In superhero comics, there’s a constant push-and-pull between the cutting-edge and the dated. New universes are created, grow long in the tooth, and then get wiped out of existence when the company in question wants to begin a new era. This immediate churn has, for decades now, created a paradox: that while superhero comic books will often be among the first mediums to pursue a given type of racial, sexual, or body diversity, the early attempts to represent these minorities will often be painful to witness. Decades before complex, inwardly-motivated female characters like DC’s Batwoman or Marvel’s Carol Danvers gained prominence, thousands of carbon-copied doting girlfriends were too busy ironing and being stuffed in refrigerators to become the centers of the narratives they were a part of. Before Black Panther got to rule a nation, Ebony White had to put in time as the ineffectual, caricatured black sidekick to white hero The Spirit. Because of the speed with which superhero comics, a medium pioneered by persecuted Jewish men, adopt diversity, comic books have a tendency to further shorthand stereotypes for decades before creating legitimate minority icons by moving past them. But the last few years of mainstream comics have sent a clear message to the physically-disabled community in particular: “unless we can tell stories where disabled people want to be healed, we’re not interested in focusing on them at all.”
It’s hard to pinpoint where a community sits in this process while they’re still in its midst. For characters with physical disabilities, ones who look like me, the forecast has been particularly murky. To see why, one only needs to glance back at 1941, when Captain Marvel Jr., a teenager whose legs were injured in a boating accident, became an able-bodied superhero every time he said a magic word. Professor X, the only truly-disabled comic book character to feature heavily in film, has been healed and re-injured so many times since the beginning of Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men that it’s almost a relief he’s currently dead. And if you need a more modern example, consider that DC Comics’ current Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, is now walking after over twenty years’ worth of stories where she starred as the fearless computer hacker Oracle, who used a wheelchair due to paralysis. While DC attempted to rectify this by subsequently publishing two team books which each had a disabled character, both were cancelled and forgotten quickly, with no apparent plans to bring the characters back in another book. Indeed, as of the cancellation of The Movement in 2014, there were no books at DC, Marvel, or Image with a physically-disabled lead character, nor do any writers or artists working on these comics identify themselves as physically disabled*. This number is, by the way, down from when I started reading comics five years ago, even as people of color, women and white queer people all see small but significant steps forward in representation for their communities. By no means am I saying that representation of other minorities in comics isn’t abysmal, both on and behind the page, but it must be said that if a minority group in question has even one member writing, drawing, or starring in a comic, they’re already doing much better than our community. There is much work to do in all areas of minority representation, but in this case, even the barest of groundwork has not been adequately laid.
(The oft-cited exception to this is Marvel’s Daredevil, which features a lawyer-cum-superhero who is blind; but his super-powered radar sense, by the comic’s own admission, gives him a way to “see”, literally negating his identity before he can be considered a hero. As glad as I am that irradiated disabled super-ninjas finally have a voice in comics, that’s fairly far from the group in question.)
This drought of stories about and/or by the disabled community was one of the many reasons I was excited beyond belief for David F. Walker and Ivan Reis’ Cyborg #1, released last week from DC Comics. After waiting over three years to give Black hero Cyborg his own book to go along with a promotion to the Justice League, DC had picked Walker, the subversive and unflinchingly political writer of Dynamite’s Shaft, to write the character’s first solo series. As a further vote of confidence, A-list artist Ivan Reis was tapped to draw the book. This series was going to be bold and big, something that Walker reinforced in impressive promotional interviews.
I was of two minds when I read the highlighted quote above on Wired. On one hand, having grown up without questioning the Cyborg of Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans, who was consistently portrayed as comic relief, I was dumbfounded that I’d never thought of Vic as a person with his own valid outlook on life, let alone a disabled character with prosthetics. Always having to deliver a joke forced Cyborg to conform to some outdated stereotypes as a Black man and never seriously explore his identity as a disabled one. It was a fantastic sign to see Walker imbuing him with the kind of dignity that can only sprout from being the sole focus of a comic. But unfortunately, Walker also played directly into a fundamental misunderstanding that able-bodied people often have about my community: that our wheelchairs, crutches, guide dogs, adult diapers, and in this case prosthetics, are our disabilities. They are not. What they are is assistive technology – any item that helps a person with a disability do more than they otherwise could.
Assistive technology is often seen by able-bodied people as imprisoning, as the disability itself, rather than a fundamentally good thing that allows us to excel. This is where we get problematic phrasing like “confined to a wheelchair” instead of “uses a wheelchair” or “forced to use a prosthetic” rather than simply “uses a prosthetic.” While there are doubtless a few disabled people who at first resent their assistive technology, this resentment is far from universal, and is usually rapidly traded for a thankfulness that the item allows the person to do what they want. In other words, disabled people may be frustrated with their spines or brains, but seldom are they mad at their equipment – that’s the equivalent of a woman in a burning building being mad that fire trucks have arrived.
This is not merely an argument about semantics – it communicates an essential misunderstanding about how most disabled people view themselves. This misunderstanding crops up in each one of the problematic characters with disabilities mentioned earlier – that abandoning the very items that liberate them somehow makes these people more whole, happy, or heroic, and is something that people with disabilities aspire to do. This is fueled by the “medical model” of disability, which says that disabled people must be “healed” or minimize their disability in order to prosper – laying the blame and solution for inaccessibility at the feet of the disabled person and their health, focusing on curing each person rather than bettering society as a whole by making it more accessible for all bodies and minds. Much like the medical models of homosexuality or transgender identity, the medical model of disability often causes disabled people self-hatred and helps to seed prejudice in the world at large. When people’s bodies and minds are put on trial before the organization of their society is, those people must choose between abandoning their identities to seek even a tiny amount of freedom or staying true to themselves while remaining in squalor.
