UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 5: Disability Studies

A comic book cover with two people fighting

The Angel and the Case of the Armless TigermanBlogspot

Who gets to be a superhero? What about a villain? It depends on where you look. In the 1940s, comic book villains were often distinguished from heroes through physical disability. That changed in the 1960s and 70s, when it became more common for heroes – think Daredevil and Professor X – to be built around disability. In this episode, he analyzes the physical depictions of superheroes and villains through the decades.

José Alaniz, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Washington, studies comic books and culture.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing 

The World According to Sound 

Episode 5 

Disability Studies 


[comic book music plays] 


Sam Harnett: Wham, pow, sok, crash, zlonk 


[person reads from comic book] 


Superman reels back from the blows of monstrous appendages 


SH: Whap, whap, whap, ka-pow  


[person continues to read from comic book] 


The fiery eyes of the paralyzed cripple burn with terrible hatred and sinister intelligence 


SH: Holy smokes!! A– – A – – monster! 


[person continues to read from comic book] 


A master of disguise, he cannot be recognized except for his limp! 


[music ends] 


CH: These are excerpts and sounds from comic books written during the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called Golden Age of American comics. If you read comics from this era, you might start to notice something about the villains: They often had an obvious disability — a missing limb, loss of eyesight, a mobility impairment.  


Jose Alaniz: This is a pretty common trope throughout the 40s.  


CH: Jose Alaniz is a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures who studies comic books and culture at the University of Washington. 


JA: Most representations of disability in superheroes in this period are basically villains. It has to do with that physical difference as a marker of inferiority — the way you can express evil intentions or an evil soul through the disfigurement of the body in one way or another. 


CH: This wouldn’t always be the case in American comics. Over the decades the treatment of disability would change a lot. That change reflects an evolution of the comic book industry, but also changing attitudes toward disabilities. Alaniz has documented the progression by analyzing the ways bodies have been presented in comics from the 1940s to the present.  


[comic book music plays] 


JA: The viscous flash of white you see is the flash of teeth, teeth, teeth, for the Tigerman’s on the rampage, tooth and nail, and no one can stop him from his campaign of destruction. No one perhaps but the Angel.  


CH: This is from the title page of a 1940s comic called “The Angel and the Case of the Armless Tigerman.” The image of the two battling characters on the cover is emblematic of the villainization of disability in the era. 


JA: You’ve got a yellow-outfitted villain — the Armless Tiger Man — who is assaulting the hero who stands stolidly in his blue, red and yellow costume. 


CH: Basically, a Superman knock off. 


JA: The image for me connotes this nation of an American kind of stolidity and ability in the face of this assault from this really monstrous looking figure. 


CH: This description of the good guys was standard fare during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when heroes like Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman, were first introduced.  


[Superman audio plays] 


Boys and girls, your attention please. Presenting a new, exciting radio program featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality. Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets! “Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” 


CH: Heroes were muscular and chiseled, like Greek statues, with pale skin, often fair hair and blue eyes. Villains on the other hand had a disability, like the Armless Tigerman’s missing limbs. They had darker hair and skin, and often Asiatic features. Race and disability were two main ways that villains were distinguished as evil. 


JA: The Armless Tigerman is a particularly egregious example of how you can take a physically different body and transform it and present it as a villainous, grotesque and dehumanized figure.

CH: The disabilities for most of these villains were obvious. The Lash used a wheelchair, Mr. Pupin had an iron lung, The Mole could only see in the dark, Frau von Sade was a blind Nazi with gray slits for eyes. Villains had missing limbs, or mobility challenges like The Limping Man and The Gimp. The origin story of the Armless Tiger Man shows how deeply these characters were constructed around disability. 


JA: The quick back story on the Armless Tigerman is he is a worker in Germany who is involved in an industrial accident, loses his arms, but then through rehabilitation and going insane, becomes this super-powered villain who can do incredible things with their feet and with their jaws. Becomes distorted facially, and then gets recruited by the gestapo to go wreck factories in America.

CH: The depiction of disability starts to change during the Silver Age of comics in the 1960s and 1970s. 


[comic book music plays] 


CH: This is when Marvel and DC Comics took off with characters like the Hulk, Batman and Spiderman. Many of these heroes are not perfect. Far from it.  


JA: One of the formulas they hit upon was to give them disabilities of one form or another. All of these major heroes from that era have some disability in their alter ego.  


CH: It became more common for heroes to be built around a disability. Daredevil was blind. The Chief and Professor X used wheelchairs. The identity of each member of the X-Men was rooted in some power that was both a hindrance and a strength. 


