Interview with Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri

Disability Arts, Crip Culture, and Comics 

Editor’s Note: This two-part interview was conducted and revised during several collaborative phases, beginning with our using the Zoom platform. (As she notes, Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri’s reference to her “background” was made in the context of our communicating via Zoom.) Ms. Zubal-Ruggieri (aka RZR) and I (the interviewer) utilized a Cripped approach to co-create this interview document, including a co-edited transcript of our verbal conversation—based upon the transcript rendered initially via—followed by updates and revisions, using shared, accessible Google Docs, telephone calls, cell phone texts, and Facebook Messenger exchanges. WG denotes Diane R. Wiener (that’s me!) on behalf of Wordgathering.

Content Warning: This interview includes content on eugenics, other severe and significant aspects of ableism and other forms of discrimination, themes of social violence, and suicide—subjects that may be upsetting or disruptive to readers.

Part One 

WG: Hi, Rachael, how are you? 

RZR: I’m good. You like my background, the X-Men?

WG: Yes, that’s one of the first things I’d like us to talk about. One of the things we’re planning on doing today for the Wordgathering readership is talking about the contexts of disability in comics, in the world today, and, specifically, having a kind of interconnected review/discussion of Uncanny Bodies, edited by Smith and Alaniz. Rachael, can you tell me why the X-Men are appearing behind you in your Zoom context in the age of COVID-19? [Note: Uncanny Bodies will at times be abbreviated as “UB,” below.]

RZR: Well, they are my favorite superheroes…I guess you could call them a team. They’re sort of more of a cohort, in my mind, because they’re mutants. They’re probably—amongst all comic book characters—probably the most prevalent, or what I would say, related—I’m not sure what word I would use—to explore disability in popular culture, particularly comic books. Mostly because they, um, I view them as seeking their rights, along the same lines, as what happens during many civil rights protests. 

WG: So, thinking about the movie Crip Camp, which was released on Netflix, and which features Judy Heumann (whom we know and whom we admire, of course, separately and together) and the whole history of advocating for 504, uh, you know, I know some of your understanding of this based on our friendship and collegial life and the work on the Comic Con we’ve done, and of course, the course that you’ve helped me work on, lo these many years, for our Honors program at SU…can you for the benefit of the readership say a little bit about how the X-Men are connected to the disability civil rights movement and what you mean by that?

RZR: Uh…

WG: “Guide me, lead me.”

RZR: “Guide me, lead me.” Well, there’s strong, certainly strong themes of solidarity, you know, pride in their identity as mutants is very similar to pride, disability pride—Disabled and Proud; Mutant and Proud. You know, there’s some question as to whether or not mutant powers are necessarily disabilities, in fact in one of the chapters in Uncanny Bodies, the author considers the X-Men as more allegorical figures than truly disabled ones. A discussion for another time, but they certainly are very…different. They’re also persecuted for being that way. They’re, um…just as they have mutant pride, they’re targeted in a negative way for being—so, you know, different…some of them have very obvious physical differences, and I don’t mean Professor X’s wheelchair (Professor Charles Xavier). Usually, I do this so well, because I present on this quite regularly for one of the undergraduate classes at Syracuse, on disability studies in popular culture. I had been doing nearly this every year, and, you know, it’s the representation of how they’re treated in society in these comic books that quite closely mirrors what people, disabled people, experience in real life.

WG: So, let’s get a little bit deep in terms of the parallels, now. You know, I’ll have a content warning on the interview, but I want to ask you, given how many conversations are happening right now in the disability rights movement, about COVID-19 and bioethics and medical rationing and ventilators and equipment rationing, and the debates of whose lives seem to merit honoring and continuance and the ways that this decision-making has been asserted, and how many disabled activists have written and commented about this… You know, when we think about Uncanny Bodies, edited by Smith and Alaniz, or we think of José Alaniz’s monograph on the disabled superhero, published, you know, a few years ago, now—that was the first time a formalized scholarly work was published at a monograph level about this subject. And since then, of course, we have the collection by Foss, Gray, and Whalen, and there are lots and lots (and lots) of journal articles and book chapters and blog sites and websites of other kinds about disability and comics. 

