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Holy Psychology, Batman!

By Rachel Thomas '14

Dr. Travis Langley '86 recently published Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

Langley is a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and a self-described "superherologist," a "psychologist using superheroes to teach psychology and the psychology to analyze superheroes."

Batman and Psychology is the culmination of years of work and study on Batman, comic books in general and the fans who love them.

The book began several years ago as an assignment in one of his courses. He asked his students to pick a literary figure and complete various psychological ratings of the character over the course of a semester.

"I would have them rank how Machiavellian the character is and write a paragraph about that, rate how extraverted or introverted the character is," says Langley, who completed the same assignments about Batman.

"And I kept writing," he says.

That summer, Langley attended his first Comic-Con, where he met Danny Fingeroth, author of Superman on the Couch.

"So just all those different things coming together for me at the same time," Langley says. "It just struck me, I need to do research on fans, and I need to write a book about Batman."

Why Batman?

"The Batman character, more so than any other superhero, is defined by his psychology," he explains. "He's the superhero without superpowers."

Spiderman and Superman are heroes because of their psychology, as opposed to other things they could have done. But the "super" part comes about because of things beyond their control (e.g. Spiderman gets bitten by a spider, Superman gets rocketed to earth from a dying planet), Langley says.

In contrast, Batman, though his origin story includes a tragedy outside of his control, chooses to become more than just an ordinary person. He chooses to train himself in forensics, science, and combat. And he chooses to put on a mask.

"He chose to become this bat-creature … He made himself into this fantastic figure," Langley says. "More than any other superhero, his personality is the first thing we look at when we're looking at what he is."

The same holds true of Batman's villains too.

While Spiderman and Superman face enemies that are similarly "super," in some fantastical or science fiction-based way, Batman's villains are also primarily psychological figures.

"The Riddler is defined by his compulsion to send riddles; the Joker is defined by his malicious, twisted sense of humor - murderous sense of humor. The Penguin is defined by his wanting to be in high society. The way he dresses. He doesn't technically wear a costume but this suit that he wears has this penguin-y quality. But he's a high society wannabe," Langley says. "So they all become a very rich source for looking at different kinds of psychology."

These can range from normal psychology to social psychology, the psychology of mental illness, and developmental psychology, Langley says.

By using a fictional character like Batman to look at psychology, Langley can explore topics, including childhood trauma and losing both parents violently, which might otherwise be too off-putting to a reader.

"If a reader were really reading about a real individual who at age eight saw his parents get murdered and looking at how that affected his whole life, the details of that could be just too repellent for them to keep reading," Langley says. "Also it could be very unfair to the real-life individual … to speculate wildly about every little thing they've said and done. With fictional characters, we have greater freedom to talk about all these different aspects of psychology."

Also, with a fictional character, one can get a better understanding of that character's mind and motivations. With real people, some speculation is required in the absence of those helpful thought balloons.

And if Langley and his students do speculate about Batman, Bruce Wayne can't sue them.

After realizing what a rich psychological source Batman was, Langley began attending Comic-Con more frequently. He spoke on panels and met people who had been involved with Batman, from his inception in 1939 to the present day. In particular, he befriended Michael Uslan, who has been a producer of Batman movies for more than 30 years and who would eventually write the foreword to his book.

Teaching superheroes & studying fans

This summer, Langley spoke on a panel about The Dark Knight Rises at Comic-Con, where he met legendary comic book writer Stan Lee, who helped create some of the world's most famous comic book characters.

When Langley told Lee that he wrote a book about the psychology of Batman, Lee said, "Batman? Why did you write a book about him?"

Langley told him, "Well, he's more screwed up then your characters."

Langley plans to teach a class on Stan Lee's characters. The class will be titled "Stan Lee University," on Lee's suggestion.

"I mentioned that to my department chair and his feeling was, 'You have Stan Lee who wants to communicate with you about a class called Stan Lee University, we can call it that,'" Langley said.

Last spring, Langley taught a class called Batman, a title he was adamant about.

