Disabilities in Comics and Graphic Novels: Heroes & Victims

When it comes to having a disability, in the landscape of comic books and graphic novels, there’s often one of two stereotypes: Either the disability spurned the hero on...

When it comes to having a disability, in the landscape of comic books and graphic novels, there’s often one of two stereotypes: Either the disability spurned the hero on to “overcome” a challenge or they’re the villain because apparently some creators think disabilities are akin to character flaws. There’s no doubt that medical devices are used to portray “creepiness” or an apocalyptic rendering in a number of dystopian imaginings. However, whether the disabled character is a hero or a villain, there are still stereotypes at play that need to be addressed.

A closer look at “props”

Take the comic “Tick” as a prime example. The character Sewer Urchin features spikes that give off a horrendous stench but also let him stick to just about any surface. His defenses are soap bars, butter shooters and other accoutrements that help hide his smell. He uses an oxygen tank and mask to breathe in even the grossest of sludge. Some liken this character to a parody of Rain Man, and obviously he’s not much of a role model of a character.

However, he’s also not much of a villain and there’s a long history of villains sporting physical disabilities as a means of suggesting depravity. Even in old tales, pirates were missing legs and hands, and more recent renderings suggest villains became villains because their disability steeped them in resentment. Dr. Roper in Wild Wild West has dwarfism, and his disability is used time and again to drive the plot of him seeking revenge for his stature.

Going mental

However, mental illnesses as a disability are also very prevalent in villains, and not always in a way that makes sense (such as being a psychopath). According to the watchdog group Media and Disability, “some disabilities receive particularly poor representation. Mental illness has all too frequently (and disproportionately) been linked in programs with violent crime, even though there is no evidence to support this mis-portrayal.” Just take a look at Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who was described as schizophrenic (which isn’t inherently linked to violence).

In fact, those with a mental disability are much likelier to be victims of violence than the actual perpetrators. This has been showcased in studies focusing on violence in video games and the real life impact. One of Newham University Hospital’s resident psychiatrists, Dr. Peter Byrne, says “Mental health stereotypes have not changed in over a century of cinema,” and they’re not always in dramas.  “If anything, the comedy is crueler,” he notes but there’s also plenty of negative representation in comic books and film adaptations.

Hero “worship”

On the flip side, sometimes disabilities are used as an obstacle to overcome in order for the hero to prove worthiness. This is called “supercrip”, and this tactic is used to show that even in worst case scenarios, a golden heart and perseverance can help a character achieve great success. Take a look at Oracle, Silhouette or Daredevil for examples, and there are plenty of these supercrips in video games. When a disability lends its way to superhuman powers, though, it’s not any better than using a disability to define a villain.

There are many issues with the stereotypes of supercrips, such as the fact that heroes can overcome their disability while “normal people” simply have to live with it. It also features disabilities as an obstacle, while also catering to the audience. Suddenly, viewers may feel better about the disability and not help them see their role in accommodating them (the whole “try harder” issue). Finally, those heroes are often portrayed by actors who aren’t disabled, which is an entirely new can of worms.


Anna is a freelance writer and researcher from the Olympia, WA area who loves to obsess about weird topics and then write about them. When she isn't writing, she is outside on her bike and contemplating her eventual trip to graduate school.
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