Disabled Creatives in Comics: Interview with Tee Franklin
For the Disability Visibility Project, Film Critic & Journalist Carolyn Hinds spoke with comic book writer and author Tee Franklin about being a disabled creative in the comic industry, using her disability and humor as inspiration to create characters like Charlotte Webber aka Sun-Spider in Amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for disabled people. For an extended audio version of the conversation with Carolyn and Tee, click here.
This interview transcript was edited for clarity and length, and was conducted before the commencement of the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.
Carolyn Hinds: Let’s talk about what got you into comic book writing and your introduction to the industry. I think it’s a very complicated industry. A very white, and male dominated industry.
Tee Franklin: I’ve always loved comics. Like my villain origin story is me basically blackmailing my older cousin who had his little girlfriend come over, and he was supposed to have been watching me, but since he chose to pay more attention to her, I was like “Give me comics and I won’t snitch.” [laughs], and that’s my introduction into comics.
I didn’t know [at the time], but as a kid with ADHD, I now understand I was drawn to comics because it’s so bright and vivid and just fueled my imagination. I didn’t know X amount of years later, we’re not gonna say the age [laughs], but little did I know that this would be where I ended up like..it is…it’s still so surreal.
I never expected to write. I never knew I had a talent for writing. Let me be 100 [percent]… I really don’t know how I didn’t piece it together. None of this is “I don’t like writing.”, but what I did prior to writing comics was come up with stories, and tell these amazing stories as a disabled sex worker. I was already crafting my own Bingo Love. My own Harley Quinn. I was making these amazing stories.
I think it was just sometime this year that I actually put it together and was like “Oh, damn! That’s pretty cool!” You know? Back in 2014 I ended up in a really horrendous car accident. As a sex worker I just wasn’t feeling sexy. I was not. I just wasn’t.
I put a pause on being a sex worker. Now I’m collecting disability checks, and it’s like, I have this opportunity to find me, and geek out a lot more, and I put together this website. It was called Vixen Varsity. And it was really just a site so that I can geek out as a black woman, and as I started to read comics, I noticed it was still white male [centered], and I didn’t want to promote those types of books to my audience. I was like, “This is corny. Why don’t we have our own stories?” and that spawned the hashtag #BlackComicsMonth,which just took off.
I started to do interviews with comic creators.Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and all these companies would send black comics written, created, and drawn by Black folks. And they will give it to me for free, and when I would do New York Comic Con and all these other comic cons, I would be lugging all of these Black books and giving them away, and that was just…for me. I reached my peak. I was like “I’m turning everybody into a nerd and not just a nerd, but black nerds! Yes! [laughs].
I’m a writer now, and that’s how Bingo Love came to be. So, if it wasn’t for that car accident. I don’t want to shout out to the kid who rear ended me because they were on their phone, but I’m just saying “Look at me now!”
Carolyn: I get it because the thing about disability when you become a disabled as an adult, a lot of people who before they become disabled, or people who are able bodied and never become disabled, see disability as something world ending. And in the moment, as it’s happening, it does feel like your world is shattered and you’re thinking, “What the hell do I do?”
Carolyn: When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) MS in 2017, I had been sick for a while before that because it took two and a half years of testing, and during that entire time I was experiencing symptoms. I had relapses. I had to take like six months off from school because of the MS, and was sick due other unrelated health issues, and it was sometime after I was diagnosed that I actually realized I was disabled. When you think of yourself as disabled, and you identify as disabled, I think in a way your brain chemistry changes, because you have to think of yourself and the world that you’re in, in a completely different way.
That’s why I think for a lot of us, for people like me and you, our disabilities allow us to tap into a different side of ourselves, you know? To see the possibility of dreams that we thought weren’t achievable, and things that we believe that we couldn’t do.
Being disabled has allowed you Tee to tap into an extremely creative side of you that has created a brand new career. A life that you never thought was possible.
