It's Okay to Stare: Visual and Unseen Disabilities in Comic Book Super Heroes

  • Brett Howard Butler Morgan State University


Since their inception in the 1930s, comic books and graphic novels featuring superheroes have reflected innumerable elements of science fiction, from space travel to technological human augmentation. Similar to other works of science fiction, and all literature in general, disabled characters are either underrepresented or misrepresented. In comic books and graphic novels, disabled characters tend to be villains whose disabilities and deformities represent their inner ugliness and evilness, or they are pathetic background characters meant to be saved by the hero. Most research conducted on the topic of representations of disabilities in comic books focuses on the same five heroes and a slew of villains and side characters, often analyzing the most "visible" disabilities.

This article builds on the theories of Rosemarie Garland-Thomas, Leonard Davis and others to evaluate representations of disabilities in comic book heroes. Then, it challenges existing theories of disabilities in comic books as proposed by José Alaniz, by broadening the scope of disability studies as they apply to comic books and graphic novels. Next, it demonstrates the problematic nature of disabled superheroes being "cured" or "fixed", suggesting that heroes cannot be both disabled and heroic (in a traditional sense). Finally, it expounds on the different ways writers and artists treat heroes with "visible" disabilities such as paraplegia or blindness versus "unseen" disabilities such as deafness and substance addiction.

Author Biography

Brett Howard Butler, Morgan State University

Department of English and Language Arts

Assistant Professor