Experts Ask & Answer: Trauma - What Makes Heroes & Villains?

Trauma - What Makes Heroes & Villains?

Amidst the DC Nation panels and Hollywood premieres at WonderCon, there was the Comics Arts Conference, a separate entity that aims to take a more scholarly look at our favorite genre subjects. Life After Trauma: To Be A Superhero Or Supervillain was an in-depth look at some of our favorite comic book characters and the tragic events that spawned their careers. Led by Andrea Letamendi, M.S. ABD, the panel consisted of two other accredited psychologists with interest in comics, Robin S. Rosenberg, PHD and Travis Langley, PHD.

“We’re constantly seeing these characters in the face of danger, under threat,” said Letamendi. “How is this affecting them? How do these events have an impact on their development? And why aren’t they developing some serious pathological problems like PTSD? So we think about what they’re facing, the loss, injury, death and we wonder, they’re going to be experiencing fear, horror, do they get broken? How do they endure all this stress and violence and still carry on and persevere?”

While also posing the question why experiencing similar events breeds both superheroes and villains, Letamendi passed the discussion to Rosenberg, writer of “Psychology of Superheroes” to discuss the specific types of traumatic stress an individual can experience.

“One is large-scale traumatic events with multiple victims; disasters, war, large-scale accidents. A second category is unintended acts involving fewer people,” said Rosenberg. ”These are life threatening illnesses or accidents. The third category is intended personal violence and that includes physical and sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, torture and child abuse.”

So what kind of trauma do superheroes typically experience? War and large-scale events are among the top says Rosenberg, though they also often experience life threatening illnesses. One example she gave was Superman’s regular exposure to the several types of Kryptonite, another was Iron Man’s heart condition. But one of the prime examples was Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents being gunned down.

“Turns out, intended personal violence is the type of trauma that’s most likely to have a large psychological after effect that leaves a wake,” said Rosenberg.” The other types tend not to lead to PTSD and in fact only a minority of people who experience a trauma develop PTSD.” Rosenberg suggested about 20% of cases lead to the disorder.

In general, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something a majority of the audience did not feel superheroes were affected by. And truthfully, after Rosenberg described the symptoms, it seemed they were right. Most comic book characters are not presented as experiencing flashbacks of their trauma, not being able to leave the house or trouble sleeping.

But, as Rosenberg pointed out, PTSD is not the only after effect of trauma. Substance abuse is another and the psychologist made an example of Tony Stark for this one. Relationship problems are also an issue as she mentioned Bruce Wayne again.

Letamendi believes that the depiction of trauma in comics is fairly realistic. “When I watch the Dark Knight or I’m reading a comic book and I’m seeing these heroes constantly be faced with violence and combat, that’s not too unrealistic when we think about soldiers who are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “Often times [superheroes] have a choice to stop, yet their lifestyle choice is to continue to put themselves in the face of danger for the greater good.”

“How do they continue to endure? One potential facet of endurance is this idea of resilience. Resilience is essentially the ability to experience traumatic stressors and continue to move on,” continued Letamendi. “There’s some traits and characteristics that may make resilience more likely for some characters than others. These are interpersonal characteristics. For instance, social support. It’s essentially how the Justice League operates, having close bonds, having reliable individuals that will support you after a very traumatic event.”

While Letamendi likened superheroes to soldiers, she also compared them to police officers and rescue workers but that these types of people get to go home at the end of the day and put their work behind them. Peter Parker she said, is a good example of a superhero who has a full life, whereas other characters may not have the ability to do that.

“What happens to the heroes that don’t get a break? They’re on call full time,” she said. “We may expect them to develop some signs of psychiatric illness. Feeling irritable, isolating themselves, being hyper-vigilant, which is always being on guard.”

Sound like any character you know? Letamendi says Batman perhaps presents with some of these symptoms. “Depending on who’s writing Batman,” said Letamendi, “it can be a fine line between something like PTSD and maybe having some signs of pathology but still being resilient and strong.”

With all that being said, are there any heroes that are healthy?

The audience gave some nervous laughter as they thought the question over. Finally, one person mentioned Captain Marvel as a good example of a healthy superhero. That suggestion was largely because Captain Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson is a child and his world outlook is fresh and less tainted from life experience.

