It should come as no surprise that the Americans With Disabilities Act is my favorite triumphant piece of legislation past. This weekend was the act's anniversary, and I was humbled to see that Howlround, the amazing online theatre commons, reposted a piece I wrote for the organization last year in regards to theatricality and accessibility, citing the blog as one of "our favorite articles." The piece can be found here, and please enjoy these other articles about neurodiversity and performance of disability by able-bodied actors.
As spring beckons, my schedule for the year becomes clearer. First, I am proud to say I will continue teaching theatre and writing at Benedictine University and Prairie State College next fall. These are great schools, and it is my honor to work with the students at each institution. I enjoy the life of a teaching artist, and I'm glad I get to continue discussing art at these colleges.
Next, I am happy to say I was nominated as a finalist for Western Michigan University's Activate: Midwest New Play Festival. Once again, The Magnificent Masked Hearing Aid gets a little love. The script wasn't chosen for inclusion in the festival, but it's always nice to see my work resonates with people.
Speaking of work, I am knee-deep in writing what I think could make for a pretty exciting piece of theatre. The play revolves around recent questions of inclusion and disability and how and who gets to perform disability onstage. It's early stages yet, but I haven't been this exciting about a script in a long time.
Also coming down the pipeline? A comics project that I will have more details on later, but suffice it to say, I am pumped. And a web-series with a long-time friend that may be the most meta thing I've ever created.
Lots of cool things coming in 2015!
The Eisner Awards recently crowned Hawkeye number 11 the best single issue of 2013. Entitled "Pizza Is My Business," the story took a semi-break from Clint Barton's fight with the mobsters set on destroying the apartment building he owns, and explored the perspective of his pizza-loving dog, Lucky. The mobsters still made an appearance, along with a fetching female dog in their employ. But the remarkable aspect of the issue was not the plotting. It was the way writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja looked at the world through Lucky's eyes. Dialogue was eschewed for smells and gestures. A Chris Ware-like attention to structures and page-wide maps told Lucky's story in a way previously unseen in superhero comics.
Hints had been concealed throughout the series before issue 11, but Pizza Dog's story demonstrated that the creative crew was more invested in how perspective influenced plot than the other way around. In many superhero narratives, operatic plots are the be-all, end-all. Thematic content or characters beats take a backseat to solving the ridiculous problem of how to save the world. In Hawkeye, how characters perceive the plot supersedes the action. This approach has made it unique and beloved among Marvel Now! books, and it's not hard to see why. Lucky's journey through Clint's apartment building is a treat because no other series on the stands would showcase a dog's point of view.
Throughout Hawkeye, Fraction and Aja have taken the time to detail varying perspectives, often to delightful results. We get an issue of Lucky's adventures. We get Kate Bishop -- the other Hawkeye -- encountering a Long Goodbye-ish L.A. detective who may or may not exist. And we get Clint Barton -- the first Hawkeye -- spotting a Daily Bugle headline, and translating it into his own interpretation of events. Other highlights include Clint quizzically translating the potential French or Italian being yelled at him by thugs, and a visualization of his concentration while aiming his bow and arrow:
We are planted firmly and creatively in Clint and Kate's perspectives in this series. It becomes impossible not to root for our heroes because we so strongly see the world through their eyes, as if we were watching movies playing in their heads. Such impressions prove the power of comics to play with time, point of view, and action. When people tell me comics are dreck, I hand them books like Hawkeye, which demonstrate comics' potential.
Of course, this series has its problems. Clint is very much a white straight guy, and there are already a lot of white straight guy heroes in comics. Clint is set apart by his truly terrible decision-making, but the "bro bro bro" refrain from his thug antagonists can get tiring. Likewise, Kate's penchant for Kate-ifying everything (she calls trouble a "Kate-astrophe") can get grating. Such are the dangers of pointedly placing the reader inside the characters' heads. The long wait times between issues has also been hard to accept. (Fraction's decompressed storytelling, which has showcased the same series of events from four different perspectives, will likely read better in trade, instead of month to month.) I've found myself falling out of love with the series, despite its innovation, because I'm never sure when the next issue will appear. And since the two Hawkeyes are living across the country from one another right now, I've lost a sense of the story's larger stakes, at least regarding protection of Clint's apartment building.
That's all changed with issue 19. I didn't even realize the book was coming out today, so unaware have I been of its extended schedule. Luckily, my friend Nick linked me to a New York Times article last week discussing the fact that the series would be embracing Clint's past as a hard of hearing hero. After reading about Fraction and Aja's intentions, I got pretty fired up. I've always been troubled by Marvel's claim to bonafides in portraying disability; Clint rarely if ever displays hearing loss in appearances I've read, and while the creation of Blue Ear is an amazing story people link me to on a consistent basis, I'm still aware that Marvel recently "fridged" its one Deaf female hero, Echo. Hawkeye's artistic and editorial team working to share the perspective of somebody with hearing loss could only be a light in the darkness.