[X-Men audio plays] 


This is Professor Xavier School for the Gifted. All of us here are mutants. Like  

Yourself. We X-Men learned something very special here, Jubilee: how to control  

our mutant powers for the benefit of mankind.  


CH: Like the Armless Tiger Man or the Limping Man, disability was so central to the heroes’ character that they were named for their differentiating characteristics: Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Storm. Disability had shifted from a trope for villains to a trope for heroes. It was no longer being villainized, but it was often still being used as the defining characteristic for a person. One comic that began in the 1960s had a much more subtle and nuanced approach toward differently abled bodies. 


[Fantastic Four audio plays] 


Though they crash-landed safely, the strange and powerful rays had changed each one of them. 


CH: The Fantastic Four has a mix of superheroes, some who struggle with their abilities and some who don’t.  


[Fantastic Four audio plays] 


The new Fantastic Four! 


JA: If you want to look at the Fantastic Four, you can really see the differences between a more classic approach to the superhero, where the superpowers can be turned on and off. Whether you’re Mr. Fantastic, you can stretch, but then you can just get back to normal. Human Torch you can flame on and fly around and then come back and you are Johnny Storm, who’s conventionally attractive. The Thing, Ben Grimm, can’t do that. He’s trapped in that body. 


[The Thing audio plays] 


And Ben Grimm, into a mighty-muscled powerhouse called The Thing. 


CH: The Thing is constantly struggling to navigate through a world that is not built for him…That is not accessible. He has to break holes in walls because doors are too small. He has a hard time finding clothes that will fit. He travels through a sewer system to avoid the scorn of people on the streets who are uncomfortable with his different body.  


JA: The Thing, who is a member of the Fantastic Four, who also happens to be disfigured, who really looks like a monstrous figure — he is even called the thing. He is a big pile of orange bricks, yet he’s supposed to be some kind of hero we relate to, and ultimately becomes the star of the whole series. That’s the great innovation of this series, that we ultimately come to see him as a human being and as a person worthy of love.  


CH: Disability was still being instrumentalized, but the main use was no longer to signify villainy, but to humanize heroes.  


JA:  Marvel comics has a lot to do with this. Their innovation basically was to take human flaws and foibles and really kind of highlight them and center them in a way that hadn’t been done before to make characters and have them be more like real people who bicker and have all sorts of troubles.  


[music plays] 


JA: The reason I look at disability in superhero comics is because I don’t think we’ve really looked at superheroes in that way before. Basically, the way to be a superhero is to deny disability. You need weak, othered bodies for the superhero to be superheroic. You don’t just need ordinary bodies, you need bodies that are somehow, like the Armless Tigerman, monstrous. If you can turn the monstrous, grotesque body into something heroic, that’s telling you something about how our own ideas of disability have evolved over time. 


[music continues to play] 


CH: Jose’s work is grounded in “disability studies.” This field of research challenges the view that someone who is disabled has a problem that should be fixed, and it aims to analyze and communicate the perspectives of people who have been marginalized because of a perceived disability. The first academic disability studies program started in 1994, just four years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As artist and activist Simi Linton writes, “Disability studies’ project is to weave disabled people back into the fabric of society as full citizens whose history and contributions are recorded and whose often-distorted representations in art, literature, film, theater, and other forms of artistic expression are fully analyzed.” 


CH: Here’s 5 texts that will help you learn more about Disability Studies as a way of knowing. 


Disability Theory” by Tobin Siebers and “Extraordinary Bodies” by Rosemarie Garland Thomson 


Both these books are a great place to get a theoretical grounding in the field. Siebers offers analysis on major questions in cultural and literary studies, queer theory and gender studies, all from a disabilities perspective. Garland-Thomson was one of the first to place disability under a minority framework rather than a medical one. 


Narrative Prosthesis” by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder 


Mitchell and Snyder examine disability representation in literature and film—specifically how disabled people are often relegated to narrow, marginalized tropes; or used as a kind of inspiration porn. 


Death, Disability and The Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond” by Jose Alaniz 


Jose goes into much more detail about the relationship between disabilities and comics than we touched on in this episode. 


Alternative Comics” by Charles Hatfield 


And finally, if you want to know more about the history of comic books beyond the superhero genre, Hatfield traces the emergence of comics and the graphic novel as a literary genre in the 1980s. 


CH: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, and our friends, Matmos. 


SH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. 





José Alaniz, professor of Slavic languages & literatures

José Alaniz, professor of Slavic languages & literatures

His work is centered in disability studies, which focuses on the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities.

This is the fifth of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.



Next | Episode 6: Visual Literacy