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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight

As someone with a vested interest in the plight of the mentally ill, I am routinely disgusted with the portrayal of supposedly "insane" persons in various media, most notably the Batman comics. Batman's rogues gallery, while the best in comics, is almost entirely composed of people who are routinely labeled as "insane." The problem here is that "insane" is a legal term, not a medical one. The Joker may be psychopathic, in that he has no empathy for his fellow human beings, but he is not psychotic, in that he can indeed comprehend the criminality of his actions. He therefore belongs in Blackgate Penitentiary, not Arkham Aslylum. As a side note, "asylum" is a highly dated and outmoded term which should be replaced by something else. How about "Elizabeth Arkham Memorial Psychiatric Hospital"?

But I'm getting a bit off track...

Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight by Travis Langley is a book on various issues relating to psychology in the world of Batman. It touches on both the above issue and many more, such has the Robins, Batman's father figures, the villains, the various lovely ladies in Batman's life, and what exactly makes Batman tick. It examines not only the primary comic version of Batman, but also the versions presented the various films and television shows. With a forward by Michael Uslan, the executive producer of most of the Batman films, and an introduction by acclaimed Bat-editor Denny O'Neil, this book has a lot of big names associated with it. It helps that the author is a psychology professor and a huge Batman fan. Therefore, it seems only natural that this would be a terrific book.

Happily, it is.

Batman and Psychology belongs to that class of books which examine subjects that were never designed to be studied particularly in-depth. There's the Wiley's Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series which produced, among many others, Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, along with James Daily and Ryan Davidson's The Law of Superheroes. In this case, Batman and Psychology studies the psyche of a 75 year old comic book character. And golly, for a huge geek like me, it is a boatload of fun.

Reading about how the birth order theory might explain the varying temperaments of the Robins, or why exactly Gotham City is filled with all these weird costumed criminals is absolutely fascinating to me. Reading books like this combines my love for scholarly subjects with my love for comic books and superheroes, blending them all into a smoothie of coolness. I think it also appeals to me because the lighthearted but scholarly nature of the book grants a sort of legitimacy to comic books, a legitimacy which is not widely shared by certain others.

What makes the book really shine, aside from its great content, is the way that content is presented. Langley's writing style is very natural and relaxed, and not stiff or stuffy. This allows for the various complex ideas to be expressed clearly and understandably. It's not overly technical or involved, but expertly refined and finely expounded. This may be due to Langley's background as a professor, which would require him to be able to explain things effectively, but all I know is that he writes very well.

Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight is a must read for both Batman-fans and Batman-writers. It gave me a new perspective on Batman and a renewed understanding of the character. Incoming Bat-scribes would do well to check out this book and learn what they can from it. I am also glad that the book devoted a whole chapter to discussing Arkham Asylum and its obvious faults, as well as addressing the false premise that most if not all of Batman's villains are mentally ill. My only complaint with this book is that it did not cover the case of Jean-Paul Valley, the first Azrael, a mentally ill hero in the Bat-family. That, I believe, would have made for an interesting entry. Perhaps a later edition will include an appendix on him, and possibly one on Michael Lane, the second Azrael.

RATING: 10/10

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