Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Paralympic Pledge from Alpha Flight's Box - Part One: Differently Super-Abled Superheroes

Hey there all you Comicanuckers! Roger Bochs comin’ atcha! But you probably know me better as Alpha Flight’s original living robot -- Box! Get it? Oh wait, you might think, this being a Canadian blog, that my name is pronounced the Frech way,“Bow-SHAY”. But it’s not. It totally sounds like “box”. Now get it? Come on, work with me here.

Our comicanuck March Olympic madness continues with a celebration of the 10th Winter Paralympics, the first to be held in Canada, which began this weekend in Vancouver. So naturally I’m a shoe-in to host this post about it.

Though you can’t tell from my handsome robotic picture, I’m disabled -- or differently-abled. Well, technically I’m dead, but how dead does any comic book character ever really get, right? I’m a brilliant mechanic and engineer whose legs were amputated years before my first comic appearance in the first issue of Alpha Flight (a cameo before my real debut in issue 11).

Being so mechanically-inclined I naturally looked for ways to use my talents to increase my mobility. But new legs weren’t enough for me after watching Saturn 3 like, fifty times (who wouldn’t love a spacewoman Farrah Fawcett?) so took it to the extreme by building a powerful, humanoid robot. That’s when I hooked up with Alpha Flight.

You see? I’m a capable, card-carrying, saving the country and sometimes the world-type. B-List superhero. Heck I once went toe- to toe with the Incredible Hulk. Sure, he smashed my legs clean off, causing me to flash back to losing my legs the first time and revealing a fragile psyche that writers with no idea what to do with me would later use to drive me mad and kill me off brutally. But I’m not a bitter guy by nature.

My point is, despite my so-called disability I can compete with the elite. My original Box body could press 40 tons, was pretty much indestructible (if you ignore the Hulk thing). At first, all I needed to control the body was a psycho-kinetic helmet (kinda like Bruce Willis in Surrogates, except I skipped the fake looking toupee) and I could also ‘see’ and ‘hear’ everything the Box bot did.

With a little help from fellow Alphan Madison Jeffries, a mutant who can control and construct machines with his mind, I built a new, more powerful Box robot that I could “phase into”, passing my own body into the armor to control it from within. And it flies too! I can stay inside the robot for a few hours at a time or I might end up trapped inside forever!

Pretty awesome huh? You bet your back bacon butt it is. And so are the Paralympics. I know… sweet segue, Rog. This article in Friday’s Toronto Star, Paralympics: Second Class Games No More, says it much better than I could.

“While Canada's goal at the outset of the Olympics was to top the medal standings, the target for the Paralympics is more modest. Coming off a 13-medal – five gold, three silver and five bronze – performance in Turin, Italy, that was good enough for sixth place four years ago, Canadian officials are looking to move up to third in the standings this time.

But the Paralympics are about much more than winning medals. They are about athletes proving to themselves – and especially to the public at large – that they are not people with disabilities to be pitied for what they supposedly have lost but elite athletes to be admired and respected for the work they have put in and the skills they have developed.

Born out of the rehabilitation of British soldiers after World War II, the Paralympic movement grew into an Olympic-style competition for those with spinal cord injuries in 1960. In 1976, which was the year the first Winter Paralympics were held in Sweden, Toronto hosted Summer Games that included the blind and amputees for the first time. By 1988 in Seoul, the Paralympics were using the same venues as the Olympics.”

Believe me, these athletes are the real deal. There were plenty of inspiring stories to come out of the Olympics, but the Paralympics are all about inspiring stories! Journalists should beware of overindulging in the smorgasbord of piping hot, heart-warming stories available or they might choke on their own inspiing metaphors. As another Toronto Star Olympic story, Zelkovich: Paralympics worthy of record TV coverage, noted on Friday…

“One of the highlights of the CTV-Rogers consortium's coverage of the Vancouver Olympics was the depth of heart-warming and inspiring stories the athletes had to tell. But finding those stories, such as moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau's relationship with his brother, or Clara Hughes' inspiring Olympic legacy, wasn't always easy. When the 2010 Paralympics open Friday in Vancouver, the consortium will again focus on athletes' stories. But this time, the challenge will be trying to decide which stories to leave out.

"There are so many incredible stories," said Rick Chisholm, the consortium's executive vice-president of broadcasting. "Every story is so inspiring."
That's one reason the consortium has committed itself to world-record coverage of the Games. That's not hype, either. The International Paralympic Committee said the total of 57 hours of television coverage – 27 English and 30 French – is more than anyone has ever done. That total includes unprecedented live coverage, all of it focusing on sledge hockey. In the past, the Paralympic packages were shown a week or two after the event, with small daily highlight packages. This time, Canadians will get 90-minute highlight packages on a 24-hour tape delay in addition to live sledge hockey.”

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of TV coverage but it is a lot of the Paralympics and there will be a ton of online coverage too. It’s a growing phenomenon worthy of our support and respect. Athletes like blind cross-country skier can compete with anyone in the world, even if his coaches don’t think so. So keep the Olympic spirit going for all these extraordinary athletes, okay?

