Mental illness in Gotham City
First published in NeoText | March, 2022
There’s an old joke, forever circulating, that the story of Batman is one of a billionaire beating up the mentally ill. After all, in our world those with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.
The villains of the Batman mythos aren’t simply “sick”. They dress up in costumes and taunt authorities with clues and kill innocents at whim. That’s why it struck me as noticeable when, in the Detective Comics Annual #1 (2021), Batman’s ex-sidekick Nightwing made a plea to his mentor to treat unwell citizens with more compassion.
This made me wonder: what’s it like to have a mood disorder in Gotham City? I’ve spent years on a losing scrabble hand of various SSRIs and SNRIs, tricyclics and salts, attempting to combat a long-term, drug-resistant depression. It’s tiresome at best, living with a sluggish parade of side-effects. Often it’s the worst day of your life, every day of your life.
If Steinbeck’s poor Americans think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, do Gotham’s mad think of themselves as temporarily restrained supervillains? Would I be only one missed dose away from dressing in purple and robbing a bank? I used to keep my struggles with mental health quiet, but the logic of comic books requires them to be sewn into your costume or tattooed onto your skin.
When he was asked to show more compassion, Batman told Nightwing: “We do what we can here. We aren’t the cure for the sickness in this city, but we can treat the symptoms.” The old joke echoes again, and with it the echoing biffs and pows and thwacks. Batman could be reducing the living, breathing men and women into simple symptoms of a larger madness.
believe, however, that he means “treating the symptoms” as responding to the actions of the unwell, not the unwell themselves. It’s only what they do that’s of interest in these stories. In “The Last Arkham”, beginning in Shadow of the Bat #1 (1992), we meet the psychiatrist Jeremiah Arkham who believes in something like behaviorism – that only what his inmates do matters. “The mind is such a bore,” he says, “a sparkling, glittering, total distraction!”
Superhero comics’ aversion to interiority suggests he might be onto something. Speeches and soliloquies are nice enough, but it’s only action that matters. That’s what comics demand above all else. The medium itself, of still images, chained together, requires that we turn potential energy into kinetic energy.
Depression is the opposite. In the language of Apokolips, it’s Anti-Life. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m drawn to these larger-than-life stories of heroes and villains, because say what you will about them – they’re simplistic, hyperbolic, ridiculous – but their characters radiate an energy that I rarely feel in my daily life. If it means witnessing the mentally ill be demonized on a monthly basis, it’s a price I’m obviously willing to pay.