This year's Comic Arts Conference at Wondercon was really diverse. From panels that carefully analyzed how meaning is created on the standard comic-book page to the tension between biology and technology in Batman and Iron Man to how comics are used in the classroom, there was something for everyone. Travis Langley, author of the upcoming Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, gave us two presentations, one on how he uses Batman to teach psychological concepts to his students and a second on the question of Batman's personal psychological issues and possible diagnosis. His analysis of Batman was so interesting that we had to ask some follow-up questions:
Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: In your classes, you use Batman and related characters (from the comic books, movies and TV) to talk about specific psychological conditions. Why does the Batman universe lend itself so well to discussing these kinds of issues?
Travis Langley: He's the superhero with no superpowers. His origin taps into a primal fear that we all understand, but even before that origin, his creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger invested our primal fears in his very look. They created a hero we could all imagine might exist in real life — no secret formula, magic ring or rocket to Earth required. He's the part of us that wants to scare life's bullies away. Most of his enemies have no superpowers either. They're all defined by their behaviors, their personalities. Batman, the hero with no superpowers, intimidates a room full of heroes who can fly, read minds and run faster than light, much like his arch-enemy, the Joker, scares the bejeebers out of other supervillains. In varying degrees, Batman's enemies are funhouse distortions of aspects of himself, and as such, anything they do potentially helps us explore the psychology of Batman himself.
CB: You argued at your WonderCon panel that, despite the common perception, Batman likely does NOT suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After listening to yours and others' descriptions of PTSD, I'm wondering if you feel that Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman/Selina Kyle does.
Langley: Smart question. By definition, she can't, because a month hasn't passed since the trauma. PTSD is a long-term condition. People who show powerful reactions to trauma during the first month are less likely to be crippled by that trauma later on than people who numb themselves and withdraw during the first month. If she shows all other symptoms for more than two weeks but less than a month, she would have acute stress disorder. Extreme behavior during the first two weeks after a traumatic event is too common, and if it's common, it's not a mental illness. Admittedly, her specific actions are uncommon, but she does live in a city where a guy runs around dressed like a bat.
We'd have to know what she's like a month later. But does anybody really expect her to spend her days curled up into a ball, unable to function because she can't stop thinking about what Max did? Not likely.
CB: Is your average Batman villain more likely to be a psychopath or a sociopath? Or some combination of the two?
Langley: Both, all the way. Most of them are psychopaths — they have no conscience, no empathy, no guilt over anything they've ever done. Most are also sociopaths, although I do have to point out that there's no standard definition for that word. Psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder or whatever other term we want to use in psychology to avoid saying "evil" [are all applicable]. Whether we focus on internal qualities like disregard for others or external actions like heinous violations of other people's rights, the Joker, the Penguin and many other Bat-villains fit the criteria for every single term.
CB: You described the Joker as "crazy but not legally insane." What did you mean? Does this apply to all of Arkham's regulars?
Langley: He knows what he's doing. However twisted his way of thinking might be, he recognizes his own actions and how wrong they are. He likes the wrongness. When he murders you, he doesn't think he's fighting off hallucinatory monsters. He knows he's killing you and he likes it. Insanity is a legal term, not a psychiatric diagnosis, and it does not fit him. Jeffrey Dahmer ate people. Dahmer had bizarre ideas but he still knew what he was doing and was therefore legally sane.
Even a psychotic person can be sane, contradictory as that might sound. Here's how I put it in my chapter on Arkham: "If your friend tells you to shoot your next door neighbor, you know that it's wrong, you shouldn't do it and you need some better friends. If a hallucinatory elephant tells you to shoot your neighbor, you might still know that it's wrong, you shouldn't do it, and you need some better elephants. Friend or elephant, you're still sane."
Most of Batman's enemies would not be deemed legally insane in our world. Batman's enemy Maxie Zeus initially gets sent to Blackgate Penitentiary whenever he gets caught, not to the asylum, even though he believes he is the Greek god Zeus. Eventually, though, he grows further out of touch with reality and starts going to Arkham. The Mad Hatter's another one who probably would be found insane. He hallucinates, he's delusional, he has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he spends a lot of time thinking he's off in Wonderland and does not always understand the real world meaning of what he's doing to other people.
CB: In your presentation on Batman and Hamlet, you talk about the similarity in their experiences but how they take somewhat different roads in how they deal with their issues. One of the big differences is that Batman knows certain things about the death of his parents while Hamlet must rely on second- and thirdhand information about the death of his father. A second is that Batman achieves agency of his own volition, while Hamlet has his thrust upon him. How do you feel this relates to Batman's unwillingness to kill and Hamlet's eventual decision to do just that?
