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‘Will You Listen to That!’: (Dis)Ability in Moore/Willingham’s ‘In Blackest Night’ by José Alaniz

07 Sep

‘In Blackest Night’, a perversely clever short story by Alan Moore and Bill Willingham, featuring Katma Tui of the Green Lantern Corps, allegorizes two pillars of disability theory: the social model and accommodation.[1] Seeking to recruit a new Green Lantern in a lightless void called the Obsidian Deeps, Tui befriends the native silicone life form Rot Lap Fan and offers him membership of the Corps. But there is one big problem.

To her shock Tui discovers that, living in an abyss, Fan has no eyes – therefore the concepts of light and color hold no meaning for his species. Consequently, the translator function of Tui’s power ring utterly fails to convey the phrase ‘the Green Lantern Corps’ into Fan’s language, rendering it ‘the (untranslatable) Corps’ (3). Similarly, it turns the Green Lantern oath, with lines such as ‘brightest day’ and ‘escape my sight,’ into an incomprehensible mass of ‘(untranslatable).’ ‘Mmm,’ responds a bemused Fan to Tui’s futile efforts, ‘Perhaps it loses something’ (4, emphasis in original).

Tui solves the dilemma through an inspired act of cultural translation: she tells Fan to imagine himself not as a Green Lantern but as an ‘F-Sharp Bell,’ part of a galactic peace-keeping corps that uses ‘power bells’ to manipulate sound waves into energy patterns for defense. To periodically recharge the bell, Tui explains that Fan must use a sort of ‘tuning fork’ (actually a GL power battery) and recite the modified oath: ‘In loudest din or hush profound/my ears catch evil’s slightest sound/Let those who toll out evil’s knell/Beware my power: the F-Sharp Bell!’ (6).[2]

Moore and Willingham’s story elegantly and brilliantly illustrates how environments construct what we call “disability,” which, as Tobin Siebers puts it, ‘is technically invisible until it becomes visible under the pressure of social convention’ (2010: 129). Or, as he writes elsewhere, ‘Constructions are built with social bodies in mind, and when a different body appears, the lack of fit reveals the ideology of ability controlling the space. The presence of a wheelchair at the Polk County courthouse exposes a set of social facts about the building’ (2008: 124).

‘In Blackest Night’ also points the way to a social/environmental solution to the “problem” of disability: adjustment and accommodation (an approach codified in the Americans with Disabilities Act,[3] however imperfectly implemented).[4] More boldly, Moore’s script challenges the ablist presumptions in Tui’s language – and the reader’s, which as Brueggemann, et al, argue ‘is laden with metaphors of ability’ (they offer such examples as ‘sight equaling insight’; ‘turning deaf ears’ and ‘coming up with “lame ideas”‘ (2001: 369).[5] An important part of disability activism and scholarship, they add, echoing Mitchell and Snyder, involves ‘making the invisible visible and … examining how language both reflects and supports notions of Other’ (371).

That is precisely what ‘In Blackest Night’ does, through its fantastic science-fiction setting and by (humorously) drawing attention to the perception-shaping power of words. Filled with puns and sly linguistic turns, the story pivots on Tui’s realization that ‘ring’ (noun), source of a Green Lantern’s power, can also be interpreted as ‘ring’ (verb) – something which dawns on her when Fan uses the phrase ‘ring of truth’ (4).[6] Other language games abound: the tale opens with Tui – in a willfully mysterious mood – announcing to her overseers, the Guardians, a kind of riddle: that she succeeded in recruiting a protector for the Obsidian Deeps, but he is not a Green Lantern. The recounting of her adventure serves as explanation of that odd utterance.

Moreover, Fan’s aural-centric speech is filled with reworkings of familiar ocularcentric clichés, e.g., ‘By the Primal Chime! Will you listen to that!’ (5, emphasis in original). Moore even parodies and inverts the conventional ‘commiserating’ discourse often aimed at the disabled: after touching her face, Lap says to Tui, ‘Such a terrible pity that you should bear this tactile deformity. Your voice sounds so kind …’ (3, ellipsis and emphasis in the original). Tui, after all, is the alien life form on Fan’s lightless planet, with an “inadequate” body: ‘I cannot say what it was like,’ she tells the Guardians, ‘… I saw no more than a searchlight’s width of it at any given time’ (2, ellipsis in original).

