Defense Mechanisms in Comic Literature
By Elizabeth Napoletano
Psychology permeates every aspect of human activity, as it must, but is often overlooked in mundane and everyday activities. Comics, the poor stepsister of literature, are frequently dismissed as an immature distraction. Yet comics are a multibillion dollar industry and are avidly read across the globe not just by children and adolescents, but by millions of sober adults as well. In Japan, where Manga is a very big and lucrative business with a following in the tens of millions, nearly half a million comic magazines are sold every day. A very high percentage of these are sold to adults, who enjoy them privately, in public and private libraries, and at “manga cafes”, over 300 of which are just in Tokyo. Comics are also big in Europe. France and Italy especially have significant comics industries which cater to children, adolescents, and adults. In the United States, where comics in the post World War II decades were largely marketed to youth, recent decades have seen an explosion of both titles and readership particularly aimed at a youthful but adult audience. Even many older adults have been pulled into the vortex of the resurgence of popular comics by the debut of nostalgia driven Hollywood films like “Batman”, “Spider Man” and “the X Men”. To avoid studying the psychology of comics would be to neglect an important and pervasive human phenomenon.
While there have been many literary studies of comics that have included psychological aspects, I could not find much actual psychological research published in America. There are numerous articles debunking the less than scientific researches of the 1950’s, articles exploring the popularity of comics, the cult of the superhero, and racial aspects. There are also educational studies for the use of comics in developing literacy skills. There are also sociological papers like that of Kinko Ito at the University of Arkansas, who explores romantic fantasies and perversion in the so called “Ladies Comics” of Japan. And there are many varied studies form the Japanese Society for the Studies of Manga and Comics. But while there is much psychologically interesting information in these works they are not, strictly speaking, psychological studies. Most of the available psychological studies of comics appear to come from Italy. Works such as A. Imbasciati and C. Castelli’s “Psychology of Comics”, M. Mongai’s “Psychoanalysis and Comics”, and M. Minelli’s “Notes of Psychology of Comics”, sound intriguing, but do not appear to be readily available in English. One exception is Marco Minelli’s 1992 “Psychology of Italian Comics” which is at least partially translated.
Minelli’s work is particularly interesting because it focuses on psychological defense mechanisms that may be activated in the reading of comics. Minelli identifies seven mechanisms as the most frequently occurring, in his words: (1) identification, (2) projection, (3) shifting, (4) idealization, (5) denial, (6) splitting, and (7) time and space far away. Unfortunately, the bulk of this particular article has not yet been translated. A Babel Fish translation can give us the ‘jist’ of his content, but is not precise enough to be definitive. It would appear that “splitting” in Minelli’s study concerns itself with regression and fetishes, and “time and space far away” to approach-avoidance conflicts, but this is not clear. However, I have not been able to identify examples of these last three in the comic literature with which I am familiar.
Therefore in this paper I will explore examples of identification, projection, shifting and idealization that I have found in comic literature.
Why is it that we want to believe a man can fly? How come millions of Americans flocked to the movie theaters last May to watch as teenager Peter Parker became a living Spider-Man? What is the reason behind people embracing comic book characters so much in recent times? One word could very well explain it; Identification. In every culture, East or West, there is a need for the human populace to take a bit of fantasy into their lives, and live vicariously through the actions of others. Many people find this need fulfilled when they read a comic book. The comic, with its graphic illustrations, allows for a person to identify with the world created by the artist, a world which is not genuinely theirs. So the actions that take place in the comic world are distant enough from the real world, yet the reader can still find a way to emotionally react to the situation that the characters are going through.
Identification as defined by Coon (2001) is “incorporating the goals and values of another person into one’s own behavior; feeling emotionally connected to a person and wanting to be like him or her” (p.G-10). In this simple definition we learn that when one identifies with another person it influences the other person’s behaviors and choices. With children and teens this act of identifying with a specific person can be seen in the actions that they take and by whom they are closely influenced. Comics have always had characters that young children can identify with. When Bill Finger and Bob Kane needed to create a way to draw young boys into reading the Batman comic they created “The Boy Wonder” Robin. Bob Kane, in interviews over the years, has said that he and Bill Finger designed Robin to act as a Robin Hood character. In doing so the duo came up with a character that younger boys could identify with at a different level then the brooding “Dark Knight” Batman, to whom their older brothers gravitated.
In many ways Identification is the biggest draw for fans of comics. Here a reader, especially a teenage, can look at a character like Peter Parker and see their own shortcomings without turning an intense critical gaze upon themselves. This allows them to see their failings without fear of crushing their own spirits, and makes their inadequacies seem more bearable. As Wolman (1989) puts it, Identification is “a defense mechanism consisting of the imitation of others in an effort to master too intense stimuli” (p171). In his paper, “Psychology of Italian Comics”, Marco Minelli http://digilander.libero.it/romanzi/comicspsycho.htm 3/30/2003) points out that through identification with comic characters readers can vicariously fulfill desires that could not be fulfilled in their real lives.
