the “falling man” resigned to death as he tumbles from a building aflame. Not at all. After all, no matter how physically broken by his fall, the superhero survives. But Hawkeye’s own opening “falling man” sequence does invite the reader to consider how the series may be understood in terms of the subgenre Anker discusses, while it neither directly invokes the events of 9/11 nor reductively allegorizes them. As Anker writes, some post-9/11 texts “contend with the World Trade Center suicides not by explicitly re-imagining them but by obliquely summoning them through alternate dramas of human prowess and agility conducted against the backdrop of a metropolitan skyline,”


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precisely what we see Aja’s image doing here.14 Moreover, while the eventual outcome of the moment imaged in the series opening isn’t death, it is (temporary) disability. Of course, the single most extended and arguably most creative representation of disability in the series is the all-but-wordless issue 19, which includes Aja’s drawings schematically depicting Clint and his brother Barney using American Sign Language to communicate, and which has garnered no small amount of commentary and appreciation among reviewers since its publication. But these are hardly the only instances of disability depicted or referenced, and often, these ambivalences related to masculinity in the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye series are coded via scenes and images of injury and disability, which, as noted above, are established much earlier in the series. For example, later in the first issue Clint takes out his frustration against a physical marker of disability. Following Clint’s six-week hospitalization for injuries suffered in the aforementioned fall, we see him being escorted from the hospital in a wheelchair. Clint insists he can walk, but the orderly pushing the wheelchair refuses to let him. Once outside, Clint deliberately kicks the wheelchair into the street, creating a traffic jam—an action he describes as “a little juvenile,” but one he had been “want[ing] to do . . . for months.” The frustration and even hostility implied by his action are particularly suggestive in context. As we have seen, Barton defines himself as a “defective” superhero, one lacking genuine superpowers. It is hard not to infer he views the wheelchair as its own signifier of “defectiveness,” something limiting the full capabilities of the so-called everyman. Having now dramatically articulated an ableist (but insistently not super-ableist) self-image, he rejects any association with anything that might cause him to be perceived as either “other” or “less” than that. On the other hand, as he returns to his apartment and the story continues, the reader comes to find that Clint’s sense of his “disabledness” never completely leaves him, as he begins to struggle with his sense of not being needed in the Avengers, and of being both part of and yet somehow set apart from the community of the other residents of his apartment building. In short, “disability” is consistently a component of Barton’s own sense of identity, manifesting at times literally and at times metaphorically, at times externally and at times internally, something that he at once owns and rejects. The peculiarly gendered dimension of this ambivalence comes quickly to the fore in the second issue, which brings in Kate Bishop, who is also (a) “Hawkeye.” As Clint narrates, she “took over for me as Hawkeye once upon a time when I was . . . well, dressing up like a ninja, sort of ”—a

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”

reference to the time when he adopted the heroic alter-ego Ronin, and yet another self-effacing comment on the instability of his status as a superhero. Because Kate continues to use the codename “Hawkeye” alongside Clint, its gender associations become at once doubled and destabilized. Consequently, Clint admires her even as he tends to infantilize her, as his internal monologue shows: “She is without a doubt the finest and most gifted bowman I’ve ever met but she’s like nine years old and spoiled rotten.” The reader repeatedly sees Barton simultaneously identifying with yet distancing/distinguishing himself from Bishop. Ambivalences related to gender and references to disability coalesce in the climax of the second issue, when Kate shoots multiple arrows simultaneously at several villains whose robbery plot she and Clint have foiled. Clint tells her she got them “in the eyes,” and Kate responds, “They’re not dead they’re just blinded now. For life probably.” Clint says, “Yeah, no, I know. Still. It’s grim.” That last sentence, as well as Kate’s “For life probably,” are lettered in smaller letters than the other dialogue, indicating remarks under the breath, thus signaling the ambivalence they both have toward Kate’s maiming the perpetrators—an acknowledgment of their sense of awkwardness with regard to acknowledging disability. Another oblique and rather awkward remark about disability shortly follows, when Clint subdues a swordsman, a former student of Barton’s own mentor, with an arrow that strikes him at the base of his skull. The implication is that he will be somehow permanently paralyzed by the shot. As Clint’s internal monologue has it, “He’ll live. Not well but he’ll live.” In both cases, living is one thing, but living with disability is something else, something “grim,” and subtly something less. Ironically, Barton’s ambivalence about both his own (super)ability and his struggle with occasional disability is manifested in his rendering an adversary disabled through superheroic action—the same kinds of action that repeatedly renders him disabled. Such early scenes establish a particularly dense matrix of intersections among disability, masculinity, and superheroism, one that the series continues to explore and exploit in various ways. In the third issue, for instance, although overt images of disability are temporarily absent, superhero gendering is foregrounded in ways that implicitly connect the representation of the male body in comics with disability issues, already raised in the series. In a flashback scene, after a sexual encounter with the woman who has sold him a car—a bright red, 1970 Dodge Charger, a stereotypically masculine, American “muscle car”—Barton is still nude when the series’s antagonists, the so-called Tracksuit Draculas, burst into his apartment to kidnap her. In one panel, Clint dives sideways away from


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gunfire in a position that would have exposed his genitals to the viewer were it not for Aja’s inclusion of a masked Hawkeye face, clad in the hero’s old, purple costume with the flaring eye mask, strategically positioned over them. In other words, the original Hawkeye superhero costume is the punchline for a visual joke. The image creates a multilayered irony inasmuch as the absurdly costumed superhero head covers the costume-less (indeed, stark naked) hero himself, nodding at once toward the inherent outlandishness of Clint’s earlier Hawkeye costume—which throughout this series is set aside in favor of a black T-shirt with a simple, lavender-colored chevron and, of course, no mask—and that of his present predicament. After being knocked out in the subsequent fight, Clint regains consciousness and calls Kate for help pursuing the men who kidnapped the woman and took the car he just bought. He is still getting dressed on the sidewalk when she arrives to pick him up. He gets in her car, screaming for Kate to “Go!” while Kate only stares at him silently for three panels as he pulls on his shirt, finally commenting, “Really. With the abs and the—.” Her comment underscores how for five full pages the naked, male superhero has been the visualized object, as does her comment just a few pages later, when they have caught up to the Tracksuits and taken back the Dodge Charger. As they get in to pursue the rest of the gang, Kate takes the wheel and sardonically asks Clint, “How’s it gonna feel deep down in your man-bits when I drive this car better than you ever dreamed was possible?” The line is jokey banter, of course, but it is nonetheless telling: only a few moments after a casual sexual encounter Clint is rhetorically faced with the prospect of impotence. Clint’s stereotypical masculinity is never denied, but it is compromised by his comic nudity being subject to the reader’s gaze, as well as by his displacement to the passenger seat of his new Dodge Charger.15 In such a sequence, Clint Barton becomes the veritable personification of, in Anker’s words regarding the post-9/11 novel’s typical plot, the “embattlement of conventional masculinity and spent heroism.”16 “Embattled masculinity” is depicted in particularly dramatic fashion in issue 6. During a cookout with other residents on the roof of Clint’s apartment building, his friend Grills christens Hawkeye “Hawkguy” in a comical but revealing bit of dialogue. “Don’t gotta pretend you ain’t Hawkguy ’round us, Hawkguy,” says Grills. Barton tries to correct him: “Hawkeye . . . Eye. Eye.” Grills eventually seems to get it. “Just like on M*A*S*H,” he says, and Barton agrees, before Grills insists a last time, “Hawkguy.” On the one hand, of course, the misnomer points to the hero’s “everyman” status in this particular book: he is, implicitly, just a “guy,”

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”

and the community of “average folk” who reside in his apartment building is comfortably able to include such a non-super superhero (“Don’t gotta pretend you ain’t Hawkguy ’round us, Hawkguy”). But given the complex gender dynamics introduced early and foregrounded throughout the series, and especially given that there is a female “Hawkeye” playing a prominent role in it, Grills is unknowingly saying something more—Clint Barton is in fact distinctly, and only, the male Hawkeye, the “Hawkguy.”17 As such, Barton feels it necessary to take on certain responsibilities and roles for which he also feels unsuited or ill equipped as long as he tries to accomplish them on his own. He encourages himself to “actually move in to [his] apartment like a grown-ass man,” even though he struggles to find the time and motivation to unpack suitcases and boxes. He finds that an arrow he had earlier shot inadvertently lodged in the building’s satellite dish, damaging it, and it becomes his “job” to fix it. Above all, he takes on the role of the building’s protector as the mobsters assail it both physically and financially. To be sure, at one point he is planning on leaving, because, as he tells Kate, the mobsters are “gonna kill everyone in the building if I don’t go.” But Kate talks him out of it: “You’re one of the good guys! So go be a good guy! You know what—? This thing you’re about to do? This running away thing? It’s everything about you that sucks.”18 Clint decides to stay and fight, leading to the full-page image of a plainclothes Clint Barton armed with a rudimentary bow and arrow standing firmly outside of the front door of his building, prepared to take on any who might threaten it. Recalling Elizabeth Anker’s characteristics of the 9/11 novel, by now in the series the “domestic space” is not only in “jeopardy,” as Anker puts it; it has, again in her words, “become a war zone” due to hostile intruders, “another recurrent scenario that fractures the sanctity of the domestic” in these novels.19 By the end of this issue, Clint has transformed from the compromised Avenger to the domestic protector, no longer desperately falling from some building as he did in issue 1 but instead determinedly “standing his ground” in front of a building that is his own. Inevitably, however, it seems such traditionally masculine behavior will, sooner or later, lead to some sort of disability. Issue 15, subtitled “Fun and Games,” ends with the pivotal moment for the representation of disability in the overall arc of the story: an assassin, Kazimierz Kazimierczak, known as “the Clown,” who has been hired by the Tracksuit Draculas, stabs Clint in the ears with two arrows and then shoots Clint’s brother, Barney, leaving them both for dead. On the last page of the issue, the reader sees them from a bird’s-eye view laying on a black-and-white


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Figure 6.2 Matt Fraction and David Aja, “Six Days in the Life Of,” Hawkeye 4, no. 6 (2013): 19.

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”

checkerboard floor, blood-spattered, Barney facedown, and Clint in a fetal position. Their respective injuries result in Clint’s deafness and Barney being temporarily confined to a wheelchair, states of disability in which they will eventually engage in the final showdown with Kazimierczak and the Tracksuit Draculas. For the full meaning of this cliffhanger moment to be grasped, however, it must be put in the context of the issue as a whole. Its cover, designed by Aja, includes a word search puzzle, superimposed over a reproduction of a classic drawing of Hawkeye in his former costume (including belted tunic, pointed eye mask, and prominent “H” on the forehead). As in Barton’s “nude scene,” the former Hawkeye superhero costume provides a form of visual play, implying a degree of absurdity in the traditional costuming while simultaneously drawing ironic attention to the soon-to-be disabled superheroic body. An earlier moment in the series is then recalled on the first page of the issue, when, just as in the first issue’s opening panel, we read Clint’s thoughts in small caption boxes: “Okay . . . this looks . . .” Instead of “bad,” however, he finishes with “completely ridiculous,” and we see Clint in his boxer shorts, his hands up and his pants around his ankles, with masked members of the Tracksuit Draculas pointing their guns at him. And again, just as in the first issue, the contrast between other Avengers and Clint is silently articulated by a frustrated Barton himself. He wishes he “was Thor.” “I wish I could smash this guy in the face with a hammer,” he thinks, and he continues, “Wish I could hit myself in the face with a hammer. Wish I was anyone else. Anywhere else.” Anker describes protagonists in 9/11 novels frequently finding themselves undergoing “trials engendered by delayed adolescence and near suicidal behaviors.”20 Although it may seem a bit melodramatic to adopt such a description for Clint Barton in this comic book, it is uncannily applicable. Clint’s maturity is repeatedly questioned in the series, and the absurdity of his predicament with his pants down originates with his having broken a belt and not being focused or responsible enough to take the time to fix it. Moreover, he gets out of it by promising to show his assailants a “magic trick,” which involves convincing them to all yell “Barney!” together, thus summoning brother to the rescue. It is a self-evidently ludicrous ploy that fits the “fun and games” motif of the issue even as, in Clint’s and Barney’s ensuing violence, it turns quickly toward bloody reality. Even the fantasizing about wishing he were Thor evokes pre-adolescent hero worship, yet takes an oddly dark turn toward self-loathing when Clint begins to think about hitting himself with a hammer. Of course, these smaller moves parallel the larger turn in the entire issue, which begins with a playful


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word search for the reader, continues with Barney working intermittently to solve a crossword puzzle in which the answers relate obliquely to the plot (e.g., “clown”), and concludes gruesomely with the wounding of the brothers. At that terribly serious moment, like the answers to be discovered hiding in the word search game, and the blank squares to be filled in Barney’s crossword, what—or rather, who—is actually hidden in the apartment building finally comes clear to them: Kazimierz, “the Clown,” whom Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) earlier in the issue described as “a blank . . . just a shape.” That this ongoing contest with the Tracksuit Draculas is much more than “fun and games” becomes clear to Clint and Barney at that moment—the moment, in fact, when they suddenly find themselves facing significant disabilities, including Clint’s deafness. One of the most striking aspects of the portrayal of deafness in the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye is how it functions as a catalyst both for fraternal violence and community collaboration. In issue 19, we first see Clint and Barney leaving the same hospital Clint left in the first issue, with Barney in a wheelchair this time, but now the wheelchair is neatly folded into the trunk of the waiting cab rather than kicked into the street. Later, the brothers are arguing on the roof of the apartment building as Clint sulks over his plight, unable to hear as Barney yells at him and unwilling to look at Barney to see what his brother is saying. Without warning, from his wheelchair Barney punches Clint in the face, and suddenly the narrative flashes back to Clint’s childhood experience with deafness, at that time a victim of his father’s physical abuse. One panel depicts a young Barney kicking his younger brother in the face, while a few panels later, in the narrative present, an adult Clint punches Barney, knocking him out of his wheelchair. A quick switch back to the childhood scene has Clint on top of his older brother, and Barney telling Clint, as advice to anyone who might attack him, to “make everything something to hit with. And hit them until they stop.” In childhood, this is an exhortation primarily to fight back against the abusive father. In adulthood, Barney convinces Clint to fight back against the would-be invaders of his building. This leads, significantly, to Clint “pulling himself together,” so to speak, by putting on a “superhero” suit—not his classic Hawkeye costume, nor the simpler, contemporary outfit he wears when fighting alongside the Avengers, but an ordinary business suit, with a lavender necktie rather than a lavender chevron on his chest. He then rallies all those in the apartment building to fight to defend it together, and they enthusiastically agree. As Clint tells Jessica Drew on the phone at the end of the issue, “I need your help. I need everybody’s help.” Collaboration, teamwork, rendered so problematic

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad”

for Clint when he is part of a superhero team, and to which he is so resistant prior to his violence-induced reawakening, now becomes something he recognizes as acceptable and necessary when once again experiencing disability. This Hawkeye begins as the desperately falling superhero but becomes the disabled yet rising “everyman”—a status that virtually demands common identification, collaboration, and solidarity. That juxtaposition of Hawkeye the superhero with Clint Barton the domestic hero opens issue 21, the first issue of the series’s two-part conclusion, titled “Rio Bravo.” The title refers, of course, to the classic Western film whose climax is a ragtag bunch of “good guys” holding out under siege against seemingly insuperable odds.21 More relevant to Hawkeye, however, is how the “cowboy” reference is now invoked as a positive. Clint had derogatorily described his superheroic activities, as well as his getting involved in the dispute with the Tracksuit Draculas in the first place, as a kind of self-destructive “cowboying around.” Now the image is that of the heroic last stand for justice. Before that last stand, though, Clint rejects the call to go to “work”—that is, to respond to a call from the Avengers— in favor of staying for the fight on the home front. He tells Jessica the Avengers don’t really need him, and, although she insists he is wrong, his commitment for the moment is to his building under siege and his community therein, a most personalized and localized brand of “homeland security.” Three of Aja’s images from the final issue (#22) particularly stand out in relation to this analysis. The first is Clint crashing headfirst through a window into a building, specifically into his own apartment, to begin his final standoff against Kazimierczak, a redemptive reversal of the falling Hawkeye of the series’s opening page. The second is his use of a plastic collar stay taken from his dress shirt as an improvised weapon to blind Kazimierczak in one eye before taking him down for good. The collar stays had been placed into his collar by Kate back in issue 13, as the two are preparing to attend Grills’s funeral, and thus Kate’s insistence on this small sign of masculine maturity for the resistant Clint comes to be of unexpected use to the hero.22 Finally, there is the close-up panel of Clint’s left ear, outfitted with a hearing aid, just before Kate enters his apartment and the male and female Hawkeyes together continue their bow practice. Ironically, Hawkeye’s opening insistence on his “paleolithic” status—on how, in effect, he has nothing special, no “armor,” no “magic,” no “superpowers” to distinguish him from the common man and make him viable as an Avenger—is undercut by his disability. Implicit, unassuming, and indeed commonplace as it may be, a disabled Hawkeye now has a kind of superpower, a prosthetic device, a marker of disability that he accepts


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(unlike the wheelchair he petulantly rejected earlier), and by claiming it—as well as seemingly to be securely in concert with rather than at odds with his fellow, female Hawkeye—he discovers a kind of comfort and selfassurance as a hero. It is important to emphasize, however, that Hawkeye is not in the end being depicted as a “supercrip” stereotype. Indeed, one might argue that a kind of self-image as a “supercrip” is precisely what Clint has put behind him. If, as Alaniz writes, such a figure “implies an exaggerated, absurdly hyperrealist overreaching, an ego-driven overcompensation for lack,” indeed, “a figure obsessively . . . over-compensating for a perceived physical difference,” then imaginatively identifying as a “supercrip” in comparison to other superheroes is what Hawkeye had been doing for most of the series.23 At the series’s conclusion, however, Barton seems to have put aside “over-compensating” in favor of simply compensating, and by doing so he finds himself secure as both superhero and “everyman.” Of course, such security, especially when articulated in a genre increasingly willing to reflect suspicions of and unease with its own ideological underpinnings, cannot come without a profound degree of postmodern self-contradiction. Although the phrase itself is not repeated, the situation at the end of the series, just as at the beginning, still “looks bad.” The criminal cartel behind the whole enterprise to take over Clint’s building agrees to kill both Hawkeyes—and one of its members happens to be Kate Bishop’s own father. Moreover, whatever tentative resolution is achieved for Hawkeye, it is accompanied by a nod to future, family conflict: after helping his brother, Barney steals Clint’s money and disappears, with Clint promising to find him. If, as José Alaniz comments, “the superhero body incarnates the anxieties and desires of the age,” Clint Barton’s wounded, disabled body—portrayed as the (non-super) superhero “standing his ground” for himself and his neighbors in his besieged building—incarnates many of the profound anxieties and ambivalences inherent in post-9/11, twenty-first-century conceptions of American masculinity.24 Not least of these is that no man is entirely what he seems, and none, not even fathers and brothers, can be entirely trusted.

Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Anker, Elizabeth S. “Allegories of Falling and the 9/11 Novel.” American Literary History 23 (2011): 463–82.

“Okay . . . This Looks Bad” Bendis, Brian Michael. Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2013. Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. Cheyne, Ria. “Disability in Genre Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, edited by Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, 185–98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, Representation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Fraction, Matt, David Aja, et al. Hawkeye 4, nos. 1–22. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012–15. Jenkins, Henry. “‘Just Men in Tights’: Rewriting Silver Age Comics in an Era of Multiplicity.” In The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, edited by Angela Ndalianis, 16–43. New York: Routledge, 2009. Junod, Tom. “The Falling Man.” Esquire (September 2003). Republished online, September 9, 2016. http://​www​.esquire​.com​/news​politics​/a48031​/the​falling​man​tom​junod. McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Murray, Stuart. “The Ambiguities of Inclusion: Disability in Contemporary Literature.” In The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, edited by Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, 90–103. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Reynolds, Richard. “Heroes of the Superculture.” In What Is a Superhero?, edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, 51–57. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. ———. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Roblou, Yann. “Complex Masculinities: The Superhero in Modern American Movies.” Culture, Society and Masculinities 4, no. 1 (2012): 76–91. Serlin, David. Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Notes 1. Quotations are from the trade paperback editions of the series, which are not paginated. All boldface words quoted from the series appear in boldface in the original. 2. A similar image of a hospitalized Hawkeye occurs near the end of the fifth issue, this one drawn by artist Javier Pulido. There, Hawkeye is also recovering from a gunshot wound. 3. Reynolds, “Heroes of the Superculture,” 53. See also Reynolds, Superheroes. 4. This intersection of power and vulnerability, coded as masculine, is of course hardly unique to Hawkeye. As David Serlin has written, “solidity and fragility” have long been the “dual norms of American heterosexual masculinity” (Replaceable You, 24). 5. Of the twenty-two issues, Aja drew twelve, and part of a thirteenth, most of which was penciled by Chris Eliopoulos. Annie Wu was the artist on four issues, while Javier Pulido was the artist on two issues, as was Francesco Francavilla. Steve Lieber and Jesse Hamm shared drawing duties on one. Fraction discusses his process of collaboration with Aja in Bendis, Words for Pictures, 51–63. 6. This is not the first time Hawkeye has been depicted as enduring hearing loss. In Hawkeye 1, no. 4 (December 1983), the hero loses his hearing in battle. See José Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 55 and 305 n. 31. 7. Murray, “Ambiguities of Inclusion,” 96. See also Cheyne, “Disability in Genre Fiction.” 8. McRuer, Crip Theory, 2 and passim. 9. Anker, “Allegories of Falling and the 9/11 Novel,” 464. 10. Ibid. 11. The image is readily available online via Time magazine’s collection of “The Most Influential Images of All Time,” at http://​100photos​.time​.com​/photos​/richard​drew​falling​man. 12. Junod, “Falling Man.”


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13. Bukatman, Matters of Gravity, 187. 14. Anker, “Allegories of Falling and the 9/11 Novel,” 471. 15. Ironically, this use of Hawkeye’s body to satirize the male gaze in superhero comics appeared almost simultaneously with the website “The Hawkeye Initiative,” begun in December 2012, where drawings of first Hawkeye and then other male superheroes rendered in poses typical of female superheroes have been posted, for the purpose of drawing attention to and critiquing sexism in mainstream superhero comic art. See http://​thehawkeyeinititive​ .tumblr​.com. 16. Anker, “Allegories of Falling and the 9/11 Novel,” 464. 17. Indeed, when considering the entire twenty-two-issue run, it is fair to say Kate plays more than a “prominent role.” After Kate leaves Clint in frustration to move to Los Angeles, she becomes the sole focus of a number of issues, including numbers 14, 16, 18, and 20, all drawn by artist Annie Wu. For perhaps the best recent discussion of gender in superhero narratives (in the medium of comics and beyond), see Cocca, Superwomen. See also Roblou, “Complex Masculinities,” particularly for superheroes in film. 18. Compare what Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Spider-Woman, with whom Clint once had a relationship, says to him in issue 9, where she tells Clint he is a “bad person” and insists his superpower is “letting people down.” 19. Anker, “Allegories of Falling and the 9/11 Novel,” 465. 20. Ibid., 464. 21. Through this reference, and in other ways the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay, the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye series exhibits, in Henry Jenkins’s words, the kind of “absorbing and appropriating new generic materials” characteristic of many “revisionist” superhero comics. See Jenkins, “‘Just Men in Tights,’” 41. 22. Grills is assassinated by the Clown at the conclusion of issue 9. 23. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 32–33. 24. Ibid., 18.

