Opening Doors for All Students: Comics Featuring Characters with Disabilities
The push towards representing diverse groups in literature and, by proxy, in our classrooms has been rapidly gaining speed as more and more quality texts featuring the stories of people of color, different gender identities and sexualities, and those across the religious spectrum have been appearing each year.
Diverse titles can open up our students’ eyes to what the world is like for people who have different lives and face different challenges. Just as importantly, though, these books allow underrepresented students the chance to see themselves in the characters on the page.
One group in particular that this post will focus on is characters with disabilities. There are a number of mainstream comics that include characters, primary and secondary, who fall under this category.
When bringing these books to your classroom, there are a number of ways that you can approach their introduction and application. Before we get to the list proper, here are a couple of suggestions for activating these texts:
- Avoid too much front loading on the nature of “disability.” Instead, allow your students to find their way to this component of the text organically. This allows the characters to transcend being considered one-note and defined by their disability instead of it just being one of their characteristics and challenge your students to recognize the diversity before them.
- Once the students have read and begun to respond to the texts, explore with them if and how disabilities make the characters more complex and whether or not they or the story would be different without this element.
- Once the students have a handle on the text, discuss how it approaches the subject of disability and how much more they understand about it and its impact on the characters’ lives.
Just a note, I am going to go ahead and make a blanket suggestion for Marvel’s Daredevil. One of Marvel’s longest running heroes who also happens to be blind has always been a great source of amazing stories and themes that have long since transcended Matt Murdock’s struggles with losing his sight as a child. There are so many outstanding storylines to consider, even if I dedicated this entire blog post to this one title alone, I still wouldn’t be able to cover them all, but The Frank Miller & Klaus Janson run is particularly amazing.
The list below includes some of the most memorable titles that I have had the pleasure of reading and bringing to my students via my classroom library. By no means is this a complete catalog and I know that I have left out many titles that would make wonderful additions to this list, so if you want to suggest them, please do so in the comments below!
Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke. Published by First Second Books.
Jack has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. His single mother relies on him a great deal and his most pressing task is to spend his summer vacation taking care of his sister Maddy, an autistic girl who does not speak. When the kids inadvertently trade their family car for a chest full of magic seeds and then plant them all, things go from odd to downright bizarre. The heart of this story is the relationship between the siblings as Jack tries his best to connect with his little sister. When her unique perspective on the world comes in handy, he learns a great deal about himself and what he just might be capable of accomplishing.
Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre. Published by First Second Books.
Taking down monsters is a common trope but seldom has the idea of David and Goliath been represented with as much style and, well, sheer fun as this. Claudette wants to follow in the footsteps of her father and be a monster slayer – starting with giants. The problem is that her friends are reluctant to help her achieve her dreams. The story is light hearted for the most part but sometimes slides gently into the relevant when it takes on the dangers of war through the character of Claudette’s father, a multiple amputee who utilizes a wheelchair throughout the story. His limbs were lost to the monsters he battled in his youth. He’s still a force to be reckoned with, using prosthetics in order to wade back into battle when the need arises.
Superb by David F. Walker and Sheena C. Howard. Published by Lion Forge.
Jonah is a superhero. He also happens to have Down Syndrome. He and his best friend Kayla navigate the rough waters of both high school and a world changed by the emergence of other super-powered beings. The book doesn’t cut any corners in its representation of the characters. In fact, Lion Forge has partnered with the National Down Syndrome Society in order to ensure that they are getting it right. As of this writing, the book is only available in individual issues but I am told that the first trade paperback collection will be available soon.
Epileptic by David Beauchard. Published by Pantheon.
This autobiographical tale of the artist and his experiences growing up with a brother who suffers from severe epilepsy is acclaimed for good reason. Through a combination of frightening images and an all too real series of outcomes for both David and his family, the book manages to be informative while often pushing the limit of what the reader is able to absorb and process on an emotional level. The artwork alone is worth the price of admission but the story is really an important one to bring to students because it offers a frank and no-holds-barred look at what someone who suffers from grand mal seizures has to endure and how it can test the resilience of a family.
