James Tynion IV is no stranger to inserting commentaries about society in his works, but they were usually diluted in a fantastic environment like in Woods (2014-2017) or in Wynd (2020-ongoing) or presented as a metaphor like being a mutant in Amazing X-Men #13 (2014). The Unsanity Collective, though, is probably the best element Tynion has used so far to reflect on the kind of society in which we live today. They first appeared on Batman #106 (2021), but it was in Batman #108 (2021) that the character Miracle Molly explained what the group was about. They are a community who offer Gothamites a new way of living, beyond what society considers normal or sane. Using technology, they are able to erase a person’s memory, giving them a blank slate, free from their traumas, so that they can reach their full potential. The Unsanity Collective is a direct and harsh commentary on our economic system and a perfect way to start a serious conversation about the relation between society and mental health. They have a message everybody should listen to.
Tynion’s social discussion in the Batbooks started getting noticeable in the second year of his Detective Comics run, when, among other things, he brought the character Anarky into the fold. In Detective Comics #963 (2017) and #964 (2017) we see that Anarky created an underground community called Utopia to house Gotham City’s poor population. We don’t intend to classify Anarky’s action as anarchist, socialist or communist, because that’s not our objective. What we want to do is highlight his position as a social justice revolutionary, creating a self-sustaining community where none will be in need of housing, food, energy, teaching or health care. Essentially what he did was create an alternative to the capitalist economy that relegated those people to a precarious situation and gave them a socio-economic emancipation and a true welfare state.
Utopia was Tynion talking about economic injustices and material needs. The idea of the Unsanity Collective is a step further and contemplates the psychological consequences of a capitalist society. In the writer’s words:
“The idea of the Unsanity Collective is that they erase part of their memories so they can let go of the traumas of their past, let go of who society wanted them to be, and they’re able to rebuild themselves from scratch as these new people.”
Society has damaged these people so much the only possible escape is erasing themselves and starting as a clean slate. To better understand that, we invite you to follow Miracle Molly’s dialogue with Batman so that we can properly break down its message.
“Master Wyze says that happiness is the carrot society holds at the end of the stick. They try to get you to pursue it as a way to control you.”
The French philosopher Pascal Bruckner states in his book La euforia perpetua (2001) that the obligation of being happy has become one of the greatest numbing mechanisms of the current society. He thinks that, nowadays, more than wanting to be happy, we believe we must be happy. What was a desire is now an imperative. We are unhappy simply by not being happy. What we need to understand is that if late-stage capitalism didn´t create this new configuration, it sure thrived on it, associating happiness to consumer symbols. Happiness, now more than ever, is deeply connected to consumerism. We must buy an expensive car, live in a mansion, travel around the world… Even our own bodies have become products, as we struggle to have a perfect skin, muscular body and look 20 years younger. We must post everything on social media so everyone can confirm that we are truly happy. As we associate happiness with the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts, we must always earn more, always get a raise in our jobs, always get a promotion, always succeed. To achieve that, we must produce more and more to please our bosses beyond their expectations, so they too might get a raise and a promotion for managing their employees so efficiently and effectively. That will eventually reach a level where everyone is working unhealthily, to the point of exploitation. At the end of the line, we have the company owners, who also believe happiness comes from consumerism and wealth acquisition.
In this configuration, we are exploiting ourselves and each other, all to consume more. And also, company owners are using the fear of their employees. We will produce more and more and more, because we are afraid they will fire us if we don´t. It’s really a fear state in which we live.
“When the truth is that happiness is always fleeting. If you stop chasing, then you can enjoy it when it comes.”
That quote is very similar to the one most people attribute to Buddha: “Happiness is a journey not a destination, work like you don’t need money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one is looking”. If happiness is not a destination, you can never get there. That’s why Molly says it’s always fleeting. When you thought you achieved it, it vanishes. That is especially true with consumerism, because you will always need the next model, the next collection, the bigger, the better, the newer. Happiness is designed to be temporary. When you associate it with the postmodern happiness imperative, what you get is a recurring feeling of dissatisfaction. If you free yourself of that imperative and the need of ever-increasing consumption, you will be able to enjoy happiness whenever it appears, without the crushing demand to always be happy.
That search for happiness through consumption we just talked about is a practice in which not everyone can actually engage though. Even if people in need could share the same view about consumerism, they can’t even experience the fleeting and illusory happiness it might bring. All they have is a constant struggle to afford their basic needs and rich people have everything to do with this.
“They see how messed up everything has become, and instead of working to make it better for everyone, they only try to make it better for themselves. They’re opportunists. Vultures.”
