Professor's book explores Batman

Aug. 15, 2012

Most people see the character of Batman as a comic book superhero immortalized on television and in movie theaters. But Dr. Travis Langley, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University, has taken his fascination with Batman to the next level.

Langley published a book earlier this year that takes a look behind the mask and into the mind of the Caped Crusader. Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight explores a myriad of questions. Why does he fight crime? Is he a vigilante? Why the mask, the bat and the underage partner?

The book offers insights into the inner world of Batman and Bruce Wayne, and the life and characters of Gotham City. It also explains psychological theory and concepts through the eyes of the popular comic book character.

Langley said he has “always” been fascinated with Batman. “Whenever people ask me when I first liked Batman, that’s like asking when I first saw the sky. He’s always been there,” Langley said. “The Adam West TV series first aired on television when I was tiny. My mom read comic books to me back then, which motivated me to learn to read them for myself so I could understand why the Neal Adams art made the stories look so much eerier than the TV show and cartoons had led me to expect.”

Inspiration for the book came years later when Langley first taught a Psychology in Literature class. “I’ve always been interested in how media will affect us and how we shape the media. I did my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on how people think and feel about violent films, and yet I kept my personal interest in heroes separate from my professional activities for years,” he said.

“Those didn’t come together until the first time I taught Psychology in Literature. To show the students how to do their character analysis assignments, I did them too, using Batman as the example. Along the way, I realized what a wealth of information there was and how many different areas of psychology I could illustrate by using examples from seven decades of Batman stories.”

Langley said a book analyzing Batman, the superhero with no superpowers and who is defined first and foremost by his psychology, “seemed so obvious that I knew someone somewhere would slap one together if I didn’t beat them to it. But first, I had to build my credentials as a comics scholar.”

He wrote relevant journal articles and conducted Comics Arts Conference panels. Every summer for the past few years, Langley has participated on Comic-Con panels with Michael Uslan, executive producer of every Batman movie since the 1980s. “We’ve looked at Batman’s mental health, his love life, how he relates to partners, and what’s wrong with the Joker,” Langley said. “Amazing people have joined us along the way: psychologists, actors, comic book artists and writers. After we did the first of those panels together, Adam West asked me if I, as a professional in psychology, thought Batman was crazy. The book is my answer.”

It took Langley three years to plan the book and four months to write, followed by several rounds of revisions. “Last year, I got a literary agent, wrote an outline and two chapters, and we sold the book to Wiley-Blackwell fairly quickly on the strength of the concept and because the movie The Dark Knight Rises was in production,” Langley said.

Batman, Superman and Spiderman are the world’s three most famous superheroes for good reasons, according to Langley. “They’re well-developed characters that tap into a variety of our primal needs and fears,” he said. “Spiderman’s creator, Stan Lee, and his artists dreamed up a whole line of richly nuanced characters in the 1960s, bringing a more human element to Marvel Comic’s superheroes at a time when other companies’ characters tended to be flat.”

While Langley uses superheroes in special topics courses such as Comics & Psychology, he avoids bringing them into other courses “because I can’t assume most students know much about them,” he said. “Knowing of Superman and Batman is just part of living in the modern world, so those two can come up a few times here and there.”

But Langley said he doesn’t have any trouble filling a semester by building an entire class around a fictional character. “By using the filter of fiction, we can talk about some of the most horrifying things that happen in human experience without repulsing the student too much to learn and without delving unfairly or voyeuristically into the details of a real person’s life,” he said.

“I can talk about how his parents’ murders affected Bruce Wayne without making students want to break down and cry like they might if I devoted the same time to a real life tragedy,” Langley said. “I can walk students through the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder to show how Batman doesn’t quite qualify for the disorder even though he has some symptoms, and that helps them understand PTSD better.”

Langley’s expertise had led to numerous invitations across the country and Canada to speak as an authority on Batman. He recently was invited to write a regular online column for Psychology Today that he titled Beyond Heroes and Villains. “I want to focus on heroes, in both fiction and real life, but understanding good sometimes requires taking a long, hard look at evil too, he said.”

“It can take the contrast of a villain to clarify what a hero is and is not,” Langley said. “Whenever I ask people who their heroes are, some crack jokes and give me silly answers probably because the question catches them off guard. But to me, the issue of who inspires us to rise to life’s challenges and become better people is one of the most important questions in the world.”

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