Superhero comic books debuted in 1938 with the publication of “Superman”. Since then, they have grown into a modern form of mythology, informed by and informing the culture around them. Because of this, comic books reflect social attitudes and norms of the public reading them, and have often been used as mouth pieces for social issues. One of the most enduring characters of comic book history is Bruce Wayne, aka, The Batman. Batman has been everything from a cold-blooded killer to a children’s entertainer to a time travelling pirate, but most often finds himself in the role of vengeful vigilante, watching over Gotham City. It is because of the many faces of Batman that he is the best character to use to look at the evolution of social issues in superhero comic books. One of the biggest social issues that Batman deals with is mental illness.
Because of Batman’s 70 plus years of comic book history, a comprehensive look at Batman and mental illness would be prohibitively long. Instead, this blog post series is going to focus on two eras that defined the portrayal of mental illness in comic books, and the view of mental illness in society at large. These eras were the “Golden Age” of comics, beginning in 1938 and ending in the mid 50’s, and the “Bronze Age” of comics, which began in the early 70’s and ended in the mid 80’s . “Ages” in comic book history were arbitrarily decided by publishers to categorize their back-issue inventory, and reinforced by fans who noticed particular trends and changes in their favourite medium. These “ages” correspond to innovations in treatments for the mentally ill, governmental decisions regarding public policy towards mental illness, and changes in attitude. Batman himself underwent surges of popularity in these two ages. People were listening to what Batman had to say, and what he had to say was not always progressive. Throughout their history, Batman comics have been informed by society to reflect the worst stereotypes of the mentally ill, through ignoring the mentally ill, casting them as violent criminals and showing them as helpless against their circumstances and unable to get better.
Welcome to a dark knight for mental illness. I hope that this series not only highlights problematic portrayals of mental illness, but that it will also showcase how to improve these portrayals and encourage critical thought about why these portrayals happen.