Disability and Entertainment: comic books and disability
Hayleigh Barclay is delighted to join in with Disability Horizons to offer a monthly article on entertainment. Hayleigh has a Masters in Creative Media Practises and is currently undertaking a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she’s going to use her expertise to open up the world of entertainment to Disability Horizon’s readers. This month, comic books and disabled characters.
Last week I was having a conversation with “The Comic Book Aficionado” and he shared with me some exciting news – DC Comics are introducing a character with Muscular Dystrophy who is set to become the new Oracle. If like me, you are not particularly attuned to the discourse that is Gotham City then this will mean nothing to you. My dealings with the world of Batman start and finish with watching George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman et al battle it out for glory and vengeance on screen. This is not to say I do not have a certain appreciation for the characters. After all, I have a set of leather trousers that would suit any Cat Woman and due to her affinity with Mother Nature; I have a bit of a soft spot for Poison Ivy. Perhaps my admiration for the villains will have me ending up in psychoanalysis, there is an origin story in there somewhere!
My lack of knowledge of the subject has led me to conduct some research regarding the new character. Back in the day audiences were introduced to the red headed Barbara Gordon who was destined to become Bat Girl (played by Alicia Silverstone on screen). During an altercation with The Joker she became paralysed from the waist down after being shot in the spine. This is where DC Comics made an artistic decision which would influence and encourage disabled readers worldwide; instead of using her physical abilities to fight crime, her greatest asset would be her intelligence. Yes, the big wigs at DC realised that disabled people, despite a lack of physicality, had something to offer society and could contribute to the community. The idea of super powers had been redefined and with Barbara’s talents for hacking computers and gathering information, the Oracle was born!
By the late 80s the story line for the Oracle was to be reshaped. A cure was found and our Superhero regained the use of her legs – much to the dismay of many readers, and if I’m honest, to myself. Here was a character that had broken out of the confines of the definition of the traditional heroine and been a symbol for disability equality, suddenly being forced to revert back into her old alter ego as Bat Girl. In defence for DC, the narrative for this transition saw the effects of what has been deemed as survivor guilt as part of the characterisation.
However, this was not enough for readers and so the same big wigs as mentioned before have reacted and come up with an innovative solution! As part of planed reboot series called “Convergence”, the Oracle will return in the form of Frankie Charles. As I mentioned before, this new character has Muscular Dystrophy and so is taking the identity of our beloved Superhero back to her purest form. What’s more is that she will possess the same skills as the original! The Oracle has survived!
Now, you may have noticed in a few of my articles that “The Comic Book Aficionado” has had his fair share of mentions… and what a perfect way to get his own back than to have him be interviewed (it was only a matter of time!). For the rest of this piece I will be writing a short conversation that he and I had on the subject above.
HB: Why have you nicknamed me Oracle? Other than I have blonde hair like Alicia Silverstone I don’t see the connection.
Gary: Alicia Silverstone was only Batgirl, never Oracle, and the less mentioned about THAT Joel Schumacher film, the better… I don’t know why I did; I guess it’s to do with your innate, near-encyclopaedic knowledge of certain topics.
HB: I will take that as a compliment! Would you say having a Superhero with a disability redefines who can be classed as a Hero?
Gary: It depends on what you describe as a superhero; there are superheroes, found in comic books and films and TV shows, and there are heroes in the real world, somethings that the comic books do address on a number of occasions.
For instance people like Oracle, Matt Murdock (Daredevil), or Professor X from the X-Men all have their own problems – being paraplegic in the case of Barbara Gordon (Oracle) and Prof X, and being blind in Murdock’s case – but they all become part of their character, and specifically with Oracle and Daredevil, the disabilities where the cause of their abilities.
In the real world, people like Stephen Hawking or FDR, are/were heroic as well. “Inspirational” may be the word that some disabled individuals find condescending, and it’s not in the majority of cases, and people who face seemingly insurmountable odds and don’t get in the way of what to do is inspirational and heroic.
HB: Fair point. As we both know you are able bodied and I have SMA. This has never affected our friendship but there still seems to be a stigma attached to disabled people. Do you think having Superheroes with disabilities shows the world we can contribute to society?
Gary: The superhero genre is something prevalent in entertainment these days, and it gives people, a character and by extension an idea to look up to. Some see superman as a Christ-like figure, who preaches world peace and consideration for your fellow man. Characters like Oracle because she may be paraplegic, but it doesn’t mean she lets that get to her and she is the eyes and ears of nearly every hero in the DC Universe.
HB: That’s interesting… Oracle sounds as though she’s an integral part of DC (judging by your answer). What do you think this says about disabled characters?
Gary: My interpretation of it is that anyone can be a hero, or heroic and can achieve their own personal goals (Barbara Gordon spent her childhood wishing she was a superhero) regardless of any disability that others may perceive as an obstacle.
HB: Obviously you know a bit more about MD than a lot of people after having a rather interesting discussion with me in the middle of Costa. The customers must have been wondering what the hell we were talking about! Do you think the new version of Oracle might be a tool to educate readers about an aspect of life they may not be aware of?
Gary: I don’t know a lot about the Frankie character, but having a character who is born with a disability, rather than gaining one, like in the case of three previously mentioned, is a way of reaching a new fan base, from a sales point of view, but can also bring things like MD to an audience who may not otherwise have the chance to examine and potentially understand it.
HB: Finally, who is your favourite Superhero with a disability (other than me of course!)?
Gary: I’m not sure who my favourite would be; I like the way Marvel deals with Daredevil’s blindness, but the idea that oracle is a product of her disability (that’s not to say other characters aren’t, as we’ve already discussed) but she has become a completely new character due to what happened to her – to find out what caused the disability. It’s a main plot point of The Killing Joke – and in my opinion, became a strong character for it.
By Hayleigh Barclay
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