How is Mental Illness Represented in Superhero Comics?

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Superheroes always come with a backstory that explains how they got their powers. Frequently, they are ordinary people who experienced a tragedy that led them to develop superhero qualities and abilities — and while some of these tragedies are extraordinary, others are more common, such as the death of their parents, a loved one, or another stressful event. No matter the circumstances of their origin story, chances are all superheroes have experienced grief or a mental health struggle in one way or another, some of which leave a lasting impression that evolves further throughout their story arc and serialization.

Depictions of Superheroes and Mental Health

Whatever their backstory, superhero comics often do a good job portraying the difficulties surrounding mental illness and the daily struggles it causes, even for superheroes. Below are a few examples of superheroes who openly experience mental health struggles.

The Hulk

Cover of The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962)
Art by Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman

The Hulk is probably one of the easiest superheroes to spot with mental health issues. The iconic character, also known as Bruce Banner, is a brilliant scientist who was exposed to lethal amounts of gamma rays but survived. After his accident, he became emotionally volatile, and stress causes him to transform into a being with difficulty controlling his feelings.

From the start, Bruce Banner was introduced as someone who suffers from emotional stress even before his mishap. The gamma radiation enhances his instability and makes it even more difficult for him to control his behavior – unleashing a literal monster. We know Banner suffers from depression but the subsequent change in his behavior is so dramatic it’s often speculated that he also suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is when one person is controlled by multiple personalities.

Iron Man

Tony Stark, a wealthy and successful weapons developer for the government, experiences a traumatic incident on a business trip to a wartorn country. After being held hostage for months, Stark works with another POW to create a suit of armor that allows him to escape, though his assistant dies during the ensuing battle to flee.

As a result, Stark suffers from PTSD. The memory of watching his friend and other soldiers die changes his entire life. He no longer wishes to create weapons, as his own were responsible for his captivity and the death of those who tried to help him. He experiences repeated bouts of anxiety and decides to refocus his purpose in life, thereby becoming Iron Man.

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones is a superhero who is part of Marvel’s Max, a subset of Marvel that contains more mature content. There are several different storylines detailing what happens to her, but primarily her story takes place at school with Spider-Man’s Peter Parker. As a child, Jones loses both of her parents in a car crash. The military convoy that hit them was carrying radioactive chemicals which leave her in a coma for several months but gives her super strength and flight.

After awakening, she’s inspired by other superheroes and decides to use her powers for good. However, a villain named Kilgrave takes over her mind for one year, causing her to do his bidding, including murder. After this experience, she suffers PTSD flashbacks as she remembers what it felt like to not be in control.

Demolition Man

Dennis Dunphy, also known as Demolition Man or D-man, is a superhero who worked with Captain America but suffered an accident that left him living in the sewers protecting the homeless population. Even though he was a superhero, D-Man was too mentally unstable to return to civility. Oftentimes, people suffer homelessness not because they’re incapable of working, but because their severe mental health problems make living a normal life really difficult. In fact, more than half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness and one-third of them don’t receive treatment for their mental illness.

John Constantine

John Constantine, the Hellblazer, has a rough history, including strangling his twin brother in the womb and his drunk father blaming him for his mother’s death in childbirth. Add to that his constant fight with the forces of heaven and hell and Constantine has not had an easy life. However, it was the Newcastle incident of 1978 where John mentally broke down.

Due to his impatience during an exorcism of a young girl, a demon was summoned that then ran amok and caused the child to lose her soul. While the rest of Constantine’s Newcastle Crew was left mentally and physically scarred, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Ravenscar Psychiatric Hospital.  

Evey Hammond

After being saved from policemen intent on raping and killing her, Evey Hammond is saved by the enigmatic and sadistic V in V for Vendetta. He abandons her in the street, kidnaps her, puts her through torture similar to what he endured, and finally gives her the choice to stay or leave. Despite her mistreatment, and likely as a result of Stockholm Syndrome, Evey stays with him.

The Sentry

Cover art to The Sentry #2 by Jae Lee (line art) and Jose Villarrubia(painted colors).

As The Sentry, Bob Reynolds, Marvel’s answer to Superman, is one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel universe, said to have the power of a million exploding suns. His arch-enemy, a powerful entity called The Void, is actually his other half – two personas fighting for control. When The Void took over during the Siege storyline, he destroyed Asgard, killed Loki, nearly killed Thor, and ripped Ares, God of War in half. To save the world Reynolds wiped the memory of The Sentry from other heroes’ minds, including his own, but accidentally drew The Void back out.

It could be argued that Reynolds suffers from schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder or even that the two halves represent being bipolar. He also suffers from agoraphobia, which he revealed during World War Hulk, making him unable to aide in the fight against Hulk for quite some time.  

Representing Mental Health Issues

Throughout the hundreds of comic books that carry the stories of these superheroes, you see time and time again the difficulties and loneliness they experience as part of their mental illness. Even though they are superheroes, they’re still mainly driven by their emotions – as we all are. Although none of us can relate to having superpowers, 40 million Americans can relate to experiencing mental illness and the hardships it causes in our daily lives.

Superhero comics are filled with interesting backstories often inspired by real life. Their characters experience the same kinds of trauma and tragedy many of us experience. However, their stories share a silver lining by showing how an individual’s strengths can work to their advantage and have a positive impact. Though superhero comics portray mental illness for what it is – confusing, painful, difficult, and often tragic — they also teach us there’s always hope and ways to cope, even when things seems impossible.

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