Langley: We could spend a long time discussing all the reasons why Batman won't kill. Both Batman and Hamlet want to be better people than the killers they pursue. Batman's self-control is such a crucial part of who he is as a human being that he can't give that up. Commissioner Gordon and the Justice League would not continue to accept this guy if he crossed that line.
The first time Hamlet kills anyone, he loses control and kills the wrong person, which illustrates the value in Batman's refusal to kill. Once the killing starts, the wrong people can get hurt. Of the seven characters who die in the course of Shakepeare's play Hamlet, only two get killed by someone who actually intends to murder them. Hamlet won't kill his uncle until he's already dying of poison himself.
CB: How does the fact that Batman's mother (whose death is treated as less important than that of Bruce's father) dies while Hamlet's mother lives and takes old Hamlet's murderer as husband impact the development of the two me
Langley: Bruce Wayne gets to treasure his parents' memory forever. Hamlet resents his mother for remarrying so soon after his father's death, even before he finds out she married his father's killer. Hamlet is a grown man who has developed his core personality as opposed to Bruce Wayne, who loses his parents during his childhood. Bruce has already developed some traits like self-discipline — traits that will help him become Batman — but he still has a lot of personality development lying ahead while he grows up. Their deaths rerouted him from whatever path he might have taken and he'll never know what kind of person he might have been otherwise.
Bruce relates better to each of the Robins when they're younger, but he has trouble knowing how to deal with grown sons, probably because he only saw how his parents raised a younger child. He didn't see how they'd handle a teenager. He didn't learn new ways of relating to them as he matured, and so he doesn't really know how to treat a Teen Wonder or a Nightwing. He doesn't know what to do with his 10-year-old son either, but that's because Damian, raised by assassins, isn't like any other kid he's ever known.
CB: Freud used Hamlet to talk about the Oedipal conflict. Is Batman as useful in this context or would Freud have used him as an example of something else?
Langley: Considering how powerfully Sigmund Freud felt the Oedpial conflict shapes personality, he'd definitely have considered Batman's origin to be an example of an Oedipal fantasy gone bad. At Bruce's age when the murders happened, between the ages of six and ten [depending on the writer], he'd have recently passed through his Oedipal crisis — according to Freud, not me. I'm not saying every little boy wants to have sex with his mother and sees his dad as a rival who might castrate him, but Freud did. Given what Freud said about Hamlet, he'd have said that the mugger reminded Bruce, at least unconsciously, of his own previous desire to eliminate his father and have his mother — or her pearls — to himself and that Martha Wayne's death would have reminded Bruce of any anger he'd ever felt toward her for choosing his father over him and would therefore have aroused guilt in himself. Freud would probably say Bruce wages his war on crime because he feels guilty for any resentment he'd ever felt toward either of his parents, as if his own Oedipal conflict had gotten them killed.
In my book, I speculate on what Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung would have had to say about Batman, but that's only one chapter, "The Psychodynamic Duo: Freud and Jung on Batman and Robin." The rest of the book looks at real issues more relevant to modern forensic, clinical, developmental and social psychology.
CB: Your book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, is coming out in June. Can you give us a little preview?
Langley: When people hear I'm writing on the psychology of Batman, the most common thing they ask is some form of "Is Batman gay?" or "What's up with Robin?" Nobody writing the character ever wrote him as gay. That's a plain fact. However, considering how many boys he has adopted and how many women he has ditched so he could run off to fight crime, rumors would circulate. Gotham's gossips would wonder about the private life of Bruce Wayne.
Michael Uslan, who has produced every Batman movie since the eighties, wrote a foreword for my book, and comic book writer Dennis O'Neil wrote the introduction. Here's what Denny had to say about Batman and Psychology:
"It is a terrific book. It explores the psychological implications of Batman's various incarnations, in print and on screens both large and small, and in the process gives us a pretty thorough biography of Batman, his friends and his enemies and demonstrates the kind of reality Batman enjoys. Not a literal reality, but a way of existing in people's heads that extends past fiction into the realm of postindustrial mythology. I know of no word that exactly defines this kind of myth, but when somebody gets around to creating one, they may very well use Travis Langley's book as a reference."
I can't say strongly enough what an honor it is for Mike and Denny to have contributed to this work. The book comes out June 19, one month before The Dark Knight Rises hits theaters. The full title is Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, although right now the cover image on Amazon's pre-order page still shows a different subtitle.
CB: In closing, can you answer this age-old question: Is a batarang sometimes really just a batarang?
Langley: It's never just a batarang. It's always also a symbol to remind his enemies: The bat can get you. It reminds Batman too.