Psychiatric Survivor Superhero

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight Vol 1: Lunatic (Marvel, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

lemire-moon-knight

 

Writing about mental illness tends to be challenging and most authors tend to reify disempowering tropes of mental illness, projecting people with psychiatric disabilities as villainous, problematic, dangerous, and incompetent. Jeff Lemire’s 2016 rewrite of Moon Knight challenges some of the assumptions about mental illness. Although still unclear about which psychiatric disability Moon Knight has, Lemire explores the idea of Moon Knight as a character with mental illnesses (which was first established by Alan Zelenetz and Chris Warner’s mini-series about the character). Whereas Zelenetz and Warner described him as schizophrenic because of his multiple identities (which is actually more characteristic of dissociative identity disorder), Lemire avoids specifically mentioning what the superhero’s mental illness is and complicates the idea that he is mentally ill.

 

First set in a psychiatric institution, Lemire’s Moon Knight encounters a fractured reality where the psychiatric institution may actually be a prison construct by Egyptian gods. Moon Knight experiences a multiplicity of possible realities and Lemire resists telling the audience whether his realities are actual visions of real worlds or whether they are manifestations of his own delusions.

 

This trope of “is it a manifestation of mental illness or is this person seeing the reality that is hidden” has been played with in numerous science fiction media (including the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again” and the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”), asking the reader to question the nature of reality. This trope in Sci Fi normally portrays the asylum as a space for the mental breakdown of the character, encompassing the idea that asylums are places of escape from reality.

 

Lemire questions and criticizes the construction of the asylum as an institution, illustrating the horrors of life in an asylum and portraying the asylum as a form of prison. Lemire’s characters want to escape from the asylum, to find new possibilities in the world outside, but Moon Knight is constantly questioning and critiquing his reality and the world around him, inviting critical questions about the nature of the mind and the nature of psychiatric institutions. Lemire doesn’t provide answers about which of Moon Knight’s realities is authentic, but instead invites the reader to look at the world through multiple lenses, with multiple different possible realities. Moon Knight even shapes his own mask from a straight jacket that is draped over his face with a moon drawn onto it, and when he wears this mask, he experiences a second vision of the world, which he believes to be true.

 

Lemire’s exploration of multiplicity in the world is augmented by Greg Smallwood’s art, which frequently plays with multiple different visions of the world overlapping. Smallwood brings attention to the character’s vision by constantly focusing on the expression in his eyes, devoting several panels to the expressions that Moon Knight projects through his eyes. This is a comic that is focused on vision and multiple ways of seeing the world, transforming the world into a shifting, changeable plane.

 

To discover more about Jeff Lemire, visit http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/

 

 

 

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Psychiatric Vampirism

A review of Max Turner’s Night Runner (Harper Trophy Canada, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I am excited to be able to talk about a book that deals with Peterborough, the town that I have come to call home. Max Turner’s Night Runner takes place in the Nicholls’ Ward in Peterborough, the city’s former psychiatric facility. The Nicholls’ Ward closed in 2010 due to issues of cost for repairs and updating of equipment and spaces and it was moved over into the main Peterborough Regional Health Centre building. Throughout the building’s history, it was at various times used as offices for the hospital, archives, a nursing residence, a meeting space, and a library. It was only in its final years that the building was switched to primarily a psychiatric facility. 

Max Turner’s Night Runner takes a novel approach to the teen vampire story by setting the vampire initially in a psychiatric facility. Zach Thomson grew up in the Nicholls Ward after his parents died when he was young. Night Runner takes place when Zach is 15 years old. His experience of youth hasn’t been the same as that of other kids – which is not surprising because children rarely grow up in psychiatric facilities. But his experience is different from that of other children for a variety of health related reasons outside of his mental health. He has an allergy to sunlight, he has a limited diet and is allergic to most foods, and he has bouts of anger and silences that can last for days. Zach has been recognized by his nurses as being in need of specilized medical care. Growing up in a psychiatric ward, Zach has never considered himself normal and he isn’t even certain what ‘normal’ for a teen should be. 

Max Turner creates a novel that questions ideas of normalcy and appropriateness by disrupting ideas of what can be considered normal. He challenges the behaviour of society in ostracizing certain people because of their difference. By situating Zach in a psychiatric institution, Turner questions ideas of family and the type of people that can make up family, extending the idea of belonging to a wider group of very different individuals. 

Night Runner, like many Young Adult tales, is a story about self discovery and the idea of developing a purpose. Zach believes that his life so far has been one of uncertainty and a lack of purpose because he has been in a psychiatric facility all of his life uncertain about what is “wrong” with him and waiting for a cure for his various allergies. 

Turner explores vampirisim as a blood-based pathogen, an infection, but one that radically changes the body, and one that can be spread through the bite. It is also an infection that generally comes with an end date – as every vampire eventually experiences Endpoint Psychosis, a psychiatric illness as they reach the end of their lives and therefore radically change. It is appropriate that a story that deals with the idea of Endpoint Psychosis begins in a psychiatric institution where the same issues of determining “capacity”, self control, and selfhood are diagnostic features both for the psychiatric nurses and for the vampire council who kills vampires they see as being dangerously out of control due to Endpoint Psychosis. In both areas it is up to others in positions of power to determine mental health and ability.

Night Runner, like vampirism itself, is about radical change, coping with different social and emotional pressures and the process of discovery. 

To discover more about the work of Max Turner, visit his website at http://maxturner.ca

To discover more about Night Runner, visit  http://us.macmillan.com/nightrunner/maxturner