116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

“World of My Own”: Disability, Identity, and Embodiment in Contemporary Graphic Fictions

Elizabeth Kubek, Gustavus Adolphus College

Four contemporary comics are analyzed as using different visual and narrative approaches to remap images of disability, not as alternative identities for heroic characters but as liminal identities, granting access to alternative worlds and sources of truth.  


Obsessed with bodies, comics force the reader/viewer to confront fantasies of embodiment and transformation.  Rather than pursuing straightforward compensatory fantasy, where a new heroic body makes up for an existing lack, some graphic fictions complicate this dualism, representing disability as a source of power and status.

Four contemporary examples are Raina Telgemeier’s YA novel Ghosts; Grant Morrison’s fable Joe the Barbarian; Marjorie Liu’s fantasy series Monstress; and Emil Ferris’ bildungsroman My Favorite Thing is Monsters.  Rather than having two bodies, here characters integrate heroic functions into disabilities.  The result is a remapping of dualism not as binarized roles, but as liminal: a gateway to alternative worlds and sources of truth.

Each of these texts uses the disabled body to pursue different narrative ends, and employs an appropriate style.  Ghosts, meant to help younger readers confront mortality, uses a simple “clear line” idiom to depict two sisters, the younger of whom, Maya, has cystic fibrosis.  Their family moves to a small town where ghosts regularly appear as welcome visitors; Maya’s illness makes her especially receptive to spirits.  As a result, her sister Cat is able to accept CF as a permanent aspect of Maya’s identity.  In Joe the Barbarian, an adolescent boy’s struggle to break out of a diabetic coma become a fantastical quest, illustrated in heroic style.  As “The Dying Boy,” Joe is not physically transformed, even as he fends off bullies and finds the lost deed that will save his home.  Joe does survive his ordeal, and affirms his masculinity, but he remains ill and frail.  The heroine of Liu’s fantasy, Maika Halfwolf, ends up unwillingly sharing her body with a murderous “old god” that manifests as tentacles springing from the stump of her amputated arm.   Enraged, Maika repeatedly mutilates herself, but the creature helps her survive as she searches for the truth about her mother’s death.  Maika’s disability participates in a manga/steampunk vision of a grotesquely violent world.  Finally, Ferris’ heroine Karen Reyes survives a traumatic girlhood in nineteen-sixties Chicago by imagining herself as a werewolf, a vision supported by pen-and-ink images that reference period horror comics (we only see Karen as human in one panel).  Karen’s monster self-image helps her negotiate personal losses and the strain of coming out.  Ferris, severely disabled as a child, created the novel while recovering from paralysis brought on by Lyme Disease.  “I drew her the way I saw myself, . . . the way I wanted to be” Ferris claimed in a 2017 interview.  

Ultimately, each of these texts opposes what Kenji Yoshino terms “covering,” in which “the disabled are told to hide the paraphernalia they use to manage their disabilities."    In “mainstreaming” illness through compensation strategies, society continues to demand the performance of a norm that, Yoshino argues, is a “hidden assault on our civil rights.” Comics that reintegrate the disabled body emerge as sites of resistance to the demand for conformity and concealment.