Being disabled is extremely emotionally heavy, and mentally and spiritually challenging, but I do think those challenges allow us to be able to say, “You know what? I have the guts to go and pursue this new passion.”
Carolyn: You’re literally like, “What is the worst that could happen. I’ve already experienced the worst.”
Tee: Listen! Honestly, becoming a sex worker happened because I ended up in an accident where I had seizures and blood in my brain, and I had to learn how to read and write again. Before that I was just an admin assistant. I was a school secretary. That’s what I was, and then it was like, “Okay. I am forgetting everything in the world on top of having ADHD”, and it was just like, “Oh, what the hell am I gonna do?” And honestly, it was kismet, I guess.
My girlfriend had called me and said “Girl, I just made $200 in fifteen minutes!” and I went “Tell me more! Darling I can do that too, shoot.” [laughs]
I was able to take care of my family. Right? I couldn’t take care of my family [then], and I didn’t see myself as disabled at that time. It was like “Okay, so my brain doesn’t work. Great. I’m in college. I’m working. I got this family. Can I do sex work? Let’s make it happen.” Everything…it just all happened because of disability. And to be where I am and be accepted and working on these big name properties. It’s just…I mean…My Little Pony?!
Carolyn: Yes! Something that was part of my life growing up as a kid like My Little Pony was one of the shows you would come home during the evening to watch. It was Sesame Street, My Little Pony, Care Bears, and Fraggle Rock. We watched all of those shows and some of them didn’t have disability representation back then. Nobody except for Sesame Street, but to be able to work later on something that would have had such a significant stamp on your own during your adolescence, after becoming disabled…I think that’s amazing.
What you’re doing is still something I’m learning to embrace. That being disabled doesn’t have to be the end of everything.
Tee: That’s right. It’s not the end of the world. It’s really not, and it’s why I made sure I had disabled rep in everything I do because I want people to understand that I might have a broken back, with a jacked up heart and all this other stuff, but look what I did! Look at these characters existing and going through life. They’re dope. You’re dope. We’re dope. Let’s be dope. I’m really hoping that I’m showing publishers, editors, the folks over at Hollywood that we’re talented, just give us accommodations and make things accessible.
Carolyn: You’re creating stories for characters like Harley Quinn the Animated Series with the Eat. Bang! Kill Tour, a 6 issue miniseries published by DC Comics.
Harley is such a lightning rod of a character.You either love her, hate her, love to hate her, and she’s always been connected to The Joker. So tell me about pitching this love story between her and Poison Ivy, or was it pitched to you?
Tee: You know, one of my good friends Marc Guggenheim who was the showrunner of Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, wrote the Green Lantern movie which you love it or you hate it, you know? Marc and I, we’re close and he was like, “Why aren’t you writing for DC and Marvel?” And I’m like “Well…you know you girl, she got a mouth on her. She’ll say whatever the hell she wants, and it’s no filter.”
He was like “*pshaw* I’m going to introduce you to my editor and let’s see what happens.” They looked at my stuff and were like “We don’t have anything, and we’ll keep her in mind.”
A few months later they asked if I was interested in the Harley Quinn show, and I found out about the show probably about midway through season one.
I didn’t really know it existed, and then I started watching and tweeting about it. But I obviously didn’t know what my future was. [Iaughs]. I was like “Oh my god! I love that show! Yes, Sure!” And they said “Look, there’s other people in the running so we can’t promise it to you.” No biggie.
I watched the show another two times, had my little smoky smoke, and literally all they said was “Thelma and Louise,” but without diving off the cliff. So I watched Thelma and Louise, and I’m like “Huh.I don’t want it to be like that.” I just knew that wasn’t what I wanted.wanted. But I’m gonna work with the cops chasing Harley and Ivy and have them going through different towns and cities of the DC Universe. And I just pitched this whole thing, but I didn’t include Vixen’s girlfriend at the time, but I did include Vixen because “Hello! I have a tattoo. [of her necklace], and I sent it off. Then that was it!
