Dr. Travis Langley on exploring the psychology of Wonder Woman, Supernatural, and fandom

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Jul 25, 2017

What makes your favorite superheroes and villains tick? What, as fans, do we get out of our love for these fictional characters and genre properties? These questions are just the tip of the geeky psychological iceberg that Dr. Travis Langley explores in his work.

Dr. Langley is a psychology professor at Henderson State University and writes a column for Psychology Today called “Beyond Heroes and Villains.” He’s the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight and has contributed and edited a series of books looking at other heroes and geeky properties including Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind, Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier, and Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, and Psychology. Dr. Langley has also been a panelist at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, and that’s where SYFY WIRE caught up with him to discuss his work. This combination of his lifelong nerd passions and work in psychology began in 2007 when he was teaching a psychology in literature course.

“I found that it was an amazing way for these students to learn psychology. We’re analyzing the characters, but they're learning a lot of very real psychology from a lot of different areas while we're doing that,” said Dr. Langley. “That summer I read a book by Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the Couch, where he's looking at culture and people and what superheroes say about us, and I was thinking, ‘Well, I'd like to write this kind of book, but as an actual psychologist.’”

That same summer Dr. Langley visited San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, an environment that he saw celebrating interests that might make people feel ostracized elsewhere in their lives. There he saw the potential to do research on self-esteem, and over the next couple of years conducted a study with students that showed that people’s self-esteem and optimism about life were better at Comic-Con than outside the convention. He also found the Comics Arts Conference, where he saw scholars discussing these topics, while he was already thinking about his psychology-in-literature course and Fingeroth’s book, and he knew he had to bring the professor side and the nerdy side of his life together. From there he planned to release a Batman book, take time to get to know other people, and write other things in comic studies. Some of the interesting opportunities that resulted during that time included a 2009 panel about The Joker with panelists like the character’s creator Jerry Robinson and also Batman actor Adam West.

“That's where it starts. Then, as a result, I got to know a lot of other nerdy psychologists, people who wanted to write on these things, and a bunch of them said to me, 'If you do more of these books, are you going to do any of them as anthologies, because they would want to contribute,'” he said. “When I wound up with my current publisher, we started doing these books, and we’ve been doing them at a pace of two or three a year, but it’s not that these have been slapped together. These are things we’ve been thinking about for years. Next year we’re going to slow down to two. One spring book, one fall book. Then we’ve got the next two years planned, all the way through the 12th book, about half of which relate to comic books and superheroes, because that's what’s particularly interesting to me. I love exploring heroism. I love exploring what brings out the best and worst in people, especially the best, though.”

In April, his latest book, called Wonder Woman: Lassoing the Truth, was released. It features Mara Wood as co-editor and a foreword by Trina Robbins. According to Dr. Langley, Wonder Woman was a character he wanted to cover for a long time, but he was challenged by how to fill a book about a mentally healthy character with enemies who are not well known, unlike Batman, who clearly has some issues and whose enemies fill an asylum. Dr. Langley started thinking about how Wonder Woman was created by an important psychologist, William Moulton Marston.

“If we start to look at Wonder Woman, especially the first few chapters of the book, in terms of her creator’s psychology, its importance, and how it relates to the stories, then we do a lot of what we normally do with most of the books,” he explained. “Looking at any kind of area of psychology as it relates to these characters. You know, developmental psychology, how it affects Diana and her relationship with her mother and those things, but we keep weaving in Marston’s psychology throughout.”

Dr. Langley said they were honored by the fact that Marston’s family allowed them to include part of his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston’s unpublished memoirs as a chapter.

The next book edited by Dr. Langley will tackle a popular series: Supernatural. Dr. Langley said he’s wanted to cover the show for a while, but his previous editor thought it would be too much of a niche market. While its market isn’t quite like Star Wars, he saw there was a lot of psychology to talk about with the characters and knew it had a very dedicated audience, and his current editor agreed. Supernatural: Roads Less Traveled also has a co-editor, Lynn Zubernis. Zubernis has written, edited, and co-edited a number of other books about the show and its fandom. According to Dr. Langley, it's the first book to have a chapter on fandom itself, which is written by Zubernis.