So, all these things, how are they especially important when we’re thinking about the debates around medical rationing in the time of COVID-19, because, for example, the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, is explicitly about annihilation. And the other ways that people talk about the X-Men have argued in part that the X-Men could be over-determined in their representations. So, according to that argument, any “other” can be understood as being in the realm of the X-Men’s lives, or like the X-Men are able to be “read” as almost any “other,” so why make the argument that they’re disabled, and maybe the only “really disabled” X-Man is Charles—which is kind of Jessica Benham’s argument, although that’s debatable, too. Um, we can cite that article and link to it, maybe… But, I’m wondering, like, what do you think people might learn about the real-life bioethics debates happening in the middle of a global health pandemic, from the book that was edited by Smith and Alaniz, specifically, and from the X-Men, specifically?

RZR: I think it… It might be approached from the factor that many people view disabled people as defective, as less than, as inferior, as broken, and thus they don’t hold the same social standing. They’re not—It’s a waste of resources to expend, you know, resources on “them.” And, it’s the same with the X-Men. Well, Charles Xavier might be the only X-Men using a wheelchair, but there are other X-Men who are disabled. There are several of them who have become disabled as a result of being superheroes. I can give you examples. You know, Cyclops, he’s disabled, he can’t “function” without his crystal visor—he can’t see, or, rather, he can’t open his eyes with it; otherwise he has, you know, these death rays. Well, they’re not death rays. They’re powerful, concussive beams shooting out of his eyes, and if he doesn’t have control over them with his glasses, he can’t function. You can’t walk out in public society. 

And it’s—also there’s some fear of the unknown. In the X-Men comics and adaptations, nonmutants don’t understand mutants; in real-life, nondisabled people often don’t perceive disabled people as real people. Mutants in fiction and disabled people in real-life are kind of isolated. And it’s not just that they’re disabled, they have multiple identities, you know, they’re People of Color, trans, queer. And there are many hidden disabilities as well, including autism, ADHD, mental health concerns. There’s also a lot of PTSD that can be read and “read”—and I’m putting air quotes on that—in superhero comics, especially the X-Men. That’s one of the things I’m going to start writing about—this person I know has written many books about mental health in popular culture, and she wrote a particular chapter about post-traumatic super syndrome. You know, the X-Men go out and fight and they, you know, win a battle, and they face things that other people don’t face, and they have to, you know, manage that—characters like Wolverine, who has self-healing as part of his mutation, and most, in most of his narrative, I mean, he still feels the pain. It’s not like he doesn’t feel pain. Of course he feels pain if somebody blows him up. And so he has to deal with that, you know, and then during the regeneration process, he says he feels all his wounds, well, doesn’t it still hurt?

WG: So how does all that help us think about the bioethics debates, the medical rationing debates, in the context of COVID-19? You touched on it, a bit. Can you say a little bit more?

RZR: I think it’s, um…I think so many people out there think that disabled lives are not worthy. And that speaks of ignorance. You know, somebody is in a nursing home when they shouldn’t be, or somebody is in a group home, or somebody uses a chair or somebody is blind, deaf, you know, most of able-bodied society deems people placed in these situations as, you know, aberrant, defective, unworthy. I mean, there’s lots of, you know, basically eugenics, and, unfortunately, a situation like the pandemic will bring some of this eugenical thinking out.

WG: And so let’s say there’s a disabled activist, who’s able to access the X-Men movie in whatever ways they might. So they’re utilizing captions. They’re utilizing descriptive audio, or they’re utilizing some other method, or they’re just watching it, and it’s a so-called standard presentation. You know, why, what, what are some of the scenes in some of these films? And some of these comic books, especially when we’re thinking of things like graphic audio and audio versions of the comic, so not just visual—the different formats of this material. 

RZR: So, a disabled person of any number of different multiple or singular disability identities could be accessing any of the X-Men films or a comic, an X-Men comic—or Wolverine, or any other, Mystique, you know, comic, whatever it might be—what messages might be in there that might support them feeling both better and worse right now, and in a parallel way—not that we have a full binary between disabled and non disabled—but to the degree to which we have these identity differences, of course, what can nondisabled people learn about disability from watching or reading X-Men content?

