Batman’s Psyche: A Conversation with Dr. Travis Langley

- 08-09-12Comics, Film, Interviews Posted by Dev Richards

PhD and tenure aside, Dr. Travis Langley is incredibly easy to talk to. No doubt, his years of teaching Psychology at Henderson University (a liberal arts university in Arkansas) have taught him to be patient with overeager psych nerds, like me. It’s not just his patience that puts you at ease, it’s also own eagerness and excitement for the subject. Dr. Langley is the Batman Psychologist. This is not just a self-professed title; Besides the recent release of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight he just wrapped up teaching a course about the psychology of Batman at Henderson. The book evaluates the inner psyche of Batman, applying different psychological theories to Batman’s intensely traumatic life. Before I launched into my questions about the book, though, I had to ask Dr. Langley about his class on Batman. Specifically, how did he convince the psychology department at Henderson to let him teach a class about Batman?!

Dr. Langley: You know how in a math class you might have an example, “This train is moving at this speed, and that train is moving at that speed…” Well, for somebody who loves trains, why not have an entire course on the math of trains? They could learn all the math more easily if it’s full of examples they appreciate. With Batman, it’s using psychology to teach Batman, and Batman to teach psychology. And it works out really well. And it’s got a mix of students, from those who know Batman really well to those who didn’t know him any better than average. But, they were the students who were interested enough to take the class. And they all reported that they got a lot out of it. They get close, too, because a bunch of these are students who…they have to be guarded in a lot of ways. You don’t go out in your other classes and just announce your nerdy interests. But in a class called Batman, there’s nothing too nerdy to talk about in there.

So they definitely have to have a good, firm background on the different schools of thought?

Dr. Langley: No, no. They have to be more advanced. They have to be further along in their academic career, but it isn’t required to have a specific background in psychology. It was a 400 [level course] – or for us it’s a 4000 level – for students who are further along in their overall college career. I had somebody in there who had never even had general psych. I had other students who had a lot of psychology. One student had made it almost through his entire academic career without ever buying books for any class, but he said he happily bought them for my class.

Ok, so, that’s a good question. What texts do you often use? Specifically for Batman, how do you choose which story to use? Or which film adaptation to study? Or, do you study them all?

Dr. Langley:  Oh, gosh. We go through all the films. We watched…3 of the films? Yeah, we watched 3 of the films. We watched Batman Forever, and both Nolan movies. Of the previous 4, the Burton/Schumacher films, Batman Forever is the one with the most specific psychology in it. We always watch a chapter from the old 1943 movie serial. But, in terms of what they read, we had two collections. Greatest Batman Story Ever Told, and then there are things in the library. I put a number of things on reserve, which the library has put stickers on. Which did not make me happy when I found out about that later. So, I have this Scarecrow collection and other collections. Each student had to do a project about a specific character and so I made sure that I made some things, some of the back stories for each of those – or [the] most relevant stories for each of those – available. . . . And we watched two episodes of the Batman animated series. These are students who are getting 3 hours of credit, but they were going to class 4 hours a week. I mean, there was an extra hour more than they are normally in class, just for this topic. Again, that fell into the area,of ‘ Nobody’s gonna fail, they’re just watching a bunch of movies.’ These are students who are in class MORE than what is normal.

So, then, are you going to use the book you’ve written as one of your texts in the future, with this course?

Dr. Langley: Well, its… to get back to this class, yeah. Next spring, my special media class is going to be on Stan Lee’s characters. Every spring, we do some special media course. Like, it’s been Comics and Psychology and Psych and Film, Media Psychology. This time, after spending a good portion of last year writing this book, I knew it would not be hard to fill a course. I gave them copies of two of the chapters, I was going to give them copies of more, but my agent pointed out “You know, your publisher might not like you just giving away copies of the PDF of the whole book.” It’s like, well ok.

Yeah, if I do teach it again . . . (he pauses). . . at some point I will definitely teach it again. I would really have to use my book for the things I want to say. Then, you have to, you know, tell your university if you’re using your own book. It’s like, “Ok, if you make any money off this, where does that money go?” It’s like, well, I would give it to the Psych Club. That’s not what’s that about.

