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By Dr Tom Christie

October 19th, 2014

URBAN GOTHIC AND URBANE GOTHAM: The Curious Case of Batman and Dementia

He may well be more immediately recognised when patrolling the streets of Gotham City apprehending flamboyant villains, but in July 2013 combating dementia was the primary focus of Batman’s legendary skills.  At Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall, location of Bruce Wayne’s iconic manor throughout Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the Caped Crusader was to be found encouraging members of the public to sign up for a Memory Walk in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society, raising awareness of the condition in a larger than life way when the fiction of comic books briefly collided with the real world.

The event was not the first time that the celebrated character had been used to publicise serious issues, but it certainly succeeded in bringing dementia to the attention of many people who were fascinated by the touch of Hollywood sophistication that this superhero had brought to mental health conditions.  However, it doesn’t take the famous detective skills of the nocturnal crime-fighter to explore the way in which Batman’s association with dementia is actually much more complex than is immediately apparent.

Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman made his initial appearance in a May 1939 edition of Detective Comics, his popularity ensuring that he rapidly graduated to an eponymous comic book series of his own the following year.  Today he is among the most recognisable of all D.C. Comics’s superheroes, having appeared in endless films, television series, novels, audio dramas, computer games and various other media platforms over the years.  The alter-ego of billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, this ‘Dark Knight’ wages a relentless war on injustice in retribution for the murder of his parents by criminals, donning an armoured suit inspired by the anatomy of a bat as he draws upon a seemingly-limitless arsenal of cutting-edge technological gadgets to achieve his aims.

Perhaps more than any other mainstream comic book character, Batman has an interesting connection with mental health.  This fact has been explored in great depth by Joseph Kane in his thought-provoking paper ‘Batman and Psychiatry’ (2011), published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (199:359), which illustrates the multiplicity of identity disorders and psychiatric conditions affecting the myriad of villains which have been encountered in Gotham City over the years.  The Batman comics and graphic novels often exhibit an ambience of dark, shadowy foreboding, especially since the mid-eighties when a conscious attempt was made to distance the franchise from the influential but semi-comedic television series of the 1960s which had starred Adam West.  In exploring issues of mental health in all their complexity, focusing upon the details of character motivation as well as the end result of actions which are stimulated by psychiatric instability, the comics have usually taken a thoughtful, restrained and non-sensationalised approach to their subject matter with surprisingly contemplative results.

Kane’s paper discusses many of Batman’s most iconic adversaries, from the unabashedly psychotic anarchist The Joker to Dr Hugo Strange, an eminent psychiatrist turned blackmailer who himself exhibits evidence of an anti-social behavioural disorder in many of his appearances.  But what of Batman himself?  The stealthy vigilante’s fanatical crusade against crime may itself raise certain issues surrounding his obsessive behaviour, not least his propensity to put himself in mortal danger largely due to major trauma during his formative years.  Travis Langley questions whether Batman is affected by a post-traumatic stress disorder in his acclaimed book Batman and Psychology (2012), which explores thoroughly the effects of the character’s grief, intimacy issues and febrile sense of self-identity on his actions.  But perhaps of most interest given the subject of this article, in his book Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (2008) E. Paul Zehr discusses the nature and extent of the character’s physical and mental risk over time, determining that Bruce Wayne would be at considerably increased risk of dementia pugilistica on account of repeated head trauma encountered over his many years of crime-fighting.

As is the case with so many comic book heroes, over the decades Batman has been witnessed in many different stages of ageing - sometimes seen in retirement and varying states of infirmity, only to be revisited in his earlier years when he is restored to youth and full health.  The character is reinvented for new audiences, time after time, which is part of the reason why he has maintained such a prominent place in popular culture when so many of his contemporaries have passed into obscurity.  So why should dementia be in any way taboo for a protagonist who has, so often, had his behaviour analysed and his personality profiled in exacting detail?  Certainly many Batman narratives have seen the character affected by mind-altering substances such as neurotoxins, deleteriously affecting his perception and causing hallucinations and delusions, so a depiction of psychological disturbance is certainly not unprecedented.  And indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the Batman franchise has been the issue of how he is able to overcome villains with differing psychological motivations and/or psychiatric instabilities when his own driving factors are so often far from clear.

Though there is no doubt that Batman retains the ability to fascinate the public consciousness, the Wollaton Hall Memory Walk also demonstrated that the character has the potential to stimulate valuable debate about mental health and the way that society enframes the issue.  Dementia is a topic rarely dealt with explicitly in comic book narratives - the Marvel comics universe has featured two characters named Dementia, for instance, though their association with the actual condition is vague at best.  However, given its means of reaching a diverse and truly international fan base, the Batman franchise has never shirked from depicting psychiatric disorders in an uncompromising way, especially in its more recent iterations.  Only time will tell whether the issue of dementia will be explored in greater detail in any of the franchise’s many multimedia conduits, but one thing remains clear: of all comic book entities, the Batman series seems particularly well-placed for any such investigation of the condition given its well-established track record.

Categories: Film Creative Arts