Comic Book Curious

Disability Representation In Comics: A Conversation with Travis Rivas

September 2, 2022

Travis Rivas is the founder of Super-Abled Comics, an anthology that showcases stories of superheroes with disabilities. Travis has also written other comics such as The Unstoppable Cherub, which features a powerful heroine with a limb difference. Travis himself was born with TAR Syndrome, a congenital limb difference caused by low levels of platelets in the blood. People with TAR syndrome have an absence of radius bones, which reduces growth in their forearms.

Representation is something Travis is very passionate about, and I recently had the pleasure of speaking with him about disability representation in comics and comic book adaptations. Here’s what he had to say:

Emilee Araujo: Have you always been into comics? And if so, what got you into them?

Travis Rivas: Yes! You know, my very first comic-related memory was going into a comic book store with my dad and seeing a line forming outside the door because Superman had just died. And it was, like, this big kind of touchstone moment for me, because, you know, Superman can’t die! My dad took me into the store and they had these black armbands and the Black Poly Bag comic and it was just this really big, powerful moment that felt like it affected people, culturally- or at least in our country. I remember it being on the news. It was this thing where people were like “Oh my god. Superman is dead. What are we gonna do?” And so that was the first time I realized the impact a comic could have. Now, as opposed to after that, I was born with a visible disability called TAR syndrome and I remember watching X-Men the Animated Series when I was a kid, and the great thing about X-Men is that they were outsiders- they didn’t fit in with the rest of society. They were ostracized, but they had each other. They had their own little mutant community, and I remember, you know, feeling like they did. I felt like an outsider and like I didn’t belong. There were times where I was bullied and ostracized, and the X-Men became my community. And so I was able to relate to them in a way that I wasn’t able to relate to other people because there was nobody at my school and no one in my community that had a visible disability like I did. So, that’s really why comics and where that love started and began.

EA: Would you say that was the original intent for your comic-creating? To give more representation for people like yourself? Or did you start making comics simply because you loved making comics?

TR: Well, when I started, I had a lot of broad, big, ideas. You know, not only did I love X-Men but also Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a huge influence on me. I know Joss Whedon is a controversial figure these days- and deservedly so, but I remember reading an interview with him where he was talking about writing and he said “One of the most important things as a writer is that you need to have something to say.” And, in my early writing and comic work, I had a lot of ideas that I thought were cool, but I didn't necessarily know that I had anything to say. When I was first trying to get into the industry, I would go around to conventions where I would meet writers and I would talk to them and try to get advice. And I remember at WonderCon, one year, I was trying to get to see a panel with Brian Michael Bendis, and I got there early and beforehand there was a panel there with the Nerdist podcast- Chris Hardwick is another controversial figure these days. So, I remember sitting in that panel, not really interested in it and Chris Hardwick was doing his thing, and then it came time for questions and answers, and there was one panel attendee that said, “I’m trying to be a writer, but how do I get from standing here in the audience to where you are on the stage?” And again, I believe Chris Hardwick is a controversial figure, but I think his advice was sound. He said, “the more honest you are in your writing and the more of yourself you put into it, the more you’re going to stand out and be unique because there is no other you in this universe, and there will never be another you who has had your life experiences. There’s never going to be another you.” And before I heard those words, I didn’t want to be the disabled writing guy who’s just writing about disabled characters. But, at the same time, after I heard that, that’s when it really clicked for me. I knew the stories I needed to tell. I needed to tell my story about growing up with a disability and feeling alone and feeling like an alien and, you know, looking for my community and dealing with these feelings of otherness. The story that I kind of never wanted to tell then became the story I had to tell, because that was my story and that was honest to who I am.

Cover of the Unstoppable Cherub Volume 1

Credit: ​​

EA: Is that when you decided to start working on the Unstoppable Cherub?

