The history of superhero comics is at least as strange and subversive as the stories themselves. Golden Age superheroes arrived on the scene in the 1930s-40s rife with all the problematic social underpinnings of their time. White, male, and beyond-able-bodied, heroes like Superman and Captain America (a verifiable human eugenics project) represented everything America aspired to be. Counterculture, social change, and the more nuanced Silver Age of comics brought with them a dramatic shift in many of these perspectives—suddenly, superpowers were tied to other, less traditionally “super” qualities. Characters like Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four even saw his power as a curse, a bodily deformity that marked him as abnormal and monstrous—a stark change from the paragons of virtue mentioned above.
José Alaniz’s recent book, Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond, tackles these themes head-on, drawing on examples from across The Big Two’s publishing history to highlight how changing perceptions of bodies, disability, and death have shaped the characters and franchises that continue to intrigue us today. Exploring issues from the infamous revolving door of death to secret identity plots as passing narratives, DD&S is a fascinating read for old comic fans and newbies (like myself) alike.
Alaniz argues that disability in Silver Age comics is “repressed, obsessed over, even celebrated—sometimes all at once,” acting as a complete disavowal of the previous generation’s model of repression and denial. Like many narratives of social change, comics’ representation of disability tends to be one-step-forward-two-steps-back—introducing a genius, alpha level paraplegic hero (Professor X), while simultaneously de-sexualizing him and presenting him as all but helpless without the aid of his protégés. Professor X, his Doom Patrol counterpart The Chief, Daredevil’s Matt Murdock, and Batman’s Barbara Gordon were all revolutionary in their explicit representation of disabled people in the Marvel and DC universes; however, many of DD&S’ examples are less direct, honing in on the metaphors and tropes that underlie many of our perceptions of disability.
One of my favorite discussions in the book is centered around the Thing—a complex character in his own right—in comparison to She-Thing. Though Alaniz is unable to cover every example available in superhero canon, it is his exploration of disability’s intersection with race, gender, and other social issues that makes DD&S such an ambitious (and provocative) book. In this particular example, Grimm’s struggles to accept his own body make him more complex, more “human” than many of his super-comrades. His constant almost-betrayal of his team, and Frankenstein-like desire for revenge, does unfortunately play into negative stereotypes of the disabled as “narcissists obsessed with their own traumas, unable to relate to others and foisting unreasonable demands on society.” Grimm’s heroism is part and parcel of his ability to overcome just this impulse.
Sharon Ventura, She-Thing, complicates this even further. Her struggles in many ways parallel Grimm’s. However, Alaniz uses panel-by-panel analysis, fan letters, and creator commentary to argue that her struggle with depression and suicidal feelings are gendered, in both story and fan reaction. Ventura’s body no longer fits into the fantasy of the gender binary, as illustrated by fans criticizing her lack of sex appeal and sometimes even agreeing with her self-destruction. Alaniz hits the nail on the head when he observes that the male gaze turns instead into a stare. Ventura’s story may begin like Grimm’s, but its aftermath is far more complicated.
The scope of Alaniz’s work is enormous and impossible to do justice here (even the one example I’ve used is grossly oversimplified, and I didn’t even gesture to his substantial discussion of death and mortality). In particular, Alaniz refers at the end of his book to the relevance of these discussions to the recent discourse surrounding gun violence—a point that is undeniable and worth unpacking in terms of more contemporary superhero media. I’d be especially interested in seeing the discussion of disability extended further beyond the Silver Age to the likes of Fraction’s Hawkeye (deafened in battle), and the MCU’s various representations of trauma, including Tony Stark’s PTSD-related panic attacks, Leo Fitz’s adjustment to brain damage, and the recent film iteration of the Winter Soldier (for an interesting take on trauma in CA:WS, check out this blog). While I believe that DD&S certainly raises as many questions as it answers, I do mean that as a compliment. I hope, as I imagine was Alaniz’s intention, that this work will inspire many subsequent discussions on the topic.
Though Death, Disability, and the Superhero is an academic book published by an academic press, I wouldn’t let that discourage anyone disinclined to the genre—Alaniz’s tone may be formal, but it remains incredibly accessible and undiluted with academese. I find his analysis to be as fun and engaging as it is insightful—a great balance of criticism, history, and story-telling. Besides that, I opened this book knowing next to nothing about either disability studies or the history of comics (unless you count Kavalier and Clay for the latter), and closed it excited to become a part of both conversations. My love for superhero comics is relatively recent, and I am thrilled to have found this particular corner of fan criticism.
Death, Disability, and the Superhero is available now from University Press of Mississippi.
Emily Nordling is a recent UChicago grad. She is still not over Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s been six months. Please save her.