If you have any interest at all in graphic innovation or diversity in comics, please, please, PLEASE pick up Hawkeye 19. When we last left Clint, his ears had been damaged by an assassin, and his brother Barney had been shot. At the start of this issue, not only is Clint mourning the loss of his hearing, Barney is adjusting to the use of a wheelchair -- which Aja depicts in detail, as Barney must transfer from his chair to a car seat for the cab ride home from the hospital. Clint refuses to read lips, which leads to Barney encouraging him to speak via sign language. Clint's perspective is represented through blank speech bubbles, and Barney's signs are displayed in spelled letters or "how-to" manual type graphics, as shown above. Late in the story, when Clint begins to read lips, his tenants' words appear in lopsided bubbles, with sentences broken up into parenthesized fragments. (Still, their agreement to work together to rid themselves of the villains terrorizing their lives is represented not in speech, but gesture -- the powerful image of several raised arms, in unison.) If Fraction and Aja aimed to depict the non-hearing world for those who can hear, I'd say they more than succeeded. The effort it takes to decipher this story reminds me of the extreme focus I need to employ when my hearing aid is in the shop. And Clint's efforts to touch the world and understand it become more worthwhile and celebratory for his concentration and effort.
Hawkeye's hearing loss has appeared and disappeared before, but I hope it at least sticks around for the rest of Fraction's run, which ends with issue 21 or 22. Marvel could use the perspective; such characters only enrich the company's universe. And if you look at the sales numbers for digital comics and comic book movies, it's clear the audience wants more than white bread heroes. With diversity being triumphed by many creators and even companies, with the reading audience broadening and clamoring for more varied points of view, a big change feels like it's coming to comics: one that includes as many points of view as there are people on the planet.
Hawkeye artists: Matt Fraction, Writer; David Aja, Artist; David Aja & Chris Eliopoulos; Matt Hollingsworth, Colorist.
Outside of Ellen's massively retweeted celebrity selfie, the most viral moment of the Oscars was probably John Travolta's flub while saying Idina Menzel's name. I suppose I could link to the occurrence, as I often link to things for extra context, but given the amount of "how Travolta would mispronounce your name, yuk yuk" generators popping up on Facebook, I feel like everyone has heard about it. Don't get me wrong, I think peeling back the veneer of celebrity perfection tends to be more helpful than harmful, but here ... I guess I wonder whether the flub doesn't deserve a little grace. Or at least a pass.
Not just because these things happen, but because John Travolta is both reported to have and not have dyslexia, and discussion of whether or not it's okay to joke about his mistake is leading to a weird Internet justification circle-jerk about him working on being better at his job, if he is in fact dyslexic. We spend a lot of time on the world wide web both celebrating and decrying political correctness, but Travolta's flub provides insight into why it's important to treat mental disorders seriously. Because if you don't, victim-blaming abounds (even if the subject in question isn't actually dyslexic).
The fact is that sometimes working on what you have to say in public won't actually counteract a mispronunciation, and this would be an easy thing for most to admit if dyslexia wasn't involved. If the Travolta who presented at the Oscars on Sunday was officially and completely known to not be dyslexic, then all the name generators in the world wouldn't seem suspect to me. As it is, they do, because highlighting a simple mistake in the face of a bloated awards show seems like easy pickings -- and because people's insistence that the mistake is on him, regardless of genetics or brain chemistry, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. People who have dyslexia or any type of learning disability (full disclosure: I have ADD) already have enough to deal with, without being told their failures are that much more weighty, because they have a disorder.
Anyway, that's just how this whole thing is striking me. It may be a personal reaction, but I find the situation annoying. Others may not see this as a travesty, and that's fine (there's certainly other things going on in the world that deserve greater attention). But can we all admit that the joke has unintended bite in its well-tended justification? If we're honest about that -- what we're saying, and why -- then we can learn something from it.
I am honored to announce that I have had a piece published on Howlround this afternoon. For those who don't know, Howlround is an online meeting place where artists can interact and discuss theatre and teaching practices, along with a host of others subjects. Entitled "A Place In The Conversation: Portraying Disability Onstage," my post was adapted from a thought-piece I wrote earlier in January on this very blog, and it was a blast to work with Howlround to bring questions about putting disability onstage to a wider audience. So, give my Howlround essay a read, and get involved in the discussion! I'd love to read your thoughts!