7 The deaf Issue Hawkeye #19 and Deaf Accessibility in the Comics Medium

Naja Later

The critically acclaimed run of Marvel’s Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu was lauded for its striking design and emotional depth.1 Its nineteenth issue in particular, the “deaf ” issue, garnered significant praise and discussion for its portrayal of the titular superhero’s experience of deafness.2 After losing his hearing in an accident, Hawkeye’s deafness is shown with empty or scribbled speech bubbles, and his use of American Sign Language (ASL) is shown as diagrams, untranslated into English. The necessity of communicating inaudibility in a soundless medium makes Hawkeye #19 a deeply resonant experience of deaf subjectivity. To consider a comic as “deaf ”—or to consider all comics as “deaf ”—recalls Michel Chion’s renaming of the silent era of cinema as “deaf cinema.”3 Reading Chion’s theory and Hawkeye #19 as a deaf cinema scholar, I was compelled to contrast the divergent approaches to visualizing aural information in cinema and in comics. This essay seeks to subject cinema’s visualized language, from intertitles to closed captions, to critical examination in comparison to comics’ use of speech bubbles and onomatopoeias. Through analysis of Hawkeye #19, I explore how comics have more successfully incorporated visual communication into their design and thus contextualize disability as an issue of design. In a

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world designed to accommodate visualized communication such as speech bubbles—a striking element played with in Hawkeye #19—deafness is not the “issue” that it is in cinema, where captions are perceived to disturb the aesthetic of films because they are not incorporated into a film’s structural design. I use this comparative analysis to suggest ways in which accessible design may be similarly applied to the built environment, made possible by growing theoretical, narrative, and technological connections between comics, cinema, and architecture. I write this essay conscious of my own subjectivity, in a hope that my experiences as a deaf person, a cinema scholar, and comics fan provide valuable insights between the three. The accessibility discussed in this essay is not universal, instead referring to deaf-specific accessibility for those able to read English quickly and fluently. I have titled this essay “The deaf Issue” partly in reference to the popular nickname for Hawkeye #19, but also as a means of reframing deafness as an “issue” or problem that deaf people in the Hearing world are expected to resolve. This is the experience of deafness with which I am most familiar: I was raised in a Hearing community, attending an assimilation school that restricted me from learning Australian Sign Language (Auslan). I have had very little contact with the Deaf community, use closed captions for screen media, and generally “pass” in Hearing spaces. This has indubitably shaped my approach as a scholar and guides my analysis of the similarly subjective portrayal of deafness in Hawkeye #19. The comic would benefit greatly from further analysis by deaf and Deaf scholars with a focus in disability studies, with this essay serving a complementary role as an interdisciplinary study.

On “Deaf Cinema” This essay was prompted by Michel Chion’s analogy of silent cinema in the early 1900s as “deaf cinema.” Chion is a Hearing composer and scholar whose work on sound and cinema is seminal in the field of cinema studies. In his prologue to The Voice in Cinema, Chion reflects upon “silent cinema” as a possible misnomer.4 Acknowledging that while “silent” can only make sense retrospectively since the advent of “talkies” in 1927, he cites many influential cinema scholars who perceive an anticipation of sound in movies before 1927.5 Chion also describes how accompanying music was always part of the cinema experience, and thus describing the period as “silent” is erroneous.6 He notes that the diegetic worlds of silent

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films are implied to have an aural element beyond the reach of the viewer, claiming: “The silent film may be called deaf insofar as it prevented us from hearing the real sounds of the story. It had no ears for the immediate aural space, the here and now of the action.”7 Because characters’ lips visibly move in early cinema, the abridged understanding a viewer is given through intertitles “gave the moviegoer a deaf person’s viewpoint on the action depicted.”8 In this analogy, Chion characterizes the deaf experience as one technically restricted from understanding spoken language, but being able to infer general meaning through visual information. Music, he suggests, functions distinctly from speech and sound effects, because its lack of synchronicity means it cannot be oriented as sensory information from the story world, instead giving a general sense of mood akin to what a deaf person might perceive in daily life. The significant distinction Chion makes between “silent” and “deaf ” is that we are viewing a world that is supposed to have sound, and we can see from visual information that there should be sound—indeed, in the broadest sense of the soundtrack there is sound—but it is beyond the capacity of contemporary viewers to hear or understand that sound. Reading Chion’s framework as a deaf person, I empathize with the experience of speech occurring in snippets, the rest to be inferred through body language, and of noise that can be contextualized but not pinpointed. This particular kind of deafness is a consequence of assimilation treatment: what Patricia Durr calls “hearingization.”9 Durr exposits by quoting Tom Humphries’s argument: “Deaf people have always lived within other people’s worlds.”10 We could thus claim that cinema is “hearingized”— whether or not we are able to hear the other worlds on the screen. With the advent of “talkies”—not the first sound films, but the first films to synchronize sound in a plot-essential way—film apparatus was able to bring sound to most, but not all, viewers. This is not to say that cinema is inherently inaccessible to deaf people: rather, that the present limitations on aural technology such as hearing aids, and the stylistic decision to minimize visual aids such as intertitles, demarcate cinema as entertainment for Hearing people. Since its inception, cinema has retained its aversion to visualizing sound. Even intertitles, as Chion noted, supplied only the gist of spoken conversations.11 A similar issue applies to contemporary captions, where Dan McIntyre and Jane Lugea have shown that subtitlers make value judgments that negatively impact narrative understanding to keep text succinct.12 While cinema is widely criticized for its excess in other fields, when it comes to accessibility, it is strikingly austere. Accessible aural


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information in modern cinema is treated as supplementary, opt-in, and obtrusive. This ideology is rooted in the concept of cinephilia—specifically, what Thomas Elsaesser calls cinephilia “take one.”13 In defining the fetishization of cinema as a medium, Elsaesser splits cinephilia into “take one” and “take two.” Early cinephiles glorify an experience of cinema in which going to a picture house and immersing oneself was the only opportunity to see a movie. Late cinephiles obsess over collecting and archiving movies, to watch and dissect endlessly. While Elsaesser gives equal weight to both and recognizes their overlaps, in popular discourse a dichotomy exists between the two. The nostalgia surrounding cinephilia take one, its history during the inception of cinema studies as a field, and its ongoing capacity to offer exclusive knowledge of cinema, positions it above the commercialist fixations of the cinephilia take two superfan. As a deaf scholar, I find myself leaning toward the latter, and toward cinephilia take two, in spite of the relative loss in cultural capital within the discipline. Cinephilia take one values the ephemerality of cinema, romanticizing the loss of clarity as the moment, and our memory of the moment, fades. Of course, only cinephilia take two is deaf-accessible, where the cinephile is rewarded by tracking down the right Blu-ray in the right region to find a closed-caption-enabled copy. Closed captions are emblematic of how the need for visual communication is categorized as a disability through design choice. The designation “closed” signifies that captions are opt-in, rather than hardcoded: the conditional accessibility of toggling captions on demarcates the deaf experience of cinema as alternate and extraneous, reminiscent of how Humphries described living “in other people’s worlds.” In the cinema space fetishized by cinephilia take one, the relegation of captions as suboptimal becomes especially obvious. Cinemas that host closed-captioned sessions use “CaptiView” units: small LCD screens on long arms that anchor in one’s cupholder. Captions are kept “closed” by long plastic blinders around the LCD screen, so the captions will not disturb Hearing patrons. As the technological possibility of “closing” captions rolls out with digital movies, visualized communication becomes denaturalized from cinema: like the intertitles and exaggerated body language of early cinema, open captions are memorialized as awkward growing pains in the history of movies. One of the few contexts in which captions remain hardcoded is in foreign film. This format being the most apparent to film critics—as they tend to be Hearing—it also suffers the most criticism. Tessa Dwyer, in her study contrasting dubbed and subtitled foreign-language media, outlines the pro-dubbing argument made by critics who find subtitles aesthetically

The deaf Issue

displeasing.14 Dwyer discusses an anti-subtitling campaign by Bosley Crowther in the 1960s: “Describing subtitles as inadequate, ‘wrong,’ ‘thoroughly inartistic’ and ‘obsolete,’ he states: ‘it is foolish to hobble expression with an old device that was mainly contrived as a convenience to save the cost of dubbing foreign-language films when they had limited appeal.’ Those who do not understand the original dialogue, he argued, ‘have to spend a lot of precious time reading instead of looking at what is going on’ making it ‘rough on the eyesight to have to keep darting the eyes back and forth from the images to the subtitles.’”15 This echoes the frequent sentiment of critics and scholars who consider subtitles a “necessary evil.”16 It poses aesthetics and accessibility as antithetical and incompatible, forestalling the possibility that strategic design can render both possible. An example of aesthetically pleasing subtitles may be found in Night Watch, a Russian science fiction film from 2004.17 The English edition of the film has beautiful subtitles in a variety of colors, shapes, and animations that illustrate the context of the dialogue—demonstrating possible ways to reanimate the meaning McIntyre and Lugea worry is lost in the captioning process. In Night Watch, a character desperately yells “No!”: the letters grow, bouncing off the walls and shattering to express his desperations. When a boy in a swimming pool gets a sudden nosebleed, the thread of blood twists in the water to form the words “come to me”—a psychic call from a vampire. The English-speaking critical acclaim for Night Watch is owed in no small part to these marvelous experiments in incorporating subtitles into the style and narrative of the film.18 Night Watch absolutely dispels Crowther’s notion that subtitles are inherently inartistic, demonstrating instead that they are simply under-designed. This problem is very similar to other accessibility technologies, where a perceived lack of demand leaves designs inefficient and inartistic. It is possible that with growing access to foreign-language media through streaming services, subtitles will reach the critical mass necessary to spur innovation.19 There remains the issue that translation subtitles are distinct from subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH): they are not considered superfluous for monolingual Hearing viewers, and thus artistic SDH may still be criticized as sensorially excessive. These attitudes toward subtitles go some way toward explaining how captions came to be closed, and how cinema is popularly perceived as “above” visualized sound. Indeed, the contrast with comic books is not lost on these scholars, although the low cultural capital of the comic and its accessibility is situated as inferior and undesirable. Dwyer notes that: “Crowther’s successor [. . .] Vincent Canby later suggested that subtitles transform film


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into ‘a kind of high-class comic book with sound effects.’”20 This proclamation is utterly fascinating: written in 1983, it could herald the continuing anxiety cinema culture has over the rise of—and hybridity with—adjacent media such as television and comics. Encoded is a condemnation of overabundant visual data, a growing concern with the contemporary explosion of hypermediacy and baroque “MTV” aesthetics.21 Attached to all these attitudes are classist values, in which a minimalist visual palate signifies cinema’s technical and artistic supremacy—and the accessibility of sound through its visualization pollutes this supremacy. No less, sound is visualized in the manner of comics—a lower class of entertainment. For many reasons, suggesting that a subtitled film bears an aesthetic resemblance to a mainstream comic book is laughable, because comics have dealt with visualizing sound with an entirely different ethos to cinema.

Sound in Comics Comics have worked within the sensory restrictions of their medium in a way that has diverged and developed for decades.22 Marina Warner demonstrates the productivity of comparatively analyzing cinema and comics as visual media struggling with sound in the early twentieth century: “Comic strip artists, developing their storytelling devices in some kind of symbiosis with the movies, felt the need to communicate the weight and substance, the capacity for pain and for sensation of their drawn characters—and they reached for sonics to do it—for ‘Whaam!’ and ‘Crakk!’ because noises give evidence of materiality in a way that photography—still and moving, analogue and digital—has uncannily cancelled.”23 Warner thus argues that the illustration of sound in comics—in spite of its perception as cartoonish—is only as nonnaturalistic as the absence and subsequent reintroduction of often-artificial sound in photographic media. This subverts a pervasive misconception in cinema theory dating as early as the work of André Bazin, and in popular discourse, that photography is objective, immediate, and indexical.24 In describing the supremacy of photography, Bazin compares cinema directly to illustration and painting—the tools of comics.25 Their work continues to influence the criticisms of digital special effects—which by no coincidence lower the cultural capital of comic book movies—as painted and therefore lacking indexicality.26 In comparing Warner with Bazin, we may see how both media have come to recreate sensory information subjectively, and that cinema’s Foley effects may be as abstracted from organic sound as an illustrated “Whaam!” In

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the following section, I explore comics’ creative approaches to visualizing sound in ways that demonstrate accessibility as an issue of design. The absence of sound and movement are endemic to the paper medium. Warner and Martyn Pedler argue, however, that mainstream comics tell noisy and dynamic stories, always pushing the boundaries of how a still and silent format can inventively communicate movement and sound.27 Repetition and experimentation have produced formal conventions such as speech bubbles, narration boxes, and acoustigrams (Warner’s term for onomatopoeias like “Whaam!” and other non-speech-or-narration notations).28 These communicate aural information in ways that are fully naturalized to the medium and, as Warner argues, push the boundaries of written language.29 Warner describes acoustigrams as “rejecting the generic muteness of the visual arts,” drawing as Chion does on terminology of disability to describe media technologies’ limitations.30 However, while cinema continues to treat the need to visualize sound as an aesthetic evil, comics visualize sound in what Warner calls “a clear and defiant contrast to the silence and stillness that are the twin confines [of the page].”31 These approaches to sound are rooted in spatial and structural choices that impact upon the ideologies of aesthetics and disability. Unlike in Chion’s hypothesis of cinema, comics are not using visual language in a way that anticipates the introduction of sound. Chion suggests that two-dimensional cinema “dreams of depth” as it once dreamed of sound, defining flatness and soundlessness as restrictions that cinema “dreams” of overcoming.32 While the intertitles, music, and mise-en-scène of early cinema suggest, according to Chion, a temporary and frustrating absence of sound, the conventions comics developed to communicate sound are unlikely to be read retrospectively as placeholders—or evils.33 In fact, they have become so characteristic of the superhero genre that even in sound-equipped media, such as the 1960s Batman television series, the acoustigrams of the comics (wham! pow!) appear on screen, now serving the purpose of obscuring the violence taking place behind them.34 In this example, the cinematic ideology of visualized sound being an imposition is used creatively to navigate another restriction of the medium: this time, the restriction of violence represented on television. A more recent example to bring titles from the original comic to the screen is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.35 Scott Pilgrim draws consciously and gleefully from the overcrowded music video aesthetic as much as it does the comic book. Important dialogue appears as what might be called intra-titles: words move with the diegesis, three-dimensional and interacting with the space around them. Acoustigrams repeat sounds like doorbells and punches to


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emphasize their spectacular impact upon characters. Acoustigrams and titles, far from being temporary workarounds for soundless technology, demonstrably serve unique functions beyond their idiosyncratic origins. In the medium of comics, acoustigrams continue to be a site of experimentation with formal conventions. The area is well traversed in Japanese manga, where acoustigrams are highly stylized and illustrative, with their own well-developed conventions to fully illustrate the aural world. This effect has trickled down to mainstream Western superhero comics. Wolverine has his signature claw-popping—represented as “snikt”—referenced in diegetic dialogue, breaking the fourth wall.36 This suggests that comics treat soundlessness not as a deficiency awaiting a fix, but an opportunity to explore our sensory world in ways beyond the aural. Sound arrives through words, letters, colors, and shapes: the need to visualize sound is not a problem but a design process and a creative opportunity. As a deaf reader, this seamless soundlessness underpins the core ideologies of the superhero genre. Superheroes act out our escapist fantasies and model our ideal selves: to fly like Captain Marvel is as fantastical as the ability to communicate perfectly in the Hearing world. The magic of the superhero body is made possible by the world in which it thrives: the comic book. The built environment of the comic page is designed from its inception to accommodate visual communication. Characters are positioned within panels with space arranged for speech bubbles, narration, and audiograms. Thus I would argue that comics model deaf accessibility not because they make up for a lack of aural capacity, but because they create a fully realized world in which the aural is superfluous, and visual communication is instead seamlessly integrated into their design. A reader’s deafness has little consequence on their enjoyment and understanding of comics: a Hearing reader may approach exclusively visual communication as perfectly natural to the comic medium. As a contrast with cinema’s reluctance to use subtitles suggests, this circumstance is owed to the way comics have developed their structures and aesthetics to innovate, rather than compensate.37

The deaf Issue I have argued that comics present a world where sound is no obstacle to communication and understanding. How then, would a comic present a dysfunctional absence of sound in a functionally soundless world? Fraction, Aja, and letterer Chris Eliopoulos deal with this conundrum in

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Hawkeye #19, where the point-of-view character is deaf. Superhero Hawkeye, a.k.a. Clint Barton, temporarily loses his hearing after an accident in Hawkeye #18. Flashbacks show that Clint has had similar episodes of deafness since childhood, during which he and his brother Barney learned ASL. Typical comic panel layouts are used to portray numbered step-bystep diagrams of ASL, representing Barney and Clint’s ASL conversations, but these conversations are not translated into English. Even if a Deaf reader fluent in ASL can interpret these diagrams, there are also empty or indecipherable speech bubbles used to represent speech. This means that all readers must use context, inference, and guesswork to decipher the narrative of the issue. This issue is striking in how it draws attention to the dis-abled experience of deafness in a Hearing world, and it does so by positioning inaccessibility as a design flaw. So total is the integration of visual communication in the structure of comics that an absence of its replacements (speech bubbles and acoustigrams) does not fully convey the gaps in understanding, nor the struggle for comprehension, that come with being deaf in a hearing world. For example, a lack of speech bubbles in wordless comics like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, does not necessarily hinder our understanding of the narrative in a way deafness would.38 Instead, Aja and Eliopoulos fill speech bubbles with scribbles, garbled text in a different font (Clint hears in Courier; others hear in a more traditional comics font), or leave them empty. Speech is still present in the diegesis, but it is inaccessible to Clint and the reader: no fluency in ASL or English will help. The presence of useless speech bubbles conveys the very relatable feeling of a world built around a language you cannot access, where your misunderstandings are obfuscating and obtrusive. As readers, we are aligned with Clint’s perspective as we know people are speaking, but we cannot make out what they are saying. The few bubbles in which jumbled words are transcribed could be interpreted similarly to Chion’s characterization of intertitles: they give a gist of the conversation, but more is visibly happening beyond what we can understand. While Chion’s “deaf cinema” lacks deaf subjectivity, Hawkeye #19 shows a deeply subjective exploration of deaf experience. While a Deaf reader can follow some language, deaf readers not fluent in ASL may find a powerful familiarity in knowing communication is taking place, but lacking the tools to follow it. Being deaf in a Hearing world is not shown as a lack of awareness of communication: rather, it is an obstructive and confusing process of deciphering and inference, rife with ambiguity. The isolation and frustration of the emptied spaces surrounding Clint use the building


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blocks of comics as an affective tool: they evoke the un-communicated pain Clint has repressed throughout the run. The key conflict of the single issue is over Clint’s refusal to speak to, sign with, or look at Barney. This emphasizes the labor asked of deaf people to fill the gaps between themselves and the Hearing: even Barney’s attempts to sign fit the narrative of ideology of nonvocal language as a secondary option, one that Clint is chastised for failing to respond to. This interpersonal dysfunction is a common and distressing problem for deaf people, often exacerbated by failures to effectively visualize language.39 Aja expresses this as a design issue by isolating Clint spatially, stark blank bubbles surrounding him, and the fuzzy lines in other speech bubbles resembling comics’ common illustration of frustration through nondiegetic jagged lines around a character’s face. Clint’s key development in the issue is learning to communicate his difficulties and signal a need for support: this does not result in a simple resolution. His hearing does not come rushing back, nor do panels fill with easily understood text once more. Rather, it suggests the possibility of accessibility and the resulting emotional well-being is a product of collaboration and effort by the Hearing characters. By denaturalizing the availability of visual communication, Hawkeye denaturalizes inaccessibility. There is a world of difference between a comic with no speech bubbles, and a comic with empty speech bubbles. Their total absence would erase the presence of disability: there would appear to be nothing one is dis-abled from understanding. Instead, empty bubbles draw our attention to how seamlessly the language of comic books had been accessible until now. We are presented with the opposite problem of closed captions: when a medium is designed to accommodate visual communication, its absence is as jarring and inartistic as its presence in a medium not designed around it. We see how spaces are designed to accommodate language, a feature that may only become apparent when we cannot access it. As a deaf reader, I realized I had not even thought of how speech bubbles communicated sounds—rather than a sensorially abstract language—until the familiar failure to understand conversation reminded me that comics are representing aural worlds. How easy it had been and how natural it had seemed, until this moment, to participate in the worlds of comics. If inaudible sound were as obtrusive as a scribbly speech bubble, floating between myself and someone speaking to me, the difficulty of deciphering it would be as frustrating to a Hearing person as it is to me. If we lived in a world designed to accommodate deafness, we would, like characters in comics, arrange ourselves comfortably around the speech bubbles we relied upon to communicate. I call Hawkeye #19

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“the deaf issue” because no other comic had made me feel deaf—the isolation and frustration—and subsequently made me reconsider how deafness is framed as an “issue” by inaccessible design choices.

151 Structural Soundlessness My profound surprise of feeling disabled while reading Hawkeye #19 corresponds to the social model of disability. This ideology approaches disability not as an inherent biological trait, but a condition triggered by limitations on what one’s environment is built to accommodate. Research by the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology supports this model, demonstrating a correspondence between residents of poorly maintained streets reporting as disabled at a higher rate than residents of well-maintained streets in similar communities.40 This suggests that a failure in design—upkeep of public thoroughfare—creates a demographic of disabled people by dividing a community between those who can use a street and those who cannot. Concurrently, were public space designed to accommodate visualized sound, deafness would no longer be dis-abling. In taking this approach, I follow the lead of cinema scholars such as Giuliana Bruno, who read the city as a medium.41 Contextualizing architecture as an art form helps us understand how the possibilities of accessibility in cinema and comics may be applied to daily lives. Russell S. Rosen describes how a project on Deaf architecture reduces the disabling potential of deafness: To capture the way d/Deaf people arrange themselves for conversation and also navigate space, the project developed architectures with circles, arcs, and spheres; standing rooms; circular and semicircular seating arrangements; visual destinations with visible entrances, doors, and intersections; vertical connections between buildings; sidelights and transcoms as visual doorbells; ramps instead of stairs; mirrors and reflectors in offices and hallways that attest to its transparent qualities; open spaces and enclosures; artifacts on d/Deaf themes; vibrations within and between spaces; controllers for acoustic noise with sound absorptive walls; strobe lighting systems; and communication boards.42 The key to accessibility here is not “hearingization”—bringing the deaf into other people’s worlds—it is intentional design that naturalizes accessibility.

