Menu Close

Review of Jose Alaniz’s Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond

By Ashley Manchester

The humanistic projects of studying disability and death as cultural modes of meaning-making have largely been interdisciplinary, linking textual analysis with the lived experiences of the differently-abled and social understandings of death and dying. Jose Alaniz’s book, Death, Disability, and the Superhero is essentially interdisciplinary, drawing on visual rhetoric, cultural studies, sociology, and image-text analysis to examine death and disability in American superhero comics. By interrogating both mainstream and lesser-known superheroes and their stories, Alaniz contributes to existing scholarship on disability, death, comics, and visual rhetoric in compelling ways, arguing that “the superhero as commonly received, and certainly in its Silver Age incarnation, would not, cannot exist without the underlying rationale of a disabled, structuring Other—crucially, an Other that must literally and routinely be made to vanish from sight” (35, emphasis in original).

Death, Disability, and the Superhero is the only book combining studies of its title subjects, making it a unique contribution to comics studies. The strength of the book lies not only in Alaniz’s ability to effectively examine superhero comics as uniquely American products, but also in his argument that the superhero genre functions as a parallel to America. In situating the history of superhero comics in conjunction with American history, Alaniz argues that such comics represent “a rich ‘mirror universe’ of American society” (8). Thus, the changes in masculine representation, team dynamics, and (super)power that occur for the superhero in the mid-twentieth century work in direct relation to the shifting identity politics and changing global relations in post-war America. Using this historical and political connection, Alaniz is able to provide a legitimization to the comics medium without having to make an outright claim about the literary value of comics. After outlining the three main ages of superhero comics (Golden, Silver, and Bronze) in the introduction, Alaniz focuses his analysis, as the title suggests, on the Silver Age (mid 1950s-1970s) and beyond, mostly because of the changing cultural climate during that time in American history. The early Cold War era brought on the “nervous questioning of authority” in America, leading to shifting ideologies of (masculine) power that is reflected in Silver Age comics (19). Alaniz shows how these anxieties were visually manifested in superhero comics. While the Golden Age of comics focused on hypermasculine, infallible male figures, the Silver Age ushered in a shift in ideals about masculinity and the American (white, straight) man. Linking disability to super-body, heroism to nation, and death to post-war America, Alaniz creates a well-rounded examination of the intersections between history, the body, and popular culture.

The book is divided into two untitled sections, each focusing on disabilities and death, respectively. After giving a short history of disability studies in the first section, which emerged in the 1970s and has recently gained more momentum, Alaniz describes what he calls the “supercrip”: “an exaggerated, absurdly hyperrealist overreaching, an ego-driven overcompensation for lack, all the more dangerous for its misrepresentation of an entire community” (33). Since the disabled body both poses a threat to and is vital to American patriotism, the supercrip, with its hyper-able compensation for the disabled alternative identity, is a problematic entity that “defies pity” (31, emphasis in original). Alaniz examines the “supercrip” entity, and the relationship between disabled bodies, dead bodies, and super bodies, throughout the book, providing compelling insights not only on the generic conventions of the superhero, but also its place within American nostalgia and idealism. The Silver Age, unlike the Golden Age, brought the disabled alter-ego to the forefront in superhero comics, with superpowers as overcompensation (think Hulk, Thing, Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, X-Men, and Doom Patrol, all of which Alaniz examines in this first section). Using a series of short close readings, Alaniz shows how mainstream comics’ treatment of disability evolved in the Silver Age.

Perhaps one of the most compelling chapters of the book is chapter four, “Borderline Cases: Gender, Race, and the ‘Disabled’ Superhero.” While the preceding chapter discusses issues of passing, “Borderline Cases” focuses on the “grotesque” characters who cannot hide their disabilities from others, such as the Thing, She-Thing, and Cyborg (all characters whose abilities leave them looking non-human in various ways). Alaniz successfully argues that these figures render the privilege and accessibility of able-bodied and dominant identities visible. He links issues of passing privilege to racial, ethnic, and gender minority groups, claiming that individuals who are not afforded the privilege of passing often exist as borderline cases; borderline superheroes are often depicted literally on the border of hero and villain, outcast and group member, “freak” and human: “In the borderline case we see most clearly enacted the brutal economy of the supercrip, who is first and foremost a deviant—before ‘admiring’ his feats, however noble, society must necessarily label him a freak” (96).

