Donald Trump, Batman, and How Badness Became Madness
In the shadow of “Batman Day,” understanding an archaic comic-book conceptualization of criminality can help us unlearn ableism.
This past Saturday—designated “Batman Day” by WarnerMedia—superheroism became more salient as the specter of eugenics loomed over the day. Talking heads eulogized Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night, referencing her characterization as a superhero in the documentary RBG that aired repeatedly on CNN the following day. Meanwhile, as news of RBG’s death broke, President Trump made barely concealed references to eugenics at a rally in Minnesota, as new, disturbing details regarding ICE’s alleged involvement in non-consensual hysterectomies came to light.
With all eyes on the upcoming November election, President Trump’s critics have cast him and his camp as craven, anti-science “supervillains” who defy reason and revel in chaos, inviting comparisons to the Joker and other Batman rogues portrayed as mentally ill. Consider Mark Hamill’s reading of Trump’s tweets as the Joker or The Lincoln Project comparing Jared Kushner to a Bat-villain. Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough has been marketed like a supervillain secret origin story. Those in the trending documentary #UNFIT, including psychologists and psychiatrists associated with The Duty to Warn Coalition—a sort of mental health Justice League—conclude that Trump is dangerous because of his purported mental disorders. What’s more, Trump’s most prominent critics have explicitly weaponized mental illness stigma to convey an existential threat to our democracy, ascribing his superstitious and cowardly behavior to mental illness.
Mental illnesses—both actual and perceived—have long been used to villainize the Other; central to this tactic is the exploitation of myths that people with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous, and that criminals who engage in extreme violence are inherently mentally ill. As is often the case with terrorism, mass shootings, and other abhorrent acts of violence, the leap from apparent irrational behavior to “madness” is a tempting one to make, challenging our very notion of what is—and, perhaps more importantly, what isn’t—mental illness. The logic goes something like this: you’d have to be crazy—and a coward, to boot—to shoot up a school, drive a truck into a crowd, or crash a plane into a skyscraper; these crimes against society seem even more senseless when carried out by apparently irrational zealots. It’s no wonder those who perpetrate and provoke such heinous acts are presumed to be “madmen.”
The conceptualization of the villain as madman is embodied in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, with their portrayal as “criminally insane” being a prime example of this larger phenomenon. Understanding how this archetype came to be can teach us how to undo it.
The origin of this conflation of criminality with irrationality dates back to Batman's beginning; in November 1939’s Detective Comics #33, while pondering how to hack the criminal mind in his war on crime, Bruce Wayne famously muses:
Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot.
Although this antiquated conceptualization of criminality seems at first quaintly innocuous, the phrase “superstitious and cowardly” is a loaded one. Historically, superstition and cowardice have been cardinal traits of historical and fictional villainous “madmen” (contrasted with traditional heroic ideals of reason and bravery), with the implication that immorality is caused by a lack of reason. The phrase appears to have first been used to castigate cruel tyrants like Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate, and John, King of England; such language in critique of despots was particularly prevalent post-Enlightenment, and has seen a recent resurgence in response to Trump.
As Charles Darwin’s evolution gave way to Francis Galton’s eugenics, the adjectives “superstitious” and “cowardly” were more broadly applied throughout the 19th century to denigrate non-WASPs, especially Black and Indigenous peoples, believed to be “primitive” due to their perceived child-like and animal-like irrationality and amorality, centuries-old ideas that inform modern legal insanity statutes. According to Italian physician Cesare Lombroso’s theory of “criminal anthropology,” superstition and cowardice were among the characteristics common to both “born criminals” and those with brain disorders alike. Criminal superstitions—from more mundane, Florida Man-level fare to truly bizarre acts that would shock even Jeffrey Dahmer—were catalogued by Austrian jurist Hans Gross, devoting an entire chapter of his 1893 ur-text to the topic. By the turn of the century, a predisposition to superstition and cowardice were among the traits associated with “moral insanity,” a controversial concept akin to psychopathy. Thus, the set of character traits once associated with tyrannical rulers became medicalized and hijacked by eugenicists, who explicitly linked criminality to insanity through pseudoscientific concepts such as “degeneracy.”
Even though criminal anthropology had been roundly dismissed as pseudoscience by most mainstream criminologists, Lombroso’s theories had an air of credibility because they referenced Darwinian themes. Along with salacious tidbits sourced from Gross’ work in criminal superstition, criminal anthropology gained mainstream exposure in popular publications. These antiquated ideas flowed downstream into pulp fiction, as well as detective correspondence-course textbooks advertised in the pages of pulps, without which Batman and his villains would not exist.
Indeed, eugenics influenced some of popular culture’s most famous monsters. For example, in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), an erroneously transplanted “criminal brain” was the scapegoat for the creature’s violence. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of Lombroso’s theories on film were the various iterations of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, especially Fredric March’s 1931 simian rendition, complete with a “sugarloaf” skull indicative of criminality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula directly references criminal anthropology when describing Dracula’s appearance; physical signs of degeneracy like feline eyes, aquiline nose, asymmetrical skull, and skin pallor are also prominent features of popular Bat-villains Catwoman, the Penguin, Two-Face, and the Joker, respectively.