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I liken this to comic panels, in which space is designed by artists for speech bubbles, and lettering them is so natural that a comic like Hawkeye #19, in which visual language is suddenly absent, has the potential to be striking. We have over one hundred years of soundless comics that demonstrate a world that fully functions around transcribing the aural, and this model could serve well beyond cinema. These accessible technologies are becoming increasingly feasible, but their limitations are similarly foreseeable. A futurist might suggest that technologies like Google Glass could live-translate spoken language into text for a deaf user’s heads-up display. It remains to be seen whether this text would be projected as speech bubbles or subtitles, and over what part of the user’s visual field the text would be superimposed. In this hypothesis we return to the problem of SDH: comics panels are drawn with space for textual language in mind, while public space is not. This kind of speculation treads in the territory of universal design principles, a field well outside my own expertise—however, I present this discussion in a hope that approaches to the sensory limitations of media may, through analysis of their form, model possibilities for how to approach real-world sensory limitations. My own reservations over the feasibility of universal design principles was shaken by the realization, reading Hawkeye #19, that I had already long been immersed in a fully deaf-accessible world through comics. Bruno’s framework of public space as a form of media becomes problematic from a deaf perspective due to a symbiosis she draws between the city and cinema.43 This problem returns us to the perceived indexicality of cinema, and thus its similarity to the “real.” As I have discussed, the denaturalization of visual language in cinema is not due to its indexical relationship to the aural world, but the failure of cinema to incorporate accessible language such as SDH as more than a design afterthought. While Bruno seeks to orient the city as an abstract, mediated space, this framework also anoints cinema as immediate. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call immediacy “a medium whose purpose it is to disappear.”44 This is the ostensible goal of cinema—at least in the context of cinephilia take one such as Bazin and Grey’s.45 SDH and other visual communications break the illusion of immediacy in cinema and the built environment: however, this is owed in part to our sense of “immersion” in cinema being compared to another designed space—architectural space. Comics, meanwhile, are hypermediated. Hypermediacy refers to the noticeability of mediation between the content and reality—often, the visibility of an interface. Comics—like many low cultural media—excel in hypermediacy, with

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speech bubbles, speed lines, and a whole toolkit of visual idiosyncrasies used to express sensory information on the page.46 In spite of the perceived immersion of immediacy, Bolter and Grusin highlight a unique integrity in hypermediacy, claiming it “multiplies the signs of mediation and in this way tries to reproduce the rich sensorium of human experience.”47 This sensorial richness—what I imagine to be a world without the empty spaces of missing sounds—is precisely the goal of accessibility. It is made possible by hypermediacy, and the competing ideologies of hypermediacy and immediacy play directly into how design prioritizes accessibility. In considering the built environment as a medium, and how this might influence accessible design, the growing culture of cross-media influence becomes significant. Symbiosis between the city and cinema opens the possibility for a transference of accessible design principles in these mediated environments. Meanwhile, the growing collaboration between comic books and popular cinema can be seen in the astronomical popularity of superhero movies and their own spin-off comics. This suggests that cinema’s willingness to borrow comics’ genres, characters, and narratives could also extend to the accessible design of hypermediacy. Problems of aesthetic and class values threaten to impede this process, but the technical restrictions that once triggered alternate design strategies are being overcome in ways that also erode the hermeticism of media such as comics, cinema, and architecture. I am hopeful that this form of media convergence creates increasingly transferable models of accessible design. In using Hawkeye #19 to discuss these possibilities, I posit that a single issue of a “deaf ” comic book is as worthy of consideration and considerate design in the public sphere as a single deaf person.

Conclusion The question of what a “deaf ” medium would look like, posed in different ways by Michel Chion and by Fraction, Aja, and Eliopoulos, creates a valuable opportunity to explore accessibility in cinema and comics. While cinema is still struggling with deaf accessibility as a design issue, comics have advanced so far in soundless design that Hawkeye #19 is strikingly stylized. It invites reflection upon how comic panels visualize the aural in ways that are creative, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing. This circumstance being contingent on the structural design of comics suggests ways in which other designed environments, such as cinema and public space, might be able to design harmoniously stylish and accessible worlds.


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Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Translated by Hugh Grey. Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer 1960): 4–9. Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. Bruno, Giuliana. Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. London: Wallflower Press, 2008. Calavita, Marco. “‘MTV Aesthetics’ at the Movies: Interrogating a Film Criticism Fallacy.” Journal of Film and Video 59, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 15–31. Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Clarke, Philippa, Jennifer A. Ailshire, Michael Bader, Jeffrey D. Morenoff, and James S. House. “Mobility Disability and the Urban Built Environment.” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 5 (2008): 506–13. Covey, Suzanne. “Beyond the Balloon: Sound Effects and Background Text in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 2, no. 2 (2006). Durr, Patricia. “Deconstructing the Forced Assimilation of Deaf People via De’VIA Resistance and Affirmational Art.” Visual Anthropology Review, Society for Visual Anthropology 14 (2000): n.p. Dwyer, Tessa. “B-Grade Subtitles.” In B Is for Bad Cinema: Aesthetics, Politics, and Cultural Value, edited by Constantine Verevis and Claire Perkins, 43–64. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014. ———. Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. Elsaesser, Thomas. “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenfranchisement.” In Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, edited by Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, 27–42. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005. Ennis, Garth, Darick Robertson, and Matt Milla. Marvel Knights Punisher, no. 16. New York: Marvel Comics, 2002. Fraction, Matt, David Aja, and Annie Wu. Hawkeye 4, nos. 1–22. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012–15. McIntyre, Dan, and Lugea, Jane. “The Effects of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Subtitles on the Characterisation Process: A Cognitive Stylistic Study of The Wire.” Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 23, no. 1 (2015): 62–88. Pedler, Martyn. “The Fastest Man Alive: Stasis and Speed in Contemporary Superhero Comics.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 3 (2009): 249–63. Prince, Stephen. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1996): 27–37. Rosen, Russell S. “Sensory Orientations and Sensory Designs in the American Deafworld.” Senses and Society 7, no. 3 (2012): 366–73. Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2006/2010. Warner, Marina. “Phew! Whaam! Aaargh! Boo! Sense, Sensation, and Picturing Sound.” Soundtrack 1, no. 2 (2008): 107–25.

Filmography Bekmambetov, Timur, dir. Night Watch. Film. 2004. Moscow, Channel One Russia. Dozier, William, dir. Batman. Television series. 1966–68. New York, ABC. Eisenstein, Sergei, dir. Strike! Film. 1925. Soviet Union, Goskino. Gilligan, Vince, dir. Breaking Bad. Television series. 2008–13. New York, AMC.

The deaf Issue Vertov, Dziga, dir. Cine-Eye. Film. 1924. Soviet Union. Wright, Edgar, dir. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Film. 2010. London, Big Talk Productions.

Notes 1. Fraction, Aja, and Wu, Hawkeye. 2. Clint Nowicke, “A Deaf Comic Geek’s Grateful Review of ‘Hawkeye #19,’” Pop Mythology, August 4, 2014, http://​www​.popmythology​.com/a​deaf​comic​geeks​grateful​review​of​hawk eye​19. 3. Chion, Voice in Cinema. 4. Ibid., 7. 5. Ibid. 6. Ibid., 8. 7. Ibid., 7. 8. Ibid., 8. 9. Durr, “Deconstructing the Forced Assimilation of Deaf People.” 10. Tom Humphries, quoted in ibid. 11. Intertitles may be abridged but are not necessarily austere. Some early cinema reillustrates dialogue with a similar flair I will argue is used in comics: Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike! and Dziga Vertov’s Cine-Eye are examples. 12. McIntyre and Lugea, “Effects of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Subtitles,” 77–78. 13. Elsaesser, “Cinephilia,” 38, 41. 14. Dwyer, Speaking in Subtitles. 15. Ibid. 16. Indeed, to draw once more from personal experience, while I was discussing this research a Hearing scholar advised me that subtitles broke the visual field and used the precise phrase “a necessary evil.” Dwyer, “B-Grade Subtitles,” 50–51. 17. Bekmambetov, Night Watch. 18. Alice Rawsthorn, “The Director Timur Bekmambetov Turns Film Subtitling into an Art,” New York Times, May 27, 2007, https://​www​.nytimes​.com​/2007​/05​/25​/style​/25iht​ design28​.1​.5866427​.html. 19. The naturalization of subtitles may also be shifting due to the popularity of gifs on social media. The small and soundless format of gifs means that quotable snippets of television and other screen media are captioned in the style of SDH. However, the square-bracket descriptive subtitles of SDH are still regarded as a source of humor for their awkwardness, such as in the popular meme taken from Breaking Bad with the caption “[muffled rap music plays in the distance].” Gilligan, Breaking Bad. 20. Dwyer, Speaking in Subtitles. 21. Calavita, “‘MTV Aesthetics,’” 15. 22. Digital media have begun to experiment with adding sound to comics: there exist “motion comics” with soundtracks, resembling animated films. Additionally, publishers such as Marvel have begun equipping some books with an augmented reality feature, in which aligning one’s smartphone over the comic’s page will trigger videos of supplementary material. 23. Warner, “Phew! Whaam! Aaargh! Boo!,” 121. 24. Bazin, “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 8. 25. Ibid., 7. 26. Prince, “True Lies,” 30. 27. Warner, “Phew! Whaam! Aaargh! Boo!,” 110; Pedler, “Fastest Man Alive,” 249–63. 28. For further reference, see Covey, “Beyond the Balloon.” See also Warner, “Phew! Whaam! Aaargh! Boo!,” 108. 29. Warner, “Phew! Whaam! Aaargh! Boo!,” 114–15.


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30. Ibid., 110. 31. Ibid., 112. 32. Although, as Pedler points out, Will Eisner referred to speech bubbles as “a desperation device.” However, Pedler contextualizes the speech bubble as an alternative to communicating through body language, rather than vocally (“Fastest Man Alive,” 251). See also Chion, Voice in Cinema, 7. 33. Chion, Voice in Cinema, 8. 34. Dozier, Batman. 35. Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. 36. Ennis, Robertson, and Milla, Marvel Knights Punisher, no. 16. 37. At risk in this discussion is the potential to depict comics as utopian and cinema as entirely ableist. While I seek to draw a contrast between the two, it is aimed at demonstrating possibilities both media can apply in accessible design, and how these possibilities could be used effectively in a broader context of disability and the built environment. 38. Tan, Arrival. 39. McIntyre and Lugea, “Effects of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Subtitles,” 78. 40. Clarke et al., “Mobility Disability and the Urban Built Environment.” 41. Bruno, Cities in Transition, 14–19. 42. Rosen, “Sensory Orientations and Sensory Designs,” 372. 43. Bruno, Cities in Transition, 21. 44. Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 21. 45. Ibid., 25–31. 46. Ibid., 43. 47. Ibid., 34.

8 That Hawkguy Deaf and Disability Gain in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye

Sarah Gibbons

The letters page of “Cherry,” the third issue of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2012–15 Hawkeye series,1 features a letter from a reader named Clint N., who posed an important question to the comic’s creators. He wrote: “A lot of comic authors have pretty much ignored the fact that Hawkeye was deaf in the 1980’s. Will there be a reappearance of deaf Hawkeye any time soon? He can borrow my purple hearing aids if he needs them!” In answer, Senior Editor Stephen Wacker acknowledged the history of Clint Barton’s deafness, but he answered that there were no plans to feature a deaf Hawkeye. However, he closed his response with a suspenseful, “Stay tuned.”2 Two years later, issue number 19, “The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” which has become known as the American Sign Language (ASL) issue, appeared in print. Although reviewers and fans have praised the positive portrayal of disability in issue 19, critics have yet to consider the significance of this issue within the larger arc of the series. In this chapter, employing methodologies from rhetorical studies, comics studies, and disability studies, I argue that recognizing continuities in terms of style, characterization, and the creation of community between issue 19 and the rest of the series illustrates how Fraction and Aja’s iteration of Hawkeye welcomes the interdependence of disability within a genre that often

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appears dedicated to championing independence. Doing so also clarifies how issue 19 is more than simply a “special episode” on disability; the other issues work to bolster, as oppose to undermine, the innovative representation of disability in issue 19. I begin this essay with the argument that disability is a central concern from the outset of the series. I argue that experiences of deafness and disability both structure this comic and produce a new aesthetic through me¯tis, a form of embodied rhetoric outlined by disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage.3 I also establish how the panels depict and celebrate what disability studies scholars call “crip time,” in contrast to the epic time of comics. To strengthen this claim, I draw connections between issue 19 and the minimalist presentation of Hawkeye throughout the series as a skilled, yet ordinary, human. Finally, I turn to the community fostered within the letters to the editor that suggests the extent to which readers exercised agency in shaping this story. As I explore the parallels between the creation of community in Clint Barton’s story and the creation of the fan community beyond the page, I reiterate the centrality of disability in this series for rethinking definitions of community, communication, and (super)heroism.

From Hawkeye to Hawkguy: Fraction and Aja’s Clint Barton Although Hawkeye appears throughout Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one of the Avengers, Fraction and Aja’s series focuses on his adventures without the popular superhero team. At Rose City Comic Con, Fraction described his initial pitch to Marvel. His original vision of Barton’s story was “very James Bond—lots of tuxedos, women in gowns, and gambling, and hotels and all this kind of stuff.”4 However, after realizing that this was not the right book for Hawkeye and very nearly giving up on the character, Fraction created “the Clint and Kate show,” concluding, “I had the take. I had the knuckles and the bandages everywhere. I knew what the book was and pitched it from there.”5 Dispensing with intrigue and international espionage in favor of focusing on what the apartment-dwelling, rooftop-barbecuing Clint Barton contends with when he is not working as an Avenger, Fraction centered his storyline on Hawkeye’s efforts to protect his New York building from a local crime syndicate called the Tracksuit Mafia. Clint shares the Hawkeye moniker with his best friend and fellow archer, Kate Bishop, whose own adventures as a private investigator become more prominent in the second half

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of the run. Fraction describes Clint to fans as “the guy with busted knuckles and a split lip who will help you move your couch anyway.”6 His lack of extraordinary or superhuman powers allows for greater instances of realism than readers might expect from a superhero comic. Although his adventures take place in the Marvel universe, Hawkeye is in many ways more influenced by detective stories than science fiction. The characterization and setting combine to make this comic an important one for thinking about disability. Clint’s appearance on the opening page of the series showcases his dramatic fall from a high-rise onto the roof of a parked car, highlighting his status as the most physically precarious member of the Avengers. As he falls, he recounts the abilities and powers of the superpower team, concluding with “healing factors.”7 The corresponding panel shows him upside down in midair, with the noise “krack” appearing underneath as he loses his grip on his roped arrow and crashes against the side of the building. Reminding the reader that he is “an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick and string from the Paleolithic era,” Clint highlights his weakness compared to his superpowered friends.8 His comparison illustrates the extent to which science fiction and fantasy as genres challenge readers to reconsider what society classifies as a “normal” human.9 One could say that, compared to the other Avengers, Hawkeye is already disabled, in the sense that he experiences greater pain and greater difficulty navigating the cityscape. Although even a human without superpowers like Clint is able to survive more than a real person outside the world of superhero comics possibly could, the rooftop of a high rise is certainly not accessible to him in the way that it is for other heroes. From a disability studies perspective, the ways in which this cityscape is more disabling to Hawkeye than to his fellow heroes can be read as analogous to how the built environment in the real world is disabling. The comparisons that Clint makes between himself and his fellow heroes in this sequence capture the extent to which definitions of disability are not static but are contingent upon social and environmental contexts. As philosopher Shelley Tremain has argued, beliefs about what constitutes an impairment are not transhistorical or objective, as definitions shift over time.10 Science fiction and fantasy, the two genres that traditionally most influence superhero comics, are well designed to explore this shift through the introduction of extraordinary abilities. Within the Marvel universe, Clint is evidently more prone to damage than figures like the Hulk or Captain America, who have superhuman powers that the human sharpshooter lacks. Hawkeye’s self-deprecating description of


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his depowered role within the Avengers group captures this vulnerability. Bruised, bandaged, and in a body cast by the last panel of the page, Clint is “disabled” not just in issue 19 but at the outset of the entire series. However, although Clint’s embodiment defines the parameters of his role within the Avengers, he does not embrace disability in all its forms. The use of ASL within the comic to recount Clint’s experience is a clear example of the generative possibilities of embracing a disability aesthetic, but it would be untrue to say that the comic escapes all tensions between the representation of superheroism and the representation of disability. Although Hawkeye’s susceptibility to injury in the first sequence of the comic presents disability in an ordinary, realistic mode, he defines himself against disability on the subsequent page. After he is discharged from the hospital, a panel features him pushing his wheelchair toward the apartment buildings and cabs; Clint’s grip on the wheel is in the very center of the panel. He looks up in the next panel, and the subsequent one traces his line of sight. He stares up at an inaccessible outdoor stairway to the building. Although the panels highlight the taxicabs and the stairwells as environmental barriers, Clint at this point views the wheelchair as the obstacle; a subsequent panel zeroes in on his foot as he prepares to kick it away. The next panel shows him having left the wheelchair in the middle of the road to engineer its destruction.11 A movement from a temporarily disabled body to a temporarily abled body thus marks the beginning of the series, as Clint celebrates his recovery. The destruction of the wheelchair highlights a clear tension between the celebration of ability within superhero comics and the celebration of bodily difference within disability studies. Disability studies scholarship has shown how many wheelchair users view their wheelchairs as liberating, as opposed to constraining. As Liat Ben-Moshe and J. J. W. Powell explain, “The wheelchair allows greater mobility, more independence and freedom.”12 At this point in the series, Hawkeye views disability within the medical paradigm as representative of a loss of independence and freedom. However, as the series progresses, Clint comes to adopt a disability identity, which the comic illustrates through its own aesthetic celebration of Deaf and disability gain. Within the Deaf community, which capitalizes the letter D to indicate that “Deaf ” refers to an identity as opposed to a medical category, the term “Deaf gain” is one designed to counter a deficit approach to deafness. H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray define Deaf gain as, “the unique cognitive, creative, and cultural gains manifested through deaf ways of being in the world.”13 An alternative to the term “hearing loss,” Deaf

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gain emphasizes that deafness as an experience does not have to be defined through absence. For individuals who were born Deaf and consequently never had the ability to hear, the term “hearing loss” may feel inappropriate; they have not lost an ability but have gained from their deafness an alternative, situated perspective. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson similarly suggests that disability studies scholars should encourage thinkers to move past a deficit-based approach to disability and consider the ways in which bodily and cognitive difference can confer new insights and perspectives.14 Without dismissing the very real psychological and physical pain that people with disabilities experience, Garland-Thomson offers a countereugenic argument to those who would seek to eliminate disability from the human community; she argues that disability is generative, meaningful, and an important part of human experience.15 Both the concept of Deaf gain and the practice of disability conservation that Garland-Thomson advocates emphasize the importance of moving away from the default assumption that deafness and disability are negative experiences. However, space exists within both concepts to acknowledge and accept that the ways that people experience, relate to, and identify with disability differ. This acknowledgment is important because, as disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers points out, while individuals may embrace their identities as people with disabilities, they may not be as accepting of other disabilities that they acquire later. For example, a woman who is proud of her deafness will most likely not feel the same way about receiving a cancer diagnosis.16 Crucial to Siebers’s thinking, as well as that of thinkers within Deaf culture, is that recognizing the reality of people’s pain or dis-identification should not undermine the important work of identity positivity. Drawing on the concept of Deaf gain and disability conservation, I suggest that although Clint faces the idea that disability represents loss, he comes to embrace a Deaf identity, as well as the interdependence that living with a disability often calls for.

“The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke”: A Visual Language in a Visual Medium Clint’s representation as a Deaf character is a positive example of disability inclusion in a genre that, despite recent progressive developments in characterization, still tends to code heroism through the bodies of white, cisgender, able-bodied male characters. However, Clint’s deafness is also connected to the experimental aesthetic of the series, which is both


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narratively and artistically invested in exploring different perspectives and forms of perception. Clint begins to share his role as protagonist—in addition to his Hawkeye moniker—with Kate Bishop, as issues 14 to 20 alternate between following Clint’s adventures in New York and Kate’s travels in Los Angeles. Fraction and Aja also have Clint abandon his role as storyteller in issue 11, “My Business Is Pizza,” which is told from the perspective of his pet dog, Lucky. In this Eisner award-winning experimental issue, Fraction and Aja show what happens to Clint and his neighbors in the aftermath of tragedy with speech bubbles representing Lucky’s associative thoughts and sensory navigation. Issue 19 continues in this experimental vein, as it chronicles Clint’s experiences with deafness and his brother Barney’s experience using a wheelchair following a violent encounter with the Tracksuit Mafia. Clint, who experienced deafness as a child, begins to communicate with his brother in ASL. In addition to panels that depict Clint and Barney making individual signs, the comic also features instructional-style panels showing blank-faced versions of Barney and Clint, and fingerspelling panels that focus on specific words. While other characters speak in English throughout the comic, the majority of the story is told through ASL. Since the comic does not include any words in translation, if readers are unfamiliar with the language, they will not be able to access all of the dialogue. The reader’s lack of access to the entirety of the story parallels Clint’s own experience, as disability is central not only to the issue’s characterization but also to its aesthetic and structure. In other words, both the traditional identity of the superhero and the traditional form of the comic are transformed by disability. The rhetorical power of the issue emerges from its engagement with disability as opposed to its denial of it. In this sense, the comic is characterized by the rhetorical strategy that Dolmage calls me¯tis, which in the context of disability rhetoric is “the craft of forging something practical out of [the] possibilities” of the “positive and generative” meanings of disability.17 The comic begins with a flashback to Clint’s childhood in which he is sitting on the examining table at the doctor’s office while the doctor speaks with his mother, father, and brother. A panel featuring the doctor’s unfinished note indicates that Clint has been partially and temporarily deafened by an injury. Clint himself, however, is not able to follow the conversation between his family and his doctor. Their speech bubbles feature short, sharp lines grouped together like words, but the text is unreadable, just as the speech is impenetrable to Clint.18 A four-panel sequence at the bottom of the page that collectively forms Clint’s focused gaze and furrowed brows is replicated on the next page, though this time

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the face belongs to adult Clint. A note—this time typed on a screen instead of scrawled in a book—indicates to Clint once again, “because of the injury you have been deafened.”19 His brother Barney converses with the doctor, but their speech bubbles are blank. The rest of the comic continues in this fashion, as when readers share Clint’s perspective on a scene, the text is inaccessible. Readers are immersed in ASL as Barney and Clint struggle to communicate in the language that they learned when they were kids. The artistic decision not to provide a translation for the ASL signs prompts readers to navigate this comic differently. It encourages them to acknowledge their own dependence on text, as following the issue requires either learning ASL, finding a translation, or attending carefully to the visual nature of the medium and making assumptions based on the images. The issue encourages readers to slow down and pay attention, privileging a slower, more careful reading. In this sense the comic is characterized by what disability scholars call “crip time.”20 In addition to exploring alternative ways of communicating, the issue investigates how disability affects one’s experiences of time, presenting an alternative to the genre’s aesthetic celebration of the body in rapid motion. The temporal significance of the visual representation of moving bodies across panels has received significant attention within formalist criticism. Well-known comic theorist Scott McCloud outlines the semiotics of time in sequential art, from the significance of the amount of panels devoted to an episode, to the size and shape of a single panel, to the motion lines included within a panel.21 Devoting a greater number of panels to depicting an episode suggests its long duration, but also its increased significance to the storyline. Since, as Marco Arnaudo argues, superhero comics borrow from ancient epic their depictions of battle, their catalogues of heroes and villains, and their sweeping scope and scale, longer sequences can hold great significance.22 When Clint and Barney exit the doctor’s office following Clint’s appointment, a full page of panels illustrates Barney’s act of transferring from his wheelchair into a New York City cab.23 Barney’s transfer is significant within the context of the issue, as it highlights the story’s focus on how Clint and his brother must adjust to the new ways in which they need to engage with public space. Reading this sequence with reference to disability studies theory suggests how the realism of this comic explores crip time. Disability studies scholar Alison Kafer suggests that embracing crip time involves recognizing that social beliefs about how long activities will last are based on normative minds and bodies. Rather than attempt to discipline disabled bodies to ensure their timeliness, “crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and


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Figure 8.1 Matt Fraction and David Aja, “The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” Hawkeye 4, no. 19 (2014): 3.

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minds.”24 Fraction and Aja’s comic draws attention to the time it takes for Barney to move in the given space of the city, as the temporal frames of this sequence are organized around Clint’s older brother’s navigation. Barney’s disabled body and the time it takes for him to complete an activity are the focus of the narrative. While other issues of Hawkeye chronicle speed and precision in the archer’s craft, this issue allows for a longer pause to explore embodiment in between the epic battles that characterize the genre. The comic also focuses on Clint’s experience of time and engagement with memory, as his adult experience with deafness brings back memories of his childhood. Although the opening panel of the comic notes only that young Clint’s deafness resulted from an injury, a later sequence suggests that he was injured by his own father, who abused him and Barney when they were children. When Barney’s frustration with Clint’s despair and reluctance to communicate mounts after their encounter with the Tracksuit Mafia, he starts a physical altercation that transports Clint back to his childhood, as signified by a shift in the coloration of the panels. Clint remembers his brother’s frustration with his resignation following his father’s abuse when Barney asks him to get up from the ground and he signs that he does not want to stand.25 In response to Barney’s advice to hit back, Clint signs that his dad is too big and that he cannot stop him.26 His brother’s final note that they will outlast their father transports him back once more to the rooftop with Barney, where he assures him that they can persevere again; parentheses indicate that Clint lip-reads, “You can get it all back.”27 The sense in which disability recalls painful memories for Clint is another apparent tension with celebrations of disability within disability studies. For both young Clint and adult Clint, deafness results from injury and pain, and consequently the tone of this issue is more serious than many other Hawkeye issues, as Clint typically manages difficulties through recourse to humor. Sadness, despair, and even, one could argue, post-traumatic stress, accompany Clint’s deafness. However, as the issue progresses Clint takes pride in his deafness despite the painful memories that this injury triggers.

