A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Is Batman Nuts?

Is Batman Nuts?

This question gets asked pretty frequently these days. Or, an answer in the affirmative is often taken for granted. Lots of fans and even some pros characterize Batman as being crazy. However, the rationale given for this judgment has often had little to do with the realities of mental illness. The obvious “He dresses as a bat” doesn’t really apply, unless we want to argue that all comic characters are nuts, and that frankly doesn’t get us anywhere. “He’s obsessively focused on his mission.” Well, yeah, but one can say the same about a lot of professional athletes (or fans), and so long as this “obsession” doesn’t really cause significant impairment, it doesn’t rise to the level of a psychiatric disorder. “He shuts himself off from having close relationships from other people to focus on his mission.” Well, maybe. But missionaries do that, too, and we don’t necessarily consider them nuts. Or, people note – with increasing frequency – “Batman behaves like a dick. He manipulates and emotionally abuses those closest to him.” This does start to suggest mental illness, but it doesn’t really capture the whole of what is portrayed with Batman.

There are lots of things about comics that can’t really be explained in or equated to real-world terms. For example: What is the physics behind all the extra mass gained when puny Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk? But, since being “nuts” – i.e., having a mental illness or psychiatric disorder – is a condition which exists in the real world, we can actually examine the comics in attempt to come up with an answer as to whether Batman is “nuts” in real world terms.

First, some Terminology
“Mental illness,” “mental disorder” and “psychiatric disorder” are terms I’m going to use more or less interchangeably. As defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, current edition IV-TR), these terms refer to a condition characterized by abnormal emotional, cognitive or behavioral functioning of a sort which causes the afflicted individual to experience either significant distress or significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. “Significant” in this context means just that – significant, as opposed to trivial. Somebody with poor social skills may be socially awkward or unpopular, but still able to make and maintain some degree of relationships. A person with significant impairment of social functioning is mostly or completely unable to maintain such relationships in any healthy, harmonious manner.

A Quick History of Batman
History is important here, because if one is going to talk about whether or not Batman is nuts, one must first define which version of Batman we’re talking about – and that really makes a big difference.

For purposes of this essay, I’m talking specifically about the version of Batman presented in the comics published by DC Comics, Inc. I’m not talking about the version from the old Adam West TV show, or the one from the Tim Burton movies, or even the excellent version from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and JUSTICE LEAGUE (or, for that matter, the one seen in the comics based on those cartoon shows). I’m talking about the guy who appears monthly in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS and GOTHAM NIGHTS and JLA and in numerous other DC books every month.

As originally presented by Bob Kane, Batman was a rather grim fellow with a mission. Crooks had killed his parents, so he decided he would avenge their deaths by hunting criminals. We in the real world might question the wisdom of his deciding to do so by dressing up as a bat, but such things make sense within the context of the fictional setting Batman inhabits, so we won’t go there. Other than his costume, he didn’t seem particularly bizarre back then, nor obsessed, and he became remarkably less grim pretty quickly, when he picked up a kid sidekick in Robin. There was an obvious affection between the characters back then (no Wertham-wannabe comments, please), and a lot of humor. Batman didn’t seem crazy at all back then, at least no more crazy than any action, pulp or comic hero, and especially not when compared to his opponents. Two-Face, the Joker, the Riddler… those guys had some screws loose. The worst one could say about Batman in comparison was that he had a rather corny sense of humor.

For decades, this more or less continued to be the case. Through the “time travel and weird aliens” stories of the 50s, into the “dark detective” stories of the 70s and well into the 80s, Batman mostly seemed to have his act together. Bruce Wayne occasionally dated, and while his relationships never quite seemed to work out, this mostly seemed to reflect the demands of his career (superhero) rather than an inability to connect to people. He had relationships, both romantic (Kathy Kane, Silver St. Cloud) and friendly (Commissioner Gordon, Superman), and his relationships with Alfred and with Robin were generally pretty family-like. He also maintained functional professional relationships (with Lucius Fox, for example), and when Doug Moench was writing BATMAN, the character’s long-standing “will they or won’t they” relationship with Catwoman had become a real relationship. She even learned Batman’s secret identity. Despite continuing to fight the Joker, Two-Face and new villains such as Maxie Zeus, the Film Freak and Nocturna, things actually seemed pretty good for Batman back then. The original Robin had grown up, gone to college and become a successful superhero on his own, trading in the short pants, elf boots and name to become Nightwing.

