Superhero comics aren’t particularly known for accurate representations of neurologically divergent people. Besides the fact that neurodivergent people are often shown as “mad scientists” or the “crazed murderer “ in pop culture, it can often be worse in comics, especially in superhero comics with your evil clowns and your Doctors Octopus. However, through the seventy plus years of superheroes, there are a few particular standouts of well-portrayed mental illness.
Art by Chad Hardin W/color by Alex Sinclair
Now the Caped Crusader’s entire rogues gallery is made of inmates with one-note mental issues in nightmarish 1950’s style asylum, of them, Harley stands out as a positive portrayal of mental health. She is portrayed as a victim of both her relationship and obsessions, without ever losing the fact that she’s a person rather than a gimmick like Two-Face and Riddler. Being a psychiatrist prior to her being a super villain has helped Harley keep perspective, if not her sanity. That’s especially highlighted in her often and deservedly praised solo series by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor. Harley has imaginary friends, violent urges, and a functional life. A chaotic and messy one to be sure, but she’s happy and that’s what counts. Well, that and maybe property damage.
Art by David Marquez W/ colors by Guru Fx
In the 2012 graphic novel Fantastic Four: Season One, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, states that he has a case of self-diagnosed Autism. He shows traits mostly commonly characterizing the diagnosis formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s was an Autism Spectrum Disorder characterized by obsessive interest, trouble understanding and empathizing with human emotions, and often time sensory issues. It has since been folded into general Autism Spectrum disorders although the terminology still exists inside the community.
While some of Reed’s older portrayals have been troubling, the character as now established as often being distracted by science to the point of obsession and isolation and he misses obvious social cues if his full attention isn’t devoted to the conversation. However, he is also a devoted and caring father, who puts family above everything including the universe. Literally on several occasions.
Self-diagnosis is of note as a hotly debated issue in the autistic community. Some people will claim to have it as an excuse to act like jerks, without any real proof of their condition. So while those people lack empathy; it’s for entirely different reasons. Lower income families or ones with less knowledge or resources may not be able to diagnose their condition and others who may only realize or need to cope with their feelings in adulthood often use this as a template to help themselves.
Matt Murdock is a troubled man to say the least. He has crippling and repeating clinical depression. Perhaps the most well-documented representation on this list, Mark Waid’s recent run on the series is notable for dealing with mental health head on. The series goes into the mental health of not just Matt, but also his supporting cast. Foggy Nelson constant checking up on Matt’s health while never letting it over take him.Foggy is a realistic portrayal of a friend of someone who suffers depression. Matt’s mother deals with post-partum depression and it’s effect on families and how it can define dynamics is shown deftly.
Hank Pym, Giant Man, also appears in the series, although he has a myriad of mental issues, often defining and poorly portrayed, his depression is the focus in Daredevil. He and Matt bond over this, providing each other with a support group outside of their usual social circles. Waid followed this up in an Age of Ultron one-shot which is one of my personal go-tos for showing not only Waid’s character work, but also well-written mental illness.
Art by Joe Quesada
Scarlet Witch is a nasty example of the “women driven insane by the death of her children” trope. Well, driven insane by the revelation that her children had part of a demon’s soul, but that’s semantics. In the Avengers Disassembled story, she destroyed the Avengers after experiencing an “episode of madness” rendering Wanda, formerly one of the strongest Avengers, fragile. This state of fragility lasted for several years until she faked her death and her madness was revealed to have been manipulated by Doctor Doom.
After that, her issues seemed to be trust related with her mental state not addressed, presumably “fixed”.
James Robinson, despite some rather heated controversy about another series last year, is addressing that in his current Scarlet Witch series. In little ways, like Wanda focusing on herself and how she needs to cope and function as a person. She’s fixing herself and fixing magic at the same time while not letting her past define her.
Other examples I can recommend are Joe Kelly’s Deadpool for a very ill, but nuanced anti-hero and X-Men: Legacy by Si Spurier dealing with Legion Professor Xavier’s schizophrenic son and the illness in a respectful and thoughtful manner. These aren’t enough, we as a culture need to put more focus on positive and accurate representation of mental health in our media.
Header art from Daredevil volume 4 #10 by Chris Samnee W/colors by Matthew Wilson
Nicoli Raymond is an autistic writer based out of Illinois. He writes scripts, short stories, and articles on pop culture. He tweets at @NicoliRaymond Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org This was originally composed as a submission piece for a website. As such, this is a slightly modified version. If any language was wrong, let me know so I can correct it.
All art copyright to Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics.
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