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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past.
Last week saw the premiere of Legion, a new FX TV series based on the Marvel character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. The series follows David Haller, a mutant currently being treated for schizophrenia as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Haller is one of the few Marvel characters who was created with a mental illness as a component of his character, and over the years his exact diagnosis has fluctuated based on different illnesses and disorders that rose to greater attention. This edition of “Back Issues” is going to take a look at a few other Marvel characters who live their lives with mental health issues and how Marvel chooses to depict them.
First off, I’m not going to talk about any villains in this piece. The reason for that has to do with how comics, and indeed storytelling in general, tends to depict mental illness and mental health. Mental health issues are a fact of life for a large number of people in the world, and most of those people live happy and successful, if more challenging, lives through medication and/or therapy. But when it comes to storytelling, people with a mental illness are depicted as inherently dangerous, violently unstable and monstrous. And frankly, you don’t get much better (or worse) examples of this than in comic book villains. Most of them sport outsized fantastical variations on psychopathy or sociopathy or delusional psychosis or various other disorders amped up to a laughable degree. Trying to talk about mental illness by looking at the Joker is like trying to talk about it by examining Hannibal Lector. These characters have more in common with Dracula and the Wolfman than any real person with a mental health issue.
So, we’re going to examine Marvel’s attempts to depict mental illness in some kind of realistic or positive way. This is still problematic, of course, because you always have to remember that Marvel is telling fantastic adventure stories. There’s not a lot of otherworldly dramatic super-heroism to mine from Peter Parker getting a Xanax prescription for the anxiety he clearly deals with on a day to day basis. Even heroes successfully living with mental illness in the Marvel Universe have had major storylines revolve around a negative depiction of their illness. So, the examples I’m about to give will be….shall we say, heightened? Additionally, David Haller aside, most of the characters I’m going to discuss were not originally created with specific mental health issues as part of their make up. For the majority of them, the roller-coaster ride of being in continuous publication for decades has resulted in their backstory indicating a mental health issue of one sort or another. The soap operatic nature of shocking reveals and tragic outcomes have merged with our growing focus on character-driven storytelling to contribute to a retroactive mental health issue. The flip side of that, of course, is that the characters don’t always exhibit typical or consistent symptoms for the disorders from which they suffer. But, from the very beginning, Marvel’s approach laid a groundwork for more vulnerable, less perfect, characters that were still supposed to be viewed positively and with empathy.
Feet of Clay
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby redefined super-hero comics in the early 1960s, much of what made their output so compelling and game-changing was their approach to the personalities of their heroes. Unlike the square-jawed paragons of virtue over at the Distinguished Competition, Lee, Kirby and their collaborators wanted their heroes to be relatable modern people with feet of clay. And in many cases, that materialized in the form of neuroses.
Ben Grimm, changed from a man into a monster by the accident which created the Fantastic Four, alternated between fits of rage and melancholy. Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk saw him literally struggle with his own anger and how it could alter his personality. And Peter Parker, the Hamlet of super-hero comics, neurotically careened through a life filled with anxiety and guilt about how his heroic exploits affected his everyday life.
None of these characters were actually diagnosed with a mental health issue (in the 1960s, anyways), but the fact that the heroes of the book with whom readers were supposed to identify clearly had aspects of their lives and personalities that they struggled with was a huge step forward. We weren’t just supposed to feel sorry for them or fear them, we were encouraged to root for them, understand them and most importantly, see ourselves in them. Those Silver Age Marvel comics established that this was the company where the hero characters didn’t have it all figured or all together, and not only was that okay, it was in fact perfectly normal and no different from anybody else.
But over time, as the Marvel approach became the industry standard, creators began to experiment with characters actually having defined and diagnosed mental health issues. The bad guys were the first to gain this specificity, of course, as is fitting with our society’s erroneous impression that mental illness = criminality, danger, and violence. But by the end of the 20th century, several of Marvel’s biggest characters would be revealed to be living with mental health issues, and a few like David Haller would even be designed that way in the first place. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to look at two specific mental disorders and the characters in the Marvel Universe that exemplify them.
Major Depressive Disorder
Often shortened to Depression, Major Depressive Disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses. Many people will experience a period of depression at least once in their lives, but those who are diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder will have multiple and persistent episodes over their lives.
