Thinking about it, it’s strange to me that I’d never given much thought to representation of disabilities in comics before. I’d considered it a lot in film, and even in novels. But, for some reason, I’d never given much thought to disabled heroes in comic books before. I’d followed some of the conversations surrounding the issue, but most of these conversations revolve around superheroes. I love comics, but outside of the movies, I’d always found the Marvel and DC comic book universe overwhelming. I mean, where do you even START?
When I decided to write about comics for Disability in Horror month, I was really excited. As a visual medium, comics have a unique way of expressing so much about a character in a single illustration. Not only that, but there has been a wonderful trend lately in young adult graphic novels that are depicting main characters with disabilities or illness, such as El Deafo by Cece Bell or Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier. I spent an afternoon diving excitedly through my 600 issue collection, seeking inspiration.
Two hours later, I came up awfully short.
What I did encounter were a lot of mixed messages about how people with disabilities and mental illness are perceived and how they feel about their disabilities. I think that one of the more frustrating instances was a character in a wheelchair that readers had come to know well over the course of 6 issues. We knew who that person was, and what their family meant to them. And in the end, they sold out a family member for the opportunity to start their life anew, completely healed. All too often, characters that I encountered were defined by their disability or their illness; rather than coming to terms with it, they were seeking cures, revenge, or providing the inspiration for others to be the heroes.
While this is clearly still an issue in the comic book world, I came across some wonderful, modern, and relatable characters that show that hope is not lost! This is clearly an issue that is getting attention, and these characters prove that disabled characters don’t necessarily have to have superpowers to show the world that they are heroes all on their own. Let’s keep the conversation going and push the trend forward!
Dark Science Fiction: Corrine in Empty Zone (written by Jason Shawn Alexander)
Empty Zone takes place in a post apocalyptic world in which radiation has destroyed much of the earth. The story’s heroine is Corrine, an ex-military badass. She is living her life job by job, brooding over her lost friends and seeing what may or may not be the ghost of her ex-boyfriend.
Corrine is an amputee. While you don’t get the full story on how she lost her arm until later, from the first frame, she has a mechanical replacement. At one point, her prosthetic is destroyed, and instead of replacing it with the shiniest, newest model possible, she replaces it with what is described as a “clunker.” She wears her prosthetic like a badge of honour, and while she is not defined by her injury, she remains adamant that it is part of who she is, and she is respected for it.
Later in the story, we learn a little more about what happened to Corrine, and begin to suspect that more and more of her may have become robotic. However, it doesn’t matter. She remains the human anchor of the story, keeping the bleak future grounded in her care and love for the people around her.
Horrors of the Human Kind: Mark in Postal (written by Matt Hawkins)
Postal is unlike any comic series that you will ever read. It is the story of a unique little town called Eden, where former criminals go to live a quieter life. The catch? Eden has a strict set of rules, enforced by the mayor, wherein any crimes that happen in Eden are severely punished. And when I say severely, I mean severely. If you’re reading this, you’re a horror fan…you get the idea.
Enter Mark, the mayor’s son. Mark is the town’s local mail carrier, and lives a simple, highly routine life. He is loyal, curious and very smart. He also happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome.
What I love about this comic is that through the unique use of inner dialogue throughout character’s conversation, we get an intimate look at what Mark is thinking, and how he feels. He sees how people react to him and he is affected by it, even if he can’t show it. You also solidly empathize with Mark. He does not see himself as a person with Asperger’s. In fact, it isn’t something that factors in to his day to day life until someone makes fun of him, looks at him strangely, or otherwise reminds him that he is “different.” Mark is a regular person – he does not have super powers. However, the small town that he is in underestimates him, and he quickly shows that he is not someone that should be messed with.
While Mark is not a villain, he does make some morally questionable decisions that provide an interesting view to his character. The beauty of this story is that everyone is making morally questionable decisions; they live in a town where everyone has a checkered past, creating a setting in which a disabled character is not seen as tainted or demonized or even set apart from the pack simply by making hard choices.
Witchcraft and the Supernatural: Eve Coffin in Coffin Hill (written by Caitlin Kittredge)
Eve Coffin is the definition of not being defined by a disability. She is a woman working in a male-dominated field (police work). After leaving a “celebration” of her killing a suspect, she heads home to be shot in the face by her roommate’s lowlife boyfriend.
What is interesting here is that Eve’s struggle is not with her resultant injury (her glass eye), but with her past. Eve accepts her injury and early retirement as part of the risk of being a cop. She heads home to confront a high school mistake that resulted in a lot of blood, and confronts herself as a person as well. She is asked repeatedly by her former boyfriend, who is now the chief of police, to leave a new (suspiciously similar) crime scene alone. Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is disabled? No. It’s because she is angry, and angry people get themselves or others hurt in his line of work. He never once sees her as incompetent, and she is never treated as fragile because of her injury. Personally, I loved that the fact that she lost an eye was the drive to get her home and confront her past, but the story IS her past. The story is not her pining over what she has lost, or even about her coming to terms with how her life has changed; it is not even part of her narrative after it happens. It is a story about facing your past in order to move forward, something that everyone can relate to.
What I love about all of these characters is that they show that there is not only one “right way” to represent diversity in heroes. There is clearly still work to do in this field when it comes to representing disability and mental illness. However, these characters demonstrate that there is great opportunity to tell stories with diverse casts that everyone can relate to. I, for one, hope that there are even more to come!
For this and other great pieces on the representation of disability in horror, check out the June issue of Popcorn Horror magazine, available for download now!