A great superhero, to me, faces universal problems, which makes them relatable to the audience. These universal problems ground the characters who are known for their powerful abilities and otherworldly strengths. Living with mental illness is a daily struggle for many people and comic book superheroes are a way of escaping our everyday lives. Many comic books that involve a psychological disorder are written by an artist who can relate to these issues on a personal level.
Many heroes in recent comic book/movie history have battled with mental health issues. Here are a few that I feel encapsulate the struggles of mental illness.
A crucial example on this list is Iron Man himself, Tony Stark. The storyline present in Iron Man 3 explores a Tony suffering from PTSD. Throughout the movie, we see scenes of him having anxiety attacks and even mentioning that he was changed by the events that took place in New York during The Avengers. We witness a drastic change in his behavior as he begins to suffer from nightmares, lack of sleep, flashbacks, and hostility. One particular scene that highlights Tony’s PTSD is when he was questioned about the New York attacks. While sitting at a restaurant, two kids come up to ask for an autograph and one asks him how Tony managed to get out of the wormhole. This causes Tony to feel out-of-breath and fearful, and he rushes out of the restaurant and dons his suit to have his vitals checked, thinking it’s a physical affliction or that he was poisoned. Jarvin informs him that there is no strange cardiac or brain activity, and suggests that Tony instead had a severe anxiety attack. Being asked about his near-death experience brought back unwanted memories of the events, and we see how strongly they affect Tony both physically and psychologically.
Another superhero that battles with PTSD is Batgirl. In Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon becomes paraplegic after being shot by the Joker. After this event, she takes on the role of Oracle, assisting Batman with the use of her computer and hacking expertise. We see the extent of her PTSD when, in Gail Simone’s New 52, Barbara goes to therapy and expresses her helplessness as she felt she could no longer have a part in protecting Gotham and its citizens. This is a cathartic experience for comic book fans who are able to identify and see themselves with these characters because they know what it is like to have and live with PTSD.
Jessica Cruz fights a lot of evil people, but the biggest battle she faces is the one against her own mind. After an attack that left her friends murdered while she barely got away, Jessica began to suffer from anxiety. She endures it every day, sometimes even during battles, and there are days when she doesn’t even leave her bedroom due to her anxiety. While fighting, she doubts herself which causes her to panic and overthink. Once, during a battle along with the Justice League, Jessica “shows up” Superman and then later “loses it” against a man dressed in a circus costume due to an anxiety attack. Anxiety is a constant battle—there are good days and bad days and both are portrayed in the comics.
Another very important example is the depiction of postpartum depression in Maggie Murdock, mother of Matt Murdock, also known as Daredevil. It is due to her affliction with this that she left him at a young age. Maggie describes the feeling of not being able to seek help without feeling ashamed and guilty for not being a “good mother” to her child. Later on in the comic, when Matt finally meets Maggie, she apologizes for “failing” him and being a “crazy woman”, to which Matt responds with an understanding reply of how she was not responsible for the chemical imbalance in her brain and that many mothers face this disorders on a variety of levels.
Matt Murdock himself faces depression in many issues of his comic books. Daredevil is one of the first superheroes to consistently battle depression and it becomes a huge theme in his stories. Even though there are textbook symptoms to this illness, depression varies by the individual and can be experienced differently depending on who it is, and seeing depression through Matt Murdock’s perspective depicts in a way in which people who don’t suffer from it can understand the disorder a little better. His description of depression is haunting—he refers to it as a living thing that exists to feed on your darkest moments and is never fully satisfied. The most powerful moments of the issues are the black screens with only the white internal dialogues that describe what depression feels like and the drawing of Daredevil lying on the floor in fetal position and covering his face as he claims to be numb and drained.
The importance of having the representation of superheroes that deal with psychological issues, especially one that involves trauma after tragic events, is extremely significant. Mental illnesses are many times misinterpreted in the media and if depictions aren’t well written, the stigma will only continue to grow. We need more precise portrayals of psychological disorders and not the heavily stereotyped ones, where the individual is more often than not seen as dangerous and inadequate. This is why bringing awareness to popular media is essential in eradicating stigma. These stories must be written and shared so that we can shed light onto topics such as the ones mentioned and possibly help someone who is struggling with a psychological disorder, and can’t help but feel that they are alone. Like these superheroes, we all have the capability of fighting our greatest demons and fears.
To find the help you need: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml