The concept of Joker’s “super-sanity” was first mentioned in the classic Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean back in 1989 and comes as a “diagnosis” by an Arkham psychologist who is obviously both unreliable and not good at her job—she tried to cure Two-Face by giving him objects that allow for more than two choices, including playing cards. The coin is not Harvey’s pathology, it is a tool he uses to express it. His pathology stems from his disfigurement splitting his face in two. We aren’t supposed to take her at her word. The very diagnosis is the first red flag that she isn’t playing with a full deck—perhaps it’s the one she gave to Two-Face.
And when Batman queries her about how her approach has impacted the Joker, she launches into her diagnosis, stating among her psychobabble that he may be super sane, then follows up by stating Joker recreates himself every morning, to explain why his M.O. changes so often. This is not how a super sane person would behave, but that’s okay because in the study of psychology “super sanity” is not a thing.
©DC Comics 1989
Before we break this as down in understanding of what Morrison was getting at, let’s look at the final line of the previous paragraph “super sanity is not a thing.” But then, neither are Joker, Batman, and the rest. These are fictional characters in a world similar to the real world, but with people who fly and wear flashy outfits. Because it is fiction, some will argue it does not matter if super sanity is real. And they have a point–but it all breaks in the dialogue when the doctor presents super sanity as something not seen before. She undercuts her diagnosis herself. Please don’t armchair diagnose people in the real world with a diagnosis that doesn’t exist in this world. The closest we have is borderline personality disorder, but that is a far cry from super sanity.
Further, Joker is as old as Batman publication-wise. His changing person is not different than how other long-lived characters have changed over the years. Joker doesn’t recreate who he is daily, but evolves over time based on story needs, writers, and different eras.
Reading the entire storyline, by the end this character’s judgement must be called into question, even if the somewhat contradictory and nonsensical explanation of Joker’s “condition” isn’t enough. In the increasing number of psychologists/psychiatrists who have fallen under Joker’s sway, Dr. Adam’s may be the earliest example. The evidence of how insipid this speech is can be found in any comic arc that involves Joker. He does not “reinvent” himself daily and if he did that would undermine the Dr. Adam’s preceding claim. He maintains the same persona and approach for years, he is never shown in issue #Aa of an arc with one personality, and then in issue #Ab he has another, and so on in a sequential story arc. Joker has had different M.O.s and different personalities as dictated by the era in comic books: The pre-Wertham era; the post-Wertham, Comics Code Authority era; the ultra-violent, pouch-heavy, screw the CCA era; and the brand new century era, to name a few. I haven’t found anyplace where Morrison has said “Yeah, Joker is, like, super sane! That’s totally the takeaway I wanted for readers.” There may, indeed, be something like that out there, and I will welcome a link in the Comments to such a piece if it is out there. But that will remain the writer’s opinion, not an actual diagnosis.
So, where do I get off taking this down with such confidence? Sorry, but here comes some background/credentials; I promise not to do this again unless absolutely necessary. I have been reading comic books since I was a kid—in fact, my first job was at a local used book/direct-to-market store, and I took my pay in back issues. This enabled me to gain a solid background in the major comic book characters going as far back as the early 1940s in some cases. While working on my MA in Lit my area of critical theory was psychological theory: Jung, Freud, a lot of work on James Joyce. For much of the last two decades I have worked in a field dedicated to psychological assessment design; I managed a professional resource imprint for a well-known publisher (that owned the assessment division); and the closest people in my life are psychologists of every stripe.
This means three things:
- I have seen my fair share of Joker stories,
- I am experienced in the interpretation and unpacking of literary works, and
- I know from crazy (and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, editions III-V).
Simply and starkly put, “super sanity” thing is not a real psychological condition. As it is used by Morrison’s Dr. Adams, she seems to be saying Joker is a step beyond a sociopath. Sociopaths recognize right from wrong, but don’t care. High functioning sociopaths may become very successful in life. Being a sociopath doesn’t mean you are a killer. But killers are more likely to be sociopaths. They know what their culture deems right and wrong. They know there are consequences to their actions. But they are neither constrained by it nor let it get in their way of doing what they want. However, they do care if they get caught, so they learn to act “normal” and they take steps (even ineffective ones) not to get caught. Many are even able to learn to convincingly fake empathy for short bursts.
