Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is It Enough Just to Say a Character Is Autistic? More Thoughts on Soon I Will Be Invincible

One thing I never got to in my last post, but which I wanted to write about, is the character of Blackwolf. He's the Champions' Batman analogue: a brilliant detective and elite-level athlete whose traumatic past led him to become a costumed crime-fighter. He's also supposedly autistic, although the story doesn't really develop this. The label gets dropped onto him a couple times, and it never seems to fit. He has no identifiably "autistic" traits, and the label gives the reader no insight into anything he says or does. Yet Grossman obviously thought it important to give him that label, since he repeats it.

On one level, I'm intrigued by this decision, since Blackwolf counters a lot of the most common sterotypes about autistic people. He's described as attractive, physically graceful, and charismatic, and he functions as a love interest for both Fatale and Damsel (his ex-wife). He's also not shown as having any particular difficulty understanding social dynamics; indeed, in one scene where Damsel's parents are taking her to task for her handling of the Doctor Impossible situation, Blackwolf rises spontaneously to her defense. Without even being prompted, he knows that she's feeling distressed and needs him to stand up for her. It may just be that he'd had enough practice mediating between her and her parents in their marriage, but even that sounds like an improbably diplomatic role for an autistic person to take. While it's awesome to have a character clearly labeled "autistic" who does all these things we don't often see autistic characters doing, problems arise when the character has so little in common with the category "autistic" that, rather than broaden the category, we question his inclusion in it.

There are a couple passages where we see hints of his autistic nature. The first describes a fight between Doctor Impossible and the Champions, in which Doctor Impossible (he of the "Malign Hypercognition Disorder") expresses a sort of mystified admiration of Blackwolf's unusual thought processes:

He's got that twitchy autistic look he gets in a fight, his odd neurology hyperaccelerating, problem solving in real time.

Bearing in mind how "hyperaccelerated" Impossible's own cognition is supposed to be, this is high praise indeed, possibly indicating a tactical savantism on Blackwolf's part. Later in the fight, Blackwolf slips away and surprises Impossible, indicating that he did plan out his actions ahead of time, while the evil genius was busy holding off the other Champions. And since everywhere else in the book, it is Blackwolf who is in awe of Impossible's intelligence and who despairs of ever anticipating his plan, his ability to outthink Impossible must apply only in very narrow circumstances, i.e. during a physical fight. Having narrow, hyper-specific areas of genius that rise far above one's general intelligence level is the defining characteristic of savantism, and autistic cognition in general, even among non-savants, is very uneven. It would make perfect sense from that standpoint for Blackwolf to be smarter than Doctor Impossible in some contexts and hopelessly outclassed by him in others.

In the other passage, Fatale tries to act on her feelings for Blackwolf, only to have him push her away:
Our lips touch, and for a second it's everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. ... Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I'm dealing with Blackwolf again. It's like watching a different personality take hold, and I get a glimpse of what he's been holding back, a terrible, unappeasable mourning. Something really god-awful must have happened to him at some point.

Blackwolf's obsession with avenging his lost siblings rules his life. Obsessions and compulsions are indeed a part of autism, but I see a more powerful authorial motive than mere verisimilitude at work here, one that explains the overall lack of depth to Blackwolf's exposition. The two things I've singled out as most autistic in Blackwolf, his inscrutable mind and his rigid obsession with vengeance, are also the things that alienate him most from the other characters, that make him most clearly "Other." Doctor Impossible and Fatale both marvel at him, wondering what could possibly lurk in that brain of his:
I wonder what makes him this way, what primal, originary scene branded him with an obsession that makes him dress like an animal, and helps him fight. Who does he see when he looks at me?
...I get a glimpse of what he's been holding back, a terrible, unappeasable mourning.

The other members of the Champions, as I detailed in the last post, are all isolated by their powers. Their powers, and whatever price their bodies pay for those powers, dictate every aspect of their lives. They are utterly alone, Grossman tries to emphasize. Because Blackwolf lacks a power, he had to be given something that would make him as alone as Fatale, with her amnesia and her metal body, or Damsel, with her alien parentage and force field. His autism, therefore, is a metaphor for what Grossman feels the real price of superhuman ability would be. As such, it is not and probably was never meant to be accurately portrayed, which is lame insofar as it fails to invest a character with sufficient depth to be truly alive to the reader. Ideally, a metaphor should succeed both on the literal level, as an accurate depiction of the object or idea being used in the metaphor, and on the allegorical level in which it stands in for something else. Blackwolf never rises above the level of a cipher, which not only fails to endear him to us but also leaves us with a superficial idea of autism. Autism, as embodied in Blackwolf, is just isolation, just a state of arrested development. We get no insight as to what it's like to inhabit his strange, unevenly brilliant mind, no concept of him as an individual. So, as much as I love Soon I Will Be Invincible for its clever plays on the comic-book idiom, I'm disappointed by its lazy use of its one autistic character.

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