TR: Yes, and so after that is when I started playing with the idea that then became the Unstoppable Cherub. In the TAR syndrome community they call our little arms angel wings sometimes, so I just made that connection of angel wings and cherubs. And so I started creating that and I had a very fabulous artist named Megan Levens design the character- and, you know, speaking of Buffy, she’s done work for Dark Horse on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek and other great projects. So anyway, she designed the character for me and I started to put it together and that’s when I got the attention of The Lucky Fin Project, which is a non-profit organization that raises awareness and supports people with limb differences like me. So, through comics I was able to find my real life community away from these fictional superheroes. I was able to find that community and now I’m an ambassador for The Lucky Fin Project, which is really kind of a cool feeling.

EA: I’m really glad you chose this path of honing in on your own true, authentic story and incorporating it into your writing. I think a lot of writers with disabilities and differences want so badly to not be seen as someone who only has it as their schtick, so to speak. But how else are you able to be your authentic self by not discussing it? Your disability is a part of who you are.

TR: Yeah, it’s a balance though, right? Because it is a huge part of who I am and who we are as individuals with disabilities, but it’s not the only thing about us. I have a friend with a disability who’s an actress and she talks about how she wants to get cast in roles as the girlfriend, or as the sister, or even as the romantic lead; not the person with the disability. You know, we have multifaceted lives and, so far in the media, the only storyline I really see is “a person with a disability comes to terms with their disability”. You know, it’s always like they were born different or had some sort of injury and they struggle with where they are in the world, or they struggle with how they feel in society. And even though that was my story, that’s not all of our stories. Or that’s just one part of our story. So I think the first part is raising our visibility, and then having that media representation that authentically having people with disabilities portray characters with disabilities, as opposed to able-bodied people portraying us. Then from there we can branch out and tell these multifaceted stories.

Picture of the Lucky Fin Project poster

Credit: Travis Rivas

EA: You hit the nail on the hammer with that one. Would you say that comics in particular are getting better about representation now as opposed to when you were growing up? Do you see a lot more comics featuring characters and superheroes with disabilities? Do you think they’re getting better about authentic representation?

TR: I do see it a little bit more often. I think the problem with superhero comics in general, or at least when it comes to the idea of disabilities is that there’s always some super power that has to negate the disability. So with Daredevil, he’s blind but he has radar sense, right? Winter Soldier is a combat amputee. He lost his arm in the war, but they have to give him this serum so that he can be able to fight and join in with the rest of the Avengers. Those are just a couple of examples. It’s always the idea that there has to be something to balance out the disability, and that’s not the reality I see. I know Paralympians. I know blind marathon runners. I know armless archers. I have a friend who is an above-the knee leg amputee and she’s a Paralympic long jumper. So, there’s this idea in comics that you kind of have to counter the disability with something else. And look, I get that superhero comics are all about super powers and they’re fantastical, and that’s cool and that’s great, but it feels like if something is taken away there has to be an element that negates that disability, which is kind of unfortunate to see. You never see Winter Soldier take off his prosthesis and be like, “oh man, this thing is heavy!” or “ah, it’s all sweaty in there!” You know, like what happens with real amputees. I have a lot of amputee friends who don’t use prosthesis because they navigate the world better with their residual limb(s). So that aspect of the story isn’t being told, and those are the kind of things I would like to eventually cover. I think if I had one criticism about the first volume of Super-Abled Comics, is that I feel we didn’t necessarily address those realities as well as we could have. But, you know, we’re still learning. I think I, myself in particular, got so caught up in creating our own new superheroes and superpowers and new things like that that I didn’t stop to portray the realities of those portrayals.

(Sighs) One of the big misses in representation recently was the movie Shazam. Shazam was really great when I was sitting in the theater watching it because you could tell the creators had diversity in the forefront of their minds. Each one of those kids in the Marvel family was very diverse and had their own identity, and you had a disabled character named Freddy Freeman. And as I’m watching the movie Freddy is self-deprecating- he’s funny and they never ever bring up the cause of his disability, which is a great thing because sometimes people are just like that. Sometimes you don’t know why someone is disabled- whether they were born that way, whether it was acquired, whether it was through medical procedure, or what have you. Freddy is allowed to exist having a disability. But then you get this moment at the end where all of the Marvel family has their superpowers and you have a black woman superhero, you have a Latina superhero, and I believe there was an asian superhero as well. And then it comes to Freddy and they have this specific shot of him dropping his canes- removing the disability. You see him not using the canes. He’s flying around and has his superpowers, but no disability. And this goes back to what we were talking about having to take the disability away. And when I saw this… my heart just dropped because they were so close with the representation, but they fumbled right at the finish line there. The best way I feel I could equate it would be... imagine if his whole family- the whole Marvel family with all their diverse aspects then became superheroes and as a result of that, became white men. So, it was that kind of thing where they were really close, and well meaning and well intentioned, but they just fumbled at the finish line there.

Cover of Super-Abled Comics Anthology 2019 featuring heroes with disabilities

Credit: ​​

EA: Well said. Do you think there are any comics or superhero comics, in particular, that have accurately shown the experience of someone who has a disability?

TR: Yeah, I think Barbara Gordon/Oracle under Gail Simone’s writing has always been done very well. Gail did a storyline a few years ago where they gave her back the use of her legs and it was a story called Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle. In the story, Oracle and Dick Grayson have to compete against Hawkman and Hawkwoman from a different world. Nightwing gets taken out fairly early on and so it’s just Barbara in the chair versus Hawkman and Hawkwoman and she wipes the floor with them! She pulled out her escrima sticks and they’re trying to get at her and she kicks the crap out of them. That was a moment I thought was really well done and very empowering. You know, here’s a character who is still in her wheelchair and is still active and can take care of herself and beat the crap out of these flying warrior characters.

EA: What a badass!

TR: She’s such a badass, and speaking of Barbara Gordon: Savannah Welch, a disabled actress has actually been cast to play her in this upcoming season of Titans. That’s something myself and folks in the community are for.

EA: That’s really exciting! Shoutout to Savannah Welch. So, this is kind of backtracking here, but you know, I never actually asked who your favorite superhero is.

TR: Oh, that always changes! I’m probably gonna say Buffy though. I love Buffy and what that show did. Like the X-Men, Buffy and the Scooby Gang were friends to me at a time I didn’t have friends so I’m always gonna have a love for that character even though the love for the creator has waned in recent years. Buffy just has a really special place in my heart.

EA: What are some of your goals for creating comics in the future? Even outside of Super-Abled. What can we expect from you individually as a creator?

TR: I think at this point my goal in any future comics I make or stories that I write, whether it be short stories, novels, comics, etc. is to include characters with physical disabilities, for sure. Just because I think the able-bodied representation is covered. Those stories are out there, and that’s not to say I don’t have the ability to write a story only about able-bodied characters, but it’s just not my focus right now. And I think it’s still very important for us (people with disabilities) to tell our stories, because, in a way, we’re the most underrepresented minority in the media. But disability is the one minority group anybody on this planet can find themselves potentially in tomorrow. You know, I’m not gonna wake up tomorrow and be a different skin color, and sexuality is a spectrum and people experiment here and there, but disability is a minority where one day your whole life is different and you have to learn to navigate the world. You have to learn how to get around in a wheelchair or get around without hands, or get around with a chronic illness. So, as of now my intent is that any future story I create is gonna have characters with disabilities.

Picture of Travis Rivas at Comic Con

Credit: ​​ Rivas

You can follow Travis on Instagram at @rivastravis, as well as the Lucky Fin Project @lucky_fin_project

To learn more about the Lucky Fin Project, visit their website here.

Read and purchase the first anthology of Super-Abled Comics here.

And also the Unstoppable Cherub Volume 1 here.

For a look at LGBTQ+ representation in comics, check out Gabriel Valentin's article here.

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