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NOCC: Stan Lee's Superheroes and Psychology

Company: Wizard World
Product: New Orleans Comic Con 2013 Coverage

Psychologist Dr. Travis Langley and Eric Bailey, self-proclaimed "Stand-up Mythologist" examined the similarities between certain mythological characters and superheroes created by Stan Lee. Stan Lee wanted his heroes to be superhuman, but also wants them to know what it's like to be human. To illustrate what he meant by this, Bailey briefly told the story of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was, essentially, a superhero, being part god. At first, he doesn't care about his people, sending the men off to war and having his way with the women. His people felt abused and prayed to the gods for Gilgamesh to be made tolerable.
"I think there's something about these superheroes, even though they're super in all ways, they all have some aspect about them that humanizes them."
- Eric Bailey, Stand-up Mythologist
In answer to their prayers, the gods create and send down Enkidu, the "Beast Man." One day, when a couple has gotten married and Gilgamesh is waiting to exercise his kingly prerogative and have his way with the bride, Enkidu stops him and they end up fighting, in what becomes the first superhero battle (and destroys most of the city in the process). Gilgamesh ends up winning the fight, but just barely, is impressed with Enkidu's strength and they become best friends and go on adventures together. In one adventure, they upset the gods and Enkidu ends up dying. Gilgamesh learns, through the death of his friend, that he cares about someone other than himself and, as a result, he becomes a better leader. It is this idea of a superhuman with a sense of humanity that Stan Lee puts into all of his superheroes.

Bailey points out that the thing about Spider-Man that is so beautiful is that you can envision themselves in the role of Spider-Man. The reader doesn't have super powers, but has day-to-day problems much like Peter Parker has to deal with.

"I got to talk to (Stan Lee) back in May and he says, 'Batman? Why would you want to write a book about him?' and I tell him, 'He's more screwed up than your characters.' He says, 'This is a very smart man."
- Dr. Travis Langley, Psychologist
Dr. Langley should definitely take that as a compliment; Stan Lee evidently knows his "smart men." While Stan Lee always adds a touch of humanity into his characters, it's obvious by a quick survey of his characters that he has a lot of respect for genius. Look at supergenius Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Professor X, Bruce Banner... even Doctor Strange.

Dr. Langley talked on the origin of the Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four was Lee's answer to the Justice League and other superhero teams. When his editors came to him and said that superhero teams were trending well in competing comics companies, Stan Lee opted not to do the same sort of team that the others had done and, instead, created a team that was much closer to a family. As Langley puts it, "You have a rocket you're putting together or you're tweaking and altering and you've got friends who want to go with you, you and your jackass buddies just might do it... Reed Richards, almost on a prank, it's like, 'Let's just go off and do this, for the rest of the world whose not.'" With their new-found powers, they decide to be superheros, but they're running around without masks, going against the defined type.

Spider-Man is another brilliant example of Stan Lee going against the defined type; Peter Parker is a teenager in a time when a teenager could be a sidekick, but certainly wasn't the main hero. Not only that, but when he first discovered his powers, his main motivation was to make money with them. He even does some wrestling to make money. There is an homage to this in the latest movie, The Amazing Spider-Man, but originally, that wasn't just the inspiration for hiding his identity, but his character's persona and his ticket to riches. Also, in the recent film, they try to make Peter Parker's decision not to attempt to stop the robber easier to justify, by having Peter already being in a bad mood and having the store employee be rude to him. In the original story, however, Peter had no grudge; he was in a television studio waiting to go on television and simply couldn't be bothered to interfere. Uncle Ben's death was more a direct result of Peter Parker's decision not to act.

One thing that had never occurred to me was the similarities between Batman and Spider-Man. Dr. Langley pointed out that both superheroes fought crime after seeing their parental figure(s) murdered in front of them. Both run around under the mantle of an animal that generally is agreed to be creepy. Both suffer from survivor guilt. Batman's parents got killed in front of him, but Peter Parker has actual personal responsibility for Uncle Ben getting killed. Bruce Wayne knows that his parents' death is not his fault. There were some later stories that have writers adding elements that try to give Bruce some reason to blame himself, saying that he really wanted his mom to wear the pearls that night or that he really wanted to go to the movies, but when Spider-Man came along, he was bringing something new to the comics - a very different type of survivor guilt. Uncle Ben's death was a direct result of Peter Parker's actions.