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja. Published by Marvel Comics.
The acclaimed Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye made the oft-disregarded archer cool again in so many ways: with a new and modern art style and writing that breaks new ground not just for the character but also for the nature of superhero storytelling. You should definitely have the entire run which is available in four trade paperbacks in your classroom library but, for the purposes of this list, I want to focus on Volume 4. Hawkeye loses his hearing and that reshapes his idea about who he is and what kind of hero he can be. This is an exploration of change and diversity at its finest and you’d be hard-pressed to find this kind of depth in any other text, comic or prose.
DitzAbled Princess: A Comical Diary Inspired by Real Life by Jewel Kats and Katarina Andriopoulos. Published by Marvelous Spirit Press.
Jewel Kats has a number of issues with her bowels, which force her to walk with a cane or even, under certain circumstances, use a wheelchair. This never dampens her spirits, however, as she continues to forge her way through life despite the frequent hospital trips and the constant focus on her diet. Her attention remains on being fabulous, loving her husband, and defying any limitations the world may try to apply to her. As a side note, unfortunately, Jewel died in January of 2016, but her story remains an inspiration.
Birds of Prey: Volume 1 by Chuck Dixon, Matt Haley, and Drew Geraci. Published by DC Comics.
After the shocking and game changing The Killing Joke left Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, the future of the character was left in question. Not one to be kept down, Barbara returned and recruited some of the most resourceful female heroes to continue her pursuit of justice. Serving as a guide, strategist, and knowledge base, she leads her team from a command center with the world at her fingertips. It highlights the power of mind over body as she not only shows her superhero colleagues but also herself that being a hero doesn’t always involve punching and kicking the bad guy.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. Published by Lion Forge
Green’s no holds-barred autobiographical tale of her struggle of living with an eating disorder has won praise and accolades from critics and readers since its release earlier this year. The story is weighted with its honesty and represents the progression of the protagonist’s condition with stark reality. At the same time, the book manages to weave her psychological suffering into the narrative through the artistic choices. Katie seems to float weightlessly as her physical form disappears, leaving behind a barely-there shell, bereft of life or emotion. The visual allegory pulls together the loss of body and soul in a way that is hard to deny possesses a power that no simple textual description could accomplish. Classroom caution: the book does contain nudity.
Superior written by Mark Millar & penciled by Leinil Francis Yu. Published by Icon Comics (a Marvel imprint)
Simon has multiple sclerosis and wants nothing more than to be like Superior, a comic book superhero that he idolizes (and shares powers and abilities with a certain Man of Steel). Given the opportunity by what he thinks is a monkey from space, he becomes the living, breathing powerhouse Superior and is faced with the choices that no kid should ever have to make. Ultimately, Simon finds out that the power that granted him his immortal and indestructible form comes with some serious strings attached and has to decide whether to return to his much weaker body or defy the very goodness that Superior embodies in order to remain all powerful. The book takes the idea of being caged in one’s own physical form and adds a few wrinkles and ultimately, Simon’s decisions lead the way to a lesson about what really matters and what it means to be a human, taking the good with the bad and making sacrifices for the greater good.
El Deafo by Cece Bell. Published by Abrams.
This wonderful and genuine story of a young girl learning how to cope with her hearing loss at the age of four is not just touching, it’s true! Cece Bell shares her own struggles with acceptance and trust and invents a superhero persona for herself called (you guessed it) El Deafo. The book represents all characters as rabbits – a deliberate choice from the author to emphasize the importance of ears and hearing throughout. This book is both a coming of age story and a coming to terms story of not just being different but embracing those differences in order to find strength in being unique.
Metaphase by Chip Reece and Kelly Williams. Published by Alterna.
Chip Reece has a son with Down Syndrome and based the character of Ollie on him. Ollie wants to be a superhero like his father. Unfortunately, Ollie’s dad doesn’t want him to risk his life as part of that world, especially since he has a heart condition and other medical issues. Despite this, Ollie pursues getting powers from a company that does just that. The story takes the reader through the struggle of one boy’s desire to achieve his dreams and comes into conflict with the parent that wants to protect him at any cost.