The comics representation of disability spans the modern history of the medium, reflecting popular preconceptions and prejudices of the disabled in a given era. Disability refers to a common aspect of living embodied existence centered on a physical and/or cognitive difference(s) as well as the social, cultural, architectural, and political responses to said difference(s). Often referred to as the largest minority both globally (with upwards of eight hundred million worldwide) and in the US (with 20 percent of the population, or some sixty million), the disabled remain among the most disadvantaged, stigmatized, and misunderstood groups. This despite their significant social progress in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, most prominently in landmark legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006; Goodley 2011).
Disability activism since the 1970s and the rise of disability studies as an academic field since the 1980s have given rise to numerous models of disability, all posing a challenge to the predominant twentieth-century model (which for many still obtains today): the medical model, whereby a health-care system rooted in eugenicist premises approaches disability as a defect or a lack of or deviation from a preferred norm or “average,” subject to a cure (Davis 2013, 4–5). The medical model thus situates disability in the bodies of disabled people. In sharp opposition, the social model (by far the most successful and influential alternative) arose in the UK and US to locate disability in the inaccessible spaces, paternalistic attitudes, and social stigma with which the disabled must routinely contend (Finkelstein 1980; Oliver 1990). As Dan Goodley described it, “Social model scholars turned attention away from a preoccupation with people’s impairments to a focus on the causes of exclusion through social, economic, political, cultural, relational and psychological barriers” (2011, 11). They did this in part by making a distinction between impairment (defined as the physical difference itself, like blindness or a missing limb) and disability (the societal reaction to the impairment, which alone creates disabling environments). This move was emancipatory.
The social model has more recently been subjected to considerable critique from scholars for, among other things, its naturalizing of impairment (ignoring its status as itself a largely sociocultural construction) and elision of disability’s nonsocial aspects such as pain and neurodivergences such as autism, learning disabilities, and so on (Shakespeare 2014, 22). Other models have proliferated as well, including the minority model (with ideological links to the various civil rights movements of the 1960s/1970s premised on identity politics) and—perhaps most relevant to graphic narrative—the cultural model, led by humanists (especially literary scholars). The latter has mounted strong critiques of the representation of disability as metaphor (Goodley 2011; Garland-Thomson 1997), whether as symbols for human evil or as “inspiration porn” for the able-bodied, and advanced deconstructive concepts such as “narrative prosthesis” to lay bare the storytelling function of disability since antiquity (Mitchell and Snyder 2000).
In the new millennium, disability studies scholars and disability historians have increasingly interrogated their own presentist and Western-centric biases, with more attention given to the premodern era (Scalenghe 2014), non-Western regions, and the Global South (where the vast majority of disabled people live, mostly in conditions very different from those in the richer developed nations). Other recent developments include the rise of crip theory (modeled in part on queer theory) as a challenge to the ideological biases of disability studies (McRuer 2006). Terms such as ableism, the reflexive discrimination against the disabled in favor of the able-bodied, have become common currency. The field has expanded dramatically, through associations such as the Society for Disability Studies (1982) and a slew of publications, including Disability Studies Quarterly (1980) and the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies (2007).
Comics scholars have highlighted how graphic narrative’s unique image-text strategies present important opportunities for complex portraits of the disabled, a largely neglected population, especially in life writing (El Refaie 2012a; Squier 2008). Thomas Couser, for example, lauds the graphic memoir about illness/disability (or somatography) as an always-“embodied” text, calling it an “inherently sensuous, and thus somatic, medium” (2018, 353), in that it presents a visual-verbal double portrait of the memoirist, allowing them “greater control over self-image” (349). He persuasively faults much contemporary graphic narrative about illness and disability for the “fail[ure] to realize the potential of the medium” (361) through an overly staid “sanitation” of symptoms and compromised bodily states and, less convincingly, a “self-infantilization” of a visually abstracted narrating self, particularly in the case of animal avatars. “To put it simply,” he concludes, “I find disabled characters more engaging and empathetic when drawn as fully human, their bodies rendered realistically” (372).
Couser’s hyper-“realist” fixation (in discussing a medium that has long trafficked in talking animals, cosmic battles between demigod-like beings, and fantasy writ large) provides a useful representational limit to push against. Its overly narrow view helps by contrast in making a case for how comics does and does not work as a graphic language, for how a memoir like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) can earn critical accolades (including a special Pulitzer Prize) and become a perennial best seller even as it depicts the Holocaust through the highly stylized device of Jews as mice and Germans as cats. For Couser, the downplaying of that “realism” means much more than a simple surface resemblance to one’s subject, as attested to by, among others, the graphic memoirist Allie Brosh, who in her devastating web series-turned-book about her depression, Hyperbole and a Half (2013), utilizes a ridiculous cartoony anthropomorphic fish as an avatar. As she told an interviewer, “It was simple and that’s really what I’m like on the inside. That picture is me, more me than I am” (quoted in Chute 2017, 239; emphasis in original).
Mainstream representations of the disabled appear from nearly the beginning of the superhero genre. Most early depictions marked physical difference as villainy; Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster made Superman’s first archnemesis, the Ultrahumanite, a wheelchair user in 1939 (Alaniz 2014; Smith and Alaniz 2019). The Golden Age featured few disabled heroes, including the partially blind Dr. Mid-Nite (created by Charles Reizenstein and Stanley Josephs Aschmeier in 1941) and the Daredevil, who under creator Jack Binder debuted as mute in 1941 but was quickly rebooted as able-bodied by Jack Cole that same year. Such inconsistent portrayals of disability in superhero serials would continue into the Silver Age and beyond, most famously in the case of the sometimes-deaf Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Smith and Alaniz 2019).