It wasn't until graduate school that I really examined my disability. Obviously, I've made allowances for my inability to hear certain things at certain times throughout my life; I've always accepted that as part of my daily routine. And I was educated on the technicalities of my hearing loss by numerous doctors and counselors, to better explain my needs to other people; that was no biggie, either -- just part of making sure I lived life to its fullest. But it wasn't until I got a new hearing aid in 2011 that I truly caught how little I was hearing in classes up to that winter quarter. Not having to crane forward to listen or do so much guesswork with lip-reading gave me the luxury to relax and truly think about my hearing loss. About my essential need for devices to help me hear. About how my coping skills went noticed or unnoticed by those around me. About how I felt about what I could and couldn't hear. About how reluctant I was to think about my feelings about what I could and couldn't hear.
That last bit surprised me. As a writer, I spend a lot of time dredging my own (and sometimes others') experience for answers to life's big questions, but giving myself time to examine my feelings about my disability, from age eight onward, seemed daunting. I was happy to accept I could hear better now, but when asked what I thought of my disability, or why I didn't write about it, I often passed my hearing loss off as part of my life, a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole essence of my identity. Sure, I had memories of rough times adjusting to wearing a hearing aid, and the stress of being the constant classroom expert on hearing loss took a little getting used to; but no great shakes, these memories. But when asked to plumb my experience of disability for narrative conflict by my advisers, why was my response immediate and dismissive? "Not being able to hear is intrinsic for me, that's all," I'd think. "Nobody on the outside will be interested enough to know about it."
First off, I was wrong about that. Plenty of people were interested, and plenty of people could find parallels between a hard of hearing person's struggles and their own (without either party being reductive about it). Second, though I may never know the why of my immediate response, I now find it telling nonetheless. I assumed sole-ness or alone-ness in my condition. As far back as I can remember, I was the only kid in my class with hearing loss. This made it extra-imperative for my parents to motivate me to see my disability as a positive, as something that contributed to my work ethic and personality, as opposed to detracted from those elements of my identity. (So, of course, I took their encouragement and turned it into a superhero. More about that here.) They also worked hard to make sure I never felt different from my classmates, but the honest fact of the matter is that I still was. That's neither a positive or a negative; it's also not something I ruminated on until I began research for a play centered on family and disability and identity.
As part of my research, I educated myself on the Deaf community's relationship to technology, some of which I've used in the past -- shake-awake alarms, closed captioning systems, basic stuff. I took the 2000 documentary "Sound And Fury" out of the Ohio University library and watched it. I'd highly recommend tracking this movie down (as well as its sequel!), because it deftly explores the pro and con sides to using a cochlear implant, while documenting one family's debate over whether or not its Deaf members should adopt the technology. At one point in the first "Sound and Fury," a Deaf father laments that if his daughter gets a cochlear implant, she will be neither Deaf nor hearing; she will be a third thing, with no specific culture to bind her to her family, to him. I paused the film. I rewound it. I played his comments again. I rewound the film. I played the comments again. I paused the film. I began to cry. Because I was that third thing he was talking about. And I'd never recognized that before. Obviously, I don't feel disconnected from my life or from my family and friends. I relate to them as any fully hearing person would; my disability is not severe to the point of separating me from anything, but it still calls for a lot of explanation. And I see myself in parts of the Deaf community (in the emphasis on visuals and body language), though I have no clue if I have a place there. I am that third thing that has no prescribed place.
When describing this reaction to an adviser, he pointed out that straddling two worlds afforded me a unique perspective as an artist. I agreed, but my epiphany also made me lonely in a weird way. The more research I did, the more singular I felt; the more singular I felt, the more I latched on to reflections of myself in media. (This is why I so love shows like "Switched At Birth" or books like Wonderstruck; they show me myself, and I devour their tales selfishly -- less for the ideas they impart, more for the "Yup, I've been there" feelings of relief they evoke in me.) Two years and some change away from that fateful watching of "Sound and Fury," I still wrestle. Examination of disability has claimed a larger and larger part of my own writing, and I find myself attracted to discourse on the subject, which further challenges me as an artist.
Take, for example, Jacqueline Lawton's recent great interview with Gift Theater co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, as part of the Theatre Communication Group's Diversity & Inclusion blog salon. Seriously, read the whole interview and then come back. It is a smart, thought-provoking discussion about the types of inclusion needed within Chicago storefront theatre. Of particular interest to me was Michael Patrick Thorton's thoughts about casting actors with disabilities: "Maybe in addition to seeking out disablist playwrights, we should also be strongly encouraging our national playwrights to encourage casting directors to see disabled actors for non-disabled-identified roles and advocate for them to producers. To me, that’s really a critical step toward the endgame of perceptive normalcy." In another part of the interview, Thornton talks about the foregrounding of disability in ableist storytelling, which reduces a person to simply what they lack, or what happened to them to create that lack. There's a ton of truth to what he's saying, and writing for disabled actors without making their disability the focus of their plots is one way to create balance between character and actor.
