Author: Travis Hayward
The 2023 Los Angeles Comic-Con brought together comic enthusiasts and industry professionals from around the world, offering a platform for diverse discussions and insights into the ever-evolving world of comics. One standout event was the “Autism in Comics” panel, hosted by Britton Payne, the VP of Business Affairs at Nickelodeon and a parent to an autistic son.
Payne kicked off the panel by shedding light on the representation of autism in the comic book medium. He emphasized the significance of recognizing and celebrating characters who have been canonically identified as autistic. Among the notable figures discussed were Black Manta, Mr. Fantastic, and Legion from the X-Men, all of whom bring unique perspectives to the world of superheroes.
However, Payne acknowledged that not all representations in comics have been ideal, with some interpretations perpetuating stereotypes or inaccuracies about autism. For example, a panel from an early 2000s Aquaman comic depicted the origin of the villainous Black Manta being perpetuated by his sensitivity to the material that made up his bed sheets. Another example featured Dr. Reed Richards explaining that he’s working on “curing” autism. The panel aimed to foster a deeper understanding of autism by exploring the various portrayals in comics and encouraging a more nuanced and accurate depiction.
A special highlight of the panel was the virtual appearance of British comic book author and artist Rebecca Burgess, who joined the discussion via Zoom. Burgess, who is also on the autism spectrum, shared insights into their 2022 graphic novel, “Speak Up.” The novel centers around a young autistic girl navigating a neurotypical world through her passion for singing and songwriting.
During the panel, Burgess opened up about their personal journey, revealing that they were not diagnosed until adulthood. “Speak Up” is a heartfelt exploration of the challenges faced by autistic individuals, drawing inspiration from Burgess’s own experiences with masking while growing up and incorporating elements from the lives of their autistic friends. The graphic novel delves into the struggles of navigating a world that often misunderstands and misinterprets neurodivergent individuals. Through the protagonist’s journey, Burgess highlights the power of self-expression and the importance of embracing one’s authentic self, even in the face of societal expectations.
The “Autism in Comics” panel at the 2023 Los Angeles Comic-Con served as a significant step toward fostering inclusivity and understanding within the comic book community. As an autistic person myself, I was floored by the idea of one of my favorite Marvel superheroes (Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic) being identified as autistic. While I’m not holding my breath, I deeply hope this is a trait they intend to explore in the upcoming Fantastic Four film adaptation by Disney and Marvel Studios. Overall, the “Autism in Comics” panel contributed to a broader conversation about the power of storytelling and representation in shaping perceptions of autism in popular culture.
Are you passionate about diverse and inclusive representation in comics? Join the conversation! Share your thoughts on the portrayal of autism in comic books and graphic novels. Let’s continue the dialogue started at the LA Comic-Con and work towards a more inclusive and understanding comic community. Share your favorite neurodiverse characters and stories using #AutismInComics and #LAComicCon2023, and let’s amplify these important voices in the world of comics.