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Superheroes & Psychology, Part 1: Batman … or just batty?

Worlds Finest #153 - © 2012 DC Comics

As every fan familiar with Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman knows, the caped crusader has some deep-seated mental problems stemming from witnessing the death of his parents when he was just a child. In the Christopher Nolan film Batman Begins, actor Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne even admits, “…a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”

Batman always seems to be at the forefront of discussions regarding the psychological instability of superheroes; and with the upcoming release of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s mental health is once again coming under scrutiny.

Dr. Travis LangleyDr. Travis Langley is considered a “Superherologist” and an expert on superhero psychology; he is a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas and author of the book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, which focuses on many of the mental aspects of the Dark Knight and his alter-ego.

In part one of our two part series on superheroes and psychology, Dr. Langley graciously broke a way from his extremely busy schedule to give Nerdvana readers some insight into the Dark Knight’s psyche and explain what it is that makes super-beings so screwy.

Given the nature of what they do, it seems that most superheroes have some sort of psychological problem. What is it about Batman that makes people associate him with mental instability more than with any other hero?

Dr. Langley: He doesn’t have superpowers. Superman has fantastic powers and feels obligated to use them in fantastic ways. Superman wears a costume because he is a superhero. Batman, conversely, is a superhero because he wears a costume. If Superman flew off wearing a jumpsuit to save a crashing plane, he’d still be a superhero. If Batman wore a jumpsuit to fight mugger, he’d be a vigilante in a jumpsuit. Because he does not have that kind of power, we inherently contemplate the mental status of this guy who dresses like a bat.

Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy KnightWith your knowledge of the various comic book universes, who would you consider the hero with the most psychological problems and why? Which villain do you think is most mentally unstable and why?

Dr. Langley: That depends on how obscure you want to go. No matter who I pick, a reader can reasonably argue that someone else is crazier. Marvel Comics’ Moon Knight has dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality), but they’re pretty stable identities. The Sentry is a lot more disturbed than Moon Knight and as powerful as Superman, which makes him more potentially dangerous. Deadpool is crazy in ways that defy real-world analysis, as is DC’s Ambush Bug, and neither one of them is consistently heroic or villainous. It’s hard to have a “most unstable” hero or villain because the ones who are the most out of touch with reality aren’t going to be capable enough to survive long.

Have you ever thought of writing/creating a hero that is a psychologist who tries to deal with super villains on a medical/scientific level?

Dr. Langley: [Laughs] Yes. Something like that would have to cross my mind, wouldn’t it? Writing such a character would seem a bit self-indulgent. Inevitably, though, some other writer would fall on the cliché of making the therapist “go mad.” Jeph Loeb pulled that lame stunt when he made Doc Samson go insane and turn murderous. It’s a shame. That’s such a waste of a character. One of my favorite comic book stories ever involved Samson going through a series of therapeutic interviews with the members of X-Factor.

If Bruce Wayne did not have the financial means to do what he does as Batman, what do you think he would be doing in the ‘real world?’

Dr. Langley: There is no Bruce Wayne without the financial means. He grew up with that wealth. A Bruce Wayne who grew up without that wealth would have a different personality, so I can’t speculate on what he’d be like. Stan Lee once wrote a story about a Batman who grew up without the wealth. The answer in that case is that Bruce will do whatever the writer wants him to do.

Batman #197Your book talks about Batman’s relationships with ‘bad girls’ that he should be locking up. Besides the obvious physical attraction, what is it that draws them together?

Dr. Langley: Danger is exciting. Batman feels most alive when he’s in danger, so dangerous women make him feel more alive. I spend a whole chapter in my book speculating on this. Batman is the truest part of himself. He can’t always fulfill women who find his Bruce Wayne playboy act attractive. Why, then, do criminals like Talia al Ghul, Catwoman, and Nocturna appeal to him the most? Why doesn’t he develop long-term relationships with superheroines? There are many reasons, but I think the most important one is that superheroines are good people and, in his own opinion, he’s not.

Why do you think costumed heroes who have lost their parents (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman) are so popular in modern culture?

Dr. Langley: I discussed this with Stan Lee once because this question has fascinated me for some time. Stan’s characters were almost all orphans simply because he didn’t bother writing about their parents. Other writers, not Stan, eventually established that those heroes’ parents were all dead. Notable exceptions like Spider-Man and Daredevil were orphans because the loss of father figures played an important part in motivating them to use their powers to help others; plus Stan told me he wanted Peter Parker to have a “tough life.” Parents get in the way. If your Mom is fretting over you keeping your supersuit clean and you getting lunch before fighting Dr. Doom, that’s situation comedy, not a heroic epic.

Many people cite heroes in comic books as being a positive influence on their lives. What are the healthy traits that Batman possesses, if any?

Dr. Langley: He has many: self-control, self-sacrifice, confidence, intelligence, analytical ability, altruism. If not for that great self-control to keep his anger in check, he’d have gotten himself killed long ago, after beating some others to death. Batman spends his life in service to others. He has sacrificed so much to try to keep other people from suffering losses like his own. At the end of the movie The Dark Knight, he sacrifices his own reputation to try to preserve the image of Gotham’s White Knight, Harvey Dent, because he thinks that’s illusion is what the people of Gotham City need. He may have underestimated his own ability to inspire hope, as we should see in The Dark Knight Rises.

Dr. Langley will be speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con this Thursday, July 12 at the Comics Arts Conference Session #4: The Dark Knight Rises: Is Batman Broken? You can also follow the good doctor on Facebook at facebook.com/BatmanBelfry.

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