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Comic Con on the Couch: Analyzing Superheroes

The shrink wants to know how Batman is feeling. In this case, Batman is a husky mid-40s native of uptown Manhattan’s working-class Washington Heights neighborhood, his own personal Gotham. Under his thick black rubber mask, he grunts in his best Christian Bale, “The person that’s under the mask doesn’t exist.” But the woman he’s talking … Continued

The shrink wants to know how Batman is feeling.

In this case, Batman is a husky mid-40s native of uptown Manhattan’s working-class Washington Heights neighborhood, his own personal Gotham. Under his thick black rubber mask, he grunts in his best Christian Bale, “The person that’s under the mask doesn’t exist.”

But the woman he’s talking to wants to get deep under that mask. She’s Robin Rosenberg, a middle-aged Palo Alto psychologist in private practice who specializes in an unusual clinical cohort: superheroes. Rosenberg, a columnist for Psychology Today and the author and editor of several books, including the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes, wants to know what motivates Batman. Yes, Robin is questioning Batman.

There’s no leather couch in the Batcave, so Rosenberg has to settle for walking the floor of New York’s cavernous Javits Center — which, on this rainy October afternoon, is the perfect place to shine the Bat-Signal. The center is host to New York Comic Con, one of the largest gatherings of the comic book industry, where all the major comics publishers come to hawk their wares, and “cosplayers” — fans in elaborate costumes — adopt the personas of their favorite characters. These aren’t just people in dress-up. There’s something, Rosenberg believes, more psychologically complex going on.

Two or three times a year, Rosenberg attends the major U.S. comics conventions and starts conversations with fans — especially the cosplayers, whom she greets with a business card identifying herself as a psychologist. “I don’t want people to think I’m a freak,” she says.

Batman can relate. He loves coming here in costume. “It feels good,” he tells Rosenberg, who records their conversation on her iPhone. He’s not talking about the fit, Rosenberg learns when she pries a bit further. “It’s like nothing can hurt me.”

Batman — in pain?

Rosenberg knows how to comfort him: by letting him talk. Soon, his friend, dressed as Batman’s erstwhile ally Green Lantern — a character whose power stems from overcoming the kind of fear Batman instills — catches up from elsewhere at the convention. He quickly puts himself on Rosenberg’s couch. “To be a superhero,” says Green Lantern, a little too demonstratively, “you have to have real willpower.”

The willpower displayed by the convention’s cosplayers seems to increase as Rosenberg walks the floor. Usually therapy takes weeks or months to cultivate the trust in a doctor necessary for patients to open up. But when Rosenberg asks even the least invasive of questions — Why are you dressed like this hero? — the cosplayers can respond with a surprising amount of intimacy. One cosplayer in a black cloak and orange wig, acting out a part from an obscure Japanese anime show, explains that, just like his character, “I never really knew my father.”

Rosenberg, who loves cosplay and cosplayers, gets reactions like that more often than you might expect. At conventions, “people are so open, so nice and so friendly,” she says. When the orange-haired fellow shuffles on, she adds, “This guy was very psychologically insightful. He understood how he felt. Those people can get quite personal.”

Rosenberg is banking on that. Her unconventional career choice is based on two related hunches. First, superhero fans, used to viewing their idols as allegories for the good (or bad) life, are actually hungry for psychological insight. Second, those allegories provide a prism to introduce and popularize psychology. By studying the origin myths of those heroes — the youthful trauma that transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman; the physical assault that made a billionaire playboy into Iron Man — Rosenberg figures she can help comics fans explore their own motivations. And, perhaps, help people caricatured as maladjusted find their own heroism.

Rosenberg’s bets have been good so far. The Psychology of Superheroes has ensured that she generates enthusiasm when she holds panels at comics conventions. (Her panel at the New York con: “Is the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Superhero?”) And she’s set up to branch out further. In addition to a book she co-edited about the psychological issues at play with the aforementioned Lisbeth Salander, she’s got another one on the way about the lessons that superhero origin stories teach about mental health. Rosenberg is set to become the premiere shrink to the men in tights.