Community and Interdependence: Making Disability Public For Clint, taking pride in his deafness does not consist of acknowledging his independence in spite of disability, but rather it leads to him welcoming interdependence. Resolving to maintain his role as a leader for the other tenants of his building, Clint calls upon Barney to invite everyone to the


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roof to discuss the next course of action. Although Clint could speak to the party assembled before him in English, he decides to sign his words instead, inviting his brother to translate. He tells his neighbors, “Hey, so, uh. I’m Deaf. They deafened me. I’m Deaf and we need to talk. So . . . So I’m gonna sign what I have to say. I need the practice and I’m not gonna hide anymore.”28 Within his English introduction to his speech, Clint shifts from describing himself as Deaf, to noting that he has been deafened, to pronouncing, once more, that he is Deaf. Although Clint acknowledges that his deafness resulted from fighting the Tracksuit Mafia, he moves from describing deafness as an injury that he has sustained to proclaiming it as an identity, acknowledging that he is Deaf as opposed to noting that he has deafness. Explaining that he will use ASL publicly because he is in need of practice is a significant move, as it signals both a resolution to stop hiding in order to make his disability public knowledge, and a rejection of the supercrip approach to attempting to overcome or transcend his disability through lip-reading or other practices that facilitate communication for hearing people but make it more challenging for Deaf individuals. José Alaniz, discussing the representation of disability in superhero comics, notes that moments in which superheroes embrace disabled identities are significant because they represent a movement away from the supercrip approach. Analyzing a specific story arc of Daredevil in which Matt Murdock receives the option to regain his sight, Alaniz notes that, “Murdock renounces sight because of its threat to his integrity and identity, founded on his disability, which the supercrip would try to somehow ‘transcend.’”29 Similarly, Clint Barton decides to communicate in the way that is best for him as a Deaf individual instead of attempting to overcome deafness. He trusts his neighbors to make the effort to understand. Placing trust in other people and acknowledging their willingness to help becomes central to Clint’s embrace of his identity. Immediately after the injury, Clint avoids his neighbors and friends, living in self-imposed isolation. Approaching Clint in the kitchen, Barney signs that he should consider showering and changing his clothes because he smells.30 When Barney visits a neighbor who asks how Clint is doing, he explains: “[Clint] won’t speak, won’t sign . . . s’like when we were kids. He’s embarrassed and got too much pride to ask for—.”31 Although Barney’s words are cut off as he notices his brother approach, Clint’s unwillingness to ask for help out of pride is a persistent theme throughout the issue, and the series as a whole. When he delivers his speech atop the roof of the apartment building, he signs that although the Tracksuit Mafia will never stop—much like

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Figure 8.2 Matt Fraction and David Aja, “The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” Hawkeye 4, no. 19 (2014): 16.

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his father would not stop—he will stop them.32 When asked how, the gray instructional panel that follows depicts a blank-faced Clint making the ASL sign that translates to “We.”33 In response, his neighbors, as shown in a sequence of individual panels and a subsequent larger panel that shows their fists raised into the air, agree that they will help. Upon returning to his apartment, Clint’s last line of spoken dialogue in the issue is, “I need everybody’s help,” before the concluding splash page shows him, still bandaged, and Barney, still in his wheelchair, surveying the Tracksuit Mafia’s bar after their retaliation.34 This depiction of Clint and Barney is rhetorically powerful because it challenges the impression that to be a hero and to be disabled are somehow mutually exclusive. Hawkeye’s concluding action to ask for help in this issue brings him into greater connection with the community that he fostered throughout the series, as he helped out other tenants and joined rooftop barbecue parties where his neighbors’ moniker of choice for him was not Hawkeye but Hawkguy. The centrality of the community depicted in the comic book in many ways matches the sense of community fostered throughout the letter pages of the series, which demonstrate the extent to which the fans were instrumental in shaping the comic book into the story that they wanted to read. Pizza dog and Kate Bishop, early fan favorites from the first and second issues, became central to the story that emerged. Hawkeye’s emergence as a Deaf character also fulfilled fan desires. Clint Nowicke, who had written to ask Fraction and Aja if they planned to explore Hawkeye’s deafness, wrote a positive review of the comic’s depiction of disability. He praised the use of blank speech bubbles to represent what it is like not to be able to hear, and he pointed out that some of the clumsiness surrounding the word order of the signs from the perspective of a Deaf audience can be attributed to the fact that Clint and Barney clearly sign like the beginners that they are intended to be.35 By releasing the issue in ASL, Fraction, Aja, and the editorial team welcomed Deaf readers into their comic, viewing them as the primary audience by leaving out translations. This approach is particularly significant when one considers that comics are often still unavailable in accessible formats for disabled readers.

Conclusion: Imagining the Future of Disabled Superheroes A persistent frustration for many comics readers has been the propensity for creators to cure their favorite characters of their disabilities. For example, the decision to cure wheelchair user Barbara Gordon, who had

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become a computer expert with the codename Oracle, drew harsh criticism from fans.36 Curing Oracle meant erasing her identity as a disabled woman, and hence eliminating the presence of disability in the comic; this was a devastating move for disabled fans, who appreciated having a character with whom they could identify. This kind of restoration of mobility is a common trope in comics. However, although science fiction cures and fantastic remedies might make eliminating disability more common or plausible from a narrative practice, the practice of “fixing” disabled characters within superhero comics is part of a larger, problematic trend in literature, film, and other cultural works known as the “cure or kill” trope.37 Typically, if a disabled character is not miraculously cured by the end of a narrative, they will be killed off, sending the message that it is better to die than be disabled. Comics, of course, defy the definitive conclusions that we tend to find in standalone works; characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and of course Hawkeye, have protracted histories that make defining whether the characters offer a nuanced portrayal of disability or a simplistic one difficult to answer. Characters change hands, new writers and artists take over, and the laws of science fiction and fantasy can sadly make a beloved disabled character able-bodied once more. Although Clint slowly regains some of his hearing in the latter issues of the series and the empty speech bubbles start to fade, he retains his disabled identity to the conclusion of the series. Before his final target practice in the last issue, a panel provides a close-up image of Clint’s ear that shows him wearing purple hearing aids. The series concludes with both Hawkeyes, in matching purple garb, practicing their shots. One might argue that such an ending, in which Hawkeye opts for an assistive device instead of depending upon ASL, makes the nineteenth issue seem more like an experimental challenge than a nuanced exploration of disability. However, as award-winning comic writer Cece Bell notes, “There are lots of different ways to be deaf. And there is no right or wrong way.”38 What seems crucial, however, in the context of disability studies and disability pride, is that Clint opts for an assistive device that, particularly given its color, is highly visible and marks his difference. Matching the rest of his attire, the purple hearing aid is as much a part of his identity as the rest of his superhero costume. In this sense, Hawkeye’s hearing aid is comparable to other assistive-devices-turned-weapons like Tony Stark’s Iron Man costume or Daredevil’s billy-club cane. Although Hawkeye experiences loss throughout the comic, he is able to gain from disability a crucial sense of identity. It is possible that Hawkeye 19 will be remembered as the ASL


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issue—a brief experiment into what deafness would like on the printed page. But I would argue that it also offers insight into how to challenge cultural conceptions of disability that inform both the genre and medium of superhero comics.39

170 Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Arnaudo, Marco. The Myth of the Superhero. Translated by Jamie Richards. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Bauman, H-Dirksen L., and Joseph J. Murray. Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Bell, Cece. El Deafo. New York: Amulet Books, 2014. Ben-Moshe, Liat, and Justin J. W. Powell. “Sign of Our Times? Revis(it)ing the International Symbol of Access.” Disability and Society 22, no. 5 (2007): 489–505. Cocca, Carolyn. “Re-Booting Barbara Gordon: Oracle, Batgirl, and Feminist Disability Theories.” ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 7, no. 4 (2014). Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Fraction, Matt. Letter to readers. “The Tape: 2 of 2.” Hawkeye 4, no. 5. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012. Fraction, Matt, and David Aja. “Lucky: A Clint Barton / Hawkeye Adventure.” Hawkeye 4, no. 1. New York: Marvel Comics, August 2012. ———. “The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke.” Hawkeye 4, no. 19. New York: Marvel Comics, 2014. ———. “The Tape: 2 of 2.” Hawkeye 4, no. 5. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “The Case for Conserving Disability.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 9, no. 3 (2012): 339–55. Gibbons, Sarah. “Playing for Transcendence: Disability in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” First Person Scholar, October 9, 2013. http://​www​.firstpersonscholar​.com​/playing​for​ transcendence. Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Mitchell, David T., and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Nowicke, Clint. Letter to the Editor. Matt Fraction and David Aja. “Cherry.” Hawkeye 4, no. 3. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012. Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Tremain, Shelley. “On the Subject of Impairment.” In Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory, edited by Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare, 32–47. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Notes 1. Other artists, colorists, and letterers contributed to this series, including Chris Eliopoulos, Francesco Francavilla, Jesse Hamm, Matt Hollingsworth, Steve Lieber, Javier Pulido, and Annie Wu. 2. Nowicke, letter to the editor. 3. Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric.

That Hawkguy 4. “RCC Spotlight: Matt Fraction,” YouTube video, 54:52, posted by “FlipON.TV,” December 16, 2014, https://​www​.youtube​.com​/watch​?v​=bqIidYi8nbU​&t​=304s. 5. Ibid. 6. Fraction, letter to readers. 7. Fraction and Aja, “Lucky,” 3. 8. Ibid. 9. Gibbons, “Playing for Transcendence.” 10. Tremain, “On the Subject of Impairment,” 34. 11. Fraction and Aja, “Lucky,” 4. 12. Ben-Moshe and Powell, “Sign of Our Times?” 499. 13. Bauman and Murray, Deaf Gain, xv. 14. Garland-Thomson, “Case for Conserving Disability,” 342. 15. Ibid. 16. Siebers, Disability Theory, 4. 17. Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric, 149. 18. Fraction and Aja, “Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” 1. 19. Ibid., 2. 20. See, for example, Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip. 21. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 94–117. 22. Arnaudo, Myth of the Superhero. 23. Fraction and Aja, “Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” 3. 24. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 27. 25. Fraction and Aja, “Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” 12. 26. Ibid., 13. 27. Ibid., 14. 28. Ibid., 16. 29. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 49. 30. Fraction and Aja, “Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke,” 7. 31. Ibid., 8. 32. Ibid., 17. 33. Ibid., 18. 34. Ibid., 19–20. 35. Clint Nowicke, “A Deaf Comic Geek’s Grateful Review of ‘Hawkeye #19,’” Pop Mythology, August 4, 2014, http://​www​.popmythology​.com​/a​deaf​comic​geeks​grateful​review​of​hawk eye​19. 36. Cocca, “Re-Booting Barbara Gordon.” 37. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 164. 38. Bell, El Deafo, 243. 39. I would like to thank editors José Alaniz and Scott Smith for their helpful feedback on this paper.


9 Dialectical Identity Silver Scorpion as Disabled/Superhero

Deleasa Randall-Griffiths and Daniel J. O’Rourke

In the afterword to Permanence and Change, rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke writes: “We are ‘Bodies That Learn Language.’”1 The point of his statement is that humans are physical beings who live in a physical realm. However, when we think, define objects, or communicate with others about that physical world, we do so in symbolic terms. For example, if a person sees a tree, that tree exists in one form in the physical realm. Yet a researcher might analyze the tree in scientific terms, a writer could depict it in poetic metaphors, or the property owner might curse it simply as the source of cluttering leaves in the fall. Each of them sees the same tree, but each defines and reacts to it differently based on her knowledge and experiences. The complexity of the human symbolic experience extends not only to objects in the physical realm but also to our physical bodies and how we see ourselves. Humans define themselves and judge other people. Ideals of beauty, standards of physical strength and competition, and mental acuity are assessed. These standards may reflect or create cultural values. For years, the humanity of people with disabilities was sublimated to their infirmity. A “disabled person” was stereotypically characterized as “less than whole,” “broken,” or incapable of performing at the level of an able-bodied person.2 The consequences of these negative biases made persons with disabilities “among the most marginalized

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and discriminated populations” in the world.3 The advent of disability studies in the latter half of the twentieth century has challenged those long-standing stereotypes by critiquing the narratives that created them and attempting to provide new self-defined stories and counternarratives for the twenty-first century and beyond. The field of disability studies enhances our understanding of disability by allowing underrepresented voices of people with disabilities to be heard.4 Historically, most research excluded the narratives of people with disabilities, a neglect that prompted a call for narratives, oral histories, and autobiographical data. These new perspectives further describe the particulars of lived experience and often indicate the need for policy changes.5 Another point of view that can inform this call for change was developed in the fields of feminist and gender studies. Levon succinctly defines “intersectional theory” as “the belief that no one category (e.g., “woman” or “lesbian”) is sufficient to account for individual experience.”6 Moreover, the author continues, “Intersectionality theory asserts both our own, inner understandings of self and kinds of access, opportunity, and treatment we receive are the product of multiple intersecting systems of social classification.”7 The lesson for those critiquing the stories of disabled persons should be that just as one would not evaluate a narrative as “the story of a woman” without any consideration of her culture, social status, education, religion, and a host of other potential factors, the story of a person with a disability should be given the same critical consideration. Social, legal, and economic constraints may vary widely for a person with a disability over geography and culture. Thus, just as no single category embodies the narrative of a woman, each story of disability is unique to a person in her time, place, and circumstance. The challenge for rhetorical critics is to listen to many voices and find commonalities across social strata. Sometimes, we are fortunate to see representations of these shared experiences in popular culture. The purpose of this essay is to examine an effort by a small group of young people to address the prejudice of able-bodied people against individuals with disabilities. In 2010, a group of ten young Americans and thirteen Syrian students gathered at a “Youth Ability Summit” in Damascus, Syria.8 Each of the students had a mental and/or physical disability, thus the goal of the conference was to discuss shared experiences and to find ways to promote equality and inclusion for all people across cultural lines.9 The students partnered with the Open Hands Initiative and Liquid Comics (story: Sharad Devarajan and Ron Marz; script: Ron Marz; and artwork: Mukesh Singh and staff ) to create a remarkable comic book story of loss

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and empowerment entitled Silver Scorpion. The Open Hands Initiative is a nonprofit American organization that seeks “to create meaningful platforms of cross-cultural engagement and collaboration that spur dialogue, innovation, and enduring friendship.”10 Open Hands and Liquid Comics then joined with the Clinton Global Initiative in a three-year, one million dollar campaign to create and distribute the comic. Copies were shared across Syria, the United States, Egypt, Lebanon, in schools and among the general public. In 2012, an animated web series was created from the comic and distributed by MTV’s Voices’ Youth Network. Sharad Devarajan, Liquid Comics cofounder, noted that “none of the students wished for a power to take away their disability. . . . Regardless of the challenges many of them faced in their daily lives, their differences gave them a strength, individuality and determination.”11 The forum these youth chose to tell their stories was a unique superhero comic book entitled Silver Scorpion. The form of a comic book might seem an unusual vehicle for a serious discussion of cross-cultural stereotyping and prejudice. Yet in recent years, authors have used comic books, or graphic novels, to address the horrors of World War II,12 show the overthrow of the government in Iran,13 and examine the roots of sexual abuse.14 Medical memoirs, in particular, have found a form and voice in the graphic novel. Stitches (David Small), Cancer Vixen: A True Story (Marisa Acocella Marchetto), and Epileptic (David B.) are all examples of powerful narratives about personal and family struggles with illness. The young authors at the Youth Ability Summit, however, chose a “more traditional” comic book form to tell their story. They crafted a superhero story about a disabled young man who gains incredible powers. The goal was to present a story in a form accessible and familiar to other young people. As Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, wrote, “It must be every young child’s dream to create a superhero. But I hope that we can also bring our human powers together to make a difference, and to create the reality we are looking for.”15 The authors of Silver Scorpion invoked the genre of the superhero story to create a different kind of hero. The hope was that the Silver Scorpion would not only inspire readers with disabilities but also teach able-bodied readers to learn something about the identity of the person with a disability.

Heroes, Superheroes, and Comic Books Peter Coogan asserts that a new genre of writing was born with the creation of the superhero narrative.16 Stories of heroes are prevalent in every form


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of print medium and were common in the pulp fiction of the early twentieth century. However, Coogan writes that there is a generic distinction found in the powers, mission, and identity of the superhero, which are different from those possessed by heroes in other forms of science fiction or fantasy.17 The extraordinary powers are evident. Flight, super strength, invulnerability, magic—a superpower can be any heightened ability that separates the hero from the rest of society. Characters such as Batman may not have extraordinary powers, but his absolute resolve and years of training qualify him as a superhero. Second, the mission of the superhero is to selflessly serve others and inspire average citizens to heroic acts. Heroes may come in many selfless forms: a teacher, a nurse, or perhaps a volunteer at a local soup kitchen. However, superheroes draw attention to themselves by donning an iconic costume and performing extraordinary feats in public. In this way, the superhero creates a unique identity to draw attention to herself in the hope that her feats will inspire others to find their own heroic potential. Comic book characters that acquire great powers through birth, accident, or magic must choose how to use these talents. The archetypal example of a superhero accepting his mission can be found in the story of Spider-Man. A teenager named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportionate strength, speed, and acute senses of the creature. Parker’s first instinct is to profit from his abilities to financially support his aging Aunt May and Uncle Ben. During one public appearance, he fails to stop a criminal being pursued by police. Later, that same criminal murders his Uncle Ben in a robbery attempt. The lesson of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” becomes the rationale for the transformation of Spider-Man into the role of superhero.18 The final generic trait of the superhero story is identity. Superhero origin stories create a dialectic of identities pairing a human secret identity with the image of the costumed superhero. The secret identity allows the hero to live among the public while protecting family and friends from the revenge of criminals. In Communication theory, the dialectic is a tool for creating an argument. An author combines two terms and invites the audience or reader to resolve the seeming dichotomy. For example, the term “silence” will evoke thoughts of calm or peace in a typical audience. Yet when “silence” is dialectically paired with “thundering,” the paradox suggests an ominous feeling, one of foreboding. In superhero origins, the story of the secret identity teaches the reader something about the character of the costumed crusader. The super/human dialectic creates a reflexive relationship between the human experience of heroes and how

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they create their “superheroic personae.” For example, Clark Kent’s rural roots in Smallville, Kansas, are one of the reasons he fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” whereas the tragic murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents provides the motivation for the much darker character, Batman. The story of Silver Scorpion invokes the dialectic of “disabled/ superhero” to teach readers what it means to live with a disability. The young authors of the Youth Ability Summit use the by-now familiar form of the superhero origin narrative to teach readers about the heroic roots of a young man in a wheelchair. The great power of the Silver Scorpion is to bend metal at his will. However, this power in no way eases the daily burden of trying to navigate the uneven sidewalks of a city in a wheelchair. Interestingly, many superheroes with disabilities gain their powers as a result of a disabling accident. The young Matt Murdock saves a woman from being hit by a truck. The radioactive cargo of the truck blinds the boy but gives him the super senses that eventually lead him to become Daredevil (Marvel Comics). There is a theme in the research literature of disability that explores the concept of a “supercrip,” one who overcomes his disability to accomplish great things. One example of a supercrip would be the extraordinary life of Helen Keller. Frequently, the supercrip label is applied to athletes who overcome great odds to succeed in physical pursuits.19 Of course, a “supercrip” narrative can also create unrealistic expectations for anyone, be they able-bodied or with disabilities. Paradoxically, the lesson of Silver Scorpion is that the most heroic struggle of this story may not be the extraordinary feats of the costumed superhero, but rather that of the young man in the wheelchair. The authors of the Youth Ability Summit use the vehicle of a superhero story to introduce readers to the reality of the struggles people with disabilities face every day in their lives. In fact, the comic book is now used in educational settings for that very purpose.20 To observe this dialectic of disabled/superhero, let us turn to the origin of Silver Scorpion.

The Origin of Silver Scorpion Silver Scorpion introduces readers to an artist named Bashir. He is a young man living with his uncle Tamim, a scrap metal dealer, in a Middle Eastern city beset by crime and gangs. At the outset of the story, Bashir is welding a metal sculpture and talking to his friend Kamal. Bruises are evident on Kamal’s face and soon Bashir is admonishing his friend for lacking the courage to stand up to a local bully. After lunch, Bashir convinces Kamal


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to follow him beyond a chain-link fence into a dangerous area where there is plenty of scrap metal for his art. He finds a wheel buried in the ground and soon discovers a rusty, old wheelchair. Bashir jumps into the chair and says: “Hey, check me out, Kamal! I’m a helpless cripple. [. . .] It’s not so bad actually . . . you can be pushed around for the rest of your life!”21 Kamal criticizes his friend just as the wheelchair rolls over a landmine. The blast kills Kamal instantly and Bashir loses both of his legs. Sadly, the Syrian youth at the Summit probably knew this problem all too well, as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that sixty countries are still contaminated with remnants of landmines that kill or maim eighteen people daily.22 The next scene is in a hospital. A battered and bandaged Bashir sits in an old, damaged wheelchair. He is being released from the medical center to the care of his uncle. Bashir complains about his life: “My parents died when I was just a boy! Your wife died! Now Kamal’s dead! It’s nothing but tragedy!” To which Uncle Tamim replies: “We don’t measure ourselves by our tragedies, Bashir, but by how we recover from them.”23 To raise his spirits, Tamim tells Bashir that he has a friend who might help with his antiquated wheelchair. As the pair leave the hospital, the new reality of his identity as a person with a disability becomes painfully clear to Bashir. The cab driver who transports Tamim and Bashir refuses payment as a gesture of kindness. Tamim thanks the driver but Bashir lashes out at the man for what he perceives as an unwanted act of pity. Bashir begins to struggle with his wheelchair and soon realizes the difficulty of negotiating the bumpy sidewalks of a city. The young man becomes even more depressed as he envisions the future of his uncle carrying him up the stairs of their home. Uncle and nephew start to discuss the matter when two men appear and push Tamim out of the way. Bashir call out: “Hey! Who do you think you are pushing my uncle?!”24 The first young man pulls a gun and threatens Bashir but his partner replies: “Leave him. He’s just a cripple.”25 For the first time in his life, Bashir has been identified by his physical disability. Later that day Tamin introduces Bashir to his friend, Tarek. Tarek is an older, bald man with a midlength white beard. He wears dark glasses, walks with a cane, and is blind. Tarek is also an artist who works with metal, so he tells Bashir that he can help him with his wheelchair. When Bashir asks how one can be a blind artist, Tarek explains: “When you lose one ability, it helps to focus on your others. You may have strengths you never knew you had.”26 Bashir returns the next day to see Tarek in his studio. He opens a door to find the mysterious old man standing in

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the middle of a room and shaping metal magically at will. Tarek discovers the boy and turns his wheelchair into a full-body restraint binding his arms and neck to the chair. Bashir quickly apologizes and swears never to reveal what he has seen. Just then, a brusque voice tells Tarek to “Come Out!”27 A group of local thugs demands that Tarek make weapons for them. When he refuses, the leader shoots and mortally wounds Tarek. The gang quickly exits the shop, leaving the old man for dead. Bashir moves to help Tarek. The old man then reveals the source of his power, a small medallion. Tarek hands Bashir the scorpion-shaped medallion and says it is one piece of the legendary Crown of Zenobia. The dying artist explains that the medallion will allow Bashir “to control all metals with your merest thought . . . but not for your own benefit . . . only for others. You must not reveal or abuse the gift by making yourself fake legs . . . or riches . . . Keep it secret! No one . . . must ever know.”28 It is here that Tarek narratively establishes the first dialectic of the story: empowered/ disabled person. Tarek’s dying statement tells Bashir of the power of the Crown of Zenobia and its proper use. The altruistic nature of the warning would fulfill Coogan’s conception of the selfless superhero mission,29 however, it would seem that the old man never considered becoming a superhero himself. Tarek served the Crown as an artist offering his work as a gift to the community. The old artist agreed to help Bashir by improving the condition of his aging wheelchair, once again, using his power for the benefit of others. Tarek’s final act of offering the Crown of Zenobia to Bashir was not designed to create a superhero; it was a means of empowering another artist with a disability. Returning to the story, the gang decides to burn down Tarek’s shop to hide the evidence of the murder. Bashir embraces the scorpion-shaped medallion and is transformed into a metal-clad warrior. A few words about visual representation in the story are required here, as this is the first artistic rendering of the disabled/superhero dialectic. Initially, the metal hides the fact that Bashir has no legs. He stands within a mobile metal gauntlet that enables him to confront the thugs. His image is not hypermasculinized, rather, the artist conveys the vulnerability of Bashir by showing bandages on his head and face from his disabling accident.30 He confronts the gang, creating a gigantic metal robot as his ally. Bullets fly and a grenade is thrown, but Bashir is able protect himself by creating metal shields.31 The gang escapes in fear and Bashir is left to wonder why Tarek kept this power hidden for so long when he could have accomplished so much good. The next day Bashir is still thinking about his newfound power as he returns to his art. He adds a wheel to


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Figure 9.1 Sharad Devarajan, Ron Marz, and Mukesh Singh, Silver Scorpion (New York: Liquid Comics, 2011), 18.

an unfinished piece of sculpture. Uncle Tamim enters and asks if Bashir knows why wheels are important. When Bashir replies that he does not, Tamim explains: “A wheel is a circle, and a circle is equal in all directions. In all religions, it’s a symbol for justice.” Bashir answers: “That’s what I’m going to do. The gangsters will never hurt innocent people like Tarek and Kamal again. Soon, all the criminals in this city will fear the name Silver Scorpion.”32 The triumvirate is now complete—mission, powers, and identity—as Bashir fully realizes the role of Silver Scorpion, superhero with a disability. Also, the first reflexive lesson of the disabled person/superhero dialectic is offered. As an artist, Bashir learned to shape metal with tools and his imagination. The powers granted him by the Crown of Zenobia only changed the means by which he could shape the material. The medallion did not make him heroic. Tarek used his abilities in private to give back to his community through his artistic creations. It was the personal

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courage, drive, and imagination of the youthful Bashir that enabled him to overcome his disabling accident and survive in a country beset with gangs and crime. Those same qualities drove him to become the superhero Silver Scorpion.

