I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life. When things got stressful, the Beast would rear and bury its claws into my back. It would rake, and I would howl, and I’d try to fight against it, and often fail. So much of my life has been defined by my mental health issues, and I’ve known that I need to overcome them, but for a very long time they weren’t things I talked about. They seemed like personal failures I needed to hide. I couldn’t look vulnerable. I couldn’t look weak. I needed to be strong. As I was trying to hide these issues, I didn’t search for such topics in the stories I consumed, and I certainly didn’t put them in the stories that I wrote. I just wanted to pretend they didn’t exist.
That all changed in the spring of 2019, when I watched the DC animated movie Justice League vs the Fatal Five. In this movie, a team of time-traveling supervillains called the Fatal Five arrive from the future to change history so that their enemies, the Legion of Superheroes, will never be born. They are pursued to our time by the superhero Star Boy, but his schizophrenia makes him unable to clearly explain his mission to Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League. The only member of the League who can understand him is the Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, because her crippling anxiety helps her relate to Star Boy’s own mental struggle. The empathy and support that the two heroes provide each other give them the strength to confront their own issues, fight the supervillains together, and ultimately save the day.
Watching this movie was a shock to my brain. Here were heroes struggling with mental issues in ways I’d never seen on screen before. Here were heroes who knew what it was like to feel trapped inside their head, to have their brain refuse to obey them, to be torn apart by inner demons. They know what it’s like to freak out in front of people and have them not understand what’s going on. They know what it’s like to feel weak and pathetic and alone, despite having nothing wrong with their body. They know what it is like to be me.
I’m a shy, white, middle-class North American male, the stereotypical target audience of comic book superheroes. But in that moment, watching Fatal Five, I realized a part of myself hadn’t previously been targeted by the genre. I felt seen, and in feeling seen I realized to my shock that I hadn’t felt seen before. Perhaps if the movie was another kind of genre, it wouldn’t have affected me so intensely, but this was superheroes, a genre I’d been obsessed with since childhood. In fact, this was a superhero movie done in the same animation style as Bruce Timm’s Batman the Animated Series,one of the most influential shows of my childhood. These were the sorts of heroes I had grown up with, had seen as archetypes of strength and courage. But now I saw that they suffer like me. Their minds betray them like mine. They are like me. But that doesn’t stop them from being heroes and saving the world. As I watched Fatal Five, I broke down and cried.
Thanks to this movie, 2019 was the year that I learned to think more deeply about my mental health issues, the year I learned to speak publicly about them. It was the year that I realized that art could speak to my condition, and when it does, it can be powerful. That when art speaks to me about my mental condition, I feel heard. I no longer feel alone. And when that happens, I can make positive changes in my own life.
It was Justice League vs the Fatal Five that inspired me to consciously write about mental health, to make that my artistic goal. My next big project was to create Through the Labyrinths of the Mind, a graphic novel anthology in which numerous cartoonists created stories inspired by their own experiences with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD. I myself wrote an adaptation of the Welsh legend “Geraint, Son of Erbin,” the story of an Arthurian knight who succumbs to crippling depression. In writing about the vulnerability of a hero from my own cultural heritage, I sought to echo the vulnerability of the superheroes that Fatal Five had shown me onscreen. I wanted to show that even the strongest, bravest people suffer inside their minds, and so it’s okay when we do.
Now most of what I write is related to mental health issues in some way. My protagonists wrestle with similar demons to what I wrestle with, and I think hard about how to present those struggles in a potent and insightful way. Before Justice League vs the Fatal Five, I just wrote what I wanted without thinking about how my unique experiences and thoughts could help people. Now I know that when I write about mental health, I can connect to people who wrestle with their own issues. By having my heroes struggle inside their heads, I can inspire my readers in the same way that Fatal Five inspired me. I can make them feel seen, and encourage them to accept themselves. No other movie or book has transformed me as much as this one did.
