Before reading this post, I highly recommend you track down issue #12 of the current Batman volume from DC Comics. In fact, read the entire arc from #9-13, entitled “I Am Suicide.” Your friendly local comic shop should have them, but if you’re in a fix you can get the whole series in digital form from Comixology. Still buy stuff from your local comic shop, though. They need your support.
After reading this issue, head over to i09 and read James Whitbrook’s commentary on it. That article informs a great deal of what I’m talking about here.
Batman is one of the most meaningful superheroes because he struggles with mental illness, not of the over-the-top variety usually seen in comic book characters (typically villains, but also with the occasional hero such as Moon Knight and Deadpool), but a more grounded and relatable mental illness: depression. He also exhibits traits of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and the occasional bout of adjustment disorder; however, the disorder plaguing Batman the most is the same one that affects 3.4-9% (depending on severity) of American adults.
I’ve written before about how Batman relates to mental illness and the coping mechanisms he uses to ugly through his emotional and physical struggles, but this issue of Batman is the first one I’ve seen where a knowledgeable reader can point to a specific passage and say, “Yep. There’s the proof. This man is not well.” Granted, the evidence has always been there, but never so blatantly presented.
Delivered within the context of a goodbye letter to Catwoman, intended for her before she is moved from Blackgate Prison to Arkham Asylum to serve her sentence for a heinous crime, Batman admits to having attempted suicide when he was 10 years old. Overwhelmed by grief for his parents and a crushing survivor’s guilt, young Bruce Wayne attempts to slit his wrist using one of his father’s own shaving razors. The attempt is (obviously) unsuccessful, but it leads him to realize that the identity he previously held onto is gone, and that he must create a new identity to carry on–thus, Batman is well and truly born. The trauma of that moment, however, never goes away; it manifests as Batman seeing his life as disposable, and thus better used for fighting back against evil.
Fan reactions to this revelation has not been wholly favorable (case in point: check out some of the comments on the above-linked article). Some readers see this as writer Tom King needlessly changing the mythology of an established character such that it devalues the self-sacrifice and nobility of their quest: since Batman sees himself as dead inside and his life is meaningless, then it’s less meaningful when he puts himself in harm’s way.
But the fact that Batman sees his life as worthless speaks to just how much he does care for other people and how badly he wants to rid the world of the oppressive figures that would do them harm. He accepts the risks of vigilantism because, in his mind, it’s okay for him to die. No one else should have to carry that burden because their life has meaning and purpose, and they’re worthy of time, attention, and love. This feeling of worthlessness while elevating the value of others is a classical sign of depression, and the official rendering of Batman’s affliction with the sickness makes him a more humanized, tragic figure. He’s no longer just an eccentric billionaire on an idealistic quest–he’s also a broken man who is already dead and is just waiting for the funeral.
This doesn’t mean that the character of Batman is completely unchanged, but having him changed is not necessarily negative. Young Bruce’s despair and Batman’s acceptance of it enriches everything about him. His obsessive, furious devotion to fighting crime speaks of a need to find fulfillment and purpose. Batman’s friendships and romances, few they may be, are desperate attempts to be loved and accepted–even if he rejects that love and acceptance. This in turn leads to him presenting a persona that people find off-putting, which just makes it worse for him. In fact, in my mind, Superman has always had a positive relationship with Batman because he’s sensitive to his emotional struggles, while the rest of the Justice League (with the exception of maybe Wonder Woman) just sees Batman as an aloof neurotic at best, an obnoxious asshole at worst. The Robins have been Batman’s trainees and partners, but even as he prepares them for a life of fighting crime he’s fiercely protective of them, wanting to help them overcome their pain and loss as opposed to constantly using it as fuel for their mission.
No one can relate to having superpowers, so we look for other ways to relate to our favorite comic book characters. I love Superman, but I can’t relate to his unshakeable nobility and constant moral righteousness, because sometimes I’m a horrible and selfish person. I love Spider-Man, and I can relate to being an awkward, geeky teenager–but once that science nerd gets a redheaded girlfriend with the body of swimsuit model, I’m completely lost. It doesn’t help that Spider-Man hasn’t been that lovable loser in ages, and is now currently a slightly more tame Tony Stark.
I can’t relate to Bruce Wayne’s billions, or his bulging little black book, or his peak-human physical conditioning, or his genius-level intellect in software development, engineering, and criminology. I can, however, relate to the dark, secret pain of feeling like your life has no meaning, that nobody really loves you so much as they just tolerate you, and that you’re nothing more than an empty husk desperate to find some way to bring joy to your life. I can relate to silently calling out for help to everybody who will listen and adopting others to try and help them avoid the emotional pitfalls you keep falling into. I even know all too well the feeling that you’re just a waste, and everybody is better off without you. Because I can relate to those feelings, I can relate to that character, and while I won’t be punching out any psychopaths or saving the world from alien starfish, I still feel more inspired by Batman’s victories because I know he’s able to achieve them even while carrying the heavy weight of psychological torment.
Representation matters. It’s why there’s been a push for more characters representing gender identities other than cisgender, sexual orientations other than heterosexual, and races other than white in all forms of media for the past several years. Representation (or the lack thereof) is why #oscarssowhite was a thing. The desire for greater representation is why it’s such a big deal that our current President’s cabinet is whiter (and richer) than Cold Stone Creamery’s Oreo Crème ice cream. However, as we’re (rightfully) advocating for greater diversity of gender, sexuality, and race, it’s also important to advocate for more representation of people with less-than-perfect mental and physical health. It makes for more meaningful stories to more people, and shows that the true victories we should celebrate are the victories over our own mind. Beating up bad guys is easier than not getting beat up by yourself, after all.