In Brightest Day: Batman and the Problem with Mental Illnesses in Comics

Comics have an issue with portraying many of their villains as mentally disabled. This is especially true in DC Comics, where many of the villains have mental illnesses, but almost none of the heroes are portrayed as also having mental illnesses. Furthermore, the heroes punish the villains for their illness and in no way attempt to help them with the treatment they need. The statement this ends up making is that people who suffer from mental illnesses are evil and deserve to be hurt and locked up. This obviously creates a lot of problems with how people are then taught to view mental illness in real life—especially when our heroes respond to mental illness with violence and a lack of care and concern.

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None of this is more obvious than in Batman, where almost every one of Batman’s villains aren’t sent to prison, but rather are returned to the mental institution Arkham Asylum for treatment. However, most of Batman’s characters have very confusing or inaccurate portrayals of mental illnesses. There are many debates over which mental illnesses the many residents of Arkham actually have, mostly because of these inaccurate portrayals. For some examples, people have argued that the Riddler suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, while others say his behavior is more indicative of narcissism than OCD, and others still claim that he suffers from both. Scarecrow also arguably suffers from narcissism, and depending on which version of the character we are talking about, he is also occasionally said to have dissociative identity disorder. And someone like the Joker is said to be everything from a sociopath to completely sane. It’s pretty clear that a lack of research goes into the portrayal of the mental illnesses the characters are supposed to have.

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This comic portrays Riddler’s mental illness much more realistically than some of the others. (Batman: Gotham Adventures #11)

Instead, Batman’s villains are given a tragic backstory. Then the writers basically tell the readers that because of their tragic past, they went “crazy” and now are evil villains. Even if the writers of these comics want to claim that all of Batman’s villains struggle with PTSD, they would still be grossly misrepresenting the effects of PTSD by claiming it turns people into violent criminals. Furthermore, there is never any portrayal of someone, superhero or villain, born with any mental illness or disorder (or even a physical one for that matter). This portrayal presents mental illness as something that’s caused by outside factors and ignores the mental illnesses that are present from birth in the person, such as depression or mental disabilities. 

Meanwhile, though some people identify Batman as having more than likely suffered from a mental illness, there is far less of an attempt to show Batman as maybe having similar, but more manageable, mental illness like his villains. The message seems to be that Batman, as a good guy, couldn’t possibly suffer from a mental illness, and if he ever did he has clearly overcome his illness through sheer force of manly will. While the police and many other random Gotham citizens make the claim that Batman is “crazy”, it’s practically portrayed as a joke. People think Batman is “crazy”, but we all know he really isn’t, because obviously the hero couldn’t possible suffer from a mental illness. Cue massive eye roll.

200_sOn top of this, Batman’s treatment of his villains is brutal whether they have a mental illness or not. Batman, having thoroughly researched and kept up profiles on all his villains, surely knows this, and while he may have to use force to stop them from hurting people, Batman is basically known for unnecessarily beating his villains within an inch of their life. That’s practically Batman’s thing. This is no way to portray or treat mental illness. Batman isn’t helping his villains. In fact, he is probably making any illness they might have worse.

Comics like this do play into a stigma that people have about mental illness and getting help. Even TV shows like Teen Wolf played into this stigma during “Echo House”, and that has so many real world consequences. People who have mental illnesses either become scared to ask for the help that they need, or when they do ask for help, no one takes them seriously. Recently, we have the case of Elliot Rodger who killed six people before killing himself in Santa Barbara, CA. And immediately the questions began: Was Elliot Rodger mentally ill? Is that what caused him to kill people? Questions like this truly bother me because for one, questions of mental illness are usually only brought up when the killer is a white male, whereas if Rodger had been Black many people would simply blame his violence on his race. Furthermore, it is ableist to assume that Rodger was mentally ill just because he committed a violent crime. It is further ableist to assume that his illness directly caused him to commit this crime. There is some evidence that that Rodger probably was mentally ill, but it is not clear that that caused him to shoot six people. In fact, some people are claiming any disorder he might have would not explain his behavior.

