I Was a Teenage Wolverine: On Superheroes and Disability -The Toast

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WolverineWolverine is semiconscious on the operating table, strapped down, surrounded by scary medical machinery that hums and bleeps. X-rays hang on their light boxes, showing his abnormal physique. Doctors in white coats stand around him, debating, poking and prodding at their captive laboratory specimen. Soon, he knows he will be submerged in the adamantium feed tank, tubes plunged into every vein and orifice as the doctors hunt for all his body’s secrets, and rebuild him from the inside out. He’ll scream, but they won’t stop.

Except that this was not the Weapon X research facility but a children’s hospital in Northern Ireland, and its subject wasn’t mutant superhero Wolverine, but 12-year-old me. 

In the preceding few years, I’d gone from round and ruddy-cheeked to stick-thin, weak and pale. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me, so my mother watched her only child fade away in front of her eyes with mounting fear, while I silently worried that I was dying. While the medical equipment invaded my body, the diagnostic merry-go-round swallowed me whole. From a sheltered adolescent girl I turned into an embodiment of all that was wrong with me. 

While the girls in my class grew curves and hair in funny places, my own puberty was suspended. While they were buying illicit booze and drugs, I furtively bought comic books at the local newsstand. I quickly latched on to the X-Men comics, about a group of outsiders with freakish appearances, and miraculous abilities that nevertheless stoke fear and hatred in society. While these heroes  have their powers and abilities awaken during puberty, but I was quickly losing mine: I threw up, had no energy to hang out with the other children and was constantly late for school because I couldn’t leave the toilet in the mornings. This, I learned eventually, was Crohn’s disease. 

In contrast to the traditional square-jawed heroes like Batman and Superman, Stan Lee at Marvel designed his superheroes to have more in common with the readers and be more inclusive. Before he becomes Spider-Man, Peter Parker is the bespectacled weed who gets his head flushed in the toilet by jocks, and the story of the X-Men mirrored the racial tension of the ’60s and ’70s. For people with a disability or a chronic illness, like myself, there are other stories that can be read into these characters’ lives. 

Most people will easily point out some of the overtly disabled characters in the comic books: Charles Xavier has a wheelchair, Daredevil is blind, Hulk has the mental development of a small child. But the writers of these comics however don’t want these disabilities to be too inconvenient: Daredevil’s loss of sight seems fully compensated for by his radar sense, and Xavier has no problem navigating the stairs of his mansion with his hover chair. No such luck for me, when I’m too tired to walk, and a shop in town isn’t as wheelchair accessible as it should be Maybe that’s why I never recognised myself in Xavier – perhaps his disability is too obvious a trope: that of the mighty mind in the feeble body.

HulkThe Hulk only finds peace when he’s on his own. He may brag that he’s the most powerful there is, but also knows that he’s limited; that something is wrong with him, but not what. It’s not rage that drives him, but the frustration of a 600-pound toddler who wants acceptance, and meets fear and hate instead. But what about Bruce Banner, the scientist who lives in constant fear of losing control, of having his intellect and his identity stripped away? Like me and many others managing a chronic condition, he constantly has to monitor himself and avoid anything that can release the monster inside. 

Or take Rogue, the teenager whose powers are also her curse: nobody, not even her boyfriend, can touch her without having the life sucked out of them. While we no longer fear physical contact with people with HIV and AIDS the way we did in the frightened ’80s, disease and disability can still cause isolation of one kind or another. On a practical level it can be difficult to leave the house, but there’s the more painful social isolation: people may see you as ‘brave’ or ‘still leading a full life’, but never as properly adult: in my experience, it’s still hard for some to grasp that a young disabled person can have a boy- or girlfriend.

The Marvel character who meant most to me during those first years of illness, tests, operations and haphazard recovery was Wolverine. He’s the most marginalised of the X-Men, a tough guy with a well-hidden heart, whose rage gets him into trouble that his adamantium claws then have to get him out of. He’s the victim of scientific experiments and brainwashed to forget his past, and the episodes of the Saturday morning cartoons that uncovered his origins hit me right where it hurt. 

I obsessively re-watched this videotaped episode, Wolverine screaming in pain and horror, monitored by detached scientists, with the ultimate threat of vivisection. Not just the medical trappings of these scenes resonated with me, but I saw in Wolverine’s ordeal the utter loss of control over my own life. As surgery was followed by more surgery, and recovery never was complete, I found myself with a constant dread of dying. Wolverine showed me that it was okay to be angry about what was happening to me. Where Wolverine took his rage out on everyone and everything around him, I spent mine on inanimate objects, pummeling pillows and crushing cardboard boxes. I’d wind myself up until I was exhausted. 

In the comics, Wolverine’s approach slowly changed, his berserker rage reined in as Charles Xavier helped him to recover his suppressed memories and come to terms with them. Me? I got a blog and found chat groups where I could confide in other people my age who were going through similar things, and build friendships that were real and lasting, despite being online. Both Wolverine and I stopped trying to deal with our problems alone, and learned to relax with others. 

In a sense the limitations of the Internet helped me socialise: years of feeling unwell made it difficult to accept a body that had changed by repeated major surgery. I was left with a distorted body image, and I was happy to present myself in words only. Through my online friends my confidence grew, and I could grow back to be more than just a disabled girl. Now, even when using my wheelchair, people generally start treating me as a normal young woman quickly enough. Times have changed, but also my outlook on life. 

Iron ManWhile Wolverine was the hero that guided me through my teens, with the first Iron Man movie some years ago my allegiance shifted to Tony Stark. I watched it with a skeptical eye: Tony Stark was the kind of guy I hate in real life: weapons developer, one percenter, a callous playboy. But suddenly Mr. Slick is taken down during a terrorist attack which forces him to re-evaluate his life. His heart severely damaged, he can only survive due to an implanted power cell. The inorganic clunkiness of the tech keeping him alive is an effective piece of body horror for anyone who has woken up from surgery to discover a whole new bodily landscape. 

This could all have been very crass if the film had explicitly made his disability a punishment for his previous wicked ways, a mere vehicle for his moral betterment and redemption. But Tony’s changed body, with the blue glow of the arc reactor he designed to replace the magnetic implant, became a symbol of optimism and trans-humanism. It saved his life first, then he went on to build a suit around him that would save other lives too. For me and my boyfriend the key scene of the whole movie is when he calls in his assistant Pepper Potts to help him swap this implant for a souped-up new one. 

She finds him lying on his workshop with a gloopy hole in his chest. Following his directions, she reaches in to connect the wires. What struck us is how unfazed she is, without pity or revulsion, but with a nonchalant pride in coping with medical involvement as an everyday thing. For us it was easy to see why Pepper and Tony end up as a couple, as this single scene was the perfect snapshot of a life together that includes complex medical issues, and a part of our own lives that I could not have imagined seeing reflected in pop culture. 

When we just started dating, my boyfriend easily took the more unpleasant sides of my illness in stride and we, just like Pepper and Tony, take care of things together and get on with it. They don’t treat the arc reactor that keeps Tony’s heart ticking as an instrument, but as an integral part of who he is. He’s quite distinct from some characters who were conceived as disabled: the significance of his heart problems has over time been acknowledged as forming a huge part of his appeal, but without defining him. 

Moreover, a community of fans has sprung up who relate to this; it’s not in the guise of the powerful Iron Man that so many have taken him to our hearts, but the man without the armoured suit: the seriously impaired, but very human, Tony Stark. He’s a hero whose struggles reminds us of our own, and assures us that if he can survive, so can we. 

Angeline B. Adams writes on arts and culture. She lives in Belfast with too many books, a cat and a Dutchman.

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