But I wonder if there's another way to do that, too. And it involves such a personal way of looking at things for me that I don't know if my perspective has any merit in the larger goings-on of producing theatre. But here we have it anyway -- perhaps another necessary thing for disablist playwrights to do is to draw the audience, disabled or not, into the perspective of characters who have disabilities, and to do that in as many different ways as possible, to reach someone and communicate experience clearly and intelligently (through touch, taste, sound, or any possible sense). For me, I find freedom in my everyday problems being examined; the actor's vocals changing as his hearing aid blinks on and off provides some of my favorite material in Tribes. So I wonder ... Is there a way to make disability a part of the world of one's play, without reducing it to stereotype or "triumph-over-adversity" tales? Is there a way to make it business as usual while sharing it with someone unaware of its pitfalls and daily accommodations? Or can it be the driving examination of the play without seeming wholly negative? (I am trying to walk this tight-rope with a play about Joe Shuster and his diminishing sight; it's no easy task, I'm finding.) These questions always leap to my mind in discussions about how disability is portrayed or invited onto a stage. Because there are so many possible answers, the questions kind of haunt me.
The one thing I do know is that an individual artist's perspective (whether it be writer, director, designer, or actor) will always come into play somewhere along the line, and a choice about portraying disability will have to be made. For me, if I could offer someone the opportunity to recognize their own experience far sooner than their late twenties (when I did), I'll be a happier playwright for it.
I am a big admirer of year-end lists. Yet there are reasons not to be. Lists can reduce the year's output to a simplified collection of already well-covered moments. They can inadvertently steer a body away from searching deeper into the records of pop culture, to discover objects on one's own. They can define taste, instead of interrogating it. On the other hand, such lists can still introduce a person to a movie or book or play they'd never consider otherwise. Or, lists can force one to reconsider something long filed away as inconsequential or lost. And, let's face it, there's a lot of entertainment to be had in seeing critics praise art you already appreciate. I guess what I'm saying is, your mileage may vary.
Me, I love lists! So I thought I'd post one of my own on the good old blog, specifically centering around achievements in comics this year. I spend a lot of time on this blog being critical Sarah. I thought it might make a nice change of pace to celebrate the year 2013 in comics, through five (by my standards) noteworthy comics. These are my choices. What are yours? Sound off in the comments section!
My Five Notable Comics From 2013 (Though Most Are Over A Year Old)
I'll start with my most anticipated read of the year: March. I actually gave Congressman John Lewis' graphic memoir to my father for Christmas. Largely inspired by his connection with and consumption of the 1957 comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, this book is the first of three to chronicle Lewis' life and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. The first volume deals with Lewis' young life, and Nate Powell's beautiful black and white art quickly draws you into Lewis' perception of the world around him. Particularly striking are the book's opening moments, when a young Lewis preaches to the family chickens, and the closing pages, which involve a paddy wagon full of arrested individuals driving "off-screen" as they sing about overcoming great obstacles. Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin intended this story to teach future generations about civil rights and the work of Dr. King, just as that 1950's book taught him. There are many lessons throughout the book, but it never reads as dry or didactic, only engrossing and awe-inspiring.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga arrived on shelves in the spring of 2012, but it's been on my mind ever since. The story of two parents trying to raise a child in a mixed-up world might seem old hat by this point in human history, but add in intergalactic wars, ghost nannies, robot princes, and a cat who can tell when you're lying, and everything old becomes new again! Staples' down-to-earth pencils and ink ground this space opera in human concerns, like what happens to a body after pregnancy, or how to get a job when one's entire family is on the run from two sides of the same war -- and while I don't discuss lettering much in this space, Staples' handwritten narration gives a glint of the sassy grown-up child these parents will raise. Of course, Vaughan's signature sense of humor and heart saturates the plot, but it is his dissection of narrative as life-sustaining, and family as the forge that shapes and even melts our sensibilities, that define the book. Released in increments to give Staples enough lead time to craft the tale well, this creator-driven work engages with its audiences' real-life concerns in a visceral, vibrant way.
How to talk about Young Avengers? I've read interviews where writer Kieron Gillen equates the team book with the adolescent act of starting a band. It's also clear the entire short season of fifteen issues is meant to be a metaphor for being eighteen, for being on the cusp of adulthood, of learning one's possibilities and limitations. Hailed by many comics sites as something new, a pop-infused story that addresses ACTUAL young people (instead of middle-aged readers who grew up with Superman and The Simpsons), this book was labelled Tumblr bait by cynics, even as optimists embrace its shirtless Noh-Varr scenes and emotional roller coasters. What can't be disputed by anyone is the genius of the artwork -- Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton sculpt classic comics facial expressions into pop art shots, and muck about with traditional layouts, even breaking borders between panels to connect their isolated teenagers. This book may be ending soon (I blame the need to boost Loki's age, in order to appease Tom Hiddleston fans, I suspect), but its appeal lies in its "flash-in-the-pan" nature. The Young Avengers save the world, then go for Korean barbecue afterwards; the sad truth of adolescence is that good nights like that aren't meant to last forever.