181 Conclusion It is doubtful that a group of teenagers consciously constructed a dialectical vision of a disabled/superhero, but a rhetorical analysis from this perspective can prove illuminating. In classical rhetoric, Aristotle defined the dialectic as “the counterpart of rhetoric.”33 In the oral tradition of ancient Greece, this meant that if ideas were joined in a dialectic, a debate could ensue to resolve the disagreement. Was something good or bad, helpful or harmful? Bryan Crable offers a more contemporary vision of Kenneth Burke’s dialectic in his essay, “Symbolizing Motion: Burke’s Dialectic and the Rhetoric of the Body.” Crable observes that it can be most difficult to construct dialects that engage nature and culture, for these combine nonsymbolic and symbolic entities.34 For Burke, this was characterized by the motion/action dialectic. Motion is physical; action is symbolic.35 The confounding reality, of course, is that nature is beyond the realm of the symbolic and can never be fully captured in human symbol making. Thus, as in the case of the tree in the introduction of this essay, this leaves human symbol users free to misrepresent the natural world.36 Crable goes on to note that when humans attempt to reduce a symbolic/ cultural concept to a nonsymbolic/natural concept, we inevitably limit ideas and reduce them to categories.37 In this finding, Crable adds credence to the theory of intersectionality. If symbol-using people are reduced to a race or ethnicity, we create one-dimensional, natural divisions among people. You are only black, white, Asian, or Australian. To the natural divisions of race/ethnicity, we could add gender, sexuality, and dis/ability. If we construct dialects that define persons with disabilities only in terms of their physical nature, stereotypes and prejudices will persist. Even a simplistic comic book narrative that adds a fantastic new identity to the vision of Bashir as a “person with a disability” reminds readers that no character is one-dimensional and that we all have the potential for change. The construct of identity is critical to the dialectic of disabled/superhero. Advocates for disability identity argue that a greater sense of self-definition will provide persons with disabilities more public visibility and a greater sense of self-determination.38 In the modern world,

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more physical and mental conditions are being classified under the broad rubric of disability. This could be particularly important for children with disabilities. UNICEF estimates that there are 93 million children with disabilities and they are among the poorest citizens of the world. These children are less likely to attend school, access medical services, or have a voice in public policy. Children with disabilities are also at higher risk of physical abuse and are less likely to receive humanitarian assistance in emergencies.39 These threats make children with disabilities among the largest at-risk populations in the world. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, director of the Disabilities Studies Institute, extends the definition and impact of disability much further when she suggests that nearly everyone will become disabled at some point in their lives. She reminds us that illness, accident, or the natural process of aging will bring disability into the lives of most modern citizens. In other words, disability is not just a problem for children in countries of the Global South; at some time in our lives, most of us will be identified as a person with a disability.40 The campaign of the Youth Ability Summit to address the issues of disability was global in scale. Fifty thousand free copies of Silver Scorpion were distributed in Syria and the United States in 2010. Liquid Comics offered this volume to comic book stores in America as its contribution to Free Comic Book Day, the industry promotion to introduce young people to comic books.41 The story was also made available online for anyone to read.42 An animated version of the comic distributed by MTV Voices’ Youth Network reached an estimated ten million viewers. The partnership of Liquid Comics and the Open Hands Initiative also proved attractive to media outlets and drew the attention of USA Today, National Public Radio, Fox News, Gulf News, and Asharq Al-Awsat among others.43 Former president Bill Clinton praised Silver Scorpion at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative, saying: “This comic book will help to establish trust and understanding between cultures, to empower young people with disabilities.”44 Clinton went on to note the need for such stories, indicating that people with disabilities represent the largest minority in the world, with over 650 million members.45 Stories can move us, inspire us, and show us a view of the world we might not have imagined. The participants of the Youth Ability Summit authored a comic book that invited us into their world and then enhanced the story with a dash of fantasy. Bashir suffered a tragic accident and had to learn to live with his disability. However, as the young man struggled with a role imposed upon him, he was gifted with the opportunity to create another role, that of a superhero. The dialectic of disabled/superhero

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illustrates again that no one should be trapped in a single categorical identity. Silver Scorpion is an attempt by a group of young people to tell their stories in a new and unique way. Comic books are accessible, colorful, and sometimes heroic. The authors of the Youth Ability Summit and the writers and artists of Liquid Comics fashioned a narrative to lift people with disabilities and show them that physical impairment need not diminish their spirit, creativity, or talent. Hopefully, this rhetorical analysis of Silver Scorpion might reveal a potential disability in some of its readers: a categorical perception that people with disabilities exist only in the natural, physical realm as bodies with physical or mental limitations. Fortunately, in Burke’s definition of humans, we are capable of learning and relearning about bodies as new evidence and narratives are presented to us. The dialectic of “disabled” and “superhero” challenges the reader to define persons with disabilities in a new way and potentially identify with them. If the next generation of readers accepts this message and broadens their definition of disability, then truly heroic changes in the perception of people with disabilities might be possible.

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French, S. An Oral History of the Education of Visually Impaired People. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Becoming Disabled.” New York Times. August 21, 2016, SR 1, 6–7. Hirsh, H. “Culture and Disability: The Role of Oral History.” In The Oral History Reader, edited by R. Perks and A. Thompson, 214–33. London: Routledge, 1997. Kama, A. “Supercrip Versus the Pitiful Handicapped: Reception of Disabling Images by Disabled Audience Members.” Communications: European Journal of Communication Research 29 (2004): 447–66. Karr, Valerie. “‘Silver Scorpion’: Communal Comics and Disability Identities Between the United States and Syria.” International Journal of Education Through Art 9 (2013): 173–87. Karr, Valerie, and Courtney Weida. “Superhero Comic Books as Frameworks of Inclusivity and Advocacy for Youth with Disabilities.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education 30 (2013): 10–31. Lee, Stan, and Steve Ditko. “Spider-Man!” Amazing Fantasy 1, no. 15. New York: Marvel Comics, 1962. Levon, Erez. “Integrating Intersectionality in Language, Gender, and Sexuality Research.” Language and Linguistic Compass 9 (2015): 295–308. Marchetto, Marisa Acocella. Cancer Vixen: A True Story. New York: Pantheon, 2009. McGrail, Ewa, and Alicja Rieger. “Increasing Disability Awareness Through Comics Literature.” Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education 3, no. 1 (2013). Mullin, Aimee. “The Opportunity of Adversity.” TED talk, San Diego, California, February 2010. Rappaport, J. “Empowerment Meets Narrative: Listening to Stories and Creating Settings.” American Journal of Community Psychology 23 (1995): 795–807. Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Schalk, Sami. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10 (2016): 71–86. Silva, Carla Filomena, and P. David Howe. “The (In)validity of Supercrip: Representations of Paralympian Athletes.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 36 (2012): 174–94. Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Susinos, Teresa. “‘Tell Me in Your Own Words’: Disabling Barriers and Social Exclusion in Young Persons.” Disability and Society 22 (2007): 117–27. Talbot, Bryan. The Tale of One Bad Rat. Milwaukie, Oreg.: Dark Horse, 2010.

Notes 1. Burke, Permanence and Change, 295. 2. Mullin, “Opportunity of Adversity.” 3. Karr and Weida, “Superhero Comic Books,” 10. 4. Antelius, “Whose Body Is It Anyway?”; French, Oral History; Rappaport, “Empowerment Meets Narrative”; and Susinos, “‘Tell Me in Your Own Words.’” 5. Armstrong, Experiences of Special Education; Atkinson, Auto/biographical Approach; Borsay, Disability and Social Policy; Davis, Disability Studies Reader; and Hirsh, “Culture and Disability.” 6. Levon, “Integrating Intersectionality,” 295. 7. Ibid., 297. 8. Devarajan, Marz, and Singh, Silver Scorpion, 32. 9. Karr and Weida, “Superhero Comic Books,” 16–17. 10. Open Hands Initiative, http://​www​.openhandsinitiative​.org​/about​/mission​.html. 11. Devarajan et al., Silver Scorpion, 3. 12. Spiegelman, Maus.

Dialectical Identity 13. Satrapi, Persepolis. 14. Talbot, Tale of One Bad Rat. 15. Devarajan, Marz, and Singh, Silver Scorpion, back cover. 16. Coogan, “Secret Origin,” 24–29. 17. Ibid. 18. Lee and Ditko, “Spider-Man!” 19. Berger, “Disability and the Dedicated Wheelchair Athlete”; Kama, “Supercrip Versus the Pitiful Handicapped”; Silva and Howe, “(In)validity of Supercrip”; and Schalk, “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” 20. McGrail and Rieger, “Increasing Disability Awareness.” 21. Devarajan et al., Silver Scorpion, 5. 22. International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, at http://​www​.icbl​.org. 23. Devarajan et al., Silver Scorpion, 7. 24. Ibid., 8. 25. Ibid., 9. 26. Ibid., 10. 27. Ibid., 13. 28. Ibid., 15. 29. Coogan, “Secret Origin,” 24–29. 30. Devarajan et al., Silver Scorpion, 18. 31. Ibid., 25. 32. Ibid. 33. Aristotle, Rhetoric, xxxvii. 34. Crable, “Symbolizing Motion,” 125–26. 35. Burke, Language as Symbolic Action, 359–79. 36. Crable, “Symbolizing Motion,” 125. 37. Ibid., 127–29. 38. Karr, “Communal Comics,” 175. 39. UNICEF. “The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities,” https://​ www​.unicef​.org​/sowc2013. 40. Garland-Thomson, “Becoming Disabled,” SR1. 41. Open Hands Initiative, http://​www​.openhandsinitiative​.org​/about​/mission​.html. 42. Sharad Devarajan, Ron Marz, and Mukesh Singh, Silver Scorpion (New York: Liquid Comics, 2011), http://​www​.scribd​.com​/doc​/54720383​/Silver​Scorpion. 43. Devarajan et al., Silver Scorpion, back cover. 44. Ibid. 45. Clinton Global Initiative, 2010 Commitment: Open Hands Initiative Comic Book, published Oct. 14, 2010, at https://​www​.youtube​.com​/watch​?v​=l0RYEOx2P​U.


10 “Of Course, I Am a Hero” Disability as Posthuman Ideal in Cece Bell’s El Deafo

Lauranne Poharec

Cece Bell’s graphic memoir about deafness, El Deafo, portrays a disabled girl who challenges societal expectations to become a superheroine, who disrupts the norm and places herself, a nonnormative subject, in a position of power. By reworking the rhetoric of traditional superhero comics narratives, El Deafo questions the very concept of humanity and proposes an alternative model for the development of subjectivity when one is disabled. I will analyze the comic’s anthropomorphic characters, and the parallel between Bell’s hearing aid and Batman’s technologies to demonstrate that by performing the posthumanist disruption of the divide between human and animals, as well as human and machine, Bell reconfigures herself and disabled people in general as posthuman ideals. After detailing the main points raised by posthumanism and disability studies, I will examine El Deafo to elucidate the implications of Bell’s self-representation as a rabbit, but also as a technologically enhanced superheroine.

Reconfiguring the Subject in Posthumanism and Disability Studies The twentieth century has seriously challenged classical modernism and precipitated a reappraisal of humanism. Poststructuralist, postmodernist,

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and postcolonial antihumanist theories and discourses1 created a space for the silenced voices of the oppressed and “less-than-human,” including women, LGBTQIA+ people, and other minorities, to be heard. These new voices join postmodern discourses to denounce and refute “the old modernist idealisation of the unitary, rational, independent, dislocated, solitary, able-bodied human subject.”2 This, in turn, helped foster the development of posthumanism. As much as postmodernist thinking allows us to move beyond discriminations based on sexual, gendered, or racial hierarchical binaries, posthumanism encourages us to challenge speciesism and move beyond the divide it creates between human and nonhuman in order to revisit what being human, and what humanity, means. Two texts have been deemed fundamental in the development of a posthumanist school of thought in literary criticism:3 Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) and N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999). Stopping on the figure of the cyborg, Haraway specifies that it inhabits a liminal place between the human and the machine, one that is neither human nor machine but both, a “hybrid of machine and organism.”4 For her, the cyborg disrupts hierarchical boundary divisions between human and machine, men and women, to advocate for a postgender society. More generally, Haraway contests humanist (hence essentialist) binarisms and revises “three crucial boundary breakdowns”5 that resulted from increased recourse to technoscience: the division between humans and animals, organism and machine, and physical and nonphysical. The “cyborg myth,” she writes, “is about transgressed boundaries” and “potent fusions”;6 because of its fluid identity, the cyborg renders these boundaries irrelevant and instead “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms.”7 So, while Haraway’s essay focuses mostly on issues of gender, her attacks on essentialist binary thinking and her defense of the cyborg support a posthumanist stance. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles proposes a similar figure, the “posthuman,” that is also a combination of the human and machine. For her, “in the posthuman there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.”8 Posthuman subjects extend beyond an embodiment that justifies (1) the distinction between humans and nonhumans, (2) the fact that some human lives are considered “lesser,”9 and (3) the superiority of humans over animals. For her, posthumanity rejects classic humanist assumptions about rational maturity as an essential aspect of human identity. Instead of seeing it as a major factor that determines the validity and worth of a

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(post)human subject, posthumanists admit the limitedness and fallibility of the intellectual mind. This implies that animals and artificial intelligence are fully posthuman. Hayles emphasizes that our posthuman society should give equal consideration to all kinds of subjects who already are beyond the idea of a “pure” organic human subject (people have pacemakers or artificial limbs, for instance). Neil Badmington adopts Hayles’s position to emphasize that the turn to posthumanism establishes that “anthropocentrism, with its assured insistence upon human exceptionalism, is no longer an adequate and convincing account of the way of the world.”10 Francesca Ferrando echoes Badmington’s position that posthumanism challenges relations of power and domination and troubles the idea of human as the ultimate life-form. For her, human and humanity are concepts founded “on hierarchical social constructs and human-centric assumptions.”11 Humanism created categories and ranks used to distinguish human from animal, for instance, but also to justify the ranking of humans based on arbitrary criteria, such as race, gender, and sexuality. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus reach similar conclusions and add that posthumanism “tap[s] into the long history of humanity’s excluded (the inhuman, the non-human, the less than human, the superhuman, the animal, the alien, the monster, the stranger, God . . . ), and reflect current ‘posthumanizing’ practices, technologies and fantasies.”12 By considering that some people are not “fully humans,” humanism can be used to justify forms of violence and negligence against the “not-quite-human” (animals, but also disabled people) without facing an ethical moral dilemma because only “full humans” are thought to deserve humanist considerations (respect, equality, fair treatment, etc.). For posthumanist philosophers, abiding by humanism today suggests a lack of ethical consideration for “the other” and an adherence to the power relations shaped by humanism that “have historically situated the human over other life-forms, and in control of them.”13 Posthumanism thus asks us to interrogate what society defines as the normative subject and reconsider the humanist idea of the sovereign human individual. As Braidotti argues, “The human is a normative convention, which does not make it inherently negative, just highly regulatory and hence instrumental to practices of exclusion and discrimination. The human norm stands for normality, normalcy, and normativity.”14 Whereas humanism defines the human subject through the exclusion of the nonnormative, posthuman subjection is not based on the exclusion but rather on the inclusion of the nonnormative as fully constitutive of humanity and of


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other life-forms (such as animals), which may or may not incorporate technological enhancements. In this way, disability studies benefits from a posthumanist understanding of humanity. It joins such thinking to challenge humanist ableism by dismantling popular representations of the disabled as being mentally less capable than “normative human” and of the disabled body as traditionally “othered” or negatively different. Nevertheless, writing about the relation between disability and posthumanism,15 Dan Goodley et al. explain that disabled people still demand to be acknowledged as humans because they abide by benevolent liberal concepts such as solidarity, justice, and freedom formulated and put forward by humanism. These universal notions have productively contributed to the social advancement of society in general but have also hindered the consideration of particularism and the inclusion of diverse, nonnormative subjects. Disabled people who have adopted a posthumanist view do not reject humanism altogether; they implement humanist liberal views but instead of restricting them to humans, extend them to all types of animate beings. Thus, in a posthumanist move, marginalized subjects such as disabled people are fighting to be given the right, as full agents, to define their own subjectivity. This retrieval can be seen in the emergence of disability memoirs, which contributes to the development of a posthumanist mode of life-writing, as well as to the activist posthumanist discourse of subjectivity. G. Thomas Couser explains that disability memoirs “should be seen [. . .] not as spontaneous ‘self-expression’ but as response—indeed, a retort—to the traditional misrepresentation of disability in Western culture.”16 In comics studies, the critical field of graphic medicine has been quite adamant in their adoption of a posthumanist perspective. Studying graphic memoirs about illness, Pramod K. Nayar has argued that “these are recuperative texts” that “demonstrate that even within the condition of sickness, alternate identities might be retrieved and therefore fashioned.”17 Disability memoirs can thus be read as a potential “powerful counterdiscourse to the prevailing discourse of disability.”18 Endorsing posthuman subjectivity as a discourse that (re)evaluates the traditional human/animal divide and adopting the cyborg as a valid metaphor for contemporary subjects, I use the term “posthuman subject” to designate agents such as disabled people, cyborgs, or animals whose identities as living beings are outside the confines of the ideal human. Thus my reading of El Deafo will analyze the development of the main character as a posthuman subject by considering how the counterdiscourse of disability present in the story is expressed through Bell’s adoption and

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adaptation of traditional superhero comics narrative tropes. Relying on superhero rhetoric to live her life as a deaf person, Bell suggests that the posthuman figure incarnated by the superhero empowers disabled people to reclaim their subjectivity on two fronts, at least. To begin with, superheroes are inspired by animals, like Batman and the bat or Spider-Man and the spider, and thus, to some extent, like posthumans they blur the distinction between animal and human. Then, some superheroes, like Batman, Mister Terrific, or Iron Man, to name a few, also blur the distinction between the human and the machine by showing that technologies can become an extension of the subject, further implying a move from human to posthuman subjectivities.

El Deafo’s Posthuman Anthropomorphous Subjects On the one hand, the posthumanist blurring of identity between animal and human allows to better examine the assumptions that underlie the distinction between human and animal, abled and disabled bodies. As Nayar argues, “When animal and other forms cross these specified borders—and one cannot deny there is not an insignificant disquiet in us when we see animals talking in anthropomorphic films and ‘animation’—the classifier-human is disturbed.”19 Such disturbance is posthuman in nature because it forces us to consider the meaning society ascribes to human and humanity and their relation to animal and animality. In turn, the attempt to redefine human and humanity to account for other life-forms prompts us to consider the problematic “unconscious desire of the human condition to treat animals in inhumane ways, and treat some humans as if they were animals.”20 In El Deafo, Bell blurs the distinction between humans and animals by representing herself and others as anthropomorphic rabbit characters. In an article for the Guardian, Bell explains that “rabbits were the perfect visual metaphor for [her] experience. Rabbits have big ears and amazing hearing. As the only kid in [her] school who was deaf, [she] felt like the one rabbit whose big ears didn’t work.”21 By drawing her characters as rabbits, Bell paradoxically refutes and adopts the animal tropes of comics narratives as a means to support a posthumanist reading of her story, one that moves beyond the stigmatization of disability, in spite and because of the depictions of her characters as animals. The use of anthropomorphic characters to tell stories is a classic literary trope that has been used as a means to classify and segregate beings. In


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Figure 10.1 Anthropomorphic rabbit characters. Cece is on the bottom left corner of the

panel. Cece Bell, El Deafo (New York: Amulet Books, 2014), 220.

fables, for instance, the animal figure is used to infer the values, behavior, and general characteristics of the character as a “human.” An anthropomorphic fox, for example, can suggest that the character possesses the quality of a human who is sly. A similar usage is found in comics; one only has to think about the animal metaphor in Maus to get a sense that the Nazi German cats are hunting their prey, Jewish mice. According to John Berger, nineteenth-century anthropomorphic visual representations had anthropocentric colonizing tendencies that led to “the cultural marginalization of animals”22 by burying actual animal qualities under projected human defect. If “animals and populace [were] becoming synonymous,” this was because “the animals [were] fading away.”23 This escalating recourse to anthropomorphism enabled artists to push the stereotypical, and to some extent satirical, anthropocentric animalistic representation further. In this way, some comic artists rely on negatively connoted, abnormal, or even monstrous imagery as a way to signal the character’s evilness or madness. This is particularly explicit in superhero comics whose villains—Two-Face, the Joker, or the Penguin—are deformed, scarred, or mutilated to suggest that their nonnormative bodies mirror their evil minds and their animalistic, savage nature. As Nayar explains, “Humans who function on the level of sheer animality, [and commit] corruption of any kind, moral, psychological, physical, [are] deemed monstrous”24 and in comics this is often shown across the representation of their bodies.