Well, one of the first media I can think of is X-Men III, the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand. Throughout the entire movie, it deals with the cure, a cure for mutants. But some characters think of it as a cure to the betterment of humans, all humankind, including mutants, and while there’s another side that says they want to, you know, eliminate us, but we are better, even superior. So there’s some disability pride. There’s all kinds of—in fact, I have a collection of imagery—kind of social protests among the mutants. You know, whether it’s you know, seeing people who are different, such as mutants or the disabled as diseased and rounding them up. There are also scenes along these lines in Days of Future Past, like the very beginning of the opening sequence—it has very stark imagery that speaks to the circumstances of the Holocaust. I mean, that’s, that’s less about disability, but more about persecution. And the overlay at some point in the story was, you know, the persecutors didn’t just target mutants, they targeted anybody who had it in their genes. So they did gene testing, and anybody who helped them, they were basically eliminated or locked away as well.

WG: And so the “it” in that sentence is anyone who might have had a trace of mutation that might express itself. And the them in that sentence was help the mutants—

RZR: Help the mutants, yes, the disabled.

WG: Thank you. Tell me what you think of the book by Smith and Alaniz, and why it is useful as a text, especially for thinking about disability in popular culture and comic books?

RZR: Probably my first reaction to this text was I thought it was weird, odd, peculiar. The intro, for example—I don’t want to just say that it was interesting. Why was it published under the graphic medicine (GM) series? And I actually read the description of the book series, because the books in this series (so I’ll read from GM series website): “are inspired by a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical.'” I find it problematic. Why was it published under this umbrella? 

WG: Yeah, it’s not a graphic memoir by a disabled person or a person with a medical experience or any number of other identities like we, of course, talk about a lot when we talk about graphic medicine. Maybe they’re broadening the definition, but in a way it suggests that this is a medicalized text. Is that what you mean? 

RZR: Right. And you know, again from the description from GM series website: “for scholars and literary, cultural and comic studies the genre articulates a complex and powerful analysis of illness, medicine, and disability in a rethinking of the boundaries of health.” That’s helpful, but it’s still…almost all the other descriptive language around the series is about medicine, graphic pathologies in comics used in medical training, etc. I mean, this just seems like it’s not really a good match. 

WG: So you’re confused by why it’s categorized in this series in the first place.

RZR: Yeah. I mean, it might be—It might be interesting to find out, I don’t know…if anybody’s interviewed José or Scott. Scott Smith is actually on the collective/editorial board of the GM press.

WG: Yes. 

RZR: But, um, so it might be a good question to ask him. Um, I mean, that’s—How did it, how did it wind up in the series in the first place? I certainly understand—I don’t want to diminish any importance of this book series. It’s very good, but it’s kind of…uh…odd. And I mean going back to my notes, for example—I think I mentioned this before—there were so many chapters on Hawkeye. I thought, why didn’t you just do a volume on Hawkeye, instead? And okay, I’ll say a title with Uncanny Bodies, and you don’t have any X-Men? That’s very strange. I think…how far did I get [at the time of the first part of this interview]? I got, let me just see where I’ve left off. I don’t even know where I left off. I started reading the intro. What I could—what I could find, you know what information I had. I’ve also managed to make a great deal of notes on the manuscript itself, so I will do my best to address those without taking over this interview. I think one point to make is I would like to point out the fact that there are simply limited texts to even begin to analyze disability in comics. There has been a tendency, to be a focus (in almost all literature to date), about super-bodies, but not super-minds, even though there are a few notable characters covered in Uncanny Bodies—and Deadpool is far from the only one, and we’re going to talk a bit about him, as he is quite famous and currently more mainstream, and he has been a bit of focus for me in the past year or so. Also, there is little work fusing Disability Studies and Comic Studies; so many works use literary theory or rhetorical analysis, but Uncanny Bodies adds a bit to that, but only so much.

Starting from the top, and I have to of course start at the beginning, we learn about….Golden Age Daredevil. I felt like the introduction was interesting. They (I’m thinking mostly José) introduced all these Golden Era heroes. And it’s important to know all this, but I’m like… I was just disappointed. Like, we (or should I say I) don’t care about Armless Tiger Man. Sure, sure there’s some really great examples. But why didn’t they analyze the importance of disability in comics overall, instead of these hyper-focused chapters, snippets on, let’s see the Black Racer was where I left—I haven’t finished that’s as far as I got, I was just like, “Oh, God, I can’t read any more of this!” It’s kind of like—I have this in my notes—although the stuff I read about José, you know, I mean, his book was the first book-length manuscript solely by one author on the subject, and some of it was really good, you know, I was very honest in these these notes, but somewhere I expected some explanation, but I didn’t find it, like how many paragraphs, not even two pages? Yeah, not even two pages, and they start getting into detailed, heavy-duty Armless Tiger Man. 

