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DC Comics’ ‘Heroes in Crisis’ Explores the Mental Health of Superheroes

Writer Tom King weaves a tense whodunnit into a sometimes controversial plotline that examines the psychological turmoil beneath the costume, from PTSD to addiction

Illustration of Superman sitting on a couch looking upset and talking to a therapist Alycea Tinoyan

Most comic book fans would admit that their favored genre is filled with wacked-out dude-bros chosen at random to possess powers the rest of us could only dream of. In fact, comics are actually a lot like the real world: Their heroes suffer a physical and psychic toll as a result of cyclical violence. The best comic book writers and artists unravel the turmoil that follows those responsible for holding up an entire galaxy with deft, style, and consideration. That friction is the main theme of DC Comics’ Heroes in Crisis, the latest endeavor from writer Tom King and artist Clay Mann. An early example of this friction appears in the premiere issue, in which King cleverly turns the struggle of Blue Jay—a Justice League rotational player beginning to lose grasp on his shrinking power—into a genuine testimony on the ways depression breeds stasis: “I go to sleep,” said the hero. “And wake up small … I’ll be drowning in my own bed.”

Heroes in Crisis is set at the Sanctuary, a futuristic, super-secret psychiatric hospital in the desert. Its powerful patients are reeling after a mass murder of heroes at the facility including B-listers like Hot Spot and major players like Wally West, a.k.a. the Flash. Despite the comic’s somewhat ham-fisted promotion as being “ripped from real-world headlines,” Heroes in Crisis writer King understands acts of violence and the scars they leave on costumed heroes better than most. He interned at both Marvel and DC before becoming a CIA officer for seven years. His inspiration for Heroes in Crisis stems from his own war experience: “We have this generation, my generation, cycle through the Middle East and back and I think that experience is driving us a little crazy,” the 40-year-old told me. “And I think we need to talk about that—talk about the honor of that service and how the honor of serving is incurring a little damage along the way.”

As one could imagine, this kind of endeavor—elucidating the mental health struggles of superheroes while also alluding to the reality of perpetual war—is a political minefield. The widely discussed comic has become the topic of thoughtful ruminations on the psyche of veterans and other trauma survivors, but has also drawn controversy due to its subject matter and the ways that the writer-artist team has executed the themes of interpersonal isolation, repression, and addiction.

Heroes in Crisis is now on the shortlist of modern comic arcs that perform psychological jiujitsu on fans by arm-dragging DC figures—both influential and seemingly inconsequential—to eye level. Consider it Dr. Melfi for those who don spandex, a reminder that nuclearly powerful, ego-boosted heroes are subject to the same anxious, depressive cycles plaguing the lot of us. We already know that superhero origin stories routinely cover such horrors as murders in dark alleys, abandonment, and crass government experimentation—backstory elements that are often used to add gravitas to a vigilante’s resolve to stop crime and evildoers. But while the tragic narrative beats of DC’s Trinity—Superman’s struggle between two identities, Batman’s trail of dead sidekicks, and Wonder Woman’s fight against her own nature—are well-known, the problems befalling the imprint’s second string characters are more obscure. The inclusion of characters like Commander Steel, Solstice, and Booster Gold in Heroes in Crisis makes the series feel more reachable and a bit more human.

Heroes in Crisis is particularly harrowing in the ways it “adjusts the camera,” in King’s words. It casts readers as sounding boards for costumed icons to come clean about their anguish—an anguish that doesn’t fall back on origin stories, but instead draws on the violence of the present world. Over the course of each story, heroes speak directly to readers and, in confidence, reveal the psychological struggles that are hidden beneath the costume. Some are more game than others—Black Canary, for instance, says “fuck it” and walks out of the confessional almost immediately. But on the whole, these sessions are heart-rending micro-stories that touch on the feelings heroes subdue in order to keep doing their jobs effectively.

Within the story, DC’s aforementioned Trinity established the Sanctuary as way to serve the therapeutic healing that some heroes need when their other fixes don’t hit. The audience is positioned as a camera (which, in the world of the comic, is a 24th-century computer that keeps their confessionals secret). In the first issue of Heroes in Crisis, former Green Arrow sidekick Roy Harper (a.k.a. Arsenal) identifies as both hero and addict and has a personal tale entwining the decades-long opioid crisis, superhero idealism, and the pharmaceutical industry. He fidgets in his chair while recounting to us how he got here: “You get six doctors, 14 pharmacies, plus a guy who’s not really a doctor. Another guy who’s only kind of a pharmacist. And one day you read somewhere that you’re killing your kidneys … so you go to a needle. To save your kidneys … But really, isn’t that what superheroes do? Save things?” When humans project righteousness onto singular figures whose trade is violence, the pedestal can warp reality and rip them to shreds. King compares the mental acrobatics required of superheroes to the “attitude of football players not talking about concussions. You know in the back of your head it’s not good for you, but you don’t wanna be that guy.”

When I asked King about the model for Sanctuary, he remembers a mid-desert oasis full of young people needing a cooldown in the heat of war. During his time in Iraq, King recalls being sent to this facility “for folks who had seen too much but weren’t ready to go home.” At the time, it was full of young men—King then being only 23—and the curiousness of that scene eventually sparked the idea that became Heroes in Crisis: “That’s where it started: like what an odd place in this middle of this desert in the middle of this war and there are kids playing in a pool because they couldn’t face another day with a gun,” he said. “But they still had to go back.”

