Mental Illness in Superheroes

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The month of May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and let’s face it, this can be a sensitive subject for most. As someone who recurrently deals with mental illness it can often be a very sore subject to tackle, but what has helped me personally is to see this struggle reflected in the things I love. Of course, this isn’t for everyone. Many readers and moviegoers prefer not to see any part of reality in the things they watch or read, and honestly, I don’t blame them. There is definitely an upside in slipping away from our lives once in a while and it can become a bit of a shock when we encounter some of the troubling issues we face in our day to day lives in our favorite works. However, for some of us, seeing ourselves reflected in our favorite superheroes can be almost therapeutic.

 To honor this month, I want to list some honorable heroes who also suffer from mental illness. Now, I can take the easy route and simply dive into every single Batman villain, because heaven knows Arkham is chock full of easily displaced disorders, not just with it’s countless villains but its heroes as well, but let’s explore outside that box. I’d also like to stray away from villains in general since I feel like that would be an easy approach, and villainizing mental illness sufferers isn’t exactly what I’m hoping to convey here.

Diving into the deep end, we have schizophrenia. This disorder is unfortunately heavily misrepresented, especially in cinema. To explain it in its most simplest terminology, schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder in which sufferers experience reality abnormally. Often, they experience both audio and visual hallucinations which can disrupt their daily lives. Though schizophrenia can be treated with a specific medical regimen and therapy, there is no outright cure for this illness. 

The Sentry, in my opinion, is a heavily underrated superhero with a complex and unique background. To break it down, the Sentry is a superhero who, for a time, no one within the Marvel universe seemed to remember. His alter ego, Robert Reynolds, attempts to do the right thing to the best of his ability while suffering from alcoholism, depression, and yes, even schizophrenia. His arch enemy, the Void, is actually a spiritual part of him, as they are two halves of the same person. In order to defeat the Void, the Sentry allows himself to be forgotten in order to restore balance. Being written off and forgotten, the Sentry slums it in New York City, believing himself to be a typical overweight, middle aged loser. With a low self esteem and very little prospects, it’s no wonder he falls into depression and alcoholism quickly. His mind, unable to cope with his fractured memories, often distort reality, and he ends up suffering from both auditory and visual hallucinations which taunt him relentlessly throughout his series. Reynolds almost succumbs to his illness until he ends up picking up the pieces of his former life and coming to terms with who he is. What’s fantastical about this prospect is that his mental illness fades away when his memory, along with everyone else’s, is restored. His arc offers a sort of “Happily Ever After” as mental disorders go which can be sort of nice to come across once in a while. 

Moving forward, bipolar disorder is one of the more complicated mood disorders as it is commonly misdiagnosed and contains several variants and types to differentiate an individual’s biological mood imbalance. Those who are afflicted with bipolar disorder experience periods of mania and depression. While manic, they experience abnormally elevated or irritable moods, rapid thoughts, and intense exaggerated energy which can often lead to psychosis. While depressed, they become disenchanted, self-loathing, unmotivated, lethargic, and usually suicidal. What makes this particular disorder frightening is that these sporadic periods are not caused by a trigger but by a biological chemical imbalance. 

Hank Pym, better known as the original Ant Man and creator of the Pym Particle in the Marvel Universe, is a confirmed and known sufferer of bipolar disorder. In one issue he states that it was due to his manic episodes that led to his creation of the villain, Ultron, but has also given him the energy to further along the technological advances within his universe. Hank has grown so accustomed to his episodes, he even calculated a formula to help him predict when each one will begin and end. Fans were divided on this revelation, as sufferers of this disorder felt seen and others felt it was a bit on the nose, especially when Hank’s daughter explains the genetic likelihood of inheriting her father’s condition and spends an entire issue learning and explaining the disorder rather than addressing the arc’s concerns. In this sense, we are pulled from the main story and are force fed information that, in the end, was irrelevant to the arc. Personally, I find it important to maintain balance. If we are presented with a superhero with a mental disorder, then it would be best to show how it disrupts or enhances their abilities. 

Depression, one of the most commonly known and diagnosed mental disorders, is a frequently visited subject in comics, especially within heroes who become disillusioned in their arcs. Most are able to break through their depression with an inspiring monologue and a sudden burst of energy (Peter Parker), however, there are those whose depression remains constant, despite their ability to still function. Some would argue that Daredevil’s depression is solely based on stimuli and specific factors, others might claim that the incident that rendered him blind along with the murder of his father, was enough to permanently alter his behavior. One thing is for certain, Daredevil’s depression is one of a more clinical nature as he becomes lethargic and spirals under Catholic guilt and alcoholism, often making self-destructive choices and isolating himself from his friends and loved ones. 

Recently, with the success of WandaVision we have seen characters such as Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a The Scarlet Witch) live on screen, demonstrating how the mental strain of dealing with trauma can have dire consequences for someone with abilities. In her case, the death of her lover, Vision, and her brother, Petro, led to her isolating and brainwashing the residents of a small, New Jersey town.  In the comics, the House of M arc demonstrates just how far Wanda is willing to go when she is pushed to the edge by her father, Magneto,  when she uses her reality bending abilities to wipe out mutants. 

Other sufferers of trauma include the Punisher, and Jessica Jones, whose PTSD often act as constant motivators for their vigilantism, often in self-destructive ways. These are the times these characters reach a maximum level of sympathy from readers, as their erratic and usually deadly behavior spirals out of control. Frank Castle’s trauma of witnessing his family’s brutal murder drives him to kill any criminal, showing little to no mercy to his victims. Because of this he is ostracized from the superhero community and deemed insane. Jessica Jones’s trauma of being manipulated, controlled, and sexually abused by the Purple Man becomes a constant factor and kryptonite for the heroine. However, unlike Frank, Jessica learns to accept and overcome her fears of trauma and uses her anguish as fuel to consistently help others. 

One of the more common, and unfortunately, greatly exaggerated mental disorders we see in comics is that of dissociative identity disorder (DID), in which a person’s personality is split into one or more identities. Such comic heroes who suffer from this disorder include: The Hulk (Bruce Banner), Moon Knight (Marc Spector), and Legion (David Haller), and that’s only off the top of my head. These particular superheroes either learn to tame, control, or work with their alternative personalities in order to save the day. Often, their other personality is their darker half, perhaps to pay tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The reasoning behind this split usually varies and becomes gradually explored. For example, Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into the Hulk due to his exposure to gamma radiation is later reexamined as we learn that Bruce was raised by a sociopathic abusive father which caused him to bottle up his aggression and hate, thus creating a new, sentient personality known as the Hulk. In the Immortal Hulk run, we learn that there are various Hulks residing within Banner, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. 

Legion was best explored in the hit FX television show of the same name, in which his DID is further explored and plays a key role in the development of his telepathic abilities. One of his personalities is revealed to be a telepathic mutant/parasite known as The Shadow King, which was defeated by Legion’s father, Charles Xavier (the very same!) and implanted in his mind. His inability to sort out what is real and what is a hallucination plays a constant pivotal role in his struggle to do what is right. 

As you can probably tell, a lot of the aforementioned superheroes are from the Marvel universe, but trust me, you’ll be able to spot mental disorders more easily in contemporary comics since awareness has been spread, and with the constant evolution of character development, we expect to see these issues explored in various ways. Some are more easier to spot than others, like the infamous Rorschach (Walter Kovacs) from the Watchmen series who clearly suffers from paranoid personality disorder.  His broken speech, skepticism, pessimistic nature, and aggressive behavior are textbook examples of this disorder. 

I’m fairly certain you’ll find more than the heroes listed here, and sometimes you’ll be able to  relate to them. Other times you might feel the need to groan and roll your eyes, and that’s ok. Though I won’t say “there’s no right or wrong way” when it comes to handling how our favorite characters deal with their mental  illnesses, I will say that it is a work in progress that continues to develop and continuously surprise me. 

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