I feel that to have an effective
criminally insane villain, certain things are necessary:
The writer should have a clear
idea of the character’s mental issue, how their perceptions and
thoughts are abnormal (more so than simply “they are chaotic”).
These mental issues make the
person not responsible for their actions as they are perceiving the
universe too differently.
There’s a tension in the story
because of the character’s unreliability. It is hard to deal with
this character because the villain’s perspective is so displaced
from what’s real. If he has henchmen, then there probably should be
a moment where the henchmen are uncertain how to interpret their
boss’ commands (unless the henchmen have bought into the issue).
The hero’s confrontation with the
villain must have internal tension, a sense of “how do I deal with
this person?” The villain is ultimately not responsible, but still
must be stopped. The story must feel a sadness that such a violent
response against the villain is necessary.
Whatever the villain’s final fate,
there must be a sense of tragedy. If the villain cannot be cured,
then there must be sympathy for the villain, that he or she is
basically a prisoner in their own head.
For many people (myself included),
Batman the Animated Series from
the 1990s is considered one of the greatest takes on the character, a
revolutionary cartoon that reinterpreted previously lame villains
(such as Mr. Freeze and Mad Hatter) and added several compelling new
characters (such as Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya). It did, sadly,
carry on many issues from the comics, including numerous characters
classified as being insane when they had no right to be, Arkham
Asylum as almost more of a prison than a hospital, etc. But that
said, it did feature a few characters who were legitimately
criminally insane, and they were some of the most compelling
He was created in the late 80s, and has the interesting distinction
of being the most intriguing Batman villain created when I was alive.
Arnold Wesker is a shy withdrawn man who has repressed all his anger,
frustration, and aggression. An accomplished ventriloquist, he
expresses his negative thoughts through a dummy named Scarface, who
Wesker is convinced is a totally different person. Scarface becomes a
ruthless gangster who treats Wesker as his pathetic valet, constantly
denigrating him in public, and Wesker believes that they are two
entirely different people.
He’s got a clear mental issue – dissociative personality disorder
brought on by repressed anger, and he clearly his consciousness is
not responsible for his actions. As far as his consciousness is
concerned, the Ventriloquist is an innocent man held hostage by a
villain, and whenever anyone confronts him, he sincerely announces
that (“It wasn’t me! It was Scarface! He’s the one you want!”).
After being persecuted by Scarface, Catwoman attacks the
Ventriloquist and is about to claw his face, and when the
Ventriloquist begs for his life, our sympathy is with him – he
think he’s innocent. There is also a perfect moment of unreliability
in his first appearance on the cartoon, where Batman convinces
Scarface that Ventriloquist has betrayed him, and Scarface demands
that his goons execute the Ventriloquist. The goons, of course,
hesitate, as they know that killing him would also kill their boss,
and Scarface is enraged at this “betrayal.”
Perhaps most tellingly, the doll Scarface is destroyed in the climax,
and then we see Ventriloquist at Arkham Asylum some time later. The
doctors are happy that he seems to be making a full recovery. But
then we see he is secretly making a new Scarface doll. Usually when
there is a scene at the end of a Batman episode that shows the
villain will return, the emotion is menace – the villain will
escape and cause suffering. But here the emotion is tragedy – not
that the Ventriloquist will hurt someone (though he likely will do
that too) but that he is not free of his mental issues.
One of the most peculiar of Batman villains – Maxie Zeus thinks
that he is the Greek god Zeus and he fits everything into this
delusion (such as thinking of Batman as Hades). Probably no villain
is as disconnected from reality. He is often ignored in the comics or
treated as a joke because his delusion is so ludicrous – but that’s
what makes him truly insane.
The Animated Series episode with Maxie (“Fire from Olympus”) is a
powerful and strange story because it truly explores what makes an
insane villain so dangerous and yet so sympathetic. Maxie Zeus is
accompanied by two henchmen and his girlfriend Clio. Clio is a
compelling addition because she is his loved one viewing his fall
from insanity, begging him to return to lucidity. She stands in for
numerous people who witness their loved ones fall from reality, and
desperately try to help them without knowing how.
