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NYCC 2015 Examines the Psychology of Superheroes and of Ourselves

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NYCC 2015 Examines the Psychology of Superheroes and of Ourselves

This year’s New York Comic Con drew an estimated 167,000 fans (though how they come up with that number is a little tricky), topping its record-setting figure from 2014 and smashing anything that’s ever happened at San Diego’s Comic Con International. That’s one sixth of one million individuals, each with their own unique quirks and personalities, on display for all to see. Thanks to a wide range of diverse guests, those fans were able to learn about the psychology of their favorite characters as well as a little bit about themselves.

Dr. Travis Langley, psychology professor at Henderson State University, is a fan too, and threw together a Comics Art Conference poster on Marvel’s Civil War in relation to Erich Fromm’s human dilemma of freedom vs. security to attend Comic Con International in 2007. That led to an academic paper on the subject, and reading Danny Fingeroth’s Superman on the Couch crystallized a realization for Langley.

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“I want to write this kind of a book, but with my psychology in it,” he thought.

And so Batman and Psychology was born, which became so successful it’s spawned a second career for Langley, as he’s since written Psychology books on The Walking Dead and Star Wars, which released in October, with Game of Thrones and Star Trek to follow next year. Though Batman was appropriately a solo effort, Langley’s other books are partially compiled by his fellow bloggers at Psychology Today.

“I know they know their psychology, they know their popular culture and they know how to talk about them together in a way that makes sense for a general audience,” Langley says. Having a cast of contributors also keeps Langley from repeating himself, as each author is able to give their own take on something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a subject that keeps coming up.

“There’s real, serious science all throughout these things,” Langley says, as he talks about the specific PTSD symptoms of The Walking Dead‘s Carol. Almost everyone in the show has PTSD, but Carol is one of the few that exhibits “post traumatic growth.”


Another concept that appears frequently, especially in Star Wars Psychology, is that of Carl Jung’s “hero’s journey.” Oddly enough, the idea is almost entirely absent from 2016’s Star Trek Psychology, so if anyone ever asks you for the scientific difference between the two franchises, now you can tell them — it’s Jungian archetypes.

The difference between how mental health is portrayed in fiction and its reality was highlighted in a special panel titled “A Force for Good: The Powerful Partnership Between Mental Health and Pop Culture.” The crew from Broadcast Thought, a group that provides consultation on psychological issues for scripts and even actors, pointed out that there have always been depictions of mental health issues in media; they just haven’t been very good. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 57% of us will have some kind of mental health issue at some point in our lives, you begin to realize those aren’t other people — they’re us.

That’s a thought that might make you squeamish when considering how Batman’s famous rogues behave, as in the over-the-top, stereotypical antics of Fox program Gotham‘s Maniax. Jenny Jaffe, founder of online resource Project UROK, doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though — she’s just looking for more even-handed representation. Wouldn’t it be great if some of those afflicted villains were brought down by someone with a similar kind of issue?

Jaffe launched Project UROK (pronounced “you are okay”) in April with the goal of destigmatizing mental illness and encouraging treatment. Jaffe has a history of mental health issues herself, so she knew firsthand that there was void to fill.

“It was clear to me that nothing like Project UROK existed already,” she says, “and it seemed to me like something, intuitively, that should exist.”

Project UROK utilizes videos of ordinary people, celebrities (like Mara Wilson) and even the website users themselves to tell stories of mental illness and to show those suffering that other people go through the same kinds of things. While video is a natural medium for Jaffe, a veteran of comedy and television production, its use in Project UROK is more meaningful than just that.

“Putting a human face and voice on an issue is always the most effective way to approach bringing it to people who might not be otherwise very receptive to the conversation,” Jaffe says.

But it’s not just talking heads. Jaffe says Project UROK is very clear that that they don’t provide treatment, although they are overseen by a board of mental health professionals. Some of them are from the Children’s Health Council, the same group that helped Jaffe when she was younger.

Banner image from Superhero Therapy, run by clinical psychologist Janina Scarlet, who also participated in the “Force for Good” panel. Scarlet thinks that if you see your experiences in fiction, you can become more like the hero you admire.

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