The psychology of comic books: Why we worship superheroes

With great power comes great responsibility. Can superheroes and comic books impact our psychological development, and even shape society?

Comic books have been around for decades – but how have they affected those who read them?   Sam Howzitt/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Comic books have been around for decades – but how have they affected those who read them? Sam Howzitt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Who is your favourite superhero? Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? What about the Avengers and the X-Men? The interest in superheroes and comic books is increasing, with the 2012 film The Avengers raking in a worldwide box office income of over USD$1.5bn. But what makes superheroes and their villains so popular with children and adults alike, and just how much does this idolisation affect us? Is Iron Man an appropriate role model?

Historically speaking...

We can’t take a look at the psychological influence of comics and their superhero tales without also looking at where they came from, and why they hold so much of an impact on society.

Batman and Robin... before they got gritty..   Mark Anderson/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Batman and Robin... before they got gritty.. Mark Anderson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Glasgow Looking Glass, first published in 1825, is stated to be the first mass-produced illustration. Soon to be known as the first “comic strip”, the publication focused on current news and affairs in Glasgow, Scotland. It wasn’t until almost a century later that the term “superhero” was first used in 1917 and featured heavily in the “Golden Age of Comic Books” during the 1930s. It is acknowledged that the current Modern Age of comics is represented by a set of comparatively darker and more psychologically complex characters, an increase in the popularity of comics and the commercialisation of the industry.

Some argue that superheroes are integral to American society. This claim comes from the reflection of American social change in many superhero comics since 1938, also assisting in the increased popularity and renown of comics and superheroes. World War II prompted Marvel’s famous Hitler-punching Captain America, and with the coming of The War on Terror following September 11, Captain America dealt with government oversight, akin to current issues of government surveillance or US foreign policy. DC’s Superman educated children about unaccounted landmines in former Yugoslavia, and technological changes in the 21st century manifested most noticeably in the current development of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV series.

Comics have also addressed societal issues, with the revelation in 1992 that Marvel’s Northstar was homosexual reflecting changing views on homosexuality. However this has not always been carried out in what would be called an ethical manner, with some publishers and authors appealing to the masses, for example, by introducing Batwoman in 2006 as a “lipstick lesbian”.

Psychologically speaking...

So comics and the evolution of superheroes have reflected historical trends and addressed societal problems, but what about the narrower relationship to the individual, rather than the wider community? Importantly, the relationship between comics and societal factors is not unidirectional, with a strong direct impact on individuals. 

Comic conventions have become extremely popular in recent years.   Andrew Kloiber/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Comic conventions have become extremely popular in recent years. Andrew Kloiber/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When we read comics or try to understand superheroes, particularly as children, we develop our emotions, reading ability, and morals. Just as we idolise celebrities, we idolise superheroes. This is best mirrored by Tony Stark – he is a celebrity, and one who seems to bask in the glow of his self-made fame. The comics, however, also reveal him to be particularly fond of drowning his insecurities and fears in alcohol, while suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, and bouts of paranoia: effects that are not uncommon in celebrities. Furthermore, based on theories of social psychology, comics likely impact our levels of aggression, prosocial behaviour, leadership ability and attitudes.

It is not an unusual sight to see a child running through the yard with a Batman or Superman cape, battling imaginary supervillains and saving the world, one treehouse at a time. Pretend play is an important part of a child's development between ages two and seven and is often greatly impacted by the concept of superheroes. Pretend play helps children learn language and develop an understanding of theory of mind (that others may have a different perspective to themselves), and allows the expression of emotions, both negative and positive. 

Children can use superheroes and villains to take various perspectives on a situation and test the consequences of actions, while reading comics can assist with developing their emotional vocabulary. Comics provide the exaggerated opportunity to play out moralistic and ethical dilemmas for both children (in an effort to increase their understanding of the world around them) and adults (to critique and analyse the status quo). In fact, superheroes likely feed straight into boys’ tendency to create imaginary friends that are supercompetent in an effort to control or “master” the world.

Wonder Woman has been a role model for countless young women.   Mark Anderson/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Wonder Woman has been a role model for countless young women. Mark Anderson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In 1977 Albert Bandura developed the theory of social learning, proposing the idea that learning occurs within a social context through observation and direct instruction. Developmental psychologists have argued that social learning theory has applications for the way in which children develop an understanding of morals. Most famously, Bandura tested his theory using the Bobo Doll experiment, in which adults modelled violent behaviour towards a doll and were then punished, rewarded or provided no consequence. Children were then observed to determine if they would replicate this behaviour.

It is quite common for superheroes to be presented with the option of whether to fight or not to fight – to use their moral compass, so to speak, before making big decisions. Importantly, these moral dilemmas occur so frequently within comics they give children the opportunity to observe how their favourite role model problem-solves through ethically sticky situations.

Past research indicates that adolescence is the stage in which social comparisons are most common, often based on moral values and feedback from others. Teenagers use villains as avoidance role models, in that they shape their attitudes, values and behaviours in ways they consider to be different from their personal villains. Comic villains such as the Joker and Lex Luthor are perhaps most appreciated among fans because they are creative, complex and arguably have better motivations than their heroic nemeses. Batman is at times even considered insensitive to the mental health of his “rogues gallery”. This may also explain the rise in popularity of anti-heroes, which are argued to be flawed, complex and strong, with admirable intentions.

Superheroes display prosocial behaviour, leadership and a variety of positive attitudes – all of which have an impact on readers. Leadership is transactional – that is, “leaders do something for the group and the group in return does something for the leader” and “followers look to their leaders to mould, transform and express who they are”. This dynamic is best shown by superheroes and their sidekicks (think of Batman and Robin) or between superheroes and the cities they protect (like Superman and Metropolis).

Comics and superhero stories also address several areas of study within prosocial behaviour, such as a superhero’s unwillingness to be a bystander. Comics strongly display the empathetic and personal costs of not helping, and as discussed above, social learning theory argues that human social behaviour is learned from appropriate models – it is possible that learning to help others occurs through the models of superheroes. 

There is a strong relationship between comic books and superheroes, and the field of psychology. The former have a long history of reflecting societal change: they are often progressive and this challenges both children’s and adults’ moral development, while the characters are so exaggerated that they give people the opportunity to compare and contrast individual traits. They are based on us, and we feed off their images, integrating their characteristics into our personalities, ethics and morals.