Batman and Psychology, and the Greatest Injustice in the History of the Comic Business – Talking with Dr. Travis Langley

TLDr. Travis Langley is a tenured Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University, with a bachelor of arts in psychology from Hendrix College, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Tulane University.

As an organizer of the Comics Arts Conference, he regularly makes presentations on the psychology of superheroes at conventions like San Diego Comic-Con International. He and his students collect data for their ERIICA Project: Empirical Research on the Interpretation & Influence of the Comic Arts.

Dr. Langley has written his first non-fiction book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, and was featured in the Batman documentary, Legends of the Knight. Dr. Langley teaches on crime, mental illness, social behavior, and media, and even teaches a course titled Batman.

I recently had a chance to talk with him about what Batman means to him, why Bill Finger matters, and how fandom can be a great, and awful thing. Be sure to check out Dr. Langley’s official website here, and follow him on Twitter @superherologist.

BMaPBesides your book and psychology course, you speak about Batman at conventions all around the United States. What is it about Batman that you find so compelling?

Batman appeals to us on so many levels. For one thing, Batman feels real. Peter Parker feels real, but we know there can’t be a Spider-Man. Spider powers are not real. A child can wish for superpowers. An adult, who may have given up that particular dream, can still wish for strength enough.

Because Batman feels real, he’s more exciting to us and he inspires us. He creates fear in the wicked and hope among the just. Studies have long shown that most people feel they personally deserve justice, so we can all empathize with Batman’s cause and we can all feel that he’s someone who can help stand up to those who are worse than ourselves. When we want the strength to do the right thing but sometimes we just can’t, we want somebody to help us, somebody there who can and will do the right thing. Both sides of his life, the billionaire and the superhero, are wish fulfillment fantasies for us. He, as the superhero, achieves something other superheroes generally don’t: He takes his own darkness, his own anger and fear, and gives them a constructive spin. Instead of eliminating our own worst qualities, maybe we can put them to good use.

When was it that you first realized your passion for this character, and what inspired it?

I get asked that a lot, as do other comics scholars. Others have answers, but I really don’t. My mom says Batman interested me before I could walk.

Batman232Batman #232, and the first appearance of Ra’s al Ghul was the first comic I ever read, finding a copy at the local park when I was only six or so, creating in me a lifelong love of the medium, and character. What was the first Batman comic you remember reading?

I’ve hunted for that comic, trying to figure out what it was. When I was a kid, I was haunted by this image of an older, bearded man in a cape talking to other people in a heavily shadowed room in a Batman comic book. That would have been before al Ghul debuted, though, so I don’t know who it was. I’m still trying to find. Seems like Neal Adams art, but memory is a terrible, fragile thing, easily distorted by other experience.

The first Batman comic book I bought with my own money was The Brave and the Bold #111, the Joker’s first appearance after he’d started killing people again in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.” After watching Cesar Romero’s version for so long, I was surprised, to say the least, by how deadly the Joker really was.

Comics have been treated as a valid, literary art form much more often in the last decade or two, being used in college English courses, or courses on the history of the medium, but yours is the first psychology course I’ve heard of based on a comic character. How did this course come about, and what kinds of things could an incoming student expect from it?

Most students come to the class to have fun learning about the characters and stories, which does happen, but they also learn a lot more psychology than they expect and they retain it, too. It goes back to why my book is titled Batman and Psychology instead of The Psychology of Batman. The book and the class use psychology to look at Batman, and in doing so, they use Batman to teach psychology. Another professor at my university teaches a baseball math class. For students who love baseball, that’s the best way to learn the material. They get a class full of examples that are meaningful to them.

I use fictional characters. That filter of fiction lets me talk about some of the worst topics in the world. When I teach forensic psychology and we cover something as horrible as how kids who’ve seen their parents murdered – which does happen – are affected by that tragedy. That’s a hard subject and it can make some students turn away. The real life tragedy can make it hard to listen to a bunch of psych terms about it, and yet I can bring the things we know about real crime victims into a discussion about a fictional character and those students won’t turn away. They learn.

Students come into the class knowing that they’ve signed up to spend 4 hours a week in a 3-hour course. That way, when I show three of the movies, nobody who looks down on the course can claim, “Well, he’s just filling the time with those movies.” Hardly! They have projects, tests, class lectures, and a lot of lively conversations.

Bill Finger

Bill Finger 1914-1974

Batman has had many creators over the years, giving him their own unique take or spin, some campy, and others far darker. Who is the creator that you feel had the best “version” of Batman, and why?

Bill Finger defined Batman for us. Many others added to the mythos over the decade, refining it, fleshing it out, but the most influential runs involve taking Batman back to his roots, maybe not what he was like during his first few months when he was bit more bloodthirsty but what he grew to become fairly early on. Denny O’Neil made the stories the darkest they’d been since 1939. Steve Englehart, during his run, gave us what felt like a modernized version of 1939-1940 Batman and his stories are far more influential than most people realize.

