It’s Day One of Comic Con, so Curicon met up with superherologist Dr. Travis Langley at San Diego Comic Con to discuss his recently released book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. We settle down for a chat with the superherologist to discuss the advantages of interpreting the psychology of a fictional character over a real person, the villains of the Batman universe and what’s next for the Super Hero psychologist and all round nice guy.
I’m sure it’s the question that everybody asks you but what is it about Batman that made you write an entire book on psychology? What is it about a fictional character that makes you write a book on psychology in the real world?
It’s easy to explain why it’s Batman as opposed to other superheroes. Stan Lee brought a lot of dimensions to his characters in the sixties at a time when a lot of superheroes were quite two-dimensional but Batman is defined by his psychology whereas Superman is defined first by his powers. Spider man has a very rich personality but he’s defined by the fact that he was this kid who got bitten by a radioactive spider.
Batman made himself into a superhero and turned himself into this bat thing that he is. Peter Parker did not ask to get bitten by a spider, Superman did not ask to get rocketed to Earth . Ok, Batman did not ask to have his parents killed but he DID decide to become this bat.
How does this relate to real psychology?
Well, one thing I can talk about in psychology of a fictional character in the way I couldn’t with real people, is the fact that we see thought balloons. We know things about this person’s thoughts that we couldn’t know otherwise.
If you were to write a book and go back and analyse Ted Bundy – a worthwhile thing to do – but all we know about his thoughts are what he’s told us and he lied a lot. With Batman we see a thought bubble and we know what was going on inside his head. Also, Bruce Wayne can’t sue me!
I can address things with a fictional character in ways that I couldn’t with real people. I can speculate in ways that would be unfair to a live person, or their survivors or their victims. This being one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, you’ve got the fact that you don’t have to explain a lot of things [about his background],
And it’s not just him. You’ve got this whole rogues gallery of other characters through his entire life. You get to look at different aspects of psychology and not just the mental illness but also developmental psychology, social psychology, and many other things.
So, I guess to reverse the question, was it Batman who got you interested in psychology?
No, to ask me when I got interested in Batman is like asking me when I got interested in ice-cream. It’s just something that was always there for me. He was Adam West on TV when I was little and he was just …there.
So being introduced to Batman as Adam West, on the TV show how does that make you feel about the darker incarnations of Batman now?
I can still enjoy it [the darker versions of Batman]. But I can understand the people who don’t. For people who were 13 or 15 growing up with the Adam West TV show, I can understand them being appalled by that [new] approach.
What is it about Batman that has held people’s interest for almost 70 years?
Well, we want heroes. And we don’t just want heroes in the daytime. We need heroes in the dark. If you’re getting bullied as a little kid, you don’t just want that bully to stop. You want somebody to scare that bully and make that bully feel the way you feel. Batman’s the part of us that wants to make somebody do that to the bullies.
What about the psychopaths he comes up against? I’m interested in the psychology of Two-Face. What’s your take on him?
What I focused on with him is locus of control, our tendency to attribute causality, to take internal responsibility or external responsibility for our actions.
The main thing with him is I really think he’s somebody with an internal locus of control. He does, at heart, take personal responsibility but after this horrible thing happens to him and he wants to do these bad things, he doesn’t want to accept that responsibility that at heart he feels is his.
So do you find his character more interesting than the straight-up psychopathic Joker?
It’s hard not to be interested by The Joker. With The Joker there are so many things you can talk about. The main thing with the Joker would be to outline why in fact he would be considered legally sane. Most of Batman’s enemies, they get locked up in Arkham Asylum but most of them would qualify as actually legally sane. They know what they’re doing, they know it’s wrong,
When the Joker kills you he knows that you’re not a brain-sucking creature out to get him. He knows what he’s doing and he likes it. He’s bizarre. He has a bizarre way of thinking and doing things but he knows what he’s doing. One of the interesting things about him is his effect on other people. He affects Jason Todd. He affects Harley. For example. what exactly is the relationship between Harley and the Joker? Why did a smart woman go the way she went?
The Joker is a force of chaos in the entire Bat Universe in which we don’t that much about what goes on in his head as with others. We don’t know his history. All we ever get are inconsistent lies. In ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ he says “sometimes I remember one way, sometimes I remember another, if I have to have a past I prefer it to be multiple choice”. And it’s just as well we don’t know. Jerry Robinson who created the Joker, told me he never had any origin in mind. Even the bit about him falling in acid, some other people came up with that later on. They thought it best that you don’t know because with him (The Joker) what’s interesting is how he affects others.
Moving away from Batman’s villains and onto his young male friends, what’s your opinion on Batman having a sidekick?
In terms of narrative and for story-telling purposes, Robin was created because Bill Finger got tired of writing thought balloons! But it humanizes the character, even as odd as it seems having a child running around fighting crime.
The thing with Robin is this is a story about a boy. This is the story about somebody becoming a hero, somebody going through the hero’s journey, that archetypal path. With superheroes like Batman and so forth, you’ve got a hero-complete essentially. It’s a bit like Jesus; he’s a kid, then he’s grown. You don’t really see much in between. People don’t tell the stories in between very much with Batman but with Robin you’ve got the story of somebody who’s very much becoming a hero.
So what’s next for you? More books? More Batman? Or is Batman forever?
I’ve got other books I want to do. It’s a matter of me sitting down with my publisher and deciding from the things I want to do and what matches what movies are coming out. There are a couple of things I want to do that they say, “that’ll be great in three years time when such-and-such movie is coming out”. But nothing’s been decided just yet.
Any Spiderman books in your future? [Token fan boy question from Matt here]
I do want to write a Spiderman book. I want to write about all of the three best-known superheroes; Batman, Spiderman and Superman. With Superman though you’re venturing into a more mythical area, moving further away from real world. Also, most people don’t know his enemies outside Lex Luther and that makes it more of a challenge. Spiderman won’t be as hard.
And with a final flourish he signed a copy of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight for us. Here’s the plug: available now from all good book stores.