Comic BooksOpinion

“Arkham Asylum: For the Comically Progressive” or, How Comics are Changing the Conversation about Mental Illness

Bailey Olmstead / ’20 Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults live with a mental illness. To put that in context, that’s approximately 61.5 million people. Mental illnesses can be anything from an anxiety disorder to schizophrenia. And yet, in our modern culture, words like “bipolar” are spoken as throwaway words, used for every mood swing and crabby moment. Anxiety can be everything from nerves to tiredness, not some kind of catch-all stress monster.

These words are in our lexicon, and yet we use them so freely without a real understanding of their implications. Most mediums of pop culture have only skimmed the surface of what it’s like to live with these conditions. Some shows, like BoJack Horseman, educate people on what depression can really be like—but one medium that’s been exploring mental illness longer than most is comic books.

There is an irony that comic books created things like Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane and are the forerunners at tackling mental illness stigmas. Both the Marvel and DC Wikias have extensive articles on characters with portrayed with mental illnesses. It’s easy to throw everyone into the category of “insane,” and call it a day. But such a wet blanket statement smothers the fire of education.

The exploration can start with the family tragedy that is Harry and Norman Osborn—Norman the original Green Goblin, and his son Harry, who takes up the mantle after his father’s death. The two appear in multiple categories of the various subcategories falling under mental illnesses. Substance abuse, dissociative identity disorder, and then the catch-all—insanity. They’ve also suffered from trauma-related incidents such as amnesia. The two are technically villains, but in the most tragic of definitions. Harry is more the tragic character, wanting to avenge his father under false pretenses and mental issues plaguing him, seeking to kill Peter Parker. After coming back to sanity and saving the day, Harry passes away, telling a brokenhearted Peter that “…despite everything, they were still, and would always be, best friends” (The Spectacular Spider-Man #200). Readers see in this family tragedy how mental illnesses can harm people and turn them into people they don’t want to be. They see what mental illness can make people do (in an extreme sense) to themselves and those they love. In the end, the reader knows Harry didn’t want to kill Peter, but this illness inside him took hold. But in the end, Harry prevailed, and died saving them.

Image Credit: DC Comics

There’s also Harley Quinn, the creation of Emerson College alumnus Paul Dini ’79. Harley Quinn is the former romantic partner and creation of the Joker. Harley Quinn’s story isn’t the putzed-up tale you see in Suicide Squad, but rather, it’s a story of a woman in an abusive relationship, and her casting off the chains of that relationship and making her own way. Quinn started out as a tragic character, seemingly doomed to be by her Puddin’s side forever. She eventually found her own story, where she now has her own adventures without the Joker. She is often found with Poison Ivy; DC’s Twitter confirmed that they are “girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy.” And back in February, Harley Quinn was finally given justice in terms of the Joker, when she confronted and rejected her former abuser in Arkham. It was a powerful moment for fans, as the once-abused Quinn was finally allowed to stand up for herself and reject the abuse of the Joker in a powerful moment. Being in an abusive relationship is it’s own kind of pervasive mental illness, and this showed one of its most famous victims finally and powerfully standing up for herself. 

Image Credit: DC Comics
Image Credit: DC Comics

This gives women and men who are victims of abuse a tangible and famous role model to look up to—someone who was able to free herself of the overhanging clouds of abuse and manipulation that manifest in these situations.

Even in the MCU, fans see that Tony Stark has post-traumatic stress disorder. In the comics, he has battled depression and alcoholism since the ’60s. Other notable Marvel heroes such as Hawkeye and Daredevil have battled depression, and Hank Pym with bipolar disorder, and Spider-Man with seeing everyone he loves die. Readers watch these characters struggle with trauma and mental illness, and readers see them triumph. And in this success, these characters become role models.

Image Credit: DC Comics

Kids who read Ms. Marvel receive validity in the world of anxiety, as are those who witness Tony Stark battling depression, Mr. Fantastic tackle his megalomania, or  Harley Quinn confront her abusive past. The list goes on and on, and that’s exactly the point; these characters give a validity and a voice to an audience that is often stigmatized and overlooked.

Comics with characters who have mental illnesses are important in the same way it’s important for there to be diverse characters of color, or in the way that there should be more female characters, and characters with a spectrum of sexual identities. It’s important because the readership deserves to be represented in what they’re reading. We know buff, rich, straight, white guys can be heroes. But the boy with crippling anxiety in the back deserves to know that, too. As does the little African American girl picking up her first comic. Audiences need more stories of characters with mental illnesses being shown in all popular media, but the revolution has begun in comics.

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