Psychiatrists Still Critical of DC on Mentally Ill Depiction

Psychiatrists Regrade DC on Mentally Ill
A group of psychiatric professionals made waves last year when they challenged DC Comics to change the depiction of the mentally ill in the publisher's New 52 revamp.

Now the three forensic psychiatrists are taking their crusade for accurate psychological portrayals to Wonder Con this weekend — but in a fun way, as they lead comic fans through an entertaining "forensic profiling" panel about serial killers in the Batman universe.

However, they're using the opportunity to emphasize that serial killers do not suffer from psychotic disorders, and the mentally ill are not inherently violent.

Their Friday evening panel, titled "Detecting Deviants in the Dark Knight: Profiling Gotham City's Serial Killers," will unite the three forensic psychiatrists with Mark E. Safarik, a former FBI agent who worked in the bureau's Behavioral Analysis Unit.

Onomatopoeia

"We'll invite the audience to don the mantle of the 'Bat' and put on their crime hats and detective hats, and work with us to profile some of Gotham's serial killers," said Dr. Praveen Kambam, one of the three psychiatrists leading the panel. The panel will focus on villains like Onomatopoeia, Dollmaker, James Gordon Jr. and a surprise character that the doctors said "will hopefully bring a smile to everyone's face."

It's all part of the effort by Kambam and fellow psychiatrists H. Eric Bender and Vasilis Pozios, who have challenged DC Entertainment to stop stereotyping mental illness as inherently villainous. The three ended up getting mainstream attention for their cause as they had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times.

"As doctors, we really do feel as though we should advocate for our patients," Pozios said. "And if you can lessen the stigma related to mental illness by using these fascinating fictional characters to talk about these kinds of issues and help the audience at Wonder Con gain an appreciation of the characters while lessening the stigma related to mental disorders, then that's a total win-win for us."

DC Scorecard

When DC executives implied they were more sensitive to diversity with the New 52 relaunch, the three forensic psychiatrists — who are also comic book fans — challenged DC to apply improve depiction of the mentally ill.

They pointed out that terms like "psychotic" are utilized frequently in comics to describe or explain criminal behavior, even though individuals who suffer from psychotic disorders are not commonly violent.  They pointed out that derogatory terms like "lunatic" have been used in recent comic descriptions to refer to residents of mental health facilities.

Six months into the DC relaunch, how has the publisher performed?

Not so well, particularly this week.

"I can't tell whether or not writers have made a conscientious effort to change things overall, but sometimes I've seen words where, in the past maybe, inaccurate terms like 'psychotic' would have been used, but other word choices have been used instead," Pozios said. "That's obviously a positive result, but I can't tell if that's by choice. I hope it is.

"On the other hand, there still continues to be a lot of the same kind of mischaracterizations that went on before," he said.

Batgirl #10

Pozios specifically pointed out the solicitation for Batgirl #10, which was just released Monday and describes a woman being freed from Arkham Asylum, where she was locked up with "dangerous psychotics."

He also cited the solicitation for Catwoman #10, which describes a villain named Dollhouse as "a psychotic who kidnaps children."

Although there's no indication the comic creators are involved in the solicitation copy, Pozios said he was disappointed they were even associated with these derogatory terms.

Catwoman #10

"I'm surprised by the fact that these issues are penned by two authors who have the reputation for being socially conscious individuals," Pozios said, pointing out Batgirl writer Gail Simone and Catwoman writer Judd Winick. "Imagine if DC routinely stereotyped racial, religious, ethnic, sex, and gender groups!  I imagine Ms. Simone and Mr. Winick would not stand for this, and advertisers would flee faster than a speeding bullet.  That is why I am troubled by the solicitations for these issues, which I hope were not written by the authors, and why I am disappointed to see that this type of stereotyping continues with The New 52."

Joker as Example

The psychiatrists said that when they are leading the panel discussion this weekend about serial killers in the Batman Universe, they will make it clear that these individuals in real life are not usually mentally ill. And they're hoping the creators of DC's Batman comics will remember that as they depict villains in their stories.

"Lucky for us, with the serial killer topic, we don't have to worry as much about harmful language because serial killers don't have mental illness," Bender said. "It's very rarely involved in real life. And so, really, the main harm here would be depicting things as 'every serial killer is mentally ill.' Then you're going to reinforce that idea that if somebody is mentally ill, they're a serial killer, when in real life, there aren't many there."

