The Quiet Room

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has a brief but fascinating article about a 1979 Marvel comic featuring and written by rock legend Alice Cooper which depicts his real-life admission to a psychiatric ward.

The comic was timed to coincide with the release of his concept album From The Inside which describes his experiences as a psychiatric patient being treated for severe alcoholism and depression.

He was there for 3 months and in the comic he depicts the patients, doctors and nurses he met during his admission. Alice has often commented in interviews that treatment in hospital and recovering from his substance misuse saved his life, when many similar artists at that time, such as Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, were not as fortunate, succumbing to their addictions. The lead single from the album was ‘How You Gonna See Me Now’, a song describing the anxiety the singer felt coming back home to his wife after his stay in hospital and facing the stigma of being treated for his mental illness. It went on to become a well-known successful ballad. The comic can still be found in comic shops or through online auction sites.


Link to brief British Journal of Psychiatry article.

A comic repeat with video games and violence

An article in the Guardian Headquarters blog discusses the not very clear evidence for the link between computer games and violence and makes a comparison to the panic over ‘horror comics’ in the 1950s.

The Fifties campaign against comics was driven by a psychiatrist called Fredric Wertham and his book The Seduction of the Innocent.

We’ve discussed before on Mind Hacks how Wertham has been misunderstood. He wasn’t out to ban comics, just keep adult themes out of kids magazines.

However, his idea of what ‘adult themes’ might be were certainly pretty odd. This is Wertham’s testimony to a hearing in the US Senate.

I would like to point out to you one other crime comic book which we have found to be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children and those are the Superman comic books. They arose in children’s fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again, while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the “Superman complex.” In these comic books, the crime is always real and Superman’s triumph over [evil] is unreal. Moreover, these books like any other, teach complete contempt of the police…

I may say here on this subject there is practically no controversy… as long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present form, there are no secure homes. …crime comic books, as I define them, are the overwhelming majority of all comic books… There is an endless stream of brutality… I can only say that, in my opinion, this is a public-health problem.

The ‘Superman causes sadism’ part aside, this is a remarkably similar argument to the one used about violent video games. It’s not a matter of taste or decency, it’s a public health problem.

In fact, an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings had a neat comparison between arguments about 1950s comic books and modern day video games which turn out to be very similar.

Moral of the story: wait for sixty years when the debate about violent holograms kicks off and they’ll leave you to play your video games in peace.

Link to ‘What is the link between violent video games and aggression?’
Link to article on video games and comic panics in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Gotham psychologist

Andrea Letamendi is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment and research of traumatic stress disorders but also has a passionate interest in how psychological issues are depicted in comics.

She puts her thoughts online in her blog Under the Mask which also discuss social issues in fandom and geek culture.

Recently, she was paid a wonderful compliment when she appeared in Batgirl #16 as Barbara Gordon’s psychologist.

I’ve always been of the opinion that comics are far more psychologically complex than they’re given credit for. In fact, one of my first non-academic articles was about the depiction of madness in Batman.

It’s also interesting that comics are now starting to explicitly address psychological issues. It’s not always done entirely successfully it has to be said.

Darwyn’s Cooke’s Ego storyline looked at Batman’s motivations through his traumatic past but shifts between subtle brilliance and clichés about mental illness in a slightly unsettling way.

Andrea Letamendi has a distinctly more nuanced take, however, and if you would like to know more about her work with superheroes do check the interview on Nerd Span.

Link to Letamendi’s Under the Mask (on Twitter as @ArkhamAsylumDoc)
Link to Nerd Span interview.

A neurobiological graphic novel

The Guardian has a video about the collaboration between neuroscientist Hana Ros and artist Matteo Farinella as they’ve been working on the neurocomic project to create a brain science graphic novel.

The finished project isn’t quite out yet but the artwork is looking amazing.

The film about the collaboration covers how they worked together and how each approach their work.

There’s a lovely bit where Hana Ros describes how she isolates neurons to work on and mentions she gives them all names.

Make sure you also check out the artwork on the project website.

Link to video on the collaboration.
Link to the neurocomic website.

Traumatic brain injuries in the Asterix comics

A team of neurosurgeons has completed an exhaustive study of the causes of traumatic brain injury in the Asterix comics.