Alaniz’s analysis of She-Thing brings home the idea of marginalization, when he argues that borderline superheroines are doubly othered. Up until this point, Alaniz only briefly touches on the gendered dynamics of this genre of comics and American history—his analysis of She-Thing as both woman and borderline superhero is a much-needed examination of the gendered dimensions of disability, identity, and history. His critique, however, lacks a real interrogation of the heteronormativity rampant in this genre. For example, in his analysis of She-Thing’s narrative arc (from self-loathing to empowerment), he acknowledges but doesn’t delve into the fact that much of her transition hinges on her love affair with the Thing. Alaniz only brushes on atypical sexuality as marginalized identity; Death, Disability, and the Superhero would have benefited greatly by a more in-depth examination of the links between queer identities and/or the heteronormativity embedded in the genre and the superheroes he discusses.

The next two chapters conclude the disability and superhero section of the book, looking at the idea of “dismodernism” and the Human Fly, respectively. Chapter five, “Dismodernism and ‘The World’s Strangest Heroes,'” uses Lennard Davis’ concept of “dismodernism,” described as a stance that “refutes…passivity, embracing ‘incompleteness’ and inter-reliance as the ideological underpinnings for demanding universal social justice” (130). Dismodernism, then, functions as a way of leveling the hierarchy of disabled and able-bodied individuals by acknowledging the inherent impairment in all bodies. Interestingly, Alaniz provides a glimpse into the relationship between Marvel and DC comics while examining the characters and narratives of X-Men and Doom Patrol through a dismodernist lens. He argues that Doom Patrol is a successfully dismodernist text, while the more popular X-Men narrative often positions its characters, like Professor Xavier, as weak and infantilized because of their disabilities.

Chapter six, “How Not to be a Superhero: Narrative Prosthetics and The Human Fly,” disrupts the fiction of superhero comics by comparing The Human Fly character to its inspiration, the Canadian stuntman of the same name. Alaniz notes how this particular comic redefined the generic conventions of superheroes by appealing to the “real” and depicting a pacifist superhero whose identity is never revealed to readers. He discusses characters like The Shroud, 3D Man, and Cloak, arguing that “mainstream superhero comics in the 1970s struggled with progressive depictions of disability, resorting more often than not to outdated formulae” (157). The strength of Alaniz’s analysis of disability and the American superhero lies in his careful treatment of both popular and lesser-known heroes, showing both the struggles and progressive leaps Silver Age comics took in portraying differently-abled characters.

The seventh chapter of the book, which initiates the conversation about death and the superhero, “The Dismal Trade: Death, the Market, and Silver Age Superheroes,” argues that “the Silver Age superhero has been not only a disability disavower and overcompensator—he is also a world-class death denier” (160). Alaniz notes how death largely plagues the superhero genre, but is rarely a viable narrative option for protagonists: “there is no death: this is the ‘vital lie’ of the mainstream superhero genre; it cannot live without that illusion” (166). This “vital lie,” Alaniz argues, functions as both a narrative and market ploy, as superheroes often come back after death, continuing the action and profit gains of the comics brand. Alaniz links the lack of substantial death in superhero comics with the death anxiety that is at the core of the American value system. This extensive chapter studies death in the superhero genre through an analysis of the “Imaginary Stories” and What If? series of DC and Marvel (“dream” sequences that portray the death of superheroes without having to narratively commit to ending their lives forever). He uses many different examples, sources, and modes of inquiry to look at comics such as Doom PatrolFantastic FourSpider-Man, and Captain Marvel to claim “‘real’ death and superheroics as irreconcilable” (178). Combining American (popular) culture with a critical study of death makes this a salient overarching argument.

Alaniz’s analysis of Gwen Stacy’s death in the Spider-Man series and Captain Marvel’s death in The Death of Captain Marvel is excellent. He suggests that when real and final death does occur in Silver Age comics, it usually affects the “normal” yet nonetheless heroic characters, like Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. Gwen Stacy’s death, however, ushered in the Bronze Age of comics by being a realistic representation of death and loss, one that neither meant anything philosophically nor accomplished anything for the plot. Similarly, Alaniz argues that Captain Marvel’s death (not from a heroic battle, but instead from cancer) redefined both the structure and content of comics because “the mythology it interrogates—and brutally deconstructs—is that of the American superhero” (206). He shows that in the Silver Age, the superhero genre underwent Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, transitioning from denying death altogether to accepting it as a reality.