Pozios said there's a hint of that misconception in the recent issue, Detective Comics #5. "There's a panel where Batman is kind of battling through a quasi-Occupy group full of Joker-philes, and he's trying to catch up to a killer who's escaping from him. And among the crowd of fans of the Joker who are holding a vigil because they believe that he's been killed, there's a sign that says, 'Mentally ill are not criminals,'" Pozios said.

"I'm not quite sure whether or not inclusion of that kind of language is beneficial to the cause that we're trying to advocate," he said. "Basically, it's alluding to the fact that the Joker is mentally ill. And one of the arguments that we've made is that, based on most depictions out there, the Joker doesn't display any signs or symptoms of a mental illness such as schizophrenia or another disorder of thought or mood.

"And so I think, while that panel might be an attempt to convey the point that people with mental illness aren't always super violent, it also maybe mistakenly gives the impression that the Joker is somebody who is supposedly mentally ill and is therefore an extremely violent killer," he said.

Applying Real World Forensics to Superheroes

Pozios said he and the other psychiatrists have done convention panels in the past about "how psychological trauma may or may not influence the transition or formation of a character into a hero or a villain."

But they said the Batman villains were just too interesting to ignore, because they quite often mirror serial killers in the real world.

"We'll be giving real life examples and talking about the way serial killers can be categorized," Bender said. "One of the classification systems we're going to teach to the audience is classifying according to motive. So we'll look at motives of these characters, and how those things in the comics are really reflections of real life, but also aspects of the comics that may not be reflections of real life."

Some examples they cited were:

- Skin/Body Part Fascination: "Dollmaker has become really popular in the new Detective Comics," Bender said, "and the character illustrates some aspects that we've seen in real life serial killers, because we see Dollmaker wearing skin, or having human parts all around him. That's something that was seen in the real life serial killer Ed Gein. He used to keep body parts around and wore skin as a suit, just like Dollmaker."

- Cooling Off Periods: The Reaper kills multiple people, "but he's got this cooling off period between serial killings," Kambam said. "What I mean by that is that it's not like he's just going out and killing 40 people in a row. He kills someone, waits, kills someone again, waits, and kills someone again. And that's something seen in many real world serial killers."

- Joy in Killing and Controlling:  A common motive for Batman villains is to be "very much driven by the act of killing, just wanting to kill," Bender said. "And then there's another motive that's very much power and control, just being in control and almost playing God. So we'll give you examples of characters who might be motivated that way, and real serial killers who had similar motives."

- Double Lives: "A lot of people think of serial killers as these Hannibal Lechters that look really maniacal," Kambam said. "But a lot of serial killers are living normal family lives and you can't tell there's anything going on. An example from the comics would be Onomatopoeia. So I like that depiction."

James Gordon Jr.

- Psychopathy: "James Gordon Jr. is a character who illustrates the concept of psychopathy, and what being a psychopath means," said Bender. "So using him as an example that illustrates psychopathy, we can compare that to the real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, and how Ted Bundy really embodied psychopathy."

Part of the Process

The psychiatrists hope they can educate the public — and the people who create comics — by continuing to present panels like this one and their recent appearances at New York Comic Con and Comic Con International in San Diego. But they realize that many of the negative stereotypes about the mentally ill have been around for a long time, so it's not going to change overnight.

"Anytime you're attempting to educate on how these terms can be harmful or hurtful, it's going to take time," Pozios said. "It's a process. It's not something that's going to change overnight. If DC is actually considering how to do this, then I applaud them. It's certainly something that I think could improve the quality of the books, because we really firmly believe that accurate presentations or representations of mental disorders can be, in many cases, more engaging and compelling than some of what's been presented previously."

"Detecting Deviants in the Dark Knight: Profiling Gotham City’s Serial Killers" will take place on Friday, March 16, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., in Room 207ABC of the Anaheim Convention Center as part of Wonder Con. Speakers will include H. Eric Bender, M.D., Praveen R. Kambam, M.D., and Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D., with Mark E. Safarik, M.S., V.S.M., FBI Ret., Supervisory Special Agent, Behavioral Analysis Unit.

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