Needless to say, it is a work of pure genius.

And if the conclusions at the end of the summary don’t make you beam with delight, you are dead inside.

Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books

Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2011 Jun;153(6):1351-5.

Kamp MA, Slotty P, Sarikaya-Seiwert S, Steiger HJ, Hänggi D.

Department for Neurosurgery
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf

Background: The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.

Methods: A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.

Results: Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3-8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called “the magic potion”.

Conclusions: Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).


Link to PubMed entry for study (via @velascop).
Link to DOI entry for study.

Mickey’s amphetamine adventure

Drug information site Erowid recently posted a 1951 Disney comic where Mickey Mouse and Goofy take speed.

In the strip, ‘Mickey Mouse and the Medicine Man’, Mickey and Goofy discover a new medicine called ‘Peppo’ which is clearly meant to represent amphetamine. Their enthusiasm for the chemical pick-me-up leads them to become salesman for the product in Africa.

Although the idea of Disney characters taking speed seems rather incongruous these days, in 1951 amphetamine was legal and widely available over-the-counter in America, mostly in the form of Benzedrine inhalers.

It wasn’t until the mid-60s when these were made prescription only and non-medical amphetamine wasn’t outlawed until 1971.

As well as casual racism, the strip also features various characters eating ‘hash’ which knocks them out.

For those not familiar with American English, this isn’t a direct reference to hashish or cannabis resin but a reference to a peculiarly unappetising type of food of the same name which, in the story, seems to have been spiked with some sort of unidentified sedative.

However, given the rather unenlightened portrayal of Africans in the piece and the 1950s stereotype of marijuana being a drug of black Americans, I wonder the lethargy inducing properties of the ‘hash’ are meant to be an indirect reference to the drug.

Link to ‘Mickey Mouse and the Medicine Man’.

Psychiatric tales

Darryl Cunningham draws amazing comics about psychiatry and mental illness, drawn from his time working as a student nurse on psychiatric wards.

His comic strip Psychiatric Tales has been regularly appearing online and he’s just posted the amazing and heartfelt last chapter along with an announcement that the series is to be published as a book by Blank Slate Publishing in February.

If you want to get a feel for Cunningham’s work, set aside some time and have a look at some of the piece at the links below – they’re well worth the time.

People With Mental Illness Enhance Our Lives

Dementia Ward



Cut and Delusions

Last Chapter

The strips are brilliantly written and drawn, and do something quite rare in discussion of mental illness – they manage to capture both the experience of people with psychiatric difficulties and the experience of the staff caring for them.

There are other chapters on his website so do go and have a look. Fantastic stuff.

Link to Darryl Cunningham’s blog.

Freud and the Uncanny Realm of the Unconscious

Chrome Fetus Comics has a wonderfully bizarre online comic entitled ‘Sigmund Freud and the Uncanny Realm of the Unconscious’ where our intrepid psychoanalyst battles the dark forces of the planet psyche.

It actually makes a pretty good stab at describing Freudian theories, or, as well as can be expected in the 50s sci-fi comic book theme.

This isn’t the only comic to feature Freud as a super hero. ‘The New Adventures of Sigmund Freud’ comic is also well worth a look.

Link to ‘Freud and the Uncanny Realm of the Unconscious’ (thanks RA!)
Link to ‘The New Adventures of Sigmund Freud’.

Consciousness happens between the panels

A letter in today’s New Scientist noted that artist Scott McCloud’s comments on how we infer the narrative from comic strips might also explain how consciousness works.

It reminded me of this panel from McCloud’s book Understanding Comics.

Understanding Comics is about the visual language of comic books and is written as a comic. It’s fantastically put together but is also fascinating if you’re interested in psychology because it largely discusses how we construct rich and complex meanings from very basic visual input.

One of the crucial points is that the comic itself is not the story, our mind builds it as we go and fills in the gaps with perception, cultural associations and our experience of how the world works.

The New Scientist letter reads:

David Bainbridge’s description of consciousness (26 January, p 40), including, for example, the fact that we do not know where in the brain consciousness happens, was evocative. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, describes a comic’s story as whatever is happening in the blank spaces between the panels.

What if our minds function like a comic: they snap pictures, and our consciousness is simply the story the mind constructs around those pictures? – Saskia Latendresse, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

This is a lovely analogy and captures a well-argued approach in cognitive science that suggests that consciousness functions as a ‘narrative maker’ to make sense of the output from the disparate functions of the brain into a coherent sense of self.

Link to previous post on narrative and consciousness.
Link to NewSci letter.
Link to info on Understanding Comics.

Seduction of the Innocent and the myth of Wertham

The New Yorker has a wonderful article on the famous American crackdown on horror comics in the 1950s, a campaign sparked by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.

Wertham wrote the influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that the comics of the time caused juvenile delinquency.

He listed themes that supposedly ran through various popular story lines, highlighting homosexual themes (Batman and Robin), bondage (Wonder Woman) and numerous examples of what he considered to be extreme violence.

It became a best-seller and eventually led to a Congressional inquiry into the morality and effect of comic book industry on young people.

Fearing state censorship, the comics book industry imposed their own code which, for years afterwards, virtually eliminated depictions of violence, gore, most supernatural themes, or anything that might be considered to hint at sexuality.

As a side-effect, it did lead to some curious titles that were deliberately intended to be more ‘wholesome’. As we discussed previously on Mind Hacks, one of these was the ‘Psychoanalysis’ series of comics.

The New Yorker article is so interesting because it looks at a new book which suggests that Wertham was not some sort of crazed censorship-fiend, as he’s sometimes depicted, and notes that he was actually against the subsequent censorship of comics.

Despite his concerns about delinquency and homosexuality, which seem a little odd in modern light, he had other more laudable aims which seem equally as relevant today and may have been hijacked by others:

He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating. Bart Beaty’s “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” ($22, paper; University Press of Mississippi) makes a strong case for the revisionist position. As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship. He believed that people’s behavior was partly determined by their environment, in this respect dissenting from orthodox Freudianism, and some of his work, on the psychological effects of segregation on African-Americans, was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Wertham thought that representations make a difference—that how people see themselves and others reflected in the media affects the way they think and behave. As Beaty says, racist (particularly concerning Asians) and sexist images and remarks can be found on almost every page of crime and horror comics. What especially strikes a reader today is the fantastic proliferation of images of violence against women, almost always depicted in highly sexualized forms. If one believes that pervasive negative images of black people are harmful, why would one not believe the same thing about images of men beating, torturing, and killing women?

Interestingly, Wertham was not the only mind doctor involved in comics.

Psychologist William Moulton Marston was the creator of Wonder Woman and a lot of his personal and scientific interests appear in the stories.

He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women (one, Elizabeth Marston, a noted psychologist herself) and was particularly interested in using blood pressure as part of lie detection technology (his ideas are still used in the polygraph test today).

Consequently, William and Elizabeth created Wonder Woman to be a strong, liberated female character who had a Lasso of Truth which would wrap itself around villains and prevent them from lying.

Link to New Yorker article ‘The Horror’ (via BB).
Link to info on book ‘Fredric Wertham And The Critique Of Mass Culture’.

Sleep disorders in Disney characters

A study published in Sleep Medicine has found that several Disney films have surprisingly accurate depictions of clinical sleep problems, particularly a disorder called ‘REM sleep behavior disorder’.

Also known as RBD, REM sleep behavior disorder is where normal sleep paralysis doesn’t happen during REM sleep, so to varying degrees, a person might ‘act out’ what they’re dreaming.

Three additional dogs were found with presumed RBD in the classic films Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Fox and the Hound (1981), and in the short Pluto’s Judgment Day (1935). These dogs were elderly males who would pant, whine, snuffle, howl, laugh, paddle, kick, and propel themselves while dreaming that they were chasing someone or running away. In Lady and the Tramp the dog was also losing both his sense of smell and his memory, two associated features of human RBD. These four films were released before RBD was first formally described in humans and dogs.

In addition, systematic viewing of the Disney films identified a broad range of sleep disorders, including nightmares, sleepwalking, sleep related seizures, disruptive snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia and circadian rhythm sleep disorder. These sleep disorders were inserted as comic elements. The inclusion of a broad range of accurately depicted sleep disorders in these films indicates that the Disney screenwriters were astute observers of sleep and its disorders.