Both movies featuring the Joker (1989’s Batman and 2008’s The Dark Knight) owe a great debt to the stories of Steve Englehart. Denny, though, established the modern Batman at his best. If somebody out there is shouting, “Frank Miller” at me, I should note, without trying to detract from Miller’s importance in any way, that his Batman is not one we watch carry on through one adventure after another.

What do you feel is the most important Batman story?

The origin. Six months after Batman first appeared, writer Bill Finger laid out, in a mere page and a half, a powerful origin that taps into our own most primal fears and our aspirations to become more than we are.

BTASThere have been many iterations of Batman on film, from the black & white serials, all the way up to The Dark Knight Rises. Which version do you feel nailed it, from a psychological point of view?

Batman: The Animated Series. That Batman is smart, effective, and very human. I’d love to see a live-action Batman television series because it might be able to explore the smaller stories that the movies, with their need to make everything epic for the box office, don’t get to tell.

Batman has a suitable stable of villains surrounding him. Who do you feel is Batman’s ultimate arch-nemesis, and why?

The Joker, no question about that. Neither the Joker nor Batman has superpowers per se, and yet they’re the ones who intimated the rest of the supervillains and heroes. Where the Batman is the dark brooding hero who dresses like a monster, the Joker is the bright, laughing monster who looks like a clown. A superhero’s arch-nemesis tends to reflect and distort aspects of that hero in ways no other villain does. Someone else might get a villain who’s a version of that hero dressed in black but Batman is himself a shadow hero, and as such, his ultimate counterpart is scarily bright.

Spider-Man, The Flash, and Batman have arguably the best rogues galleries in all of comics. Whose assemblage of villains do you feel are the greatest?

Batman.

Why is that? Do you feel these villains would work as well if switched around between the other heroes?

He’s a superhero because of the nature of his character. Spider-Man and the Flash are heroes because they’re guys out to do the right thing and Spider-Man has always been driven by a great tragedy that rivals Batman’s own, but Spider-Man and the Flash are super due to science-related accidents.

Batman made himself super. Bruce Wayne decided to build himself to the peak of his human potential and to transform himself into a fantastic creature of the night. To build Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, Lee and Ditko stuck with sci-fi and animal themes. The Flash’s enemies got sci-fi and elemental themes. Batman’s enemies get Halloween and psychological themes. In Batman’s case, the villains that reflected aspects of Batman’s own psychology have proved to be the most enduring.

photo-main2You’ve just been involved with a highly successful Kickstarter campaign for the documentary The Cape Creator, about Batman’s less well known co-creator, Bill Finger. I feel this is an important film, for many reasons, but why did you get involved, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Bill Finger’s birth, 75th anniversary of Batman’s comic book debut, 50th anniversary of the “New Look,” and 25th anniversary of the Tim Burton movie that proved audiences could take Batman seriously. One day last year, I got it in my head that this would be the right time to talk up Bill Finger, to make sure people learned about the man who defined the Dark Knight but died broke and relatively unknown. Bob Kane had a name, Bat-Man, and a design that got completely replaced when Bill Finger spat out a list of changes it needed, and all of that happened before Bob signed the first contract to create Batman stories.

This tribute grew by degrees. I proposed that two big fan conventions this year make Athena Finger a special guest as a way of honoring Bill, and they both went for it. If we were going to conduct a Bill Finger tribute panel at these cons, we needed to talk to some people who knew Bill, but there aren’t a lot of those around. It’s been 40 years since Bill died and he wasn’t particularly outgoing or assertive, which makes it all the more interesting that he gave us outgoing Bruce Wayne with the assertive alter ego. Those still around who knew Bill aren’t all up to traveling much, so including them in the tribute meant interviewing them, meant making a video, and that requires travel. Travel and equipment take money.

Bill Finger trading card - Eclipse 1992 backI’ve heard from a lot of interesting people while we’ve been putting this together. Comic book writer Mike W. Barr said, concerning Bill Finger’s lack of credit, “This is the greatest injustice in the history of the comic book business, one that is up to us to correct.

The majority of people on this planet know about Batman. Most don’t know the character’s creator, of course, but the majority of those who do know a name know the wrong name. They know only one name, the name that deserves credit for the character’s name but not for the things that made this character so important to us. Bob Kane’s original version of Bat-Man did not touch the primal drives that Bill Finger’s darker, richer Batman tapped into. Somebody would have created a different character to fill that niche.

You’ve written a book, you teach, and you travel around doing panel conversations about Batman. What is next for the two of you, or is it time to move on to another character?

Now that, I can’t say until the ink on the contract dries.

 

Thank you, Dr. Travis Langley for believing in comics, and for your work legitimizing them, and helping Bill Finger get the credit he deserves. We look forward to The Cape Creator film, and whatever you do next.

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