Monday, August 1, 2011

Marvel Comics and Physical Disabilities

When reading Giant-Size Avengers #1 (2008) recently we were struck by a panel contained in the reprint of Avengers #58 (1968) regarding physical disabilities. The sentiment of this panel's dialogue – one where people with disabilities are treated with respect and dignity – was not completely foreign in the late 60s, but it was less commonplace then as it is now. This was due to the fact that disabled people were much less common then and would often not survive the war or illness that caused their disability in the first place. Consequently they are not available to dispel the ignorance surrounding them.

(From Marvel's Avengers #58, 1968 reprinted in Giant-Size Avengers #1, 2008)

This comic also got us thinking about how disabilities have been represented in Marvel Comics over the years. We would argue that from the earliest days of Marvel, the company has done a good job at working towards the universal acceptance of people with disabilities. This short piece will look at four such disabled Marvel characters and how their disability is such an important party of their personalities and superpowers.*

We begin with an instance where a physical disability offsets massive mental strength: Professor X. Charles Xavier, one of the most prominent Marvel characters, is also a paraplegic. Over the years we have seen him walk, but he is most often in a wheelchair. It has been interesting watching the evolution of his disability too. Looking at the earliest Lee and Kirby X-Men, for example, one sees his lower extremities covered by a blanket when they are seen at all. This may have been an attempt to censor it due to the ‘physical agony’ criteria of the Comic Code Authority, but it was also probably an attempt to hide the disability or portray it as it was commonly seen at the time – hidden. As the comic progressed, however, we see the disability became more normalized and the wheelchair, once that of an infirmed person, became more like an astronaut's or captain’s chair.

(From Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #6, 1964 reprinted in The Original X-Men #12, 1980)

(From Marvel's X-Men #1, 1991)

We would count Ben Grimm aka The Thing as another disabled Marvel character. Unlike Professor X, however, whose physical disability exists to offset power, the Thing’s powers are part of his disability. Ben Grimm has massive physical strength but it has also left him (in his mind) disfigured. And make no mistake -- ‘disfigurement’ is a disability. It has seriously limited Grimm’s ability to function and, as a person living in a world where people are judged by their physical attributes, this severely limits him. Also, Grimm, unlike his Fantastic Four colleagues Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, does not have the ability to revert to his original human form and because if this he doubts the truthfulness of those who romantically love him. It was also a challenge for Reed Richards, the leader of the original space expedition, who feels guilty about causing this state of affairs.

(From Marvel's Fantastic Four #111, 1971)

(From Marvel's Fantastic Four #66, 1967)

Matt Murdock aka Daredevil, is another character whose disability is part of his power. As a young boy, Matt Murdock lived in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York where his father was a boxer. One day, while helping someone, he was blinded by acid that fell of a truck and this acid had a two-pronged effect: robbing him of his sight, but increasing the power of his other four senses. This, along with his natural dexterity, allowed him to become the ‘Man Without Fear’. Yet throughout the comics, Matt Murdock the vision-impared lawyer is seen not just as a brilliant jurist, but also a hero who uses his disability, along with this strength and intelligence, to bring criminals to justice.

(From Marvel's Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1, 1993)

Finally, we look at The Vision and the above mentioned statement by Hank Pym. This is especially poignant because it matches a very interesting event in American history: the Vietnam war. In Avengers #58 we learn that The Vision was a man who had been made mechanical by the villain Ultron. Despite this, he has retained his soul and the essence of his humanity. Dr. Pym's statement and this assertion of his humanity -- while directed at The Vision was not intended for him alone.

And this was due to Vietnam. Wars and the return of soldiers have long created the need for improved limb replacements. This started on a large scale with the American Civil War, one of the first industrial-age wars and with each passing war, prosthetics improved for the returning soldiers. It was the Vietnam War however, with an increased survival rate for vets, new technologies, compounded with improved medicine and increased survival rates for other limb threatening illnesses (such as cancer) led to a growth in the demand of prosthetic limbs. One can only think that Pym is sending a message to every returning vet that he is just as much a man now as he was when he left. Have a look:

(From Marvel's Avengers #58, 1968 reprinted in Giant-Size Avengers #1, 2008)

For this Marvel deserves the thanks of disabled people everywhere. Superpowers have long been held as both a gift and curse in the Marvel Universe and by normalizing physical disabilities, Marvel did its small part to make the world more accepting of them.

(From Marvel's The 'Nam #10, 1987)

* It is not an exhaustive list and please feel free to add to this list in the comment section.

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