“I am Batman. I am suicide.”

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.


The Reason Why We Fall

One of the reasons I have come to love Batman so much is that, while he is an empowerment fantasy of superhero awesomeness, he also deals with emotional and mental pain constantly and manages to triumph over it. Fans, critics, and academics ascribe his mental and emotional state to the loss of his parents; but, for us long-time readers, we know that was only the first tragedy in Bruce Wayne’s life. From losing Jason Todd to failing to save Barbara Gordon to simply seeing dangerous criminals he put away walk free from a prison that might as well be made of tissue paper, the man’s life has been nothing but loss and struggle.


But, he always breaks through the dark. My favorite Batman moments are the ones where he, on the verge of being broken, finds the will to survive. There are three that come to mind: the scene from the animated series episode “Nothing to Fear” where he overcame Scarecrow’s fear toxin by sheer will alone (“I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!”), fighting his way out of the Court of Owl’s labyrinth in issue #7 of the New 52 Batman comic, and in the movie The Dark Knight Rises where Bruce Wayne climbs out of the prison.

As a kid, I don’t remember too many times when I saw my favorite superheroes completely lose it. They were always strong, determined, rock-steady champions. The most emotional they may have gotten was a show of anger, but despair and a broken spirit never entered the equation.  In “Nothing to Fear,” that all changed. I saw Batman being taken to the limit of his sanity. After having his mind attacked relentlessly by Scarecrow (he would become my favorite not-the-Joker Batman villain), he soon gave in to fear. It wasn’t a fear of an outward threat: Batman feared failure. He feared failing in his quest to bring justice to the city he loved and to not living up to his family’s memory. This was heavy stuff for a kid, and it really affected me on a deep level, so deep that I wouldn’t realize just how strong of a reaction it solicited until I would rewatch this episode as an adult. But Batman punched through the darkness. He found within himself a confidence that didn’t rely on the approval of his parents and an acceptance that as long as he was fighting, he was winning. Sure, he may have punched out Scarecrow in the end, but Batman won this fight by tackling the depression and trauma that had followed him ever since childhood.

Scott Snyder managed to reach peak Batman in a way unseen since Grant Morrison, yet in a far more relate-able and gritty way. Issue #7 of Scott Snyder’s Batman run (you really should read the whole thing, but if you only read one arc, make it the Court of Owls arc) saw Batman held captive in a labyrinth by a villainous secret society who was working to tear Gotham City apart from the inside out. Their strategy was to weaken Batman physically and mentally by forcing him to wander their labyrinth and experiencing horrifying visions of his failures and being tortured by their chief assassin, the Talon. They never managed to break Batman, however. Even at his most beaten and weary, he hangs on to the mental control and defiance for which he is known, even pointing out flaws in his enemy’s plans, such as changing the cameras they are using to monitor him.


Batman taunts his foe, not only anchoring himself in sanity but even goading his unseen enemy into attacking him further and with greater intensity. He does this because he thrives on the path of most resistance; Batman so adamantly refuses to give up that he finds strength in making his struggles harder. And when all seems lost, he finds the strength to fight back both in both body and mind, beating the Talon to a pulp while insulting his methods and adequacy.




The third example may be my favorite. Bruce made many attempts to escape the prison Bane threw him in  by climbing the wall of the pit that was the prison’s sole entrance while wearing a life-saving harness; it kept him from hitting the concrete and stone below, and thus the only risk was failing the jump to the final ledge from which he could reach the exit. There was no fear to overcome, thus the jump simply became a task–a physical obstacle that could be conquered with repeated attempts. It was only after removing the harness and instilling in him the fear of dying–the knowledge that he only had one chance to make it–that gave Bruce the strength to finally make the jump.

Regardless of your opinion of the movie (I feel about it like I feel about Return of the Jedi–sentimentally, it’s my favorite of the trilogy it’s in, but I’m well aware that it’s the least technically sound), you would be hard-pressed to deny the beauty of this scene. Hans Zimmer really doesn’t get enough credit. The simplicity of his compositions bring a sense of raw emotion to every scene, and none more so than here. The crowd chanting, Christian Bale’s very real look of fear and determination, and the pacing all click together to give us a segment that is pretty much perfect in an otherwise flawed movie.

Cinematic beauty aside, this scene is a perfect illustration of tackling fear head on and thriving on it. He accepted the reality that he may die, used the energy and desperation of the moment to give him courage, and ultimately prevailed not because he ran away from fear, but because he tackled it head-on. It’s a moving and cathartic illustration of what so many people, especially the mentally ill, go through every day: having to face down their own obstacles and not finding a way around them. Batman does this and is victorious, thus he inspires us–and nothing makes one a hero, fictional or otherwise, more than the act of inspiration.

I’ve had a rough few weeks. I’m determined to not let my depression and anxiety get the best of me. I’ve been taking my meds, but as anyone who has had a long-term medical condition can attest: the meds just make it easier to manage the symptoms. They’re not a cure, you’re still sick, and sometimes it’s harder to fight the illness than it is to deal with giving into it.

This scene–and the character of Batman as a whole–does inspire me though. It shows me that it’s okay to be afraid, because fear keeps us aware of the dangers around us and prepares us for them. Another expert on fear–the Doctor–probably said it best when he told a scared young boy (who would grow up to be a soldier, no less) that fear was a superpower. So, maybe we’re all wrong when we say that Batman doesn’t have a superpower–he’s one of the few superheroes (at least in the DC universe) that has a reason to be afraid, what with no bulletproof skin or mythic strength and speed to save him, and thus he has the superhuman ability to harness his fear and convert it into action.

Image by Marvelous Murals.

More than anything, though, I’m reminded of Thomas Wayne’s words to a young, scared, and injured Bruce from Batman Begins: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” It’s okay for me to have bad days or even weeks. It’s okay to not be able to hold off the sadness and confusion from time to time. I’ll make it through, and eventually I may be able to take whatever jump is in front of me, perhaps even without the rope.