To put it in the simplest way, money is not infinite. If some people are accumulating huge amounts of it, other people will lack it. That’s all because of the idea that the wealthier you are, the happier you will be. While several can’t afford basic things, a few will spend fortunes on frivolous stuff. We are not talking about you buying that DC Direct statue you wanted so badly, we are talking about those who buy cars that cost millions of dollars, who own castles and islands, while there are people dying because they can’t afford insulin. It’s true that some rich people do charity, but that’s great PR material and there’s also charitable contribution deductions and they still stay rich. Of course, they don’t need to share everything, they can still have a comfortable life, but how many are willing to give up their luxury? How many are willing to give up a trip to space to pay better salaries to their employees?
The reality is that business men do not see their companies as a way to make things better for them and for their employees. They see it as a way to make them and only them richer. And, for that, they need to increase production and decrease costs, which they will achieve by exploiting their employees. Managing fear of being fired will make them produce more and paying low salaries will cost less.
“But we haven’t left one person destitute on the streets, and we wouldn’t.”
While the unfair wealth distribution leaves some people starving and others owning a toilet made of gold, the Unsanity Collective will not engage in this obscenity. They will help whoever comes to them because people’s welfare is more important than accumulating money. And that is revolutionary. In our society, we see a lot more people dreaming about being rich than dreaming about equity. That’s not the case with the Unsanity Collective.
“A cold, unfeeling system that was designed decades ago and has been falling apart for longer than any of them have been alive”.
We are not sure if Molly is referring to capitalism, because it is centuries, not decades old. Maybe she is only referring to late-stage capitalism, which some scholars trace back to the 1940s and is commonly used in the context of injustices and inequalities. Or maybe she is referring to neoliberalism, which became popular in the 1970s and is a model with a premise of suppression of wages and smashing the social power and resilience of the working class. Either way, they are all related. She sees the system collapsing and probably agrees with scholars that foresee the end of capitalism as something close. There is no academic consensus on that matter, if it will happen because of energy resources, wealth distribution, technological and information revolution, or even if it will happen at all, but it doesn’t matter to our discussion here anyway. What we want to highlight is the impact on people.
According to NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway, “we’ve decided that capitalism means being loving and empathetic to corporations, and darwinistic and harsh towards individuals”. The covid-19 pandemic was an example of this. There were more efforts to save businesses and financial markets than to help people at the bottom of the economic ladder and the consequence is a growing number of people going hungry. It is indeed a cold, unfeeling system.
“I watched the footage once, of the moments before I was going to turn. The woman I watched in that video… She looked so sad, and scared, and desperate. I think she must have suffered incredibly.”
French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, in his book Le culte de la performance (2010), talks about the fallacy of the new work model of the 21st Century, which reflects the growing process of individualization in society. It supposedly brings sports as a metaphor, capable of breaking psychological and social barriers at work, stimulating employees to act as sports heroes to achieve their goals, taking full responsibility for their success and failures. In that myth, everyone can be the entrepreneur of themselves and successful according to their own performance. The biggest problem is that the concept of meritocracy does not contemplate differences of gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, social position, cognitive and physical abilities or even psychological state. It creates the illusion that everyone is responsible for their own happiness and, if anyone is not successful, it is because they haven’t tried hard enough.
In a way, what Ehrenberg criticizes is the concept of the self-made man, something that people commonly associate with Batman as a character. It is true that Bruce Wayne worked hard to become Batman, but it is also true that not everyone would achieve the same results. Not everyone can be Batman. Bruce was born full of privilege. He is a genius, he is physically capable, he could afford his worldwide pilgrimage . That is not the reality of most people. He is a self-made hero, but he started with a bag full of attributes. The problem with this model is that when you fail to be Batman, or, in a more realistic scenery, a successful entrepreneur, the fault is only yours. You are guilty of not realizing your desires and every aspect or limitation that is out of your control doesn’t count.
In Batman Secret Files: Miracle Molly (2021), we see that, even though Mary Kowalski – who will later become Miracle Molly – is a genius full of ideas, she was never given an opportunity for a more creative role. Also, she had to deal with her family pressuring her to settle down and have a child. We have to ask: would all of that happen if she was a man? We live in a society infested by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism, classism and several other prejudices. This will definitely impact the number and kind of opportunities a person will have. It’s very telling how, in the story, no character even asks why Mary doesn’t succeed. This reflects exactly what happens in the real world. The social narrative is decided by those in power and it’s to their best interest that no one asks questions.
Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educational theorist, once said that “when education is not liberatory, the dream of the oppressed is to be the oppressor”. What that means is that, when a person oppressed by the system doesn´t free their mind, they will not work to make it better, they will work to be in a position of power inside that system. All they will do is repeat the same narrative and that has a price to be paid in mental health. That’s what happened to Mary. The Unsanity Collective is about the re-education of the mind, about liberation from capitalism, from the social standards that chain us, put us down and prevent us from reaching our best selves. It’s about creating a new system, a new society. And it’s a choice, you have to agree to be free. It’s like in the movie Matrix: which pill are you going to take?