At times, the characters seem mishandled. The trauma depicted within the pages of Heroes in Crisis might seem like it’s being trivialized for any reader feeling the agony of depression, addiction, or a surplus of anxiety in a society that burns with racism, sexism, and ableism. On the whole, the comic book industry still has room to grow when it comes to addressing real-life social problems without exploiting mental health struggles and marginalized populations. Heroes in Crisis has recently come under fire for turning otherness into spectacle. When Mann’s cover for the seventh issue was leaked online, its sexualized rendering of Poison Ivy’s murder caused a rupture in the comic community. The questionable cover—in which Ivy is posed as a bloody pinup—was almost immediately removed and recolored (though it should be noted that the new cover hardly changed much). Similarly, a page in the title’s fourth issue features Batgirl silently lifting up her shirt to expose bullet wounds from the Joker’s attack and sexual assault in Alan Moore’s hugely influential The Killing Joke series. The scene’s thick quiet felt like a canvas for hypersexualization, with its final panels languishing on her pelvis and rear.

Writer Rob Jones (@SonofBaldwin), whose work has appeared in Essence, The Feminist Wire, and The Middle Spaces, was vocal about his concerns on the series, tweeting that the book is “an example of what happens when mostly white cisgender heterosexual males are in the room, in control, unchecked, and uncriticized.” When I talked to the Brooklyn-based comic lover, he found Lagoon Boy’s self-imposed flagellation in the third issue to be the most egregious. “The first thing that jumps out at me immediately is the choice to have Lagoon Boy, who in many ways, stands in as a ‘malformed’ or ‘disfigured’ disabled person due to his non-human appearance, elect self-punishment as his method of dealing with trauma,” Jones said. “What self-respecting therapist would comply with abuse as treatment for someone who is already in such a fragile psychological state?” Jones points back to the history of ableist mismanagement in comic books, citing Bay Area psychotherapist Dr. H. Eric Bender’s work detailing the inaccuracies of DC’s Arkham Asylum—specifically the categorization of patients as “inmates”—as a prime example of the publisher’s misunderstanding of psychiatry.

You have to listen, and it’s worth the time to adjust,” said King, in regard to various backlashes to Heroes. “I worship Will Eisner. He’s one of the founding fathers, and he created a terribly racist character [named Ebony White]. Someone asked him about it years later, and he was just like, “Whatever, those were the times, I would do it again today if I was in the same environment.” And I just wanna reach out and be like, ‘Dude, just listen.’ I never want to be the guy not listening.”

To some degree, King practices what he preaches. In the first issue, a loaded image of Hot Spot left a bitter taste for some comic fans who found it to be exploitative and gratuitous. The little-known DC hero, a black teenager, is shown lying dead in a hoodie when Superman finds him in a grassy field; a tear trickles down Hot Spot’s face as he lies limp, eyes wide open. It adds up to a cruel reminder of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and the continuous threat that black people are not only under but also seem to pose to a largely white world. I tell King that this particular scene could be interpreted as making light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the brutal reality of being black in America. “When there’s a lot of hurt, it seems to me that the most vulnerable are hurt the most,” he said. “The people who don’t have the advantages take the blows harder. So it was important to show that aspect of it and not hide from it.” Still, the decision to pluck Hot Spot out of hundreds of interesting DC characters to feature in a way that seems geared toward sensationalism downplays the real-life terror black people feel.

“The curse of writing,” King said, “is that you’re always trying to imagine yourself as someone else and you always end up just being you. So whatever character I was writing about at that time, I was relating to them. The only way to write good is to share parts about yourself and put them with other people.” The necessity of projection can result in brilliance, but also gaps. On one end, King’s relation to Superman “living in between two identities” comes straight from his time in the CIA when he was forced to “lie to [his] family and friends about who [he] was” and also hide his personal struggles in the field to maintain his security detail. But on the other, his experiences regarding race, sexism, and ableism are inevitably limited, which can bleed through as insensitivity in some of his passages.

As far as shedding light on the myriad unhealthy coping mechanisms we employ to alleviate mental illness, Heroes in Crisis is largely cogent—even if, as the critic Jones notes, some of those mechanisms don’t reflect reality in every case. The story’s thematic underpinnings are part and parcel of trauma and, though the narrative focuses on superheroes as opposed to the public that empowers them, it successfully points to the broader crisis of repression in this country. The series is designed to make readers empathize with those experiencing the struggles of living in a society that demonizes and pathologizes mental illness. As a black man and someone who suffers from anxiety and bouts of depression, I wholeheartedly wrestle with the writing, as I imagine do other black readers, and women, and those who are disabled. It’s easy to understand how it could all be too much, or too haphazardly treated, for some to handle. But I also value King’s use of Sanctuary as a vehicle for readers to connect with heroes on a more personal level. I value the idea of honest heroes and, more importantly, honest people who no longer feel repressed by a social order that deems them less-than for articulating themselves. The reality is, a mental health struggle doesn’t denote inferiority; it’s a natural reaction to a world that is, itself, violently sick.