Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight review

    Batman remains my all-time favorite superhero for a variety of reasons ranging from the fact he's a non-powered mortal who gets by on his wits to the fact he has one of the most impressive rogues galleries in comics. I also love his costume. The biggest benefit of Batman, though, at least to me is he's also one of the few superheroes who is every bit as psychologically interesting as the villains he fights.

    Why does Bruce Wayne put on the cowl? Why does he let himself be defined by his parents being gunned down in a filthy ally? Why do we sympathize with this action so much? What sort of mental illnesses or conditions do his rogues suffer from, if any? How would you diagnose the majority of Gotham City's kooky criminals? Could you do so without being disrespectful to real-life conditions and practices?

    Travis Langley answers most of these questions in this work.

    I was both intrigued by the premise of this book and a bit cautious. Not just because attempting to assign real-life conditions to fictional characters as extreme as the Riddler and Joker has the potential to be disrespectful to the mentally ill but also because I've bought many of these books before and they rarely display the kind of in-depth knowledge of either the subject they're reviewing or the topic they're trying to apply to it. The Philosophy of X book tends to be a waste of money for fans despite the fact I've enjoyed a few of them very much.

    Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight is the exception. It's not only extremely respectful to the issue of mental illness in real life, explaining the differences between reality and fiction, but also is written by a man who has a genuine wealth of knowledge about the Batman character in all of his incarnations.

    Doctor Langley analyzes Batman characters from the TV show to the movies to the animated series and even references modern-day comic characters like Spoiler as well as the Red Hood. This is a thoroughly well-researched book and if the assigning of genuine psychological conditions to fictional characters written across seventy-five years is a lost cause then it's not for lack of effort.

    The book is also fun.

    Really-really fun.

    One of the things I like about the book is Doctor Langley tends to treat the superhero world as, itself, not a necessarily insane thing to pursue. Yes, it's peculiar to put on a costume and fight crime but not in the DC universe or even the Batman Begins reality. There, Bruce Wayne has decided to become a ninja because he joined the League of Assassins (however briefly). Instead, we get a formal discussion of how Bruce Wayne decided he would dedicate his life to fighting injustice as well as why he chose to fight outside the law.

    We also get an excellent answer to the question, "Is Batman or Bruce Wayne the mask?" Doctor Langley points out it is Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, not Batman's. As such, Batman is merely the tool he uses to take revenge for the eight-year-old boy in the alleyway. The heart of Bruce Wayne remains very much his childlike self, trying to regain control of his life, even as Batman is the way he lies to himself and says he does.

    I like Doctor Langley's handling of the rogues as well. One of the things I do appreciate is the majority of them aren't really criminally insane by the legal definition but merely have extreme personalities as well as theatrical flair. The Joker is an antisocial psychotic terrorist who may suffer hebephrenic schizophrenia (inappropriate emotions and reactions) but he's mostly a monster because he enjoys being so rather than any delusions or innate drive to kill.

    The Riddler is obsessive compulsive but his pompousness and grandiosity are as much a performance as lunacy. Catwoman isn't a kleptomaniac because they don't steal for wealth, they steal as compulsion. Even Two-Face uses his coin and false-persona to distance himself from the actions he wants to do versus the ones he'd be driven to. Poor Harley Quinn has the most spot-on diagnosis, being a dependent personality-disorder who, if freed from the Joker, would just find someone else to latch onto like Poison Ivy or Deadshot (or Batman himself).

    In conclusion, this is probably the best academic analysis book on superheroes I've read and that's pretty high praise. Pick this up if you're interested in taking a deep and dark look into the mysteries of the Batman universe. About my only complaint regarding the work is the fact it is best if you have a deep knowledge of the various incarnations of the characters.



  1. In reality, the criminally insane plea doesn't hold up well even for those who were actually insane. Richard Trenton Chase was an incredibly violent paranoid schizophrenic but was still found competent to stand trial for his murders. Other prisoners, even hardcore killers on death row, were afraid of him because he was actually violently insane.

    So The Joker would of been locked away for a long long time.

    1. In my vision of Gotham City, the only reason the Joker goes to Arkham Asylum along with so many other supercriminals is because the system is corrupt and they pay off people to go there. Batman allows it because he genuinely believes in redemption even for the worst of them. Besides, Arkham is harder to escape from than Blackgate. You know, when terrorists like Bane aren't blowing it apart or Doctor Quinzel leaving the backdoor open.