Disabling Men: Masculinity and Disability in Al Davison’s Graphic Autobiography, 'The Spiral Cage'

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    Patriarchal societies in the West have assumed that to be human is to be a man, to be a man is to be strong and able, and to be able is to have a culturally 'normal' yet impervious body. Feminists have assailed the first two assumptions, but how does the disabled man fit in to the remainder of this ableist logic? For too long we have made discriminatory and oppressive assumptions about the male body which many men cannot live up to, for example, if they become chronically ill or are born with an impairment (Sabo & Gordon, 1995, pp. 10-11). Davis (1995, pp. 158) argues that these assumptions of normalcy continue their hegemony even in progressive areas such as cultural studies. Disabled bodies are not permitted to participate in the erotics of power nor in economies of transgression. Thus, we need to investigate how a hegemonic notion of masculinity informs and interacts with cultural notions of disability. With such an understanding we may be better able to cope with men's dire behaviour when they are confronted with illness and a dis-eased body, whether it is their own or another's. My particular focus in this paper is on the relations between men when one or more is 'disabled'. Unfortunately, these relations are often pervasively violent, insidious and subordinating, with the result that men dis-able other men. In order to explore the everyday assumptions of male ability in Western culture, which conceal dis/ability and the 'failures' of masculinity, I examine one example of autobiographical comics, a 'genre' in which comics creators tell their life narratives . Autobiographical comics give insights into the cultural narratives and discourses which bound and limit the construction of the visible self. Written and oral life narratives have been used in men's studies research to document men's experiences and practices (for example, Jackson 1990; Seidler, 1991 and Connell, 1995), as well as in disability research to bring forth the patient's perspective on illness and impairment (for example, Shakespeare et al., 1996; Monks & Frankenberg, 1995; Gershick & Miller 1995; Charmaz 1995). A focus on representations of men and disability in autobiographical comics adds to these growing literatures. Autobiographical comics creators use a unique graphic medium (both visual and textual) to narrate and construct a life story. Although such creators are few in number , there are several who have told of the effects of an impairment on their lives and their relations with others. One creator, Al Davison, is of particular interest because he narrates in subtle ways his foundational search for identity and purpose — going against the grain of hegemonic masculinity — on the margins of an ableist, patriarchal society . Al Davison was born with severe spina bifida in 1960 in northern England, and his comic book called The Spiral Cage (SC) relates in a rich graphic style the trials and joys of growing up 'disabled' in English society. It was first published in the USA in 1988 by Renegade Press . I will mainly concentrate on the longer and less chronological second version published by Titan in 1990. The jacket copy of the 1990 edition reads: "Doctors considered him a hopeless case, condemned for life to the inescapable 'spiral cage' of his own DNA. But they reckoned without the fighting spirit of Al and his parents, and this book movingly portrays in Al’s own words and pictures his struggles to overcome his 'disability' and the prejudice that surrounds it. A true story of one man’s coming to terms with his physical, artistic and spiritual potential, that will move you to laughter and tears." In his sometimes distressing autobiography we have a chance to observe the self-representation and visualisation of the fragmented and abject male body in relation to other men and a dis-abling society and body politics.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationBending Bodies: Moulding Masculinities
    EditorsSøren Ervø, Thomas Johansson
    Number of pages21
    Place of PublicationAldershot, Hants
    Publication date2003
    ISBN (Print)1840148039
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


    • disability
    • graphic novels
    • comic books
    • autobiography
    • masculinity
    • gender

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    McIlvenny, P. (2003). Disabling Men: Masculinity and Disability in Al Davison’s Graphic Autobiography, 'The Spiral Cage'. In S. Ervø, & T. Johansson (Eds.), Bending Bodies: Moulding Masculinities (Vol. 2, pp. 238-258). Ashgate.