The Harlequin world that Patrick Schumacher, Dean Lowrie, and Justin Halpern did…that universe is so freaking fun, and bloody and loving. These are all of the things I love.
I love Harley. Harley is a domestic violence victim, and has now found love with a woman.
And with Vixen’s story, although that was a whole thing with the freaking fans and evil stuff…God! Having disabled Black queer love was just…I’m really proud of that character. Of all of my characters. I’m proud of all of them. But Elle, she’s the first disabled character in the IP world that I created…and she’s dope. I just wanted to show that disabled people can get it too, and folks love her.
You know for Harley and Ivy…to be the first Black woman to write Harley and Ivy…what?
It’s really dope. I’ve made history that nobody can take away from me. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve made history. My Little Pony, a brand new black pony. A black disabled pony.
Carolyn: And you worked with Archie comics for which you introduced a character who’s pansexual, I believe.
Tee: Yes, Eliza is pansexual, biracial, and disabled. She has Type Two Diabetes, and she’s autistic, and she’s plus size. You know, Betty and Veronica, they’re sticks! Eliza’s girlfriend is a disabled character. A beloved character in a wheelchair.
I’m really, really proud of everything I’ve done, and can’t nobody take that away from me.
Carolyn: Exactly. Now in talking also in increasing visibility of disabled characters, I’ve always been curious about the creation of disabled characters and how writers choose the specific disabilities their characters will have. So for you, how do you choose the disabilities of your characters?
For instance, with Eliza in Archie, why Type Two Diabetes, and for Vixen’s girlfriend, why the disability that she has? During the creative process, do you picture how that’s going to work with regards to them relating to the other characters and their reactions from the other characters when you’re writing out the storylines?
Tee: No. [laughs] I don’t think about any other characters that way. When it came to Vixen’s girlfriend, though, Elle is a tribute to Mama Cax, who unfortunately, passed away from COVID I believe in 2020. Mama Cax… was a disabled advocate, as well as a fashion model. She was a below the knee amputee and I wanted to give tribute to her.
When it came to Eliza, honestly I did what just popped into my head. Literally, it’s like, “I’ll give you diabetes.” And nine times out of ten, and this is for everybody who reads my comics, unless it’s specified otherwise, most of the characters are Neurodivergent.
Carolyn: Yeah, and I love that, being neurodivergent myself, not only because of Dyslexia, but also due to my MS (Multiple Sclerosis), I have Cognitive Impairment. Being Neurogivergent means that I see the world differently. I think being this way has allowed me to be the way I am in a sense because I think completely different to everyone else, and I’ve learned to embrace that.
For you, your characters are the same way. You’re like, my characters are neurodivergent because they’re going to see the world that they inhabit in a completely different way. They’re going to relate to other characters in a different way, and an example of that is the character of Sun-Spider who we got to see in action recently on screen.
About Charlotte Webber who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Her introduction in the film (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, 2023), is very special I think because of the way she interacted with Miles. She sees and speaks to him in a way that’s very different to all the other characters because she says something that literally made me laugh out loud because it was a very accurate observation about him, and a quirky reference to her disability.
In the scene Miles is being chased, and Charlotte swings in and we get to see her in action using her mechanized wheelchair then her crutches which I love, and she cracks a joke to Miles about Spider people using humor as a crutch. I thought that sequence was brilliant not only because it showed Charlotte being active in the chase and seen as much of a threat as the other Spider people by Miles, but it also gave the audience a look at her personality and outlook on life as a disabled person.
Not only was it a great reference to how all of the Spider people have traumatic backstories, but it was relatable to me because I think for a lot of disabled people, we use humor as a way to relate to others. I’d love you to talk about using humor as a way to show people how you see the world as a creator, and using your characters to express that.