Now next spring, I’m going to teach a course on Stan Lee’s characters. Now, I met Stan Lee last month. I’ve seen Stan many times; I’ve actually spoken to him from the audience before! You know, I got to talk to him one-on-one last month. And I mention to him that I’d written a book on Batman. He goes, “Batman?! Why would you want to write a book about him?” And, I said, “Well, he’s more screwed up than your characters.” Stan said, “This is a very smart man.”

Oh my god, you’ll have that memory in your bank forever.

Dr. Langley: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of good photos. My son caught really good photo of me and Stan laughing together. It’s like, that’s just great. I hope to talk to Stan again sometime; I’ve been procrastinating this a little. What if everything I want to say to Stan when we talk again is…..

How many times has he heard it before?

Dr. Langley: That’s the thing! He gets . . . I mean, I asked him one question that – when I was asking him from an audiences’ point of view – about why the heroes all tend to be orphans. He had to think, ‘Are they all orphans?’ Normally, he gets questions he’s heard so many times and he always answers them like it’s fresh. But, I’ve been in an audience where he’s been talking enough, there are certain stories I have heard four or five times. And they’re still golden, each and every time. You meet this man, you cannot believe the man will be 90 this year! He is spry, active, energetic and it’s…..you just look at him and you think he’s in his sixties!

That’s one reason to go ahead and do a class on his characters, especially now that I’ve met him and talked to him about this. We’re going to talk again about the class. He suggested I call the class “Stan Lee University.” I told my department chair that, and my department chair’s feeling was that if Stan Lee wants to . . .  help you with the class, we can call that whatever Stan Lee wants.

I’m pretty sure Stan Lee is used to getting what Stan Lee wants. I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Dr. Langley: No?

He’s amazing. I don’t imagine many people would turn him down.

Dr. Langley: Stan is really relevant. Not just for one specific character. You could build a whole thing around the psychology of Spider-Man. He brought humanity to all of these characters he was creating in the early sixties, at a time when the super heroes were pretty two dimensional throughout comics. He brought in… let’s do things other people aren’t doing. You know, like, “DC’s super heroes aren’t squabbling. We’re gonna make the Fantastic 4 squabble.” Or, “DC’s characters aren’t teenagers, they don’t have everyday problems. Spider-man is gonna have some everyday problems.” Spider-man is an orphan because Stan wanted Pete to have a really tough life. And, so, he brought this degree of humanity to these characters that just wasn’t there before. You know, he would do counter-intuitive things….Yeah, Stan’s an amazing guy.

I think comics always get a bad rap for not being literary enough, you know what I mean? It’s always been like, “Oh, you’re not reading a book; you’re reading a comic book.” The things you are doing are really important. You’re showing these tropes, the structure of the story, are just as much an element of a comic book as they are with Pride and Prejudice or Mutiny on the Bounty. There’s something more applicable there for people to grab a hold of. So, I commend you for that.

Dr. Langley: There are so many reasons why so many people are drawn to these stories. The fact that people dress as these characters on Halloween, or [during] Comic-Con, and that there is a billion dollar industry around some of these characters – to me, that’s more reason to study them. It’s not a reason to scoff at them.

Exactly! So, I’m guessing you read a lot of comics as a kid, or as a teenager.

Dr. Langley: Oh Yeah! Yeah.

Did you get a lot of flack for that, for always having your nose in a comic book?

Dr. Langley: No, but when I was kid, I was an odd ball anyway. So, the comics didn’t really matter. If you’re the nerdy kid in a small town . . . My dad was a minister, so we sort of moved around a lot. When you’re the smart kid, you’re automatically the kid who is separate, and you’re the nerdy kid. So, the comics were something I read at home. There weren’t friends at school to discuss them with, that I knew of. I mean, as a kid in the 70’s, when Fonzie on Happy Days is telling the world that a nerd is just the worst thing to be . . . Yeah, it was not a good time to be a nerd.

I get that a lot from my older friends. You know, “You had it easy growing up as a nerd.” I think it’s true. It’s a much more accepting culture now.

Dr. Langley: Now we are at the point where people who aren’t nerds will use the word “nerd” or “geek” to sell things.