By the time Detective Comics #33 was published in November 1939, and as the existential threat of Nazism loomed, eugenics enjoyed renewed popularity. Reacting to the organized crime wave, Judge Harry Olson and psychiatrist William J. Hickson of the Chicago Municipal Court’s Psychopathic Laboratory and leaders in organized eugenics sought to operationalize eugenics-based theories of criminality. In diagnosing gangsters as “feeble-minded” (with superstitious beliefs, according to Hickson, being a hallmark characteristic) Hickson intended to segregate them to work colonies. Olson and Hickson intended to deter Chicago’s gangsters from a life of crime, leveraging the shame associated with psychiatric diagnosis and the fear of “treatment,” which potentially included sterilization and lobotomy.
A prime example of eugenics’ influence on early Batman comics is a scene in Batman #2 (1940) in which Batman suggests to Robin that, because of his criminality, Joker—who, despite having the Lombrosian moniker “mad, evil genius,” was not yet synonymous with insanity—be lobotomized.
Even non-eugenicists drew links between criminality and mental illness; popular alienist Alfred Adler, famous for his conceptualizations of the inferiority and superiority complexes (colloquially referred to as the “Napoleon Complex”), noted the similarity between criminals and neurotics in that both are cowards who lack courage to deal with life’s challenges. Adler also mentions, almost as an obvious aside, that criminals are commonly known to be superstitious.
As if to double-down on the association between mental illness and criminality implied in Batman’s origin story, Detective Comics #33 also features the first Batman villain to be expressly depicted as having a clinical mental illness: Dr. Carl Kruger, a megalomaniacal mish-mash of mental health tropes who quite literally (and comically) wears his Adlerian “Napoleon Complex” on his sleeve. Although Dr. Kruger is long forgotten, the mould of the mentally ill Bat-villain and the related shibboleth that “criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot” remain, immortalizing Detective Comics #33 as a milestone in popular culture’s association of criminality with clinical mental illness.
The true crime and supernatural aspects of the early Batman comics—heavily influenced by pulp magazines such as The Shadow and The Phantom Detective, which often relied on eugenics-tinged stereotypes—soon gave way to more lighthearted stories that, when including madness, did so in a decidedly non-clinical way. This approach was epitomized by 1966’s Batman, as pulp sensibilities ultimately gave way to camp, paving the way for Batman’s mainstream popularity ushered in by the ABC television series.
In the series, although Batman and his villains were perceived as “mad,” it was their absurdity that elicited this response, not their propensity for violence. Even Batman (portrayed by Adam West), while speaking about the Riddler’s modus operandi in the pilot episode, wisely observed Riddler’s crimes are the result of “a strange artistic compulsion.” Moreover, Batman, whose costume appeared patently absurd in the cold light of day of color television, seemed uniquely qualified to address the madness of his villains. Madness signified something to be celebrated; this recognition of individual freedom, creativity, and rebellion would be echoed in pop culture by Harlan Ellison’s short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But when Batmania waned, DC Comics looked to revitalize their once-popular character by going back to his roots. The late Dennis O’Neil, legendary DC Comics writer and editor best known for his social justice storylines (tackling racism and substance abuse, for example) that challenged comics’ status quo, was charged with revitalizing Batman by returning the Dark Knight to his gothic roots influenced by pulp fiction.
With the 1974 introduction of Arkham Asylum—the fictional forensic psychiatric facility now prominently featured throughout the multi-billion-dollar Batman comic book, film, television, and video game franchises—O’Neil created a psychopathic playpen from where the Joker, Two-Face, and the rest of the Caped Crusader’s “criminally insane” rogues’ gallery could be plucked when their villain-of-the-month card was called. A Bedlam-meets-Bastille by way of Kirkbride, Arkham Asylum blurred the roles of prison and hospital, reflecting both the criminalization of people with mental illnesses as well as widely-held misconceptions regarding legal insanity.
The conscious effort to rebrand the Batman comics as dark and serious—a rebuke to the bright, campy 1960s television series—has been wildly successful. But by taking Batman back to his beginnings, O’Neil unintentionally restored problematic elements of the Batman mythos that had long since been discarded, particularly with regard to outmoded beliefs about the relationship between mental illness and criminality as embodied by “a superstitious cowardly lot,” with Arkham Asylum inadvertently bridging early 20th century eugenics theory to the modern era, propagating harmful misconceptions related to mental illnesses and dangerousness.
As Americans re-examine the foundations of societal inequities, we should also acknowledge the impact of structural ableism on mental illness stigma. While not everyone views mental illness through a clinical lens, stigma and the conflation of mental illness and criminality is so ingrained in our culture that even those who identify as ideologically progressive may inadvertently and casually invoke language based on misguided beliefs rooted in bigotry and ableism.
Batman evolved beyond its problematic beginnings, only to make the mistake of reverting to type. We shouldn’t make the same mistake. Weaponizing mental illness stigma to attack Trump—especially when likening him to a superstitious, cowardly villain—equates madness and badness, betrays the ideals progressives hold most dear, and undermines progress toward a more perfect union.
Drs. Pozios and Kambam are forensic psychiatrists and co-founders of Broadcast Thought.