And just like in real life, this tends to be the illness that the most Marvel characters have struggled with. Ben Grimm is probably the earliest example of a character suffering from persistent depression, as going from a test pilot astronaut to bathing-suit attired orange rock monster is certainly cause for melancholy. While I can’t recall ever seeing him explicitly diagnosed, it’s certainly implicit that Ben suffers from ongoing Major Depressive Disorder, and that he is living his life perfectly well and often finding moments of great joy and peace. Ben Grimm is one of Marvel’s most universally beloved characters, both for readers and within the universe itself. And even though it’s clear he occasionally battles depression, it’s rarely if ever been depicted as having overwhelmed him to an operatic degree. It’s possible he might be comics’ best example of an ordinary, average person dealing with a common mental health issue, albeit seemingly without any kind of counseling or medication. There may not be a better issue dealing with Ben’s depression than the classic, “This Man…This Monster!” story in Fantastic Four #51.
But in recent years, the more prevalent example of Depression at Marvel has been Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Unlike Ben Grimm, depression was not initially part of Wanda’s DNA as a character but instead has been developed by multiple creators over decades as the result of her operatic backstory and experiences. To put it bluntly, Wanda has had a truly awful life. She and her twin brother Pietro are mutants, their father being none other than Magneto. Their mother Magda fled from Magneto before the twins were born, eventually arriving at a typically bonkers locale only Marvel could dream up; Mount Wundagore, home of mad scientist the High Evolutionary. When their mother dies soon after childbirth, the twins are attended by a hyper-evolved cow named Bova (yes, you read that right) before eventually being given to a Romany family called the Maximoffs.
After that set of parents are also lost to them, the two young mutants effectively wander around Europe until Magneto finds them when they use their powers to save themselves from an anti-mutant mob. Though somehow none of them are are of their connection, Magneto inducts the teenaged twins into his terrorist organization and they spend the next few years as villains, until they finally flee from Magneto, pledge to reform and join the Avengers.
Wanda and Pietro enjoy probably the best years of their lives as Avengers, with Wanda particularly finding a home on the team. She meets the synthetic being called the Vision and the two fall in love. It’s around here that Wanda’s mutant power to alter probability in limited ways (called her “hex” power) starts to take on a more overtly supernatural vibe, with Wanda training with Sorceress and perpetual old lady Agatha Harkness. Magneto discovers he is her father around this time, leading to Wanda and the Vision leaving the Avengers to have twins of their own, Thomas and William. Their children are conceived and birthed due to a combination of magic and her own mutant powers, and after their birth Vision and Wanda join the West Coast Avengers.
But the Vision is dismantled soon after, which effectively ends their marriage, and it’s also revealed that her twins don’t technically exist, but are an extension of her own powers and supernatural forces. Now without her husband and her children, this is the moment is when creators (starting with writer/artist John Byrne) begin to suggest Wanda suffers from mental health issues. Given the trauma of her upbringing and subsequent life, that’s not exactly a surprise.
Wanda’s struggles culminate in the Avengers Disassembled storyline written by Brian Michael Bendis, where Wanda seemingly has a breakdown and uses her reality altering abilities to kill several Avengers, including the Vision, alter reality for a brief period of time, and then subsequently enact revenge on her father by using her abilities to then de-power 90% of the mutant population. A great piece at Comicosity by Allen Thomas details how this story defined Wanda’s illness both for good and ill:
Wanda in Avengers Disassembled is a dual metaphor. First, this story exemplifies the drastic changes we can undergo when we face significant trauma. If you look back over the years, Wanda’s dealt with a lot. So, for someone who at the time gained the power of changing reality, the events of Disassembled are drastic, but somewhat realistic, especially considering her anger toward the Avengers. However, what this story also portrays is hyperbolic understanding of mental illness and the behavior of people with it.
A very, very small proportion of people with a mental illness are violent contrary to what the news media will have you believe (particularly after White men commit acts of terrorism). Also, the effects of mental illness are not so often external, as in creating chaos for others. More than likely, the person with the illness is struggling more than those outside of them, though this can lead to interpersonal issues for a variety of reasons.
Since these events, however, while Wanda has been clarified as suffering from an extreme form of Depression, she is also depicted more often as successfully living with an emotional issue without emphasizing the factually inaccurate stigma of danger or threat that comics typically use to illustrate a mental health issue. Writer James Robinson does a solid job of this on Wanda’s most recent title, and in doing so, provides Marvel with perhaps its most realistic and sympathetic depiction of a person living with Major Depressive Disorder.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
One of the three major dissociative disorders, DID was formerly and more famously known as multiple personality disorder, and it’s one of the most heavily mined and misunderstood mental disorders in all of storytelling. It’s been used in all sorts of stories over the years, often attributed to the wrong underlying condition, and even been used in storytelling before we had identified the condition or even laid all the groundwork for modern psychology.
