Geek Girl Con was so much fun, I don’t even know where to begin. Autumn and I have a zillion photos and reams of panel notes, and Autumn interviewed some ladies from NASA. So we’ll be posting our Con Converge as quickly as real life allows. (Damn real life!)
This panel was proposed and moderated by Katelyn Bruhn. The other panelists were Greg Rucka, comic writer and novelist; Jen Van Meter, comic writer; Teal Sherer, actress and producer, and star of the webseries My Gimpy Life; and Jill Pantozzi, writer who contributes to many sites including The Mary Sue. This is a long write up because it was so awesome and so much was discussed.
So what inspired the panel, among other things, was the backlash last year when DC announced that in the New 52 reboot of Batgirl, Barbara Gordon would reprise the role. She had been using a wheelchair after the Joker shot her through the spine and had become the Oracle. In the reboot, she would be walking again.
Pantozzi says she was mostly in the dark about new 52 but a friend from DC gave her a heads up that they were getting rid of Oracle and putting Barbara back as Batgirl. She found it extremely upsetting. “Oracle is a role model of mine,” she says. And to have a bad ass female character alone is unique in the Dc universe, let alone one in a wheelchair. And of course back then, she had no idea how they would do it. Would they magic the wheelchair away? Pretend it never happened?
Sherer says she felt basically the same way. There are so few characters out there with disabilities.“There’s this misconception out there that people with disabilities are broken and need to be fixed..Maybe she doesn’t want to be fixed.” She released a youtube video dressed as Oracle to argue that side of it last year. (It’s hilarious and I suggest you watch it. On having to be Batgirl again: “Girl, I’m 30 years old!”)
Rucka says he’s curious now, a year later, how you feel about it and how it was handled? He’s quick to add not about Gail doing a good job, because that’s a given.
Pantozzi says Barbara Gordon is a good character no matter what. “[Gordon] as Batgirl is interesting but also, we have seen that story.”
Rucka agrees and adds that Oracle was so successful as a story because the entirety of her journey was in the books. Readers got to see her before the wheelchair, and see the trauma of being shot and then disabled, and see her cope with it and accept it and move on. If DC were to say, Okay, we hear you, toss in another wheelchair-bound lady crime fighter, it would feel apologist.
Bruhn asks, How important is it that when we rejoin Barbara she is recovering physically and emotionally even though she’s out of the chair? Bruhn is a big Marvel fan, so she’s big on the idea that when you fix something with Tony Stark you give him another problem. It’s a constant battle.
Pantozzi says before the reboot was released, the biggest question was how they would handle it. If would be a magic fix, science, not mentioned at all. Gail Simone probably had a big hand in saying, ‘we are going to explain this.’ But the biggest thing that is missing with Oracle right now is the Birds of Prey. Pantozzi has enjoyed the book but finds there’s a gap there. She also notes Gordon’s recovery happened very fast.
What role does gender play? Bruhn asks the panel. We see her recover over the course of years, and saw her in the chair. But how often do her male counterparts get similar injuries and are back fighting crime a week later?
Rucka says Batman had his injury magic wanded away. “I think that sort of answers your question.” Unless it’s built into the character, like Matt Murdock’s blindess or Tony Stark’s situation, it is going to get fixed. With Barbara it comes down to corporate. When Commissioner Gordon shot the Joker, Rucka and his cowriter went round and round saying Gordon had to kill the Joker. Joker killed his wife and it was the right ending. Less than a month later, Joker was fine.
It all comes down to money. They took her out of the wheelchair because Barbara is Batgirl in the mainstream, or what DC thinks is the mainstream. If they’d given Stephanie Brown a few more years, she would have replaced Gordon in that. “It was a financial decision, not a story decision.”
Pantozzi adds that they sometimes miss what the general public wants. “Sometimes I think they’re using a scrying ball,” Rucka agrees. For the most part, the publisher doesn’t understand it is the fans that lead the public knowledge.
Van Meter says that something she has noticed is that the money they want is from 18 to 35 year olds, but the people who are making those decisions are 55-60. They don’t believe the general public knows anything beyond Adam West. They think it because “oh we would be selling more comics otherwise.” They have “weird tornadoes of logic.” They think they can take this character ‘no one loved anyway and leave her in the chair.’ But her time as Oracle is what made her beloved to the people reading comics right now, so pulling her out of that role is the opposite of what her fans want.
Audience question: It was mentioned that they were pulling Gordon out of her chair and into a suit. Why can’t these characters wear a suit in the chair?
Van Meter says they can and they do. But it seems when someone is in the chair the chair becomes the costume. Partially because if you’re in the chair people can tell who you are whether you’re in costume or not, so the you get demoted to civilian. Rucka adds that the other problem is the misconception that disabled are incapable.
If Oracle comes back and if I ever write her, I will make her wear a costume, Pantozzi promises to a big cheer from the audience.
Disabled characters include Dare Devil and Tony Stark. Hawk Eye has been deaf, sometimes. How much do you think about disabilities when crafting the stories? asks Bruhn.
Anytime Van Meter is asked to write a character she hasn’t written before, she always takes extraordinary care not to screw up. She wants to make sure that the disbility isn’t the only thing bout them. Because any character runs the risk of becoming about just one thing in comics. “The whole thing gets easier if I imagine the reader as someone with a similar disabilities.” It gets a ton easier to ask the right questions. “If I change the imaginary reader, a lot shifts.”
Bruhn brings up the visual aspect. Pantozzi wrote a great piece on how wheelchairs are often drawn incorrectly.
Gail said the artists are on deadlines so unless you’re writer is super specific, you will get a hospital chair or something, Pantozzi says.
Rucka thinks it’s ridiculous. The first thing you should have drawing Barbara Gordon is appropriate reference, he says. “It would be like drawing Superman’s ‘S’ backwards. It’s unforgivable.”
Sherer mentions it happens a lot on tv and movies too. A character ends up in wheel chair, and it’s some terrible hospital grade chair.
It’s weird that artists can get Barbara’s chair wrong when they are meticulous about the getting the guns right, or the model of car, Van Meter points out.
Audience question: metal disabilities/invisible disabilities. Why is there this portrayl of patients with metal disabilities as shades of generic crazy? And why are good guys sane and bad guys insane?
The way I approach these characters is that none of them are crazy, Rucka says. “The only character I’ve written that was crazy is Joker. But the rest of them make internal sense. Poison Ivy is coldly sane.” The difference between mental disabilities and “crazy” “crazy” is a lazy writer’s tool to explain villain motivations.
Audience Question. What other comics do you love for how they portray disabilities?
My favorite ones are the ones not supposed to be disabled but are, answers Bruhn. X-men. The Hulk. The characters aren’t traditionally disabled but really are.
Sherer is more a fan of heroes that don’t have powers but use technology to fight crime. Being disabled and having metal rods in her back, and having her wheel chair, she connects to that idea.
The panel ran out of time, but no doubt the discussion could continue for hours. What are your thoughts? What heroes with disabilities do you enjoy reading? What kind of disabilities would you like to see comics or other media portray in the future?