The shrink wants to know how Batman is feeling.
In this case, Batman is a husky mid-40s native of uptown Manhattan‚Äôs working-class Washington Heights neighborhood, his own personal Gotham. Under his thick black rubber mask, he grunts in his best Christian Bale, ‚ÄúThe person that‚Äôs under the mask doesn‚Äôt exist.‚ÄĚ
But the woman he‚Äôs talking to wants to get deep under that mask. She‚Äôs 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‚Äôs no leather couch in the Batcave, so Rosenberg has to settle for walking the floor of New York‚Äôs cavernous Javits Center ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚Äúcosplayers‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ fans in elaborate costumes ‚ÄĒ adopt the personas of their favorite characters. These aren‚Äôt just people in dress-up. There‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ especially the cosplayers, whom she greets with a business card identifying herself as a psychologist. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt want people to think I‚Äôm a freak,‚ÄĚ she says.
Batman can relate. He loves coming here in costume. ‚ÄúIt feels good,‚ÄĚ he tells Rosenberg, who records their conversation on her iPhone. He‚Äôs not talking about the fit, Rosenberg learns when she pries a bit further. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like nothing can hurt me.‚ÄĚ
Batman ‚ÄĒ in pain?
Rosenberg knows how to comfort him: by letting him talk. Soon, his friend, dressed as Batman‚Äôs erstwhile ally Green Lantern ‚ÄĒ a character whose power stems from overcoming the kind of fear Batman instills ‚ÄĒ catches up from elsewhere at the convention. He quickly puts himself on Rosenberg‚Äôs couch. ‚ÄúTo be a superhero,‚ÄĚ says Green Lantern, a little too demonstratively, ‚Äúyou have to have real willpower.‚ÄĚ
The willpower displayed by the convention‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ Why are you dressed like this hero? ‚ÄĒ 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, ‚ÄúI never really knew my father.‚ÄĚ
Rosenberg, who loves cosplay and cosplayers, gets reactions like that more often than you might expect. At conventions, ‚Äúpeople are so open, so nice and so friendly,‚ÄĚ she says. When the orange-haired fellow shuffles on, she adds, ‚ÄúThis guy was very psychologically insightful. He understood how he felt. Those people can get quite personal.‚ÄĚ
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 ‚ÄĒ the youthful trauma that transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman; the physical assault that made a billionaire playboy into Iron Man ‚ÄĒ Rosenberg figures she can help comics fans explore their own motivations. And, perhaps, help people caricatured as maladjusted find their own heroism.
Rosenberg‚Äôs 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: ‚ÄúIs the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Superhero?‚ÄĚ) And she‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs an unfamiliar experience for the formerly insular comic book industry. ‚ÄúComic book creative people of my generation are always sort of amazed,‚ÄĚ says Paul Levitz, the former president of DC Comics, one of the ‚Äúbig two‚ÄĚ superhero creative houses, ‚Äúthat the world out there is paying attention to us with a serious hat on, as opposed to treating us like total ephemera.‚ÄĚ
Analyzing superheroes may be fun. But it‚Äôs 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‚Äôs perhaps overdue that someone put the superheroes ‚ÄĒ and, implicitly, their creators and fans ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs not just shrinks. There‚Äôs 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‚Äôs James Kakalios explored The Physics of Superheroes. As the audience for superheroes has grown, so too has the market for understanding what motivates superheroes ‚ÄĒ and what motivates us to find their stories compelling.
Rosenberg‚Äôs 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‚Äôs chapter on how billionaire weapons mogul Tony Stark became Iron Man. Fans of the character know Stark was critically wounded by a Chinese ‚Äúsmirking red terrorist‚ÄĚ while trying to help the U.S. military in Vietnam (bear with me), and made his Iron Man suit to subvert the commies‚Äô plan to force him to build weapons for them. But Stark‚Äôs real motivation, Rosenberg infers, is the fact that captivity shatters his beliefs ‚Äúin a just world‚ÄĚ and in his own efficacy. His life-changing injury ‚Äúchallenge[s] his belief that he is ‚Äėsafe‚Äô‚ÄČ‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ but Rosenberg doesn‚Äôt think Iron Man has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Diagnosing Iron Man, however, is merely superficial. Rosenberg‚Äôs real goal is explaining to the fans how Stark‚Äôs trials reflect their own mental health. The adversity makes Iron Man a hero ‚ÄĒ but so does his resilience in coping with trauma. ‚ÄúWe care about Iron Man,‚ÄĚ Rosenberg writes, because ‚Äúwe understand how lives can change after being touched by trauma. ‚Ä¶ He models for us the light at the end of the tunnel ‚ÄĒ that people can come out of traumatic experiences stronger, more alive, and more fulfilled.‚ÄĚ
And it so happens that if readers want to know more about what it means to be Iron Man ‚ÄĒ and, implicitly, why they like Iron Man ‚ÄĒ they‚Äôll have a book in stores right in time for his return to the movies this spring in The Avengers.
