Can you possibly attend a comic convention without bumping into a Batman or having a serious discussion about the dark knight? Yesterday at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo, we asked a group of four male teens about their thoughts. Who was the best Catwoman? Not surprisingly, none of them chose Halle Berry. Who was the best Batman? (Sorry, George Clooney wasn’t a contender). Even at their tender age, the boys (who were in an R-rated screening because no one was checking IDs) all were excited about Adam West being at the con (Saturday only).

Batman fans who missed the San Diego Comic-Con might be interested in a recent book about Gotham’s most famous citizen by a man with an academic background. Langley was featured on a Saturday panel discussion about “The Psychology of Stan Lee’s Heroes” but he’s really known for his recent book on Batman.

Travis Langley has been much in demand. A veteran panelist of the San Diego Comic-Con, Langley just published a book, “Batman and Psychology,” this year. In a phone interview just after the San Diego Comic-Con, Langley confessed that the events in Aurora, Colorado had “certainly changed the questions” he’s been asked and he’s been contacted for comment by CNN and the London Times.

Langley saw the last film of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with the rest of the world and learned about the events right after he had seen the movie.

The mass shooting by James Eagan Holmes at the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” that killed 12 people and injured 58 people increased the buzz on his book said Langley. “I understand why.” Langley received calls from CNN, the London Times and more.  For him, “This is a very strange time.”

Langley read Roger Ebert’s column that described what happened as having nothing to do with the movie that Holmes hadn’t seen. Langley said, “With that kind of thing, we want that to be true.”

From Langley’s perspective you have to look at that “history of that kind of person.” Big acts by a one-time mass murderer “tends to be some inadequacies in their lives” and they want to make a big statement.  We know he had a Batman poster and he wouldn’t have seen the movie yet.  But Holmes had probably seen the previous movie and with the big box office returns, Holmes is not only one out there. So the movie isn’t the cause. After all,  Langley commented, “How many people on the planet had seen the films?”

Much has been made about Holmes, “calling himself the Joker” and by this many have assumed he was talking about Heath Ledger’s portrayal. But, Langley pointed out, “We don’t know what he meant.”

What we do know is there is a profile for people who commit or attempt to commit mass murder although it’s “not an exact pattern” and the killers “don’t follow a cookbook.” It is more common in men than women and it’s usually someone between 35-45.  Holmes is “11 years under that range.” Generally such killers are “not good at expressing themselves” and “wanted to make a big impact.” You don’t see people blaming McDonald’s [for the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre in 1984].

From what Langley has heard about Holmes, the motivation was “rage as best as we can guess” but drawing such a conclusion is a tricky thing that was probably tied to “whatever went wrong with his graduate program” and he was socially awkward and had “fallen short of his goals in life.” This all “fits what we know about these people in the past” and the catalyst is “one particularly dramatic failure” and people like Holmes “don’t like blaming themselves for their inadequacies.”

Media attention also fits in because the murder becomes “a celebrity of crime” and Langley believes that “this sort of news appears to influence them far more than any fiction.” Consider “the Columbine shooters who wanted to go for the biggest kill ever.” They also decided they should do it by “dressing up in the costumes.”

Yet a lot of people like dressing up because, as Langley who has attended Comic-con and similar events many times, “It makes you part of the event.” Although he’s never been to Cosplay, at Comic-cons, he’s seen how the people in costume “get to alk there and someone snaps their pictures.  “With the villains and there are more villains than heroes, villains have these strange things that go with them. You can get creative. Cosplay has a liberating quality and villains have greater freedom. With a hero, there’s a narrower range that you can do. With a villain, you can do any crazy thing such as a Joker in a tutu. I’ve seen that.”

“In role play for majority they know they are in the costume. It’s only with extreme personalities. These people who might have problems. There’s a psychology of Cosplay, a psychology of role play. Being in a particular outfit can effect your behavior.” Not all costumes are good. Consider the anonymity of wearing pillow cases like “wearing a KKK costume.” Conversely, according to Langley experiments where participants wore a nurse’s costume administered less pain in a controlled experiment because the costume gave them similar anonymity but also people are affected by the costumes they wear. And sometimes it just has to be a uniform of a certain color, Langley stated that “Football players in black are more aggressive,” but these are all short term effects.

So why do super villains fascinate us? Langley commented:

  1. Evil itself interests us.
  2. We want to understand the things we’re afraid of; we want to understand the things that we fear.
  3. There’s also the attraction of the bad boy–that aloof quality, their fearlessness, the lack of fear that would keep them from doing antisocial actions.
  4. There’s a liberating quality like with the costumes of super villains that separate them from real world criminals. Real world criminals aren’t even liberated they have conscious restrictions of reality itself.
  5. Escapism of being a super villain liberates one from reality.

In the case of Batman, it’s all about motivations. Each character, from Bane to Catwoman to the Joker they show a need for achievement, a need for power, a need for security. In the case of the Joker, his great need is he can prove to everyone that his skewed view was right. But comic books changing and in recent years comic books have been “getting darker compared to the more lighthearted stories of the fifties.”

Langley leads his students in comic book and graphic novel studies and they come to Comic-con and give presentations on the Saturday afternoon about the data they’ve collected about the psychology of film and literature. Looking at graphic novels is a “useful way to learn psychology.” With the “filter of fiction, it can be very meaningful and personal” and there’s “nothing too nerdy to say in a class about Batman.”

Not everyone is pleased with Langley’s obsession with the caped crusader. He bumped into Stan Lee who asked him “Why did you write a book about him.”  In the comic books, he’s going out there fighting criminals with his fists and he avoids killing although they do show killing in the movies. “People want someone to stand up to life’s bullies” and they like someone who is doing the right thing. “Batman is a hero without superpowers” who lurks in the dark and shadows.

Then there’s the more contemporary concern about child endangerment. Robin is, after all, Bruce Wayne’s ward in the original stories and with all the cliff-hanging situations super heroes get into that’s certainly a more legitimate complaint. Langley also expressed disappointment with the recent tendency to imply homosexual attraction between Batman and Robin. Can’t faux fathers have altruistic intentions? Is Nolan’s solution the only way?

Langley’s favorite movie of the Nolan trilogy is “Batman Begins” because that Batman is “the most heroic and closest to the actual comic character.” Yet his favorite car is the 1960s TV vehicle—even though you can ride it out in the rain. He had a chance to sit in all the Batman vehicles on display at the San Diego Comic-Con and “I had to sit in that one.”

Of the latest film, “Batman Rises,” his critical verdict is “Over all, it’s a good movie. Personally, I would have liked more Batman in the movie. It is the least fun and least funny. That’s mostly because you don’t have a villain with a sense of humor. Some have a sense of fun to them, but there’s no sense of fun to Bane. If there’s any humor to Bruce Wayne, Alfred brings it out in him. While Alfred’s there, he doesn’t have much screen time. I would have liked more of him.”

Since Langley was just on a panel about Stan Lee’s heroes at Comikaze, one has to wonder if there’s a book about Spider-Man’s psychology in the works.

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