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Superheroes with Disabilities


In the time it will take to read this entry, real-life superheroics will occur. A blind woman will safely cross the street. A teenage boy whose body is crippled with cerebral palsy will rise unassisted from a chair. Physically and mentally challenged individuals who refuse to be handicapped by their conditions overcome adversity in virtually every facet of their lives. Superheroes do exist.

Some fictional superheroes face impediments that make their feats of bravery even more Herculean. Daredevil, Marvel Comics' Man without Fear, leaps fearlessly off of metropolitan rooftops in pursuit of criminals, and pounces into armies of heavily armed gangsters—awe-inspiring actions that truly flabbergast when one considers the hero's blindness. The accident that robbed his alter ego, lawyer Matt Murdock, of his vision—exposure to a radioactive isotope—heightens his other senses and imbues him with a radar sense that allows him to perceive nearby objects, helping compensate for his lack of sight.

Daredevil may be the most recognized blind superhero, but others preceded him. The Black Bat, a hero originating in 1934 in the pulp magazines—periodicals published on inexpensive pulp paper and featuring prose adventure stories—loses his vision when, in his true identity of district attorney Terry Quinn, acid is splashed in his eyes by criminals attempting to destroy evidence. Quinn receives a transplant from an eye donor, and emerges, strangely, with the capacity to see in the dark. He conceals this enhancement from the world, maintaining a blind façade as Quinn, but taking to the streets at night as the crime-crushing Black Bat. The comic-book hero called the Mask (not to be confused with the offbeat Dark Horse Comics character portrayed by actor Jim Carrey in the 1994 blockbuster film of same name) is a district attorney who loses his sight, then regains it and becomes a costumed vigilante. It's interesting to note that he, the Black Bat, and Daredevil all share the same vocation, law, and all are blind. The original Mask debuted in Better Publications' Exciting Comics #1 (1940).

In DC Comics' All-American Comics #25 (1941), readers first encountered surgeon Charles McNider, who is blinded in a mishap but discovers that he possesses perfect night vision. Accompanied by Hooty, an owl, he becomes the nocturnal superhero Dr. Mid-Nite, later joining the Justice Society of America (JSA). The hero was succeeded in the guise in 1985 by Beth Chapel, an African American medical student who also was robbed of her ability to see. She became Dr. Midnight (different spelling), and served with Infinity, Inc. before dying in a battle against the lord of darkness, Eclipso. In 1999, yet another physician, Pieter Cross, was engaged in unorthodox medical experiments that cost him his sight, adopting the name (and original spelling) of the first Dr. Mid-Nite. This version of the hero is among the roster of the 2000s incarnation of the JSA. Other vision-challenged heroes include the X-Men's Psylocke, who lost her eyesight but received cybernetic eyes, and Marvel's Shroud, a dark-clad vigilante who willingly allowed himself to be blinded to receive the gift of extrasensory perception from the goddess Kali.

A few superheroes are vertically challenged—or, in less politically correct terminology, short. In All-American Comics #19 (1940), Al Pratt, long ridiculed for his five-foot stature, undergoes physical training to become the pint-sized pummeling powerhouse, DC's original Atom. Shorty Wilson, a former football player of diminutive height, wears a cloak and fedora and tackles criminals as the Shadow homage called the Black Dwarf in publisher Harry A Chesler's Red Seal Comics #14 (1945). Rackman, bowing in 1947 in Hillman Periodicals' Clue #12, is a little person who walks on stilts when fighting crime. Tom Thumb is a purple-and-green-dressed tiny titan in Marvel Comics' Squadron Supreme, and Eugene Milton Judd—barely three feet tall—is a beefy former nightclub bouncer who is better known as Puck of Marvel's Canadian superteam Alpha Flight.

Some superheroes have overcome amputations. DC's Aquaman lost a hand in a 1994 conflict, replacing it with a hook. In 2001, his hand regenerated—but as living water, not flesh—due to a spell from the mystical Lady of the Lake. Most of Victor Stone's body was destroyed in an accident and replaced with cybernetics. As Cyborg, he has used his artificial substitutions, including interchangeable hands with different combative functions, as one of the Teen Titans. Originally resentful of his plight, Stone accepted the change and became an aide to children with disabilities after meeting a young boy with a prosthetic arm in the landmark tale A Day in the Life in DC Comics' The New Teen Titans #8 (1981).

Sensory impairment has affected, but not stopped, a few superheroes. Cyborg's Teen Titans teammate Joseph Wilson (Jericho) was mute. The son of the Titans' arch nemesis Deathstroke the Terminator, Jericho had the ability to possess others' bodies, and communicated with his friends via hand signals, but ultimately died at the hand of his father. Assassin David Cain taught his daughter Cassandra only one language: violence. The mute teen, trained to follow in her father's footsteps, was shown guidance by Gotham City's heroes Batman and Oracle, and became the new Batgirl. Batgirl has since developed verbal communicative abilities thanks to her support network. Hawkeye, the ace archer of Marvel's mightiest heroes, the Avengers, sustained a profound hearing loss in an accident and is dependent upon digital hearing aids.