This is not the first time that Disney films have featured in the medical literature.

One 2004 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry looked at the representation of mental illness in Disney movies (and found, rather disappointingly, that mental illness was typically referred to when one character was denigrating another).

Link to abstract of study on Disney and sleep disorders.
Link to abstract of study on Disney and mental illness.

Epileptic – the comic

epileptic_front_cover.jpgEpileptic is a comic book by David B that charts the impact of his brother’s epilepsy on the author’s life and family.

Originally written in French, when first published in English, Time Magazine described it as “a great work of art” and nominated it as the best graphic novel of the year.

It has subsequently won a number of prizes and is often mentioned alongside Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus for its narrative and insight.

I’ve only just begun reading it myself but it is immediately striking both for its honesty and its dream-like (post seizure-like?) approach, where ideas and experiences fill the panels as real as if they were concrete characters of the plot.

The portrayal of epilepsy is accurate and sensitive, and rivals Ray Robinson’s novel Electricity for its impact.

Epileptic was released in paperback earlier this year (ISBN 0224079204).

Link to information about Epileptic graphic novel.
Link to Time review.
Link to Time interview with author.

Dreams made real

slowwave_panel.jpgArtist Jesse Reklaw takes people’s descriptions of their dreams and turns them into beautifully pencilled four panel comic strips on her website

Interesting, Jesse also asks for a physical description of the person submitting the dream, so she can include their likeness into the story.

The archives are wonderfully offbeat and suitably surreal.

My favourites include a dream about going to a bar to hire drunken body parts and one about finding the subway full of penguins. A new dream is uploaded every week.

Link to

Pulp symptoms

psychoanalysis_comic.jpgDuring a tide of public concern about the effect of comics on children, in 1955 EC Comics created a series of new ‘more wholesome’ titles. One of which, was a four part comic series about psychoanalysis.

The public concern was largely in response to the views of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. He argued, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, that the gaudy comics of the time were a major cause of juvenile delinquency.

Themes of sex, drugs and violence were supposedly represented subliminally in the stories and artwork of popular titles.

This sparked a Congressional inquiry which eventually led to comic book companies toning down their material, despite the unlikely nature of Wertham’s claims.

One result was that EC Comics produced comics about more ‘respectable’ topics, such as hospital medicine, or in this case, psychoanalysis.

The Psychoanalysis series depicts the therapy sessions of three people: a troubled young boy whose father thinks he’s a “sissy”, an anxiety ridden woman with a recurring dream, and a television writer who has panic attacks and is frustrated in his job.

Interestingly, another EC Comics series, M.D., also touches on mental distress. In M.D. #3 a suicidal man is diagnosed with manic depression, taken to hospital, sedated and given electroshock therapy. Supposedly, this makes him ‘forget’ his depression which is blamed on his argumentative parents.

Critics have noted that psychiatry is poorly represented in these stories, although they do give a fascinating insight into 1950s attitudes towards people with mental illness and their treatment.

Despite the fact mental illness is a recurring theme in many contemporary comics, few modern titles have attempted to seriously educate their readers about mental health issues.

brainchip_pic.jpgOne exception is The Secret of the Brain Chip, which is aimed at people who have experienced, or are experiencing, a psychotic episode.

It describes the experiences of Paul, a young man who comes to believe that there is a chip in his brain, implanted by scientists to control his thoughts.

He begins hearing voices and becomes paranoid, and is eventually admitted to hospital and is prescribed antipsychotic medication, which helps him recover and even, in the last frame, get the girl.

The story is interspersed with facts about psychosis, and notes several famous people who have also become psychotic.

The comic largely explains psychosis in biological terms (a ‘chemical imbalance’) and warns patients not to stop taking their medication.

Those of a slightly cynical nature might note, however, that it is partly funded by pharmaceutical company and producer of antipsychotics Janssen-Cilage.

Link 1 and Link 2 to info on Psychoanalysis comic series.
Link to info on M.D. #3.
Link to article on representation of madness in Batman.