"I could have called it something like the Psychology of Nocturnal Vigilantism, but no. I called it Batman," Langley says.

The class drew students who were both casual and avid fans of the billionaire from Gotham, and Langley got some of the best class evaluations he'd ever received at the end of the course.

"For the person who's interested in taking the Batman class, it is a great way for them to learn a variety of aspects of psychology," he says. "For some of these students, it's the class where they got to feel most like themselves ever … there's nothing too nerdy to say in a class called Batman."

When skeptics question the value of analyzing a fictional character rather than analyzing real people, Langley responds, "We're looking at real human psychology, through the filter of fiction."

Langley appreciates the freedom that teaching at a liberal arts university has given him to pursue his work on comic books and to teach classes like Batman and Stan Lee University.

"At my particular university they've been very supportive of comics studies," he says, citing his dean's advocacy of his work.

"She was just trusting us, in our department, to know how to teach our subject, and that speaks very well of her," he says. "She trusted my chair and she trusted me to know enough about our subject matter to do that."

Soon after his first Comic-Con trip, Langley began taking a group of students to Comic-Con as part of the Empirical Research on the Interpretation and Influence of the Comic Arts (ERIICA) project.

The students conduct surveys of fans at and outside of Comic-Con, asking who their favorite superheroes were, what supervillains they found interesting, and so on. They also conduct self-esteem assessments. The students give poster presentations, and Langley speaks on panels.

Some of their findings were very interesting to Langley.

Self-esteem inventories showed that fans had higher self-esteem at Comic-Con.

This is because attendees know they can say and do nerdy things and that the environment (Comic-Con, like his Batman class) will welcome them.

Langley and his students also found that people tend to like superheroes that are similar, at least psychologically, to them.

"More neurotic people, people who rate themselves as being more neurotic, tend to choose more neurotic heroes," Langley said. "Mentally healthy people tend to choose healthier heroes."

They also conducted surveys of superheroes fans in other settings.

"It was interesting to find that prison inmates rate Batman as being mentally healthier than college students rate him," he said. "It almost seemed ironic that some of the prison inmates were going, 'Batman is cool,' … But he is someone who operates outside the system, he is a rebel. And even the world's villains tend not to think of themselves as villains."

On a darker subject

Langley has been doing interviews for the book since it came out. But since the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., the nature of those interviews has changed.

"People are wanting to discuss darker subjects," he says "And it's not all directly about Colorado."

Since the shootings, Langley has received more questions about why super villains interest us and why have the stories gotten darker.

"I wasn't getting asked that very much before …," Langley says. "People are looking at what's going on in these stories."

"The shooting is horrifying," he says. "Absolutely nobody should downplay the importance or the brutality of what happened. It was a monstrous event.'

But what does the movie have to do with what happened?

People want to know if the movie shaped or caused what happened, he says.

Considering it was the movie premiere and the shooter had not seen the movie before, it doesn't seem like there is any way the movie could have caused what happened, Langley thinks.

The bigger picture question is his interest in Batman and the Joker and could that have led him to do these horrible things, he says.

Although every individual is different and one shouldn't "overgeneralize," looking at past mass murderers can give psychologists insight into common motivations and patterns.

"We know very commonly the mass-murderer is someone who has felt inadequate and frustrated and not been good about dealing with people," he explains. "Even if they've been shy and not been troublemaking, they lack some of the better aspects of dealing with people and how to express their frustrations along the way."

When life goes sour for them, they don't know how to deal with it, they want somebody else to blame, and they want to express their anger somewhere in the world, Langley says.

"For some of them it's retaliation, for some of them it's revenge, for some of them it's simply saying 'Here I am world, see me,'" he says.

The information that the media and the police have collected so far suggests that the suspect, who Langley prefers not to mention by name, had "fallen short on his life dream."

