After London 2012

Where next for disability arts?

Unlimited”, a major disability arts festival, is currently being held at London’s Southbank Centre to coincide with the Paralympics. Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online, talks to Russell Parton about what impact London 2012 might have on the community.

What was the climate like for disability arts in the 1990s?

I began working for the London Disability Arts Forum in 1994, when disability arts was very much linked with cabaret. The scene was buzzing with various disability arts agencies around the country, creating a forum that allowed disabled people to develop their artistic practice and to share their art and their voice. The movement was loud and proud: a fledgling deaf arts community campaigned to make BSL a recognised language, while the blind and visually impaired community campaigned for audio description. An emerging consciousness of the social model of disability created an atmosphere in which disabled people realised the barriers to inclusion were largely created by society, rather than their impairments.

Is there more of a level playing field with mainstream arts now?

I wouldn't say there's a level playing field but certainly more mainstream arts organisations such as the Live Arts Development Agency, ArtsAdmin, Improbable Theatre, Fuel, Arts Catalyst and festivals like Greenwich and Docklands International Festival have done a lot to use disabled artists and to think about disabled audiences.

What brought about these changes? 

They came about as a result of disabled people campaigning, advocating for disability rights, going on to boards and convincing arts bodies that disabled artists can make exciting work that challenges and entertains. For years, the Arts Council resisted making access a condition of funding. Their reason was that they couldn't impose something that they couldn't fund. So when the new arts lottery funding came into place in the 1990s, Paddy Masefield (who then served on the Arts Council lottery panel) insisted the decision be overturned. He argued that it made sense to plan access as an integral part of any new building development for current and future generations.
 

What are the major challenges disability artists face in putting their art across?

I think there is still a sense in which disability arts are seen as a participatory arts product rather than a professional arts practice, though organisations like DaDaFest in Liverpool have done a lot to disperse the myth that a disabled person taking part in the arts is doing so for therapeutic reasons and not because they have something unique, exciting and challenging to say. However, television is rife with freak-show viewing that dresses itself up as educational, documentary-style programming. It makes disabled people more visible as a constituent part of society but reinforces stereotypes rather than raising awareness of impairment as something that is an ordinary part of human experience.

What effect do you think London 2012 will have on disability arts in the UK?

It's hard to say what the legacy of the London 2012 will be in terms of the daily run-of-the-mill effect on disabled people’s lives. In the 1990s, the disability arts movement was so dedicated to opposing the charity model of disability. We challenged the charity model largely because the support it gave was minimal and the messages were patronising. But while we had a tick-box culture, there was at least a sense that the mainstream press wanted to pay lip service to our culture.

For a few disabled artists – especially those who were awarded Unlimited commissions – there is tremendous potential for the development of new work but it's a strange dichotomy that companies like Graeae, Heart n Soul and many of the Unlimited artists find themselves in. There is an element in which, to get mainstream acceptance, they have to pretend they have nothing to do with disability; there is a sense in which disability art is only acceptable if it contains and restricts the amount it says about impairment to a level acceptable by a mainstream audience – and says absolutely nothing at all about disability.
 

The South Bank’s “Unlimited” season runs until 9 September.

Russell Parton is a freelance arts writer. Follow him on Twitter @russparton

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.