This doesn’t diminish the importance of looking at Armless Tiger Man and the Ultra Humanite and Golden Age Daredevil. It’s more, it was more like see, here, here are disabled characters, and this, you know, very quickly, this is why it’s bad to talk about disability in these ways, as the editors assert. But here’s this, this and this, this is what they do and I don’t know—at first—if I would want to continue reading this. So I have to keep going. And he just loves Doom Patrol, José. He does not like the X-Men. So…I’m just, I’m sorry, I’m skimming these pages. Doom Patrol is also very powerful, especially now that there is a TV show. I would have rather read chapters on each of these characters than actually, you know, those very short two pages. 

These small snippets or case studies could have been more fleshed out and made into additional chapters—And this might have made the text much more robust. This doesn’t mean that these analyses aren’t necessary for the intro and the whole subject of disability and superhero comics, but the section on Doom Patrol alone would have added a substantial amount of gravitas (and needed) scholarship, as there is a definite need for more than just a few edited books and a listing of journal articles and blog posts that are relevant. But back to this rather long section on Doom Patrol—it is such dense material, revealing some rather unique situations (no spoilers). I also have the same criticism of some of the notes within some chapters. So I also have a little bit of criticism for the first chapter—there are no images until page 14; there is a bit of a discussion about the use of black gutters for a segment. I wonder why they decided not to include an example of this? Perhaps it’s a copyright concern, but again, this example of analyzing such a narrative—a visual one—without imagery is a precarious one. In their descriptions/discussions, many authors perform a de facto image description already, so this might be an excellent example of access and cripping content, but at the same time, it is still lacking. This in essence disables the text, in a way.

In the grand scheme of things, it is one of very few texts on the subject of disability and comic books, so I don’t want to deny its importance. But I have to admit that I’m disappointed that rather than open with a discussion of say, representation, they instead decide to “offer a selective chronology of disability representation in superhero comics” (UB, p. 7). José (in his first book) and in UB intro makes an important point that when comics shifted into the Silver Age, disability had better representation (UB, p. 9), but this doesn’t mean these representations were perfect, though, so there is continued reference to the association between disability and death in the genre; also, associations between oddities, etc. (“[one creator]…saw the disabled as exotic, strange, even perverse, though not unsympathetic; they are eternal outsiders, confronting ‘normal’ humans with the mysteries of reality beyond the everyday” (UB, p. 13).  And, they assert—and, I agree—that “a disability studies lens brings an important critical light on the ideological underpinnings and intersectional identities of superheroes” (UB, p. 22).

And, of course, in reading any text, I highlight portions that are important to me, as a scholar, as a comic book fan, as a “crip”/disabled person, and so on.  And, I am only bringing some of this up as it is part of my “sticking point” of why it was published in the GM series and my own critical analysis, but also in my need to discuss the explicit connection of disability and comics. Scott and Alaniz continue in their intro, “This collection of essays suggests that superhero comics have the potential to reconceptualize or challenge this view of the uncanny within the context of disability studies.” (UB, p. 23) They also bring up that Disability Studies does not “like” the term uncanny bodies; perhaps this text is one opportunity to refute and reclaim the uncanny body (or the idea behind it, particularly in superhero comics) as valuable, worthwhile, and perfectly fine—as Crip. (UB, p. 23) 

The use of “uncanny” is also meant to challenge comfort levels and to bring up relevant topics, such as passing, cures, erasure, intersectionality, and more. Also, the point of the text is to reclaim that which might be perceived as different, unexpected, or somewhat unfamiliar, and to understand these “deviant” illustrations as wonderful, representative of experiences—breaking binaries and ultimately creating a sense of recognition within a character or narrative that may seem unexpected, but is quite revealing. 