Maxie’s most prominent crimes are ones that seem so reasonable in his
own world. He destroys police zeppelins that get close their tower
merely because “mortals are not supposed to approach Olympus,”
attempts to murder people who renege on deals with him because they
have “shown disrespect to the gods.” His actions are so divorced
from reality that it is impossible not feel sympathy for Maxie and
for Clio. And tellingly, Batman convinces her to help defeat Maxie
because Batman claims he can get the man the help he needs.
Then, when Clio tries to make him see reason, we have the perfect
moment of unreliability. He believes her actions are because she is
“merely” a demigod. He chains her to his lightning machine so
that the “lightning of Zeus” will purge her of her mortality,
making her a full goddess at Maxie’s side. His goons start to
question him, just like the Ventriloquist’s men did.
And then, we have the ending – which manages to be both funny but
also very sympathetic towards Maxie Zeus. He’s in a straight jacket,
being rolled through Arkham, and is utterly happy, because he
mistakes the Joker for the trickster god Hermes, Poison Ivy for
Demeter, and Two-Face for Janus, and is convinced that finally he is
in Olympus. The final image is not a villain who we can be happy is
incarcerated but a poor victim trapped in his head.
are a few other villains in Batman
are clearly insane. For example, Killer Croc is often so animalistic
he seems almost entirely motivated by instinct; it’s hard to blame
someone for his actions when he just starts screaming “Hungry!
Pain!” Humpty Dumpty is a savant great at taking apart machinery
and fixing it, and he eventually decided that the reason his
grandmother was so abusive was that she must be broken – so he took
her apart to fix her. But they’re rare. Certainly most of the more
prominent characters do not feel insane at all.
What would they be like if they were actually crazy?
Two-Face is almost there. He clearly has an issue that takes away
control of his actions, he often recognizes he has issues, and he has
loved ones grieving for him, and Batman clearly considers him to be a
damaged person to be helped rather than a criminal to be punished.
However, he falls apart a little because of the lack of specificity
of his mental problem. He’s frequently referred to as having multiple
personalities, but that is very rarely represented – and seems more
like an attempt to just add more duality imagery to him than a
thought about how he should be perceived. Perhaps more importantly,
insanity means being so separated from reality that you cannot judge
right and wrong, and Two-Face’s issue is he feels a need to flip a
coin to decide his actions, but the coin flip is always between
“good” and “evil” actions – if he is able to separate what
makes an action good and evil, and he uses definition that regular
people do, then he clearly does understand right and wrong – he
just chooses to ignore it.
For Two-Face to be truly insane, his coin flip should not be about
whether to be good or evil, but about deciding what the “good”
choice actually is. Studies have shown that any choice we make is
ultimately with our emotions, our “gut” — if the emotional part
of the brain is damaged, then no matter how much reasoning the person
is still capable of, they will be unable to make proper choices. If
part of Two-Face was damage in whatever scarred them, then he could
potentially have no ability to judge his own actions. That would
present someone highly sympathetic and clearly dysfunctional, a
person robbed from any internal sense of meaning.
One problem with that is that it does separate Two-Face from the
iconic-ness of his coin, which represents the choice between good and
evil. It is possible that it could still often represent the violent
vs non-violent choice (“do I shoot this person or not”) — but
frequently which choice should be made with the scarred side is
arbitrary (“do I rob this store or the other?” “Do I shoot
Batman or Robin?”). It would dilute the purity of Two-Face’s
iconography, but would make his situation more philosophically
compelling, and ultimately make him a more sympathetic and
accurately insane character.
Poison Ivy is a seductive woman with an affinity with plants, and an
eco-terrorist ideology. She is an iconic Arkham inmate, but what
exactly is her insanity? Caring about the environment is not insane –
neither, for that matter, is killing people over it – though it is,
of course, criminal. To be insane she would need a harsher separation
from reality, and more confusion on why others don’t see things her
Giving her a warped sense of empathy could work. She has an easier
time feeling empathy for plants than for humans. She thinks back in
sadness at when her grandparents’ house burned – not because the
grandparents died but because their rose bush did. Ivy can’t
understand why other people are so cruel to plants. If one goes this
route, it would make sense for Ivy to only eat the parts of plants
that doesn’t harm them – she eats fruit and nuts, but never roots.