Then came the one-two punch of CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

CRISIS represented DC’s attempts to clean house and toss out unwanted aspects of prior continuity. Batman’s continuity wasn’t entirely erased and rewritten, as were the histories of Superman and Wonder Woman, but there was an immediate change in the tone of his adventures, starting with Doug Moench’s departure. Catwoman was brainwashed by Dr. Moon and the Joker, who turned her evil again but made her forget Batman’s secret identity in the process. It appeared that the editors at DC wanted Batman to live in a darker, lonelier world.

At the same time, Frank Miller’s excellent THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS prestige-format miniseries (hereafter abbreviated as DKR) hit comicdom by storm. Miller’s tale of a dystopian-future version of the DC comics milieu presented an aged version of Batman who had gone bitter in his retirement and from seeing the world turn to crap around him. When he eventually emerged from retirement, this future-Batman was more brutal than any version presented in the comics since the very earliest tales. This was a Batman who injured foes with impunity, who was hunted by the police and who fought Superman as an enemy rather than associating with him as a friend.

This was the portrayal that lesser talents immediately started to mimic in the mainstream Batman comics.

The problem here is that Miller never intended his version of Batman to be the default or “mainstream” one. That should have been clear from his later BATMAN: YEAR ONE storyline, in which the setting was rather dark, but Batman himself was an optimistic figure who brought hope to the corrupt Gotham City. But the people behind the monthly Batman comics seemed to miss this point entirely. They piled on the grim and dark stuff, figuring that was what made DKR so popular. Thus, in short order Jim Starlin gave us a rewritten version of Batman taking on a second Robin (Jason Todd). Pre-CRISIS, Jason had essentially been a clone of the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Starlin’s revisionist Jason was a rough street kid who wasn’t’ above taking justice into his own hands – or, on one occasion, dishing out death to a criminal. Starlin and artist Berni Wrightson also gave us THE CULT, a miniseries which featured Batman being psychologically broken and brainwashed by cult leader Deacon Blackfire. And then Starlin and DC’s editors gave the fans the choice (via a 1-800 number) of whether Jason Todd would live or die. They chose death, and the comics featured the Joker beating Robin to death.

Even through all this, though, while the Batman stories tended to be fairly grim, and while Batman never really regained the close friendship with Superman which the two had shared pre-CRISIS, Batman himself seemed fairly sane. He recovered from the events of THE CULT, and while he went through a somewhat morose period after Jason’s death, this was reversed by the arrival of a new Robin (Tim Drake). But then the writers kept piling on tragedy after tragedy.

First was the “Knightfall/Knightquest/Knight's End” saga, in which a new super-villain (Bane) with ties to Batman’s past released all Batman’s foes and sent them against him, then broke Batman’s back. He was crippled for a time but eventually recovered, at which time he had to fight to reclaim the Batman mantle from a brutal pretender who’d taken it on in his absence. Then a plague (created by perennial arch-foe Ra’s al-Ghul) hit Gotham, killing hundreds. Then came the “No Man’s Land” storyline, in which Gotham was destroyed by an earthquake, degenerated into brutal anarchy and was abandoned by the US Government. This storyline included, among other events, the death of Commissioner Gordon’s wife, at the hands of the Joker. Shortly after “No Man’s Land,” Gordon himself was nearly killed, and was forced to retire. Then Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, was framed for murder, resulting in Wayne spending some time in custody, then escaping and spending some time on the run. During this storyline, he lost yet another person close to him (almost-romantic-interest, Vesper Fairchild). He also declared, for a time, the intent to stop being Bruce Wayne at all - to give up even a pretense of normal life to dedicate himself to just being Batman.

This declaration – which he made to his various allies (Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, Huntress, etc.) but eventually recanted, can also be regarded as when Batman started seeming a lot more nuts. During and after the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive” storyline, Batman’s demeanor toward his allies was markedly different than it had been in the past. He started keeping secrets from them. He became more distant. He even fired Tim Drake from his Robin role for a time, putting Tim’s girlfriend (Stephanie Brown, formerly Spoiler) into that role – only to demote her again, almost immediately.