And yes, I did look up the definition of “uncanny,” even though it’s been used in many X-Men comic titles.  And from a Wikipedia entry on Uncanny is a reference to Freud’s Uncanny: “The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar thing or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo conte.” Scott and Alaniz contrast this, saying ‘‘superhero comics present continuums of ability that suggest an appreciation rather than condemnation of different ways of perceiving and being in the world” (UB, p. 24). Forgive the recitation, but I hope it makes some of my points clearer? I could go on, but I don’t want to delve too far into the land of quotation, etc. 

WG: I thought that their intention was to do a survey of how long this has been going on, and then provide some cultural context for the history, and then give a deepened example—at levels of scale, as I would put it, and I’m not the only one that talks like that, of course. So, I thought that they included all that content on Hawkeye on purpose, as a focused, close reading of a particular character. They also did some work that dealt with different arenas of scale. And that all of that was basically set up as three or four different sub-genre approaches.

RZR: Right, and I actually think I wrote that somewhere—I was concerned, at first, as to why it includes so many chapters on Hawkeye, as I mentioned. Good examples perhaps of a close reading of just one character’s setting or plot? Is he deaf? Or is he capital-D deaf? No representation can be exact, of course. 

There can be no singular analysis. I drew a little superhero infinity symbol on my copy of the book (meaning that there are infinite possibilities, when it comes to analysis). And, it’s also that there’s several “uber foci”—we seem to get a lot of literature and analyses on the same characters over and over again, Hawkeye, with this, you know, the Matt Fraction sign language issue (#19). Joker—that character has been reignited (yet again) with the new film. Oracle, there’s lots of talk about Oracle, because, you know, I kind of miss Oracle. But it’s this because they are very consumable, or that some of these are more favorable characters. Like, you know, Oracle’s one of the better ones. Hawkeye is really, you know, some of what Matt Fraction did was really good. It becomes less easy to examine those who are not favorable, not done well. Or, or because they’re problematic, meaning that’s why we need to analyze them, like X-Men. I mean, there’s lots of stuff on X-Men, but nobody really talks about the X-Men, in depth, other than the, I think I found two chapters that are specifically on X-Men. You know, the Benham chapter talks about the film. I have a lot more notes on the other chapter from Uncanny Bodies, but we only have so much time and space to discuss, without getting off track. But basically, for me, with respect to disability and comics, in almost any text I’ve read so far, there is almost always a dance between interpretation and representation. 

WG: When you mention the two chapters, you are referring to the work on X-Men by Ilea and by Mantle.

RZR: Yes. And, I have to say, though, at least, you know, in this book we get some examples of some imagery, in contrast with Foss, Gray, and Whalen’s collection. The only images they have are the ones on the cover, from Dumb by Georgia Webber.

Before we move onto the next half of the interview, and Deadpool, I would say there is an important issue, and I don’t think we can talk about Deadpool without bringing it up again. There is a lack of focus on the super-mind. In his book on Death, Disability and the Superhero, Alaniz does allude to something that is very much lacking, both in studies on death and dying and in Disability Studies: the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities, or anyone who may be marked as cognitively different, but who is not [also] “mad,” “insane,” or “crazy.” I hope this is a subject for future publication and scholarly attention. Some of the works in Uncanny Bodies make progress in this respect, but it’s not far enough. My own work, with Layla Dehaiman, on Deadpool seeks to do some important work towards covering it.

[Zoom turned off]

Part Two

WG: Hey, Rachael, how are you? 

RZR: I’m good. 

WG: So, I want to ask you if you can talk a little bit with us about disability, as represented in the story arc of Deadpool, and maybe you can tell us, first, who is Deadpool?

RZR: Deadpool is a Marvel comic book character. He is known as the “Regenerating Degenerate”; “The Merc with the Mouth.” He is very violent. He is constantly wearing a mask. And I have done a lot of research to posit him as a Mad Queer Crip (I even created a Venn Diagram). He’s mentally unhinged—using the language of the comics—and he has several physical disabilities. He is a condition of his mutation. He’s constantly healing terminal cancer, and it mostly disfigures him. He can also manage injuries that most other people wouldn’t survive; he can regenerate, and he is queer. Several people in the comics industries refer to him as pansexual but I, I labeled him as queer. And he’s far from norm, a normative character—quote unquote normative again, those air quotes—character in Marvel Comics. He is in the X-Men universe, but he’s much much different. And I could talk about him forever.