This blaming of ableist dialogue is not new. Just a few years ago, it was revealed that the Sandy Hook shooter had Asperger’s. Everyone jumped to say that his syndrome is what made him murder children and that people with Asperger’s should be put down. It’s totally ableist, because if a (white) criminal has an illness, that’s what’s focused on, regardless of whether or not said illness would cause violence. Therefore, when we get people like Elliot Rodger, people automatically assume that he’s ill as well and that said illness is behind it all. And the cycle continues. It’s disgusting.

No matter how disgusting it may be, comics reflect our society, for better or worse. And according to comics like Batman, the society at large is still not willing to treat these conditions with the respect they deserve. Constantly portraying violent villains as having a mental illness, being abused by both the hero and the supposed psychiatric “care”, while never portraying a hero as struggling with a mental illness sends a message to those reading or watching Batman. That message is that if you have a mental illness people will think you will snap and kill people so you shouldn’t ask for help. Furthermore, if you do ask for help you’ll just be locked away in a psychiatric hospital that will torture you and probably make your illness worse. Or if you don’t have a mental illness the message is that you should be afraid of or even harm people with mental illnesses before they harm you.

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That’s great, Bruce. Beat up the guy who potentially has DID. That’ll totally help him get better. (via bloodmarionette)

Is this seriously the message that we want to send people? We should be calling out our ableist rhetoric and attempting to undue the stigma surrounding mental illness, not adding to it.

But I shouldn’t blame all of DC Comics for the ableist sins of Batman (though the Batman comics are where mental illness is most often portrayed). There is one DC hero who knows how to appropriately handle a villain with a mental illness—The Flash. This scene with Flash is one of my all-time favorites from the Justice League Unlimited TV show:

In this episode, Flash actually reprimands his fellow heroes for hurting someone who’s mentally ill and sits down to talk to the Trickster about how he needs to take his meds and go back to the hospital. Flash even promises to visit him on a regular basis. That’s just awe-inspiring. I wish more heroes would act like the Flash. We might have some better portrayals of mental illness and how to treat people who suffer from mental illness if more heroes used compassion instead of using their fists.

19 thoughts on “In Brightest Day: Batman and the Problem with Mental Illnesses in Comics

  1. I know the TV series Smallville did the same thing, having pre-Superman Clark Kent send most “meteor freaks” (villian/freak of the week characters) to Belle Reve Sanitarium. The quote at the top of this page of the show is from season 6 episode 20, the 125th episode of the show: http://smallville.wikia.com/wiki/Belle_Reve It is a shame that this show perpetuates so many incorrect ideas about mental illness. Smallville essentially says that the only type of mental illness is the “very dangerous toward others” type where you have “been driven mad” by some external force – namely, the superpowers you suddenly developed overnight due to Kryptonite infecting you.

  2. Correction: Elliot Rodger was half-white. His mother was Malaysian. As a biracial person I find it odd that whenever a multi/bi-racial person commits murder, the media always describes them as white (like Andrew Cunanan or George Zimmerman). They never mention that they’re biracial or half asian, hispanic, etc. As for someone whose grandmother was schizophrenic and who has Aspergers, I sometimes think mental illness get overdiagnosed in our society. I never came under the impression that Batman’s villains were mentally ill, though now that you mention it, it is peculiar that they would end up at an asylum instead of a prison (yet they’re always escaping). To me the Joker and the Riddler are just simply put, jerks. Sometimes I even get irritated that Batman simply beats them into unconsciousness but never kills them, as if you can’t die from being beat up anyway.