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Villains tend to have abnormal bodies that coincide with their dehumanized status because their moral code is corrupted; as a result, their actions and cognitive processes are deemed inhuman. The problem is that popular culture tends to assume that “to have a disability is to be an animal, to be part of the Other,”25 which leads to the use of similar animalistic metaphors to represent disabled people not as savage villains but as “sub-humans,” human Others, or even animals. This animalization of human Others allows non-Othered humans to symbolically reaffirm their own humanity by considering all the ways disabled people do not conform to the humanist ideal. This process, in turn, contributes to the development of a human community based on a sense of superiority and the possibility to “degrade, dishonor, enslave, and even kill and eat”26 other life-forms. It can thus seem paradoxical for Bell to employ anthropomorphic characters in her comics about disability when so many negative “animal comparisons abound in disability history.”27 However, Bell disrupts anthropocentric animal representations commonly used to vilify nonconforming characters and in doing so draws attention to the fact that “at the root of the insult in animal comparisons is a discrimination against nonhuman animals themselves.”28 That is, by appropriating the animal metaphor to represent herself as an animal alongside others, she rehabilitates at once the images of alienated anthropomorphized animals, as well as the subordinated, marginalized, and segregated human Others. Bell draws all her characters as endearing rabbits who seem benevolent and inoffensive: this positive and nonsatirical, yet anthropomorphic, representation arguably challenges the anthropocentrism denounced by John Berger by making animals emblems of some of the greatest human qualities (e.g., compassion, forgiveness, resilience, etc.).29 Further, all the characters share similar rabbit-like physical qualities and tend to look very much alike, which creates indirectly a sense of cohesive community based on similarities rather than excluding differences. Indeed, although Cece is disabled, she is still a rabbit; she physically belongs to the group. By drawing everybody as rabbits, Bell not only disrupts traditional animalistic representation in comics but also does away with the labels of “not-fully-humans” and breaks the artificial humanist hierarchy that places normative humans’ lives above those of disabled people or animals. Therefore, Bell positions herself alongside disability and animal rights activist Sunaura Taylor who asks us to consider the following: “If disability advocates argue for the protection of the rights of those of us who are disabled, those of us who are lacking certain highly valued abilities like rationality and physical independence, then how can disability studies legitimately exclude animals


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for these reasons without contradiction?”30 Similarly, in a posthumanist move informed by disability and animal studies, Bell suggests through the anthropomorphized representation of characters in El Deafo that normative humans, disabled people, but also animals should be considered on an equal footing as fully (post)humans. Yet Bell’s anthropomorphic style does not erase all differences between characters, who retain defining characteristics. For Cece, her hearing aid sets her apart from the other rabbits to such an extent that she believes it does not make her look good and causes everyone to look at her.31 Still, in chapter 5, Cece is portrayed in a giant bubble that barricades her from the rest of the world; her deafness is a trap that keeps her isolated, or so it seems. Bell does not sustain this visual metaphor throughout the entire book, suggesting that, in retrospect, Cece’s disability impacted her social life but did not preclude it. This resonates with a discussion Cece has with her mother about sign language during which Cece claims that signing will “help people stare at [her]” because they will see her as “special,” to which her mother clumsily replies, “Well—you are special—[. . .]—just like every kid is special.” Cece reasons that for her mother “special means ‘great,’ or ‘cool,’” while for her it means “weird.”32 With this scene, Bell insinuates that as a child, she initially adhered to humanist ideas about the ideal human being, which was in retrospect detrimental to her self-perception because it made her feel like she did not belong because she saw herself as weird. In El Deafo, Bell suggests that all living beings are at once similar and “special.” They are similar because they are all rabbits, but that does not erase the fact that they are all unique (see fig. 10.1). In spite of their rabbit look, the characters remain diverse and can be distinguished from one another upon closer inspection. They have different ethnic origins, for instance, but also different face shapes, hair colors, and clothing styles. In this context, Cece’s hearing aid is only one accessory among other visual cues that distinguishes her from the other characters. Her marker of disability does not strike readers as stigmatizing or dehumanizing and becomes almost imperceptible when Cece starts wearing a hearing aid behind her ears. It is there, it can be noticed, but it is not remarkable. Since her hearing aid can be classified alongside the other markers of difference as significant but not negatively connoted, for readers, Cece’s disability does not set her apart from other diverse expressions of humanity. She is like the other characters in the comic—simultaneously common and unique in her appearance; so, her identity as a living being cannot be categorized by and limited to either her similarities to or her differences

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from other life-forms. It is important to note, though, that within the story world, Cece’s experience for the majority of the book is radically different as she suffers from great embarrassment and discomfort from having to wear the hearing aid. The point lies in this tension between unremarkable visual representation and negatively charged experience; it makes readers wonder what is so noticeable and negatively charged about having to wear a hearing aid that could possibly justify the Othering that permeates the story world. From what they can actually notice in the visual presentation of the comics, which is, in this particular case, akin to nothing, readers can only have one answer to this question: nothing can legitimize the exclusion of disabled people. Bell’s adoption of an anthropomorphous representation strategy blurs the distinction between humans and animals, not to negate the existence of or difference between these two species, but rather to prompt readers to question their humanist assumptions about disability by drawing attention to the fragility and degeneration shared by humans, human Others, and animals. Posthumanism, as Worsham argues, “starts from the fact that humanism has denied: human finitude—specifically, the fact of human embodiment and human evolution as a ‘specific form of animality.’ . . . Its focus on human embodiment trains attention on the fact of physical vulnerability and mortality, which are conditions of existence we share with all living beings”33 and yet tend to disavow. The association of animals with finitude and death is evident and morally acceptable under humanist speciesism: most animals are potential prey for humans who might hunt them for food. The association of human beings with death is not as conventionally accepted though. Humanism represents the standard human body as clean and healthy, thus full of life, and ostracizes nonconforming bodies that might be sick, unhealthy, or disabled, in “decay,” and that thus serve as constant distressing reminders that death is inescapable. In El Deafo, one of Cece’s foes asks her if she is “death” [sic], to which she replies, “Yes, I am death! And you are next on my list!”34 Bell plays with the similarity in sounds between “deaf ” and “death” to indicate the ignorance of the child, while simultaneously conflating disability with mortality, in a humanist fashion. Yet Cece’s humorous answer overthrows this artificial, limited, correlation—Cece, posing as “death,” tells her physically able opponent that she is the next one on her death list, implying in the process that all beings, no matter their species and ability, can die at any time. People can also be temporarily wounded or disabled without warning and are likely to become impaired as they age. By opening her story


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with cheerful childhood memories, Bell establishes that she used to be a “normal” and able little girl who became deaf after a bout of meningitis. Her change of status from an abled to a disabled person happened suddenly, for no reason. The underlying implication is that it can happen to anyone, at any time, even if people negate their own vulnerability. In a posthumanist move, Bell thus addresses Worsham’s claims that “we human animals need a metaphor that looks human finitude in the face”35 in two ways. She emphasizes her own mortality through her child self-representation as a disabled rabbit; an impaired animal, which makes her appear twice removed from the ideal of the humanist healthy human being. In other words, Bell’s anthropomorphous (self-)representation and adoption of a superhero-like anthropomorphic character make apparent the visible assumptions that are associated with the cultural inscriptions traditionally imposed on the disabled body. Through her attention to death, she also suggests a shared sense of sameness that deconstructs the divide between human, abled body and the nonhuman (animal-like), disabled one, thus aiming toward the construction of a posthuman subject.

El Deafo’s Posthuman Cyborg Subjects In El Deafo, Cece relies on technology to assist her in daily life and by so doing she becomes posthuman. In an important way, Cece is a cyborg: she is a hybrid between a human being and a machine. As a child in the seventies, Cece identified not with the figure of the cyborg but with the popular figure of Batman, a superhero without inherent superpowers who depends extensively on machines and technology to fight villains at night. So, when Cece becomes aware of her extraordinary hearing capacity, she reasons that “[she] ha[s] amazing abilities unknown to anyone! Just like Bruce Wayne [who] uses all that crazy technology to turn himself into Batman on TV . . .”36 To further illustrate that Cece relates to Batman’s composite identity and use of technologies, Bell draws the various devices and weapons that equip Batman in Cece’s thought bubble. The considerable number of technological aids confirms the weight of Batman’s reliance on technology that plays into Cece’s identification process. A few panels later, Bell represents Cece (dressed as the yet unnamed “El Deafo”) alongside Batman (fig. 10.2). They share a thought bubble, which forges a parallel between the two characters and foreshadows the fact that Cece “will amaze everyone”37 because of her reliance on technology, like Batman. Cece

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Figure 10.2 Cece becomes a superhero like Batman. Cece Bell, El Deafo (New York: Amulet

Books, 2014), 44.

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reconfigures her disability into an “amazing ability”38 when she considers it under a new light, that of a superhero. Additionally, the figure of the superhero (or the cyborg), as a supposedly “ultimate human” that relies on external technologies suggests that “pure” human beings are not predominant and do not occupy fixed bodies, like humanism would have us believe. Instead, they are more like an assembled patchwork that is made of and evolves alongside technologies and a changing environment. This posthumanist move, commonly referred to as “dismodernism,” suggests that all beings are disabled in their very own ways. Lennard Davis has argued that “in a dismodernist mode, the ideal is not hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject, but [. . .] a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence.” He continues, “The dismodernist subject is in fact disabled, only completed by technology and by interventions. . . . As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace.” This reasoning prompts him to conclude that “the by now outdated postmodern subject is a ruse to disguise the hegemony of normalcy.”39 For Davis, contemporary beings are dismodern because they are incomplete and depend on technologies; all subjectivity is based on the realization that beings are limited and, according to Matt Hayler, that “everybody who lives requires support”40 regardless of whether they are able or disabled. Cece’s hearing aid and its use highlights the fact that the environment is central in her feeling disabled. For humanism, subjects who have agency are self-conscious and can act according to their own free will. This line of thought limits the agency of disabled people in the sense that their actions and decisions are socially and physically limited by their disability—they are not free to act as they want. In contrast, posthumanist disability studies defends disabled people’s subjectivity by arguing that disability is not a possible essential characteristic of the body; disability is created by interaction between a body and a nonaccommodating environment that prevents some people from interacting freely with it.41 So, for Cece, it is not her deafness per se that makes her feel disabled, but the nonaccommodating setting and the fact that she could not interact with objects the way she used to when she was not deaf (like the TV or radio). In chapter 7, Bell details how Cece has to adjust her routine and accept that she will no longer fully understand a movie. For instance, while she used

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to casually watch TV, she now has to find movies with closed captions to understand more fully what she is watching. This adjustment (one among many others), troubles Cece’s perception of self and diminishes her agency because these objects have acquired a new symbolic value that reminds her of her disability. Karen Barad argues that a subject becomes a full agent through his/her “intra-action” with and between physical objects;42 agency is achieved by human beings not from “within,” but from their interaction with a setting through “object relations.”43 Most abled people do not realize how their interactions with objects influence who they are as agents; Cece’s hearing aid is arguably the most charged symbolic object in El Deafo because it carries negative connotations constitutive of her identity.44 While the hearing aid initially troubled her sense of self (it marked her as a disabled person), it is nevertheless an essential component of her lifestyle although it has the power to place her agency at risk. For instance, when her P.E. teacher breaks her hearing aid’s microphone, Cece is at a loss and wonders “what [she] [is] gonna do?” She is “worried” because she “won’t be able to understand anything” and feels like she will “fail everything.”45 For Cece, not being able to interact with objects is more than an inconvenience: if the microphone doesn’t get fixed, “it ain’t gonna be pretty.”46 She cannot temporarily be who she wants to be. Cece’s relation to objects, in particular her hearing aid, is essential for her to develop her agency; a degraded human-object interaction leads to a deterioration of agency. To be a subject in full command of her faculties, she has no other choice but to accept her technological side and endorse her posthuman agency. Although Cece’s self-esteem weakens as her deafness impedes her relationship with her classmates, she regains a sense of self-worth and agency by owning her disability and assigning a new (personal) symbolic meaning to her hearing aid. Seeing it as a supersonic device that allows her to help people around her, she designs her superheroic alter ego, “El Deafo,” and reframes her disability by packaging it as an asset instead of an impediment. Cece adopts a superhero persona to become what some would call the “supercrip, the disabled person who heroically overcomes [her] other limitations to achieve success”47 and defy pity, like some Silver and Bronze Age superheroes.48 There is a major difference, though, between Cece’s alter ego and 1950s–1980s disabled superheroes. Unlike them, Cece’s superpower does not “‘overcompensate’ for a perceived physical defect, difference, or outright disability” so as to “erase the disability, banishing it to the realm of the unseen, replacing it with raw power and heroic acts.”49 Instead, Cece visibly incorporates, and does not hide, her disability, a move


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that shows her intention is to be accepted by society for who she actually is, not who she could or should be. Cece’s hearing aid becomes the superpower that challenges humanist perceptions of disability as a weakness that renders disabled people dependent on abled people. Cece overthrows this assumption by demonstrating in a celebration of dismodernism that the abled children depend on her superpower to counterbalance their own limitations. Cece’s hearing aid gives her the superpower to know what the teacher is doing at any time and where she is in the school building. Practically, this means that she and her classmates can “horse around” while the teacher leaves the class unsupervised for a few minutes without getting punished for their disruptive behavior. Because of her superpowers, Cece can let her classmates know that the teacher is approaching and that they should be quiet again. Realizing the productive contribution of Cece’s diversity, her classmates begin seeing her as a hero, and no longer as a weak, disabled, and disempowered person. This “acceptance,” however, comes at a cost. Cece’s classmates only truly accept her for who she is when they can exploit her talent. Cece thus conforms to peer pressure so as to gain their approval by disobeying the rules. This suggests that the normalization of disability unfortunately still demands some forms of sacrifice by the disabled person. In this way, Cece’s use of her “superpower” is not without issues, as her listening to the teacher going to the bathroom and having intimate conversations with people can be considered an invasion of privacy. This problematic moral aspect of the story implies that Cece feels like she has no other choice but to resort to a kind of vigilantism and set up her own moral code so as to be respected by others for who she is. Nevertheless, the point here is that the object of stigma, the hearing aid, through this act, loses its negative connotation and becomes a tool of success. Thus Cece, who is no longer embarrassed by her hearing aid, can start endorsing the fact that she is a posthuman, a human-machine composite. Bell illustrates Cece’s embracement of her posthuman self by representing “El Deafo” stepping out of Cece’s thought bubble into the real world. Cece, now wearing the cape that El Deafo gave her, claims her identity as the “El Deafo” of her dreams. Several of Cece’s focalized panels in this chapter show her wearing El Deafo’s costume in the story world,50 thus visually representing her newly affirmed identity. In turn, Cece’s self-identification incites her to develop a posthuman agency that is mindful and supporting of difference. By embracing her posthumanism and contributing positively to her society in a way that abled people cannot, Cece unravels the misconception that disabled people are “less than,” and she shows that

“Of Course, I Am a Hero”

society can change its attitude toward disabled people and embrace their involvement in shaping the world.

A Disabled, Posthuman Superheroine The superhero rhetoric that permeates El Deafo allows for the adoption of a posthumanist stance that sheds light on the construction of a relationally constituted posthuman identity, one that redefines the relation between all living beings and that establishes as one the interaction between beings and objects.51 Posthumanism as a philosophy fosters “kinship and connection, humility and acceptance, (self )forgiveness and rapprochement.”52 Throughout El Deafo, Bell encourages this coming together by revealing what it was like for her as a child to be deaf. She does so not to inspire people but to invite them to experience her world. She asks us to redefine what we understand by disability, encouraging a new conceptualization of the self and humanity, one that is posthuman and inhabits a liminal space that dismantles the boundaries between human and animal, human and machine, abled and disabled bodies. In her move toward posthumanism, Bell can be considered a “creative activist” whose autobiographical comic gives a voice to deaf people while shedding light on society’s prejudiced, negative representations of disability. Her message is clear: there is no such thing as an inherently different life experience for disabled and abled people, only social constructions of irreconcilable differences.

Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Badmington, Neil. “Posthumanism.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini, 374–84. New York: Routledge, 2011. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Bell, Cece. El Deafo. New York: Amulet Books, 2014. Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Vintage International, 1991. Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. Chaney, Michael A. “Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel.” College Literature 38, no. 3 (2011): 129–49. Cheyne, Ria. “‘She Was Born a Thing’: Disability, the Cyborg and the Posthuman in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.” Journal of Modern Literature 36, no. 3 (2013): 138–56. Couser, G. Thomas. “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 120 (2005): 602–6.


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———. “Signifying Bodies: Life Writing and Disability Studies.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggeman, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, 109–17. New York: The Modern Language Association, 2002. Davis, David B. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Davis, Lennard J. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York University Press, 2002. ———. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995. ———. “Introduction: Disability, Normality, and Power.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard Davis, 1–16. 16th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Ferrando, Francesca. “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations.” Existenz 8, no. 2 (2013): 26–32. Goodley, Dan, Rebecca Lawthom, and Katherine Runswick Cole. “Posthuman Disability Studies.” Subjectivity 7, no. 4 (2014): 342–61. Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge, 1991. Hayler, Matt. Challenging the Phenomena of Technology: Embodiment, Expertise, and Evolved Knowledge. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015. Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Herbrechter, Stefan. “Posthumanism, Subjectivity, Autobiography.” Subjectivity 5, no. 3 (2012): 327–47. Herbrechter, Stefan, and Ivan Callus. “What Is a Posthumanist Reading?” Angelaki 13, no. 1 (2008): 95–111. Jeffrey, Scott. The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics: Human, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016. McDonald, Donna. “Joining the Diaspora of Deaf Memoirists: A Personal Account of Writing Deafness.” American Annals of the Deaf 159, no. 2 (2014): 77–86. Nayar, Pramod K. “Communicable Diseases: Graphic Medicine and the Extreme.” Journal of Creative Communications 10, no. 2 (2015): 161–75. ———. Posthumanism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014. Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Taylor, Sunaura. “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights.” Qui Parle 19, no. 2 (2011): 191–222. Worsham, Lynn. “Toward an Understanding of Human Violence: Cultural Studies, Animal Studies, and the Promise of Posthumanism.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 35, no. 1 (2013): 51–76.

Notes 1. Herbrechter and Callus, “Posthumanist Reading,” 96. 2. Goodley, Lawthom, and Cole, “Posthuman Disability,” 344. 3. Herbrechter, “Posthumanism,” 328. 4. Haraway, “Cyborg Manifesto,” 149. 5. Ibid., 151. 6. Ibid., 154. 7. Ibid., 181. 8. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 2–3. 9. Nayar, Posthumanism, 78. 10. Badmington, “Posthumanism,” 381. 11. Ferrando, “Posthumanism,” 29.

“Of Course, I Am a Hero” 12. Herbrechter and Callus, “Posthumanist Reading,” 97. 13. Nayar, Posthumanism, 3. 14. Braidotti, Posthuman, 26. 15. Goodley, Lawthom, and Cole, “Posthuman Disability,” 358. 16. Couser, “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation,” 604. 17. Nayar, “Communicable Diseases,” 172. 18. Couser, “Signifying,” 109. 19. Nayar, Posthumanism, 90. 20. Goodley, Lawthom, and Cole, “Posthuman Disability,” 355. 21. Cece Bell, “How I Made El Deafo—in Pictures,” Guardian, August 4, 2014, https://​www​ .theguardian​.com​/childrens​books​site​/gallery​/2015​/aug/​04​/cece​bell​el​deafo​in​pictures. 22. Berger, About Looking, 15. 23. Ibid., 19. 24. Nayar, Posthumanism, 84. 25. Davis, “Introduction,” 8. 26. Davis, Inhuman Bondage, 28–29. 27. Taylor, “Beasts of Burden,” 192. 28. Ibid., 195. 29. While these qualities might not be obvious at the beginning of the comics, especially because the story is focalized through Cece, who struggles to fit in, these qualities become more and more obvious (and in a way, thematic), as the story concludes. 30. Taylor, “Beasts of Burden,” 197. 31. Bell, El Deafo, 27. 32. Ibid., 115. 33. Worsham, “Toward an Understanding,” 52–53. 34. Bell, El Deafo, 99. 35. Worsham, “Toward an Understanding,” 69. 36. Bell, El Deafo, 43. 37. Ibid., 45. 38. Ibid., 100. 39. Davis, Bending Over Backwards, 240–41. 40. Hayler, Challenging the Phenomena of Technology, 44–45. 41. Nayar, Posthumanism, 103. 42. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. 43. Nayar, “Communicable Diseases,” 163. 44. By contrast, Cece’s glasses do not overtly signify disability despite being a form of prosthetic visual aids. This suggests that Cece’s deafness might no longer be perceived as a disability the day we see hearing aids as nothing more stigmatizing than a pair of glasses. For more on this topic, see Davis, Enforcing Normalcy. 45. Bell, El Deafo, 172–73. 46. Ibid., 173. 47. Cheyne, “‘She Was Born a Thing,’” 142. 48. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 26–68. 49. Ibid., 37. 50. Bell, El Deafo, 218–21. 51. See Jeffrey, Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics, which, while it does not examine Cece Bell’s El Deafo, deals with issues similar to those that I have addressed in this essay. Unfortunately, this book came to my attention only recently, and not in time to be incorporated in my argument here. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this book to readers interested in the relation between superhero comics, body, and posthumanism. 52. Worsham, “Toward an Understanding,” 69.



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Unraveling the Supercrip




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8 9


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212 13


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Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humor. London: Sage Publications, 2011. Bingham, Shawn Chandler, and Sara E. Green. Seriously Funny: Disability and the Paradoxical Power of Humor. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2016. Cahill, Spencer E., and Robin Eggleston. “Managing Emotions in Public: The Case of Wheelchair Users.” Social Psychology Quarterly 57 (1994): 300–312. Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Dick, Kirby, dir. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. 1990. London. BFI. 2012. DVD. Fleischer, Doris Zames, and Frieda Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Updated ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Gilbert, Joanne R. “Performing Marginality: Comedy, Identity, and Cultural Critique.” Text and Performance Quarterly 17 (2000). Hardin, Marie, and Brent Hardin. “The ‘Supercrip’ in Sport Media: Wheelchair Athletes Discuss Hegemony’s Disabled Hero.” Sociology of Sport Online 7, no. 1 (2004). Juno, Andrea, and V. Vale. Re/Search, People Series, vol. 1, Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist. New York: Juno Books, 2000. Morreal, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Sandhal, Carrie. “Bob Flanagan: Taking It Like a Man.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 15, no. 1 (2000), 97–106.

Notes 1. Juno and Vale, Re/Search, People Series, 3. 2. He had died aged forty-three in 1996, at the time the longest living survivor of the disease. 3. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 4. 4. Dick, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan. 5. Ibid. 6. Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero, 31. 7. “65 Roses” is a slogan adopted by Cystic Fibrosis charities based on a child’s mispronunciation of the disease. 8. Fleischer and Zames, Disability Rights Movement, 11. 9. Sandhal, “Bob Flanagan: Taking It Like a Man,” 101. 10. Juno and Vale, Re/Search, People Series, 28. 11. Frank, Wounded Storyteller, 115. 12. Hardin and Hardin, “‘Supercrip’ in Sport Media.” 13. Billig, Laughter and Ridicule, 5. 14. Gilbert, “Performing Marginality,” 317. 15. Ibid. 16. Billig, Laughter and Ridicule, 194. 17. Cohen, Jokes, 28. 18. Bingham and Green, Seriously Funny, 1. 19. Cahill and Eggleston, “Managing Emotions in Public.” 20. Morreal, Comic Relief, 101.