WG: Alright, well, we’ll talk about him for a bit, and maybe we’ll have installments—who knows what will happen over the years? But, here’s the follow-up—that was awesome. So, follow-up question: when I think about your Venn diagram, with the overlaying circles between mad, queer, and crip and my thinking about your scholarly work with Layla—shout out to her and your projects with her—but also your solo scholarship on the subject, and the ways in which you’ve very much helped develop this into curriculum that is connected to the course that I teach at the University on disability and comic books. So, you know, all these ways that you think about Deadpool. 

This past semester [Spring 2020], when you visited my class in the context of virtual teaching and the pandemic, you talked about Killustrated, Deadpool Killustrated, and since Wordgathering is of course a journal focused on disability literature and poetics, and the arts, broadly, it’s interesting to me to think about disability and the characters in the so-called Western canon, including the very famous characters in the novel, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. And, in Killustrated, there are many sequences of Deadpool interacting with different characters, some of whom are disabled in literature. And Deadpool is recreating, re-narrating, inserting himself, destroying and redoing all kinds of different things with these representations. And so I wanted, I wanted you to maybe talk a little bit about that. 

RZR: Well, there’s a–Killustrated is part of a whole series of comics called the Killology. And, but Killustrated is the most interesting, because Deadpool determines that he needs to eliminate all of reality, to find peace. For his ment—, you know, he’s mentally distressed, distraught, he can’t effectively end his own life. He can’t die (at least for the most part). And he’s tormented by the fact that he’s a comic book character. Oh, I forgot to say how meta he is. He knows he’s in a comic book; he knows that he’s just fictional. So, in the grand scheme of things, he decides, “I need to kill all of reality, I’m going to go back into classic literature” (not a direct quote, of course). And not only does he go back to classic literature, there are at least three or four characters—classic characters—that are (quote unquote) mad. He meets Don Quixote. He meets Captain Ahab (I even started a comparison of Deadpool and Ahab, and it’s well, uh, UNCANNY). He meets Sherlock Holmes, who is ironically tracking Deadpool down across the meta-verse. So, there are at most three classic literary characters who are disabled or thought of as disabled. And he brutally kills some of them. But he doesn’t—he also really doesn’t find his peace. 

WG: Why does he think killing them is going to bring him peace? One of the students with whom I worked this semester—who had the benefit of your counsel in work he did for the course—talked about Deadpool’s existential nihilism. What does Deadpool gain by doing this killing? How is that anti-ableist, for him to kill these disabled characters? So, it’s a disabled character killing other disabled characters. How is this redemptive in some way?

RZR: He has the mistaken thought that killing them will kill the inspiration for his contemporaries. So, when he kills these classic characters, like when he kills Captain Ahab, he’s mentally projecting the identity of a Marvel character. So, in his mind, if he kills Captain Ahab—who is the inspiration for Thunderbolt Ross, aka Red Hulk (a character who might not necessarily be out as “crazy,” but he’s certainly coded that way, but that’s another comic book plot, in and of itself)—it’ll bring him peace, he’ll be that much closer to ending his torment. 

WG: So he is actually trying to time travel in a way that changes the story arc of his own suffering. So he thinks if he kills Ahab, the person who created the character who’s inspired by Ahab will never have created that person or representation because they wouldn’t have had the inspiration to have done so. And that reduces his own distress. Since he can’t suffer less in certain ways he can mitigate some of his suffering in other ways, and this is one of the ways?

RZR: That’s one of the ways. It is so incredibly meta, because he’s a fictional character traveling into other fictional realms. And he keeps going. He meets the Little Women—you know, very strong, I would say feminist characters of classic literature—and he kills them, and boom, he thinks they’re the real inspiration for Electra, for She-Hulk, for a couple [of other characters], there are at least four strong females, and that’s what he sees when he kills them. When he kills Captain Nemo, he turns into Magneto. There are a few times that doesn’t happen, like he kills Don Quixote and Quixote doesn’t turn into anybody else. 

WG: Oh, I see, and that’s such a great meta joke, also. Right, and yeah, because Don Quixote is about that.

RZR: Exactly.

