Real-life forensic psychiatrists team up with Batman writer Tom King to discuss mental illness and whether or not the Joker is insane.
It’s not often you spend time thinking about whether Joker is insane or not. Batman is sane, Joker isn’t, time to make justice happen right? The thing is, maybe Joker isn’t insane at all, at least when viewed in the real world. This and more was discussed at the San Diego Comic Con 2017 panel ‘Unlocking Arkham: Forensic Psychiatry and Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery’ which had current Batman writer Tom King join forces with two forensic psychiatrists named Praveen Kambam and Vasilis Pozios and an attorney named Jeff Trexler to discuss mental illness in comics and, more specifically, whether or not Joker is insane.
The conversation started with Arkham Asylum, with Trexler pointing out its creation in the 1970’s was not by accident as asylums were the norm and that “The mentally ill were the other, hidden in the closet.” They were the boogyman Batman writers could use to tell stories. The Asylum was created in large part because at the time people were either put in jail or put into treatment at a mental facility. That’s changed over the years because, as Trexler put it, “Mental health is everybody’s concern.”
King pointed out Gotham and Arkham are not reality and likened the stories to the apocalypse, or even a horror story. “The reason [Arkham] is in Batman is because it’s horrible. When you’re writing you have to symbolize the things in the world through things like Arkham.”
But would the Joker be put in a facility like Arkham? The truth is, in the real world the criteria for being deemed insane is very strict. Kambam and Pozios explained being certified as insane is tough and getting a spot in a real life Arkham Asylum (they used New York City as their basis for their clinical definition) would go by two definitions:
- Does the person have a mental disease or defect?
- Were they aware what they did was wrong? If a person attempted to escape they would show understanding right from wrong and not be considered insane.
After showing two clips from the Dark Knight Returns— whose version of the Joker they chose to analyze– the panel made it quite clear the Heath Ledger iteration was well aware of what he was doing and by avoiding capture he proved he’s not insane. Pozios said, “He doesn’t seem to be distracted or see things that aren’t there. He’s making sense in his own way.” The clinical psychiatrists in the room said by this definition Joker wouldn’t be at Arkham Asylum.
Tom King wasn’t so sure. “Isn’t it all a public performance? There’s another level of insanity that’s beyond the actions. It’s a play to him.” Via an anecdote, Kambam explained Joker would still not be considered insane. “We’ve had a guy who was hallucinating, talking to chicken bones, but because he knew starting a fire was wrong he’s not legally insane.”
“Is the definition of wrong that I don’t want to be caught?” King replied, possibly playing devil’s advocate.
“If you knew it was against the law or morally wrong,” Kambam said.
King replied, “But he doesn’t care.”
It’s clear the laws of New York City make it rather black and white that Joker would not be living in Arkham anytime soon. These are stories after all, though, and Trexler pointed out, “Is the Joker mentally ill? Is the Riddler mentally ill? Of course not, the Joker isn’t real, what the Joker is, is a representation, a model of reality, something we do as human beings as children.” The character models reality and helps people figure out how to see the world and apply what you learn to real life.
Tom King added to that later, explaining, “Batman is the one thing we all have in common despite religion, race or crazy political views…it makes Batman the best character in comics.” If Batman can show us a reflection of ourselves he can also teach us something too. “How do we take the grief that defines us and turn it into triumph?” King asked.
Someone who is doing this very well these days is, of course, Tom King, whose recent “War of Riddles” storyline is toying with how Joker may be saner than we ever believed.
King–going into spoiler territory–went on to talk about how he views the Joker, saying, “Everybody has their own Joker…in my opinion of the Joker I think it’s an act. I think he’s perfectly normal person and pretends to be crazy. I know he doesn’t exist but he does in some weird way.”
Insane or not, these stories matter and have meaning because of how writers like King approach them. “My theory on writing is to never write to a thesis or a lesson,” King said. Twitter might be a place for that these days King joked, but not for him. “You read Berkeley or Kant, you can’t get to that through language, but you can through myth or story. Your values come out in the way you write. Hopefully, there is something inside my brain that would be of interest inside your brain. ”