A Dark Knight for Mental Illness: Part Three

Golden Age of comics ended with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederick Wertham. Both crime comics and Superhero comics were targeted by Dr. Wertham for causing “deviant behaviour” (i.e.: mental illness) in young people. Since Batman was a superhero title with elements of crime comics, it was a popular scapegoat. Batman was especially targeted because it was believed that it promoted homosexuality, which was a mental illness at the time (because reasons? What a bunch of crap).

Wertham also believed that comic books promoted sadistic tendencies, violence, truancy, and masturbation, things which were considered hallmarks of mental illness at the time, and also suggested that none of the psychologists at the time had ever met a teenager. The allegations in the book were based off of interviews that Wertham had conducted with youths at the low-cost mental health clinical he established. The public reacted by demanding that the United States senate get involved in policing comic books. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency did not find comics a cause of mental illness and delinquency, but the public could not be sated and comic books began to drop in sales. In response to this, the major comic book publishers Harvey, Archie, Marvel and DC, who publish Batman, voluntarily developed the Comics Code and began to censor their own work. Under the code, sympathy for criminals was not allowed. Because the mentally ill were only portrayed in comic books as criminals, if at all, this had the effect of further demonizing and “othering” the mentally ill. Interestingly enough, Werthman was later found to have violated research ethics, including falsification of data. I wouldn’t have suspected that a man who thought that comic books led to Satan would make shit up to prove a point.

An example of the sticker placed on comics to show that the story within had no naughty bits

Interestingly enough, the next big development in Batman’s portrayal of the mentally ill occurred at the same time of great social change in the public’s views of mental illness. This occurred in the Bronze Age of comic books, beginning in the mid 70’s and ending in the mid 80’s. Society was dealing with the fallout of the Nixon administration’s dramatic cuts to community health centers. This led to a snowball effect of reduced funding and deinstitutionalization, concluding with the Reagan administration reversing the government’s involvement in mental health and cutting social assistance for the mentally ill. Many mentally ill people, with nowhere to go and no money, became homeless. It is estimated that a third or more of homeless people at this time suffered from serious mental illness. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression formed in 1979 and 1986, respectively, to help provide support where the government had failed. The DSM used at this time, the DSM 3, had been informed by the “Neo-Kraepelin” movement in Sociology that sought to streamline diagnostic criteria. Despite the diminishing government support for the mentally ill, the public was becoming more and more aware of the stigma and marginalization of the mentally ill.

Batman comic books came to reflect these changes in society at large. In contrast to the deinstitutionalization occurring in the society, Batman of the Bronze Age introduced one of the most famous mental institutions in history: Arkham Asylum, which debuted in 1980.  Arkham Asylum is a reflection of the worst of mental health care at the time of publication, when the remaining public institutions faced similar problems in sanitation and treatment as the asylums of the Golden Age. The creation of the asylum in comics itself reflected the trend in Batman to become more grounded and dealing with social issues. In the comic’s canon, Arkham Asylum was founded in 1921 by Amadeus Arkham, who was later committed to the asylum after using electroshock “therapy” (ie: actually torturing) on a criminal committed there and killing him. The Comics Code had loosened their rules after Marvel Comics published a Spiderman Story arc dealing with drug addiction, including the rule about sympathy for criminals. This allowed the writers to show the patients of Arkham Asylum receiving treatment as well as expand on their (often tragic) backstories. Despite this progress, Arkham Asylum still reflected unflattering attitudes about the mentally ill, and this only grew worse as time went on. Arkham Asylum is described by writers as having a “revolving door” policy when it comes to psychiatric rehabilitation. This reinforces a prevailing stereotype about mental illness: that mental illness is incurable, and treatments do not work.

The best example of this stereotype in Batman Comics is the character of Two-Face. Two-Face was once Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City. Dent was a survivor of child abuse who suppressed his rage and forced himself to become a model citizen . He became a paragon of justice and an ally of Batman. During the trial of Vincent Maroni, acid was thrown on Dent, scarring half of his face. This event created a schism in him, allowing the darker half of his personality to surface and he began a life of crime as Two-Face. Two-Face has had his face and sanity restored approximately three times in the regular Batman continuity. Dent is shown living a normal life, but always falls back to a life of crime. In one issue, he scars his own face after the dark half of the personality emerges. Interestingly enough, he is never shown receiving medication for his illness, but is shown undergoing psychotherapy.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, published in 1986, brought about the current age of comics. The Dark Knight Returns was hailed as a return to Batman’s roots, as well as the establishment of comic books as a literary art form. This modern age has also seen more efforts to bring the issues of the mentally ill to the public eye and raise awareness of stigma and oppression, as well as legislation to deal with humane treatment and more rigorous testing of psychotropic medication. Batman, however, has not caught up yet. The Caped Crusader recently came under fire for the film portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Psychologists cited the portrayal as promoting stigma against the mentally ill. DC recently came under fire for a contest where fans could win money by submitting artwork depicting Harley Quinn, a Batman villain, committing suicide in a sexualized manner. This is only one example of the problems previously mentioned in the portrayal of mental illness within Batman comics have remained and intensified, despite the so-called “growing up” of the medium. Batman comics continue to show the worst stereotypes of the mentally ill, having evolved from ignoring them, to showing them as violent criminals and as powerless to their illness.

One might say that, for all Batman’s influence, that he is still just a comic book character. However, the old saying that art imitates life came true in July of 2012 when James Holmes entered a movie theater in Colorado, during a showing of Batman’s latest film, The Dark Knight Rises, and shot 12 people to death. The gunman identified himself as the Joker, and had been in treatment for mental health issues before the shooting. The purpose of this paper is not to discuss the relationship between media and violence, but it is impossible to ignore this tragedy’s place in the history of comic books and mental illness alike. It would be easiest to blame Batman comic books and movies for this tragic event, but it is more complicated than that. It is a stark reminder that art does not exist in a vacuum. Batman comic books are informed by society, and society is misinformed about mental illness. Perhaps hope can be found in the Batman mythos as well. Harvey Dent informs a crowd in The Dark Knight that “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming”. Given Batman’s influence and experience with handling the mentally ill, one can only hope the dark knight finally shines some light on the reality of mental illness.

I hope you all enjoyed this look at writing and psychology in real life. Feel free to follow, like and comment if you liked this post!

-Kelsey J.

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