Astro City brought me back to reading comics on a monthly basis two years ago. So it's only fitting that the series' return should end up on my "top of 2013" list. Now published under Vertigo's banner, Astro City hasn't lost a step, even after vanishing for a time due to scribe Kurt Busiek's health concerns. The new group of issues has examined both the heroes and regular citizens of the titular city, with covers from painter Alex Ross warmly inviting us into Busiek's bright world. Interior artist Brent Anderson has made the transition from pen and paper to digital, and his work remains as clear-eyed and emotional as ever. Meanwhile, Busiek builds and builds his superheroic universe, adding in call responders to a hero hotline, a giant alien presence intent on studying humanity, and a potentially unhinged fourth wall-breaking miscreant -- while revisiting old faces, including a retired family man, a stuntwoman psychic, and our first-ever look into his Wonder Woman stand-in, Winged Victory. At the end of each issue, a tiny street sign alerts us that we are now leaving Astro City. When the book was on hiatus, that notice struck me as bittersweet. Now the story continues, and I can't wait to come back.
I've written and written and written about Daredevil. About Mark Waid's interrogation of fear and fearlessness, of perception and obsession. About Chris Samnee and Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin and Javier Rodriguez and their consistent, snappy artwork. About my appreciation for a book that actually addresses disability, even if its central character is essentially sighted, given his radar sense. So what haven't I praised about this title? What's left to write about? I'll tell you what's left -- lawyer and Dare-love interest Kirsten McDuffie. She's amazing. She's basically Lois Lane, except she was in on the secret identity thing from the get-go. So I guess she's more like Linda Park, a woman Waid has had some experience scripting in the past. In the latest issue of the Dare-saga, Kirsten flirted with danger by addressing New York citizens via some sort of super-microphone during a crisis. In the process, she officially won Matt Murdock's heart, as she set everyone straight about the fear-mongering Sons of Serpents, a group of racists intent on creating mob rule in the Big Apple. Corny, sure. But Kirsten's heroics are just as important as Daredevil in this book; that is a refreshing change of pace for a love interest.
PSYCH! BONUS PICK, Y'ALL! (I SAID I'D STOP AT FIVE, YET HERE WE ARE!)
Hawkeye is a book about what Hawkeye does when he's not being an Avenger, usually when he's hanging out with the other, cooler Hawkeye. Also, it's about his dog Lucky, who loves pizza. Helmed by writer Matt Fraction, artist David Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, this book has been a fan favorite for months, even as it's gotten a bit behind schedule, shipping-wise. But it's worth the wait. Fraction's decompression of time can be trying when read a month at a time, but his current insistence on telling street-level stories from a variety of perspectives, including Pizza Dog's, has brought a lot of enjoyment to me, personally. Aja's work can be sprightly and perceptive (as when Hawkeye leaps through the air naked, and a little Hawkeye mask covers his unmentionables; or when a phone conversation with Kate is split into thirty-something distinct panels). Hollingsworth gives everything a purple tinge and a cartoony look that makes Hawkeye's world seem pretty basic, even as the writing deepens Hawkeye's descent into poor behavior. With Clint Barton's book, come for the humor, stay for the inventiveness and emotional gut punches!
Despite its reputation, I've never been a huge fan of The Killing Joke. Graphic novel enthusiasts remind me it's long been considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, due to the Dark Knight's psychologically complex sparring matches with the Joker. That doesn't make me like it any better. The mental and emotional damage featured in its pages have heavily influenced twenty-plus years of Batman comics since, people point out; I acknowledge that this is true, and read a Superman book instead. What about Chris Nolan's masterful portrayal of the chaos/order dichotomy at the heart of Batman and the Joker's battle for Gotham City in "The Dark Knight?" I admit I like that movie a lot, even though it ends twice; I appreciate Nolan's distilling of the entire book into an intense ten-minute interrogation scene that allows the Joker and Batman time to highlight their similarities and differences. But it still can't make me admire the source material.
