The world might be in the grip of superhero fever, but for Fareham’s Dan White it means something a little different. The self-trained artist’s daughter Emily was born with spina bifida, a condition that stops the spine developing properly. Now aged 12, Emily has loved comic books for years, but had always been disappointed by the lack of disabled representation not just in comics but on TV, in books and in movies.
So White created Department of Ability, a comic book following the story of a group of disabled superheroes. What began as a way to show his daughter that using a wheelchair didn’t mean she was excluded from the magic, it changed the game for disabled children around the world.
He grew up on comics, “from the early days of reading The Beano and The Dandy to the DC and Marvel imports”. And art is in the family – White’s father was an artist, something the 47-year-old inherited but treated as a hobby while working his “boring nine-to-five”, working for an electrical retailer. “But I always felt I wanted to do something to leave a mark,” he says.
And it was when he became the father of a child with a disability that his whole worldview changed: “Suddenly, you’re seeing the total inaccessibility of everything. But not just shops and streets – the media too. I can’t forgive its total failure to show people Emily could relate to.
You either see red and go off the rails or take the bull by the horns and try to fix it yourself,
“When you’re in this community and you see these kids who are desperate to be involved but they just can’t do it, just because things are stacked against them… you either see red and go off the rails or take the bull by the horns and try to fix it yourself,” he says.
He decided that if no one else would include disabled people in the fun of fantasy, comics and action, he’d do it himself. In 2016, White wrote the story that would become the first iteration of Department of Ability, before illustrating it by hand. Emily is a central character in the story (her wheelchair flies and the wheels come off to be used as shields). She’s joined by Azzi, an alien who crash-landed to earth and now has a prosthetic arm. Pawsy, a cheetah, had an accident at London Zoo but now reaches super speeds on his fusion-powered running blade. Claypole is a partially resurrected scientist – this means he is visually impaired and uses a white cane. Billy the dog, rescued from a hit and run, gets around on carbon wheels with a tail that acts as radar and a jet.
White released a free colouring book and, after some savvy social media work, gave away 15,000 copies. He quickly launched a crowdfunder which, along with support from children’s health charity Strongbones, made it possible for him to publish a 44-page one-shot teaser comic.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“It’s a completely accessible story for everyone but it doesn’t lecture,” he says. “It pokes fun at itself.”
Nearly 1,000 copies were ordered in less than a month which, White says, is both “a great, humbling thing” and a concern – because it demonstrates how huge the demand for disability-inclusive comics is. He was sent photographs of children and adults reading Department of Ability everywhere from Germany to Australia to the far corners of the UK.
Now a 230-page graphic novel, it took White three years to complete, but he has had “phenomenal support” from the likes of comics icon Alan Moore (writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta). He expects it will be ready to shop around publishers before the end of the year.
Now, he is in the process of recording an audio version of the first comic for children with visual impairments. He is also in talks to write a series of children’s books around a set of new disabled characters.
When White isn’t leading the way in inclusive comics, he works part-time with children’s charity Variety. But he is also a prominent voice in the media as a campaigner for disabled children and their families. Last year, he teamed up with Scope to lobby the government for a minister for disabled children – marching to Downing Street with a petition and 40,000 signatures.
“When your child is born, you feel so isolated because you effectively have to do all your own groundwork,” he says. “To look for benefits, to find relevant charities, all at the same time as dealing with this sudden change to your entire lifestyle. No time to enjoy being parents of brilliant children.”
No minister for disabled children and families has been introduced yet, but phase two of the campaign is set to kick off later this year.