A dissociative disorder, according to the Mayo clinic, involves “experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life.” Those who suffer from the DID type create alternate identities that they can then switch to. The structure of the identities differ. Some sufferers may experience the disorder as a presence of two or more people inside their own head, others may switch back and forth between identities without any of them being aware of each other. Those with DID often also have elements of Dissociative Amnesia, which involves severe memory loss for set periods of time.
For Marvel, the most famous example of a character with this disorder is Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk. While the character was initially created in the 1960s as an example of Marvel’s take on the Jekyll and Hyde persona, the character has evolved over the decades to now reflect our modern understanding of DID. And like Wanda Maximoff, this take on the character owes a lot to the fact that multiple creators over decades have tried different interpretations of the character, resulting in a need from time to time to find some way to synthesize the different takes into a cohesive whole.
In the case of the Hulk, he debuted as a grey-skinned behemoth of average intelligence but a surly disposition before morphing into a green-skinned monster with the intelligence, and impulse control, of a child. Over the decades he would fluctuate between these two extremes, at times being virtually indistinguishable from Bruce Banner’s personality, at others being a nearly mindless behemoth. By the 1980s, however, the character was in a state. Sales were dire, and fans had wandered away from the Hulk.
Enter writer Peter David. Having been given an assignment he thought might not be around for long (it seems crazy now, but the Hulk book was in that dire a state) and working with a young artist no one thought very much of named Todd McFarlane, David immediately decided to be bold and change up the Hulk. For the first time, he reverted the Hulk from his long-standing green-skinned toddler version to the cunning, brutish and mean grey-skinned iteration of the early issues. And picking up on an idea introduced by writer Bill Mantlo (or Barry Windsor-Smith depending on who you believe) he started to flesh out the revelation that Bruce Banner’s father had been abusive to a young Bruce. This led David to the idea that the gamma accident that created the Hulk merely served to physicalize the mental health issue Bruce Banner had always had, stemming from the trauma of his abuse.
As David said in 1999:
In any event, the story suggested to me the notion that Bruce Banner actually suffered from what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder, and I knew eventually I’d do a story wherein the Hulk was “cured” via a merging of the personalities. It was just a matter of laying the groundwork for it. Took me four years, but I finally did it.
Over the course of, yep, four years, David totally redefined both Banner and the Hulk, changing the central concept from the idea of the id made flesh to an examination of the effects of trauma and the resulting coping mechanism. In 1991’s Incredible Hulk #377, David and artist Dale Keown told a story that brought together all the aspects of Bruce Banner, his primary personality, the grey Hulk and the green Hulk, and forced them to confront the trauma of his father’s abuse and merge into a cohesive being. At the end of the issue, Bruce is still green and the strongest one there is, but the personality in charge is neither Bruce, Grey nor Green. He was someone new, someone whole.
David left the book in 1997, having been pretty much kicked off due to Marvel’s desire to return the Hulk to his more savage roots. But, David has left his mark. From then on, Banner and the Hulk would be envisioned as two aspects of the same person, a symbol of the issues plaguing Bruce. The Hulk was not some random mutation, but a response to real issues within Banner himself, and the suggestion would be that the accident merely allowed Banner to actualize his disorder in a novel way. David’s 12 year run on the book, though often controversial to fans and never a huge hit per se, remains one of the most well-regarded and admired runs of the era. And as a representation of mental illness and the struggle for mental health, it remains a high-water mark for comics.
In the modern era, there’s another Marvel character who acts as a representation of Dissociative Identity Disorder….sort of. I’m talking, of course, about Marc Spector aka Moon Knight.
The character first appeared as a villain in 1975’s Werewolf By Night #32, written by Doug Moench with art by Don Perlin. But due to the popularity of his debut was soon reconciled as an urban vigilante and given a series of try-outs in titles like Marvel Premiere and Spectacular Spider-Man and Marvel Two-in-One. By 1980, his profile had risen high enough that he was given his own title, written by Doug Moench with art by Bill Sienkiewicz.