Tee: First…I’m going to be so serious. For the first issue of The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour. Harley brings Ivy into her home and she’s like, “This is where the mattress happens.” right? Like I was just “This is where the magic happens. But it’s in a mattress shop. So let’s use a mattress. I was like, “Okay, that makes sense.” When I showed it to Mark, he burst out laughing, he was like “Tee!. You’re funny.”, and I said no, and we had a whole argument on the phone because I was like, “I am not funny. I don’t see myself as funny.” People say all the time that I’m so funny, but I saw myself as being more sarcastic. I’m very sarcastic, and I guess that’s my brand of humor.
Certain things I say catches people off guard or they just start laughing like with Sun-Spider. I was like, “Oh my god! That is such a thing that I would write.”
If you read a spider verse issue that’s literally how Sun-Spider was. She was using this very, very dry, sarcastic humor. Before I even talk about Sun-Spider, I just want to say that Dayn Broder deserves all the love and all the support. All the everything because Dayn Broder is the one who created Sun-Spider back when Marvel and Into the Spider-Verse first came out and everyone was drawing Spidersonas.
Carolyn: It was a competition, right?
Tee: Yes. It was for a competition. That’s where Sun-Spider was born, and for Dayn to go from this contest, to me getting involved. I don’t know why, but people said I didn’t create Sun-Spider. I co-created it, right? I probably have 15 or 20, and Dayn’s got the 80. But that percentage…I named Charlotte. I gave birth to her disability. Her queerness, her backstory, her personality. Don’t erase what I’ve done.
Tee: If it wasn’t for Dayn, I would not have done this. I am the voice of Charlotte, you know. I am the voice of Sun-Spider as well, and to tell this story as a disabled person and include a new disabled character for Marvel…that is huge! I really, really, really hope Marvel sends me a “Hey big head text.” because I want to come back. [laughs].
The love that I had been seeing for Charlotte and Danielle Perez [voice performer for Sun-Spider]. Having the voice of Charlotte be of an Afro-Latina…what?!
Carolyn: That’s one of the things that this interview is about and why I wanted to speak with you. To highlight your part in this story, and to show other disabled people, and abled people that representation for us can’t be taken away. People want to be hateful towards you, to hurt you and be mean, but no one can take this from you.
Tee: Right. And let’s not get it twisted. Charlotte has Dayn who’s disabled, me who’s disabled, and Danielle. Three disabled people are behind this character. I don’t know if it’s unheard of but I low-key feel like that is unheard of.
Carolyn: Having multiple disabled people being involved with the creation and portrayal of a disabled character is rare. You know what, let’s put it out into the universe that you get to work or spearhead a project showing Charlotte conducting group sessions where she and the other Spiders talk about their disabilities, because there has to be hundreds or even thousands of Spider people with other visible physical disabilities.
Tee: For her being the first visibly disabled Spider…the reactions, the advocacy and the love. She is allowing people to embrace their mobility aids, and that is huge.
I’m somebody who I started with a cane, then a walker than a rollator. Now I’m in a wheelchair. I should’ve been using a wheelchair [from the beginning], but I was very….because I felt like that independence was being taken away. Right? And I was like, “Absolutely not.”
When I was able to create the story It was said…I want her to have that wheelchair with her. Just like the scene of her with the wheelchair on her back webbed up and swinging with her crutches. For me, that was major for me. I’m showing you that I am ambulatory. I’m showing you that sometimes I need this, and sometimes I need that, but I’m gonna take them both with me because I don’t know how I’m gonna feel.
I’m just really grateful that some of the choices that I put into this story about Charlotte were kept. Yeah, I would have liked to have more [chances], but I’m really glad that people are responding this way to Sun-Spider. It is huge, and I just really hope that Dayn is feeling all of the love. Dayn deserves the world.
I’m putting it out there in the universe, whether it will be an animated series or a graphic novel, or a comic series where I see how it addresses comments such as “Well she got bit by a radioactive spider, so her body should be healed.” I [want to] address that in this story, because it meant so so much to me, but [in the original] because the spine of her story is only six pages, I knew I didn’t have time to address how she got her Disability. That needs to be a longer story, but Marvel wanted specific things, and I was like, “Alright, we’re going to prom.”
