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Thought Bubble: Iron Man, Mental Illness and the Importance of Representation

Considering the amount of reality-warping-bad-guy-face-kicking-multiverse-rescuing wackiness that superheroes contend with on a millisecondly basis, it makes sense that one or two or most of them would suffer from at least minor post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Just because Galactus decides to stop in for a little nosh of pan-seared Earth tenderloin with a quince reduction and a dollop of balsamic foam once a fortnight, that doesn’t make forcing him to Mr. Creosote us all back up any less physically and emotionally taxing.

And yet the genre, comic books and movies in particular, tends to either downplay the possibility of developing symptoms entirely or reduces mental illness to a series of escalating histrionics, many times culminating in acts of violence. For many creators, it provides a more plot-friendly strategy for conveying the intense internal conflict these diseases entail. But there are still ways to flip such a deeply personal experience outward and still establish a compelling narrative.

Iron Man 3 accomplishes this. Without subtlety, apology or insensitivity. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark visibly trembles. His breath strains. He twitches and stays up for 72 straight hours and snaps at well-meaning loved ones and strangers who want to understand. And all throughout, the helplessness and turmoil he desperately attempts to push back registers so obviously on his face, it may as well be a second nose. Visibility for an invisible fight, never crossing over into cheap melodrama.

While the entire arc is painfully, heartbreakingly realized, one of the most affecting moments happens immediately following J.A.R.V.I.S’ diagnosis of anxiety attacks. Stark reacts with a softened, “Me?” laden with equal parts incredulity and defeat. Even with an accurate assessment, finally hearing the problem verbalized can deliver an emotional evisceration that would make Jason Vorhees remember that his downstairs plumbing still works. An intense, almost explosive moment where everything suddenly makes sense while simultaneously making no sense at all. And all this might very well happen without loved ones noticing anything more unusual than a quick shift in breathing patterns.

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This isn’t new territory for Shellhead. 1979′s “Demon in a Bottle” storyline – written by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, drawn by Layton, John Romita, Jr. and Carmine Infantino, inked by Ben Sean and Carl Gafford and lettered by John Costanza – left a permanent impression on the character. More importantly, it resonated with alcoholics and their loved ones in ways that other mainstream comics at the time couldn’t.

The Eagle Award-winning story walks Stark through the different stages of substance abuse. He loses Jarvis to resignation and his armour to a police investigation, which leaves him lonely and vulnerable to attacks from a variety of bad guys.Challenges even a sober superhero would experience great surmounting. But Stark – oh hey 35-year-old spoilers here – eventually succeeds with no tools but his own intelligence and survival instinct at his disposal. And he finally admits to himself that he suffers from disordered drinking as a coping mechanism for unaddressed doubt, depression and anxiety.

Layton told The Des Moines Register earlier this month that fans have told him that “Demon in a Bottle” helped them place their loved ones’ self-destruction in a more compassionate context. Entire Alcoholics Anonymous groups have shown up to his signings with stories of their own to share. Stark’s realistically-depicted narrative arc gave them a welcome conduit for personal exploration, either within themselves or better understanding the agonies faced by a friend or family member. One that understood exactly how “bad choices” don’t always indicate “bad person.”

Because representation matters. Individuals with mental illness are statistically more likely to fall victim to violent crime rather than perpetuate it, but stories tend to overwhelmingly veer toward negative, scary portrayals. By all means, continue to feature characters for whom mental illness manifests as irresponsible or abusive behaviour. That still happens sometimes, and it’s disingenuous at best and patronizing at worst to claim otherwise.

However, when the negative (or at least poorly-researched) dominates, it can shape popular perceptions of the demographics portrayed. That’s not an opinion. That’s science. We’re not always cognizant of it happening, but our media intake still influences how we interpret the world.

Fiction provides many people – kids and teens especially – with their first exposure to the stigmatized or marginalized realities of others, such as mental illness. Sympathetic characters learning how to cope with depression, anxiety or trauma can construct an inspirational, informative framework for viewers who may see themselves in the struggle. Or build empathy in their peers who don’t. Watching Stark stumble, lose his breath and attempting to align reality with the painful emotions before going PUNCH PUNCH YEAH, SCIENCE, BITCH on AIM and, naturally, emerging victorious (because come on like Iron Man is really going to lose the day?) sends a clear, impactful and necessary message:

Even people we’re supposed to emulate suffer inside their own heads sometimes.

Strength isn’t about awesomeing away your issues, or ignoring them until they quietly excuse themselves. Every instance of clinical anxiety or depression requires admitting to the pain, loneliness, guilt and doubt – a far more challenging and difficult and wrecking undertaking than suppressing the negativity. And, from there, organizing a healthy support structure and compiling a unique management plan.

Which isn’t exactly a puzzle with only two pieces.

Stark’s anxiety and (probably) PTSD in Iron Man 3 and alcoholism in “Demon in a Bottle” extend beyond the “flawed hero” archetype. They’re fully-realized characters that people whom the media touts as abusive or useless or ungrateful or dangerous relate to and find empowering. Which is, ultimately, what audiences find so attractive about the superhero genre in the first place. Heroism isn’t supposed to be defined by perfection.

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