Disability as a fully fledged constituent of superhero identity was first systematically worked into the genre only during the so-called Marvel Silver Age in the early 1960s, through figures such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s the Thing / Ben Grimm (1961, disfigured), Thor / Donald Blake (1962, lame), and the X-Men (1963, various disabilities) and Lee and Bill Everett’s Daredevil / Matt Murdock (1964, blind; Alaniz 2014). The most complex and important disabled superhero remains a DC character, Oracle / Barbara Gordon, who became a paraplegic after a violent shooting and assault at the hands of the Joker in the Alan Moore / Brian Bolland graphic novel A Killing Joke (1988). DC’s 2011 “retconning” of Gordon into the able-bodied Batgirl after two decades as a wheelchair user proved a profoundly divisive event for fandom (Alaniz 2016). The first Black female superheroine with a disability, Marvel’s Misty Knight, appeared in 1975, though she remained a supporting character for decades, and only recently have there been talks of her appearing in her own self-titled publication.
Other genres, such as horror (see “Jenifer” by Rick Jones and Berni Wrightson in Creepy #63, July 1974), war (e.g., Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s the Unknown Soldier debuted in Our Army at War #168, June 1966), and romance (e.g., “Don’t Pity Me—Love Me!” by an unknown writer and artist Ric Estrada in Falling in Love #108, July 1969) also represented the disabled in the twentieth century, though mostly in keeping with the medical model, or else depicted them as objects of pity, villainy, and monstrosity. As seen in the evolution of superheroes, times were changing.
The rise of comix brought new possibilities, and in fact through comix, disability played a central role in the development of graphic narrative for adults. Justin Green’s landmark Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), on his childhood experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), launched the autobiography in the medium. Hillary Chute calls this tremendously influential forty-four-page epic of personal humiliation and religious angst the “ur-text of comics illness and disability narratives” (2017, 249), and its innovations forever altered perceptions of graphic narrative’s potential for self-expression, even on the most recondite subject matter. In an afterword to the 2009 reprint of Binky Brown, Green himself acknowledged how the word/picture “double-trackedness” of comics uncannily correlated to the “double vision” workings of his disorder, whereby a judgmental inner commentary accompanied his uncontrolled compulsions. Green’s work is an undeniably “embodied text,” in Couser’s terms, though its baroque, surreal, and for some excessive self-fashionings (replete with phallic imagery, grotesque figures, and parodies of Catholic iconography) shatter any orthodox notion of “realism” to convey the author’s agonized mental state.
Key comics works foregrounding the social, “dys-appearance” model of the disability/illness experience (El Refaie 2012a, 61) include Richard and Renee Jensen’s underground comix Amputee Love (1975); Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage ( 2003), on spina bifida; Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year (1994); Keiko Tobe’s manga memoir With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child (2000, translation 2007); David B.’s Epileptic (2000, translation 2003); Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), on OCD; Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir (2012), on bipolar disorder; E. T. Russian’s The Ring of Fire Anthology (2014), on various disabilities; John Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite (2014), on OCD; Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s My Degeneration: My Journey through Parkinsons (2015); Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (2017), on deformity, depression, cancer, and “monstrosity”; the Russian graphic novel I Am an Elephant (2017), illustrated by Lena Uzhinova, on writer Vladimir Rudak’s paraplegia; and Georgia Webber’s Dumb (2018), on mutism.
Though not often discussed as a disability narrative, Chris Ware’s multiformat graphic novel Building Stories (2012) breaks some intriguing new ground in its representation of an unnamed amputee protagonist. Margaret Fink Berman argues that Ware, through doggedly portraying the reveries, repetitive actions, “empty” moments, and humdrum routines of his heroine’s everyday life, advances her “idiosyncratic belonging,” whereby she “lives with her disability not as a member of a fixed category (never do we hear her self-identify as any type of person because of her leg), but as one whose movements across social and physical space are sometimes shaped by her body’s variation and the technologies that she uses” (2010, 195). Building Stories thus presents the “realism” Couser demands of somatography while refusing to exoticize or other the disabled figure—on the contrary, Ware’s approach if anything plays up what we might call the banality of disability. From highly charged narrative prosthesis of maleficence or compassion to nearly unmarked, at times invisible component of the everyday, disability in comics has traveled a considerable distance over the medium’s development.
The second decade of the twenty-first century has seen the rise of graphic medicine, a movement of artists, scholars, and health-care workers to produce illness and disability narratives in what they consider an accessible comics form. They have held an annual conference since 2010 and published a number of books. Cripping the Con at the University of Syracuse (launched 2013) serves as a colorful annual nexus of disability studies scholars, activists, and comics fandom. Disabled artists produce diverse work online in webcomics series such as Matt and Kay Daigle’s That Deaf Guy (2010) and Jessica and Lianna Oddi’s The Disabled Life (2016). In the small press arena, Portland, Oregon, artists Sabine Rear (the “blind illustratrix”) and Alecia Gatlin, who chronicles her experience with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the Seattle comics collective the Hand (composed of disabled, queer, and persons of color [POC]) illustrate the vibrancy of the US scene. Just as disability rights movements changed the culture in the final decades of the twentieth century, then, so has the representation of disability shifted the landscape of comics, composing a significant portion of contemporary graphic narrative production.