Disrupting Some Tropes and Reinforcing Other Tropes
A review of Jeff Lemire’s The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds (Marvel Comics, 2018).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Superhero narratives tend to have clear boundaries between heroes and villains. They tend to play with the duality between civilian identity and hero identity, but tend to privilege the hero identity. Like most of his comics, in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds, Jeff Lemire disrupts these easy binaries, creating a super powered person who lives in moral greyness while trying to push himself to live in a world of good and bad, to conform to the ideas of the superhero. Sentry has given up his superhero identity because every time he becomes a hero, The Void (a dark entity within him) becomes active and conducts evil deeds that far outweigh Sentry’s good ones. Instead of being a superhero primarily and wearing his civilian identity, “Bob” is a civilian who has to enter into a world inside of himself to become Sentry to fight The Void in order for that internal evil not to spill out into the world. He is trapped in his civilian identity with the constant desire to become his superhero self and relives his golden days only in a world in his own mind. Lemire calls into question the tropes of the superhero narrative, inviting his audience to ask critical questions about the way their superheroes are generally presented while also giving readers a powerful narrative of internal struggle and suffering.
Bob works at a greasy spoon restaurant with his former sidekick Billy, who also no longer has powers. The two of them share old stories constantly, pining after the life they lived as superheroes. Yet, Misty Knight and Tony Stark view Bob as an embodiment of danger, as a threat contained within a human body and Bob feels the prison walls around him even though he is technically free. He has to go into his inner world to fight The Void at specific times, not given time to live his life and the constant threat of permanent incarceration surrounds him even though Bob and those around him think of him as a superhero. His danger outweighs the benefit he can bring to society, so he is contained. There is no simple morality in Lemire’s tale of Sentry and heroism doesn’t always mean social acceptance or freedom. Bob has to challenge the simple morality of his Sentry persona in order to find a way to exist in the world completely and without constant suppression of parts of himself.
Although Lemire challenges tropes around superhero narratives and opens up those narratives, he unfortunately (like many authors) perpetuates problematic tropes of disability. Like many authors, Lemire presents a disabled character (Billy, who had his arm ripped off by The Void) as a threat and a villain. This is a common portrayal of disability, often predicated on the belief that disabled people are “self loathing cripples” and hate the world because we are disabled. It is a far too common portrayal that has unfortunately meant that disabled people like myself have frustratingly again and again seen ourselves only conceived of as self hating and villainous. Of course there are real-world implications of this such as the general public seeing disability as a problem and therefore disabled people as a problem.
Lemire further brings in an additional trope of disability – the disabled person who is “powerless” and therefore craves power. This trope tends to be related to the first one as these “powerless” disabled people frequently become villains in stories because they seek out the power they are believed not to have as disabled people. Billy in Lemire’s story craves superhero powers since he views himself as broken and powerless as a disabled man. The real world issue with this trope, of course, is that it portrays disabled people as powerless and this imagery often gets internalized by people in the disabled community and shapes our perceptions of ourselves.
An additional, and perhaps more damaging trope that Lemire incorporates into his narrative is the trope of disabled men using their disability to manipulate care-giving women. This trope dangerously suggests that disabled people abuse their care-givers and use their disability as a way of getting “sympathy” that manipulates others. The problem with this, of course, is that because this narrative is so prevalent, society picks up on it and it is common for people to view relationships with disabled people as being one-sided, only benefitting the disabled person and not the care-giver. Like most of these tropes, I have witnessed this in my own life where people frequently ask my partner how much work he has to do to care for me while looking sympathetically at him, or tell him that he is too kind for looking after a disabled person. In addition to this problem in the trope, this trope also portrays disability as inherently manipulative, which has repercussions around the way that people view disability and assume disabled people are constantly out to gather sympathy (rather than the fact that we generally find sympathy frustrating and wish people would treat us like anybody else while also respecting our accommodation needs). Lemire presents this trope in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds when he has Billy date a girl only to steal from her, saying to another villain “turns out said grandniece is a real bleeding heart for wounded young men. especially blue-eyed blonds with one arm”.
Lemire also repeats the “better dead than disabled trope” that is so frequently seen in disabled narratives. I have spoken about this narrative repeatedly before and the danger that it poses for disabled people – including society not viewing disabled lives as worth the lives of others or thinking that euthanasia and dangerous surgeries that can kill patients are better than letting us live while disabled. Lemire not only kills off the disabled character as so many people do, but also has him internalize this idea of being better off dead. Billy is told that the serum that is made for him could kill him or give him power and billy responds “it could. But living another day like this is death anyway”. These statements are dangerous, especially since many disabled people are repeatedly told that our lives have no worth. It presents the idea that we are better off risking death than living while disabled.
It’s important to note that, like most people in our society, Jeff Lemire isn’t intentionally seeking out to harm disabled people. Instead, he is replicating the images of disability that he (and the rest of us) have seen repeatedly in popular culture – which is why they are tropes. He is not portraying his character in this way to do harm to disabled people, but, unfortunately, these tropes and these portrayals DO harm disabled people. I would encourage him and others to get to know people in the disabled people who look critically at popular culture and the impact that it has on social perception of disability and political decisions around disabled people. I hope that in the future, Lemire brings his critical, creative perspective to disability and pushes the boundaries of the way disability is portrayed beyond simplistic, problematic tropes