    • I thought it mattered greatly that Elliot Rodger was half-Asian, partially because he was so upset that he was short (as he wrote in his manifesto) and felt that it was hurting his chances with women… and I bet his race had something to do with his height. Asian men are often stereotyped as asexual/nonsexual and are one of the “least desired” types of men when statistics are taken and analyses made of who wants who and how race matters on sites like OkCupid. It is harder to be deemed “attractive” to women if you’re a man who’s too short, too Asian, etc. However, this shooter also felt things in such an extreme way, went to such extreme measures, that if he hadn’t been short, if he hadn’t been half-Asian… he still probably would have struggled socially with women and ended up still in the same unfortunate mindset that led to both his and 6 other people’s deaths, as well as 13 additional people being wounded and many more profoundly affected by the tragic course of events that evening.

      This is an interesting and relevant diagram to our discussion, by the way:

      I also think if a mass shooting was perpetrated by a black man (or even black woman!), people would still look for mental illness as “Reasoning” and they wouldn’t just write it off as “Well, he was black,” so. People might be racist about their treatment of the shooter and perspective BUT to assume no one would jump to mental illness as a cause just seems incorrect to me.

      Honestly, though, the idea that someone can possibly be this “crazy” yet their mental health is NOT to blame for their actions is a very unsettling concept. I like to think that mental health can cover a range of “problems”, including pretty much all forms of people being “a danger to others”.

      I also agree that beating someone up should be proven, on TV shows, as a way that people can die or get permanent disabilities including brain damage, MUCH more often. People act like “just beating them to within an inch of their life” is completely no big deal for the hero to do, because it’s not murder and the victim will “Be fine”. Let’s make sure people realize that’s not true. Maybe one day? 😛

      • And of course I do realize, regardless of me saying it bothered me, that studies establish that violence is not always perpetrated by the mentally ill:
        http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php

        I feel complicated emotions toward this subject partially because I grew up with an abusive mother and had no idea she had diagnosable mental illnesses until I was 17 years old. I called her “crazy” my whole life but never thought she might “actually” have a legitimate mental disorder (or a few) that could possibly even be treated. It bothers me that I had to grow up and spend my whole childhood unaware that personality disorders existed, because they explain the constant minor violence my mother perpetrated against me. (She also had some other things like Alcohol Abuse which is a diagnosable thing in the DSM, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Dysthymia, etc.) I feel like I should have realized that abusive behavior like that is often tied to diagnosable mental health issues, and maybe my mom could have gotten help. As it is now, her entire family (mother, 5 siblings, me and her other child as well, ex-husband and another ex-fiance) have cut off contact with her for our own well being. She isn’t getting the help she needs, she refuses to admit she needs mental health treatment, and I think the stigma against mental illness is part of the huge problem for her. She can’t get past it.

      • I totally agree with you on everything. I’m not Asian but I’ve always found Asian men to be very attractive so it perplexes me that the media portrays them as sexless even when they hire the sexiest Asian men in roles and the leading lady shows no signs of attraction to them. Sawyer from “Lost” got touted as the heartthrob, yet Jin was more ripped and gorgeous then he was. I mean if I was stuck on an island with Daniel Dae Kim, why would I ever want to leave?

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  11. This was really great to read, as someone with mental illness. I’ve always liked Batman but sympathized more with the villains which…I guess that’s kind of messed up. But thanks for the article. 🙂

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  13. The issue of multiple personality disorder is interesting to look at.

    Interpreting Two-Face that way never works well for me, I much prefer when he’s depicted as simply having a Duality obsession.

    The Ventriloquist, Arnold Wesker, works better.

    Thing is, in real life this disorder almost always comes from being abused, usually sexually, as a child.

    • wrong-o, wrong, wrong. MPD is a misnomer and a bad framing, say DID instead. “almost always” is prohibitively restrictive phrasing and is factually incorrect — but is perpetrated by the fixation on sexual child abuse as cause and the repetition of “almost always” and “probably” and other pet theories by the few psych folks doing research and publishing their studies. much more accurate is to say “DID is in fact defined as having been caused by childhood trauma, definitionally, within the diagnosis, which means people who don’t fit that get shunted into OSDD-1 or NOS or non-categories, instead of looking at hey our definition is exclusive.”

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