“Super” heroes: Special powers in deaf characters

Paul Dakin, BSc, MB, BS, MA, FRCGP
London, United Kingdom

Echo (Marvel Comics)
Echo (Marvel Comics)

In 2012 Marvel Comics produced a cover featuring New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro’s four-year-old grandson Anthony as Blue Ear, a superhero wearing a hearing aid. Anthony refused the prosthetic because superheroes did not wear them. His mother contacted the company hoping to find an inspirational example and received the specially-created artwork that persuaded him.1 This incident prompted comment with readers asking not only for non-hearing superheroes but also much greater media representation of characters who “just happen to be deaf.”2

Deaf characters in literature

The existence of deaf characters in literature is not new. Nearly three hundred years ago, Daniel Defoe wrote Duncan Campbell, a novel based on a deaf boy making his way into London’s high society.3 This sympathetic portrayal was probably informed by Defoe’s brother-in-law Dr. John Wallis, a pioneer in deaf education. However Duncan Campbell’s appeal did not lie simply in his deafness but rather in his ability to predict the future, a divine gift compensating for his lack of hearing that foreshadowed Blue Ear’s superhero status. Defoe inadvertently created a tendency to be followed by later writers: that of positioning deaf characters as not necessarily having an inherent interest of their own, but needing additional features or powers to create plot points and develop hearing characters.

Most mainstream literary representations of deaf characters since Duncan Campbell have conveyed more about the ideas of deafness held by authors representing hearing constituencies than about the lives of non-hearing people or those who embrace Deaf culture. Although most treatments are considerate and sympathetic, the notion of needing something extra or “special” to recommend deaf characters to a popular audience persists. For instance, such portrayals may act as philanthropic objects,4 be catalysts of geniality,5 provide dramatic devices,6 have highly developed artistic gifts,7 or facilitate crime fiction through the ability to read lips.8

The most widely quoted example of a deaf character is that of Charles Dickens’ Sophy from Dr. Marigold,9 which has many similarities with an earlier representation by his great friend Wilkie Collins.10 This flaxen haired, mistreated and misunderstood young lady has no superpower, but is gifted with an angelic appearance and a nature to match. These distinctive qualities single out Sophy for escape from a life of abuse through adoption by an itinerant tinkerer who teaches her to read, write and sign, preparing her for education at the Deaf school and entry into wider society. Dickens created at least five other deaf characters, but none is portrayed with the same sensitivity and pathos, with Dickens pointing to the emergence of a Deaf community. This iconic portrayal of the golden-haired beauty awaiting rescue from victimization as first described by Collins and Dickens is to be found in at least eight other plots.11

Deaf characters in graphic novels

Anthony’s mother was unaware that graphic novels have included several representations of deaf characters. A succession of deaf “super heroes” has appeared in DC and Marvel comics, often as minor characters, starting with Hawkeye in 1984.12 Two years later DC’s Jericho introduced American Sign Language (ASL) to the genre.13 This process eventually culminated with the emergence of Maya Lopez, aka Echo, a deaf superhero of mixed Native American and Hispanic heritage who first appeared in Daredevil.14 In addition to reading lips and using two forms of sign language, Echo is able to copy complex physical activities such as ballet, gymnastics and martial arts, and is featured in nearly 70 comics, encompassing two major story arcs of her own.

Although the inclusion and development of deaf characters in literature, graphic novels or other media is to be encouraged and applauded, it is disappointing that such portrayals cannot occur as incidental characters nor have an inherent value of their own without the need to possess “special” qualities deemed unnecessary for the majority of hearing characters. Anthony’s case has not only demonstrated the need to move away from “super-hearoes” and provide examples of gifted and powerful non-hearing models, but also the need for greater representation of the one in seven people whose daily lives remain largely ignored.15

References

  1. http://www.concordmonitor.com/article/330760/real-life-heroes (last accessed 30th November 2013).
  2. http://limpingchicken.com/2012/05/24/deaf-news-marvel-comics-creates-superhero-for-deaf-boy (last accessed 30th November 2013).
  3. Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell. (1720; London: JM Dent & Co, 1895).
  4. Jane Austen, Emma, (1815; London: Penguin Books, 1996).
  5. Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840; London: Chapman & Hall Ltd, 1911).
  6. Mrs F Reynolds, In Silence (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1906).
  7. Margaret Kennedy, Not In the Calendar (New York: Macmillan, 1964).
  8. Colin Dexter, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (London: Pan, 1978).
  9. Charles Dickens, Dr Marigold. Christmas Stories Volume II. (1865; London: Chapman & Hall, 1911).
  10. Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek (1854; London: Sampson Low, Son & Co, 1861).
  11. Paul Dakin, “Goldilocks or Granny?: Portrayals of Deafness in the English Novel”, J Med Biogr, 0967772013479477, first published on 27th January 2014.
  12. Avengers # 239, “Late Night of the Superstars”, Marvel Comics 1984.
  13. World of Superman: Action Comics # 584, DC Comics 1986.
  14. Daredevil # 9, Marvel Comics 1999.
  15. http://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/supporting-you/factsheets-and-leaflets/deaf-awareness.aspx (last accessed 30th November 2013).

PAUL DAKIN, BSc, MB, BS, MA, FRCGP, is a general practitioner in North London. He trains postgraduate doctors and medical students, previously facilitated the local trainers’ workshop and is Honorary Secretary of the Association of Medical Humanities of Great Britain & Ireland. He has a Master’s degree in literature and medicine.