Misappropriation of mental illness in comics: psychopathy

As part of our ongoing Mental Health Awareness coverage this month, we’re writing a series of articles on how mental illness has been misappropriated in comics. You can read the introduction and the first in the series, about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in Ink issue #9.


Often used to to explain away unpredictable or excessively violent behaviour, psychopathy is a personality disorder that affects the sufferer’s ability to empathise and feel remorse. As we briefly discussed in the intro, the term “psycho” in popular culture often refers to the imagined serial killer, whose aberrant brain causes them to take a chainsaw to the nearest prostitute. Although there is a strong correlation between psychopathy and antisocial behaviour, the term is also doing the rounds as a descriptive trait of the ruthless businessman.

Psychopathy is scary because it’s impossible to relate to, so it makes sense that it would find its way into the uncanny realm of horror as social anxiety. What’s harder is looking at the range of paper and ink people across the whole of comics and trying to find any that really offer a realistic example of someone psychopathic that isn’t cast as a villain, which is as unfair as it is unrealistic.

Anti-heroes like Marvel’s Deadpool and Watchmen’s Rorschach are often neighbours in lists of the “craziest” characters in comics because of their inappropriate reactions to bloodlust. Violence is a factor, but the majority of traits assigned to the designation of psychopathy are more-often related to personal gain, with little regard for the meaning of the consequences. As Dr Robert Hare explains in his extensive work on the characteristics of a psychopath, this can include things like manipulation through lying or charm offensive, overconfidence, poor impulse control and planning abilities and difficulty in achieving a depth of emotion that results in the lack of sympathy and social connection.

Image from Marvel
Making of a psychopath murderer

Like everything mental health related, these traits run on a spectrum. Deadpool is indiscriminately violent, and his motives aren’t always clear. He is overconfident and has the charm offensive thing down with his fourth wall-breaking comedy shtick, which also benefits from his poor impulse control. But, despite all this, there is something about Wade Wilson’s mask that suggests an act. He’s not hiding his face to terrify people, like Batman does. If anything, that would be better achieved by leaving it off. His comedy was his first and most enduring mask, particularly in the 2016 film, where he shows depth of emotion and is willing to sacrifice himself to save someone else; even if he does it in a way that would definitely kill her if gravity was a consistent force in Marvel adaptations.

At first glance, Rorschach is a better candidate. Humourless and hostile, he believes that he has the right to enforce his black or white moral code through fear and violence. We could argue that his need for stimulation – another item on Hare’s list – is what leads to his single-minded devotion to conservative vigilanteism, but his outlook doesn’t really allow for the selfishness associated with psychopathy because it’s a socially-driven belief. Rorschach also fails to meet the criteria for impulse-control as he seems pretty good at planning and does accept responsibility for his actions, writing at length about it in his journal.

Although he features as a villain, the best example of of a psychopathic character within comics has to be Kilgrave, the Purple Man, from Stan Lee’s Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Alias, and the latter’s Netflix adaptation Jessica Jones.

With the power to control people by instilling in them the desire to do what he tells them, Kilgrave is an incredibly dangerous mutant, made more so by his lack of understanding of why corrupting someone’s free will is a terrible and traumatising thing to do. In the TV series, where the character is allowed to share more of his perspective, we are given to understand that he thinks his behaviour is entirely appropriate for his goal of winning Jessica’s affections. He can’t grasp that in making her want to have sex with him, as it’s implied he has done in the past, he is committing the act of rape. It’s a hard-hitting and timely examination of rape culture, necessary for a period when its existence is still denied by many, but the character, portrayed expertly by David Tennant, still invites some sympathy because it’s clear that his understanding of responsibility is impaired by something beyond his control.

At this point there appears to be a representational trend that those on the psychopathic spectrum are usually male. While it’s true that studies have traditionally found the disorder to affect more men than women, a study from 2012 suggests that this is because of the way the condition is measured, and that women exhibit symptoms in a way that is often confused with other types of personality disorder.

Hare’s accumulated list of traits and questionnaire are possibly the closest measure of psychopathy actually available. The condition isn’t in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and it isn’t something that is readily diagnosed. We might wonder then, where the problem lies in misappropriating a term that seems fairly arbitrary by medical standards.

Image from Netflix
Misappropriating psychopathy

The main characteristic that Deadpool, Rorschach, the Joker, and other characters ranked in online lists according to some invisible barometer of crazy, is that they are violent. Sometimes it’s the only trait they share, including that other bouncing term “crazy”. Arguably the biggest issue with the word “psycho” is that it doesn’t differentiate between the loose identifications it makes with either “psychopath” or “psychotic”. We will look into psychosis further in another article, but it is to this that people tend to refer when they claim “psycho” as insanity, and why the Joker is lumped into the same category as Deadpool despite wildly different character traits.

Excessive violence, then, is the most recognisable sign of a psychopath in comics and other areas of pop culture. Not taking into account all the violence done by the heroic heroes, whether intentional or collateral, labelling someone as a psychopath because of it is problematic for many reasons, the first being that most people on the psychopathic spectrum aren’t violent at all, and simply use their individual personality traits to advance through their careers and lives unimpeded by the finer details of moral social etiquette.

Using the term when describing senseless violence isn’t any better. Assigning a personality disorder to someone because they’ve committed a bloodthirsty crime actually takes responsibility away from them, as they find it harder to distinguish between what society says is right or wrong. Josh, the paleo-hippie mob boss in Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s The Fix, has some sociopathic tendencies – the main differences of which are identified as having some measure of conscience and expressions of anger and passion over cold rationality – but we don’t want his personal culpability to be thrown out before his crimes are ever investigated (assuming he finds himself in such a position).

Most chilling is that misuse of terms like these temper them so that we forget the full extent of what it can mean. Those worst case scenarios that had Game of Thrones viewers sending hate mail to Joffrey Baratheon. As with any of these conditions, playing fast and loose with the vocab means that there’s less chance that people know how to recognise when someone is having trouble and needs help.

Featured image from DC Comics

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