Rosenberg‚Äôs own origin story is somewhat less dramatic. She grew up reading comics, but gave them up as she matured. She‚Äôs from New York, and its decline in the 1970s was a formative experience for her. ‚ÄúThose were bad years. It was dark and gritty,‚ÄĚ she remembers. ‚ÄúThere was high crime in the subways. We needed Batman.‚ÄĚ
By the 1990s, Rosenberg was a mom living in Boston and seeking ways to get her children excited about reading. Like millions of parents ‚ÄĒ including my own mother, who kept me reading with the help of the Incredible Hulk ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ Marvel‚Äôs popular, long-standing allegory for confronting bigotry (through the prism of ‚Äúmutants,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt many alternatives. ‚ÄúThere weren‚Äôt a lot of ethically or morally complex books for kids at that time,‚ÄĚ Rosenberg says.
The more she dove in, the more she found she loved reconnecting with comics ‚ÄĒ and recontextualizing them within her professional development. ‚ÄúThe Claremont stories‚ÄĒthey just blew me away by how much psychology was in there,‚ÄĚ Rosenberg recalls.
That‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ all by making his stories more complex, not less. In Claremont‚Äôs 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‚Äôs finest hour, and you‚Äôll probably hear about 1980‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ and herself ‚ÄĒ to choose between her life and their commitment to justice.
Claremont‚Äôs Uncanny X-Men run had a theme that appealed to Rosenberg‚Äôs professional preoccupation: resilience. Whether it was Phoenix‚Äôs dark chrysalis or Wolverine‚Äôs alienation, Claremont‚Äôs mutants suffered perpetually. But they remained functional ‚ÄĒ indeed, remained superheroic. Rosenberg saw a message there.
‚ÄúLook at victims of trauma,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúPeople think they‚Äôre likely to develop PTSD. But only about 20 percent do.‚ÄĚ Rosenberg is more concerned with a concept called ‚Äústress-induced growth,‚ÄĚ in which coping with trauma develops resilience and powers people forward ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚Äúencapsulated my passion for going beyond typical psychology.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs eyes instinctively follow. The costume is merely a medium, she understands. The important thing, psychologically speaking, is identity play ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äô Levitz, a comics professional since the early ‚Äô70s, 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‚Äôs wizard companion. ‚ÄúA lot of it was performance art,‚ÄĚ Levitz recalls.
But by the early ‚Äô90s, the San Diego Comic-Con ‚ÄĒ the industry‚Äôs largest ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚Äúbest costume‚ÄĚ became a cipher for most challenging costume, wittiest costume, most obscure costume ‚ÄĒ and, for Rosenberg‚Äôs purposes, most emotionally resonant or revealing costume.
Like the female fans who dress up as Catwoman ‚ÄĒ among the most adventurous of costumes, and not merely because it risks unwanted attention from leering male fans. Women who cosplay Catwoman say ‚Äúshe‚Äôs strong, she doesn‚Äôt take crap from people, she‚Äôs sexy ‚ÄĒ and can be sexy but on her own terms,‚ÄĚ Rosenberg says. ‚ÄúShe‚Äôs not a victim. She‚Äôs not passive.‚ÄĚ
Transforming into someone who isn‚Äôt passive is a goal of most cosplayers. Many cosplayers happen to be shy, Rosenberg says. If someone can get out of his ‚Äúshy self‚ÄĚ by dressing up as Batman, then it‚Äôs possible to find the same confidence during a job interview ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúwhich,‚ÄĚ she adds, ‚Äúis really cool.‚ÄĚ
One day, Rosenberg says, she‚Äôll get some funding and put together a survey to map a psychological profile of cosplayers. All the better to understand what she calls ‚Äúthe modern continuum of alter-ego experiences.‚ÄĚ Until then, she‚Äôs 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‚Äôs the logo of a DC Comics villain named Black Adam, he says. ‚ÄúI never actually learned much about the character,‚ÄĚ he confesses. ‚ÄúI just liked the logo.‚ÄĚ
Rosenberg spots the distinction. The dude in the Black Adam T-shirt isn‚Äôt actually a cosplayer. He‚Äôs 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; ‚Äúthat guy, not so much,‚ÄĚ Rosenberg says. But give Rosenberg half a chance, and maybe he will be.