In 1975, disability rights groups in the UK coined the phrase that has formed the backbone of most disability advocacy since then, up to and including the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (which celebrated its 25th anniversary this month): the social model of disability. The social model stands in opposition to the medical model. In simple terms, it says that we all come into the world with thousands of impairments: maybe you, for instance, don’t know how to speak or read Chinese, something you’ve probably never had to think about before. Assuming that you live in an English-speaking country, your entire society, from its street signs to its restaurant menus and job interviews, does not punish you for not knowing Chinese. If you were to be dropped in mainland China, however, suddenly your impairment would prevent you from getting a job, socializing, or ordering food. It has become, because of the choices of the society around it, a disability. Likewise, if a comic-book supervillain took over the world and lowered every building by a few feet, Lebron James would be considered disabled. The social model is, has been, and will continue to be crucial to my community: instead of putting the impetus for a just world on us, asking us to justify, contort, resent and “overcome” our own bodies, it puts the pressure on able-bodied society to accommodate itself to us. Every physically-disabled character in comics up to this point, however, lives within the medical model, due in no small part to the exclusive involvement of able-bodied creators.
For all of its bluster about futurism, the central scene of Cyborg #1 adheres directly to this pattern. Victor witnesses a protest at S.T.A.R. Labs, where his father works and where he got his prosthetics. There, he is confronted by one of the protesters, the only other disabled person with a speaking role in the comic.. We learn that this man is dissatisfied with his current prosthetic, can’t tie his shoes, is missing an eye, and resents Cyborg for having better prosthetics. The protester depicted in this comic simply no longer has an equivalent in the real world; instead of yelling at a random stranger for having nicer parts than he does, he would be protesting his local bus line for not providing disability transport, or trying to make his workplace or community college comply with accessibility laws. He would be trying to get occupational therapy services to make tying his shoe easier. But making those plotting calls requires giving a disabled side-character a degree of complexity that Walker doesn’t need to give when this man exists only to lecture Cyborg. In the process, Walker adds even more scrap metal to a pile of artificial, mopey stories written about my people, ones that seem to grasp that we sometimes suffer needlessly, but have no interest in why we suffer or what we do when we are not suffering, and are more than happy to use that suffering to add depth to other characters rather than to our own.
Apart from the writing, it’s important to take a minute to discuss how Reis’ page layout itself compounds the ableism of the scene. Western comic panels follow the eye from left to right, so conventional wisdom says that shocking information – a severed head, for example– should be placed in the first or last panel of a row for maximum impact, Said shocking information can also be emphasized via drastic changes in angle or background color from previous panels. All three techniques are used here – the man’s prosthetic arm is revealed at a jarring angle in the last panel of row two, highlighted by an orange burst, and his missing eye begins rows three. Why these “reveals” are shocking at all, given that many of the protestors are disabled, is unclear, but using visual tricks to make disability seem like it’s unnatural or revolting instead of a normal part of the lives of millions is a staple of American horror stories that is repeated to eye-rolling effect here.
It’s a shame, too, because the character of Cyborg himself does express a lot of my own truth in this comic when he breaks from the black hole of clichéd storytelling that is that scene. He wrestles, at the comic’s beginning, with his perception of his father, who on the one hand does spend a lot of time with him, but on the other hand tends to view his son as a project. The various lab professionals that swarm around Cyborg are too busy fawning and fussing over his technical specifications to realize that a person with feelings is attached to the machine. But Cyborg has such a limited emotional range in the narrative that even though the anger itself rings true, the fact that only the anger gets expressed makes me just shake my head and write the whole thing off–, even more so if I let myself imagine the issues of angst to come as he feels needless and unrealistic guilt over the protesting caricature. It’s like Walker, in the character of Victor, managed to perfectly capture one color of a rainbow, but then magnified that color so intensely that it blocked out all others and caused only exasperation. Maybe the intent was to use the protester to bring out another side of Victor, but having only one other disabled character and having that character be such an outdated distortion dilutes both characters rather than illuminating them.
In a world where Cyborg #1 was one of many comics starring people with disabilities, a world where people with disabilities of all kinds and ideologies were written and drawn into comics by the able-bodied and disabled alike, nothing in Cyborg #1 would make me especially angry, nor would I question why there was another story in our world where a disabled person doesn’t smile (or drink, or have sex, or any other form of fun) once. But we certainly don’t get many opportunities to depict our lives in honest ways. I like the machinery David Walker appears to be building; but with these priorities, I can see the obvious glitches that rob anyone in Cyborg #1 of having a rich interior life. This is a comic that spans both a fictional world and the one outside of our window, but is too enamored in the easy drama of the former and ignorant in the history of the latter to find anything worthwhile in their intersection.
Justin Martin is a queer writer/troublemaker/comedian who abandoned a life of peace for the living death of existence within a bio-mechanical cyborg form (i.e. he uses a wheelchair). You can see some of his public speaking on the subject of assistive technology here and you can follow him on Twitter @jmartinwrites