"Now his study of neuroscience had nothing whatsoever to do with Batman or the Joker, so for him saying he's the Joker - and we don't know what he meant by that, we don't know that he's delusional, we don't know he believed that - but for his saying that, and, oh, he had a Batman poster on his wall, and a Batman mask, and apparently he had an answering machine or a voicemail message in which he was doing a creepy Joker voice, he had some kind of interest in these things," Langley says. "But the choice to commit the mass murder seems to grow entirely out of his own personal frustrations and failures and the need to feel like he's bigger in the world."

 "There's nothing to indicate that anything about the fiction at all drove him to do this," Langley concludes. "For whatever he pulled from it in shaping what he was doing, that does not appear to have been any kind of cause for the behavior."

Batman through the ages

In the second chapter of his book, titled "Which Batman," Langley explores the various incarnations of the Caped Crusader and how they reflect their times. Although Batman changes, there are always constants to the story, he says.

"Through every version of Batman there are certain common characteristics. He is Bruce Wayne. His parents were killed in front of him," Langley says. "Even the Adam West television show refers to that … he is Bruce Wayne, he's this billionaire, his parents got murdered in front of him so he's driven to go out, a bit smug in the knowledge that he can and should do the things that the police either can't or won't. No matter how serious or lighthearted you get with Batman, that's what's going on."

The changes to the character reflect the times and what the readers and, later, the viewers, wanted from the character, Langley says.

The original stories, starting in 1939-1940, were fairly dark. They got lighter into the 1960s, with Adam West's portrayal of Batman, always armed with just the right bat-device, marking a particularly campy time in the hero's history.

For all its silliness, Adam West's Batman accomplished something rather remarkable. It was a show that children could enjoy seriously, and adults could find funny, he notes.

"When I was a little kid, Batman was Adam West ... and we had no idea it was a joke," Langley says.

The late 80s movie series, produced by Michael Uslan and starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, was a surprise to some, says Langley.

"People did not realize you could have this noir-ish look to Batman," he says. "Michael Uslan had spent the 80s trying to convince movie studios that the public would accept a serious Batman. It seems obvious now but he had a lot of difficulty selling people on the concept."

Frank Miller's Batman graphic novels in the 1980s would go on to influence Christopher Nolan's trilogy.

The 90s were a mixed time for Batman, according to Langley. Batman was handed over to Joel Schumacher, a man "capable of making serious movies" Langley says, with a note of disappointment familiar to Batman fans.

"Since the studio wanted something lighter, he made something lighter. He made Batman Forever, it did very well, and then he went lighter and campier than anything had been in 30 years with this thing called Batman ampersand Robin," Langley says, articulating the punctuation mark. "In my view the worst bat-anything ever … It was so bad that essentially Batman had to be gone long enough to be declared legally dead before we could get another movie."

That movie was Batman Begins, the first in Christopher Nolan's recently concluded trilogy of films about the Dark Knight and Langley's favorite Batman movie.

But, for Langley, Batman will always be primarily a comic book superhero because comic books are the realm of superheroes, he thinks.

"The superhero is not in most movies, the superhero is in very few TV shows, and generally not books," he explains. "There are books about superhero-y kind of characters and they've become increasingly popular, but still they don't stand out the same way as in this particular medium of the comic book.

In addition to being the home of the superhero character, the form itself sets comic books apart from other media and makes them interesting in terms of academic study.

"The writer can get as intimate with the character as he or she wants to … You can depict the thoughts in a way that a movie won't. You can take the time to build something over the course of months and have people get to know the character," Langley says. "With a comic book character, we have many individuals who have contributed to it, and over the course of time. We don't look at how Ahab changes over the course of time. Ahab is Ahab is Ahab."

Not surprisingly, Langley is a comic book fan himself.

"Right now, I've got more than a dozen subscriptions. Of course, that also came out of when I was working on the Batman book ... But it was fun," he says. "And I tell people, you can have fun and do very serious things with the things you have fun with … The sooner you find a way to combine the things that you have passion for, the more years you will get to spend enjoying them."

Langley's book is available at

Rachel Thomas '14 is an English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.