Presented by trauma psychologist, Dr. Andrea Letamendi, author of The Psychology of Superheroes, Dr. Robin Rosenberg, Dr. Travis Langley and comics writer Len Wein, the panel was a discussion of how trauma is portrayed in comics and how superheroes deal with trauma. This is a topic that I find fascinating for a number of reasons. I went into the panel not quite knowing what to expect beyond the fact that trauma or tragedy is very often presented as the catalyst for a character’s development in comics. Trauma is something the audience hasn’t necessarily experienced, but can empathize with. Unfortunately, there are people who deal with trauma on a daily basis: Soldiers and other service-members, police officers, fire fighters and EMS personnel. There are questions about how trauma affects characters. Why does one character become a superhero and one a supervillain? (The answer is fairly simple: every villain is the hero of his or her story.) Watching footage of IED (improvised explosive device) explosions, it’s not hard to imagine that days, weeks, months and years of exposure to those circumstances can and does alter both military and civilians exposed to it, in profound ways.
One of the characters in comics with a backstory that many of us can relate to is Batman. Sure, Bruce Wayne is incredibly rich, but he’s also witnessed his parents’ violent murder. Trauma to a child is something most of us feel sympathetic towards, and the desire to both avenge his parents and protect others from experiencing the same or similar loss is one most of us would hope we’d have. Heroism isn’t about the trauma, but about empathy and how that trauma is synthesized into the victim’s experience. Peter Parker/Spiderman is another good example of how plausible trauma is used in comics to give a character the imperative to use their powers for good. “With great power comes great responsibility,” is the echo throughout his early days as the web-slinger, and they make all the difference in the world.
I’m very glad that there was a distinction made between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the experience of trauma. Not everyone who experiences trauma will experience PTSD. (Additionally, there are distinct phases to PTSD, and not everyone experiences it the same way.) This was not a panel that was glossing over aspects of trauma, but presenting it in a way that can be understood by laymen. Every comic fan has seen numerous depictions of trauma, even if they didn’t name it trauma. I’m also very glad to note that this wasn’t a glossy pep talk about the effects of trauma and how to buck up under pressure. This was a very serious look at trauma through the lens of comics.
One thing I found lacking was the discussion of women as trauma survivors and the reliance in comics on using sexual violence against women. While statistically speaking, sexual and domestic violence are the most common forms of violence women will experience, we have plenty of women in the military. Many of those women have not only experienced the trauma of war, but sexual violence as well. Comics rarely show the arc of how a woman like Barbara Gordon transitions from Batgirl to trauma survivor to Oracle. Harley Quinn, at the other end of the spectrum, is psychologically abused over time by the Joker, and provides a prime example of how trauma doesn’t have to be particularly violent. I think there’s a need to go beyond accepting that fridging and sexual assault/murder of women provides the impetus for Hal Jordan or Frank Castle to go to some very dark places. (Although, as noted by the panel, Frank Castle was already on the anti-social personality disorder spectrum, before he became The Punisher.) Many of the questions asked by the audience also focused far more on male characters than on the spectrum of characters in comics that have been brutalized in any number of ways, from heroes and villains to innocent bystanders.
This may seem like a strange topic for a panel at a comic convention. I found it a refreshing way of looking at not only a medium that has become an intrinsic part of our collective consciousness, but at a mental health issue that has been placed front and center by current events.
In the last decade, the US has joined much of the rest of the world in experiencing the trauma of terrorism, while the suicide rates for veterans is shockingly high. One in five women (based on current reported incidents) are expected to experience sexual violence in their lifetime. As I type this, rape is being used as a tactic of war in the Congo and Sudan. Trauma is something that happens every day. It happens to people we know, it happens to our families, it happens to us. Comics as a medium are in a unique position to not only present trauma as something that can be survived, but to show how that happens. In my opinion, comics have potential as a treatment tool, giving survivors a connection to characters they recognize and admire. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee helped to have a comic about Martin Luther King and nonviolent social change printed in Arabic and Farsi for distribution in the Middle East. Why couldn’t a comic about trauma be used in a similar way wherever it was needed?
As each person or character is a unique individual, responses to trauma will vary. Specifics of why one individual will survive, and another won’t aren’t set in stone. Why one individual becomes Batman, one The Punisher, one the Joker, and one Two-Face is more complex than examining the trauma or the person experiencing it.
These are questions that will continued to be asked by the psychiatric, psychology, and neuropsych fields for a long time. They’re questions human beings face every day, and they are questions that anyone who reads comics has seen posed for a long time. Will comics continue to evolve in how they portray the narratives of the trauma inflicted on protagonists and villains alike? I don’t know the answer to that, yet. I hope they do and I hope that more fans and mainstream media will look at the parallels between comic narratives and real life. Perhaps if we think about those narratives, we can act with more empathy towards those people we encounter every day, who have survived or may struggle with the aftermath of trauma.
I left the panel thinking that there is a lot more discussion to be had and that I would love to see comic creators talk to trauma specialists and survivors a little more, as the subject is so integral to so much of their work.