Grant Morrison, who has become one of Batman’s most celebrated authors, would write the character for the first time in 1989’s haunting graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum. Paired with Dave McKean’s wild, boundless paintings of the characters, the book’s visual feel matched and fueled the horror of the narrative. If we’re looking at how the Batman’s enemies illustrate evil, this is one of the definitive texts. And, as we ready ourselves for Suicide Squad this weekend, this seems a natural book to consider as well. The Suicide Squad is comprised of some of Batman’s most intriguing villains. But what exactly makes a Batman villain? And how do they reflect and relate to our understanding of evil?
The story opens with Commissioner Gordon calling Batman via the Bat Signal. It’s April Fool’s Day and the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum, turned the patients (or “inmates” depending on how you see it) loose, and is holding the entire hospital staff hostage. The Joker promises to release everyone once the Batman enters the hospital to face those he’s put there and the dark, divided nature of his own personality. This storyline plays out alongside the narrative of Dr. Amadeus Arkham turning his family home into this asylum in the early 1920’s and his slow descent into madness. As Batman moves through the hospital he battles both his infamous foes as well as his own inner demons in a twisted psychological exploration of madness and evil. I’ll refrain from discussing the major plot twists in the comic or revealing it’s ending so the post will remain content-spoiler free.
Before I go into the analysis of the book’s presentation of Batman’s villains, the nature of evil, and the mentally ill, I need to say something about the art. I’ve written before how I feel grossly under qualified to discuss the visual art in the comics I read, lacking both the awareness and terminology to accurately articulate what moves me about it. But the paintings Dave McKean produced to accompany this story are just…whoa. It feels like he intentionally abandoned all the unspoken rules for comic book layout here. You see panels splashed across the pages with no apparent rhyme or reason, over and under each other, at times feeling like they’re aggressively wrestling with one another for attention. But there are also solitary, muted panels giving off a feeling of lonely isolation. The characters themselves seem like something out of a dream…or perhaps a fever-fuelled hallucination. All of this perfectly complements Morrison’s story, making a haunting tale appear as a violent nightmare.
With the threat to the innocent staffers hanging in the air, Batman agrees to the Joker’s terms…yet he appears hesitant to enter Arkham. Gordon tells Batman he doesn’t have to do this; there are any other number of options to stop the Joker’s plans and free the hostages.
Gordon – “Listen, I can understand it if even you’re afraid. I mean, Arkham has a reputation…”
Batman – “Afraid? Batman’s not afraid of anything. It’s me. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I…question the rationality of my actions. And I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates…when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me…it’ll be just like coming home.”
The idea of mental illness in comic books is a tricky subject. In reality, yes, someone dressing up as a costumed character, assuming another alias, and delivering violent, vigilante justice is not a normal thing. Whether Batman or Iron Man, the idea of a billionaire – fuelled by childhood trauma or the unnerving revelation of the world as it is – taking justice into their own hands and assuming another identity to do so wouldn’t be tolerated. And the men who did so wouldn’t be seen as mentally healthy. For that matter, being bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to high levels of gamma radiation wouldn’t produce a Spider-Man or a Hulk. Rather it would most likely produce illness, cancer, and death. And the odds of an alien that crash lands in Smallville, Kansas looking exactly like a human being save for the amazing abilities he gains from the yellow sun of our solar system is also highly unlikely. A suspension of disbelief is then a needed and natural part of reading comic books. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
However, with our suspension of disbelieve already covering/excusing a large assortment of actions, when mental illness is introduced into this sort of world we must pay attention to how it’s presented. Superheroes traditionally battle evil…and we must be wary of what Kalie warned about in her posts (again, here and here) of confusing evil with mentally ill. The idea of “mental illness,” sadly, still carries a stigma in our culture so its artistic depiction is important. Are we supporting inaccurate and toxic stereotypes? Or are we painting a more honest and inclusive picture of reality. While I certainly don’t expect every depiction of mental illness to be as compassionate and honest as Silver Linings Playbook, I still think there’s a standard we should shoot for. And personally, I don’t think it’s an issue that’s handled with the seriousness it needs in the world of the Batman.
Batman and his cast of characters always seem to delve deeper in the world of mental illness than your average superhero. Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin, or Loki all may be called crazy at times but they are presented (and seen) as super villains first and foremost, not people suffering from mental illness. That’s not the case with Batman though. His characters are locked up in Arkham Asylum and they are regularly discussed as people suffering from mental illness. The mental illness is always stressed, a defining part of their characters and how others see/interact with them. Yes, Ravencroft exists in the Marvel universe but it was never as important nor consistent an institution as Arkham is. Nor do any other DC books (to the best of my knowledge) hit this note as resoundingly as Batman does in his books.
This – routinely depicting Batman’s villains as being mentally ill – creates a problem. It’s a problem, because Batman’s foes are also clearly depicted as being evil. Again, Kalie outlined it perfectly in her pieces; we can’t use the two interchangeably.