Carolyn: You mentioned something that I actually wanted us to talk about, and that’s about people Charlotte shouldn’t have the disability anymore. And I’ll tell you, this is one of my biggest pet peeves, not just with comics, animated films, or American blockbuster films, but also with the Asian dramas I watch – particularly Korean dramas – and fairytales. It’s the plots where a character that’s been severely injured magically survives physically debilitating and even life threatening injuries without any chronic or permanent effects.
People don’t stay disabled for very long, and that bugs me so much, because abled people and even some disabled people have the mentality that being disabled is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. That being disabled is a curse, something that you need to overcome to prove that you’re worthy of some vague idea of perfection and social acceptance, and even romantic love and relationships. They see disabled people as a burden. And in the case of heroes, they can’t even have any permanent visible scars, unless it’s a small one because of how people perceive masculinity. But that’s another discussion.
In these extremely popular stories; films and shows, the disabled people are usually depicted as villains. Their physical disability whether it be a vision impairment, missing hand, injured leg, mental illness, or neurodivergency is villainized and used as for comedic effect, or to either pity or fear them. Mental illness and neurodivergency are negatively stereotyped as a reason for why villains are misunderstood and isolated therefore making them being social outcasts the justification for vengeful violent acts.
Ironically, and in relation to our discussion on Sun-Spider and Inter the Spider-Verse, the character of Miguel (voiced by Oscar Issac) is viewed this way by both the characters and audience, partially because of his appearance and demeanor. Because of his mutation he has fangs, talons, and a larger and more imposing figure than the other Spider people, not to mention a more aggressive attitude and being a dark-skinned Mexican man.
That’s one of the many things I want changed in media, you know. Again, using the Into the Spider-Verse characters as an example there’s all these super smart people, and they have all this trauma, and they’re superheroes. They want to help people. They’re trying to heal themselves through helping people, which is what I like about Charlotte who doesn’t let her stop her from being a superhero but uses it in her work to help me. That’s why in my work as a critic I talk about the need for writers to stop portraying disability as evil.
Tee: So that’s one of my core statements for when I do these meetings with Hollywood, for TV shows and whatnot. It’s the reason why I’m here. Why I do what I do is I’m here to change the narrative of disabled people. We are not villains. We are not helpless. We are not inspiration. And I make sure that everything I write, it’s not leaning that way. I want to show we are badass. Hello?! Do you not see me? There are more people who are badass than I am. Where’s our stuff? Right? Where are our TV shows? Where?
These stories matter. Our stories matter, and they should be done properly by people who are disabled. I just try to make it as I don’t write for able bodied people. I really don’t because I don’t care about that. When I make my stuff I want to make it for disabled people so that they can see themselves in it and they don’t have to realize that “Oh God, here we go again. I’m the villain.” No, You’re a superhero!
Carolyn Hinds is a Tomatometer-Approved freelance Film Critic, Journalist and Podcaster. Her published work can be found on ButWhyTho?, Observer, Atom Tickets and many other online publications, as well as in print as a contributing writer for the 2021 Canada Media Fund’s Annual Trends Report. She’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), Time UP Critical, and obtained her Diploma in Paralegal Studies from Seneca College.
As a critic, I believe my personal experiences such as being a Barbadian immigrant living in Toronto, and outlook on life, gives readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate, and help them to see things in a new light. I’m the proud host of Beyond The Romance Drama Podcast – a podcast dedicated to discussing Korean and other Asian dramas, Carolyn Talks…, my own YouTube channel, and Co-host of So Here’s What Happened! Podcast (@SHWH_Pod). I also Co-host the weekly science fiction film and TV live tweet event #SaturdayNightSciFi. You can also find me regularly tweeting reactions for my current drama watches with #DramasWithCarrie, and my social media handle is @CarrieCnh12.
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