During a visit to my son’s college we were offered lectures on various subjects, and I did chose one by Jay Boyar, Professor for Film, with the title ‘Superheroes With Disabilities’! Turns out that Professor Boyar used to work for Stan Lee at Marvel, and I really enjoyed listening to what he had to tell us.
Since the early comics of the 1930’s superheroes always had to have a weakness to even out the odds and the playing field. If those heroes would have been too powerful, their stories would have been over too quickly. Superman was allergic to Kryptonite, Aquaman couldn’t leave his element, water, for too long and Wonder Woman was really into bondage! Boyar said he couldn’t believe what the writers of Wonder Woman got away with in those days, after all those comic books back then had to be no more than level PG.
Some time in the 1960’s a dramatic change happened. Stan Lee with his comic books transferred superheroes imaginary weaknesses to regular disabilities real people might face. Stan Lee quote: ” The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to. They’d be flesh and blood, and they’d have their faults and foibles; they’d be fallible and feisty.” The question comes up if he had any experience personally with disabilities himself or in his family, but the answer is “no”. It was very unusual to think of people’s disabilities in the 1960’s. Back then we were not as sensitive or concerned about that subject.
Stan Lee with the help of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko worked on a formula to get his superheroes right. He had a vision of new Marvel characters.
This fact about the flaws and disabilities of the superheroes is well known, but hardly ever gets commented on or pointed out. It gets largely overlooked, and I never realized the common factor until Professor Boyar pointed it out. So one new hero of the 60’s had an eye patch like Nick Furry, The Shield. But he changed over the years too from the war hero and veteran in the comic to the latest Nick Furry of The Avengers.
Quoting Will Jacobs and Gerald Jones:” By 1963 Lee had finally found the formula to ensure that all his heroes possessed the originality he sought. The key to the formula lay in the idea of a flawed hero…..Lee and his collaborators moved on to develop heroes who were more subtly impaired, either by common handicaps or spiritual unease.” So the new superheroes have real disabilities. They are mentally, physically or emotionally challenged. There is also a link between their disability and their power. Thor needed a walking stick which turns into a hammer. The Daredevil is blind and his cane turns into his weapon when he changes forms.
Dr. Strange was a surgeon until a car accident destroyed his hand nerves, Iron Man has a weak heart, the Hulk and the Thing have no real disabilities, but monstrous appearances. Spider Man has an emotional challenge, he is very neurotic. In one scene he actually visits a psychiatrist while in full costume! The only real exceptions, that have no handicaps after they became a superhero are Captain America, Antman and the Sub-Mariner. It makes you wonder why nobody did ever stress the fact of the handicaps or flaws before! Stan Lee was certainly ahead of his time in recognizing the existence of disabilities. I also think it makes the heroes more relatable to all of us flawed and average people.
Marvel Comics innovations of the 1960’s:
Stories set in real locations like New York City
Superheroes with character flaws
Characters with realistic emotional lives
Superheroes with financial problems
Superheroes without secret identities
Frequent meet-ups among superheroes
Stories with complex political content
Superheroes with disabilities…………..so just like some of us!