Mental Illness In Comics, Film and TV
Fiction is a powerful force for changing attitudes towards mental illness. The portrayal of it in our favourite movies, TV shows and comics influences our attitude towards those affected in the real world. The understanding of the various types of mental health disorders is better than it was a generation ago, but there is still a long way to go before we have an informed, general public.
Some estimates say that 1 in 4 people will be afflicted with a mental health problem at some point in their life. From Depression to Bipolar Disorder to Alzheimer’s Disease, it’s a safe bet you will at least know someone battling their way through life.
Let’s be honest, those with mental health problems are often pushed to the side-lines and ignored. In entertainment, the issue of mental illness has tended to be addressed through lazy stereotypes. In the past, comics in particular have played their part, perpetuating myths around ‘madness’ – a long standing example is Batman’s array of foes. No prizes for guessing the common thread that binds them together: their slippery grip on sanity.
Gotham is the original sin city, and at its rotten core, we are led to believe it is the mentally unhinged causing the misery. Having a mental health problem does not automatically make you a ‘violent’ person, but the picture that is painted in Gotham tells us otherwise. Stereotypes are reinforced and played out in the exploits of characters like Two-Face (split personality disorder) and The Joker (Psychopath) – arguably, these two set the bar for a long line of villains to follow.
Batman is a great franchise, and the creative team behind it have been innovators, but one area where the writers could have done better is the lumping together of the bad guys in a one size fits all receptacle: Arkham Asylum. Upwards of 50 villains have been incarcerated there; ironically, only a handful are explicitly said to have a defined mental health problem. The implicit message is that the criminal are amoral – and amorality equates to insanity.
For obvious reasons, comics present us with extremes; but like all things, comics are on a constant march of evolution; the story lines and characters have grown more sophisticated. Today, we have a more nuanced portrayal of ‘madness’; In the classic, The Killing Joke, we are given a deeper insight into The Joker’s path to insanity; but ultimately we are still left with a caricature.
Where comics do get it right, tends to be in the realm of graphic novels. A worthy example is the epic adventure and love story that is Craig Thompson’s Habibi. At one stage, the main character Dodola bears the child of her captor; we are subsequently given a fleshed out, balanced account of post natal depression.
A novel by seasoned comic writer G Willow Wilson, Alif The Unseen also gives a similarly down to earth portrayal of depression when it’s hero, Alif has his heart broken. Rather than hit the reader over the head with a clunky cliche, G Willow Wilson paints a realistic picture of the everyday struggle of trying to pick up the pieces.
For me, the hands-down best representation of the reality of a mental health problem is in Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me.
A close family member of mine has ‘Bipolar Type 2’ and so Ellen’s story strikes a chord. What I feel distinguishes this graphic novel as exceptional, is the honesty of her story told through artwork as quirky as the subject matter. Similarly, in Showtime’s Homeland, the main character Carrie gives a good, if flawed portrayal of Bipolar. Carrie’s affliction is clearly well researched, however you couldn’t help but feel at times that she lapses into the realm of caricature.
Bipolar seems to be a ‘popular’ thing on our screens these days. The movie (based on the book) Silver Linings Playbook deals with it, and was a commercial and critical success. Once again, I was endeared to the main character Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) due to my own knowledge of bipolar. For all his quirks and eccentricities, I would say that his portrayal showed a not often seen, lighter side of mental illness.
Nas said it best: “People fear what they don’t understand”. Which is why it is so important that the general public is given balanced portrayals of mental illness and health. All we need do is be more mindful. The distorted public perception of mental illness is long overdue, but I’m optimistic that television and movies, along with comics, will be instrumental in demystifying the muddy waters. As much as I bemoan the situation, it’s not all doom and gloom–things are changing for the better.