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10 Disabled Comic Book Superheroes

One of the great things about comics is that characters can be physically disabled, yet still be superhuman. Here are some of the great disabled superheroes.

1. Dr. Mid-Nite

This DC Comics hero was introduced in 1941, teaming up with do-gooders like the Flash and the Green Lantern throughout World War II. Originally physician Dr. Charles McNider, he was blinded by a hand-grenade explosion (the work of organized crime). Though he had to renounce the surgery, he could see in pitch darkness for some reason, so he became a crime-fighter. As well as having an advantage during the night, he wears special pitch-black goggles so he can see during the day.

2. Captain Marvel, Jr.

Well, sort of. Elvis Presley’s favorite childhood hero was in reality Freddy Freeman, a newsboy who was crippled in an attack by the dastardly Captain Nazi.

The super-hero Captain Marvel (in reality a newsboy named Billy Batson – what’s with these double-initials?) took Freddy to Shazam, the wizard who had given him his powers, and he was granted the same powers (with a bolt of lightning) whenever he uttered the hero’s name: “Captain Marvel!” Sadly, when he uttered the same again, he would transform back into Freddy, de-powered and still crippled. As they often teamed up (and Junior presumably needed to introduce himself on occasion), this must have been an awkward arrangement. Nonetheless, Captain Marvel – published by Fawcett – became the top-selling superhero, the first one to outsell Superman. Junior, riding on his capetails, was published by from 1942 to 1953.

3. Thor

In 1962, nearly a decade after Fawcett stopped publishing the highly successful Captain Marvel titles, Marvel Comics (no relation) introduced another disabled man who can transform, with a bolt of lightning, into a hero with godlike power. In fact, it wasn’t so much god-like, as Dr. Donald Blake, GP (who can only walk with the aid of a cane) was transformed into Thor, the Norse god of thunder. As punishment for showing appalling pride, Thor had been sent to Earth by his father, Odin (king of the gods), in the fragile form of Dr. Blake – and to further humiliate him, didn’t even know he was a superhero until a visit to Norway first saw him transform into Thor. One of Marvel’s classic heroes (Kenneth Branagh, no less, is currently directly a movie), he is known to fans as one of the “big three” of their main super-hero team, the Avengers (along with Iron Man and Captain America).

4. Daredevil

Marvel Comics also created Daredevil, whose origin story must rate among the dumbest in comic-book history (no mean achievement). The story: athletic teenager Matt Murdock leaps in to save a blind man from being hit by a truck. However, the truck is carrying a canister of radioactive waste material that breaks open, bombarding Murdock with radiation. He is blinded, like the man he saved. However, thanks to radiation, his other senses are “mutagenically heightened” to superhuman levels. According to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (published in 1983): “His sense of touch is so acute that his fingers can feel the faint impressions of ink on a printed page, allowing him to read by touch… and he can distinguish between identical twins at 20 feet by minute differences in smell.” Daredevil uses blindness to his advantage, happily swinging over the New York skyline. As he can’t see how high he is, he earns the label “the man without fear”. But instead of sight, he has radar sense, suggesting that he’s more of a bat-man than Batman.

5. The Chief

As followers of the X-Men movies (and for 40 years years before, the Marvel comics) would know, Professor Charles Xavier is the most unusual superhero: wheelchair-bound after an accident, his telepathic and psychic powers make him more than a match for most of the tough musclemen he confronted. Less famous is the Doom Patrol, another group of oddballs led by a wheelchair-bound genius (and first published by DC Comics in October 1963, only one month before the X-Men). Their leader was the Chief, alias Niles Caulder, who built several weapons, including flame-throwers, into his wheelchair. Sadly, the Doom Patrol didn’t catch on like the X-Men, and in 1968, they all died heroically. (As often happens in comics, most of them – including the Chief – were brought back to life several years later.)

