Batgirl and Professor X: Superheroes with SCI
The superheroes of the comics are just like us… so how about superheroes with disabilities?
Who is the first superhero that comes to your mind? I am sure that many of you are thinking about Superman, Batman or Spiderman...
Well, they are of course very famous, but not every superhero matches with a perfect body, a clever mind or a warm sense of humor, and not every superhero has superpowers. The truth is that almost all superheroes of the comics, cartoons or movies are... humans!
For the comic industry, presenting humans like you and me as superheroes is the key of success. That is why nowadays superheroes belong to different ethnic groups, sexual orientations, religions, etc., and that is why also people with spinal cord injury are represented.
X-men is the comic book par excellence that deliberately represents minority groups and talks about social issues. The comic book series started in September 1963 and never stops publishing new sheets. It has become so famous that it has inspired a lot of cartoons, series and movies. Considering the huge amount of stories and the complex plot, trying to tell the story of one x-men is more difficult than explaining a whole Mexican telenovela, but let’s try:
The most important and influential character of the X-men is their leader and mentor, Professor X. Born as Charles Francis Xavier in 1939, at the age of 10, Charles discovers his telepathic powers. This ability makes him a mutant, a subspecies of humans who are born with powers activated by the “X-Gene”. Due to the immense psychic energy emanating from his head, Charles becomes bold at young age.
Growing up, Charles gets capable of controlling his power and becomes the world’s greatest telepath. Despite his power, Charles is a natural genius. He graduates from Harvard University at 16 and continues to study genetics, biophysics, psychology, anthropology, and psychiatry at Oxford and Columbia University.
He serves also in the U. S. Army, meeting for the first time Erik Lehnsherr, who will become as “Magneto” one of the antagonists of the saga. During a mission in the Himalaya, a landslide leaves Charles paraplegic. There are also other versions of this accident, for example, in the movie “X-Men: First Class”, a bullet deflected by Magneto hits Charles in the spine.
After the accident, Charles thinks about his dream of creating a future where mutants and humans could coexist peacefully. He opens “Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters”, a mansion where young mutants could live in peace, study and learn how to use their own powers to do good. The most powerful students will then form the X-men, a group of mutants lead by Charles as “Professor X” fighting against other mutants with criminal intentions.
Batman is so famous that supporting characters like Robin, butler Alfred and Batgirl are also well-known by people who do not read comics. Therefore, every single fan of the series was shocked seeing Batgirl brutally shot and paralyzed by the Joker in the comic “Batman: The Killing Joke”, but let’s go with order...
The young orphan Barbara Gordon is the niece of Gotham Commissioner Jim Gordon, the only police officer that collaborates with Batman. The young girl is very smart and a talented gymnastic. She is so obsessed with Batman that she creates by herself a costume and starts to fight the crime imitating him. One night, she manages to rescue Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne from a killer and starts to call herself Batgirl. Impressed by the girl’s skills, Robin convinces Batman to let her join the Bat family.
The character was a strong success at the beginning, but as time went on, her visibility dropped, and that was when the Joker – or better, the comic writers – almost “killed” her. However, the love for the heroine was so strong that the authors have revived her as character living with a disability.
Barbara devotes her time developing one of the world’s most complex and powerful computer systems, accumulating a huge amount of information. Under her new identity, Oracle, she continues working for the Bat family and founds her own team of female heroes, the “Birds of Prey”. She is portrayed as attractive, intelligent, healthy, independent – and in wheelchair.
The representation of disability in comics
As said before, comics try to be the mirror of our society. Unfortunately, this intention does not always seems to be successful: Some readers or activist groups find the portrayal of certain characters sexist, racist, homophobic – or ableist. The story of Batgirl/Oracle, for example, has suffered even two of these criticisms. First, after Batgirl's injury by the hand of the Joker, feminist activists complained that she was portrayed as helpless, dependent and victim of sexualized violence.
It was also for these complaints that the comic authors finally changed Barbara's direction again: They “healed” her paralysis and made her come back as Batgirl. This annoyed disability activists, who were missing the chance to deepen the disabled Oracle character and to fight against the asexualized image stereotype that many have towards people with disability. Besides, they criticized that Barbara was “cured” from her paralysis, which suggests that being in a wheelchair is something negative to be overcome, while in reality this is not yet possible.
Other disabled comic heroes like Daredevil (blind due an accident), Echo (deaf since birth) or the discussed Professor X are acclaimed worldwide. In contrast to what happened to Barbara Gordon, the majority of the readers do not want to see them cured by their injuries or disabilities.
“You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone.”
The world of comics is constantly evolving, because people are. Nowadays, the diversity of comic heroes is getting more and more important, making it easier for all groups of people to identify with them. One prominent example is the character of Black Panther, who was recently present in the media because of the death of its representing actor Chadwick Boseman. Less well-known, there exist also a Chinese Superman, a homosexual superhero Colossus and a Muslim superheroine Ms. Marvel.
In this big world of different comic characters, Professor X and Oracle represent people with SCI in positive and active roles, helping especially young people to overcome the stereotypes of people with SCI.
What do you think about the representation of people with disabilities in comics? Which comic stories and characters do you like?