Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Death, Disability, and the Superhero

Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 400
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Death, Disability, and the Superhero
    Book Description:

    The Thing. Daredevil. Captain Marvel. The Human Fly. Drawing on DC and Marvel comics from the 1950s to the 1990s, and marshaling insights from three burgeoning fields of inquiry in the humanities--disability studies, death and dying studies, and comics studies-- José Alaniz seeks to redefine the contemporary understanding of the superhero. Beginning in the Silver Age, the genre increasingly challenged and complicated its hypermasculine, quasi-eugenicist biases through such disabled figures as Ben Grimm/The Thing, Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and the Doom Patrol.

    Alaniz traces how the superhero became increasingly vulnerable, ill, and mortal in this era. He then proceeds to a reinterpretation of characters and series--some familiar (Superman), some obscure (She-Thing). These genre changes reflected a wider awareness of related body issues in the postwar U.S. as represented by hospice, death with dignity, and disability rights movements. The persistent highlighting of the body's "imperfection" comes to forge a predominant aspect of the superheroic self. Such moves, originally part of the Silver Age strategy to stimulate sympathy, enhance psychological depth, and raise the dramatic stakes, developed further in such later series asThe Human Fly, Strikeforce: Morituri, and the landmark graphic novelThe Death of Captain Marvel, all examined in this volume. Death and disability, presumed routinely absent or denied in the superhero genre, emerge to form a core theme and defining function of the Silver Age and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-065-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-2)
  4. 1 INTRODUCTION: “UNMASKED AT LAST!” Death, Disability, and the Super-Body
    (pp. 3-25)

    The French artist Gilles Barbier’s installationNursing Home(2002) features a sextet of wax figures: aged superheroes slumped over, gurneyed, or otherwise sprawled before a television set declaiming advertisements. A bald Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four sits at a table, staring dumbly into space, his flaccid limbs twisted and warped in impossible contortions. A shriveled Hulk, still in tattered purple pants, dozes in a wheelchair. White-haired Superman leans stoically on a walker.

    Nursing Homecomprised part—judging by press accounts, the most crowd-pleasing part—of the New York Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2003 exhibition, “The American Effect: Global...

  5. 2 SUPERCRIP Disability, Visuality, and the Silver Age Superhero
    (pp. 26-68)

    Disability Studies coincides with, in part emerged from, and to some extent has had to contend with the recent wave of scholarly interest in representations of the body and “embodiedness” to which I’ve already alluded. From such early tracts as Leslie Fiedler’sFreaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self(1978) to its more recent intersections—and frictions—with feminist, racial, psychoanalytic (especially Lacanian) cultural studies, death and dying debates, and identity politics, disability as an area of scholarly inquiry had to emerge from beneath the shadows of other, “stronger,” more established categories for defining the body.¹

    This new and...

  6. 3 “WHAT CAN WE EVER HAVE TO FEAR FROM A BLIND MAN?!!” Disability, Daredevil, and Passing
    (pp. 69-86)

    The first Marvel Silver Age series devoted to a prominent “disabled superhero,”Daredevil(created by writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Bill Everett in 1964) tells the story of Matt Murdock, who as a boy is struck by a radioactive canister which both blinds him and enhances his remaining senses to superhuman levels, compensating for his lost vision with a fantastic “radar sense.” After the death of his father at the hands of the mob, Murdock devotes himself to fighting crime in his public identity as a successful trial lawyer and in his secret identity of Daredevil, hero...

  7. 4 BORDERLINE CASES Gender, Race, and the “Disabled” Superhero
    (pp. 87-115)

    We have thus far mostly observed instances of the disabled body as the shadow figure of the superhero genre: a physically “defective” alter ego vanishes from sight, instantly replaced by an idealized (usually white, male) physique—an act which whisks away any inkling of weakness, sickness, or compromised masculinity. I have related such sleight-of-corpusto postwar American anxieties over the changing place of men in the economy and culture; the early Silver Age’s impulse to pathos and melodrama; and the genre’s gradual inclusion of ethnic/physical others. I have labeled the requital for the disabled body’s lack of “superpowers”—the genre’s...