She feels about eating carrots the same way that most people feel
about eating human flesh (or at least monkeys). Ivy is earnestly
baffled why she’s considered a villain for murdering a CEO whose
Harley suffers from the association of chaotic behavior with
insanity. Of course she’s insane; she’s so weird! But then what
exactly is her craziness? Harley is at her most frightening when she
is bubbly and goofy while doing terrible things. There’s a bit where
she has Catwoman strapped to a conveyor belt, and is about to turn
her into catfood. Harley is joking, and seems to honestly think that
Catwoman will appreciate that in death she’ll be helping some cats.
Harley does not take life seriously. She treats it like a game. What
if that’s what she literally thought life was? That it was just fun,
with no serious consequences – like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
People may fall off buildings, be set on fire, but in the end no one
is really hurt. There are no consequences. It would make her bubbling
personality very dangerous.
Batman villains have changed more dramatically than Mad Hatter. First
he was just a villain who looked like the Alice
in Wonderland character,
then someone obsessed with hats, then someone obsessed with Lewis
Carroll, then someone whose obsession moves between hats and Carroll
depending upon the author. He often feels like a character who was
declared insane by the authors simply because he has “Mad” in his
name, and then made to giggle and quote Alice
in order to feel crazy without any real thought to what exactly his
Mad Hatter’s two obsessions, the Carroll one is far more interesting
than hats, and easier to build an insane outlook on. The Alice
are full of bizarre outlooks, logic puzzles, and weird philosophy,
and it is easy to build an insane perspective from them. The most
effective Batman stories with the Mad Hatter play up the dreamlike
subjectivity of the Alice books, producing a character who doesn’t
really believe that the world is real – it’s all just something
dreamed by the Red King (or possibly Mad Hatter himself). A world
full of all sorts of backwards logic, including that the best way to
go over a gate is to stand on your head and that words can mean
whatever you want them to mean. The Mad Hatter is a person who
believes he has stepped through the mirror into Looking-Glass Land, a
realm where flowers talk, rabbits have waistcoats, and everything is
a dream. When he becomes a man suffering from delusions,
hallucinating his dream realm, he becomes a far more compelling
Riddler is a man obsessed with proving he is smarter than the
smartest man (who he thinks is Batman), and so he constantly leaves
riddles, forcing Batman to try and solve them. In later stories, they
have played up the riddles as a compulsion, that he finds himself
unable to not leave them behind. This can clearly mark him as
abnormal, but crazy? No. It’s the sort of thing that might get a
psychiatrist to visit him in prison but not get him sent to a
It would be hard to reinvent the Riddler to make him actually insane,
as his defining trait beside riddles is his total lucidity. He very
clearly understands his environment, and knows the laws, and how they
can be played with. The only way to make him insane while keeping
that cunning is to make him some sort of solipsist who believes that
no one is actually real except him and Batman. It would explain why
he is so obsessed with Batman, and why he doesn’t care if other
people are hurt as part of the schemes. Unfortunately, it would also
make his issues pretty similar to Mad Hatter’s – a genius who
basically believes the universe is a dream operating under its own
logic. Honestly, I feel Riddler would be better served as being
reclassified as abnormal but sane.
The Scarecrow. A psychologist who dresses up like a Halloween
decoration and is obsessed with spreading fear. In some stories, he
is spreading fear just for the hell of it, but in others he seems to
be doing some psychological experiments. What is his insanity? It’s
something that is never really established. He is creepy and
obsessed, but besides that there really isn’t much.