Because for all its high-minded thoughts about justice and revenge and the human capacity to survive immense horrors, The Killing Joke still views the most humane character in the Bat mythos as cannon fodder. And such a cynical mindset makes readers focus on the wrong things inside the tale itself. Case in point: a lot has been said in recent months about Batman potentially killing the Joker at the end of the story -- giving context to the title, The Killing Joke. I can understand Grant Morrison's need to structurally justify the story's violence with claims that author Alan Moore was not only investigating the hero and villain's relationship, he was finishing it; he was taking Batman over the edge. Certainly, this hypothesis blew the minds of avid readers within the industry, people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith and comics legend Mark Waid. But I couldn't get invested in that reading for two reasons. One: the artwork and dialogue in the last pages of the book are subtle to the point of obfuscation; if Moore and artist Brian Bolland wanted us to understand a murder had been committed, and Batman had lost his mind and war on crime simultaneously (which, admittedly, is a pretty powerful ending), then they should have given us the clues we needed to finish the image in our minds. The script itself doesn't offer much in the way of context, either. Two: the relentless, continuing picking-apart of the hero and villain's relationship, while the point of the story, only serves to diminish examination of the tale's terrible treatment of its lone female figure, which yesterday, was revealed to be worse than previously thought.
I speak, of course, about Barbara Gordon, and her paralyzing at the hands of the Joker. Yes, Alan Moore wrote a story about the Clown Prince of Crime psychologically torturing Batman and his colleague Commissioner Jim Gordon, but the way he chose to frame this torture through the physical violation and shooting of Barbara Gordon, then Batgirl, is the big set-piece of the story. And it serves no purpose to change Barbara herself; the incident exists only to give stakes to Batman's run towards insanity. Which folks admire as strong storytelling even today, even if I've heard Alan Moore himself regrets the tale, even after Brian Bolland has revealed, along with a comics researcher, that Barbara was initially supposed to be photographed fully naked, blood gushing from her lower regions in as pornographically violent a shot as I can think of. But I ask -- what is psychologically complex about destroying a woman so that men can prove themselves able to endure witnessing it? (Or, in the case of Morrison's take, what is complex about watching a man avenge a woman's unnecessary destruction?)
Sure, in the final printing, DC Comics toned down the violence and nudity on the page where Jim Gordon views a group of photographs, taken by the Joker, showing how much pain his daughter is in. Kudos to them, I guess? But there's still that nagging, well-known story that editor Len Wein gave Moore the okay to "cripple the bitch." Discovering that Barbara's torment was initially drawn to titillate as well as horrify only gives the lie to this story, and proves how little Moore and Bolland cared about her, beyond her use as a plot device.
Some might tell me this revelation about Barbara's nude shot is irrelevant now, as it was never published in the first place. To them I say, it's all the more relevant today, because it visually demonstrates the hugely problematic treatment of women in comics history, inside one of its most-purchased stories. If women are to stop being victims in narratives, then books like this need to be seen for the flawed creations they are; they shouldn't be championed as innovative in all aspects, if they are simplistic in major ways.
What's most remarkable about The Killing Joke, to me, is that Barbara survived it; in fact, she flourished in spite of its twisted humor. Today, she is back to being Batgirl, but thanks to the initial work of comics team John Ostrander and Kim Yale, Barbara became so much more than another creature in a cowl. She became information broker Oracle, a woman who proudly accepted her disability and the different life it led her to build. Greatly under-appreciated Bat-journeyman Chuck Dixon never shied away from spotlighting her feelings about it, and in his 1990's run on Birds of Prey, he gave Barbara the words to burn Nightwing and Batman for thinking of her primarily as damaged goods.
Her speech (pictured above) is so powerful because it recognizes her agency, her ability to build her life -- whereas The Killing Joke left her for dead, helpless and alone. I loved Oracle my entire childhood, and well into my adulthood; she showed readers there were many ways to be a hero, and not every hero had to jump around on rooftops to accomplish good works. The only reason I shy away from New 52 depictions of Batgirl now are because DC feels it necessary to remind readers over and over again how seminal her torture at the hands of the Joker was; I prefer to believe Barbara's best moments came after that heinous narrative choice. I believe her best moments came when she did good works, while disabled, maybe because of her disability, all under her own steam.
Bruce Wayne: The Road Home -- Oracle #1: Shane Davis & Barbara Ciadro, Cover Artists.
Birds of Prey vol. 1, #8: Chuck Dixon, Writer; Greg Land, Penciller; Drew Geraci, Inker; Gloria Vasquez, Colorist; Albert DeGuzman, Letterer.
In between bouts of checking email and reading the newspaper this past Sunday, I came upon an eye-catching tweet from personal acting hero, Marlee Matlin. In it, she points out that a weekend New York Times profile about Michael J. Fox and his upcoming eponymous show mentions the growing use of disabled actors/characters on TV, while failing to list any deaf performers as examples.
