Austin Comic Con: Super Villains and Psychology

One of the final panels I attended at this past weekend’s Austin Comic Con was titled “Super Villains and Psychology.” It sounded interesting enough on the ride to the convention center, so I figured what the heck. I’ll give it a go. Let’s delve into the mind of the Joker, Dr. Doom and whoever else’s fictional brain we can dissect and study. Headlined by psychologist and author, Dr. Travis Langley, this expert of the mind was the catalyst for one of the most incredibly interesting discussions I have ever come across at any pop culture convention.

As already mentioned, the panel was mediated by an expert in the field of psychology.  Dr. Langley is also a huge Batman fan and author of the book ‘Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight’.  Langley made it a point to keep audience discussion to an absolute minimum, and rightly so.  The panel of four on stage consisted of all comic book writers and they had a lot to say on the various psychoses in the worlds they create.  The cast of writers included Paul Benjamin (Wolverine, Star Trek), Mark Schmidt (The Threat), Matt Sturgess (Thor) and Jai Nitz whose resume includes work for Dark Horse Comics as well as being the professor of film at the University of Kansas.

Part of the brilliance of the discussion was the panel’s look at real world criminals.  So what separates the common criminal from the super villain?  The initial response was that a criminal is someone whose behavior is outside of societal norms, which ironically enough, super heroes share as well.  That caught me a bit off guard, but think about it.  Anyone who goes out on nightly jaunts and fills their evenings throwing punches at other people does not fit the mold of a ‘normal’ person.

But that description just divides the norm from the exception.  What makes the exception worse?  One panelist pointed out that a guy that steals cars is not a super villain.  The guy that steals car companies is, like Lex Luthor, but we’ll get to him in a bit.  Then came the examples of real world super villains, with Timothy McVeigh being the first name dropped.  You may remember him as the man behind the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.  In his own little world, he was a patriot.  He was doing the right thing.  The reality of it was he killed a multitude of people, including children, and did so with no regret.

Other names mentioned included world leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.  I’m a little off in my political leadership terminology so we’ll just say Putin was President of Russia (it could’ve been Prime Minister but we’ll go with President for now).  When his term was up, he had the laws of his nation rewritten so there would still be a next president, but Putin would retain the power in his newly named position.  This guy is someone who is arguably determined to revitalize the Cold War and possibly even bring communism back to the country.  Now while that in itself isn’t a crime per say, it is disturbing and can lead to several avenues of international worry as many refer to Putin as the second coming of Stalin.  And if you don’t know your WWII history that well, let me just say that Stalin wasn’t a very good man.

Then came the most obvious super villain of them all; Adolf Hitler.  As one of the writer’s pointed out, if you want to make the audience hate someone in a movie, have that character kick a puppy.  With the Nazis, they come with their puppies pre-kicked.  Hitler is probably the most notorious super villain to think of for two major reasons; he started World War II and he tried annihilating an entire race. Enough said.

What about the villains closer to home though?  It was a little over a year ago when The Dark Knight Rises debuted and a movie theater shooting ensued in Colorado.  The panel rose the question, is the media driving these people to do what they do?  So many people wants their 15 minutes of fame nowadays, even with a feeling a sense of self-entitlement, and of those people, some try to go out and achieve it in ways that become questionable or even deadly.  In the end, they do not recognize the rightness or wrongness of their actions because of the personality disorder they may have.

Near the close of the discussion, each writer shared who they felt was the most realistic super villain.  I disagree with a couple of these because of the super powers they possess, making it unrealistic.  However, if you take them on just why they behave the way they do and strip away those powers for a second, you will find some solid points are mentioned:

  • Paul Benjamin: Magneto – He hates Nazis, seeing everyone he loved and knew being killed by them.  As he grows older he sees regular people killing mutants and begins to view them as a sort of Nazi and takes it upon himself to violently stop them.
  • Mark Schmidt: The Joker – This is the one I agree with the most.  As Schmidt stated, everything the Joker does can happen in real life.  He’s not power-based or anything like that and his unpredictability is deadly.  He doesn’t care about money or power, only mayhem.
  • Matt Sturgess: Loki – Sturgess explained he actually grew up the younger brother in a household where his older sibling could do no wrong.  There was always praise and spotlight for the older brother as Sturgess was swept aside.  The negative build-up to act out on this can be quite obvious as Loki does in Asgard and on Earth.
  • Jai Nitz: Lex Luthor – Luthor is a        self-made man doing what he thinks is best for the world.  He sees Superman as an alien, as a threat, and someone too dangerous to keep around.  He doesn’t like the idea of a god living among us.  Combine Luthor’s narcissistic behavior with his masked inferiority toward Superman and this is one motivated guy who will do whatever it takes to get his way.

My personal choice would have been Killer Croc.  Yes bullying runs amok and I remember being pushed around a little bit in junior high, but that was in junior high.  With Waylon Jones (aka Killer Croc), we have someone who is ridiculed his entire childhood and adolescent life for the way he looks.  He is on the receiving end of both verbal and physical abuse.  When he rises to a being of great physical strength (not to mention those teeth), he acts out all those pent up years of being beat down on just about anyone in front of him.  Yet deep down, there are still these subtle and fleeting moments of empathy and humanity.  His persona comes off strikingly real.  Yet in the end, those moments of light are quickly shrouded and he goes back to his violent ways; a result of how he was treated in his youth.

This panel could’ve gone on for another hour, and I wish it would have, but as with all good things, they must come to an end.  Quite honestly, it opened my mind up to how I will approach reading a comic book in the future…and that’s a good thing.  It was thought-provoking at the very least as all five individuals on stage offered their very educated points of view on the psychology of super villains.



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