According to Dr. Langley, by using comic book characters as a way to introduce and explain psychological concepts, he can talk about some of the worst things in the world, such as survivor guilt, without repulsing his students. Using real stories from current events makes it too real, but Stan Lee's characters are so real, so psychologically complex, that you can analyze these characters against the definitions of different psychological syndromes and determine how they do fit the definition and how they don't fit the definition. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, is obviously narcissistic. He has a big ego and is full of himself. But, does he have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is he so super-egotistical that it's his defining characteristic? (Some people in the audience thought so.) Is he so super-egotistical that it affects his ability to function? Well, it depends on what aspect of his life you're considering. As Eric Bailey points out, "He's a pretty good Iron Man... The things he chooses to do, he does them well." One of the things you have to take into consideration is whether the things they expect from others are undeserved; whether they have commensurate achievements. Tony Stark has commensurate achievements.

There are real-world social superheroes. There are people who are driven by horrible things to do something more beyond what other people have done to fix an injustice - correct something that is wrong with the "system." Take for example, Candice Lightner. When a horrible tragedy occurred and her daughter was killed in a senseless collision caused by a drunk driver, she was so frustrated at the lack of a sufficient penalty for the man who murdered her daughter, that she started what was originally called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and worked to change laws and raise awareness. This is a real-world example of an almost comic-book-esque vengeance.

Eric Bailey recounted how he once asked Stan Lee about the number of accidents that grant them powers, often with some sacrifice, including the crippled super-mentalist, Professor X. Stan told him, "I wanted some heroes for an uncertain world and I wanted to empower anyone. Never underestimate the ability of one person to change the world, from any position - even a wheelchair."

In school, there were a lot of math problems that involved trains... If a train leaves heading north and another train is heading south... that sort of thing. Dr. Langley pointed out that - if you're a fan of trains - this is an awesome way to learn math. But, not everyone likes trains. Comic book characters present a way to teach concepts of Psychology in a way that is less clinical and more approachable - especially if you already like and are familiar with comic book characters. There's Thor, with daddy issues and a dysfunctional family, Iron Man for evaluating narcissistic personality disorder, the X-Men for civil rights issues and cross-cultural psychology, prejudice and ostracism.

"Hubris" is from the Greek and means "heroic pride." In the story of Odysseus, when he has outwitted the cyclops, he yells back to him and tells him that if anyone asks who put out his eye, tell them Odysseus did it. He then even identifies the land he comes from, so that there would be no mistake. If it hadn't been for that, he and his men would have gotten away - mind you, up until that point he had given his name as "nobody," so when the cyclops was yelling about being attacked, he was essentially shouting, "Nobody is attacking me! Nobody is poking my eye out!" and his friends thought that he was drunk and told him to shut up. This heroic pride ends up being the hero's undoing, when they eventually end up being taken out by someone stronger than they are, but you have to expect that someone who has power to back up such claims will have a certain amount of pride. This hubris is often the downfall of villains, but sometimes it affects heroes as well, such as Dr. Strange, a very prideful surgeon who loses the ability to perform surgeries and redefines himself.

Sometimes the line between hero and villain isn't easy to define in Stan Lee's characters. Take Magneto. Is he a hero or a villain? Magneto doesn't think of himself as a villain; he thinks of himself as mutant and a hero to mutantkind, fighting to end the repression imposed on mutants by humans. What does Stan Lee think of Magneto? Well, you can see that Magneto formed the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," so obviously Magneto is evil, right? Well, Stan Lee has said before that one of the biggest mistakes he ever made was putting the word "Evil" in that name.

Stan Lee didn't create Captain America. He worked with the character from very early on, but he's not responsible for the creation of the Captain America character. He is, however, responsible for bringing Captain America back. He didn't bring him back as a new Captain America, though, he brought him back as the original Captain America, a man stuck in time, out-surviving everyone he knew and losing his sidekick, Bucky. This was, in part, because Stan Lee hates the very idea of sidekicks and thinks they're simply a horrible idea, but it also created this very strong survivor's guilt for Captain America. He was still alive and everyone he had known was dead, but his sidekick was dead because of him.

Hawkeye got mixed up with some criminal activity that he shouldn't have gotten involved in. Black Widow used to work for the Soviet Union... there's a bond between these characters in the movie that reflects things that Stan Lee had set up in the comic books involving these characters both working to change their lives to go in a new direction and to leave the darkness behind. Stan Lee dealt with these sort of things a lot.

The way that Stan Lee's characters are developed, they have a certain real humanity to them, which makes it possible to realistically analyze them in terms of Psychology. If great power brings great responsibility, then being a superhero brings great emotional baggage. Take a moment to think about your favorite Stan Lee character and see how he or she might not be so well adjusted... Maybe you're not so bad off, after all.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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