In my mind, this becomes a problem. Fairly consistently through the years and across mediums (comics to movies to TV to cartoons) Batman’s villains are described as mentally ill, deranged, unbalanced, etc. This problem – depicting Batman’s foes as being mentally ill – results in other complications. Let’s look at it like this. Superheroes fight people who are evil. Batman is a superhero. Batman fights evil. If the people Batman fights are mentally ill then the mentally ill must be evil. Batman’s foes are presented as mentally ill…and they are presented as twisted, monstrous, and evil creatures.
Turning to Arkham Asylum specifically once more, we see all manner of evil actions embodied in these characters who are so clearly presented as mentally ill. Over the phone, the Joker lets Batman hear him driving a pencil into the eye of an artistically gifted nineteen year old girl who just started working at Arkham simply because Batman’s slow in coming to the asylum. Joker also shoots one of Arkham’s guards, who voluntarily stayed behind until all was set right, in the head because Batman didn’t want to play his game of hide and seek. Killer Croc attacks Batman with the savage ferocity of a monster (being compared not to an animal but an evil dragon of legend in the narration), ripping Batman apart and throwing him through a window. The Mad Hatter gleefully espouses his pedophilic love of young girls. The Joker too seems obsessed with Batman having a pedophilic relationship with Robin. Torture, murder in cold blood, violent beatings, raping minors…without questions these are horrific, evil actions. But, in this narrative, they are also the prerogative of the mentally ill.
Presenting all of Batman’s villains as suffering from mental illness (and having their mental illnesses be the explanation for their actions) creates a problem. Superheroes fight people who are evil. Batman is a superhero. Therefore Batman fights evil. His villains then must be evil as well. BUT if the people Batman fights are mentally ill, then that draws the conclusion that the mentally ill must also be evil. This also poses the secondary problem of how the Batman handles those who are mentally ill. There is no compassion or healing. He punches them, kicks them, breaks their bones, pummels them into submission. He’s certainly not above throwing them from buildings either and attacking them with fear and intimidation. All of this is (maybe questionably) fine against a super villain…but the mentally ill?
As Batman talks to Dr. Ruth Adams, a psycho-therapist who’s stayed behind to be with her patients until the chaos has ended, it becomes clear this book is painting as poor a picture of mental health practitioners and technique as it is of the mentally ill. For example, the “treatment” they’ve used to try and wean Harvey Dent off his split personality has left him so uncertain of how to act he soils himself because he can’t figure out how to or if he should go to the bathroom. Batman sees this isn’t working…but they don’t. The facility itself couldn’t be painted in a darker manner either, feeling infinitely more like a haunted house than a place of healing.
Batman’s villains tend to consistently be some of the darkest and most disturbing comic books can offer. Yet their evil is always coupled to the fact that they’re mentally ill…and being treated by people who are clueless with techniques that don’t work in institutions meant for monsters more than someone who’s unhealthy and trying to get better. The one clear exception in this book (and in Batman comics in general) seems to be the Joker. Dr. Ruth Adams tells Batman, “The Joker’s a special case. Some of us feel he may be beyond treatment. In fact, we’re not even sure if he can be properly defined as insane….Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with the chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a Theatre of the Absurd.”
I’ve written before that I believe the Joker is not someone who’s mentally ill. Rather, as a character, he represents the incarnation of evil. We as humans aren’t certain what to do with evil (practically, theoretically, philosophically, theologically, etc.) so we must label him as “insane” or “mentally ill” because it lets us categorize what we don’t understand. I’ve always felt the Joker’s role as evil incarnate is an important one. Dr. Adams’ description of the Joker in Arkham Asylum could support this take on the character as well. So while Batman’s stories tend to give readers an inexcusably horrific picture of mental illness, they also present one of the purest depictions of unadulterated evil in the Clown Prince of Crime. The symbolism makes the Joker an important character not just in a literary sense but in a mythic one too.
Of the Batman villains Suicide Squad will unleash in theatres today, only Killer Croc and the Joker make an appearance in Arkham Asylum. But it’s clear that Killer Croc is a violent, angry, demented individual…and a horrible depiction of the mentally ill. The Joker on the other hand is something almost otherworldly, evil incarnate and confusing to the world as such. How will these characters appear in the film? Well only time (and, you know, actually going to the movie) will tell. But I am hopeful. If the film is to present villains as heroes (and, given what I’ve seen in the trailers it looks like DC is going for a darker more violent Guardians Of The Galaxy vibe) perhaps our cultural mental connection of Batman’s villains with the mentally ill can do something more helpful than hurtful for once. Perhaps Suicide Squad will hint at themes of healing, redemption, and transformation. I’m not expecting a deep and thoughtful reflection. I’m expecting Suicide Squad to be big, wild, loud, and fun. But hopefully the fun can draw healthier dividing lines, even if only subtly, between the mentally ill and the truly evil in Batman’s world.
[Remember, as I wrote on Monday, I won’t be seeing Suicide Squad this weekend. So there won’t be a post on it until early next week. BUT I hope YOU get to go see it! Then we can compare notes :).]