“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 their incarceration.
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.
Indeed, 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 sympathy.
Now, 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.
There 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).
Some 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 he’s crazy.
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.