Thus, the story prompts a rethinking of assumptions critical to disability theory: about spaces and bodies (what they are, what they do); about what kind of life is worth living; about the “invisible,” ideologized nature of discourse. All the same, Moore and Willingham reproduce some ablist presumptions themselves: Fan has vestigial eyes (disability as lack or defect); he seems oddly unable to perceive others unless they speak (the disabled as helpless); while Tui’s “solution” carries a whiff of colonialism: her inspired act of translation is also a trick at Fan’s expense – she even chooses not to tell him of the power ring/bell’s vulnerability to the color yellow, which would seem some crucial information to omit, even in a dark cosmos (6).

Nonetheless, we have clearly come a long way since such mainstream superhero stories touching on disability as ‘The Case of the Disabled Justice League’, in which medical and charity models predominate.[7] In Moore and Willingham’s tale, corporeal/cognitive difference functions not as something to be pitied or overcome; rather, the critical reorganization of environments (social, physical, mental) unlocks the hidden potential always already there.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brueggemann, Brenda J., Linda F. White, Patricia A. Dunn, Barbara A. Heifferon, and Johnson Cheu. “Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability.” College Composition and Communication. 52.3 (2001): 368-398.

Fox, Gardner and Mike Sekowsky. “The Case of the Disabled Justice League”. Justice League of America Vol. I, #36, June 1965.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hebl, Michelle R. and Robert E. Kleck “The Social Consequences of Physical Disability.” Heatherton, Todd F. The Social Psychology of Stigma. New York: Guilford Press, 2000: 419-438.

Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Moore, Alan, and Bill Willingham, “In Blackest Night”. Green Lantern Annual Vol. 1, #3, May 1987. p. 1-6).

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

____________. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

José Alaniz, associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Comparative Literature (adjunct) at the University of Washington – Seattle, published his first book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi), in 2010. He currently chairs the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), the leading comics studies conference in the US. His current projects include Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond and a history of Czech comics.

[1] – Excerpted from Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond (forthcoming). The author would like to express his gratitude to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for its support in preparing this draft.

[2] – The original Green Lantern oath is, of course: “In brightest day, in blackest night,/No evil shall escape my sight/Let those who worship evil’s might,/Beware my power – Green Lantern’s light!” Other members of the Green Lantern Corps have used modified oaths, but only Fan’s ignores the concepts of light and color.

[3] – Passed by the United States Congress in 1990.

[4] – For an account of accommodation traced back to section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, see Garland-Thomson 2009: 197fn. On environmental modification as a concept in Disability Studies, see Hebl and Kleck: 434-35. On the failure post-ADA to create accommodating environments and integrate the disabled into education and work life as quickly and thoroughly as some would wish, see Longmore: 2003, chapter 1.

[5] – They go on: “[D]isability studies does invite us all to at least consider the able-bodied agenda lurking in the way we make meaning through so many crippling metaphors, in the way we compose and communicate that disables even as it might be attempting to ‘enable’” (2001: 369).

[6] – Moore, of course, also puns on “ring” (an object worn on the finger, e.g. power ring) with “ring” (a resonating sound, and its figurative derivations, e.g., “ring of truth”).

[7] – That story has various JLA members stricken with various disabilities by a supervillain, so that they may inspire a group of disabled kids to “overcome” their impairments.

This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.

 

2 responses to “‘Will You Listen to That!’: (Dis)Ability in Moore/Willingham’s ‘In Blackest Night’ by José Alaniz

  1. charleshatfield

    2012/09/08 at 06:07

    What makes this Green Lantern story particularly droll, to me, is the fact that comics is essentially a visual medium. Moore and Willingham are working with/against one of the limitations of the medium. They are invoking sound in a medium that typically has no sound other than that we readers give it. By rights this story ought to be a radio play! That makes the task the story undertakes particularly challenging, and enforces/requires the forms of cleverness you discuss. Leave it to Moore to work against constraints that organize his very medium.

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  2. Jose Alaniz

    2012/09/10 at 16:51

    Yes, Moore/Willingham’s (visual) suggestion of sound is particularly vivid in the “By the Primal Chime!” panel: http://www.momentofmoore.com/post/3931752913/by-the-primal-chime-in-blackest-night-tales .

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