While Chapter Seven emphasizes the lack of “sticky” death in superhero comics, particularly focusing on who dies and who doesn’t, the next two chapters focus more on the historical and political constructions of grieving and mourning, both on the part of the dying and that of the living. “Facing Death in Strikeforce: Morituri” looks at the disavowal of mortality that, Alaniz argues, helps us push death away, but in turn forces us to push life away, for if we were to really know life, we would have to accept death. Alaniz analyzes this paradoxical condition that is at the “heart of the heroic project of the West” through a look at the Morituri (243). Characters like Vyking, Adept, and Marathon, members of a heroic squad called the Morituri, all deal with their inevitable deaths in different ways. Alaniz specifically focuses on Vyking’s untimely death as a change in the conventions of mainstream American storytelling, Adept’s use of religion as a means of accepting death, and Marathon’s nihilistic blood thirst that leads to a visually complicated death scene. Overall, his analysis of the Morituri examines processes of grief through a comics lens.

Although the book is well organized and its claims effectively argued, one of Death, Disability, and the Superhero‘s main limitations is its prioritization of the textual narrative over the visual. As theorists such as Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, and Pascal Lefevre have noted, the architecture of comics as a form functions as a language of its own, with the visual codes and structure telling a story virtually independent of the textual narrative. The first part of Alaniz’s book emphasizes the content of superhero comics effectively, but largely ignores the unique ways that the visual language of comics speaks to the reader. That is not to say that Alaniz does not address the visual aspect of comics—he certainly does. His analysis, however, largely looks at the textual elements in subordination to the visual. On the other hand, his analysis of Marathon’s unique death scene, occurring in a full page, “ripple”-like circular panel structure, comes as a much-needed focus on the visual language of comics. Alaniz looks at the scaffolding of panels, the colors and contrast used, and the hyperframe to provide a complex and compelling reading of death in the Morituri comics.

The chapters “Death, Bereavement, and ‘Funeral For a Friend,'” and “Conclusion: Vital Lies, Vital Truths” conclude the book. The chapter on bereavement centers on the death of Superman, an eight-issue storyline that was both a momentous American experience and a calculated market ploy. Alaniz successfully connects the (temporary) death of Superman with “the demise of a pre-1990s model of superhero comics production that privileged nostalgic reverence over short-term profit,” as well as the post-Cold War cultural moment (267).

The “Conclusion” argues that while “the highlighting of bodily/cognitive difference, frailty, and mortality not only heightened realism and diversified the dramatis personae in welcome fashion,” not all comics helped the issues at the heart of disability advocacy (282). The Green Goblin in “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and the Joker in The Killing Joke, both villains whose deaths projected a narrow and detrimental treatment of individuals with disabilities, function as symbolic parallels to the way American culture often treats “real world” individuals with cognitive or physical differences. In this way, Alaniz doesn’t provide a clear-cut foundation of what he deems disability (he discusses mental illness, physical difference, and speech impediments all under the umbrella of disability), leaving it up to the reader to determine the parameters of his analysis. However, this is not necessarily a downfall of his book. In many ways, not clarifying his parameters allows for a more open-ended look into the connection between American culture and marginalized groups in general.

Death, Disability, and the Superhero is an innovative examination of the superhero genre, arguably the most popular Silver Age comics genre, that puts the spotlight on a marginalized area of study within the comics field. Jose Alaniz, in many ways, reworks traditional literary analysis in an extremely fruitful way: instead of prioritizing close reading alone, Alaniz draws on different disciplinary fields, blogs and fandom, classic art analysis, canonical poetry, and interviews. This combination of evidentiary resources serves as a huge strength of the book, one that validates many modes of inquiry and pushes the boundaries of comics scholarship. In fact, Alaniz even addresses some “real world” tragedies, including the Sandy Hook Elementary killings. Bravely, Alaniz discusses Adam Lanza and the media’s treatment of his mental “instability”: “If someone’s personhood is in doubt (or seen as lacking), all the easier to direct death wishes at them. When a tiny minority of them transgresses, their crimes of violence only confirm their abjection from the human …” (294). Alaniz’s book is a unique contribution to comics scholarship and is very significant for its foregrounding of marginalized identities in a mainstream genre.

Related Articles