Project Humanities lecture explores superhero disabilities

From Daredevil to Hawkeye, Echo to Batwoman, superheroes have become attractive figures of perfection and inhuman capabilities that comic book fanatics love. However, most of these imaginative heroes are in battle with someone other than their infamous enemies: their flawed alter egos.

These superhero disabilities were the subject of a Wednesday lecture as part of Project Humanities' week-long “Heroes, Superheroes and Superhumans” event addressing the societal expectations of comic book superheroes and of everyday real heroes.

Communications professor Cheree Carlson lectured on the history of Marvel and DC comic books and their superhero trends, including how the novels portray disabilities.

The lecture focused on superheroes in comic books who obtained disabilities in their secret identities, but were given superhero capabilities that overcame the disabilities.

“Comics both reflect societal attitudes and play a role in shaping them,” Carlson said.

She discussed how comics reflect how society perceives both heroes and people with disabilities.

“People who read comics need to be exposed to normal diversity,” she said. “They need to see that it's normal to have abnormal people in the universe and to know that there are disabled people in the world.”

Carlson said disabled characters are a way for comics to normalize the idea of people in society having disabilities. These characters help people understand that disabled people are like everyone else and they are able to function normally in a society.

“If you normalize what's out there in the world, that changes the expectations and that makes the popular culture less likely to objectify the many people who are disabled,” she said.

Neal Lester, associate vice president for Humanities and Arts of the Knowledge Enterprise Development, said the lecture focused on how society constructs superheroes in the fictional world and how people perceive others in the real world.

“(The event) shows how easy it is for society to construct heroes, pull heroes down and watch them fall because no one is perfect,” Lester said.

He related the discussion to people in society who are seen as having inhuman capabilities, but fail to meet superhero expectations.

He said people like Lance Armstrong amaze the world with their abnormal capabilities, despite their disabilities. However, when they fail to meet the superhero expectations, such as when Armstrong admitted to drug use, society enjoys watching them fail.

“People knew in themselves there was something not right about (Armstrong's performances),” Lester said. “That there's something inhuman about it, but we like to watch them fall.”

Lester said the week-long event relates comic book superheroes to the idea of regular people, such as veterans and teachers, being heroes.

“(Superheroes) are people who step outside of themselves to actually help people or make a difference ... who create everyday moments of heroism,” he said. “Superheroes are people who do those things routinely ... veterans and teachers do those things every day.”

Lester said the Project Humanities presentation focused on the everyday heroes and recognized that these heroes, just like their comic book counterparts, are flawed.

Neal Lester's daughter, Jasmine Lester, is a staff writer for Project Humanities and ASU alumna.

She said the organization's spring kick-off was designed to help people think about how society perceives heroes.

Jasmine said the event is supposed to relate everyday heroes to constructed fictional heroes.

“What people most commonly think of when they think of abnormal heroes are comic heroes,” she said.

She said the relation between the comic book heroes and everyday heroes will help people discuss and understand that everyone is flawed, but real-world heroes still exist.

“We are trying to think about ways in terms of how society constructs heroes,” she said. “We are starting ways to start a conversation.”

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @whitneyparis10

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