Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I’ve had a pretty good week, mainly. Yeah, it’s had a few ups and downs, but overall I’m okay with things. I hate to start with a shameless plug, but one of the reasons I’m so pleased with myself is that I finally got my old novel, Abominations, back on sale in both e-book and paperback formats. The new edition has a lovely cover as well, right?
Okay, you didn’t come here for an advert. So let’s talk about something else. In February of 1973, I would have been (counts fingers), seven years old. One day, as I was sitting on the living room couch watching TV, an advert came on (yes, I know you didn’t come here for the adverts – bear with me). On the TV screen before me was the first issue of a new weekly comic. Specifically, it was the sensational first issue of Spider-Man Comics Weekly! I must have already been really into superheroes at that age, because I remember being beyond excited at the news. I begged some money, and sprinted down to Wadsworth’s newsagents, on the corner near the bottom of my road. I was devastated to discover they had sold out! I never did get hold of a copy of that comic.
All through my childhood, my youth, and even into my late twenties, superhero comics were a big deal for me. For a long time, I was probably a bit obsessed with them. I would buy, swap and collect hundreds upon hundreds of them. I had a fondness for The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Silver Surfer, and Daredevil. But most of all, I loved Spider-Man. I loved the way the poor, nerdy, bullied Peter Parker of the 1960s and 1970s incarnations of Spider-Man would struggle against his insecurities and domestic problems (no cash, an elderly, vulnerable aunt May, no cash, girl troubles, no cash), but then burst with fun and adventure as he went web-slinging through the skyscrapers of New York. I wanted to be Spider-Man… but I identified with Peter Parker. The struggles of being a youngster who never really fit in, and never had any luck, resonated with me deeply. I had never heard of autism as a child. In fact, it was probably the early 1990s when I first heard the term, when I watched a VHS of Rain Man. In no way did I identify with Dustin Hoffman’s character, autistic savant Raymond Babbitt. I had no real idea of what autism was. I certainly didn’t know I was autistic. And so neither did I think at that time that the introverted Peter Parker of the sixties, so compellingly rendered by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, had clear autistic tendencies. But looking back now, I see a Peter Parker who was introverted, alienated by his peers, bullied for being different, fiercely intelligent but socially inept. Man, I felt for him so much. That Peter Parker was nothing like the Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield versions of Spidey from recent movies. He wasn’t remotely cool back in the early days. He was an unhappy loner who longed for the times when he could put on a mask and take on the world. Putting on a mask to cope with the world? How autistic can you get?
I completely lost interest in comics in the 1990s, and stopped reading them altogether. I still have a lot of nostalgic feelings for the old stuff, and I’ve downloaded some reprints on Kindle, and really enjoyed myself. But as an adult looking back on those comics, it’s hard not to cringe, sometimes. The stereotypes creak, and inclusivity was rare. As a white, middle-aged male, I’m not best placed to discuss issues of race, but even as a kid, I remember being uncomfortable with the way race was handled. Most comics were whiter than white, and whenever a black character was introduced, it seemed there had to be the word black in the character’s name; Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Lightning, and so on. I always thought, Why? We don’t have White Captain America, White Superman. They’re all just people. Why the colour? I guess I was naïve. As I got older, I also began to spot the over-sexualisation of female characters. If it wasn’t Red Sonja’s laughable scale-mail bikini battle-suit, it was Power Girl’s boob-window, or Ms Marvel’s bare legs, or whatever, and that’s before you get on to the body shapes. There was a lot wrong with comics.
I think one thing that attracted me to superhero comics was my sense of rebellion; costumed heroes were always trying to do the morally right thing, but they operated outside the law. They also had very strict moral codes; the villains go to jail, they don’t get killed. I conveniently (or perhaps, to be fair to myself, naively) ignored the ingrained racism and misogyny.
Still, I’ve kept in touch with the genre, through watching the big-budget movies, and following websites that report developments in the various titles and characters. But while I can still name all the writers of the silver age comics, and tell you the names of the pencillers and inkers just from one glance of a 1960s or 70s panel, anything from the nineties or later is extremely vague to me. And apart from my retrospective identification of autistic traits in the sixties’ Peter Parker, I never had any reason to associate autism with comics. So imagine my shock and horror when someone shared this particular panel from a comic on social media:
When I saw this, I felt physically sick. This panel comes from an Aquaman comic published in 2003. Aquaman is the badly-drawn, bare-chested guy on the left. The guy on the right, a black guy, you will probably not be too surprised to learn is called Black Manta. Now, I think the panel largely speaks for itself. I’m not going to talk too much about race, because, like I said earlier, I’m a white guy, and I think other people can talk with more eloquence and relevance about this than I can. I’ll just go as far as to say that the white saviour curing the black guy of his evil tendencies is creepy and gross on all levels. But this panel, indeed the whole storyline, isn’t just attacking one minority group. As I’ve said a lot recently, autistic people are the forgotten minority. And boy are we getting trashed in this story.
Do I even need to say it? Regular readers of this blog already know it. The vast majority of autistic people already know it. But I guess if you’re coming to this blog for the first time, and you’re not familiar with the issues facing autistic people, then I’ll say it again just for you: Autism is not an illness. It cannot be cured, but more importantly, it does not need to be cured, either by the fictional healing hand or anything else, for that matter. Autism is not something that people catch, and it doesn’t make people evil, wrong, or supervillains.
The Aquaman / Black Manta story was written by Rick Veitch, a guy with quite a CV in comics, having worked for both Marvel and DC. He actually retconned the backstory of Black Manta to introduce the autism angle. He’s not a kid, or lacking in experience. He’s now 70 years old, which puts him in his early fifties when he wrote the story. It’s hard to understand, maybe, how a mature, experienced writer could have thought this trash was okay to publish, and it beggars belief that it got through any editorial filters. Or does it? I’ve written previously about how the very talented and successful writer Stephen King managed to include a character made bad by autism in his novel, The Regulators. And don’t even get me started on Star Trek legend, 90-year-old William Shatner’s Twitter war on autistic people. Maturity, success, fame, influence – none of these attributes are barriers to spreading stupid stereotypes and damaging tropes when it comes to autism.
What can we say to people who keep seeing autism as this horrible thing that infects and corrupts normal people? Well, my pinned tweet (below) tells you what I think:
That’s all for this week. It’s been nice having you here again. Please feel free to drop me a line either in the comments section here, or on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any of the places I hang my social media hat. Until next time, stay safe, stay you, and stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.