Superhero, Heal Thyself: The Popularity of Disabled Heroes in Comics
One can say a lot of things about Mark Millar, and CA's own Chris Sims has covered a lot of it: He's sensationalistic, juvenile, puerile, not as clever as he thinks he is, etc. Even die-hard fans would have a hard time arguing against these or any other labels applied to the Scottish superstar. It's who he is; it's part of his charm. But I can honestly say that despite everything negative that can be said about the writer, almost all of which I'd agree with, I can still call myself a Millar fan. Eat it, Sims. Other people would like to write about Batman, you know.
Despite senior writers and their distaste for him, you have to admit: Millar knows comics. He knows how to write to artists' strengths, he knows how to promote himself, and he knows what sells. But beyond that: he knows comics. He understands the history of the medium, sees trends, and has some insight into the psychology of the reader and symbolism of the form. The little "-" in Kick-Ass, for example, queues up a syllabus of context and association that informs the reader's experience whether s/he knows it.
It's interesting, then, that Millar and Leinil Yu's recently released "Superior" features a disabled superhero. It's a story that's been explored in comics in many different ways. As "Superior" hits the shelves, there's word that none other than Stan Lee is planning to take on the idiom as well. And in the feel good story of the new millennium, a group of American and Syrian children collaborated in creating the Silver Scorpion, a handicapped Muslim superhero who has the power to manipulate metal and defrost your jaded little heart.
One might say it looks like disabled heroes are coming back in vogue. But one would have to ask oneself, "One, when exactly did they go out of vogue?" Good point, one.Quick: Name all the characters you can think of that have a physical impairment. Doctor Midnite. Captain Marvel Jr. Daredevil. Charles Xavier. Niles Caulder of Doom Patrol. Thor in Donald Blake aspect. Barbara Gordon. Misty Knight. Shadowhawk. Keep going. Throw in disabled villains too. And heroes that have been temporarily handicapped – Batman, Moon Knight, The Flash etc – and you've got a very long list.
There's a rich history of disabled (insert your own politically acceptable term as needed) characters throughout comics. And although discussions about how accurately comics represent disability and diversity are worth having, the much more interesting question is WTF, comics? Why so many disabled heroes?
As always, the answers can be found in anthropology. Yeah, anthropology applied to comics discourse. Most professors would be rolling over in their tweed coffins right about now, but so what; they're dead. The application of anthropology to comics is clean, simple, and natural. Superhero comics are the modern myths: They draw from the same well of fears and desires, the same effort to make sense of the world.
The earliest good superhero comics read with the same clumsy inventiveness that makes up myths and story-cycles. Impossible things happen that readers don't question, and knowingly or unknowingly their creators grappled with ideas that seem to resonate deep inside psyche and achieve an iconic quality that lasts. It's entirely possible that a thousand years from now, random strangers will be able to recite the origins of Superman as well as many now could explain Hercules.
So it's no surprise that physical impairment is also very prominent throughout world myths. Quick: Think of as many myths and stories as you can that involve the lame, crippled, or blind. Did a bunch of Bible/Talmud/Koran stories just pop into your head?
The concept of healing is an integral part of the world myth-cycle, and it's explored several different ways in varied cultures. In many stories, the hero is required to heal as a part of his trials. Hercules frees Prometheus from his spot on the rock. In Irish stories, the lonesome prince needs to fetch the healing waters of Tubber Tintye for the Queen of Erin, one of several "healing water" stories in myth. The Sumerians have eight distinct healing deities, each for a different part of the body. Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath, and gives a blind man back his sight. Captain Marvel bestows a portion of his power to crippled Freddie Freeman (Captain Marvel Jr.) with the power of the magic word Shazam, and a super-intelligent space lemur (or something) gives MS-stricken Simon Pooni the power of the Magic Wish, turning him into Superior.
These stories are all running on the same ganglia. Two frequent occupations of the psyche are the fear of being ruined or broken, and the desire to be great, and the classic comic book motif of the wounded hero occurs when these subconscious concerns come together, often as a damaged hero who can heal others, but not himself. In comics, Professor X (most of the time, anyway) is confined to a wheelchair (or hoverchair) and unable to heal himself with any amount of Shi'ar technology, but instead uses his own power to heal the world. When any hero is blind, handicapped, or disabled, but is trying to make the world a better place, it's a continuation of mythic themes. The Jungian archetype of Chiron the Wounded Healer continues to resonate whether we think about it or not.
Quick: Think of an ending.