Originally published June 1996
1971: Superman loses his powers and is “confined to a wheelchair.”
Home: a condemned metropolis tenement
Wheelchair: box of steel
In 1971, DC Comics published a Superman story set in the 1990s. Our hero, seen cloaked and begging in the streets, has lost his powers because high-tech machinery always beats him to the punch during the resolution of crimes and disasters. No one needs him to save the world, so he’s developed a paralyzing “mental hysteria” and dropped out of society. Still, tireless do-gooder that he is, he panhandles in order to feed a leper couple, with whom he shares a condemned building. But he’s a bitter crip. “I was the world’s mightiest hero,” he says to himself. “Now I’m a shriveled hulk … a hollow shell with most of my powers gone … a cripple, ashamed to face my friends.” Incidentally, after a psychologist informs him of his psychosomatic (!) disorder, he does walk — and fly — again.
1996: Batgirl is paralyzed by a bullet and uses a wheelchair
Occupation: crime researcher
Home: a sunny Gotham loft
Wheelchair: slightly smaller box of steel
Fast forward to the real ’90s: Batgirl (aka Barbara Gordon) gets her spine blown out by the Joker’s gun, resulting in a permanent physical disability. She spends some time acquainting herself with depression and self-pity, but not much. She’s pissed — being Batgirl with a brown belt was a good gig — but ultimately Gordon’s not cut out for victimhood. She works hard to reinvent her identity, and asks herself how she can still help fight the war on crime. The answer? With her mind. On the Internet. Under the alias of Oracle. A new superhero is born, with only one major flaw, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. “They called to tell us that the wheelchair was hopelessly outdated,” says DC Comics editor Scott Peterson. They also told him to buy the book Spinal Network from the NEW MOBILITY Bookstore. He did. “Look for a new wheelchair in about three months, “ Peterson says.
There are a few other flaws. The phrase “confined to a wheelchair” still pops up, for instance, but Gordon herself is pretty hip. She lives alone and has learned the Philippine art of stick-fighting for self-defense. One day, after putting a couple of killers out of commission, she says, “It may not be swinging from rooftops, but it’s not bad. Not bad at all.”
Oracle joined the ranks of the miraculously cured in the 2011 DC Comics universe relaunch. “Irate wheelchair users saw DC’s announcement as a slap in the face, negating Oracle’s storied history and the symbol the character had become to the community. Add to this the patronizing cliché of a miracle cure, and I would agree with the complainers, too,” wrote Aaron Broverman in NM in January 2012. “Instead, I contend the Batgirl relaunch is
[an] example of the miracle cure narrative being told with enough sensitivity and complexity that a frequent taboo is rendered contextually appropriate.”