Trauma, Webster’s dictionary describes trauma as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury”.
In the world of comics and superheroes, the cycle of death and rebirth are as constant and eternal as the masked heroes themselves. Dying and comic back to life only to die and be revived again is a concept that has existed within comics for decades. Stories like The Death of Superman, Final Crisis, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Dark Phoenix Saga, and A Death in the Family, just to name a few are stories that have permeated and shaped pop culture and our understanding of heroes. We’ve all gotten used to it and come to expect it, we’ve even reached the point where we can joke about it. Most comic fans can recount a time when their favorite hero died and the events surrounding their return to the land of the living. We know when a character dies, especially a popular character that has a following and has had a prominent place within the major arcs of the property, within a few months or maybe even a few years the character will return surrounded spectacle that heralds their return. Characters deaths have become the center of major events that span multiple books all leading toward and converging on one thing. But for as much as death and rebirth have become major tropes and aspects of superheroes and comics to the point that we shrug it off, joke about it, and even carry on, as usual, how often do we think about the trauma that leaves behind in our favorite heroes? How often do we ask questions surrounding the trauma left behind by constantly dying and being reborn as well as the stress and trauma left behind by simply existing as a superhero? We ask the world of our heroes, we want them to guard us while we sleep and as we go about our regular everyday lives without ever thinking about the fact that they have lives as well. We ask all of this of them without ever considering the toll it takes on them mentally and physically and just how dangerous and traumatic the job of being a superhero can be. We often don’t think about the painful and traumatic experiences that characters have collected throughout the decades and that they carry with them from run to run and from continuity shift to continuity shift. We often don’t think about the trauma and the scars that lie beneath the surface of every one of our favorite characters. Do we just chalk it up to occupational hazard or is there merit in examining the mental, physical, and emotional toll that being a hero takes from our supers?
Comics have always been a safe space and a place of healing and self-care. They generally tackle a myriad of social issues ranging from drug abuse and alcoholism to bigotry and abuse. When done right they allow us to see ourselves and our struggles reflected in the lives of our favorite characters and within our favorite worlds. They can introduce us to and educate us on struggles and hardships that we ourselves don’t go through as well as reflect the very struggles we deal with daily. When written and crafted in an honest manner that wishes not to pass judgment or stigmatize but to bring awareness, comics have the ability to exist as tools for change and teaching. For decades superheroes have risen to the challenges that we ourselves cannot. They face down everything from intergalactic warlords, reality devouring gods, world ending mad scientists, and much much more. With each seemingly impossible challenge that they come out of they gain a new scar, a new piece of trauma, and a new nightmare that appears when they close their eyes. What’s even more interesting is that we are fully aware of the possible outcomes of being a hero we have seen them play out in characters like Jean Grey, Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, Ted Kord, and scores of other heroes who have faced down the worst the world has to offer and they haven’t always made it through to the other side and if they do it’s never unscathed. A character like Jason Todd who was kidnapped, beaten with a crowbar, and then blown up by the Joker only to be revived by Ra’s Al Ghul in a Lazarus Pit, which we know comes with its own mind-altering effects, would carry enormous mental and emotional scars. Even characters like Harley Quinn who teeter-totter between hero, villain, and something in between are faced with the trauma of their past, present, and oftentimes future. For the majority of her existence, Harley Quinn has been the target of the Joker’s relentless mental, physical, and emotional abuse and manipulation which has resulted in the copious amounts of trauma that she wades through and navigates on a daily basis.
Maybe it’s high pastime that comics begin to operate as a place of refuge, healing, and maybe even therapy for the very characters within their pages just as they are for those of us reading along. We like our heroes resilient and strong, durable and immune, confident and secure, but what about the other side? What about the unsung aspects of being a hero that comes with them also being a person? We should be able to see our heroes struggle with the pain and trauma of being a hero. We should be able to see our heroes not only at their strongest but also at their most vulnerable and scared because there is strength and courage in pain and fear and not hiding those aspects. Considering comics history of reflecting the times that they are in and the real world struggles of their readers it should become much more normal for superheroes mental health to take the center stage. Tom King definitely had the right idea in terms of using his latest DC Comics series Heroes in Crisis as a means to analyze and allow heroes to deal with their pain and mental health issues.
Initially, the book was reported as an examination of superhero trauma and pain and a means to allow them to process and heal from it through therapy. The therapy was to take place within the Sanctuary Rehabilitation Center created by Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Sanctuary is located in the middle of the United States and appears as nothing more than a simple ranch that could honestly pass for the Kent Farm. However, underneath the facade of an ordinary ranch, Sanctuary is actually built from Kryptonian Tech and manned by robots encoded to have the will of Batman, the compassion of Wonder Woman, and the honor of Superman. King decided to write Heroes in Crisis as a means to explore the mental, physical, and emotional cost of being a superhero and what that life does to our heroes. However with that said Heroes in Crisis while it does take a look at the mental strain placed on heroes by the threats they face every day it turned out to be more of a who done it murder mystery akin to Identity Crisis. King had and continues to have genuine and honest intentions with the story and I truly believe it has the potential to spark a mental health movement within comics that’s sorely needed in today’s ultraviolet society.
With the introduction of Sanctuary and it seemingly going array I’m really hoping that DC Comics see the amount of potential that the concept has for putting mental health on the center stage for superhero books and their readers. However, if they do continue with the concept I’m hoping that it goes through a revamp that truly allows for meaningful healthy therapy for the characters that allows them to process and truly deal with all of their different struggles and traumas. Sanctuary has a place in the DC Comics universe and it would be amazing to truly see our favorite heroes attending therapy sessions which would give the message that there is nothing wrong with needing therapy. It’s okay to not always be okay and to need help sometimes, it’s something that our favorite heroes could definitely help to convey and it could even present the opportunity to allow our heroes to grow themselves and even help others.
For as much as things have changed mental illness, mental health, mental trauma, and physical trauma are all still very taboo and stigmatized aspects of the human condition. Mental illness and trauma in comics are usually things relegated to villains or heroes going through a mind control situation. It’s rarely something discussed through the lens of the heroes themselves struggling with and living with these things. Mental Health in comics is rarely discussed and tackled in a way that doesn’t paint a portrait of incompleteness or some sort of defect in the character. Mental Illness and its many complexities are rarely if ever discussed in comics as something that the character shouldn’t be ashamed of or something that affects a great number of people. The use of superheroes to provide mental health education and awareness could be a powerful agent that brings about more cultural awareness and sparks more people to get help and deal with their pain and struggles in healthy and constructive ways.
We ask our heroes to be the most perfect versions of ourselves, the versions who can do anything and withstand anything, and fight the battles that we ourselves don’t think we would be strong enough to fight. We ask our heroes to be unwaveringly brave and to push past fear, insecurity, and at times even their own wellbeing. But now its times that we ask our heroes to take care of themselves physically….and mentally. There is a place for superhero therapy and mental health education because you see these things being exhibited in comics are the closest thing that some may ever get to true mental health education. Imagine the impact of seeing Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Batman sitting down with someone or something and finally being able to let their guard down and heal. Imagine the impact of seeing our greatest heroes lay their pain, insecurities, fears, nightmares, and trauma’s out in the open and seek the help required to not only heal them but to also manage them.