Is it some extreme megalomania combined with delusion? Sometimes the
way he talks, he almost sounds like he thinks he’s some sort of god
of fear. Is it that he prioritizes scientific research so much that
he cannot understand why people are shocked by his actions? That sort
of mad scientist approach could be a direction to go. Possibly he
might even think that people facing their fear, even if they die, is
what they need to do. Though admittedly all of these move him away
dramatically from his normal personality. He is so clinical and yet
sadistic that it is difficult to reinvent him in a way that seems
arch-enemy. When one asks “Is the Joker crazy?” Most people would
answer “Of course, he is. He’s the Joker!” What then is his
mental issue? Sure, he’s weird and wild, and does all sorts of funky
things, but what exactly is his problem? It’s something that
surprisingly few people are interested in exploring – probably
partly because one big element of Joker’s appeal is how mysterious he
is. However, I feel that if you are going to present an insane
character, then it is important to explain how he is insane.
Otherwise, go another direction with him
suggested that Joker’s brain has difficulty processing sensory
information, so that he is constantly interpreting it in a different
way. That’s used to explain why different stories have dramatically
different takes on him – joyless assassin, goofy thief, giggling
serial killer, etc. Others (including Alan Moore) have suggested that
Joker is such a complete nihilist that not only does he feel the
universe is one big pointless joke, but he believes then that the
only moral imperative is to teach others of this cold hard fact. The
world is chaos, and everyone should know it. Or, in a more
light-hearted way, he just sees everything as a cartoon, just like
Harley does. In this case, the one moral imperative is to get
everyone to laugh.
lot of people also like to think of the Joker as one of the DC
Universe’s ultimate embodiments of pure evil. If he is insane, then
by definition he can’t be that. Then Batman is an unfeeling brute
beating up a man not responsible for his actions. This is an
interpretation many people are not comfortable with. Fair enough, but
in that case don’t call Joker and his ilk crazy.
“What interests me…is the fact that he functions as a lightning rod for a certain breed of psychotic. They specialize in absurdly grandiose schemes, and whatever the ostensible rationale–greed, revenge, the seizure of power…their true agenda is always the same: to cast Batman in the role of Nemesis.” –Henri Ducard, Batman
Comics sadly have a bad history of treating people with mental issues respectively. This is especially true in superhero comics, where insanity is often used as a villain’s motivation, and especially especially true in Batman comics, where most of his villains are considered insane and sent to Arkham Asylum as opposed to prison.
This is actually a relatively recent
addition. Originally Batman’s enemies were considered no more or less
insane than any other villains. In fact, there was an early comic
strip in which the Joker faked insanity
in order to be transported from prison to a hospital (so he could
escape on route). It was only in 1974 (35 years after Batman was
created) that Arkham first appeared in the comics, and was in the 80s
when it was decided that most of Batman’s enemies were crazy rather
than being merely eccentric, and so it became the go-to place for
Presumably this was an attempt to give more depth to the villains, an explanation for their bizarre crimes and actions. Why does Riddler always leave riddles? He’s obsessive-compulsive. Why does Joker tell jokes all the time and commit bizarre crimes? He’s lost touch with reality. However, this decision has some pretty deep problems. Firstly, making insanity the main motivation of the rogues gallery for the world’s most popular superhero results in further demonizing an already derided minority. If you think of crazy people in popular culture, Joker, Two-Face, and other miscreants spring readily to mind. Secondly, it shows a serious ignorance of what insanity actually is.
To be classified as psychologically abnormal, a person must have behaviour and/or thoughts that are very different from regular people and which hamper the person’s ability to interact with themselves or with others – to function well. Thus, if you fill several rooms in your house with dolls that you talk to but you also hold down a good job, feel good about yourself, and have positive relationships with others, then you are not abnormal, just eccentric. But if you yell at people about what the dolls are saying and are unable to interact with people in a comfortable way, then you are abnormal. Now, insanity is actually more of a legal than psychological term – to be criminally insane means that you committed a crime but your mind is such that you were incapable of realizing that what you were doing was wrong – thus, you are ultimately innocent of your actions. You’re not criminal, you’re sick. That’s why you’re in a hospital rather than a prison.
