By day, Travis Langley is a mild-mannered professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
By night, away from the classroom, he's a high-flying shrink to the superheroes, so to speak — picking apart the oft-damaged psyches of everyone from the Dark Knight to the Man of Steel.
And not just superheroes, but also the equally cracked villains who would do them (and us) in.
Here, for example, is Langley's take on Heath Ledger's The Joker from Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008):
"This character who attracts psychotic henchmen may have lingering symptoms from his own past psychosis. He keeps making involuntary, repetitive movements — flicking his tongue, smacking his mouth — which suggest tardive dyskinesia, a condition that arises as a consequence of long-term or high-dosage use of antipsychotic (neuroleptic) medication."
As for the Dark Knight himself ...
"When is post-traumatic stress pathological? The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lays out specific criteria. Criterion A: Trauma. Yes, the event that created Batman (1) involved death or physical danger and (2) horrified the survivor. Criterion B: Persistent re-experiencing. Yes, Bruce re-experiences his parents' murders through recurrent, vivid recollections ..."
Langley's 2012 book, "Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight," is where it all started (the above analyses included).
It became not only an academic success, but — faster than a speeding bullet — a surprise hit among more casual pop culture consumers not scared off by the science of behavior and mind.
The fact that the name Batman preceded it made all the difference ... well, that, and Langley's breezy, accessible writing style
One reviewer described it as "much less dry and much more entertaining than many of the others which populate the ever-growing field of texts about pop culture and the sciences ... rather than just telling us what we should know or think about Batman, the book supplements our own interest in the hero, and provokes us to think more about what's going on in his head.” (Starpulse.com)
In the five years since, Langley has edited and contributed to an entire book shelf's worth of analytical anthologies — all equally popular and sporting seal-of-approval forewords by everyone from Adam West to Stan Lee.
And he's done it with super-heroic productivity, probing the mental states of characters in popular TV series ("Game of Thrones," "The Walking Dead," Dr. Who"), long-running multimedia franchises ("Star Wars," "Star Trek"), and, of course, comic books ("Wonder Woman," "Captain America," "Iron Man").
Langley will be on the campus of Illinois State University Thursday and Friday for a series of presentations that tap his special insights into the psychology of pop culture, from "Batman's" personal PTSD issues to the character's empowering and inspiring us in our everyday lives (see accompanying story for the complete schedule).
"I've always loved fantastic heroes, especially superheroes who fly ... but, no, there aren't any photographs of me at 9 months old holding some comic books and looking delighted," he confesses of his claim to fanboy-dom.
If there was an epiphany of things to come in Langley's adult life, it occurred as recently as 10 years ago, "when I decided to bring together my nerdy personal interests and the professional side of my life, which, until that point, had been two entirely different things."
The marriage occurred by way of a course he taught at Henderson University that merged literature and psychology.
"The students' assignments were to analyze literary characters like Hamlet, Tom Sawyer and Ahab," he says, adding that the results were "really powerful" in the way that his students seemed to be learning for more deeply than he was expecting by subjecting these famous characters to analysis.
Eventually the classroom analysis graduated from iconic literary heroes to those working pop culture's turf, via comic books, movies and TV.
A scholarly journal article about his students psychoanalyzing Batman led to his deciding the subject merited more ... a whole lot more ... a full-blown book, in fact.
"I'd been trying for years to get another project going, and, I thought, this is the one I could get a literary agent and a publisher for, and who would do some unique things with it."
During the four-year (2008-12) genesis of "Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight," Langley found him testing the waters of serious fandom, then eventually swimming into the deep end, from whence he has yet to return.
"I met comic scholars ... I met Adam West on a convention panel in 2009 ... I communicated with the producer (Michael E. Uslan) of the 'Batman' movies."
And so it went over the four years, during which the death of Joker actor Heath Ledger delayed publication by a full year (it was decided the book should be published to coincide with the release of "The Dark Knight," which was held back because of the death).
Langley's prediction was twofold: "This is either going to go spectacularly bad, or it's going to be a nice, beneficial experience."
Happily for him, it's the latter option that has held true, leading to Langley as the go-to man for speaking at comic book conventions, including the apex of them all, San Diego's Comic-Con, and serving as the voice of super-psychoanalysis for such film documentaries as 2013's "Legends of the Knight," a screening of which he will attend at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Normal Theater, followed by his participation in a post-film panel discussion.
Along the way, he's met many of his own heroes in the world of comics, from Stan Lee (who, as noted, penned the foreword to one of his books) to "my childhood Batman, Adam West."
The 94-year-old Lee, says Langley, "gets" what he's up to in his books, one of which is devoted to Marvel's Captain America and Iron Man (2016's "Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology").
"Anything you do that involves looking at people ... that's psychology," says Langley. "Looking at what's going on in the world ... that's psychology.
"Stan didn't need to study it, he already has a good sense of it. In writing his scripts, he bought a depth to the characters at a time when other comics had gotten to be pretty flat. He added these dimensions ... a human quality. He was, and is, a real student of human nature."
Then there was the time that "Adam (West) once asked me if I thought Batman was crazy," recalls Langley. "I told him 'Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight' is my answer."
After reading the book, West told him, "That was marvelous!"
"He was really delighted that Batman was crazy," Langley notes with pride ... both professional and fanboy-ish.