Comic books of isolation

As a comics fan, reading CINEMA OF ISOLATION: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies by Martin F. Noden was an interesting experience.
The book takes it’s title from Noden’s argument that films tend to isolate the disabled, implying they can never truly hang out with the able unless they get a miracle cure (which happens a lot). Otherwise they’re freaks, pariahs, outcasts; in many films, even the disabled themselves believe that marrying an able-bodied person would be a horrible mismatch and unfair to their partner.
Noden suffers badly from Freudianism (his critique of the Moby Dick adaptation The Sea Beast is that it the happy ending is all wrong for the Oedipal conflict he thinks is at the movie’s heart), but his book does a good job showing how stereotypes of the disabled persisted through the 20th century (though improving over time). A consistent problem is the often explicit view that if the disabled can’t adjust, it’s their own fault. All they need is the will to achieve and excel and they’ll be fine, because it’s not like there’s discrimination against the disabled or anything like that (curiously, most movies also ignore government rehab programs and anti-discrimination policies—mainstreaming is presented as a matter of individual effort.
What jumped out at me reading this was how much of what Noden says applies to comic-book handling of disability. Not that comics are unique in this (the whole point of Noden’s book is that these are common myths) but it still struck me. Consider some of them:
•Blind people can easily be fooled, a recurring plot in love comics.younglove42
•The Obsessive Avenger out to get even with someone (or everyone) for his accident. The cyborg Tharok in the Legion of Super-Heroes was part of it, and Two-Face probably qualifies too.
•The superstar, the character who’s better or more heroic than an ordinary person, despite their disability. Daredevil, for example, has such heightened senses he can detect and notice more than the abled. Though of course, comics are filled with people who have extraordinary powers, so that’s not entirely surprising.
•Rejecting love because, crippled! Stan Lee had a field day with this in the Silver Age: Matt Murdock couldn’t speak his love because he was—blind! Scott Summers couldn’t speak his love because he has uncontrollable optic blasts! Don Blake (Thor’s alter ego, with one bad leg) couldn’t speak his love because he was lame! The same meme cropped up the early seventies series It! the Living Colossus, the protagonist refusing to speak his love because he was paraplegic.
•Noden’s book made me realize the wheelchair-bound tech person is a stereotype though a minor one, so Barbara “Oracle” Gordon was in good company before the DC Reboot got her walking again. And there are even earlier wheelchair-bound team leaders, such as the Doom Patrol’s Chief and Professor X.
•Inspiring statements about how you can achieve greatness just like Beethoven (deaf) or Milton (blind) and so on, if you just try! Outside of Marvel’s short-lived Nightmask, there was rarely any consideration given to discrimination.
•I also find myself wondering if cyborgs aren’t a way to take and repackage the same stereotypes at a more superhuman (or science-fictional level). Why settle for an avenger bitter over a missing leg when you can have Tharok, who lost half his body (and had it replaced by an ugly cyborg half to boot)? Why stop at feeling sorry for having prosthetic hands when like the Titans’ Cyborg (now the JLA’s Cyborg, of course) you can be tormented by having a prosthetic body (and any negative reactions don’t imply real-world ableism—I mean, just look at him!)?
I suspect I’ll be thinking about Noden’s book for a while yet.
(Astonishing Tales cover by Gil Kane, Young Love by John Romita, all rights reside with current holders).


Filed under Comics, Movies, Reading

26 responses to “Comic books of isolation

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