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Fantastic and empowered

If you look closely at some of the most popular comic book and collectible characters featured at Comic-Con International in San Diego, you notice some unexpected similarities. “X-Men’s” Professor Charles Xavier uses a wheelchair. “Daredevil’s” Matt Murdock is blind. “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark doesn’t have a healthy heart.

But it’s not just the superheroes who are living with disabilities. All around the San Diego Convention Center are scores of others whose bodies are not fully functional, and many of them are navigating Comic-Con’s cavernous exhibit halls in wheelchairs.

“You can be someone you are not in real life,” said Virginia Baker, a 62-year-old fan of the World of Warcraft online video game and manga (Japanese comic books). Because of severe knee problems, the San Diego resident has used a wheelchair for more than seven years and was attending Comic-Con for the third time. “You can feel like you can be one of them -- you have legs! -- and you can become a warrior,” she said of the appeal of fantasy gaming.

While the annual convention celebrating comics, movies, toys and games doesn’t break down how many of its visitors have disabilities, it’s obvious to any casual observer that the disabled -- most noticeably, people with mobility problems -- make up a significant portion of Comic-Con’s 125,000 guests.

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A wing of the 6,500-seat Hall H (where Hollywood movie previews are shown) is reserved for hundreds of fans using wheelchairs. The convention provides volunteers to wait in line for people who aren’t able to stand for long periods of time, and a disabled services department provides personal assistance (it will store medicine in convention floor refrigerators, for one thing) and rental wheelchairs to dozens of visitors needing them.

The disabled are so much a part of the Comic-Con fabric that some of the convention’s security officers use wheelchairs and Comic-Con staff have been heard yelling at other attendees using wheelchairs to slow down like everybody else trying to get to a presentation.

“I wish everybody had services like they do here,” said 28-year-old Melissa Eckardt of San Diego, who uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy and is attending Comic-Con for the 15th time. “They know what to expect and what they need to do, and it only gets better year after year.”

Yet accessibility only describes what it’s like to move around the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con. More significant is why some people with disabilities (like some other minority groups) say they are drawn to comics, fantasy fiction and video games in the first place.

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Relatable stories

Several convention visitors and activists and authors in the disabled community say there can be a special bond between the disabled and fantasy figures, even if the make-believe characters don’t have a disability.

“Each hero or villain in a comic is different in some way that makes them stand out in society. Their differences may be anything from the powers that Clark Kent tries to hide from the general public to the blindness that Matt Murdock embraces as a part of his life,” said Megan Drummond, a journalist who suffered a brainstem stroke at age 7 and now writes about disabilities.

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“Each one is trying to make the best of a sometimes difficult situation, which is something that people with disabilities do on a daily basis. Some people with disabilities may draw inspiration from that, some may feel that the situation of a certain characters mirrors their own life, and others may just find entertainment in it,” Drummond said.

Andrew Imparato, the president and chief executive of the 100,000-member American Assn. of People With Disabilities, said the X-Men comic books and movie series are particularly popular with the disabled (and are among Imparato’s personal favorites) because its narrative casts mutants as unwelcome, freakish outsiders who nonetheless embrace their distinguishing traits and become stronger through a community of similar exiles.

“There are a lot of disabled people who just want to be who they are and not have to change themselves to fit into society,” said Imparato, who has bipolar disorder. “Every superhero movie I see, I see some sort of larger disability story. They are trying to fit in, and trying to tell people who they are -- what it means to be human.

“And a lot of people with disabilities like to have a fantasy life. If you’re a disabled person -- on disability, living at home -- it can be pretty depressing and isolating.”

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Avatars and ‘Avatar’

As Comic-Con’s doors opened Thursday morning, the area around the disabled services table was crowded with people in wheelchairs. Some were disabled parents with able-bodied children, some were disabled children with able-bodied parents. Some of the disabled came alone, some came in groups. But all said they were thrilled to be there.

“I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid,” said 59-year-old Rambo Littlefoot of Corona, who lost the use of his legs after a parachuting accident during the Vietnam War and was visiting Comic-Con for the fourth time. “We all fantasize about being a hero -- but what kind of hero do you want to be?” said Littlefoot, who said he is particularly fond of Flash, Thor, Hulk and the Avengers.

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Melissa Eckardt, who was attending Comic-Con with her 25-year-old sister Janelle, who also has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, said she was particularly interested in the online virtual world game Second Life because she could become another person -- an avatar, as it is known in the gaming world.

“I am a huge, huge fan of it because you can become your own avatar,” Eckardt said. “And what I did in Second Life is I built my own wheelchair for my avatar. I’m such a dork. Why would you need a wheelchair in an environment like that?”

Comic-Con’s most noteworthy preview screening was for footage from filmmaker James Cameron’s “Avatar,” a futuristic sci-fi thriller in which a paralyzed soldier is able to take over the body of an able-bodied alien.

“There was a point where I did question it. ‘Can I really do an action movie where the main character is confined to a wheelchair? Is that even possible?’ I almost abandoned the concept, but I am so glad I didn’t,” Cameron said.

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“I think I underestimated how resonant it would be. You see the guy in the wheelchair. You see him get his legs. And you see him walk in the world. And it’s powerful,” he said.

“When I was 14 years old, I didn’t live in the little town of Chippewa, Canada. I lived in my imagination,” Cameron added. “Today we are dealing with an evolution of human consciousness wherein we live these alternative lives. Today we have these relationships with people on the Internet that we seldom, if ever, meet. And yet they are complete intellectual or emotional relationships. So, we all have our avatars in one way or another.”

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john.horn@latimes.com

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