An Apophenia MacGuffin sounds like some sort of designer breakfast sandwich but its not. In fact it isn’t anything. It’s a combination of too unrelated words which I hope to give meaning to. A MacGuffin is a plot device, usually poorly defined, and represents an item of concept which the main character and possibly the antagonist is seeking. It is most common to see MacGuffins in the first half of a fictional work, but there are cases where the MacGuffin runs throughout as a sort of background device. The Maltese Falcon could be said to be a MacGuffin (also a red herring – isn’t that confusing) and so could the Rabbit’s Foot in the most recent Mission Impossible movie. In superhero movies the MacGuffin (in my opinion) is usually the source of their power. The best example of this might be the first Iron Man movie. Most of the first half of the movie is spent demonstrating the development of the armour even though the science of it is often poorly understood. Most specifically the MacGuffin here would probably be the arc ray reactor (I hope I remembered that name right) as it is highly sought after in both movies though never really well defined. In Batman Begins you could say that the MacGuffin is Bruce Wayne himself, his abilities are highly sought after both personally for him to define himself, and for Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan for destroying Gotham.
If you can imagine a lot of other comic characters being made into movies then you can see how this plot device might be more pronounced. Starman’s Cosmic Rod and Air Wave’s roller skates that allow him to skate on power lines (ok the second is not a very good example) are sort of poorly defined powerful items which the main characters spend a lot of time designing. As I said before though, even something like Bruce Wayne’s abilities can be a MacGuffin. My question though is this – should mental illness be one? A lot of characters display some aspects of mental illness but we usually end up calling these characters the villains. There are a couple of characters that I can think of where there mental illness sort of inspired them to be heroes. One is Sentry in the Marvel Universe who suffered from severe depression. I don’t really know as much about this character so maybe it is best to leave that to a Marvel expert. The one I do know somewhat better is The Question/Rorschach (these are basically the same character, the Watchmen character was based on the Question.)
Apophenia is pretty mild as far as mental illnesses go, it basically just entails finding meaning in random pieces of information and tying them together. In fact apophenia can be so mild that it is not necessarily associated with any psychoses or neuroses, and it may be the case that apophenia shows up in individuals who are completely healthy mentally (this might just be someone who believes in elaborate conspiracies like the moon landing hoax or whatever people about JFK’s assassination) but in more extreme examples it can in fact be more of a problem. When your inability to perceive the world outside as more than a collection of expertly interwoven plots to take down the government, you or whatever else a plot could be used for, then you might say you have gone beyond what is considered healthy, and these people do exist. One such character that exhibits more pronounced apophenia is The Question.
The Question has a sort of complicated publication history. He was first a Charlton comics character, who was then bought by DC, who then let him be modified for the Watchmen, which inspired his appearances in Justice League Unlimited. In certain cases it is implied that the Question began his crimefighting career because of his need to find all the answers to the questions. Of course as it plays out, in order that the plot lines have some sense, his elaborate plots usually are accurate. After all, if the Justice League showed up to bust down someone’s door and found a boy scout meeting, they might have some explaining to do. The fact of the matter is though that apopheniacs are rarely correct. Their minds are interpreting information is such a way that they are drawing all the wrong conclusions (this was hinted at in a couple of episodes of JLU, such as when The Question finds Baskin-Robbins 32 flavour) and this information is usually nearly useless. It is like those people who say that there is a face carved into the surface of Mars by aliens to try and communicate with us, but on closer inspection it is just a bunch of rocks.
In light of mental illness being as serious issue in modern society, they way they are represented in comics in comics almost always make them into a threat to society, which they are not (at least not in the sense of someone becoming a supervillain.) In a few cases they are used as inspirations for heroes to be heroic. But is mental illness therefore something to aspire to even if it is relatively minor? Probably not.