And that led into the recent “War Games” storyline, in which Stephanie Brown, in attempting to prove her worthiness to be Robin, launched a secret plan Batman had created but never implemented. This plan resulted in a full-out gang war that took the lives of numerous criminals and several Gotham PD officers and also featured Nightwing getting shot, Stephanie being murdered, Oracle’s secret headquarters being destroyed and Batman and all his allies being hunted by the Gotham police. Through it all, Batman bossed around, lied to and manipulated his allies, generally acted the cold-hearted ass, and eventually let everyone down. He wasn’t there to prevent Stephanie from being tortured by the sadistic Black Mask, or to prevent him from inflicting the wounds that caused her death. Batman’s actions during this storyline caused a rift between him and Nightwing and consciously kept Tim Drake from being by his girlfriend’s side as she died. This has strained the relationship with Tim and with the current Batgirl, and resulted in them and Oracle leaving Gotham City.

More recently, in OUTSIDERS #21, Batman and Nightwing had a conversation about some of Batman’s other behind-the-scenes manipulations – in this case, secretly funding Nightwing’s hero team, the Outsiders. In this issue, Batman actually apologized for keeping that secret from Nightwing, but asserted that the secrecy was necessary, and that Nightwing shouldn’t trust anyone – even him.

And what led him there is a whole ‘nother thing.

Recently, the IDENTITY CRISIS miniseries, authored by Brad Meltzer, revealed that at some point in the past, Batman found several of his superheroic comrades in the Justice League of America attempting to magically brainwash a supervillain, Dr. Light, and that when Batman attempted to stop them from completing this deed, they instead incapacitated him and magically erased his memory of their misdeeds. Over time, however (as hinted in IDENTITY CRISIS and several subsequent comics), this memory alteration started to come apart. The comics haven’t shown when this happened, or how, or just how much Batman knows to this point. But it’s clear that he knows something was done to him by his supposed allies, and that this awareness has instilled in him some lack of trust, and even a sense of paranoia.

Batman Today – Nuts or Not?
Before I get into whether Batman is nuts right now, I should say a few things about what he’s not.

Batman is not psychotic. Psychosis refers to a state in which one is out of touch with reality, or unable to perceive reality accurately. Psychotic people experience delusions (bizarre, clearly untrue beliefs) and hallucinations. That’s not Batman.

Further, despite all the traumatic events he’s experienced – all the way back to witnessing the murder of his parents – Batman does not suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Given all he’s been through, he probably should have PTSD, but he clearly doesn’t. He lacks most of the symptoms that characterize this disorder – amnesia, exaggerated startle response, sleep disorder, difficulty concentrating, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, etc. He does have some symptoms characteristic of trauma-reactions – decreased participation in significant activities (his life as Bruce Wayne), feelings of detachment or estrangement from others – but not enough to say that his recent behavior reflects the onset of PTSD. Rather, I’d argue that it reflects an exacerbation of preexisting personality traits, transforming them from something relatively functional to something clearly pathological.

Let’s talk about what made Bruce Wayne into Batman. Young Bruce saw his parents murdered. He spent the next twelve years of his life (according to BATMAN: YEAR ONE) making himself ready to pursue a one-man vigilante crusade against crime. He spent this time studying science, law enforcement and forensic techniques and criminal psychology. He spent it training under the world’s greatest martial artists, escape artists and detectives. He spent it making his body and mind into a weapon.

This is not exactly normal behavior, mind you. It suggests an unusual degree of devotion to a single goal or mission and a degree of perfectionism that will drive a person to the limits. At the same time, keep in mind that for most of his career, Batman has been portrayed as pretty functional. He’s usually dedicated himself to his war on crime to a degree that left him little time for leisure, friendship or even rest – we’re told Batman has in fact mastered certain mental disciplines which allow him to get by on as little as one hour of sleep a day – yet at the same time he has previously made solid decisions about his business holdings and maintained some healthy relationships.

In the annotations for the most recent edition of his Batman graphic novel ARKHAM ASYLUM, author Grant Morrison wrote:
I figured that anyone who had gone so far and been so successful in his quest to avenge his parents' death and to help other people would have ended up pretty much straightened out. Bruce Wayne would only have become conflicted and mentally unstable if he had NOT put on his scary bat-suit and found the perfect outlet for his feelings of rage, guilt and revenge.

In other words, Grant Morrison’s take on Batman is that having his mission and dedicating himself to it kept him sane. I tend to agree. This is both consistent with how Batman has been historically portrayed, and consistent with the way real-world people sometimes deal with trauma. PTSD isn’t the only way people respond to trauma, thankfully. Some people deal with in part by attempting to master themselves, take control over their lives and change their environments, seeking to avoid further trauma and/or prevent the same thing from happening to others. Such folk are often very serious, driven and focused; they display tendencies toward perfectionism and always seek to have a plan in place to deal with whatever comes up.