“I have to advocate for Superman,” said Rosenberg. “He’s my poster person for psychological health despite experiencing trauma.”

Trauma can also call into question the beliefs of a person. Rosenberg brought up Iron Man once again. In the first film, Tony Stark is solidly behind his company and the weapons they produce but after his trauma event, his belief systems change and he shuts down Stark Industries weapons manufacturing.

“If you believe in a just world and bad stuff happens to you, does that mean that you deserved it? And so you have to come to some answer to that and you have to work through that process,” said Rosenberg. “His beliefs were transformed. He went from believing in his weapons work, to having that all challenged and he came out on a different side. So he has purpose.”

Rosenberg said that this resembles real life citing the Adam Walsh Foundation that was started as a result of John Walsh’s son’s murder in 1981. “It was making meaning [out] of trauma,” said Rosenberg. “They go from victim, to survivor, to hero, or superhero. But the same process can also make them become a supervillain.”

Langley stepped in to discuss what distinguishes who becomes a hero and who becomes a villain stating that when these characters have reached their traumas, they’ve already developed a good sense of who you are as a person. Even Bruce at the age his parents were murdered.

“They’ve already developed a certain amount of personality before they get their, life experiences, their ability to trust, experiences with their parents and others and things they’ve already learned about the world,” said Langley who mentioned the Punisher. “If he’s a sociopath, he’s a sociopath before the mob killed his family. He’s taking what happened to him to wage war on all crime without the kind of empathy you see some of the other heroes picking up. He’s already got a certain lack of empathy for other individuals. For him it’s not about protecting others, it’s about revenge.”

Langley says they’re being shaped by others, not just the trauma itself. Of course that brings in the age-old debate of nature versus nurture. Where do these criminal inclinations come from?

“Who’s going to become a criminal in the first place in the real world? The stories we look at, they focus heavily on the nurture aspect. What life experience...what it’s going to do to you because that makes a better story,” said Langley. “Prenatal influences, temperament at birth, the loudest child in the nursery on the day you are born is probably going to be one of the loudest people twenty years later.”

How others are treating you and learning by example are two things in life that can affect you as well as stress says Langley. “There are things that are stressful that aren’t necessarily a specific trauma, and trauma is subjective.”

Superman is who he is because of how he was raised. “Because Jonathan and Martha Kent got him, if somebody else had gotten him, he’d have gone another way,” said Langley. “Various alternate histories and parallel universes and so forth depict other things that could have happened to Superman if somebody else had raised him. If Lionel Luthor raised him he’d have become a vicious bastard, if he’s raised by Commies he’s going to grow up to be the Communist superhero.”

Historically though, Langley says it’s a mixture of both nature and nurture. He also said that preadolescent antisocial actions are also an indicator of long-term criminality in life.

“Fearlessness is an interesting thing in that we tend to see that in both heroes and villains,” said Langley.

Though he said all these factors are predictors, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily causing the villainous behavior. Langley reiterated that the person already has a strong sense of what is and isn’t moral by the time their trauma happened. But when it comes to villains, there’s a whole other aspect to their psychological state.

“Some villains actually see themselves as heroes,” said Rosenberg. “They’re not cynical, they’re not hedonistic, they’ve made meaning of their trauma and they think they’re doing the right thing. And they have no compunction about harming innocent people if they have to do that.” A prime example of this kind of thinking is Poison Ivy said Rosenberg. As an eco-terrorist, “She thinks she’s doing the right thing. She got so frustrated with conventional, easygoing ways of trying to help plants and she did go a little crazy but nonetheless, she feels she’s doing that right thing and that she’s actually acting heroically.”

Magneto, Ozymandias and Lex Luthor are other villains who see themselves as heroes. “These ‘heroes’ typically think the ends justify the means,” said Rosenberg. “There’s a sense in which those kinds of villains are the most dangerous because there’s no talking to them. Their moral fiber thinks they’re doing the right things.”

“Then of course you’ve got the capricious [villain] like Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is scary for a different reason. And it’s because he’s so capricious and unpredictable,” she said. “But the heroic villains derive meaning from their work the same way superheroes do, so they’re pretty resistant to being less villainous because they think they’re doing the right thing.”

Look for much more from the Comic Arts Conference at Comic-Con International: San Diego in July 2011.

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