WG: Not that it’s about one thing, right? But, it’s like it really is like they’re into creating these stories, even though they’re so brutally violent. They’re a send up, oftentimes, it seems to me. You’re much more expert about this than I am, but I have to say that, it seems to me, it helps me think about it in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of, that they’re, they’re not really killing anyone, because they’re not real people. So he’s not really killing anyone at all. He’s a cartoon killing cartoons, except he’s also a comic image, killing literary images. And so an image killing an image is also connected to, like, reader response theory and literature. It’s connected to the very theories of how creativity happens. It’s really very brilliant, and also that Don Quixote, specifically, you know—that the book and, in many respects, as I understand it, at least…I’m not an expert on Don Quixote—is a representation of what we don’t know about reality.

RZR: Yup.

WG: And so he’s chasing a surrealistic idea or an image, an imagistic idea. So when he disappears because he’s been killed, there isn’t anything, because maybe he never really existed in the first place. He made himself up. Could be anything, right? I mean, it’s really, it’s a way of teaching philosophy by murdering it.

RZR: I’m kind of speechless, because you’re right. And there was also a…I don’t know if it didn’t show the surroundings disappear, necessarily, like the countryside, windmills were still there. And, but, you know, there lies Don Quixote dead on the ground. And Deadpool also kills his sidekick.

WG: Sancho Panza.

RZR: And then he looks down, holds his gun up, looks down at Don Quixote, and Deadpool says, “Consider the windmill tilted.” 

WG: So the idea that the windmill is tilted suggests that things are askew. And so in a way, when you talk about mad, I mean, this is a problem because it suggests that mentally ill or mentally emotionally variant people are violent. And in that way, it unfortunately advances the stereotype which is the opposite of the truth, right? That mostly, as we know, people who are labeled with psychiatric—quote unquote— impairments are more likely to be the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators. And so in a way this projects or advances these negative stories. That’s, that’s so dangerous, in and of itself. And yet there’s something really compelling about the idea that his madness, as it were, is actually–sane. One of the arguments often made in the anti-psychiatry movement is that the world makes people mentally ill, and that being sane in a world that’s insane is actually insane. And being insane in an insane world is sane.

RZR: And, you know, there’s a whole segment before he travels through—I don’t know if it’s the night, if it’s necessarily the nexus of all realities—but he has this mad scientist brigade help him bridge through to other realities. And this one character called the Mad Thinker tells him, you know, we’ve determined that this is what’s happening. Oh, come on, where is it? I’ve got in front of me, what about if I read it out loud to you? It’s there, for later. And he just says, you know, we determined what’s wrong. You have to get metacidal, is how he terms it, so you have to, what he’s saying, you have to kill everything. You have to destroy everything. But as soon as Deadpool jumps out the door, he doesn’t realize—or maybe he does—that with respect to this whole scientists’ brigade, they’re all bad guys with either a mad identity or a mad disability. 

The characters in Deadpool’s mad scientist brigade (and other noted characters in the Killology) include: Egghead, a mad scientist genius (nemesis of Ant-Man/Hank Pym and Hawkeye/Clint Barton); Arnim Zola, a mad scientist whose consciousness has been downloaded into a series of androids; The Mad Thinker, a mad scientist who specializes in robotics (the Awesome Android appears with him, a lot); The Leader, a mad scientist who was exposed to gamma radiation, and, as a result his intelligence (and brain) grew to gargantuan proportions; Baron Zemo, who went “mad,” especially after his hood was permanently glued to his head by Adhesive X (his own invention) during a battle with the Allied super-agent Captain America; MODOK (Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing), a bio-engineered “living computer” (MODOK was a scientist who was turned into “a massive-headed being possessing superhuman intelligence and extraordinary psionic powers”; this process turned him “mad”); Wizard (or, The Wizard), who invented an “id machine”; and Thunderbolt Ross (Red Hulk), who has monomania.

WG: So, this is really complicated to me, in a way. And I know we have to pause, and we can keep talking about this. But I, I want to say that it actually seems to me, and listening to you talk about it, that he’s killed no one actually, that what he’s actually doing, is doing what is a kind of anti-Buddhist Buddhism. It’s like, the way to have freedom is non-attachment. And so if you realize that you’re going to die, instead of being afraid of that, if you accept it, and you just have no attachments, which means you eradicate your attachments. In order to be free, everything has to die. That’s kind of what he’s doing. He’s kind of a Zen character. It’s really bizarre and also the idea that killing things is literally done if you take the brutality and violence and hypermasculine comic book imagery out of it, and leave it and its symbolism. And, yes, it’s still mentalist, and ableist, and stereotyping and all kinds of other stuff. It’s like realizing this is all an illusion. None of this matters. Your craving and attachments are illusory. It all means nothing. Be in this moment now, be here now. That’s, that’s immortality, even though you’re going to die, that’s kind of what he does.

