"Holy Terror, Batman!"

David Weigel points to this LA Times piece on Frank Miller, and his forthcoming story about Al Qaeda attacking Gotham City:

With the hero as terrorism avenger, Miller is pointing to the days of comics in the 1940s, when Superman, Captain America and the Human Torch were drawn taking punches at Hitler or Hirohito.

"These terrorists are worse than any villain I can come up with, and I think it's ridiculous that people in entertainment are not showing what we are up against hereā€¦. This is pure propaganda, a throwback, there's no bones about it."

The line, "These terrorists are worse than any villain I can come up with," reminds me of something I've been thinking a lot about lately, what with the intense media focus on mental illness and the Virginia Tech shootings.

Arkham Asylum

Namely, why is it that almost all of Batman's villains, when caught, are sentenced to imprisonment in the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane? Is there something especially horrific or evil about an insane villain as opposed to a rational one? If anything, the terms insane and villian seem to be in contradiction, insofar as the legal definition of insanity (at least in my popular culture, layman's understanding from watching far too many episodes of Law & Order) seems to be an inability to distinguish right from wrong, while villian seems to imply something about evil intent.

Do the Batman writers buy in to this (presumably) settled notion in modern psychology that insanity renders the afflicted incapable of making moral decisions in the same way that healthy adults are so able, as if the insane are malfunctioning automatons who don't necessarily deserve moral condemnation but should be locked up anyway to protect them from themselves and protect us from any future violent outbursts?

I see a few possibilities. First, (1) those who tell the Batman story do buy in to the psychological consensus regarding insanity and still find insane villians to be scarier or "worse" than sane villians. Or, (2) they buy in to the consensus but just aren't interested in telling stories about the scariest or worst imaginable villian; perhaps there is just something more fascinating about stories involving outrageous acts performed by morally blameless individuals. Alternatively, it could be the case that (3) the Batman writers simply reject the psychological conventional wisdom and regard the criminally insane as no less morally culpable than everyone else. In which case, we might ask, why bother labeling them criminally insane in the first place?

I find (2) to be the explanation most plausible, yet it is still puzzling. One can surely argue that writers are under no obligation to have Batman's antagonists be the scariest or most evil possible, only that the antagonists present the opportunity to tell interesting stories. But we see insanity pop up in thousands of other contexts, where presumably the purpose is to create the scariest and most evil villains possible. Hannibal Lector, Jack Torrance, Norman Bates - all three are horror icons, not despite their insanity, but because of it.

So now we are vexed with the seemingly counterintuitive question that brings us back to explanation (1): what is it about insanity that makes an insane criminal scarier than a sane one? Is it because the most horrific acts imaginable are only explainable tautologically, by distancing ourselves as healthy, upstanding members of the human race from the necessarily insane, inhuman acts of cannibalism, pedophilia and infanticide? Or, relatedly, perhaps we engage in this tautological distancing precisely because we fear that we ourselves are potentially in danger of one day losing our faculties of reason. Is it not scarier to consider the possibility that everyone is in danger of becoming a monster? Being as we are at the top of the food chain, we have nothing to fear but ourselves, either as an impersonalized Other, or, literally, the chance that, however remote, if placed in an environment with all work and no play, we may all become very dull boys indeed.

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Conjecture: Psychological

Conjecture: Psychological health is normal and includes goodness. Evildoers have become in some sense "twisted", perverted, abnormal, for a variety of reasons. There is something abnormal and diseased in the modern incarnation of islamism, as there was in Nazism. I would not be too hasty to sacrifice this conjecture on the altar of relativism, moral anti-realism, or whatever, even if it is not strictly true. As an analogy, Newton's gravity is not strictly correct, but it's a very useful approximation. I'd agree that life is inherently predatory and so man has an inherent capacity to predate on man. But I'd also add that we have to a large if incomplete extent bred man-on-man evil out of ourselves, at least in certain contexts, though in other contexts (e.g. war) the predatory aspect comes out. War is nevertheless psychologically difficult for the participants, and so in some sense "not right for us", a "poison" to our bodies and minds even if one that is too easily encountered.

Conjecture: explanations of the bad guys are hard. The writer wants to get on with a story. Criminal insanity takes care of this hard part. Conjecture: Criminal insanity provides the criminals with color and individuality. The Riddler tells riddles, the Joker makes deadly practical jokes, Two-face will do good or evil depending on the flip of a coin.

Question: are the villains of Batman special or are comic book villains generally insane?

Question: does the insanity aspect of the Gothamverse really go all the way back to the beginning of the Batman series or was it a relatively recent addition?

Conjecture: the insanity of the villains may be a way to limit their evil. Since they are insane, they may not pursue evil to the fullest extent. An obvious example is Two-face, whose evil is limited and can be shut off abruptly by a coin flip.

Reminder: On occasion it is pointed out that the heroes themselves are not entirely normal. Batman is damaged goods (murdered parents) driven by an obsession. Similarly, Spiderman is damaged goods driven by profound guilt at having failed to save his uncle. Superman seems on the whole more wholesome until we remember that his planet was destroyed and he is alone (well, almost). But to the extent that he seems free of inner turmoil, he seems a bit on the bland and uninteresting side. Inner turmoil creates story.

Insanity and responsability

Being insane doesn't relieve from moral responsability in one's act. Moral responsability comes from freedom, and freedom derives from free-will. In order not to be morally responsible for his action, "not guilty" a villain has to be physically unable to use his free-will, to restrain from doing evil. One may very well be insane without lacking this ability, the Joker, the Penguin clearly have free-will. The fact that they are clinically 'insane' doesn't relieve them from any responsability in their act.

"what is it about insanity

"what is it about insanity that makes an insane criminal scarier than a sane one?"

Imagine yourself or your loved ones at the mercy of a rational self-interested evil villain. Isn't it plausible that there is some possibility of negotiation? - even if there isn't, it's at least a straw worth clutching for comfort. Now imagine yourself or your loved ones at the mercy of an insane, capricious villain. I would have thought the latter to be more terrifying.

The other comments have fine

The other comments have fine points, but this is the one that occurred to me when I read the post. Insanity makes the person totally beyond reach.

The problem I have with this

The problem I have with this theory is that it seems no more terrifying than a natural disaster. Which is terrifying enough in its own right, but something about being, say, torn apart limb from limb by a hungry grizzly bear is less horrifying to me than being experimented on by Joseph Mengele. The bear simply does what it does, what it is expected to do, without complex reason or emotion, other than the base instict of hunger. We expect more out of rational, healthy humans, and when they go against that expectation, it should trigger our outrage and offend our sensibilities in ways much greater than the amoral apathy of mother nature.

People fear the unknown:

People fear the unknown: while both the grizzly bear and the insane supervillian are amoral, you can only make sense of the bear: it wants to kill you for food, kill you to protect its young, or both. The supervillian is an unknown quantity -- his motives, feelings and system of logic are barely comprehensible, if at all. That's what makes him scarier.

Yes, I don't think that

Yes, I don't think that there's a useful comparison to be made between a bear and an insane supervillian. The bear, while not "rational" in the human sense is certainly understandable and predictable. If you were at Mengele's mercy, what would make it terrifying would not be his "rationalism" but his capriciousness. Arguably the more rational he was, the more it would be possible to bargain or reason your way out of your predicament. The sense of utter helplessness comes from his non-rational side, which would make him immune to such pleading.