How (And Why) To Include Disabled Characters In Comics, From New York Comic Con

Rich Epstein wrote for Bleeding Cool from New York Comic Con:

There has been a lot of focus on diversity in the media we consume. Society has realized how important it is that people of all types can see people like them on the screen and in the pages of their favorite books. But when we think of diversity, too often we limit our thinking to race or gender or sexuality. That's why a group of disability advocates were on hand at New York Comic Con to advocate for inclusion of disabled characters in all forms of media. Diana Theobald hosted the panel, which included Mike Mort, Patrick Cokley, Day Al-Mohamed, and Rebecca Cokley.

The panel opened with each of the panelists talking about their representations of disabled characters in comics. Mort opened by citing Professor X. Mort, a blogger and activist confined to a wheelchair, saw Similarities in how the Professor uses technology to reach mutants who need help to his own use of modern technology such as social media to try and reach people.

Patrick followed up by emphasizing how the X-Men's powers can often be disabilities, such as with Rogue. He then mentioned Cyborg, a character that can often decide whether to make his disability visible to the world. Patrick mentioned that there is no universal disabled experience.

How (And Why) To Include Disabled Characters In Comics, From New York Comic Con

Al-Mohamed then turned to Oracle. Obviously becoming disabled was a major part of the character, but it didn't define her; we got to see a fully developed character who likes to eat Chinese food and go out with her friends. In fact, Oracle was the only member of the Birds of Prey to actually got laid. Al-Mohamed then pointed to Misty Knight as a character that is in control of her disability.

Finally, Rebecca also said Oracle was a favorite. Rebecca's dad was paralyzed when she was very young and was never able to find that same kind of pride in his paralysis. Rebecca loved how Oracle showed a pride in who she was after the injury that Rebecca wished her father had shown.

Patrick then spoke about how too often characters with disabilities weren't completely thought-out. He cited Jessica Jones as a great example of a show and comic that took mental health seriously. He pointed out how crazy one would have to be to want to do what superheroes do on a regular basis.

Al-Mohamed then spoke about how important it is for creators to do their research in creating disabled characters. She credited Gail Simone for reaching out and asking for help in designing Oracle's accessible van. For disabled people, seeing things that accurately reflect their reality marks a huge difference. She then pointed to Rot Lop Fan, and the different oath that he needed because the concept of light had no meaning for him. That kind of thought as to the reality that a blind person faces is important.

The talk then turned to whether bad representation was better than no representation. Mort said that some tropes were harmful, but generally representation was good.

Rebecca, however, was impassioned about the negative portrayals. As a little person, she witnessed an entire network, The Learning Channel, turn her entire culture into entertainment for everyone else. She remembered times that she has gone to the movies only to watch a little person make a fool of themselves. Rebecca would leave the theater and know that everybody was looking at her. She has no time for tokenism anymore, or the harm that it causes.

Patrick then spoke about how we arbitrarily decide who is or isn't disabled. He brought up Tony Stark as a character that clearly has a disability — he can't live without an arc reactor in his chest to keep him alive, in addition to his often crippling alcoholism. Yet nobody thinks of Iron Man as a disabled hero.

Al-Mohamed then said that tokenism doesn't mean it's wrong to just add disabled characters into the background. After all, she said, she has as much right to be eaten by a dinosaur as anyone else.

Al-Mohamed then spoke about an experiment she did. She looked at historical romance books on Amazon, and searched for the word "blind." She got a total of 347 returns. Those books contained a total of five different stories:

  • Stories where the blind character was the victim
  • Stories where the blind character was the villain
  • Stories where the blind character provided inspiration for others to find love
  • Stories where the blind character overcame their blindness
  • Stories where the blind character was cured

That was the entire range of possibilities for blind characters.

Rebecca and Al-Mohamed then spoke a little on how to go about creating a fully realized disabled character. Give them agony, conflict, secrets — the same things that go into creating any other character. They spoke of Tyrion Lannister, and how everybody loves him because he drinks and has sex and says witty things. In other words, he's just like any other character we would like.

Finally, the panel talked a little about how important it is for disabled people to create. Tyrion Lannister wouldn't have happened if an actor of Peter Dinklage's caliber wasn't available. Al-Mohamed talked about a call she put out for submissions for an anthology. Out of 400 submissions, seven had disabled characters. Too many people self-censored and assumed people didn't want to read their stories. It isn't true; disabled people's stories matter — they just need to be able to see them.

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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