Some soldiers never stop fighting, even after they return home. Military men and women still live with the scars from war every day. In the aftermath of tragedy, sometimes fiction can mirror real life. The characters we can relate to on an emotional level are the ones that impact our lives the most. Are there comic book characters who suffer from PTSD? Short answer? Yes. Characters involved in war carry their past trauma with them. What kind of influence does war and military service have on characters from Marvel and DC?

What Is PTSD?

Before we dive in, let’s talk about what exactly is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? PTSD is a mental health problem in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing a life-threatening event. Terrifying incidents such as a car accident, sexual assault, or military combat can cause major stress and anxiety.

The symptoms vary from person to person. Since we’re talking about veterans, some members of the military feel trapped in a war zone even after they return home. They can feel constantly on guard and overreact to a situation with anger or reckless behavior. Some may have recurrent reminders of the traumatic event, like flashbacks and nightmares. Also, they can develop negative thoughts about themselves or the world around them.

Past trauma can affect the future of both fictional and real-life veterans. For a comic book character, the symptoms of PTSD can make a huge impact on their lives. Do they fall into bad situations or rise above their anxiety?

Why SGT. ROCK’s War Stories Need to Be Heard

Frank Castle (AKA the Punisher)


Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

In my opinion, the Punisher is the embodiment of PTSD. Highly trained in military discipline and techniques, Frank Castle was a US Marine who fought in the Vietnam War. As a sniper, he became skilled in guerrilla warfare and marksmanship. BORN was a four-part series set in the MAX Universe that documents Frank Castle’s time during his final tour in 1971. The series showed him performing a number of unsettling tasks while in the war. For instance, he drowned a fellow member of his unit after the soldier raped a Viet Cong sniper. When the base he was stationed at was ambushed by the Viet Cong, the soldiers soon realized they were outgunned and outmanned. One by one, Frank watched every member of his squad fall in battle, leaving him the sole survivor of the attack. After that event, Frank felt a tremendous amount of guilt.

The transition to civilian life was difficult for him. In BORN, he hears a voice that provokes him to excessive violence. Shortly after he returns from his military service, his wife and children are murdered. Their deaths, paired with his battle scars, made him emotionally hardened. Soon, he became haunted by vivid flashbacks of his wife being shot and him being helpless. From the events in BORN, Frank’s war scars contributed to him becoming the Punisher. With his anger untamed, his crime-fighting style is ruthless. Because of his experience in the military, he acts on his violent tendencies and plays executioner to criminals he encounters. As the Punisher, he’ll kill and torture any adversary. With his mind locked in combat-mode, the Punisher continues to fight a one-man war on crime.

Max Eisenhardt (AKA Magneto)

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

One of the most notable X-Men characters is a Holocaust survivor. Max Eisenhardt was born into a German-Jewish family. During the Nazi rise to power, he and his family fled to Poland. When they’re captured and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, his father, mother, and sister are executed and buried in a mass grave. Afterwards, Max was forced to operate the gas chambers in the camp. He witnessed first hand the sheer inhumanity displayed within the concentration camp.

Because of the torture he experienced, Magneto became determined to protect mutants from persecution. His cynical outlook and use of deadly force were in an effort to prevent a tragedy like the Holocaust from happening again. He uses violence and fear to fight for his cause. However, with help from Charles Xavier, Magneto has a change of heart. When he almost kills Kitty Pryde, a young, Jewish mutant, it became a pivotal moment in his reformation. He realized his ideas were horrific and extremist, much like the Nazi army’s views on Jewish people. Even as a villain, he’s able to have a total reformation and change the way he defended his fellow mutants.

Nick Fury

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Next, we have Nick Fury. Before he became the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nicky Fury was Sergeant Fury, the commander of an elite squad during World War II. In SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS, readers follow Fury’s experience in the military.  He and his longtime friend, Red Hargrove, enlisted in the army together. Then, he witnessed a historical military tragedy. Fury was present during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of his comrades, including Hargrove, were killed. This loss of life had a major impact on him.

A war injury caused him to gradually lose vision in his left eye. Even with a physical reminder of battle, his mission is to protect the world and save lives. The hardships he faced during his military career influenced him to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. after the agency became corrupted. He used his experience in war as motivation to help people.  In my opinion, Fury knows how precious life is because of the fallen soldiers he once fought alongside. This is why maintaining an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. was so important to him.

Flash Thompson (AKA Agent Venom)

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Inspired to be a hero like Spider-Man, Flash Thompson enlisted in the United States Army right out of high school. In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #574, Flash, laying in a hospital bed, recounts his experience fighting in the Iraq War. During one mission, his comrade was injured in battle. Surrounded by the enemy, Flash still tries to rescue the soldier. Although critically wounded himself, he still manages to save his friend. Because of the injuries he sustained, Flash lost both of his legs.

As a wounded warrior, the amputation of his legs is a debilitating reminder of the war. After he returned from war, he found no comfort in his military awards. To overcome his depression, he began self-medicating with alcohol. At his lowest point, in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #654, Flash volunteers for Project: Rebirth 2.0. An incredibly dangerous decision leads him to bond with the Venom Symbiote. As a result of temporarily regaining his legs, he loses his sanity. However, he overcomes his inner rage and gains control of the Venom Symbiote. Eventually, Flash ends up fighting alongside the Secret Avengers and Agents of the Cosmos. Even after the trauma of war, Flash was able to become a hero like his idol, Spider-Man.

Ethan Avery (AKA Damage)

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Ethan Avery had dreams of serving his country with pride. However, a military experiment gone wrong transforms him into a Hulk-like monster for one hour at a time. Instead of becoming a war hero, he becomes a living weapon of mass destruction. His intention of being a force for good doesn’t waver, even when Damage tries to corrupt him.

The trauma from Ethan’s military experimentation manifests into a real monster. He develops dual personalities, Ethan the human and Damage the beast. The monster’s actions are reckless and fueled by rage. Compelled to destroy, Ethan fights to maintain an inner peace. In DAMAGE #5, Ethan tries to control Damage’s actions and use his power to save lives. While doing so, he’s plagued with nightmares of the tortuous experimentation. At his heart, he wants to protect people, not hurt them. Ethan struggles between right and wrong. To do that, his human consciousness must tame the beast inside him.

In Conclusion

What Can We Make Of Superhero PTSD in Television and Film?

Mental health issues, like PTSD, don’t define a person. It’s what they do with their experiences that’s important. They can overcome their past trauma and strive to be a force for good. However, some let negative thoughts corrupt their life. Hope is never lost on the road to recovery. For veterans, both real and fictional, they carry their experience of war with them always.

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