It’s true. Even in Hip Hop, they call it “dropping science.” It’s funny how the vernacular has shifted over. So, I want to ask you more about this book, specifically. When did you start writing it?

Dr. Langley: Well, I started taking notes about four years ago. I was teaching a Psychology in Literature course. While I was teaching that, I gave students assignments where they each had to take some character to analyze. They would stick with this character through the semester, throughout a number of different assignments. So, if one student had chosen Ahab, then when I gave them an assignment to assess your character, determine how extroverted or introverted they are, they would have to use Ahab. So, they would have to write up something describing it, not just points. To show them how to do the assignments, I would use Batman as an example. Sometimes, I just kept writing. I was like, ‘This isn’t that hard to do. I need to keep writing.”

When you look at these characters, and you’re analyzing them, are you looking at them from one specific theory of psychology?

Dr. Langley: I’m using them to teach a number of different things. I’ll even apply some theories I don’t exactly agree with in order to illustrate what a certain theorist would say about the character. I have a whole chapter of the Psycho-Dynamic Duo, Freud and Jung on Batman and Robin. There are all sorts of things that Freud is wrong about, and so many things that are unprovable. And, then there are things like the defense mechanism. We really do lie to ourselves to make ourselves feel better. It goes on to speculating about what Freud would have to say about Batman. And then what Jung had to say about Batman. It’s more on Freud than Jung. The handle for me, of figuring out what Freud would have said about Batman, was looking at what he said about Hamlet. Freud said a lot about Hamlet, and Hamlet is a guy with a mission to avenge his late-father. Even though Batman and Hamlet are different, you can use the contrast to go through the points. . . One of my favorite lectures to give is about Batman vs. Hamlet.

Freud died the month before Batman originally was published. So, we can never know what he has said about that. We don’t know what Jung would have said. Jung did not talk about Batman, but he did mention Superman. We can still speculate, we can go into the archetypes and certainly what he said about the shadow archetype, or the masks we wear. Through those we can, you know, speculate on what Jung would have had to say about Batman. In doing so, for people who like the Jungian approach, is an interesting analysis of Batman. For people who don’t know the Jungian approach, it uses Batman to teach you some things about what Jung would have said about anything.

Do you look at the relationship between Batman and Alfred? That surrogate, familial relationship?

Dr. Langley: Yeah, when you get to the last chapter I wrote, with the fathers. I wasn’t sure I was going to have time to write that. That’s why I didn’t even list it in my book proposal, because I was not certain I would have time to fit in the chapter called The Fathers. You have to keep coming back to Alfred. What is Alfred’s place? Not just in that chapter, but elsewhere. It’s like, where Alfred can represent Batman’s conscience, where he has been this supportive figure. He’s one person in his life who is not somehow a reflection or a distortion of himself. Batman’s enemies, his sidekicks, his main love interests, they tend to reflect or distort aspects of himself. But Alfred is not that. Alfred is there in a different kind of role.

And this chapter on the fathers . . . it doesn’t just look at Alfred; it also looks at other father figures. Like Lucius Fox, or even Gordon has a father-figure aspect to him. Each of those, they’re really father figures to different aspects of Batman’s life. I mean, Gordon is just with Batman, and it’s not Batman looking up at Dad. It’s more like a grown up dealing with someone who had been in a sort of parental position. So, Gordon just deals with Batman. Now, Lucius Fox – typically, in the way he is written – just deals with Bruce Wayne. In most versions of history, Lucius Fox does not know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. And Alfred, is dealing with them both, and he’s dealing with them down in the Batcave. As opposed to Lucius dealing with the public Bruce Wayne facade. Or, Gordon dealing with the Batman act, where he’s trying to be more than just a man, or he’s trying to be the symbol who will just vanish into the shadows as soon as you look away. Alfred deals with him at his truest. Down there in the Batcave, when he might be sitting there with the mask off, partly in the costume. So, he deals with Batman at his most honest.

So, you’ve definitely taken a social psych look at this, then?

Dr. Langley: Well, I am a social psychologist.

So, do you think after doing a course on Stan Lee’s work you might continue? Maybe do a book about the Marvel heroes and villains?

