Examining Trauma & HEROES IN CRISIS: How Superheroes Deal With Trauma

Heroes in Crisis variant
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Like most superhero comic book events, the Heroes in Crisis story will feature several shocking deaths, followed by superheroes pursuing the evil that caused them.

But in Heroes in Crisis, there’s an additional crisis at hand, as the story also deals with the mental effects of trauma. Some of the superheroes featured in Heroes in Crisis have experienced life-or-death violence and are shown to be psychologically affected by it - and are getting professional help.

“The DCU has a bunch of superheroes and all they do is fight, every time, and that must have a psychological effect on them, right?" said Heroes in Crisis writer Tom King. "You can’t live a life of violence and not feel that violence deep in your heart.”

King, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who’s dealt with trauma-related mental stress, indicated that he wants to use DC characters to tell the stories of real people who are dealing with the aftermath of trauma.

In part one of our series on “Trauma and Heroes in Crisis,” Newsarama examined the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related mental illnesses, speaking with experts about how a comic book could expose truths about something millions of people experience in their lives.

In this second installment, Newsarama also talked to psychologists with specific knowledge of and interest in superhero comic books, discussing how trauma was already indelibly linked to superheroes and whether it’s realistic that the costumed heroes we’ve seen depicted in comics would suffer from mental side effects.

Could superheroes suffer from trauma?

Terry Keane
Terry Keane
Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Terry Keane, director at the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, told Newsarama that the superhero genre is already dealing with trauma, if for no other reason than because the characters risk their lives to save others.

“Life and death situations is what ‘trauma’ means,” he said.

Keane said the fact that superheroes are exposed to multiple traumatic experiences makes it even more likely that some would develop psychological problems, if they existed in the real world.

“Most people with PTSD have had many traumatic experiences in their history and their background. That’s why it’s common in combat veterans because they don’t have one traumatic event; they have sometimes literally dozens,” he said.

Credit: DC Comics

“The superheroes, they’re fighting crime every day. So they’re seeing a huge amount of it,” Keane said. “And one of the things that we well know is that the more exposure to traumatic events you have, the more likely you are to suffer.”

Vasilis Pozios, a forensic psychiatrist and co-founder of the mental health and media consultancy Broadcast Thought, has often spoken out about the representation of mental health in comic books, being a fan of the genre himself. He agreed with other experts that superheroes could experience psychological after-effects from the trauma they face in comic books.

“If the approach to storytelling and characterization is rooted in realism, then yes, it’s realistic to depict heroes and villains experiencing trauma and dealing with its consequences, including PTSD, especially if these characters serve as analogues for first responders and combatants,” Pozios said. “Lifetime prevalence of PTSD is up to 10 times higher for veterans than for civilians.”

Of course, Pozios emphasized that not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. So it’s not like superheroes must suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, because they could be that huge portion of the population that emerges from traumatic events without mental after-effects.

“In fact,” he said, “the majority of people who experience a traumatic event do not go on to develop PTSD.”

Credit: Smart Pop

Wounded Healers

Yet superhero comic books already deal with the aftermath of trauma within the DNA of many characters. Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who has written several books on the psychology of superheroes, said the origin stories of superheroes are often spawned from traumatic experiences.

“A traumatic origin story can provide an easier, more obvious motivation for the super-powered individual to use his or her powers for good,” Rosenberg said. “After all, an origin story should explain why the hero puts himself or herself in harm’s way repeatedly. Experiencing a searing trauma, and then dedicating your life to preventing or lessening the likelihood of something similar happening to others is a worthy goal. Such a goal is the silver lining of the traumatic experience.”

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, equated this idea to the “wounded healer” phenomenon that is common in the mental health industry.

“This story makes me think of mental health providers who have experienced their own depression, anxiety and apparent mental illness. It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” he said.

“That’s a long-standing tradition. My dad had bi-polar disorder. I knew a lot about it, experiencing him suffering from it, and I became psychiatrist,” Duckworth said. “It’s very common in mental health that we or people in our families have had these vulnerabilities and we learn how to take care of them.”

Rosenberg summed up the analogy: “Superheroes born out of trauma are wounded healers — people who are themselves wounded and address it by trying to help others.”

Ownership and Injuries

There are other superhero tropes that seem to mimic aspects of real life trauma and its aftermath.

One is what Keane called a “total ownership” of what happened during the traumatic experience.

“So many people [with PTSD] claim ownership,” he explained. “’Well, if only I hadn’t gone there.’ ‘If only I didn’t go to that bar.’ Or, ‘if only I had been prepared, then this wouldn’t have happened.’ Or, ‘It was my fault.’ [They are] types of total ownership of what had happened, when in fact, violence is violence, and it’s sometimes random, and it’s sometimes unprovoked, and it can be devastating for people.”

Credit: DC Comics

Rosenberg pointed out that the set-up for the “ownership” element of PTSD is already part of the superhero story. “When a superhero thinks ‘it’s my job to protect the citizens of my city’ and is then unable to protect them,” she said, “the superhero may then feel responsible for the villain’s reign of terror and violence.

“This sense of failed responsibility, along with traumatic events, can contribute to PTSD,” she said.

Keane also mentioned research that’s being done into the link between traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. “Mostly what we’re seeing are people who have what we would call a mild traumatic brain injury,” he said. “But mild traumatic brain injuries and these blast injuries come with very serious emotional consequences. You can imagine just driving along in your vehicle and something exploding completely out of nowhere and how frightening that would be.

“So there’s a lot of work going on to try to figure out, how the mild traumatic brain injury or the concussions that people experience in blast injuries contribute to the psychological problems, the emotional problems that people have,” he said.

With superheroes often emerging from battles with serious head injuries (including a seemingly devastating head trauma that just happened in Batman #55 to the character Nightwing), the emotional problems that could emerge from brain injury are a part of the post-trauma story that would fit well in a superhero story.

“In fact,” Rosenberg pointed out, “Prof. Paul Zehr wrote about the likely effects of head trauma on Batman in his book Becoming Batman.”

Help Winning the Battle

Credit: Eduardo Risso (DC Comics)

The are also elements of recovery built into superhero stories already, Rosenberg said. She called the Justice League a sort of “support group” that can help superheroes process their experiences and realize they aren’t alone.

Paul Dini, comic book writer and co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, has already traced his own process of recovering from a violent mugging and how fictional superheroes fit into that process.

For Dini, the thoughts and feelings he experienced in the aftermath of trauma were personified in the graphic novel by Batman and his rogues gallery = sometimes supportingly, but just as often in a negative way. (For example, Scarecrow delighted in the fears that resulted from the experience, and the Joker stoked Dini’s struggles to resume his previous life.)

But Dini’s graphic novel was also marked by honesty about how he got help through therapy, as well as friends and family.

Duckworth said he hopes Heroes in Crisis and the tie-in pages that show superheroes getting treatment will encourage people to get help if they are experiencing trauma-related symptoms.

“You don’t have to hide from this,” Duckworth said. “It is OK to get treatment. And you still can keep your special knowledge or power. Right? Getting treatment does not make you weaker. You still know what you know, or you’ve already developed the strength that you’ve developed as a result of what you’ve been through. But you don’t have to have it limit your functionality.”

Check back for future installments of Newsarama’s Heroes in Crisis tie-in series exploring superhero comic books and the mental effects of trauma, including more information about real-life treatment (and its connection to the comic book’s “Sanctuary”) and whether superhero comic books have moved forward with their depiction of mental illness.

For more information about mental illness or to get help, there are several resources and phone numbers available on The National Alliance on Mental Illness website. The V.A. also has information and resources specific to PTSD awareness at ptsd.va.gov.

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