I quickly turned to the New York Times Arts section to peruse the aforementioned article. Sure enough, while disabled characters from 1970's TV shows and today are mentioned, it seems that entire swaths of people (including Deaf actors) are missing from the commentator's analysis. As a hard of hearing woman, I found this a little baffling, especially because Matlin has been on SO MANY different, and popular, television programs over the years -- as she herself points out, before mentioning all the other Deaf actors she can think of on her feed:
Now I for one have been excited about "The Michael J. Fox Show" for months, ever since I caught a clip of what must be a typical family dinner within the show's universe. In said clip, Michael J. Fox struggles to hold a spoon steady enough to serve himself some food, before his wife grabs it from his hand, pointing out that the children are starving, and they don't have time for one of his personal victories right that moment. Mike amiably gives up the spoon, and his wife dishes everything out for everybody. The matter-of-factness of that moment left my jaw on the floor. In most TV programming I've encountered, disabilities hinder to the point of generating giant crying jags, or they provide the impetus for stories of overwhelming, music-swelling triumph, endgame achieved. The reality of living with a disability day-in, day-out is much harder to catch on-screen, with its little compromises and regularly unseen accomplishments. Oftentimes, my disability seems easy to accommodate, but that's only because anticipating my troubles takes up a huge amount of my mental energy and ingenuity. The point being, people with disabilities don't let things hold them back, by and large. They are just as capable as anyone else, if not moreso. Sometimes, they just need a little help, and sometimes they need to pick their moments. "The Michael J. Fox Show" seems to innately understand this -- unsurprisingly, since Fox has been poking fun at/utilizing his illness for personal gain for some time over on "The Good Wife" -- and I look forward to whatever he and his storytellers have to say about living with Parkinson's disease.
But back to Ms. Matlin's point. There are a LOT of actors with disabilities working today. And shouldn't their contribution be recognized outside her tweets about their mere existence on planet Earth? Frankly, I needed her reminders, because her messages got me thinking. I have a disability, I write about it all the time, I take pride in exploring it for (hopefully) the benefit of my audiences. Yet how often have I actually worked with performers who have disabilities? I think the answer can be counted on one hand. There are artists out there who write about disability FOR actors with disabilities. Not only do they provide work for highly undervalued and diverse performers, they successfully bridge the gap between so-called "normal" audiences and the disabled performers; John Belluso was one such playwright before his untimely death. Why am I not doing this, too?
The answer can't be as simple as, "I don't know where to find actors with disabilities." I find them when I look. And I do look, often discovering cool theatrical events along the way. But then there's this other part of me, this tiny voice that says, "What you try to do is make disabilities relatable by theatricalizing/translating the experience of living with/perceiving life through them. Couldn't a non-disabled actor learn something from that?" Certainly, I've worked with actors who can hear, who have painstakingly observed me in order to portray what it's like not to hear (both physically and emotionally); ultimately, they have given amazing performances. So I don't want to devalue their hard and respectful work with my doubts. But also, there's this niggling worry at the back of my mind. If never given the opportunity to represent themselves within the work I create, how am I serving people with disabilities? Am I so mainstream that I can't actually connect with a community I belong to by virtue of my hearing loss, by virtue of being just who I am?
That's a question that's been haunting me for some time. It leaves me at a loss, completely stymied. There's virtue in being caught between two worlds, I suppose. But other times, it feels like I'm serving two masters, without even fully understanding my obligation to one. Tweet sessions like the one above remind to keep exploring, to keep working, to recognize myself in others, but still demand more of the culture at large. I can only thank Ms. Matlin for that, and keep working to broaden my horizons and my artistic partnerships.
There is a lot to be written about in the comics world from this past week. I could spend time rhapsodizing about the latest issue of Hawkeye, which featured engrossing artwork that put Clint Barton's dog Lucky (or, Pizza Dog, depending on who you ask) front and center, both in terms of plot structure and point of view. I could go on and on about how much I love Brian Wood's X-Men, which features a powerhouse cast of women, who wear all their clothing and display a level of care that's refreshing but rare in superhero comics. Or I could talk about how well-calibrated the artwork in Young Avengers is, where a series of panels of someone answering a phone provides impressive amounts of movement across a page. Then there's Kitty Pryde taking back the "M-word." I could talk about all of that, with pleasure.
But I can't, because I'm stuck on Daredevil. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee finished up a two-year arc last week, and its ending made me rethink everything I've been praising about the series. In May, Waid revealed the person gaslighting Matt Murdock was none other than deadly assassin Bullseye, and I had to admit, I was a little sad to see the psychopath return, as I've been loving the cheerier version of Daredevil on display since 2011. The darkness continued this month, when Matt is forced to face his foe, whose last tango with our hero left him practically senseless.