In other words, they tend to be a lot like how Batman has often been portrayed over the years.

In a lot of ways, Batman through most of his history can be regarded as something of a successful case of the obsessive-compulsive or “type A/overachieving” personality – someone who has some traits of that personality style, but not to a degree that really qualifies as pathological. That itself is a tough balancing act in the real world. The same overachieving, perfectionist tendencies which allowed Batman to be Batman and which sometimes allow real-world people to succeed in tough settings (business, Hollywood, sports) often bring about personal ruin. At best, the person with this personality style has to carefully balance the demands of a healthy, functional person with the heavy drive to succeed. And, when success is elusive or things simply don’t work out, the person just tries harder, to the point that things become unbalanced. One can look at the current portrayal of Batman as him having become unbalanced in that manner.

As outlined above, in the recent past Batman has portrayed as more of a control freak, more distant, more manipulative, more secretive and more focused than ever on his mission at cost to his personal relationships. He’s tended to be more rigid, more demanding that others do things his way, less willing to delegate to or plan with others. In other words, he’s gone from having obsessive-compulsive personality traits to exhibiting full-blown obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. In addition, he’s also recently made some statements approaching overt paranoia – though, given that his fellow Justice League members really did screw with his mind, this is perhaps understandable. One can certainly understand how so intelligent and introspective a person as Batman might get driven a bit nuts by the idea of someone messing with his mind.

It’s also worth noting that Batman’s deterioration is being depicted as impacting other characters he interacts with. In BIRDS OF PREY #79, Black Canary confronted him on his treatment of Oracle and Huntress. While this is somewhat ironic, given that Canary was among the Justice Leaguers responsible for the memory wipe that is apparently part of what has made him so dysfunctional, it is certainly warranted given the depiction of his relationships with those characters, both associates of the Canary. More tragically, Batman’s dysfunction is impacting the current Robin (Tim Drake, who took up the mantle again after his girlfriend’s death). Aside from losing his girlfriend, Tim’s father was killed in IDENTITY CRISIS. Batman subsequently offered to adopt him, as he had Dick Grayson. This was shown in ROBIN #134, which revealed some pretty mixed feelings on Tim’s part. On one page, Tim expressed joy over this… yet a couple pages later he expressed frustration and distrust over how Batman had managed the events around Stephanie’s death. The flip-flop is striking, and while it may simply reflect inconsistent writing, it is all too similar to the sort of emotional turmoil one observes in victims of emotional abuse – which, frankly, is a fair characterization of how Batman’s behavior toward Robin and his other allies has been depicted of late.

In Conclusion,
I would argue that throughout most of the character’s history, Batman has not been presented in a manner suggesting him to be mentally ill, but that the current version does appear to exhibit a significant degree of psychopathology. The never-ending fight against crime, the losses, the personal injuries, the trauma, the betrayal… it would appear they’ve all taken a toll, as Batman has gone from being depicted as a driven but relatively healthy person to a withdrawn, disconnected, estranged and personality-disordered individual. Not psychotic, but not well. A little bit nuts, in other words.

I suppose this is what too many comic book writers regard as realistic, and you know, I suppose it is, in a way. Any real person exposed to as much stress and trauma as has Batman would have almost certainly developed some pretty severe psychopathology by now (not to mention having been rendered brain-damaged and crippled long ago, but that’s a whole separate topic). However, I don’t think this particular sort of realism really adds anything to Batman as a character or to his adventures. Despite the nature of this blog, the other contributors and I all recognize that only a certain degree of reality really needs apply to the adventures of folk who fly about in their long-johns, use magic rings to fight crime and – in this case – dress up as bats.

Here’s hoping Batman finds a competent therapist and gets better soon. I really miss the old Batman, the one who trusted his friends, hadn’t pushed everyone away from him and seemed a much more likeable guy… a hero and a detective, not a bitter, paranoid near-hermit.

I would like to acknowledge that many folk at CBR have made comments and observations which helped shape the thinking which went into this essay. Special hanks are due to Chuckg, BcAugust,chaosburnflame, Gordon Smith, Expletive Deleted and bannermanonemillion.