A Dark Knight for Mental Illness: Part Two

Bruce Wayne died the night that his parents were murdered in front of him, and the Batman was all that was left. As a child, Bruce Wayne grew up a member of Gotham’s elite, the son of a family of business people, doctors and philanthropists. When he was eight years old, his parents were shot to death in front of him and he swore vengeance against crime. He chose the mantel of the bat because he believed “criminals were a cowardly and superstitious lot” and he was going to use fear to fight crime. Instead of superpowers, Batman uses his intelligence, gadgets and fighting skills to clean up Gotham City.

Batman begins

Batman was created in May of 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for National publications. Superman had debuted a year earlier and National Publications wanted more superheroes because of Superman’s success. In Bob Kane’s original designs, Batman looked like Superman with batwings, but Bill Finger refined the design based on popular monster films at the time, giving Batman his iconic vampiric look. Batman was more ruthless than his Kryptonian Counterpart, and actually killed people when he was first introduced. Over time, however, Batman gained a moral code: he would not use guns, and he would not kill. Another way Batman differed from his super-powered counterparts was that he fought primarily normal human criminals, whereas Superman largely fought aliens and monsters.

batmans not gay guys

Batman was created during the “Golden Age” of comic books that lasted from Superman’s debut in 1938 to the mid 50’s and the publication of Seduction of the Innocent. This time frame also marked the re-emergence of the medical model of mental illness. The medical model of mental illness is the idea that mental illness is a disease, with defined symptoms, concrete causes, and standard treatments.  The medical model had re-emerged in the period between World War One and World War Two, due to the “shell shock” phenomenon. This view of mental illness informed mental health legislation. The most important legislation was the Mental Health Act, signed in 1940 by US President Harry Truman, allotting funding to research on the causes, symptoms and treatments of mental illness in an effort to reduce incidence of the “new” disease. The first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered the “bible” of psychiatric diagnosis, was published at the tail end of this period in 1952. The manual blended previous psychodynamic models of mental illness with the developing medical model. Common treatments at the time were very medical based—lithium, the first anti-psychotic, was introduced in 1949. Electroconvulsive therapies and the lobotomy were introduced around the same time and became quite common. Psychoanalysis was still being used as a treatment, but it was gradually falling out of favour in favour of the quicker medical options.

shell shock 2      shell shock

At this period in history, however, moral treatment ideas implemented by Pinel in the late 1800’s, such as humane care and kindness, had fallen by the wayside  The treatments mentioned above were not tested in experimental trials, and the side effects often led to serious health problems. Asylums were over-crowded and dirty, and patients were left to fend for themselves in a manner similar to asylums of the 18th century before Pinel. Sterilization of the “genetically inferior stock”, including the mentally ill was practised. This practise did not end until after World War Two, when the United States shifted awkwardly while Germany’s many human rights abuses were described. At the time of Batman’s debut, and well into the Golden Age of comics, the mentally ill were viewed as a burden to society, and extreme measures were taken to separate them and control them.


In the comics, however, all was well. Most of the criminals were simply labelled “mad” or “insane”, whether or not they showed a tendency towards mental illness. The use of these labels was the closest that Batman comics got to identify a character as mentally ill. Characteristics suggesting mental illness, such as the Riddler’s compulsive need to leave puzzles at crime scenes, were treated as gimmicks to amuse readers. Criminals committed crimes, got caught by Batman, and were sent to jail, with no detail given of their lives or backstory. Interestingly enough, some of Batman’s most enduring villains created during this time, such as Scarecrow or Hugo Strange, were actually psychologists!

Hugo_Strange_020 scarecrow

Stay tuned for more Batman!

-Kelsey J.

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