As I understand the term “super sanity” used by Dr. Adams and legions of fans and journalists in reference to the Joker, he truly does not give a ripe fig if he is caught, if he is jailed, or who he hurts, because to him not only are our cultural norms constructs rather than an innate human trait, they enable our brains to filter out things we can’t handle. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer the people of Sunnydale live on a freaking Hellmouth. Weird things happen all the time. But weird things can’t be real. Therefore, the population has become extremely good at rationalizing the supernatural as a trick of light, or masks, or mass delusion caused by a gas leak. The Joker would spend about 2 minutes in Sunnydale and think “Huh, Vampires. This could be interesting.” His “impairment” is that he lost that innate ability most people have that unconsciously and instinctively forces a veneer of order on the constant and unrelenting chaos we all experience daily and filter out in order to continue to function. If Joker saw a man walking on water, he would not think “He must be God” and get religion. He would just think, “huh, look at that guy walking on water. Neat. I wonder if he can breathe down there” and then would proceed to try to hold the guy under water to see. If the man drowned, Joker would say, “Guess not, where’s my hat?” If the guy didn’t drown, Joker would say, “Guess so, where’s my hat?” (Note: Joker at no point in this scenario had a hat, but that would be utterly beside the point.)
I suspect the acceptance of the idea that the Joker is “super sane” stems from the increasing acceptance over the years that the Joker is a reflection of Batman, and that Batman is hyper-rational. To be Batman’s twisted reflection, Joker must be something other than hyper-rational, as rationality is too often at odds with reality. I think then, rather than “super sane” it would be better to describe Joker in this situation as “arational.” Yes, I made that up, but similar to “amoral,” it is an absence of rationality—whether an act is rational or irrational is a non-issue. Things just “are” with no rhyme or reason, which is how it works for someone who is arational. In this construct he is pushing Batman to go beyond hyper-rationality to being free of the constructs of what is rational and what is not.
As a comic book reader and lover, I call BS because:
- This takes the idea of an eternal struggle with an enemy or rival to unneeded lengths—you get a bit of this at times with Superman and Lex Luthor, especially since Lex had been playing at being a hero for some time; no one says Clark and Lex are mirrors or halves of a whole. Opposites, yes, but not intrinsically linked. We like there to be some connection, a twist in a road, a shared past, something that makes superheroes and villains focus on each other, but really it is mostly geography.
- The Joker is a nutball, and in most of his appearances since the late 60s/early 70s, he became a darker character when compared to who he is from about the mid-50s through the 60s; he was more a shtick-villain than a dangerous one—he is more analogous to Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk if Mr. Mxyzptlk had a TBI that wiped out impulse control, than he is to Lex Luthor.
- Not knowing exactly what goes on in his squishy brain is part of the fun and part of why we don’t need to know his name or who he was before he fell into the vat of crazy at ACE Chemicals. Essentially, he was just a rando bad guy who fell into a vat of chemicals that changed his skin, his hair, his body, and clearly, his brain. And that happened because Batman was chasing him when he fell.
Batman played a direct role in the guy who may have been the leader of the Red Hood gang, or a patsy for the RH gang, becoming the Joker. Is it so odd Joker would attach himself to the man who facilitated his birth? Alternately loving him as his creator in this new life and hating him as his creator of this new life that made it impossible to return to any normal life? Does he need more than that? He is insane and has Borderline Personality characteristics. His reinventions aren’t reinventions; over time he associates with different forces and people, for whom he is a refractive mirror. He could have been someone who already was struggling BPD or some other mild or latent mental disorder(s) (such as schizoaffective disorder, dissociative personality disorder, or any number of potential diagnoses, but for now let’s stick with BDP) before he went into that toxic vat of amniotic chemicals, and what emerged was twisted and mutated not just in body but in mind. He was a new, different being, as far from the man in the red hood as Frankenstein’s monster was from the component parts used to create the new body for the stolen, pickled, dead brain to drive. But unlike that particular monster, the underlying mental architecture of the original man was still functioning and was the foundation the Joker is built upon, ultimately atrophying from disuse, but still echoing through Joker’s basic processing chip; for instance, if before he had borderline personality disorder tendencies, now instead of adopting the traits of his peer group, Joker wants the only peer he recognizes (Batman) to adopt his traits.
But because the original underlying BPD remains and Joker changes over time, based on associations. You could argue, in fact, he is actually super insane—that the chemicals released every potential disorder at once—the Joker is a sociopathic, narcissistic, bipolar (see War of Jokes and Riddles), OCD, schizophrenic, dissociative, multiple personality, compartmentalized, approach-avoidant, delusional, oedipal . . . and so on, all at once and that would make as much sense (or more) than super sane. Batman is, in a twisted way, the Joker’s father, and Joker sees the Robins as siblings taking Daddy’s attention, and he can’t have that. That is why he HATES the Robins, and the first one most of all, because Daddy loves them. Joker’s sprees are a toddler’s shrill demand for his parent’s attention.
Or maybe the Joker is really Bat-Mite, another 5th Dimensional Imp like Mr. Mxyzptlk. Or something like . . .
Thanks for reading! I hope to hear from you in the comments section. Other views are welcome, but keep things civil!