    (pp. 116-137)

    One of the oddest near-synchronies in superhero comics history, DC’s Doom Patrol (in the seriesMy Greatest Adventure) and Marvel’sX-Menpremiered within three months of each other, with respective cover dates of June and September 1963. The overlaps did not end there.

    Both super-teams consisted of societal outcasts led by a strong patriarchal figure in a wheelchair, who all live together in alternate communities hidden from the world, and fight to defend the public that alienates them. Both had members who feel cursed by their powers and struggle with their “freak” status. Both faced an opposing group of “freaks”...

  9. 6 HOW NOT TO BE A SUPERHERO Narrative Prosthetics and The Human Fly
    (pp. 138-157)

    When is a superhero—not?

    The short-lived Marvel Comics seriesThe Human Fly(1977–79) featured a protagonist who flouted the genre’s Silver Age conventions: he preferred Evel Knievel-type daredevil stunts and charity work to crime-fighting—but kept finding himself in situations where he had to rout crooks; adventured not in New York City but exotic locales such as Montreal, the American southwest, and Alaska; never appeared without his mask or revealed his secret identity; and possessed no superpowers, though he did boast a “metal skeleton” and overcame a devastating injury through sheer willpower. Finally, the Fly was not entirely...

  10. 7 THE DISMAL TRADE Death, the Market, and Silver Age Superheroes
    (pp. 158-241)

    As we have seen, the superhero genre is a disability-denying representational practice which privileges the healthy, hyper-powered, and fetching body over the diseased, debilitated, and deformed body. The superhero, by the logic of the narrative itself, through his very presence, enacts an erasure of ordinary, mortal flesh in favor of a quasi-fascist physical ideal, an ideal complicated in the Silver Age but by no means transcended.

    This does not mean that superheroes never die. Though as the comics blog Quarter Bin puts it, for them “mortality, it seems, never sticks” (2001). In an amusing column called “The Revolving Door of...

    (pp. 242-265)

    It begins as usual.

    One group of superheroes confronts another, and due to misunderstanding and conflicted loyalties, a melée erupts. The goateed, foppishly garbed Wildcard, whose abilities allow him to sap the superpowers of others, confronts his opponent Blackthorn, sprawled on the ground.

    Suddenly, something odd starts to happen: Wildcard doubles over, all aglow. The strange combustion quickly spreads, intensifies—“No*” he chokes out, “no*it’s*too soon*I’ve*only*had*weeks—*weeks* . . .”; over four panels, before his horrified comrades, his flesh liquefies. Wildcard melts to death, screaming, “Helllplpllllllllll . . .”²

    The fight grounds to a halt.

    Created by writer Peter Gillis...

    (pp. 266-281)

    Superman died on November 18, 1992. America paid attention.

    The event, picked up by news outlets throughout the country and world, reported the end of an era; after fifty-four years, the DC comics hero with the forelock, garbed in red, yellow, and blue, who fought for nothing less than “truth, justice and the American way,” had perished as befits what one commentator called a “secular American messiah” (Daniels: 19): fallen gloriously in battle, saving his hometown Metropolis from a monstrous menace.²

    Of course, like many superheroes before and since, Superman did notdie—he “died.” Six months later, he came...

  13. 10 CONCLUSION: Vital Lies, Vital Truths
    (pp. 282-298)

    In this book I have sought to demonstrate the centrality of death and disability in mainstream superhero comics of the so-called Silver Age and beyond, spanning the late 1950s to the early 1990s. I have argued that such representations—what Charles Hatfield calls “heroes whose superpowers were counterbalanced by deformities, disabilities or social stigmas” (2012: 116)—did much to define the second phase of the genre. Indeed, they did more than that: the highlighting of bodily/cognitive difference, frailty, and mortality not only heightened realism and diversified thedramatis personaein welcome fashion, but in so doing they cast into relief...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 299-335)
    (pp. 336-351)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 352-363)