Can superheroes help make the world more inclusive?

A colourful cartoon snippet showing the words Pow, What, Bang and Boom.

Mike Straney, Sightsavers’ Director of Major Giving, hosted a talk recently to discuss how inclusion and diversity are portrayed in popular culture, and he flagged how the approach to inclusion is changing.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realised that books, movies, video games, TV shows and comics contribute to how we think about issues such as gender, disability, sexuality and race,” he explained. “We now have a female Doctor Who, and there are rumours that Idris Elba could be the first black James Bond, which isn’t something that would have happened 15 or 20 years ago.”

Mike has long been a fan of comics and graphic novels: he started reading American comics at the age of eight. “My dad served in the forces abroad and I went to a mostly American international school for a while,” he said. He read American superhero comics avidly for a few years, and then returned to them in his mid-twenties after reading acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen, which, he said, “sucked me back in”.

In contrast to the major resurgence seen by superhero movies in the past few years, sales of comics and graphic novels have declined steadily. To combat this, their creators – including leading publishers Marvel and DC – have made extra efforts to bring in new audiences and to embrace a more diverse, inclusive approach. Yet while the content has grown up to appeal to older audiences, there are still plenty of familiar themes.

During his talk, Mike looked back at the history of comics to explain some of the most common tropes. “Most major superheroes were created in the 1930s to 1960s and were geared at boys who were white. The first female character was Wonder Woman, who appeared in 1982, created by William Moulton Marston. She was presented as a very strong, very capable female lead who would appeal to adolescent male readers.”

In terms of popularity, characters such as She Hulk and Spiderwoman never really achieved the success of their male counterparts. The same is true of black characters, including Black Panther, Luke Cage and Cyborg. “All of these struggled to compete with more established characters. So, it appears that the issues of gender and race have not really increased readership.”

Mike explained that when it comes to including characters with disabilities, there is a huge journey ahead for comics. “In the case of superheroes, it requires creativity in order to introduce characters with disabilities, so publishers need to adapt their universe to popular cultures for today’s audiences.”

Mike Straney smiling.
Mike started reading comics at the age of eight.

The good news is that change is happening. Comic-book artist and long-time graphic novel fan Rossie Stone, who has dyslexia, founded his own educational comics business, Dekko Comics, to help children who struggle to learn when faced with lots of text. In an interview with Able Magazine, Rossie said: “The nugget to making it work is working out how I can make this interesting. How can I make this appeal to a wider, more diverse audience?”

Another comic series bringing disability to the mainstream is The Department of Ability, created by Dan White to give his daughter, who has spina bifida, some disabled icons to look up to. His comics include characters who use their disabilities as super powers, and says the key is to create disabled icons for all children to enjoy. “It’s important for disabled children to see characters they can identify with,” he explains. “This builds their confidence, self-esteem and feeling of being included in society.”

Mike went on to discuss how graphic novels and comics must adapt to be inclusive and reflective of today’s society if they are to survive. With increasing competition from TV, movies, video games, social media and viral videos shrinking the market and the time people have to devote to comics, there is increased pressure.

He explained that smaller independent companies are generally doing better, “because they are created by a more diverse group of writers and artists, and have had better success in engaging a more diverse, younger audience than Marvel and DC.” They therefore have more success dealing with issues such as gender, race and sexuality.

In conclusion, Mike asserted that “disability is the great unaddressed issue if comics are to be truly inclusive”. To address this, he is taking on his own personal crusade, contacting his favourite writers to challenge them to find ways to include characters with disabilities in their work. As he explained: “It is both good for business and good for society.”

A comic book page with the words 'Al-ge-bra' at the top.
Dekko's educational comics are aimed at kids who have trouble reading large chunks of text.


Sightsavers logoKate Bennell is the organisational inclusion coordinator at Sightsavers UK. Severely sight impaired herself, she coordinates the Social Inclusion Working Group and champions accessibility.


On reflection

“Listening to Mike’s talk got me thinking about the idea that popular culture needs to become more inclusive to widen its appeal and project positive images of disability.

“In a previous role, I remember one manager telling me: ‘I’ve never worked with anyone like you before.’ He didn’t know how to react towards me as a disabled co-worker. But if authors can create more diverse characters, they can teach people to have a more positive view of disability – not to be afraid, but to be as natural and friendly as you would with anyone else and, most of all, not to be afraid of difference. Popular culture can therefore play a huge part in reducing the stigma associated with disability.”

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