- Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond by José Alaniz
In many ways, José Alaniz’s study of the silver-age superhero through the lens of disability as well as death and dying studies is a remarkable accomplishment: philosophically stimulating, ontologically challenging, and existentially terrifying. More than this, Death, Disability, and the Superhero encourages readers to turn the lens inward and question their own relationship to mortality, ideology, and the discursive powers that construct and “other” the disabled body in contemporary society and culture. To be sure, Alaniz wields potent communicative tools, an academic vigor, and linguistic acumen that make this work both accessible and articulate—at times, even poetic—without relinquishing command of the subject and the complexities [End Page 176] therein. Indeed, this is an important work, written with sensitivity, earnestness, and an emotional core that packs a powerful punch not often seen in academic literature. Put simply, this book haunts me.
I cannot demonstrate the extent and range of Alaniz’s study in this review, but I will summarize the most salient points in brief. The text is split into two parts, the first of which focuses on the superhero figure and the body, most notably during the so-called silver age of comics, an era in which Marvel truly emerged to take on the might of DC’s hegemony. On the surface, the superhero may seem a strange, if not superficial, entry point to discussions of disability, given the genre’s reification of ableism that “celebrates idealized, hypermasculine bodies as a matter of course.”1 For Alaniz, the disabled body is politically charged: it threatens US optimism and speaks against a postwar national distemper, a “crisis of masculinity,” which challenges ableist mythologies and reinforces gender anxieties. Disability, constructed and constituted by discourse, thus serves a “structuring function: to define by counter-example the category of the ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ body.”2 The “offense” of physical difference, of disability, must be repressed and contained, lest it “[prove] a quick corrosive agent to the cheery ‘can-do’ attitude of stereotypically healthy American selves.”3
But what emerges during the silver age, Alaniz contends, is that “the historical marginalization of disabled bodies”—previously repressed and contained during the golden age—becomes “a major and consistent component of superhero comics” and “a vital building block of the narrative itself.”4 In this way, the invisible are rendered visible (which is not to say entirely progressive).
According to Alaniz, the origin stories of several superhero characters during this period “reveal a landscape rife with marked, disabled bodies linked to the fabulous, unproblematic super-body of convention, with each ‘haunting’ the other.”5 Consider Thor, Daredevil, Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men, Doom Patrol, and the Thing, all of which are placed beneath Alaniz’s microscope. In “Disability, Visuality, and the Silver Age Superhero,” Alaniz shows how disability is a part and parcel of these character identities—or, rather, secret identities. Thor, for example, cast down from godhood by his father, Odin, is cursed to occupy a human body, one marked by disability. The “lame” Dr. Donald Blake, equipped with walking cane, strikes the ground with the mystical hammer Mjolinir to transform into Thor, god of thunder. This binary configuration between disabled alter ego and superpowered deity is an integral character trait in this period and becomes “a necessary component of the superhero’s motivation.”6 What is striking here is that the binary is always already a confluence of difference, a palimpsest rather than steadfastly dichotomous. [End Page 177]
Likewise, Tony Stark’s origin story tells us how he becomes Iron Man, not through altruism or heroism, but to save himself from the slow and fatal crawl of a piece of shrapnel embedded in his chest that will spell certain doom should it reach his heart. By becoming “technologized,” via the Iron Man armor, Stark is often shown in existential angst and anxiety over his inability to lead a “normal” life.
Alaniz reads a variety of superhero texts and characters from...