From the beginning, it’s obvious that Moon Knight is Marvel’s answer to Batman if Batman was even more mentally ill than he is typically depicted to be. Marc Spector is a former mercenary and CIA operative who is betrayed and left for dead in Egypt but supposedly saved when the Egyptian god of vengeance, Khonshu offers to save Spector’s life in return for the man becoming Khonshu’s agent on earth. Once he returns to the US, Spector assumes his mission and sets up the additional identities of millionaire Steven Grant and cab driver Jake Lockley. But Moench and Sienkiewicz subtly indicate even at this early point that Spector may not be consciously establishing aliases so much as having alternate personalities come to the fore and live their own lives. Moon Knight, Spector, Grant, Lockley, maybe even Khonshu himself could all be symptoms of his disorder.
Over the years, what was subtextual became overt, and by the end of the 1990s, it was pretty much the standard read on Moon Knight that he lived with DID. But even though this was generally accepted, the character didn’t have one definitive creative force examining the issue like Peter David on Incredible Hulk. Instead, a variety of creators had worked on Moon Knight, and not all of them were as skilled as Moench and Sienkiewicz. This results in many aspects of Spector’s mental state not entirely corresponding with the symptoms of DID. Occasionally he was depicted as just the kind of generically unhinged as in the 2006 series by Charlie Huston and David Finch. At other times his DID was overtly contradicted, such as the controversial 2011 series written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Alex Maleev that saw Spector cured of his DID but then diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Most recently, Moon Knight has starred in two critically acclaimed series that utilized his DID to examine the experience of those suffering from a mental illness that features delusions and hallucinations. In 2014, the character starred in a title that focused on single issue adventures that formed a loose story arc which examined a character dealing with judging the truth of his reality on a daily basis. The first six issues of this volume were the most potent, written by Warren Ellis with art by Declan Shalvey, but the remaining issues in the run written by Brian Wood, then Cullen Bunn, with art by Greg Smallwood and then Ron Ackins, were still excellent.
Most recently, Jeff Lemire built upon the reinvention of the character initiated by Ellis in his new Moon Knight volume, paired with artists Greg Smallwood, Wilfredo Torres, Francesco Francavilla and James Stokoe. The rotation of artists sees each one tackling a different personality as Moon Knight has to once again confront his perception of reality and deal with living with mental illness. Lemire’s series is brilliant, but it’s fair to say what Spector goes through doesn’t truthfully conform to DID in the traditional sense. And even though this recent approach to Spector is to be praised for placing a reader inside the mind of a person struggling with their perception of reality, allowing for greater empathy for the mentally ill, the series also trades on the age-old idea of the threat posed by someone struggling with mental health. So far, the series has stayed on the right side of the fine line, however.
But like Peter David’s Hulk run, what makes this series work, and the modern role Moon Knight plays in the Marvel Universe work, is the way creators use the character to examine the struggle those with mental health issues face in trusting their own perceptions. This is particularly true with those suffering from DID, who often are forced to intensely examine the reality of their experience.
There are more characters that reside within the Marvel Universe that live with mental health issues. Some are handled far more successfully than others. For every instance of positive depictions of a Tony Stark or Carol Danvers dealing with their substance abuse illnesses, there’s the decades-long shameful treatment of demonizing and mocking Hank Pym’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Even though writer Si Spurrier can be lauded for his specific, imaginative and nuanced look at David Haller in the sadly missed X-Men Legacy title, there’s the troublingly generic use of The Sentry by a variety of creators as a grab-bag of mental illness (the character seems to have suffered from DID, General Anxiety Disorder, Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and maybe Schizophrenia?)
Just like modern society as a whole, Marvel has a way to go in how it treats and examines the lives of those with mental health issues. Too often mental illness represents a threat, an alien boogeyman to be feared and ostracized rather than understood and accepted. Obviously utilizing characters whose illness leads them to be dangerous and violent is never going to be banished from adventure storytelling, nor do I think it’s fair that it should be. Boogeymen are potent for a reason, and they do serve a purpose. But here’s hoping Marvel continues to also shine a light on the vast majority of people living with mental health issues today who lead lives of substance, happiness, and value, and that they choose to feature heroes we read and aspire to represent that aspect of society as well. Because doing so would continue to build upon Marvel’s original innovation, all those years ago, to show us heroes just as flawed and limited and human, as we are ourselves.
That’s it for this edition of Back Issues. Until Next time, see you ’round the quarter bins.