That’s an unfamiliar experience for the formerly insular comic book industry. “Comic book creative people of my generation are always sort of amazed,” says Paul Levitz, the former president of DC Comics, one of the “big two” superhero creative houses, “that the world out there is paying attention to us with a serious hat on, as opposed to treating us like total ephemera.”

Analyzing superheroes may be fun. But it’s also shrewd. Escapist fantasies about men and women in tights whose answer to complex social phenomena involves punching people are also a mega-business. The new owner of Marvel Comics, home to the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Avengers, is Disney, which paid $4 billion for the company.

Gone are the days of Day-Glo two-fisted tales. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan revitalized the campy Batman movies into a dark meditation on paranoia in an age of perpetual war.

So it’s perhaps overdue that someone put the superheroes — and, implicitly, their creators and fans — on the couch. Rosenberg is by no means the only one. The Psychology of Superheroes had nearly two dozen contributing authors. Longtime comics creator Danny Fingeroth published Superman on the Couch in 2004.

And it’s not just shrinks. There’s Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, an exploration of the ethics of the superhero allegory. For the more practical fan, the University of Minnesota’s James Kakalios explored The Physics of Superheroes. As the audience for superheroes has grown, so too has the market for understanding what motivates superheroes — and what motivates us to find their stories compelling.

Rosenberg’s book, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, dropped in December of 2011, just in time for the blockbuster film starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Next up will be a book that doubles as a summation of her entire project. Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care goes back to the source of superhero pathology in the most fundamental way: the experiences that turned them from men and women to superbeings.

Take Rosenberg’s chapter on how billionaire weapons mogul Tony Stark became Iron Man. Fans of the character know Stark was critically wounded by a Chinese “smirking red terrorist” while trying to help the U.S. military in Vietnam (bear with me), and made his Iron Man suit to subvert the commies’ plan to force him to build weapons for them. But Stark’s real motivation, Rosenberg infers, is the fact that captivity shatters his beliefs “in a just world” and in his own efficacy. His life-changing injury “challenge[s] his belief that he is ‘safe’ ” — but Rosenberg doesn’t think Iron Man has post-traumatic stress disorder.

Diagnosing Iron Man, however, is merely superficial. Rosenberg’s real goal is explaining to the fans how Stark’s trials reflect their own mental health. The adversity makes Iron Man a hero — but so does his resilience in coping with trauma. “We care about Iron Man,” Rosenberg writes, because “we understand how lives can change after being touched by trauma. … He models for us the light at the end of the tunnel — that people can come out of traumatic experiences stronger, more alive, and more fulfilled.”

And it so happens that if readers want to know more about what it means to be Iron Man — and, implicitly, why they like Iron Man — they’ll have a book in stores right in time for his return to the movies this spring in The Avengers.

Rosenberg’s own origin story is somewhat less dramatic. She grew up reading comics, but gave them up as she matured. She’s from New York, and its decline in the 1970s was a formative experience for her. “Those were bad years. It was dark and gritty,” she remembers. “There was high crime in the subways. We needed Batman.”

By the 1990s, Rosenberg was a mom living in Boston and seeking ways to get her children excited about reading. Like millions of parents — including my own mother, who kept me reading with the help of the Incredible Hulk — she returned to comics. Except now the comics she read to her kids were much more sophisticated than she remembered. She especially took to the X-Men — Marvel’s popular, long-standing allegory for confronting bigotry (through the prism of “mutants,” people whose genetic structure gives them superpowers, only to thrust them into a world of normals who hate and fear them).

Those were values she wanted to teach her children. And when she scanned the bookshelves, she saw there weren’t many alternatives. “There weren’t a lot of ethically or morally complex books for kids at that time,” Rosenberg says.

The more she dove in, the more she found she loved reconnecting with comics — and recontextualizing them within her professional development. “The Claremont stories—they just blew me away by how much psychology was in there,” Rosenberg recalls.

That’s a reference to a comic book legend: writer Chris Claremont. Over more than 15 years, Claremont transformed the X-Men from the runt of Marvel Comics into a powerful global brand — all by making his stories more complex, not less. In Claremont’s hands, the marauding mutant killing machine Wolverine became a samurai (literally), unsure of his ability to tame his demons but clinging to an ethic of honor to reconnect him with his humanity. Ask any X-fan to name Claremont’s finest hour, and you’ll probably hear about 1980’s Dark Phoenix Saga, in which a cherished member of the team, Phoenix, loses control of her godlike powers, annihilates a solar system, and compels the X-Men — and herself — to choose between her life and their commitment to justice.

Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run had a theme that appealed to Rosenberg’s professional preoccupation: resilience. Whether it was Phoenix’s dark chrysalis or Wolverine’s alienation, Claremont’s mutants suffered perpetually. But they remained functional — indeed, remained superheroic. Rosenberg saw a message there.

“Look at victims of trauma,” she says. “People think they’re likely to develop PTSD. But only about 20 percent do.” Rosenberg is more concerned with a concept called “stress-induced growth,” in which coping with trauma develops resilience and powers people forward — like when a certain playboy billionaire finds himself with a wounded heart in Vietnam, compelled to build a suit of armor to protect him from his captors.

Around 2006, Rosenberg decided to build a kind of resilience into her own career. She found it in pop culture, penning an essay on the emotional maturation of students at Hogwarts, the wizard academy in the Harry Potter books. It was collected into a well-received anthology, The Psychology of Harry Potter.

The book did well financially. But more fundamentally, it struck a chord within Rosenberg, who realized it “encapsulated my passion for going beyond typical psychology.” The Psychology of Superheroes followed in 2008; Psychology Today launched her column on the same subject two years later. Rosenberg had found her alter ego.

And not just her own. Whenever a cosplayer walks by at New York Comic Con, Rosenberg’s eyes instinctively follow. The costume is merely a medium, she understands. The important thing, psychologically speaking, is identity play — something that can be as subtle as people changing their behavior when they adopt Internet personas or as overt as barking out answers to questions in Christian Bale’s gravelly timbre when dressed as Batman.

Cosplay is a kind of second-order comic book phenomenon: an outgrowth of the mega-conventions that represent the commercialization of comics. DC Comics’ Levitz, a comics professional since the early ’70s, remembers when cosplayers were oddities. ElfQuest co-creator Wendy Pini would dress up as nearly naked warrior Red Sonja, while legendary fantasy-comics writer (and dirty old man) Frank Thorne attended conventions in the robes of Red Sonja’s wizard companion. “A lot of it was performance art,” Levitz recalls.

But by the early ’90s, the San Diego Comic-Con — the industry’s largest — began giving away prizes for best costume. The game was on, as conventioneers became walking memes, long before the Internet gave people a common vernacular for what they were becoming. And “best costume” became a cipher for most challenging costume, wittiest costume, most obscure costume — and, for Rosenberg’s purposes, most emotionally resonant or revealing costume.

Like the female fans who dress up as Catwoman — among the most adventurous of costumes, and not merely because it risks unwanted attention from leering male fans. Women who cosplay Catwoman say “she’s strong, she doesn’t take crap from people, she’s sexy — and can be sexy but on her own terms,” Rosenberg says. “She’s not a victim. She’s not passive.”

Transforming into someone who isn’t passive is a goal of most cosplayers. Many cosplayers happen to be shy, Rosenberg says. If someone can get out of his “shy self” by dressing up as Batman, then it’s possible to find the same confidence during a job interview — “which,” she adds, “is really cool.”

One day, Rosenberg says, she’ll get some funding and put together a survey to map a psychological profile of cosplayers. All the better to understand what she calls “the modern continuum of alter-ego experiences.” Until then, she’s content to study cosplayers anecdotally, marveling at their readiness for introspection after the slightest prompt from a stranger.

Suddenly she sees a teenager wearing a stark black T-shirt interrupted by a yellow lightning bolt. Rosenberg preps the record function on her iPhone and asks him to explain the statement behind his sartorial choice.

It’s the logo of a DC Comics villain named Black Adam, he says. “I never actually learned much about the character,” he confesses. “I just liked the logo.”

Rosenberg spots the distinction. The dude in the Black Adam T-shirt isn’t actually a cosplayer. He’s not walking around as Black Adam; he wanted to wear a T-shirt with a cool lightning bolt on it. Most often, cosplayers are introspective; “that guy, not so much,” Rosenberg says. But give Rosenberg half a chance, and maybe he will be.

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