This set of panels, among others, tripped me up. From the start, I'd bought into a particular tenet of this book, the part that displayed the individual perception of disability (Matt's), that showed how grappling with difficulties could make a person stronger. But here I was, faced with Bullseye's "incapacities," and there was no attempt to spin them in a more positive light. Let's be clear: I know there is not a lot of joy to be found in losing the use of one's body. You have to work to find it. I feel like I've done that work, and even still, I have moments of complete frustration with my inability to hear things, usually when my hearing aid is in the shop. Surely, that disappointment deserves a platform, too. And using Bullseye, a completely unsympathetic character, to tell that story is certainly a unique tack.
Still, I felt icky about the way his disability was portrayed throughout this final showdown. Bullseye, once a terrifyingly imaginative marksman, is now trapped in some sort of sensory deprivation tank that's keeping him alive. His only remaining sense, sight, seems to torture him, as opposed to providing him an outlet. After twenty-six issues where Daredevil's vulnerabilities were explored with sensitivity and given their due tension (particularly when they rubbed up against his super-powers), here the creative team's opinion about disability seemed flat and total. Disability became nothing more than something everyone fears, something no one should wish on their worst enemy. It's what everybody always thinks when they're not disabled -- "I'm glad I'm not them."
In only twenty-two pages, everything I'd cherished about Matt's sunny approach to his limitations was shown to be wrong, in Bullseye's experience. I tried to believe that philosophical differences were being demonstrated here, except that given the chance to save Bullseye from getting acid in his eyes, Matt isn't fast enough. Stalwart friend Foggy asks Matt if he was too slow on purpose, if he didn't allow Bullseye to be blinded. Here's how Matt responds:
Matt only admits he did the right thing. He did the right thing by possibly incapacitating Bullseye further, thus ending the man's reign of terror. He did the right thing by inflicting a negative on someone. This makes for great storytelling, I'm not arguing that. It makes Matt a shaded protagonist. But here's my problem. Till now, blindness was never seen as a total negative in this book. It had its challenges, but we saw again and again how Matt rose to meet them. So having him maybe inadvertently inflict it on someone with the intent of disability only causing endless harm, to me, derailed the entire purpose of valuing and embracing Matt's perceptions. It derailed the whole philosophy Waid and his editors have been building from the beginning. It derailed the whole book.
I reread this issue about five times, searching for some other way to look at things. I couldn't find myself and people like me cast to the side after all these months, I wouldn't accept it. Ironically, it was in peering deeply at the book that I truly understood Bullseye's perception of the world and his disadvantages. It came during his discussion with Daredevil about being built into his tank, where he describes how he handled being mostly senseless ...
It was this moment that allowed me to gasp relief. By seeing through Bullseye's eyes (the best books right now often move us through various points of view), I understood that this issue WAS a debate about how one views his/her limitations! In fact, the whole run of the book has been about that. We've watched Matt lose -- then super-regain -- his senses, and work with what he has, regardless. We've watched him discuss his response to initially losing his sight, and how he recovered from that. He's often joked about how being able to see would keep him from doing half the crazy things he attempts. And while he arguably traps Bullseye in blindness, he's only using a prison the villain already built. These panels prove it.
Matt lost a sense, and became a champion of the little guy. Bullseye lost sense, and did everything he could to manipulate and destroy those around him. By showing the audience how single-minded and despairing Bullseye allows himself to be in new circumstances, Waid and Samnee demonstrate how outlook is formed by how you respond to your weaknesses. Truly, it is all in how you look at it. This idea is reinforced by the issue's ending, when Matt reminds Foggy that at one point in the arc, Mr. Nelson thought his law partner was crazy. Foggy responds, "I don't think you're crazy, Matt. I think you're fearless." Fearless, because Matt faces obstacles, and chooses to see them as opportunities. Fearless, because he is disabled, and uses the unique perspective that gives him to build a better life. Fearless, because he may be the only superhero out there right now whose limits are shown to be his strengths. (Though I was happy to see Brian Michael Bendis give Echo the non-death coda she deserved last month in Daredevil: End of Days.)
So here I sit, shaking my head at losing faith in Mark Waid and company for even a moment. If you're not reading Daredevil, you absolutely should be. It's not the flashiest book that Marvel's putting out at the moment, but it may be the most revolutionary. Daredevil takes everything you think you understand about the five senses, then proves how you can survive with or without them, an idea rarely posited by anyone in practical society. More importantly, in the book's view, those with disabilities are no more victims than anyone else struggling with something. It's how you approach that struggle that gives you strength. For me, that's something I can draw power from. That's a philosophy we could use more of in an age when it often seems to make more sense to sweep disability under the rug than examine it in the harsh light of day.
Playwright News & Musings on Comic Book Culture
Check this page for updates on Sarah's writing and thoughts on a great many topics, including but not limited to superheroes and disability.