I was originally going to write a different column today, but after picking up Batman Detective Comics 834 I knew I had to write about Batman, especially in relation to Bell’s Let’s Talk Week.
The Paul Dini scripted plot of Detective 834 follows Batman as he team-ups with magician Zatana to track down a Chris Angel-style stage magician who Zatana believes to be responsible for the death of her former assistants. For the most part I enjoyed the storyline, especially the realistic details about the tricks in the magic show. Paul Dini is one of my favourite writers as it was he who was responsible for many of my favourite episodes of “Batman: the Animated Series.” I still consider “Batman: the Animated Series” as the high watermark of film depictions of Batman. Whenever I read a Batman comic, it’s with the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker in my head, and with the background of all those memorable Paul Dini dialogue bits in my memory.
There is a point in Detective 834 where Zatana and Batman come upon the Joker’s shower. Batman turns on the tap, the steam cleverly exposing the Joker’s writing, that he’s traced on the condensation covered door of the shower. Zatana looks at the writing on the wall and says “Wow, obsessive-compulsive much?” and suddenly I felt myself disconnect from the comic with what could only be a sound like a suction cup being pulled off a window, if it had a sound at all.
What the--? As a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder who knows plenty of people with OCD, I can tell you that the Joker in Batman is nothing like a person with OCD. Actually, an obsessive-compulsive person would be the least likely person to commit Joker style crimes, as part of the disorder is usually some form of “over-scrupulousness.” This means that people with the disorder often find themselves feeling overly responsible for the well-being of others to a degree that creates great anxiety for them and interferes with their life. People with this problem might worry obsessively that the stove was left on, or that they accidentally ran someone over. That sort of moral scrupulousness is the exact opposite of the Joker’s behavior in Batman. I know it was just a throw away gag line, but it bothered me. The truth is, this isn’t the first time I’ve got that weird feeling around Batman comics and TV shows when it comes to their depiction of mental illness. Even as a teen, seeing all the criminals being put into “Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane” made me feel a little queasy. It is hard for me to admit this, because I love Batman and Batman cartoons and comics have had such an influence on my own development as a comics fan. I just really wish writers would think a bit before throwing stuff around that perpetuates outdated concepts about mental illness.
For ages I believed that being “psychotic” meant running around trying to kill people because the Joker is so often described as being “a psychotic killer.” Actually what “psychotic” means is having hallucinations and being out of touch with reality. The Joker is actually more like a person with psychopathic personality disorder. Usually when we say someone is a “psycho” this is what we mean, but in Batman the words “psychotic” and “psychopathic” are used interchangeably. For a young person experiencing mental illness, reading the word “psychotic” on a report, it is terrifying to assume that other people might think you want to go on a crime spree.
Most of the Batman villains are described as insane at one time or another and put in an asylum, rather than a proper jail. One of Batman’s most admirable qualities is that he puts up with the revolving door institutional system in Gotham, but never gives in to the urge to put a criminal out of commission permanently, (unless written by Frank Miller, of course). But is this what would really happen? Most of the criminals in Arkham Asylum would actually not qualify for “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea. Insanity is not actually a psychiatric diagnosis, but a legal definition. A person is only considered insane if their reason or perceptual powers are significantly impaired and this defense is rarely successful in modern courts of law. The truth is, the Joker wouldn’t be considered “insane” by a court of law, the way someone who spray painted biblical phrases over public signs because they believed God told them to, would be.
The Joker never claims to be tormented by ideas to kill people in clown-themed ways and they don’t seem to be something he just gained, but something that is just part of his personality, therefore a personality disorder. Generally, a mental illness is defined as something that causes great distress to the sufferer. Most mental illnesses emerge in young adulthood and significantly alter the way a person thinks or behaves. People can generally mark their first experience of mental illness, the way you can mark your first experience of other types of illnesses. A personality disorder, generally does not cause suffering to the person with the disorder, and is present early in life.
I know Batman is completely fictional, but I honestly hate the conflation of “mental illness” with “criminality.” If mentally ill people are a danger to anyone, it is more likely to be to themselves, through not being able to take proper care of their own needs. In the real world there aren’t many asylums left and those around don’t have many beds, so most mentally ill people in the criminal justice system just end up in jail or out on the street, which does nothing to help their problems. It’s important that these are seen as common problems that many people will suffer in their lifetime. Everyone knows someone living with a mental illness. It isn’t something for scary aberrant freaks, but something common that we shouldn’t feel weird talking about.
So what does that have to do with Batman?
Batman is important to all this, because for some people, their first idea of what mental illness is will be seeing the Joker going to Arkham Asylum in a Batman cartoon. If this is what your idea of what happens to people with mental health issues is, (i.e. becoming a criminal/being thrown into a gothic semi-jail with a bunch of murderers) than you may be hesitant to seek assistance. I’ve noticed a major sea change in comics about depicting gay and lesbian characters in a positive manner and I think it’s brought comics new readership and made the comic book world a more enlightened modern place. Gay teens reading about Batwoman, Northstar or Kevin Keller, can see a heroic, inclusive role for themselves in the world. Addiction issues, like alcoholism and drug use have long played a role in comics, with heroes and their friends occasionally giving in to addictive substances (Ironman, Siryn in the Marvel universe) and recovering through help programs. However, mental illness is still seen in comic books as a first class ticket to being a criminal or trying to destroy the world and kill people. However, of all the criminals locked up in Arkham for being “insane” there are only one or two who would be able to mount this defense with any credibility.
I know that in more unenlightened times when Batman first began there was far more stigma and a lack of medical knowledge about mental illness and its neurological basis. There was no such thing as neuroscience and there was no internet for writers to research such an esoteric topic. However, I don’t understand why the depiction of mental illness in Batman comics and games has gotten more inaccurate and conflated with cruel and violent behaviour (especially with games like Arkham Asylum) than it used to be, while in the general culture there is greater acceptance of the common nature of mental illness and the feeling that it is not a sign of moral deviance, but a treatable health issue.