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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.