Welcome to the Scholar’s Corner a column dedicated to interviewing people from the wide world of scholars dedicated to researching all aspects of the study of comics. The intent is to reach beyond the traditional academic target audience such research attracts to introduce to a wider audience scholars who talk about the work they are carrying out in comic studies today.
Travis Langley, PhD, is a psychology professor at Henderson State University, the author of Batman and Psychology (Wiley), and the volume editor of The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, Game of Thrones Psychology, and the rest of the Popular Culture Psychology series (all Sterling).
He speaks regularly on media and heroism at universities, conferences, and pop culture conventions including Comic-Con International in San Diego, New York Comic Con, and others throughout the world. Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics and other films have featured him as an expert interviewee, and the documentary Legends of the Knight spotlighted how he uses fiction to teach real psychology. Psychology Today carries his blog "Beyond Heroes and Villains," and he is one of the ten most popular psychologists on Twitter with over 100,000 followers: @superherologist.
Scoop contributor, collector, and Overstreet Advisor, Art Cloos talked to Langley about his scholarly work of studying comics and superheroes with their connections to psychology.
Scoop: Travis it is a real treat to have you here for a Scholar’s Corner Scoop interview.
Travis Langley (TL): Thank you for inviting me.
Scoop: You teach psychology at Henderson State but you have a strong pop culture interest as well, including comics. Were you always a comic fan?
TL: Oh, yes.
Scoop: So, comics were with you from a very early age. Did you have favorites?
TL: Superheroes. My sister got Richie Rich and Archie, and I’d read her comic books too, but my favorites were superhero stories.
Scoop: We are talking when?
TL: When I was a baby. My dad recently found two separate pages in my baby book which show that Batman was one of my earliest words. My mom read comic books to me when I was little, which motivated me to learn to read them myself.
Scoop: So, did you collect them or just read them?
TL: Mainly read them. Occasionally I’d buy one for collector’s potential, but not often. I loved the stories, loved the heroes.
Scoop: Now did this continue into high school?
TL: Always. It continued until sometime after grad school in the ’90s when I got tired of drawn-out stories that amounted to 16-issue fights. So, there was a spell then when I no longer had any titles that I bought regularly.
Scoop: That’s a consequence of the collector’s market which happens to a lot of people that I have interviewed.
TL: It felt very weird to me because my love of superhero comic books had always been such a big part of me.
Scoop: They step away for a while for one reason or another. For me it was money to pay for my postgraduate work.
TL: For me, I was tired of inflated stories that made the heroes look too incompetent to beat the bad guys faster. One issue and two-issue stories play to heroes’ strengths and show them to be capable of stopping evil before the body count keeps mounting.
Scoop: A good point. I never thought of it that way. Now when college arrived did you have your career planned out?
TL: When I entered college as an undergraduate?
Scoop: Yes, some scholars do, some don’t. I actually did as an undergraduate.
TL: I wanted to write books, and I entered college already planning to major in psychology. I wanted to be a therapist, though. When students enter college, they think that’s what a psychologist is. More specifically, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I remember when I realized I did not need to go to medical school to do the things I wanted to do, that a Ph.D. would suit my interests better and let me learn more psychology. Between getting my bachelor’s and entering graduate school, I was a child abuse investigator for the state. That’s when I realized I did not want to be a therapist. I enjoyed doing research. I enjoyed speaking. I wanted to be a professor.
Scoop: Did you have a focus for your research picked out?
TL: Aggression and media.
Scoop: Did your comic reading play a role in that choice?
TL: I really don’t know. Does your ability to walk play a role in the choice to become a firefighter? Of course, it does but not in a way that you think about. Until 2007, comics had nothing to do with my scholarly activities.
Not directly anyway. For me it was something quite tangible and maybe a little weird.
Scoop: I fell in love with my Baily’s American History textbook in the 11th grade. That book said to me I was going to teach history someday.
TL: I read my first psychology book in 4th grade, trying to figure people out. I didn’t understand much of anything, but by gosh I tried.
Scoop: Oh my gosh, that Baily’s U.S. history book did the same to me. I fell in love with it the moment I looked at the cover. From that point on the only thing I wanted to do was teach history.
TL: The book that played a key role in leading me into comics studies was Superman on the Couch by Danny Fingeroth. It made me think, “I want to write this kind of book” but as an actual psychologist.
Scoop: So that was the start of your path into comic studies. What was some of your early research in that area about?
TL: The start of the path involves a lot of things coming together in the same summer. I read that book, I taught a Psychology in Literature course, and I attended my first San Diego Comic-Con. SDCC has a scholarly conference that runs within the con, the Comics Arts Conference. There, I met other comic scholars. I saw Comic-Con, this environment that celebrates interests that might make people feel ostracized elsewhere in their lives, and I knew I wanted to study that. Study it and become part of it.
Scoop: Now you beat me to my next question which was what was the first comic con you went to?
TL: No, my first con was Dallas Comic Con, which had attendance of about 1,000 back then. That was fun. It just wasn’t the one that reshaped my life. I went to both Dallas Comic Con and my first SDCC because of my son Nicholas, to help encourage his nerdy interests.