Mental illness bears a stigma in modern society, yet some superheroes have fought crime despite psychological problems. The schizophrenic Badger, appearing in print in the 1980s, brutally targeted ne'er-do-wells who harmed animals and spat on sidewalks. In DC's six-issue Rose & Thorn miniseries (2003–2004), Rhosyn Forrest's psyche is severed by rage after her father's murder, creating two wholly separate personalities: the docile Rose and the vengeful superheroine Thorn. Rose & Thorn updated the split-personality crime fighter who debuted in Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #105 (1970). In 2000, DC Comics published Realworlds: Batman, a poignant tale about a mildly retarded young man who believes he is Batman, and tackles street punks dressed in a makeshift superhero costume, nearly dying in the process.

There are superheroes whose alter egos lack the ability to walk unassisted. Both Freddy Freeman and Dr. Don Blake were lame, requiring a single crutch or cane to walk. Yet they became ambulatory—and superpowerful!—after transforming into their amazing identities of Captain Marvel Jr. and the mighty Thor. Similarly, war journalist John Mann, a former soldier who lost his right leg in combat, was first seen in Charlton Comics' Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #46 (1965). While standing amid the ruins of a Roman temple, he shrieks to the heavens, lamenting the bloodshed of human conflict, and is transported by a bolt of lightning to Olympus, where the gods transform him into the superstrong Son of Vulcan. Freemind, the premier superhero from the 2002 startup publisher Future Comics, is a brilliant man in a useless body, a quadriplegic who transfers his mind into a superheroic form (a concept previously seen in Marvel's It, the Living Colossus, a stone giant possessed by a wheelchair-bound master). Silhouette, a crippled member of Marvel's teen team the New Warriors, has used crutches in combat.

Marvel's Human Fly is an unnamed man who is injured in an automobile accident and informed that his legs are now useless in The Human Fly #1 (1977). He beats the odds through rehabilitation and determination, not only regaining the ability to walk but also perfecting his body. In a red-and-white suit and cowl, with magnetic-grip gloves and boots, he raises awareness and money for the handicapped as the Human Fly. His adventures ran for nineteen issues.

Perhaps the most famous disabled hero is Charles Xavier, or Professor X, founder of the mutant assemblage the X-Men. An accident robbed him of the use of his legs and permanently placed him in a wheelchair, but thanks to his uncanny telekinetic powers and his proven leadership qualities, his authority is never questioned. Niles Caulder, the Chief of the Doom Patrol, also directs DC Comics' world's strangest heroes from a wheelchair.

Barbara Gordon, who once fought alongside Batman and Robin as Batgirl, became a paraplegic after being shot by the Joker. Initially despondent over her paralysis, she later channeled her energies into the cultivation of a vast computer network, secretly becoming Oracle, the information broker for numerous DC superheroes. Batman, Robin, Nightwing, and the Suicide Squad are among those who have relied upon her ability to ferret out valuable data, and she works closely with heroines Black Canary and the Huntress as the point person of the covert team Birds of Prey. Oracle has proven to herself, and to others, that she need not walk to be an asset to justice. Barbara is stronger than she knows, and this is, perhaps, her only great weakness, wrote DC Comics scribe Devin Grayson in Wizard magazine's 1998 Batman special edition. Hyper-defensive about her disability, she has, if anything, over-compensated. However, her very determination to remain self-reliant, though admirable and inspiring, has made her less willing than ever to accept support or aid of any kind.

The disabilities experienced by most of the aforementioned superheroes have largely been gimmicks—the blind hero, the short hero—or shunted aside after a magical transformation (i.e., crippled Freddy Freeman converts, with a bolt of magic lightning, into the superboy Captain Marvel Jr.). And their handicaps were preexisting, as in the case of Professor X (he was in his wheelchair when readers first met him in X-Men #1 [1963]), or introduced as part of their origins (Matt Murdock lost his sight in Daredevil #1 [1964]). As Oracle, however, Gordon stands tall as the most empowering disabled superhero. Readers witnessed her tragedy, and watched her rise above it.

Arguably, two other heroes with disabilities are equally empowering, if not more so. Never underestimate the powers of the handicapped asserted Damon Wayans' Handi-Man, the physically challenged superhero seen on Fox-TV's In Living Color (1990–1994). While played for laughs, Handi-Man, and his diminutive sidekick the Tiny Avenger, crusaded for the rights of the disabled. And actor Christopher Reeve, who catapulted to fame starring as the Man of Steel in the franchise of four live-action Superman movies between 1978 and 1987, was seriously hurt in a 1995 horse-riding accident, becoming a paraplegic. In the years since his injury, Reeve has advocated for severed spinal-cord research, raising money, awareness, and hope for the cause. He is more a superman in actuality than he ever was on screen. —ME

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