In this context,
only a few of Batman’s enemies would be considered properly insane.
Maxie Zeus thinks he’s the god Zeus, the Ventriloquist has so
repressed his anger that it manifests in his wooden dummy – which
he thinks is a living person, sometimes Killer Croc is written so
that his thoughts are more like an animal’s than a man’s. But most of
the prominent villains are merely abnormal – Riddler is
obsessive-compulsive about leaving cues, Poison Ivy kills to protect
plants, Scarecrow is a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but
they still understand that their actions are wrong – or at least
will be so judged by society. They are responsible for what they do.
it is a trope of the Batman franchise to constantly remind us that
the villains are responsible for their actions. Often a psychologist
or other concerned citizen will accuse Batman of being a brute for
mistreating people who are mentally ill, that these poor individuals
are victims rather than criminals. This happens in the regular
comics, in Batman the Animated Series,
in The Dark Knight Returns…
and every single time, the villains attempt to kill the psychologist,
either resulting in that individual’s death or in a last-minute save
by Batman that makes the individual realize that Arkham’s inmates are
monsters that need to be controlled, not victims deserving our
many of you might take offence to the idea that Joker or Scarecrow
are merely misunderstood victims. Is that really fair considering how
many people they’ve murdered? Plus, then it makes Batman seem like a
villain, beating up the mentally ill who are ultimately innocent.
Fair enough. I think there’s a lot of problematic elements in
treating people like Joker as victims – but if you don’t want to do
that, then don’t classify them as being insane. By definition,
someone with criminal insanity is a victim – a victim of their
trauma, of their lives, of their own brain.
is a lot of stigma towards people with mental issues, and a lot of
people complain about criminals being declared legally insane and
sent to the hospital rather than prison. Stories like Batman,
where people who are clearly villainous but still classified as
insane, encourage this perception – that being declared insane is a
way to “cheat the system.” In reality, very few lawyers use it as
a defence for their client, and even less cases end with that being
the sentence. And, interestingly enough, when a person is declared
insane, he is generally sent to the hospital longer than he would be
in prison (as he is not there for a set time but until cured).
would claim that the Batman comics
do not demonize the mentally ill because the heroes have issues as
well. Don’t people often think of Batman himself as being crazy? Okay
then, what is his craziness? It’s not that he dresses up like a bat
and drives a bat-shaped car – Catwoman is considered one of his few
sane enemies and she basically has the same animal shtick, to say
nothing of various “sane” superheroes who have costumes equally
strange. Is it that Batman’s obsessive-compulsive, utterly driven in
his war on crime? Well, once again that could fit numerous
superheroes, who are not considered crazy. Besides, even if that were
true, it would at most make him abnormal but certainly not crazy –
by definition he knows what right and wrong are. But more
importantly, Batman’s sanity is almost never engaged with by the
writers in a serious way, just hand-waved as an explanation for why
he’s so intense and usually used to simply make him seem more badass
(“he’s not human!”). If Batman’s sanity is questionable, then
clarify in what way, and treat the topic with understanding and
sympathy. If you don’t want us to pity Batman, then don’t pretend
The mentally ill
are a prominent minority and one that, virtually by definition,
suffers a lot. Pop culture should be used to help us understand these
people and feel sympathy for them, not encourage us to treat them
like criminals and punchlines. Storytellers have a responsibility.
I always liked Anaconda of the Serpent Society because she has such a different body type from like 90% of all superhero comic book women. What makes it especially interesting was that, in all the comics with Anaconda I read, her body type wasn’t a defining part of her character. Usually if a woman is large in the comics, that’s the main thing about her, and often either a point of tragedy (such as the She-Thing), humour (Big Bertha), or both (Gamma-Burn). But Anaconda’s gimmick isn’t that she’s big — it’s that she can stretch her arms and use them to squeeze the life out of Captain America. She just also happens to be a big girl. Which is cool. I think she dated Rock Python for a while.