A little batty: Caped Crusader a teaching aid for professor

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published August 30, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 29, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Travis Langley, professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, has a new book on the psychology of Batman titled Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Night, which explores many questions about the intriguing character.

— For weeks this summer, people in the U.S. and around the world went to movie houses and spent millions to see the latest Batman film.

What does all that interest in the Caped Crusader tell us about ourselves?

Travis Langley, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, has been asking that question most of his life. He has published a book that takes a look into the mind of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Langley’s findings might be almost as dark as Batman’s mask.

“I’m an experimental social psychologist,” Langley said. “I look for methods to study how people are affected by real or imaginary influences.”

His book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, explores many questions about the intriguing character: Why does he fight crime, why the mask, what does the bat represent, and most of all, is he crazy?

Last week, the book was at about 2,100 on Amazon.com’s list of top-selling books.

“I don’t know really what that means, but my publisher was excited, and Amazon sells million of titles, so it must be good,” Langley said.

The book offers Langley’s professional insights into what motivates both Batman and Bruce Wayne, even though they are the same person. The book is used to teach psychological theory and concepts.

Among the many revelations Langley has found in his studies is that many superheroes, such as Batman and Spider-Man, fight for justice after experiencing a personal trauma.

A young Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down, sending him on the path to becoming Batman while Peter Parker becomes a hero only after his own apathy leads to his uncle’s murder, Langley said in a previous interview.

Langley looks to his own childhood to uncover his interest in comics. Born in Arkadelphia, Langley said his family often moved after his father became a minister.

His mother read comic books to him to encourage him to read, and he was a fan of the 1960s Batman television show starring Adam West. Later, when Langley read the Batman comics in college, he said, he saw a darker and “more eerie” Batman.

In his classes, Langley said, the superheroes reflect the current American mood and change with the times.

“Batman might be obsessive, but he was sane in the world where he lived,” Langley said. “It was a world different from ours, and it changes for different generations.”

Langley said he and Adam West have become friends as they both appeared in panel discussions about Batman in a variety of comic-book- and superhero-based conventions.

The author opens his book with Langley recalling West asking him if Batman is crazy.

At the time, he told West that his Batman, portrayed on the television show, was the “right character for the time, and he was sane in a strange and different world.”

The latest Batman movies with Christian Bale as the superhero reflect a different national mood, and Langley said the world of Gotham in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises is “closer to our world, but still just slightly different.”

Based on that difference, Langley has said he thinks Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne has some serious psychological issues.

The HSU teacher took three years to plan his book and complete the research. Then he took another four months to write the first draft. Several revisions followed.

After that things moved quickly.

“Last year, I got a literary agent in four days, wrote an outline and submitted two chapters,” Langley said.

His manuscript sold in less than two weeks, as the third movie of the current Batman series was in production for release this summer.

The author said he hopes he can time his next books to come out when movies about his superhero subjects are in theaters.

The reviews of Langley’s book have almost all been positive, he said. A check of several reviews found praise for the serious way Langley approached the subject of the psychology of the Caped Crusader.

A review published by a reader with the name Jacqueline O. on Goodreads.com likes the mix of pop culture and serious psychological study in the book.

“Batman, the dark, complex alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, is a deeply psychological character that begs for serious analysis,” she wrote. “Langley is obviously a fan of Batman comics, graphic novels, and the Christopher Nolan films. Langley gives a detailed history of the Dark Knight, and some of his companions (such as the Robins) and different versions of his rouges’ gallery villains (such as the Joker). Plus, this book introduces basic concepts of theorists and founders of psychology: Freud, Jung, Adler, Maslow, Erikson, etc.”

A review published online by the bookstore Barnes & Noble called Langley’s book revealing.

“... many of us have wondered about our culture’s seven-decade fascination with the Caped Crusader. ‘Superherologist’ Travis Langley has done so more tellingly than most. In this singular book, he writes about Batman as a superhero with no superpowers, a hero who taps into our most primal fears and our deepest wishes. Dr. Langley puts this masked vigilante and his admirers on the analyst couch to examine what makes him — and us — tick.”

Langley said the lives and motivations of superheroes can be useful as a class subject.

“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,” he said. “I can walk students through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to show how Batman doesn’t have the disorder, even though he has some of the symptoms. That helps students better understand PTSD.”

Langley speaks on the psychology of Batman and other superheroes at comic-book conventions. He has also published academic and scientific papers on his research and writes a regular online column called “Beyond Heroes

and Villains” for Psychology Today magazine.

Langley said he will speak at regional and national conventions through the fall semester, while he is on sabbatical from Henderson State.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.