Any excuse to talk about comics: An exploration of the portrayal of disability in science fiction, fantasy and comic books

                                                                Collage of comic book covers


Author’s Note: I use geek and nerd interchangeably, some people argue that they are very different things, but this is my blog post so I will do what I like; and I like using geek and nerd as synonyms.  🙂

            So I have never written a blog post before and am not entirely sure where to start.  I guess the beginning is a good place.  I was asked to write a post about my thesis project and why I chose what I did.  My thesis is called “Any excuse to talk about comics: An exploration of the portrayal of disability in science fiction, fantasy and comic books.”  This wasn’t the thesis I had planned to write, for almost five years I had planned to do a project about accessible housing with attendant care options for post secondary students.  I had planned it out and thought it was pretty good, right up until I took DST88 last year.  During a random conversation with Kathryn Church about a book I like, she asked if I had considered doing my thesis on science fiction which I clearly enjoyed.  I felt my brain snap in half, I could do a thesis on sci fi?  Really?  I live and breathe sci fi, I am one of the biggest geeks I know.  I ‘m from Markham and the first time I went to the Skydome was to watch the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I’m pretty sure I might have just stared at her for a minute. Steff.exe has crashed.  Press any key to reboot.  I took some time to think about before I decided that it really is an important topic that has not been widely explored in academic circles. 

            Why is it an important topic, it’s just comic books.  Well with the current proliferation and popularity of superhero and other genre movie it is increasingly important to explore the portrayal of character with disabilities within these movies.  In a lot of ways I think that a parallel can be drawn between the lived experience of people with disabilities and geeks/nerds.  Before anyone gets offended let me explain.  I am not saying that these groups have identical experiences, but I think there is a certain amount of overlap.  Ignoring the current social climate where nerds/geeks are ironically cool, growing up a sci fi and fantasy nerd wasn’t easy.  When you are surrounded by people who don’t like the same things you do and who are fundamentally different you feel alone; like an outsider in your own peer group.  It is there that I will draw the parallel with people with disabilities  many of whom grow up feeling different from their peers and like us geeks can struggle to find common ground in a world that does not seem designed for us.  I think that is why so many of the kids I know from being a counselor at Easter Seals and an almost equal number of the teenager students I work with now are drawn to these genres.  The characters are frequently outsiders, people who feel different for whatever reason, the theme of the heroic outsider does not need to be based around that character having a disability to be accessible to a reader with a disability.  The draw is in the shared lived experience regardless of the reason.  One does not have to leech life force from people they touch to feel an emotional connection with Rouge from X-Men.  The feelings of loneliness, isolation, and a longing for human contact is where the connection is.   You don’t have to be Tony Stark to want to show the people who would hold you back that you are so much more, so much better than they think you are.  That you can be more than society says.

            With these genres, in my experience, attracting people with disabilities as fans and with them currently being hugely popular, especially as blockbuster movies with mass appeal.  Look at some of the highest grossing movies recently:  Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, X-Men: First Class, Ironman 3, The Dark Knight Rises, Captain America, The Avengers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Hobbit etc.  Seven of the ten highest grossing films of all time are science fiction or fantasy.  This is why it is so important that we start analyzing how these genres portray and treat characters with disabilities.  The nerds are taking over, the influence we have begun to wield is enormous and with great power comes great responsibility.

By Steff Moraal 


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