“Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” – the Joker, The Dark Knight
Batman is one year removed from his 75th anniversary (as of 2013). First glimpsed in the shadows of 1939, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is arguably the second most well know “super” hero, second only to his DC Comics colleague Superman. He is ubiquitous. Batman is as popular as Star Wars, as multi-generational as rock and roll, and as intricate as quantum physics. First appearing in comic books, Batman has stalked through newspaper strips, novels, television shows, movies, video games, and he even guest starred on one of Superman’s radio shows. What accounts for this incredible longevity and popularity? Probably the fact that Batman is no super hero. He is as human as any of us, he is unaltered by any fantastical phenomenon or alien technology. Unlike his Marvel counterpart, Iron Man, Batman does not rely on any implanted technology. Where Tony Stark achieves his crime fighting skills through a combination of dash and design, Bruce Wayne endures by way of discipline and hard work. Both men are multi-billionaires, both are geniuses, both wear elaborate suits, but where Tony fails to match Batman is in Batman’s sheer determination. Ultimately, Iron Man is unreachable. It would be impossible to recreate Tony Stark’s suit of armor, based as it is on fictional science technologies. Batman, however, remains within the grasp of any one of us. Given enough money, and the requisite stamina, anybody could become Batman. It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done. And, where Tony Stark suffers from a medical condition that makes most of his tech necessary, regardless of its applications, Bruce Wayne suffers from grief and chooses freely to be Batman.
Given nearly 75 years of history and development, Batman, while fictional, is as fascinating as any living, breathing human being. Batman is an avatar of the human condition. Despite the seemingly outlandish nature of his universe, ultimately the character is as grounded in reality as anyone. Struggling with pain, loss, and anger and fighting madness and the darker impulses Batman catwalks across the night, riddling out the bad jokes of life and death. Obstacles that are the bane of happiness are foes to be crushed by a hero. Investigating the bat-detective, then, yields clues to our own psyches.
Fortunately, an actual student of the human condition has delved into the bat cave and emerged with a few answers and observations. Dr. Travis Langley, tenured professor of psychology at Henderson State University, is a bit of a nerd. Having been fascinated by the Batman his whole life, he recently published the only psychological exploration of the character that exists today: Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. Fittingly, Langley is known as a superherologist*, one who studies super heroes.
Batman and Psychology is divided into several sections. The person, the suit, the symbolism, the environment, and the associations of the Batman are all examined in detail, and set against the criminals that oppose him and the world the defines him, and all pass under the microscope of real life, modern psychology. Langley begins by discussing the historical Batman, and narrowing down all the different iterations and manifestations of the character, who, after all, comes from a comic book world in which death and life are fluid concepts, as is the nature of the multiverse itself. The great benefit of studying a character that has been around so long is that the student can take both a longitudinal and a cross-sectional approach. Usually when Langley refers to “The Batman” he means the 75 year old character, the most concrete and unchanging person that is Batman. After all, whether he is back from the dead, back from an alternate earth, or freshly rebooted, some things about Batman never change. But, Langley also often zooms right into a very particular instance, a very exact moment in Bat-time to examine a revelation or to make an observation, whether it is Adam West’s lampooned Batman, Christian Bale’s ultra-realistic Batman, or some comic book version. The juxtaposition of the two research techniques allows Langley, and the reader of his book, to compare and contrast yielding a multi-faceted view of an incredibly complex individual.
After establishing a few parameters and definitions, Langley subsequently evaluates the trauma (the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, a constant of the Bat-narrative) and the persona (arguably, the defining characteristic: the Bat of the Man). This comprises most of Langley’s focus, and rightfully so, it is the heart of the character. Bruce Wayne endured one of the most horrific tragedies that a person can experience, and made a rather extreme choice that most people do not make. Why is the premier question, and answering it yields the most tantalizing information.
Following from that, Dr. Langley briefly discusses the nature of evil, that is, crime and punishment in Gotham City. Here most of the psychology is brought to bear as various psychological disorders, conditions, and issues are defined and debated as they relate both to Batman and his rogues gallery. This is the technical part of the book, full of the multi-syllabic terms one expects from a doctor of psychology.
Batman is not an island, and he must be viewed in his familial context: his surrogate sons (Robin and other sidekicks), his female associations (most notably: Catwoman), and his surrogate fathers (Alfred, among others). Human beings are social creatures and our company says as much about us as does our actions or appearance. No analysis of a person would be complete without such consideration, and that analysis Langley provides.
Dr. Langley does offer a Bat-diagnosis of sorts at the end of his book, concluding that Batman is most definitely not deranged, even if he is a little “crazy”. I mean, even Bruce Wayne would agree that “a man who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues” however, those issues are not really any different that those which affect ordinary people. Bruce’s issues are perhaps more magnified than most, but what do you expect from a guy who lives in a comic book?
I found Batman and Psychology very rewarding, in both scope and psychology. While I am not any sort of acolyte into the profession, I am a student of humanity and quite interested in the psychological field. I must say, however, that while the technical parts of the book aren’t incomprehensible, they could be confusing. [Author’s note: I don’t know if that constitutes a flaw with the book, or with the educational system of America. I have studied more psychology than the average Jane, so I don’t really know how someone with limited familiarity with psychological concepts would grasp the psychology presented.] I was also satiated with the banquet that Langley cooked up, in terms of the villains that he referenced and the many, many aspects of the Bat-universe that he referenced. Despite that, I occasionally felt like I was reading two separate books: one about Batman, and one about his antagonists. No book about Batman would be complete without at least talking about his number one adversary, the Joker, but I felt that a companion book that was focused on the rogues would have been better suited to an analyzation of their psychology and humanity. What was provided was simultaneously enough to make the point and not enough to do justice to the various characters. Granted, the Joker could be a series of books, but I felt he deserved a little more than he got, even in a book primarily about Batman. [Author’s note: I use the Joker here only as an example: he may be primary, but Batman’s other villains are just as convoluted.]
Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight is a fantastic read, and a great dissertation on a popular superhero, and I fervently hope that Dr. Travis Langley doesn’t stop here. There is much more to be said about the world of Gotham, and the worlds of Metropolis and the greater comic book multiverse. Hopefully a “Superman and Psychology” is coming soon, because if there is another guy with serious daddy/abandonment issues, it’s Clark Kent.
*You can follow Dr. Langley on twitter as the @Superherologist. [Author’s Note: Dr. Langley is my boss. This review was neither asked nor paid for by Dr. Langley. My reviews and opinions are entirely my own, and cannot be influenced by anyone.]