Dr. Langley: I have a number of things I want to write about, but they have to be timed. You know, there’s a Spider-man thing out right now in the same month as Batman. And, they’ve got a Superman and Philosophy book to come out in relation to the new Superman movie. So, hopefully, the Superman movie will do really, really, well so three years from now I can do a Superman book. And then, hopefully, Spider-man does really, really well, so two or three years from now I can have a Spider-man book.

So, which comic book house do you think provides the most compelling, psychological characters?

Dr. Langley: Marvel.

Marvel? Yeah. I guess, other than Batman, DC pretty much has like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, things that you cant really delve too far into.

Dr. Langley: Yeah, I mean you can do a book with Superman. You’ll be going a bit more with a bit of a mythic quality. The thing with something like Superman is that his rouge’s gallery doesn’t have the kind of inherent, psychological grab that Batman’s enemies do. Batman, because he’s the super hero without super powers, he is defined by his psychology more than anything else. Superman wears the costume because he’s a super hero. Even without the costume, if he flies off to save a crashing plane, he’s a super hero. Even if he’s in a jump suit. If Batman goes off and fights a mugger, in a jump suit, he’s a vigilante in a jump suit. Batman is the other way around. He is a super hero because he wears a costume.

Aha! That’s an interesting take on that. So, then, who were some of your favorite villains to look at in the Marvel world, then? They have a huge array of face-offs. Like, Spider-man and Venom.

Dr. Langley: I mean, Spider-man alone… You can go through one villain after another, and find interesting quirks and humanity. It’s not the same way as with Batman. Batman’s enemies get a bit more bizarre. And, they keep getting called insane. With Spider-man’s enemies: you can go to the history of the Green Goblin, especially early in the history of the Green Goblin. When Norman Osborn didn’t know he was the Green Goblin. So, then you can ask, “How does this compare with real world Disassociative Identity Disorder [modern name for Multiple Personality]?” Or, “How do the motivations of these different characters relate to real motivations?” You know, like why do they keep committing crime even though they keep going to jail? …So, you can look at Anti-Social Personality Disorder. You can really look at that for any of them.

Batman has the most famous rouge’s gallery out of any superhero. That’s one reason why a class on Batman, or a book, isn’t the hardest thing to do. People already have some familiarity with the character and his enemies. So you don’t really have to explain as much, which means you get to spend more time with the nitty-gritty with the point of the analysis.

So, more of a psych-nerd question: If you were going to recommend therapy for Batman – which would be a sticky wicket to deal with confidentiality-wise – what kind of therapy would you recommend?

Dr. Langley: Oh, therapy for what? And at what point? He functions effectively at what he chooses to do in life. He is haunted. If he were happier, he wouldn’t be out there accomplishing the things he needs to accomplish. There are points at which he has chosen not to pursue greater enlightenment because it would detract from the things he wants to accomplish in life. If he were a happier guy, he wouldn’t be as effective at stopping the bad guys.

That’s true. So, we really don’t want Batman to have therapy. We want him to stay as brooding as physically possible.

Dr. Langley: Up to the limit. Steve Englehart – a comic book writer – he has commented to me that, as far as he sees it, Batman goes up to that edge of going too far psychologically, but not over that edge. At that edge he, personally, is able to function optimally for the things he wants to do in life. That’s where we want him to stay. We don’t want him to go too far, and spend all his time brooding instead of going out and living.

That’s a good point. You know what I would like to see? Some old school, classically-drawn comic strips of Batman participating in different, famous psychological studies. So, I would like a comic strip of him as part of the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the Millgram Experiment. Just see which side he would be on.

Dr. Langley: (laughing) Like, watching Batman break out of the prison basement of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Exactly! If you know anybody who could draw that, I think you teaming with them… seriously, I would buy that book. I would definitely buy that book. It would make a great coffee table book.

Dr. Travis Langley’s book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The iTunes store, and other places where books and e-books are sold. Whether you’re interested in psychology or Batman, the book is marvelously informative and entertaining. For more information on Dr. Langley, you can follow him on twitter @Superherologist, or on Facebook. For more information on Dr. Langley’s writing and his teaching at Henderson University, you can go here.

 

 

Category: Comics, Film, Interviews

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