Comicpalooza 2015 Day 3: “How Can I Be Superman If I Can’t Walk?”

Sunday I got the chance to finally look into a young girl I have been seeing at Comicpalooza for as many years as I can remember going. She’s a staple there, someone that is unforgettable the moment you see her, especially if you’re a Doctor Who fan. She’s Kirsten Passmore, 14, and she is a disabled person who rocks the most awesome Davros cosplay this side of Julian Bleach.

Passmore was hosting a panel called Cosabilities this year, a short talk and Q&A session dedicated to helping people in wheelchairs, on walkers or on canes to find characters to cosplay in. I made sure I sat in the front row.

I’ve been pursuing a question on and off ever since last year when my family was in a the quarter-mile long line that you had to stand in if you wanted to have your picture taken with John Barrowman. Ahead of us in line was a very severely disabled boy in an elaborate, high-tech chair. Tubes and wires snaked out of every opening I could see, and as far as I could tell the boy could not speak. But what he could do was let his parents know how much he wanted to meet a science fiction hero.

Over the course of the rest of that con and going into this one I started to notice that the number of disabled people in such conventions seems much higher than you generally see out and about. Granted, this could all be a product of simply having so many people crammed into one spot for a specific event, but it just didn’t feel that way to me. People with disabilities just seem to love science fiction and fantasy an awful lot.

Shortly before I attended Comicpalooza this year I dropped by a superhero party being thrown for deaf and hard-of-hearing children at Lone Star College Cy Fair. The American Sign Language community hosts regular Signing With Santa sessions there, but this was the first time they’d had members of the local cosplay community come out. Comicpalooza was one of the sponsors, and the area was packed with children dressed as Hawkeye and Black Widow rescuing stuffed animals from cardboard towers and interacting with princesses and heroes able to speak their language. HPD even volunteered a deaf police horse for kids to pet and take pictures of.

“It makes the kids feel like they are as much a part of the world as any other fan,” organizer Leyel Hudson told me, then.

That’s what I was so curious to see in Passmore’s panel. Cosplay is empowering. Not only will it net you a ton of attention from delighted fans who appreciate what you’ve recreated, but kids will damn near knock you down in idol worship. It’s not true heroism, but it’s a reasonable facsimile. 

Passmore was nervous and spoke haltingly of growing up with cerebral palsy, which affects motor skills. She was able to walk with crutches when younger but now relies on a powered wheelchair to get around. But what a wheelchair it is. The frame is black and covered with the distinctive metal balls that are part of Davros and the Daleks’s bottom chassis. Blue light shines from underneath, hiding the wheels and giving an appearance of floating. At chest level Passmore has created an elaborate control panel that also mimics that of the Dalek creator. She may not wear the extensive facial effects that give Davros his fearsome appearance, but she’s mastered the machine aspect perfectly.

The bulk of Passmore’s presentation was a look at how disabled people were more and more coming to be seen as mainstream heroes, and how that opened up new opportunities for the disabled to cosplay. Davros was one of the few classic characters she mentioned, but she also talked about cosplaying Daredevil. Now, Daredevil is blind but come on. However, Passmore mentioned portraying Matt Murdoch the way Superman is often cosplayed, in his civilian uniform with the Daredevil costume visible through an opened shirt. As Murdoch would be keeping up the appearance of a normal blind man, one such individual would look eerily at home with a cane wandering a convention floor.

More modern examples included Daphne Millbrook from Heroes, who was also afflicted with cerebral palsy and walked on crutches after he super speed powers were lost in the eclipse. There are also great examples of amputees getting hero billing over the last decade she suggested, characters like King Fergus from Brave, Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, The Winter Soldier and most recently Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. Avenues for prosthetic users have grown wider.

She also suggested using the paraphernalia of disability to a cosplayers advantage, highlighting the fact that the mechanical aspects of wheelchairs lent themselves well to characters like Cybermen and styles like steampunk. This prompted me to ask her if she maintained two separate chairs, one for cosplay and an every day one, and if no wasn’t she worried about damaging expensive, necessary equipment?

“This is my every day chair,” she said. “It costs around $30,000, so this is the only one I can use. Yes, you want to be very careful when you’re decorating things like feeding tubes and breathing tubes, but nothing I’m going to do to this chair is going to be harder than what I do to it in every day life.”

“Our house is full of holes in the walls from her crashing into them,” added her uncle.

In fact, Passmore said, she’d busted a Dalek bulb earlier running in the Dalek races. Several fully functioning Daleks with human operators were present at the convention and paired off earlier to see who was the fastest. Passmore joined them, winning the race by cutting a sharp corner on the track and crashing into one of the Daleks resulting in minor cosmetic damage to her cosplay but a victory metal against the exterminators.

After her talk an older man who spoke with a slight slur and needed a walker to move stood up to ask Passmore a question.

“One of the things that bothers me is I can’t be Superman with this,” he said gesturing to his walker. “I tried it once and someone asked me, ‘How could I be Superman if I couldn’t walk?”

Passmore responded, “Ask them how they can be Superman if they can’t fly? There’s a Spider-man from an alternative universe that was injured and put in a wheelchair. You can work around it.”

Later I told the man that while he might feel he couldn’t pull off Superman, Batman was certainly on the table. An older Batman, his body broken from his years of combat, wears braces and an exoskeleton to walk in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s acclaimed Elsewhere graphic novel Kingdom Come. He seemed very excited to learn about it.

I had one final question for the panel; did seeing abled people doing cosplay for characters like Professor X bother her.

“No,” she said. “It might be nice if in the movies they would find people to play these parts that actually are in wheelchairs, but it doesn’t offend me to see an abled person as Professor X. If nothing else it gives them the chance to see the world from our level. They’ll finally know the pain we feel just going through a door.”

“Seeing more people in chairs or on canes and stuff if wonderful,” she went on. “It gets people used to seeing and talking to us. It’s much better than parents pulling kids away from me when they want to touch my costume and ask questions. It also forms a pool for disabled people to connect and discuss. You feel normal and empowered.”

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