6. Puck

Introduced by Marvel in 1983, Puck was a dwarf with no superhuman powers, but great acrobatic and fighting skills – a character suggested to writer-artist John Byrne by his wife. He soon became one of the most popular members of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, whose fans included other sufferers of dwarfism. However, comics being what they are, he couldn’t stay just a “normal” guy. Writer Bill Mantlo, Byrne’s successor, gave him a new origin story: he was previously a (very tall) adventurer, who had been turned into a dwarf by a demon. Oh, and he was immortal. Byrne was not happy with this. “The whole ‘demon inside’ thing [was] based, apparently, on the single reference Puck had made to being in constant pain, something which Bill failed to grasp was an effect of the condition – achondroplasty… which caused Puck's dwarfism.” Immortal or not, Puck was killed (along with most of Alpha Flight), and at time of writing, is still dead.

7. Oracle

Barbara Gordon was formerly Batgirl, fighting crime with martial arts and a skintight costume. She even appeared in the 1960s Batman television series, played by Yvonne Craig. By day, she was Barbara Gordon, a mild-mannered librarian with Clark Kent spectacles. This changed, however, in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore), when she was shot in the spine by Batman’s insane foe, the Joker. After that, her appearances focused on the tragedy of her new, wheelchair-bound life. But this eventually gave way to her new identity, Oracle. As super-smart as she was previously super-athletic, she oversees crime-fighting missions from a computer console, guiding her able-bodied (and mostly female) operatives, the Birds of Prey.

In 1993, Batman himself had his back broken by a tough criminal, and conducted his detective work from a wheelchair, replaced in the cape by an able-bodied crime-fighter. Unlike Oracle, however, his disability was only temporary.

8. Iron Man

For a multi-millionaire genius and playboy, Tony Stark has had a rough time. Wounded in the Vietnam War (though that has since been updated to the Iraq War), he designed an iron chest-plate to sustain his weak heart. Though he was later fitted with a pacemaker, his armor remains. Nonetheless, his problems continued. He has been an alcoholic, clinically dead (twice), lost his mind, and been on the run from authorities. He was also shot – not by a super-villain, but by an unhinged girlfriend. As his doctor dramatically announced, “Tony Stark will never walk again!” At first, the concept of a paraplegic superhero (while not exactly new) was well portrayed. In his secret identity, he felt helpless. Nonetheless, this was still a comic book, so he continued to fly around as Iron Man, moving his legs with the aid of high-tech armor. “I’ve only solved one problem,” he said. “There’s still a whole world I’m going to have to face without the armor.”

Writing stories around this wasn’t so easy. Within a year he was walking again, thanks to a “biochip implant” in his spine developed by a brilliant team of scientists (or more accurately, a desperate writer).

9. Echo

A Native American heroine, created in 1999 as one of Daredevil’s foes (though later an ally), Echo was thought to be mentally disabled as a child and was sent to a special school. But when she was able to replicate an entire song on a piano, she was moved to a school for gifted children. This must have been confusing, but it soon turned out that she was deaf, but has “photographic reflexes” – the ability to perfectly copy other people's movements. After study, this turned her into an amazing fighter and athlete. She also became one of the few superhero cross-dressers, disguising herself as a masked swordsman called Ronin. Readers were kept guessing for some time at the identity of the mysterious Ronin, and when Echo finally revealed herself, some of them were surprised – mainly because she had somehow hidden her deafness all that time.

10. Komodo

The Lizard, a Spider-Man villain, was really Dr. Curt Connors, a one-armed scientist who was hoping that he could regenerate his arm (like reptiles do) by injecting himself with lizard serum. This gave him an arm, but also turned him into a human lizard, taking away his mind. Fortunately, he was cured (though he never replaced his arm), and continued life as a respectable scientist, despite occasional lapses into reptile form. One of his graduate students, an amputee named Melati Kusuma, stole the serum to replace the legs that she lost in a car accident. In her case, she didn’t lose her mind in the process. Kusuma — Komodo — was introduced by Marvel Comics in 2007, as a trainee member of the Avengers.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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