Fearsome Possibilities An Afterword

Charles Hatfield

Superhero comic books have always been about the spectacle of bodies on the page, and the spectacle of Othering: heightened and fantastical displays of difference—gendered, racialized, ethnocentrist, ableist—in the graphic clash of bodies both idealized and grotesque. At the start, the genre, like comic books in general, remained in thrall to the staid design sense of the newspaper funnies page, with panels locked into predictable rows and rhythms—but the challenge of moving the body around the page soon changed that. In the late 1930s to early ’40s, artists like Lou Fine, Jack Cole, Will Eisner, and the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon discovered, through superheroes and pulp adventure, ways to break up and open out the page graphically, ways that had everything to do with the gymnastics of ideal bodies in flight and in combat. To read “costume” comics from Superman’s launch in 1938, through Captain America’s first year, 1941—a veritable parade of superbodies—is to witness the excitement, and sometimes awkwardness, of antic self-discovery: the realization that comic books could be something other than parasitical scrapbooks of preexisting newspaper strips. The fizzing energy of those formative years derives partly from the sheer bloodcurdling intensity (and ideological shamelessness) of the genre, but especially from the tension between the superbody—hurtling, unstoppable, bent on violence—and its containment

Uncanny Bodies


within the very form of comics. In brief, superheroes consist in bodily spectacle, in sights and marvels of a decidedly corporeal nature. Lou Fine, in features like “The Flame” (in Fox’s Wonderworld Comics, circa 1939–40), inflated panels to fit the hero’s dashing figure, bringing in tall verticals and half-page attention-grabbers. Likewise, Jack Cole, in jobs like “The Comet” (MLJ’s Pep Comics, 1940), went for bull’s-eye panels, slashing diagonals, and, overall, a frantic, revved-up design sense that made room for zigzagging bodies. The airborne figure of the Comet, diving down, might serve to slice a page into diagonal slivers. In Cole’s playful idiom, as Art Spiegelman has observed of Plastic Man (1941 on), the body becomes “a compositional device” in itself, a vector or “arrow pointing out the sights as it hurtles through time.”1 In 1941, Jack Kirby, partnered with Joe Simon, went vector-mad, fairly tearing up the page in Timely’s Captain America Comics: bodies burst through panel borders and the action did violence to the page’s very shape. Greg Sadowski’s 2009 anthology Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes, 1936–1941 tells this story well,2 offering up a score of early superhero comics, some frozen in rigid, newspaper-like layouts, but others stretching the comics page in novel ways. Supermen! also shows something else, however: the genre’s roots in overt and spectacular racism—more broadly, in xenophobic Othering, or the grotesque imaginative heightening of assumed difference. From monstrous Asiastic “spooks,” to scientifically enhanced “beast-men,” to subhuman dwarfs, these old stories testify to something awful at the heart of the genre. Difference, in superhero comics, has historically been loaded. For me, and for students in my seminars on the superhero, the point is made most jarringly by what is surely the liveliest, most formally inventive comic in Supermen, one that is cited in the introduction to the present book: Cole’s story from Silver Streak Comics #7 (Lev Gleason, 1941) that pits the Claw, a gigantic, monstrous Yellow Peril villain, a sort of Kong-sized Fu Manchu, against Jack Binder’s superhero, the Daredevil (not the later Marvel character of that name). Our editors here, Alaniz and Smith, have pointed out how this tale erases disability from the Daredevil storyline, but what I want to stress is that the tale is both terrifically drawn and hyperbolically racist. The Claw is a fanged, yellow-skinned nightmare, who dwells in a skull-shaped castle, where “natives” in loincloths scrape and crawl before him. He plots to, literally, undermine the United States; at one point, towering above the New York skyline, he screams, in faux-Oriental script, “Death to America!” Cole wastes no opportunity to reinforce the Claw’s exotic and threatening

Fearsome Possibilities

Asianness, using every resource of the comics page to underscore the message. He seems to have had a particular yen for racist Othering; this tale presents a harsh, violent flipside to his more jocular “Wun Cloo, the Defective Detective” (which ran for years in Quality’s Smash Comics). Confoundingly, then, Cole’s undeniably great talent for comics comes shrink-wrapped with appalling exercises in hatred and mockery. But this problem is not peculiar to Cole. As Chris Gavaler observes in On the Origin of Superheroes (2015), the superhero genre reinscribes old fears about race, that “metaethnic fiction that has most thrilled and horrified America”;3 these fears come through in imperialist and eugenicist fantasies of exalted whiteness and racial purity, typically defined in contrast to grotesque racial opposites.4 Pick up any unexpurgated reprinting of a run of Golden Age superhero comics—for example, DC’s Batman: The Golden Age, volume 1, or Marvel’s Golden Age Captain America Omnibus—and you are likely to find evidence: Chinese “hatchet men,” swarthy “Hindu” murderers, “Oriental giants,” African “pygmies,” and so on. Cole was simply better at doing this kind of work than most of his contemporaries. In my classes, this realization usually brings us to discuss our own untenable position as readers, confronted by Cole’s electric cartooning, his brio and flare, but also the viciousness of his work. The superhero genre is at best a double-edged sword: as Supermen! suggests, a gallery of heightened and freakish types. When you’re discussing this kind of work in the classroom, things get complicated. My courses on superheroes have tended to move, by term’s end, toward efforts to create more diverse, inclusive, and progressive superhero comics: various incarnations of The Doom Patrol, Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s Shadow Hero, G. Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat et al.’s Ms. Marvel, the storied Milestone experiment of the mid-nineties. These comics read differently, I think, against the backdrop of Daredevil Battles the Claw or the early Captain America comics. To what extent, if at all, can a genre with that backdrop, that is, one that historically has trafficked in ugly images of difference, become progressive? Gross racism, white supremacy, and a general dread of difference are frankly part of the inheritance of the superhero. Further, as Eric Berlatsky has argued, misogynistic and homophobic fantasies of masculine “power over women” are central to the initial Superman formula, thus to the genre’s origins.5 So how ought we to think about superheroes and their fans beyond the ablelist straight white male template: heroes and fans of color, women as heroes and fans, queer heroes and fans, gender-nonconforming ones, disabled ones? Again: complicated.


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Marc Singer has suggested that superhero comics, because they “have evolved their own conventions for representing the dilemmas of a divided self,” can become “perfect vehicles for exploring minority-group identity; similarly, from the perspective of the comics, minority groups may be ideal subjects for these same reasons.” Singer notes that the superhero genre, through the convention of the split identity, “can literally personify the other-wise abstract ontological divides of minority identity, assigning each self its own visual identifier,” its own embodiment and look.6 As Singer notes, this observation is not confined to race but potentially extends to other oppressed groups.7 Indeed, the experience of any kind of divided life—of socially complex, minoritized, and carefully negotiated identities, upheld in the face of daily oppression—would seem apt for superhero comics. Further, as Scott Bukatman argues, citing anthropologist Mary Douglas, the overt “bodily symbolism” of the superhero may enable readers “to confront experience” with a certain liberating directness. The “metamorphic pliability” of the superbody can be a freeing device.8 Of course a counterargument could be and has been made: that, as James Lamb puts it, minorities in superhero comics serve only “to validate and define,” by contrast, the genre’s normative white masculinity (and, we might add, ableism); that superheroes are essentially “white male power fantasy distilled to narcotic purity,” bound by a “colonial” mindset— an impulse “to control, to order, to rule” through the white man’s “superior physicality.”9 Further, we could say that the ableist white superbody, the eugenic fantasy that is the genre’s bodily norm, seems to reject all infirmity, disability, difference, and vulnerability—or transform vulnerability into (as our editors here note) an impermanent condition, a hurdle to be overleapt by magic word, armored suit, or scientific experiment. By such reasoning, the most progressive thing one could do with the superhero genre is abandon it entirely (as indeed Lamb proposes). Yet the genre sustains a sizable audience of nonwhite, female, queer, gender-nonconforming, disabled, and otherwise minoritized fans. Granted, periodical superhero comic books continue to struggle with (and sometimes against) the challenges of diversity. However, the migration of the genre into onscreen media, and the intensifying call for more inclusive spaces and publishing practices within comics, have opened the genre to new arguments about inclusion, proper representation, and the need to support and highlight minority creators. It seems clear, then, that superhero comics can be both reinforcers of reactionary ideology and vehicles for progressive argument—complicated indeed.

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Historically, it is certainly true that superhero narratives have tended to treat disability simply as a narrative pretext or opening gambit: if not a sign of moral corruption, or a goad for embittered villains to do evil, disability has been, at best, something for heroes to beat—to disavow or keep at bay. Indeed disability has served the genre as a twofold narrative prosthesis, on the one hand calling out villains as such (the ugly, abject, deformed, or socially ostracized), and on the other hand providing a spur to heroism. For many superheroes, disability has been a conventional narrative prompt: the impetus for the move from scrawny, unheroic Steve Rogers to the decidedly heroic Captain America, or “mild-mannered” (read: feminized) Clark Kent, to his unquestionably heroic alter ego—his hidden but true, most fully realized, self. This is the move from wounded Tony Stark, frail of heart, to the armored Iron Man, or the move from blinded Matt Murdock to the super-aware and impossibly mobile Daredevil. Jack Kirby worked this kind of story over multiple times, using the conceit of the super-soldier: Captain America goes from humiliating 4-F classification (unfitness) to nonpareil masculinity; the Fighting American begins as a physical wimp whose mind is transferred into the preferred body of his older brother (an athlete and war hero, slain by villains). OMAC, taking the premise to a disturbing, satirical extreme, begins with the über– Clark Kent figure “Buddy Blank,” a pitiful, unimposing corporate drone whose life is essentially stolen from him when the powers-that-be decide to transform him into an unstoppable, frankly inhuman “One Man Army Corps.” In each case, the weak, abject figure is replaced by an able, hypermasculine counterpoint that epitomizes vigor and will. In essence, these stories—and so many others like them, part of the genre’s heritage—are “overcoming” narratives. Yet as José Alaniz provocatively argued in his groundbreaking Death, Disability, and the Superhero, and as this very book, Uncanny Bodies, continues to argue, it is possible for superhero stories to maintain an awareness of disability, not simply as a residue of the hero’s origin story, or some ritual reminder of the hero’s pitiable roots or reassuring humanness, but as a fundamental orientation, a continuing questioning of hegemonic norms. It is possible for superhero stories not to condemn or merely spectacularize difference but in fact celebrate multiplicity and cooperation across difference, even embrace a dismodernist perspective, in which we are all of us united by difference and can share in the radical questioning of normate and disabling ideologies.10 Precisely because the superhero is a loaded genre founded on the spectacle of the body, and on the fear of and fascination


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with difference, it can use bodily symbolism to advance a radical ethos of inclusivity and diversity—not merely tolerance of difference, as has long been advocated by moralizing superhero tales, but a capacity to see difference within ourselves and to recognize the social construction of difference as just that. As the present book says from the outset, the superhero offers “a flexible medium for considering disability” and encourages “different ways of perceiving and being in the world.” Uncanny Bodies, as it builds on earlier work, honors the complications of the genre, indeed gives us a thrillingly complex, and brave, perspective from which to consider both the problems inherent in the genre and the new possibilities that it portends. That is why this book matters: it is a necessary and exhilarating contribution to disability studies and comics studies alike. I could say much more, but, in closing, here is one last thought: Uncanny Bodies not only explores the intersection of disability study and comics but also reframes comics itself as an uncanny mode of reading. Scholars have begun to explore the social implications of comics’ formal features and affordances: What if we view our comics-reading protocols not as socially and ideologically neutral, as matters of form only, but instead as linked to questions of nonnormative identity and resistance? What can we say about the ideological dimensions of the very act of reading a comic? Hillary Chute has suggested that the ethical and political work of comics depends on the form’s “elliptical” nature, which, in contrast to film, “cedes the pace of consumption to the reader,” allowing for selfpaced reading; indeed comics “begs rereadings through its spatial form,” which calls for “a productive recursivity,” a looking again. Thus the comics reader, Chute argues, becomes not merely spectator but co-constructor of meaning.11 While channeling Scott McCloud’s emphasis (in Understanding Comics) on the empowered reader,12 Chute recognizes that the comics-reading process has an ideological dimension: comics, through its gaps or ellipses, offers “a constant self-reflexive demystification” of representation,”13 a quality Chute ties into the medium’s potential for feminist work. Hence, the formal affordances and limitations of comics take on political significance. From a different angle, Michael Joseph has proposed that graphic novels defy conventional “bookness and the hierarchical social structures that underlie it” by “assert[ing] the physicality of the book” and acknowledging, even exploiting, comics’ “liminal position within book history.” Thus graphic novels complicate, or refuse, conventional models of reading.14 Comics, suggests Joseph, resist the idealized “disembodiment of reading,” offering instead a self-consciously visual and haptic experience; they enable us to recover the picture book’s “unacknowledged material and

Fearsome Possibilities

physical pleasures,” which our culture generally consigns to early childhood.15 Therefore graphic novels are a disruptive, in-between form; indeed, Joseph goes so far as to suggest an analogy between such “unruly adolescent reading materials” and “unruly adolescent bodies.”16 The very socially conditioned act of reading, he seems to say, is challenged by comics literacy. In a comparable vein, Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz have recently suggested that the queerness of comics does not come down to particular genres or subject matter only but more generally applies to its form—that the comics medium itself, and the acts of reading it elicits, can be considered queer. Provocatively linking the formal qualities of comics to “social questions of sexual identity and embodied difference,”17 they argue that the medium’s “expansive representational capacity . . . queers it.”18 Indeed, Scott and Fawaz see the form of comics, including “sequentially unfolding panels, multidirectional modes of reading, long-form serial narratives, and admixtures of text and image,” as responding or linked to the core concerns of queer theory.19 Among the specific questions they pose are, for example, “How might the medium’s discontinuous organization of images map onto disability’s discontinuous relationship to heterosexual able-bodied existence?”20 Where Chute highlights the feminist potential of comics’ self-reflexivity, and Joseph celebrates the “adolescent” unruliness of comics reading as an embodied act, Scott and Fawaz seek homologies among comics reading, queer desire, and nonnormative identity. In all these cases, comics reading appears not as an ideologically neutral but rather as a resistant activity. Uncanny Bodies, I think, likewise suggests new ways of understanding comics reading, ways at once familiar and strange (hence, uncanny). What Alaniz, Smith, and their contributors offer is a set of new strategies for reading, strategies that defamiliarize not only the well-worn superhero genre but also the very act of finding meaning in comics. Disability theory, then, even as it asks questions of the utmost social urgency, also proposes new heuristics and aesthetics for comics studies. Fearsome possibilities, indeed. Bibliography Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Gavaler, Chris. On the Origin of Superheroes. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015.


Uncanny Bodies


Joseph, Michael. “Seeing the Visible Book: How Graphic Novels Resist Reading.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37 (2012): 454–67. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Sadowski, Greg, ed. Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes, 1936–1941. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2009. Scott, Darieck, and Ramzi Fawaz. “Introduction: Queer About Comics.” American Literature 90 (2018): 197–219. Singer, Marc. “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race.” African American Review 36 (2002): 107–19. Spiegelman, Art, and Chip Kidd. Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

Notes 1. Spiegelman and Kidd, Jack Cole and Plastic Man, n.p. 2. Sadowski, Supermen! It is a shocking and rather marvelous book. 3. Gavaler, On the Origin of Superheroes, 126. 4. Ibid., 160. 5. Eric Berlatsky, “Between Supermen: Homosociality, Misogyny, and Triangular Desire in the Earliest Superman Stories,” Comics Forum, April 11, 2013, https://​comicsforum​.org​ /2013​/04​/11​/between​supermen​homosociality​misogyny​and​triangular​desire​in​the​earliest​ superman​stories​by​eric​berlatsky. 6. Singer, “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks,” 116. 7. Ibid., 114. 8. Bukatman, Matters of Gravity, 49. 9. Charles Lamb, “Figures of Empire: On the Impossibility of Superhero Diversity,” Hooded Utilitarian, May 12, 2015, http://​www​.hoodedutilitarian​.com​/2015​/05​/figures​of​empire​ on​the​impossibility​of​superhero​diversity. 10. See, in particular, chap. 5 of Alaniz, Death, Disability, and the Superhero. 11. Chute, Graphic Women, 8–9. 12. See, in particular, chap. 3 of McCloud, Understanding Comics. 13. Chute, Graphic Women, 9. 14. Joseph, “Seeing the Visible Book,” 460. 15. Ibid., 465. 16. Ibid., 460–61. 17. Scott and Ramzi, “Introduction,” 197. 18. Ibid., 201. 19. Ibid., 211. 20. Ibid., 199.


José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

and the Department of Comparative Literature (adjunct) at the University of Washington–Seattle. He is the author of two books, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (2010) and Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond (2014). His articles have appeared in many journals and anthologies.

Sarah Bowden is a teaching artist, whose plays have been produced in Chicago,

New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Stockholm. Most recently, her full-length Lively Stones was produced as part of 20% Theatre Chicago’s ReFocus 20/20 season, and her full-lengths Tin Noses and Helen Keller and Me were featured as part of the 2017 and 2018 Chicago Theatre Marathons. Sarah teaches theater and composition at Benedictine University and Prairie State College.

Charlie Christie is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Brit-

ish Columbia, Canada, having completed previous study at the University of East Anglia, U.K. She is a cross-cultural disability and mental health advocate, with experiences as both a caregiver and a patient.

Sarah Gibbons received her Ph.D. from the Department of English at the University of Waterloo, where she was the assistant editor and social media coordinator of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies from 2013 to 2017. Sarah’s research interests include disability studies, comic studies, and environmental criticism.

Andrew Godfrey-Meers has recently completed his Ph.D. in English, looking at the

links between ritual, genre, and failure in Graphic Medicine. He was the principal organizer of the 2016 Comics & Medicine conference in Dundee and recipient of the 2013 Grant Morrison Prize in Comic Studies. He has been a regular contributor to Columbia University’s Medical Health Humanities blog Synapses and has formerly produced autobiographical comics about his experience with the chronic illness cystic fibrosis under the name Sicker Than Thou.

Marit Hanson is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Literatures and Cultures at the University of Minnesota and a visiting instructor of Spanish at St. Olaf College. Her areas of specialization include contemporary Peninsular literature, women’s writing, and science fiction.


Charles Hatfield is a professor of English at California State University, Northridge.


He specializes in word and image studies, comics and graphic novels, children’s literature and culture, popular culture, and the literature of the fantastic. He has published widely on comics in diverse books and journals, and he is the author of Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005) and Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (2011).

Naja Later is a sessional academic at the University of Melbourne and Swinburne

University of Technology, Australia. She researches intersections between pop culture and politics, with a focus on superheroes and horror. She is a cofounder of the All Star Women’s Comic Book Club and co-organized the first annual Women in Comics Festival in 2016.

Lauren O’Connor is a doctoral candidate at Bowling Green State University. She is

interested in comics studies and representations of adolescence in media, especially as it intersects with other social identities such as race, gender, and sexuality.

Daniel J. O’Rourke is an associate professor of Communication Studies at Ashland

University. His research interests include the rhetorical analysis of comic books and popular culture.

Daniel Pinti is a professor of English at Niagara University, where he teaches comics and graphic narrative as well as early English literature and the Bible as literature. His work on comics has appeared in Literature and Theology and ImageTexT, and he is currently pursuing several projects applying Bakhtin’s theoretical concepts to comics texts.

Lauranne Poharec is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Memorial University of

Newfoundland, working under the supervision of Dr. Nancy Pedri. While her research deals primarily with strategies of visual storytelling, she is also interested in questions of representation in comics. She recently edited with Aidan Diamond a special issue of Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics on “Freaked and Othered Bodies” (vol. 8, no. 5 [2017]).

Deleasa Randall-Griffiths is an associate professor in the Department of Commu-

nication Studies and Director of the Online Communication Studies Program at Ashland University. Her research interests include health narratives, gender, and women’s studies.

Scott T. Smith is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at

Penn State University. His research and teaching interests include early medieval literature, history of the English language, and comics. He realizes that these things look odd together in the same list.


Notes are referenced with “n” followed by the note number. ableism, 3, 24, 86, 130, 156n37 and capitalism, 19 and humor, 31n17 and mental distress, 64–65 and race, 217, 220 stereotypes of, 97–98, 102, 108, 190 accessibility, 19, 97–99, 159–60, 163 deaf accessibility, 26, 141–53, 156n37 acoustigrams, 147–49 Action Comics (vol. 1, 1938–2011), 2, 30n8 activism, 1, 64, 190, 193–94, 201 activist-hero, 113–22 Aja, David, 26, 137, 139n5, 148, 153 See also Hawkeye (vol. 4, 2012–15) Alaniz, José, 1, 25, 30n4, 218, 221, 223 on Daredevil (Matt Murdock), 166 on disablemes, 97 on Gordon, Barbara (Oracle), 97, 112–13 on the supercrip, 98, 138 al-Assad, Asma, 175 Alphona, Adrian, 21 Amanat, Sana, 21, 219 American Sign Language (ASL), 31n23, 194 in Hawkeye (vol. 4, 2012–15), 26, 130, 141, 149, 157, 160–69 Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), 21, 35–36, 43 amputee, 4–5, 13 Andreyko, Marc, 116 Angel, the (Thomas Halloway), 4–5 Anker, Elizabeth S., 128–30, 132, 133, 135 animals, 5, 30n14, 37, 47, 63, 92 fables, 191–92 See also anthropomorphism anthropomorphism, 187–201 architecture, 26, 142, 151–53 Aristotle, 181, 213 Arkham, Amadeus, 68 Arkham Asylum, 68

Arkham, Jeremiah, 68 Armless Tiger Man (Gustav Hertz), 4–6, 8, 20 Arnaudo, Marco, 163 Arrival, the (Shaun Tan), 149 Asharq Al-Awsat, 182 Asperger’s Syndrome, 43, 45, 57n67 See also Autism assistive devices, 169 See also hearing aids; wheelchairs asylum trope, 71 See also Arkham Asylum Australian Sign Language (Auslan), 142 autism, 25, 35–40, 42–47, 51–52 “affective deficit” model, 39 See also Asperger’s Syndrome; Bettelheim, Bruno; “refrigerator mother”; neurodiversity Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), 43 autobiography, 27 See also memoir Avengers, 126, 130, 135–37, 158, 159, 160 B., David (Epileptic), 55n25, 175 Badmington, Neil, 189 Bailey, Mart, 6 Barad, Karen, 199 Barton, Clint. See Hawkeye (Clint Barton); Ronin (Clint Barton) Batgirl. See under Gordon, Barbara Batgirl (vol. 4, 2011–16), 111–22 Batman (Bruce Wayne), 19, 30n4, 97, 109n1, 118, 169, 176 “Batman Family,” 95, 99, 100 Golden Age, 6, 219 origin story, 79, 120, 177 secret identity, 61–62 and technology, 59, 187, 191, 196–98 Batman, TV series, 147, 196 Batman and Robin (vol. 1, 2009–11), 123n8 Batwoman (Kate Kane), 100, 116 Bauman, H-Dirksen L., 160



