Foil Hats and Skin Suits:

Examining the Content Concerns of Mental Illness in Villainy

In the last few years, there have been many concerns over the content of comic books. In fact, the concerns are over a wide range of topics from Catwoman being too provocative to that of outrage that DC turned Alan Scott gay after stating that they were not going to change the sexuality of any already existing characters. Another rising issue in regards to content concerns is over villains that are mentally ill, specifically that the mentally ill are portrayed as being exclusively violent and homicidal.

It’s not a mystery that DC and Marvel have used the mentally-ill as fodder for their villains for decades. The Joker, of course, being the poster boy example. There’s no doubt that the majority of Batman’s rogue gallery are mentally-ill in some manner or another, just look at the successful video game series of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Both games go into detail in revealing the villains respective neurosis. Many of the villains are so deranged that it’s a reasonable assumption to say that they all belong in Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. But even Arkham is under attack in regards to this content concern. These concerns seem to originate from actual mental health professionals H. Eric Bender, Praveen R Kambam and Vasilis K. Pozios. The three of them have written articles over the topic published by the New York Times and even held panels at Comic Con over it. In the articles, they discuss aspects like the fact that the Batman comics confuse Arkham Asylum with a prison (even pointing out that the term asylum is “antiquated” even though anyone that is familiar with the Batman comics knows that Arkham Asylum had been established many years ago when such terms were in vogue). One of their articles even points out that the patients are called inmates and are dressed in prison jumpsuits.

Their arguments are well thought-out and clear. Their arguments even had credit as they are certified medical and mental professionals that specialize in their respective fields. In the article, they even address that many people have stated to them that “it’s just a comic book.” But they are convinced and secure in their opinions. H. Eric Bender has even been quoted saying “As forensic psychiatrists, we can add a lot of richness and realism to stories and characters. The added nuances that we offer help create more compelling angles to both story arcs and characters based on the true intersection of mental health and legal issues.”

This seems a bit bold. As far as can be seen, none of these individuals are comic book writers and yet it seems as though they are trying to throw their names in the hat, so to speak. There are a few points in their argument that need to be addressed. First, their assertion that Arkham Asylum is too much like a prison rather than a hospital. A reader would think that medical professionals would know that institutions like Arkham (unfortunately) do exist. In Massachusetts, Bridgewater State Hospital was originally Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It is a frightening place that was the venue of multiple atrocities committed by both the inmates and guards. The hospital was the home of dangerous men including the Boston Strangler.  The hospital was so bad that in 1967 Fredrick Wisemen created a documentary to expose the sadistic and negligent treatment of its inmates. This film was so controversial and exposing of the system that it could only be shown to medical professionals and related fields as how NOT to treat patients, due to a court order (which could be argued stifles the first amendment). To this day, the hospital is open and working treating and incarcerating criminals that suffer from mental illness. The hospital is employing several doctors, nurses, and guards. But the most important fact of all of these observations is that the institute is run by the Department of Correction. It is indeed a prison. It is indeed a hospital. Both concepts apply and are combined. Just like in Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

A second concern that is being brought up is that the disorders that the villains are diagnosed with are not accurate. This claim could be very legitimate. They are the professionals after all. The implication is that there is an overuse of calling villains insane or psychotic. Batman uses the word a lot when confronting his enemies. And while the definition of insanity may be up for debate, it would be reasonable to hope that anyone that sees the Joker trying to poison the water supply would at least agree it is morally insane. What does need to be stated in the Joker’s defense that has been brought up several times in his existence is that there is no clear diagnosis to what the Joker “has”. This character trait is one of the reasons that the Joker is full of mischief and mystique. He doesn’t fit into any norm. None whatsoever. Not even into the norms that classify the abnormal.

The main argument behind this concern is of real value. The concern that what is being promoted in comic books is an irrational fear of individuals that suffer from mental illness being viewed by the public as violent. The reality is that most people that suffer from mental illness are not hostile or violent at all. So could the comic publishers start creating and using villains that have a more streamlined motivation? Yes. Should they amend their current rosters of villains to have different motivations? No. The villains that are being used are already established characters. And if they bow to this social pressure to wipe years of back story away (again) it would only display weakness and fear.

It seems that in the last few years, there has been a crusade against certain aspects of the comics that readers love. Ironically, most of these attacks originate from the very readers that support the books. It’s the voice of the few that is being heard and dictating many of the choices that the comic book companies are making. Usually, this would be something very positive, but there seem to be so many hands in the kitchen that nothing is getting cooked. Especially when there are more important issues to deal with (where the hell is Wally West?).  One of the things that comic book fans are famous for are their strong opinions over their favorite characters. But what has happened is a few people that have taken their own opinions and have tried to mold the comic publishers to fit their own visions of where the stories should go and not the vision of the comic writers. Every reader appreciates a reasonable amount of realism in the stories that they read. A good writer knows how to balance the suspension of belief with an anchor of realism, but if writers start adhering to the literal reality then why even write fiction at all?

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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