Comic book writers used to issue every villain a corrosive mental malady along with a kick-ass costume. But a handful of pioneering comics creators have gradually introduced a new breed of heroes who clash with mental illness and humanoid foes in equal measure.
Take comics veteran Jeff Lemire, who has used drawing and writing as a way to grapple with his own depression. The Canadian artist helms Bloodshot for Valiant and Moon Knight for Marvel—both of which feature protagonists who suffer from mental disorders. “Batman is certainly as crazy as the Joker, but he’s considered heroic and the Joker is considered a maniac,” says Lemire, looking back on the DC juggernaut’s 77-year legacy. “People weren’t as open to talking about this kind of thing.”
The golden age of comic books, inaugurated around the first appearance of Superman in 1938, relied on brittle good-versus-evil dichotomies. A villain’s motivations were explained, more often than not, by a sinister psychosis evoked through snarling bravado and lots of exclamation points. Batman has cyclically returned “freaks” to Arkham Asylum since the psychiatric hospital was added to the comic in 1974. Even the 2012 debut of Avengers Assemble, a teen-friendly book designed to complement Joss Whedon’s debut Marvel film, opens with a villain boasting of a bizarre pact “so strong that no matter how psychotic, schizophrenic, bipolar or murderous the people living under it were…they were beholden to the code.”
“We, as consumers of fiction, are never more comfortable than when the villain is a cackling evil maniac,” explains X-Men Legacy writer Simon Spurrier. (Legion, the star of the series, is a former bad guy who battles internal demons.) “But if you look at those characters with anything more than a glance, you realize there’s a question of agency. Where does evil start and mental health stop? Villains are very sane people operating on a slightly different moral code.”
Even if comics serve as amplified metaphors for real-world issues, the link between mental illness and violence is flimsy at best. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that fewer than eight percent of all crimes committed by those afflicted with serious mental problems were related to symptoms. And researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University determined that “people with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis are two and a half times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population.”
Far from becoming a breeding ground for nefarious loonies, as old-school comics (to say nothing of Republican debates) might have you believe, the United States appears to be a place where people are becoming more open to candid discussions of mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness claims that one in five adults in the country experiences mental illness in a given year, whereas 10 million Americans experience a serious mental illness that interferes with at least one major life activity. That reality is gradually turning up in the world of comics.
The roots of this movement reach to the medium’s underground. Robert Crumb, whose brother Charles suffered from schizophrenia, portrays himself in his comics as a tormented and sex-obsessed drug fiend. The 1980s offered up introspective comics aimed at a mature readership: Neil Gaiman (The Sandman) and Alan Moore (Swamp Thing, The Watchmen), among others, spent the decade crafting complex, sympathetic characters who wrestle with existential problems.
“There was this Swamp Thing issue that Alan Moore wrote,” Gaiman recalls. “On the surface, there was a serial killer; there was a giant muck monster, but you also watched one human systematically destroy another person’s integrity, leaving you with someone broken. I remember reading that and going, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real people.’ It always seemed to me you could tell real stories about real people with very, very unreal things.”
The Dark Horse title Colder, which offsets Cronenberg-style horror with a protagonist who can “dissolve” madness in those afflicted, debuted in 2012. Its protagonist, Declan Thomas, has the power to “dissolve” madness in those afflicted; appropriately, Paul Tobin, the series’ writer, considers himself “75 percent sane.” And in April, Lemire unleashed the most direct specimen of a mentally ill superhero with Moon Knight. Created in 1975 by Doug Moench and Don Perlin, the comic revolves around a mercenary who bonds with an ancient Egyptian god. While previous authors hinted that this deity may be a symptom of mental instability, Lemire embraces that aspect of the character—complete with a story arc that begins in an asylum.
“He’s the only superhero who overtly addresses schizophrenia and multiple personalities,” says Lemire, who also takes on PTSD in his series Bloodshot Reborn. “When most superheroes were created, mental illness was seen as a weakness, a flaw, whereas now, people are much more aware that the brain, just like any part of your body, is something that can be sick and treated.”
Seen that way, the courage our heroes represent could, just maybe, empower readers to confront demons of their own. “It’s all very well flying around and punching aliens, but the simple act of heroism I think most of us are most familiar with is dealing with our own inadequacies and flaws,” says Spurrier. “Not necessarily defeating them, but managing them. That’s an everyday sort of heroism.”