“Out of all TV shows, I don't know of anything past or present that has quite such a strong community of fans. Star Trek had an amazing fandom. They saved the show a couple of times, but they were having to pull together in a different way, correspond by letter campaigns, and a slower sort of process, so the community part of it didn’t become quite as much a part of everyday life. They still had community, but they had to convene to do it,” he said. “Now we can be in it all the time. Your convention can be Twitter, and with Supernatural, it's additionally meaningful because within the story itself it looks at fandom.”

To Dr. Langley, the show is about the relationship between the brothers more than anything else, and “the very broad theme of family. The family you choose, the family you lose.”

Out of everything Dr. Langley has looked at thus far, the most surprising or interesting things he’s found in his work vary with the different characters. Sometimes he finds that they are coping better than he thought they were! While Spider-Man’s not a hero he’s written about in books yet, he’s discussed the hero on a number of panels, and highlights him as the poster boy for the neurotic superhero. Bit by bit, though, Dr. Langley says he points to examples of the Marvel hero using humor as a coping mechanism, and how Spider-Man persists, achieving more than some other heroes.

“I’m starting to think Daredevil’s more screwed up than Spider-Man, and if I'm writing a Daredevil book right now to come out next year, I don't think I can say it!” he said.

Perhaps even more interesting than how Dr. Langley explores the psychology of these shows and heroes is what he’s found out about the fans themselves. Dr. Langley said he sees repeatedly that there are two levels that fandom gets out of connecting to these things.

“There’s the interpersonal level, the social level, where you’re interacting with others and forming connections with other people interested in these things, or even if they’re not interested in the same thing, you understand that passion. You go around here at Comic-Con, there are people who aren’t into the same thing you are, but they have some things they love. That’s why they're here. Or things they’re interested in, that’s why they’re here. Even if they’re not into your thing, they understand something of your passion, and that passion itself connects you with other people,” said Langley. “At the intrapersonal level within, what I see people get out of this kind of fiction, a lot of heroic fiction, is hope. Even hope in their own lives. If this character can do it, maybe I can too. Somebody else can look at that cynically and go, 'What do you mean? That character’s not real.' But if the characters are written true to human nature, it’s still inspirational.”

People are also able to look harder at reality through fiction. Dr. Langley pointed to Star Trek in the 1960s and how it was able to address issues nobody else in television was talking about, allowing a closer look at racial conflict through races that weren’t real, such as in the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Another powerful thing he’s seen fiction do is promote empathy.

“People who read a lot of fiction are shown to demonstrate increasing amounts of empathy for others. It can sound isolating, you’re reading about fictional characters, shouldn't you be looking at people? But those fictional characters, you get inside their heads in a way you don't with the people around you. You see them in their private moments, you feel sympathy for them, and you want the other characters to feel sympathy for them,” he said. “You want somebody to stop picking on Harry Potter or you want Harry, Ron, and Hermione to stop their stupid squabble. You see them in these moments, you sympathize with them even when they’re doing dumb things, and you get it and you want others to have sympathy for them. That does foster, not for everybody universally, but more often than not, it fosters greater sympathy and empathy than others.”

So, what’s next for Dr. Langley? He may be working on that Daredevil book, and perhaps has plans in 2019 for a Joker and Harley Quinn book, with something non-superhero-related in between. Dr. Langley reiterated how he feels the most important thing he’s doing with all of this is not just teaching some psychology to people through the fun of looking at fictional characters, but showing that psychology is fun and more interesting than you might realize.

“We all talk about psychology all the time, whether you realize it or not. When you say, 'Why is that person doing that?', that's a psychological question. When you speculate on why they’re doing that, you're engaging in some native psychology. When you look at a TV show or film and go, 'I don't think they would do that, that’s out of character,'” he said. “That's a psychological assessment you’re making right there. We talk about psychology all the time, we use examples when we’re talking, and sometimes it's easier to look through the fiction.”

You can keep up with Dr. Langley’s work by visiting his website. His next book, Supernatural: Roads Less Traveled, will be released in October.