For the next couple of years, I took groups of students to San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, and New York Comic Con where we conducted pen and paper research. Participants standing in long lines waiting for panels would fill out things such as self-esteem inventories in that environment and again later from home. Their self-esteem and optimism about life was greater in the con setting. Soon, though, everybody got too busy staring into their phones to answer surveys, so we couldn’t keep doing the research.
Scoop: So where did your research go from those surveys?
TL: Once I published a lot of it in a chapter in a book, it didn’t. I didn’t keep doing that empirical research. I got too busy planning to write a book about Batman.
In 2007, when I discovered the Comics Arts Conference, I knew I wanted to take things I’d written for the Psychology in Literature class and use those to write a journal article analyzing Batman. By summer of 2008, I had so many ideas that I knew I needed to write a book about Batman.
In early 2011, with the next Batman movie coming out the following year, it was time to find a literary agent, get a publisher, and actually write that Batman book.
Scoop: He is a very popular subject for scholarly analysis.
TL: For good reason. Reasons plural, really. He’s one of the most famous fictional characters of any kind. He has depth and complexity. He is superhero with no superpowers. He is defined by his psychology, and therefore his enemies are defined by their psychology too. I’m not just using psychology to analyze Batman, Wonder Woman, and other characters. I’m using those characters and their stories to explain psychology. That’s why the titles are Batman and Psychology and Wonder Woman Psychology instead of Psychology of Batman and Psychology of Wonder Woman. It goes both ways. Yes, the book looked at the psychology of Batman, but also used Batman to look at psychology.
Scoop: Are there other scholars using this approach?
TL: Two different publishers have book series looking at philosophy and popular culture. A lot of their writers take this approach. It’s a mix, though. Some are really focused on analysis of characters and stories. For others, though, it’s really about the philosophy while barely connecting any of it to real analysis of the fiction.
After Batman and Psychology became a hit, I got to know other nerdy psychologists who wanted to get in on this if I ever put together any anthologies. My original publisher, Wiley, sold that division. There were no books so I no longer had a publisher even though my book was that division’s bestseller.
A couple of years later, I ran into my old editor in the hall at New York Comic Con. She had just started covering popular culture for her new employer and I had a book series proposal. We decided there in the hall that we wanted to work together again and within two weeks Sterling Publishing offered me a two-book deal to cover both The Walking Dead and Star Wars. The delay between the first book and the series at Sterling had its advantages.
During that time, I got to know those other nerdy psychologists I mentioned. I’d told some of them to be ready because I was going to pitch these books soon. So, we already had a group of psych geeks ready to write about The Walking Dead and Star Wars when the time came.
Scoop: On top of all this you have a blog as well.
TL: For Psychology Today, yes. I’d contacted an editor there with an idea for a single article. She responded by offering me a blog. That was 2012, right after Batman and Psychology came out.
Scoop: Where do you find time to sleep?
TL: Mornings. I’m a night owl.
Scoop: Do you still read any new comics today?
TL: I subscribe to a lot of titles. A lot of them will sit in a stack for months until I binge read. Wonder Woman has been the one I’ve most consistently read the moment it arrives. After Rucka leaves the title, I don’t know if that will still be the case. I’m wary of what some of the upcoming writers have in mind.
Scoop: Do you have a favorite character?
TL: Batman. No surprise there.
Scoop: Now there are a fair number of comic scholars out there who have little use for superhero comics. Their tastes tend to be more eclectic. Is there a long-term place for superheroes and comic scholarship?
TL: There’s always a place for fantastic heroes. Always has been and always will. Ignoring them because you’re not interested in them is fine. Ignoring them because you’re being a pretentious, elitist snob is not. There are so many fine comics scholars, but there are also some snobbish ones who are writing mainly to impress other scholars. There are also those who write to impress scholars for other reasons. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you need your university administrators to see that what you’re doing is “real” scholarly work. I’m fortunate in that regard. Henderson’s administrators have been very supportive of creative ways of teaching and creative kinds of scholarly works.
Long before I got into comics studies, a communications professor at Henderson paved the way. Randy Duncan was writing about comics long before I was. He taught a Comics As Communication course and got our library to establish a graphic novel reading room. If not for Randy, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I wouldn’t have gone to that San Diego Comic-Con in 2007 to see my son make a presentation as part of a Comics Arts Conference project.
Scoop: Well you are putting them on the map that has to help to have them support you.
TL: The largest organization on campus is the Legion of Nerds. I’m honored to be their faculty advisor.
Scoop: I guess the follow up to my question on superheroes would be is there anything left under the sun to do with them?
TL: In the fiction or in terms of scholarly study? In either case, the answer will be yes.
Scoop: In terms of the fiction I have been saying the Wonder Woman movie is a perfect example of doing superheroes(heroines) in new and fresh ways. Movies have barely discovered an ounce of the vast potential these characters have with nearly 80 years of source material to draw from. And for the record I feel that the last 20 minutes of it are the most important part of the entire movie. Its where Wonder Woman finds herself.
TL: To me, asking if there’s room for more superheroes is like asking if there’s room for more adventure stories or medical stories or roommate stories. The human race goes on. Times change. We always have new stories to tell.
Scoop: And with that we will end it here. Do you have contact information that you want to share?
TL: I’m easy to find on Facebook or Twitter @Superherologist.
Scoop: Travis is it a pleasure to have had this sit down with you. Thanks for your time here.
TL: Oh, thank you, Art. It’s been fun.