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

Brett Howard Butler


      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.

Full Text:



Alaniz, J. (2014). Death, Disability and the Superhero: Silver Age and Beyond. Jacksonville, MS: Mississippi UP.

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Davis, L. J. (Ed.). (2010). The Disabilities Study Reader. New York, NY: Routledge.

--The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category

Batgirl Back on her Feet after 23 Years in DC Comics Reboot. (2011). The Guardian.

Browning, E.R. (2014). Disabilities Studies in the Composition Classroom. Composition Studies. 42(2), 96-116.

Eagan, J. (2019) 1000 Facts about Comic Book Characters.

Emens, E.F. (2012). Disabling Attitudes: Law and the ADA Amendments Act. The American Journal of Comparative Law. 60 (1), 205-233.

Garland-Thomas, R. (1997). Extraordinary Bodies. New York, NY: Columbia UP.

--(2002). The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography. In S.L.Snyder & B.J. Brueggemann & R. Garland Thomas (Eds.). Disabilities Studies Enabling the Humanities (pp. 56-75). New York, NY: MLA.

Gilman, S. (2002). The Fat Detective: Obesity and Disability. In S.L. Snyder & B.J. Brueggemann & R. Garland Thomas (Eds.). Disabilities Studies Enabling the Humanities (pp. 271-279). New York, NY: MLA.

Lewis, B. (2010). A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism. In L. Davis (Ed.), The Disabilities Study Reader (pp.160-176). New York, NY: Routledge.

McConnell, K. (2017). Disability in Marvel Comics: The Necessity of Normalization. Comicverse. Retrieved from

Ogar, K. Kevin Ogar: Redefining Crossfit. Retrieved from on April 15, 2019).

Roberson C. C. (2017). 15 Things You Never Knew about Superman’s Cape and Costume. CBR. Retrieved from

Snyder, S.L. & Brueggemann, B.J. & Garland Thomas, R (Eds.). (2002). Disabilities Studies Enabling the Humanities. New York, NY: MLA.

Ware, L. (2001). Writing, Identity, and the Other: Dare We Do Disability Studies? Journal of Teacher Education. Retrieved from ttps:// (Original work published 2001).

Whalen, Z. (2016). C. Foss & E. Graves (Eds.). Disabilities in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives. UK: Palgrave.


  • There are currently no refbacks.