Comics never seem to be quite sure how to handle disabled characters. Most of the time our personalities are centered around the disability only and we’re given little, if any, further motivation. Even more annoying, we’re often written out of the book or killed off once that limited direction has played itself out.

Other times, disabled characters are mere walk-ons, or wheel-ons, in my case). We’re trotted out to provide a visual aid or act the mouthpiece to draw attention to an issue and then be packed away for the big fight scene.

I think
it’s a testament to John Byrne’s considerable talent and professionalism in the early eighties, how well treated I was under his stewardship of the Alpha Flight title. Byrne has made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to do the book. So he challenged himself to make his book and his characters as unusual as possible – an Inuit goddess, French Canadian twins, A Sarcee shaman, a hoser dwarf acrobat and a former pro-footballer scientist with an ability to turn into a bigfoot.

Byrne made a poignant point to reference the pain that can accompany Puck’s achondroplasty (the genetic disorder that is a common cause of dwarfism). That gave his joy for life an emotional power that was sacrificed for lame complications by follow-up writer Bill Mantlo, who attributed Puck’s condition to his body being inhabited by an ancient sorcerer, the Black Raazer.

Mantlo was famous for his crazy, anything-goes plots and prolific scripting for Marvel. Trust me, if you read a Marvel comic in the late seventies and eighties chances are a few of you favourite books and a few of your least favourites were written by Mantlo. But while his Black Raazer yarn made for a wild tale, it sacrificed an element of real humanity in Puck’s character.

Of course, that was nothing compared to how I ended up! My creator, John Byrne established that I had a handicap and but wrote me like a person who happened to have no legs. But after suffering emotional trauma from the heavy damage inflicted on Box by the Hulk my character decisions were almost based around my handicap.

My Box robot served as a home for Walter “Sasquatch” Langkowski’s lost spirit after he was killed by our Alpha Flight teammate Snowbird. Meanwhile, I moped and wondered if I’d ever get to use Box again. Then I was given new legs and an Olympic worthy body by Madison Jeffries brother Lionel, aka Scramble, who could manipulate flesh the way Madison manipulated machinery. Once I had the new legs I became a complete asshole and Aurora’s lover, all to prove my newfound manhood and show off my manly new bod. Then my legs deteriorated when it turned out they’d been made from dead flesh and I went crazy. Lionel merged his body with mine creating an insane monster that Madison eventually had to kill.

Tell me, is there a single plot point or character decision in there that wasn’t about my handicap? Nope. Nada. Darn it! I had a lot of potential as human being and as a hero. But for my writers that wasn’t an option. The whole “no legs” thing had run its course. Pun intended. So in their minds I had to go.

But I have the spotlight here and know and I'm going to use it to celebrate our favourite handicapped heroes!

Let’s see, Daredevil is probably the big handicapped hero that comes to mind. I sometime wonder if he counts, since his radar vision essentially lets him see better than most of us! But in comic book terms the dude counts. Daredevil's character has benefited from a long, unbroken run since the late sixties. It's allowed writers to explore many sides of his character. He's know known more for his soap opera life than his blindness. Recent writers have pushed the Marvel Universe's former most honorable man (after Captain America) down a much more shadowy, conspiracy-laden road - creating a life as dark and murky as his vision.

DC's Dr. Mid-Nite was the earliest blind superhero, having a good twenty-years on Daredevil. In another fluke accident caused by gangsters, Dr. Charles McNider and later, Pieter Cross, were blinded but discovered an ability to see in extreme darkness. The current Dr. Mid-Nite focuses not on his blindness (or his half-blindness) but rather on his unique position in the DCU as an expert metahuman physician. It positions him as a useful character for DC Comics. Marvel has tons of superhuman scientists to help an injured hero. DC, not so much.

We also have have fellow amputees like Misty Knight, who lost an arm and had it replaced with a bionic one, ala the Six Million Dollar Man.

You've got yer Aquaman, who lost a hand and went around sporting a harpoon hook and acting badasss.
Laterm the harpoon was replaced with a hand made of magic water.

We’ve got a founding member of the New Teen Titan -- Cyborg -- who replaced his missing parts with powerful, robotic limbs.

Though his creators Marv Wolfman and George Peréz did deal with his handicap, they spent a lot of time giving him his own personality and other concerns. The result was a character who has maintained a huge following for the company. Of course, any time you have a character who is part mechanical, eventually you will have storylines based on the human side being taken over and Vic was no exception. After spending time as the villain Cyperion, Vic was eventually given a mostly human body once again and ended up mentoring his own team of young heroes.

The man who revitalized Daredevil, Frank Miller, gave us a powerful handicapped sci-fi samurai in his graphic novel Ronin. Billy Challis was born without any limbs due to a genetic defect (one of the rare comic characters to have their condition from birth). Billy's psionic abilities are groomed by the artificial intelligence that cares for him and uses his powers. Billy's vivid dreams of a nameless Ronin and a demon called Agat. Billy uses his powers to refashion himself into the Ronin of his cyber dreams.

In PART TWO, we'll check out handicapped heroes on wheels. Beware the chair!

This public service announcement was sponsored by Am-Can Petroleum Company. Drilling Canada's sweet spot for over fifty years.

Beavers Up!

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