Bazin, André, 146–47 Bekmambetov, Timur (Night Watch), 145 Bell, Cece, 26–27, 169 El Deafo, 187–201 Bellman, Al, 5 Bendis, Brian Michael, 60–61, 65, 67, 70 Ben-Moshe, Liat, 160 Bérubé, Michael, 1 Berger, John, 192–93 Berlatsky, Eric, 219 Bettelheim, Bruno, 36, 42, 45, 51–52 Big Shot Comics, 6 Billig, Michael, 212 Binder, Jack, 6–7, 218 biopower, 38 Birds of Prey (vol. 1, 1996–2009), 25, 96–108 (vol. 2, 2010–11), 96 Bishop, Kate. See Hawkeye (Kate Bishop) Black Bolt, 31n31 Black Canary (Dinah Lance), 96, 102, 105, 107, 114, 116 Black Canary (vol. 4, 2015–16), 123n8 Black Lightning, 118 Black Panther (T’Challa), 31n17 Black Racer, the (Willie Walker), 8–12 Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff ), 136 Blade Runner, film, 101 Blake, Donald (Mighty Thor), 96–97, 110n3 Blank, Buddy. See OMAC (Buddy Blank) Bloustien, Geraldine, 106 Bolland, Brian, 109n1 Bolter, Jay David, 152–53 boom tube, 9 Braidotti, Rosi, 189 Brainiac, 96, 99, 102–8 Brashear, Regan Pretlow, 107 Breaking Bad, TV series, 155n19 Bronze Age, 12, 31n28, 95, 199 Brotherhood of Dada (Doom Patrol), 13–14 Brown, Jeffrey A., 116, 117, 120–21 Bruno, Giuliana, 151–52 Bukatman, Scott, 34n88, 129, 220 Bullseye, 87 bullying, 39, 177 Burke, Kenneth, 173, 181, 183 Cage, Luke, 118 Cahill, Spencer, E., 213 Callus, Ivan, 189 Cancer Vixen. See Marchetto, Marisa Acocella capitalism, 5, 19, 50–52

Captain America (Steve Rogers), 31n17, 65, 159, 217–19, 221 Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), 148 captions, closed, 141–46, 150, 199 Case, Richard, 12–21, 24 Caulder, Niles (Doom Patrol), 13, 16–20, 32n59, 33n62, 33n73 cerebral palsy, 210 Chandler, Eliza, 22 Charles, Frankie (Operator), 26, 112–22 Chase, Truddi, 14 Chief, the (Niles Caulder). See Caulder, Niles (Doom Patrol) Chion, Michel, 141–43, 147, 149, 153 Chute, Hillary, 222, 223 Cine-Eye, film, 155n11 cinema, 141–53 silent, 142–43 intertitles, 141–44, 147, 149, 155n11 See also captions, closed cinephilia, 144, 152 Clare, Eli, 119 Clark, Laurence, 210, 211 Claw, the, 6, 218, 219 Clinton, Bill, 182 Clinton Global Initiative, 175, 182 Cocca, Carolyn, 98–99, 140n17 Cohen, Ted, 212 Cole, Jack, 7, 217, 218–19 Cole, Katherine Runswick, 190 Collins, Patricia Hill, 116 Columbia Comics (publisher), 6 Comet, the, 218 Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle (vol. 1, 2015), 98, 110n9 Coogan, Peter, 61, 175–76, 179 costume, 6, 47, 52, 73, 101–2 and black superheroes, 118 design changes, 8, 31n25, 135–36 Hawkeye, 132, 135–36, 169 and identity, 59–62, 66, 69, 176, 200 See also masks Coughlan, David, 51–52, 57n64 Couser, G. Thomas, 190 Crable, Bryan, 181 Crazy Jane (Kay Challis/Jane Morris, Sun Daddy, et. al), 14–16, 20–21 crip time, 19–20, 33n65, 158, 163–65 Crowther, Bosley, 145 Cyborg (Victor Stone), 30n4, 95, 99, 107, 113, 119 “Cyborg Manifesto” (Donna Haraway), 100–101, 188

Index cyborgs, 100–101, 188, 196–201, 95–108 Cystic Fibrosis, 205–15, 216n7 Dada, 16 Dadd, Richard, 16 Dale, Kim, 95–96 Dalrymple, Farel, 25, 35, 42–53 Dandy, John (Doom Patrol villain), 14 Danny the Street (Doom Patrol), 14, 21, 32n50 Daredevil (Bart Hill), 6–8, 11, 13, 218, 219 Daredevil (Matt Murdock), 9, 107, 166, 169, 210, 221 disability and civilian identity, 9, 95, 96 and Echo (Maya Lopez), 25, 79–93 origin, 177 as supercrip, 119 Daredevil (vol. 2, 1998–2009), 79–93 Davis, Blair, 118 Davis, Lennard, 23, 198 Deaf gain, 160–61 deafness and Echo (Maya Lopez), 25, 65, 79–93 in El Deafo (Cece Bell), 157–70 and Hawkeye (Clint Barton), 31n28, 128, 135–36, 141–53, 157–70 See also Deaf gain; hearing aids; SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard-ofhearing); and under accessibility Deathlok, 101 Defenders (vol. 1, 1972–86), 56n30, 56n33 Detective Comics (vol. 1, 1937–2011), 8, 95 Devarajan, Sharad, 174, 175 dialectic, 176–83 Dick, Kirby (Sick), 207 Dick Tracy, 3 disability acquired, 182, 196 and animality metaphors, 192–93 and children, 182, 209 and community, 157–70 medical model of, 64 and overcoming, 11, 98, 106, 113, 119, 147, 221 and sexuality, 97–98, 113–22 social definition of, 64, 159–60, 198, 222 disability gain, 160–61 disability hierarchy, 64, 77n18 Disability Studies Institute, 182 disablemes, 97 dismodernism, 198, 200, 221 Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), 14, 25, 59–66, 74–75, 76n2

doctors, 14, 45, 102, 162–63 and mental health, 63–70 “villainous doctor” trope, 67–68 Dolmage, Jay, 158, 162 Doom Patrol, 8, 12–21, 22, 24, 219 Doom Patrol (vol. 1, 1964–68), 9, 12, 32n45, 32n59, 219 Doom Patrol (vol. 2, 1987–95), 12–21, 24, 32n59, 219 Douglas, Mary, 220 Dowd, Siobhan, 37–38 Drake, Arnold, 12–13 Drew, Jessica (Spider-Woman), 136, 137, 140n18 Drew, Richard, 129 Dr. Mid-Nite, 99 dual identity, 16, 61 See also costume; masks; secret identity Durr, Patricia, 143 Dwyer, Tessa, 144–46 Echo (Maya Lopez), 25, 65, 79–93 Eco, Umberto, 8 Eggleston, Robin, 213 Eisenstein, Sergei (Strike!), 155n11 Eisner Award, 21 Eisner, Will, 156n32, 217 Elasti-Girl (Rita Farr), 16–17, 20, 22 El Deafo (Cece Bell), 26, 187–201 Elektra (Elektra Natchios), 25 Eliopoulos, Chris, 139n5, 148–49, 153, 170n1 Ellis, Warren, 60–64, 66 Epileptic. See B., David Erevelles, Nirmala, 11 eskrima, 97 Etter, Lukas, 81 eugenics, 3, 5–6, 14, 31n18, 161, 219–20 Evanier, Mark, 9 Face, the (Tony Trent), 6 Falk, Lee, 3 fan communities, 26, 34n96, 157–58, 168–69, 220 Fawaz, Ramzi, 30n4, 34n88, 223 Felon, Betty, 123n8 Ferrando, Francesca, 189 Fighting American, 221 film. See cinema Fine, Lou, 217–18 Finger, Bill, 6 Fisk, Wilson (Kingpin), 84–88, 90 Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, documentary, 107




Flame, the, 218 Flanagan, Bob, 207–9, 211, 214 Fletcher, Brenden, 112, 123n8 Flynn, Errol, 5 focalization, 45, 61–62, 71, 74, 203n29 Fog, the (Byron Shelley), 14 Fox News, 182 Fraction, Matt, 26, 148, 153, 158–59 See also Hawkeye (vol. 4, 2012–15) Francavilla, Francesco, 69, 74, 139n5, 170n1 Francis, Consuela, 120 Frank, Arthur, 211 Free Comic Book Day, 182 Freud, Sigmund, 23–24 Fu Manchu, 218 Gargoyle, the (Yuri Topolov), 31n18 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, 23–24, 34n84, 97, 115, 161, 182 Gavaler, Chris, 219 gender, 8, 14, 140n17, 161, 217–20 binarism, 188 Charles, Frankie, 111–22 cisgender, 161 Gordon, Barbara (Oracle), 95–108 transgender, 14 See also intersectionality; masculinity Gerber, Steve, 35, 38–39, 42, 44, 47–49, 56n32 writing Defenders, 56n30 reaction to second Omega series, 57n52 Gibbons, Dave: Watchmen, 63 Gibson, Walter, 6 Gill, Carol, 19 Golden Age, 2–8, 11, 13, 30n8, 217–19 Goodley, Dan, 190 Gordon, Barbara, 25, 30 Batgirl, 95, 98–99, 109n2 New 52 Batgirl, 26, 96, 111–22, 118 Oracle, 1, 25, 30n4, 95–108, 111–21, 168–69 Gordon, Jim, 95 Gotham Academy (vol. 1, 2014–16), 123n8 Gothic fiction, 51 Gould, Chester, 3 Grant, Steven, 60 See also Moon Knight (Marc Spector et al.) graphic medicine, 24–25 Graphic Medicine Manifesto, 24–25 Gray, Jonathan, 30n4, 119 Grayson, Dick (Nightwing), 98, 102

Green Arrow (Oliver Queen), 100 Grimm, Ben. See Thing, the (Ben Grimm) Grusin, Richard, 152–53 Guardian, 191 Gulf News, 182 Gustavson, Paul, 5 gutter (constituent comics device), 39, 72 Haddon, Mark, 37 Halberstam, Jack, 19 Hamm, Jessie, 139n5, 170n1 Haraway, Donna cyborgs, 100–101, 119, 188 Harley Quinn (Harleen Frances Quinzel), 68 Hatcher, Molly, 111–12 Hatfield, Charles, 9 Hawkeye (Clint Barton), 31n28, 79, 125–70 Hawkeye (Kate Bishop), 130–33, 137–38, 158, 162, 168–69 Hawkeye (vol. 4, 2012–15), 26, 125–70 Hayler, Matt, 198 Hayles, Katherine N., 188–89 hearing aids, 128, 137, 143, 157, 169, 187–201 Herbrechter, Stefan, 189 Hofstadter, Douglas, 13 Hollingsworth, Matt, 170n1 Hornschemeier, Paul, 43 Hughes, James, 107 Hugo Awards, 21 Hulk, Incredible (Bruce Banner), 9, 31n18, 55n25, 119, 159 humanism, 187–90, 193–96, 198, 200 humor, 14, 31n17, 39, 155n19, 165, 195 as a mode of critique, 27, 207–14 Huntress (Helena Bertinelli), 96, 100, 101 hypermediacy, 146, 152–53 Iceman (Bobby Drake), 24 Indian Sign Language, 80, 82, 87, 89, 92 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 42 intersectionality, 24–25, 113, 131, 174, 181, 188–89, 220 intertitles. See under cinema Iron Man (Tony Stark), 56n25, 169, 191, 221 Isanove, Richard, 82, 87 Island, Titus Alexander, 42–43, 47–53 See also Omega the Unknown (vol. 2, 2007–8) Jeffrey, Scott, 203n51 Jenkins, Henry, 140n21 Jericho (Joseph William Wilson), 31n31

Index Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Chris Ware), 43 Joker, the, 3, 97, 102, 192 in Killing Joke, 109n1, 111–12, 120 Johnson, Harriet McBryde, 19 Joseph, Michael, 222–23 Junod, Tom, 129 Kafer, Alison, 19, 22, 163–65 Kakoudaki, Despina, 101 Kane, Bob, 6 Kanner, Leo, 37 Karasik, Judy, 38 Karasik, Paul, 38 Keller, Helen, 177 Kent, Clark, 177, 221 See also Superman (Clark Kent/Kal-El) Kesel, Barbara, 95, 109n1 Khonshu (Moon Knight), 60–75 Killen, Andreas, 5 Killing Joke. See under Moore, Alan Kingpin, the. See Fisk, Wilson (Kingpin) Kirby, Jack, 9–12, 32n28, 217, 218, 221 Knight, Misty, 95, 107 La Rue, Danny, 32n50 Lamb, James, 220 landmines, 178 Lawthom, Rebecca, 190 Lemire, Jeff, 60–61, 63, 68–76 Lethem, Jonathan, 25, 35, 39, 42–45, 49–52 letter pages, 12, 34n96, 157–58, 168 Lev Gleason Publications, 6 Levon, Erez, 174 Lieber, Steve, 139n5, 170n1 Liew, Sonny, 219 Lightray, 9 Linton, Simi, 98 Liquid Comics, 26, 174–75, 182–83 Lockley, Jake. See Moon Knight (Marc Spector et al.) Lord, Cynthia, 37 Lugea, Jane, 143, 145 Luthor, Lex, 108 Mack, David, 25, 79–93 Maleev, Alex, 60–61, 65, 67, 70 manga, 148 Marchetto, Marisa Acocella (Cancer Vixen), 175 Marvel Mystery Comics, 4 Marz, Ron, 174 masculinity, 26, 125–38, 139n4, 220–21

masks, 70, 72, 73, 88, 105 as costume convention, 6, 66, 92 and identity, 60–63 and Hawkeye, 132, 135 Maus (Art Spiegelman), 43, 175, 182 McCloud, Scott, 163, 222 McIntyre, Dan, 143, 145 McRuer, Robert, 114–15, 128 memoir, 27, 38, 175, 187–201 disability memoir, 32n55, 190 mental health hierarchy, 65, 68 me¯tis, 158, 162 Metron, 9 Middle East, 26, 177–82 Milestone Comics, 219 Mink, the (Rex Kansur), 44–47, 50, 52, 57n64, 58n36 See also Omega the Unknown (vol. 2, 2007–8) Mister Terrific (Michael Holt), 191 Mitchell, David T., 6, 8, 12, 30n1, 97, 119–20 Moench, Doug, 59, 62, 77n3 Montague-Reyes, Karen, 38 Moon Knight (Marc Spector et al.), 25, 59–76 Moon Knight (vol. 6, 2011–12), 60–61, 63–65, 67 Moon Knight (vol. 7, 2014–15), 60–64, 66–67 Moon Knight (vol. 8, 2016–17), 60–61, 63, 68, 71 Mooney, Jim, 35, 38, 42, 47, 56n30 Moore, Alan Killing Joke, 109n1, 109n2, 111–12, 120 Watchmen, 43, 63 Morrison, Grant, 12–21, 24, 27, 32n50, 32n59, 123n8 motion comics, 155n22 Mr. Nobody (Doom Patrol villain), 14 Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers), 22 Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), 21–22, 219 Ms. Marvel (vol. 3, 2014–15), 21–23, 219 MTV, 146, 175, 182 Murdock, Matt. See Daredevil (Matt Murdock) Murphy, Robert, 23–24 Murray, Joseph J., 160 Murray, Stuart, 37, 42, 51–52, 57n54, 58n84, 128 music, 142–43, 147, 155n19 mutism, 6–8, 44, 47, 52 narrative prosthesis, 6, 8, 11–12, 60, 97, 100, 221 National (publisher), 6




National Public Radio, 182 National Society for Autistic Children (NSAC), 42 Native American, 25, 79–93 See also Indian Sign Language Nayar, Pramod K., 190–93 Negative Man (Larry Trainor), 14, 16–17 See also Rebis neoliberalism, 50–51, 53 See also capitalism neurodiversity, 16, 35, 38, 42–44, 50, 53 New Genesis, 105 New Gods (vol. 1, 1971–72), 9, 32n33, 32n37, 32n39, 32n43 Nielsen, Kim, 3 Night Watch, film, 145 Nightwing. See Grayson, Dick (Nightwing) 9/11 (September 11, 2001), 21, 26, 128–29, 132–33, 135, 138 Niven, David, 5 Norden, Martin, 23 normate, 23, 221 Nowhere Man, 53 See also Omega the Unknown (vol. 2, 2007–8) Nowicke, Clint, 157, 168

Perlin, Don, 59 Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi), 175 Phantom, the, 3 Phantom Zone, the, 53 photography, 112, 129, 146 Picasso, Pablo, 88 Plastic Man, 31n24, 218 poster child, 213, 219 posthumanism, 187–201 Poole, Eleanor, 14 See also Rebis Powell, J. J. W., 160 Premiani, Bruno, 12–13 Price, Margaret, 19 Professor X (Charles Xavier), 30n7, 210 prosthetics, 47, 100–1, 137–38, 203n44 See also cyborgs; hearing aids psychiatry, 63, 67–68 Pulido, Javier, 139n2, 139n5, 170n1 queerness, 219, 220, 223 See also under sexuality Quesada, Joe, 25, 81–88, 90 Quiz, the (Doom Patrol villain), 13, 16

race, 8–13, 21–22, 24–25, 113–22, 219–20 See also intersectionality racism, 3, 218–19 OMAC (Buddy Blank), 32n38, 221 Rain Man, film, 40, 43, 58 Omega, 38–53 Raymond, Alex, 3 Omega the Unknown (vol. 1, 1976–77), 25, Rebis, 14 35, 38–43, 49, 52 See also Negative Man; Poole, Eleanor Omega the Unknown (vol. 2, 2007–8), 25, 35, Red Skull, the, 3 42, 45, 51–52 “refrigerator mother,” 37–38, 42, 51 Open Hands Initiative, 26, 174–75, 182 retcons, 67, 71, 96, 111, 121, 168–69 Operator. See Charles, Frankie (Operator) Reynolds, Richard, 126 Oracle. See under Gordon, Barbara Robotman (Cliff Steele), 13–14, 17–21 origin stories, 16–17, 47, 66–67, 81–82, 176, Ronin (Clint Barton), 130–31 221 Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), 63 Charles, Frankie (Operator), 111–22 See also Watchmen Silver Scorpion, 177–81 Royle, Nicholas, 24, 33n80 and trauma, 6–7, 79 Ostrander, John, 95–96 Samuels, Ellen, 19 Overthinker, the, 49–50 Satrapi, Marjane (Persepolis), 175 See also Omega the Unknown (vol. 2, Savant (Brian Durlin), 100 2007–8) savantism, 37, 40, 42, 43, 57n54 See also autism Paralympics, 210 Sawyer, Maggie, 116 paralysis, 10–12, 17, 20 Scarecrow, the (Jonathan Crane), 68 paraplegia, 20, 97, 99, 106, 108 See also Batman Parker, Peter. See Spider-Man (Peter Parker) schizophrenia, 16, 36, 55n3, 56n25, 65 passing, 1, 17, 22, 33n73 Schwarzenegger, Arnold, 208 Pedler, Martyn, 147, 156n32 Scott, Darieck, 223 Penguin, the, 192 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, film, 147–48 Pep Comics, 218

Index SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard-ofhearing), 145, 152, 155n19 See also captions, closed Seaguy (vol. 1, 2004), 123n8 Second Life, game, 106 secret identity, 1, 61–63, 66, 75, 84, 176 See also costumes; dual identity; masks Self, David, 82 Sentry, the (Rob Reynolds), 56n25 Serlin, David, 115, 139n4 sexuality, 8, 101, 123n8, 181, 208–9, 223 and disability, 97–98, 113–22 queerness, 26, 113–22 and race, 116–18 See also intersectionality; masculinity; queerness Shadow, the, 6 Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew), 219 Shalvey, Declan, 60–64, 66 Shapin, Steven, 51 Shuri, 116 Sick, documentary, 207 Siebers, Tobin, 100–1, 106, 161 Sienkiewicz, Bill, 59 sign language. See American Sign Language (ASL); Australian Sign Language (Auslan); Indian Sign Language Silberman, Steve, 52 Silver Age, 8, 31n18, 199 Silver Scorpion (Bashir), 26, 173–83 Silver Streak Comics, 6, 8, 218 Simon, Joe, 217, 218 Simone, Gail, 96–108, 112 Singer, Marc, 13, 17, 20, 220 Singh, Mukesh, 174 Skrenes, Mary, 35, 38, 42, 44, 47, 49 See also Omega the Unknown (vol. 1, 1976–77) Sleepwalk (Holly McKenzie), 13 Small, David (Stitches), 175 Smallwood, Greg, 60–61, 63, 67–68, 70–74 Smash Comics, 219 Smith, Scott, 218, 223 Snyder, Sharon, 6, 8, 12, 30n1, 97 sound in comics, 146–48 See also acoustigrams; manga; music; speech balloons Spector, Marc. See Moon Knight (Marc Spector et al.) speech balloons, 45, 141–42, 147–53, 155n32, 156n32 blank, 163, 168–69

pictographs in, 90, 162 speechless, 7, 31n23 Spider, the, 6 Spider-Man (Peter Parker), 62, 65, 169, 176, 191 Spiegelman, Art, 218 Maus, 43, 175, 192 Squier, Susan, 38 staring, 115 (R. Garland-Thomson) Stark, Tony. See Iron Man (Tony Stark) Starling, James Michael, 38–40, 49 See also Omega the Unknown (vols. 1 and 2) Steeger, Harry, 6 Stewart, Cameron, 112, 120, 123n8 Stitches. See Small, David Stokoe, James, 74 Stone, Victor. See Cyborg (Victor Stone) Stork, Francisco, 38 Strike!, film, 155n11 subtitles, 80, 143–46, 148 See also captions, closed; SDH Suicide Squad (vol. 1, 1987–92), 95, 105 supe time, 19 supercrip, 1, 113, 177, 199, 205–15 Barbara Gordon (Oracle), 96–100, 106 Hawkeye (Clint Barton), 138, 166 stereotype, 119, 138 as trope, 1, 121 Superman (Clark Kent/Kal-El), 16, 99, 107, 169, 177 Golden Age, 2–3, 217, 219 identity, 14, 118, 221 Švankmajer, Jan, 13 Syria, 174–83 Sybil (Shirley Ardell Mason), 77n3 See also Dissociative Identity Disorder Talbot, Bryan (Tale of One Bad Rat), 175 Tan, Shaun (Arrival), 149 Tarr, Babs, 112, 116–21, 123n8 Taylor, Sunaura, 193–94 technology, 26, 65, 148, 198 and accessibility, 152–53 and Charles, Frankie (Operator), 116–22 and Gordon, Barbara (Oracle), 95–107 nanotechnology, 17, 45 See also assistive devices; cyborgs; hearing aids; wheelchairs Tempest (Joshua Clay), 17 Terrigen Mists, 21 Thanagar, 105 Thing, the (Ben Grimm), 9, 31n18 Thor, the Mighty, 96–97, 110n3, 135




thought balloons, 7–8, 31n22, 31n23, 85, 196, 200 Time Comics (publisher), 4 Tobe, Keiko, 38 Torres, Wilfred, 74 Tremain, Shelley, 159 Tunney, Andrew, 210 Two-Face, 192 Ultra-Humanite, 2 uncanny, the (das Unheimliche), 23–24, 33n80 Uncanny X-Men (vol. 1, 1963–2011), 24, 34n88 UNICEF, 182 USA Today, 182 Van Gogh, Vincent, 88 Velvet Tiger, 117–18 Vertov, Dziga (Cine-Eye), 155n11 vigilantism, 6, 84, 99, 100, 200 See also Moon Knight (March Spector et al.) villain’s rant (trope), 17 Vixen, 116, 118 Wacker, Stephen, 21, 157 Warner, Marina, 146–47 Watcher (Uatu), 49 Watchmen. See under Alan Moore

Werewolf by Night (vol. 1, 1972–77), 59 wheelchairs, 2, 52, 198 accessibility, 98 Caulder, Niles (Doom Patrol), 12, 16–17, 20, 33n73 Gordon, Barbara (Oracle), 1, 103–6, 111–14, 168 in Hawkeye (vol. 4, 2012–15), 128, 130, 135–38, 160–65 Silver Scorpion, 177–81 Wilson, G. Willow, 21, 219 Wolverine (Logan), 24, 65, 90–92, 148 Wonder Woman, 169 Wonderland Comics, 218 Wood, Brian, 67, 70, 72 Wood, Denise, 106 Wright, Edgar (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), 147 Wu, Annie, 139n5, 140n17, 170n1 X-Factor, TV series, 212 Xavier, Charles (Professor X), 30n7, 210 X-Men, 9, 24, 32n45, 34n88, 119 Yang, Gene Luen, 219 Yeats, William Butler, 16 Youth Ability Summit (2010), 174, 175, 177, 178, 182–83 Zola, Irving, 19