RZR: Right? And, you know, I actually just thought of this, you know, they show him going through reality, but he first sits down to read the actual classic texts, and he goes, “No more. I can’t, no more, I can’t take it another word and then we’re going to go ape, apeshit.” Basically, what he says is he’d rather murder a million—Spider-Man, a million times more than read another one of these stories. So it’s kind of a rip on classic literature, though. So what he was saying was, “I don’t want to read to find out who I need to kill. I’m just going to go and kill everybody.” 

WG: But, again, I don’t—so, well…it’s like a double-edged sword. No—well…that’s kind of an ironic thing for me to say, given what he kills people with, oftentimes, but he’s… that would be an interesting title for you, for something: “The Double-Edged Sword.” Because he has two swords on his back, and they’re called what? 

RZR: Oh, they’re katanas. 

WG: Right? So that is a Japanese sword. 

RZR: Right.

WG: So, this is an explicit reference to Zen, in some respects. These are Japanese fighting swords that this white guy is carrying around, and he’s essentially a mercenary who had ninja training, right? Who has cancer and goes to cure the cancer and winds up in a mutated state where cancer can never really be okay, but he can’t die. So he’s always sick and immortal. So he can’t escape from his own mortality, even though he’s immortal. And he can’t—he can’t become mortal enough to escape from his immortality. So, he’s just trapped in both mortality and immortality at the same time. And that sounds like a kind of hell.

RZR: Yeah. 

WG: And it also is the case that he still has this sense of humor that he uses as a way to cope. Except, again, if we literally see it as killing, it’s pretty brutal and awful. But if you think of it as separating, like, I don’t know, is there a book called Deadpool and Philosophy?

RZR: Yes, there is. 

WG: Yeah. So, I wonder if any of the essays talk about that. Because it seems to me that there’s something very much about mindfulness and a paradoxical, murderous approach toward refusing reason because it’s not real. 

Note of reiteration—and, something meta (because, well, Deadpool…!): The majority of this two-part interview was recorded during two Zoom sessions, which we in turn transcribed using Otter AI software. After the interview, Rachael confirmed that Deadpool and Philosophy includes a chapter entitled, “Zen and the Art of Deadpool” (by Gerald Browning). 


Alaniz, J. (2014). Death, disability, and the superhero: The Silver Age and beyond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

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About Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri

Rachael A. Zubal-Ruggieri is the Administrative Assistant of the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute. Mother to an Autistic teenage son, Rachael writes and presents about neurodiversity and autism parenting, seeking to debunk and disrupt traditional representations of “the autism mom.” She is a non-traditional student in the Human Development & Family Science program at Falk College, with a Disability Studies Minor, at Syracuse University (SU). Her research interests include Creative and Design Thinking, Technical Documentation and Usability, Technology and Disability, and Parent and Family Involvement in Education. Rachael has dedicated her career to improving the lives of people with disabilities, including broad-based support to multiple disability rights initiatives on campus, in the Central New York (CNY) area, and nationally, through many grant-funded projects and opportunities and via long-term relationships with community agencies and programs. Rachael worked for over 30 years at the Center on Human Policy at SU. She is a founding member of the university’s undergraduate disability rights organization, the Disability Student Union (DSU). Rachael’s current activities include her roles as Co-Advisor of the Self-Advocacy Network (formerly Self-Advocates of CNY), and as a Board Member of Disabled in Action of Greater Syracuse, Inc. Rachael is also co-creator (with Diane R. Wiener) of “Cripping” the Comic Con, the first of its kind interdisciplinary and international symposium on disability and popular culture, held at SU. At conferences and as a guest lecturer, she has for many years presented on the X-Men comic books, popular culture, and disability rights and identities.

Read selections from Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri’s The Micro Mutant Memoir Postcard Project and her book review in this issue of Wordgathering.  Rachael was also previously interviewed in December 2013 issue of Wordgathering.

About Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere; her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine; her flash fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ordinary Madness. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: