Interview with Diane Wiener

WG: Diane, the 5th annual "Cripping" the Comic Con will be taking place in the spring of 2017. For those who may not have heard of this event before, can you briefly describe it?

DW: Hosted by the Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University with the support of university and community partners, "Cripping" was the brainchild of Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri and yours truly (both of Syracuse University). We wanted to create an accessible and inclusive gathering on disability and popular culture with a focus on comics, graphic novels, manga, etc. that would be engaging and exciting for an array of participants, particularly undergraduate students. Our disability-themed comic con, wherein "con" denotes both "convention" and "conference" (we call it the "Crip Con," for short!), has attracted local, regional, national, and international audiences.

The first Crip Con – the theme of which was "Fantastic! Heroic! Disabled?" – was held in April of 2013, and featured Dr. Josť Alaniz's keynote entitled, "Disability, Visuality, and the Silver Age Superhero." When he learned of the inaugural symposium plan, Dr. Alaniz contacted us to inquire enthusiastically about being our keynote, and we of course agreed. Dr. Alaniz, who is currently Program Director of Disability Studies at the University of Washington, published the first full-length academic monograph on disability and superheroes, Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond, (University Press of Mississippi, 2014). I am very proud and happy that Rachael and I are thanked in his text's acknowledgments, because of his keynote presentation and our support of same. Dr. Alaniz is currently working on a co-edited volume on these subjects, as well. His (captioned) 2013 keynote can be found on the Disability Cultural Center's: YouTube channel. And, he has participated during our Comic Cons, since that time, as well.

WG: In addition to accessibility for those interested in these literary forms, did you and Rachael have any goals in terms of the way that disability has been traditionally portrayed in comics and graphic novels?

DW: From the very beginning of planning "Cripping" the Comic Con, it has been our goal to complicate the ways that disability is frequently portrayed in mainstream popular culture, including in comics…namely, often-times, as a triumph narrative involving unrealistic idealizations that dehumanize folks (sometimes called "supercrips" – whether or not in the comics world!) or, conversely, as a "pity party" involving those whose lives are seen as less than, unworthy, not worth living, etc., or maybe there or existing mostly to advance the plot of the more "important" (read: nondisabled) characters. We want disability to be at the center of comics discussions, not at the periphery. Moreover, we intend always to undermine, as well, the "sea of whiteness" and hypermasculinity represented typically in superheroic worlds. As noted on our website, among our goals, we wish "to underscore and complicate the underlying tensions and intersections that we believe exist between disability, race, nation-state, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. We wish to utilize this symposium as a space to critique these themes further – among many others." The creation of the Access Avengers was very purposeful and intentional, along all of these aforementioned lines.

WG: Tell us a bit more about the Access Avengers.

DW: The Access Avengers is a team of superheroes with disabilities that came on the crip culture scene in April of 2013, concurrent with the 1st CripCon at SU. The characters are illustrated by Gilles Stromberg (graduate of the SU Illustration program) and designed by Gilles with Rachael-Zubal Ruggieri and Diane Wiener. Each superhero is out and proud about their disability identities as well as the intersections that exist between disability and their other experience of diversity; moreover, each seeks to serve as a role model for college students and others who may not be familiar with the idea that disability is or can be a cultural experience. It is our understanding that Access Avengers exist all over the world. Some of the team's leaders have elected to have their bios shared, and they can be found, at the "Meet the Access Avengers" section of our website. On this site, each superhero's image is accompanied by a short biography that includes their age, powers, year when they joined the team, and an image description. In this way, we seek to make the images as inclusive as possible for an array of interested readers and CripCon fans.

WG: Now going into its 5th year, I'm sure the CripCon is an evolving process. What changes have you seen from when it started? Are there any adjustments that you have needed to make in response what you have learned during preceding years? Any real surprises?

DW: We've expanded in order to meet various anticipated participants' preferences and needs. Creating a Comic Con that's also partly an academic conference requires an approach toward balance that we always aim to achieve creatively. We've had folks talk with us about scents sensitivity, so we've made adjustments; others have asked about multiple restroom options, and we've accommodated all of these requests, of course. Sometimes, as happens in the imperfect but still aspirational work of Universal Design, needs and requirements may conflict. We approach everything with openness, humility, and good humor. One of the surprises has been when students, faculty, staff, and community members tell us repeatedly that it's the most accessible and most fun conference that they've experienced.

WG: What are some of your most memorable experiences associated with Crip Con?

DW: One of my favorite memories is when myriad participants (before, during, and after a keynote presentation by illustrator Gilles Stromberg) contributed incredible and thoughtful suggestions that led to the creation of Al, our 2016 addition to the Access Avengers.

Another favorite memory is when folks who type to communicate told me using their keyboards how happy they were to celebrate their love of superheroes and how welcomed and happy they felt at the Crip Con.

Encountering a young Deaf woman (and soon to be college student) who drove across states with her hearing parent to meet Matt and Kay Daigle (creators of That Deaf Guy) this past April was an amazing experience.

WG: It has been great to talk with you and find out more about this really interesting event. I think it is definitely a side of the disability community that many people are not aware of and would be surprised to know about. Is there anything else that you would like to add – that we may have missed or short changed – before we close?

DW: Thank you for this great opportunity. I've enjoyed every minute of our interaction. I want people to know that I feel truly honored and delighted to host what seems to be the only disability-themed gathering of its kind. From my friend Dan White, I learned pretty recently about Feel the Force Day, in the U.K. That's a disability-focused TV and film event series that's another geek haven for crips. We hope to collaborate with these – disabilipeeps – (a term for which my friend Dee Katovitch and her spouse deserve citation credit).

I would love folks' suggestions regarding the Crip Con as well as for folks to join us, of course! Anyone can feel free to email sudcc@syr.edu with any questions, comments, etc.

 

Editors' Note: Readers interested in "Cripping" the Comic Con may want to check out the following:

Syracuse University's Disability Cultural Center.

What "Cripping" means

Liu Jiang's article "Superheroes in an Inclusive World" in the Summer 2016 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.

Sheila McMullin's essay "On Comics and Disability" in the December 2015 issue of Wordgathering.