Publishers have primarily aimed their magazines at a market of teenagers and adults in their early twenties. It is this group that has the greatest ability to identify with the main hero in a comic magazine. More people identify with the character of Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) then any other character. Peter’s story is somewhat universal, and he became one of the first superheroes to have realistic problems. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the character back in the 1960s there had not been a teenage superhero. Until Spider-Man, teens were relegated to sidekicks: Batman’s Robin and Green Arrow’s Speedy are two of the best known examples. Lee and Ditko opened up a wide range of issues when they created Spider-Man, making Peter as a geeky science kid in High-school, and focusing on how he dealt with social problems as well as masked villains. Unlike Bruce Wayne, of Batman fame, Peter was not a millionaire who could afford strange new gadgets, nor was he like Superman, indestructible and able to deal with villains with one mighty blow. Peter was limited to his intelligence, and worried more about getting a date with Gwen Stacy than with crazed psychos running around his city. Peter Parker is an every man, and that is how Marvel comics still portray him to this day.
In 2000, Marvel Comics created the Ultimate Marvel Universe, a new version of the Marvel Comics’ Universe where the characters were de-aged and lost all their long history. This gave two writers, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Miller, along with artists Mark Bagley and Adam Kubert, a chance to recreate two of Marvel’s biggest franchises, respectively, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Bendis and Begley not only have succeeded in creating a Spider-Man for the new millennium, it is one that still rings true to the original Lee/Ditko version while making Peter Parker into a character with whom any teenage boy can identify.
Peter Parker is your average high-school teenager. Any teenage boy can relate to Peter’s troubles. He wears glasses and is considered a geek by his peers, and is taunted by the boys on the basketball team, namely Flash Thompson and Ox. In the very first issue Flash threw a burrito at Peter, and Peter didn’t react to the taunting. Peter is very shy around girls, and is close friends with Mary Jane Watson. In addition to his shyness, Peter also is awkward, and tends to need some help getting out of situations. This help is provided by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, as well as his one friend, Harry Osborn. Peter also has a part time job at the Daily Bugle as a web site designer. Most teenage boys can automatically identify with Peter. Here they see a young man like themselves, who has troubles that are all too real to them. Dealing with relationships with girls, being bullied by those who are with the “in” crowd, and trying to balance school, work, and friends. Peter can also be identified with by those who have lost a parent or sibling. In Peter’s case it was his Uncle Ben who was shot by a burglar, who Peter did not stop in the streets after gaining his spider powers. Teens can easily equate the book’s core message of “With great power comes great responsibility” to their lives. Boys who have the job of being the “man of the house,” identify well with Peter and how he works out his relationships with his Aunt May. They can sympathize with Peter’s plight.
In several issues Aunt May nearly finds out about Peter’s secret, and he has to have Mary Jane cover for him. Mary Jane becomes a prominent character in Ultimate Spider-Man as the sole person in Peter’s close social circle who knows about Peter’s powers. In one of the earliest issues of Ultimate Spider-Man Peter confides in Mary Jane the fact that he is Spider-Man. Her reaction at first is disbelief, and Peter must show her that he can walk on walls, and the two teens share a near kiss. This is an easy moment of identification, for both sexes, as a first kiss is something most people remember all their lives. The act of Peter telling M.J. about his powers is very much like a teenage boy trying to explain his feelings for a girl. More recently readers saw the opposite of this situation where Mary Jane and Peter broke up for a while. In the story, M.J. was feeling upset due to worrying over Peter getting killed while he was battling a villain called Dr. Octopus, as well as feelings of jealousy towards a new character in the series named Gwen Stacy. Certainly any young teenage boy has run into this situation where their girlfriend is jealous of another female friend of theirs.
These are just a few examples that show how boys identify with Peter Parker, but teenage girls can also identify with Peter Parker and his situations. The fact that Brian Michael Bendis is able to make Peter realistic to both sexes impresses me. Peter’s own social situations work for teenage girls as well as teenage boys. In one issue, after Peter is bitten by the spider, he is taunted by the boys and girls at his school for throwing up on Mary Jane’s shoes. The embarrassment of this sort is a real worry for teenage girls who fear being stigmatized by their peers for doing something that would be considered stupid. Peter tends at times to display some feminine quality to him, but not enough to make him effeminate to the readers. Going back to the first issue, after Peter is smacked by the burrito, Mary Jane comes over to talk with Peter and the two are interrupted by Peter’s Uncle Ben. The shy looks and blushing facial expressions call to mind similar situations for girls when they are talking with a young man and their mother interrupts them. There is also the fact that after Peter is given his spider like powers he joins the basketball team; only to drop out when he comes to the realization that they don’t like him for himself, and only care to use him to win games. The very next issue he is verbally attacked by his former team mates, and Flash Thompson, the player Peter replaced. A girl who has been in sports and has had to quit the team, or any girl who is trying to befriend someone who is considered unpopular, has felt this sort of peer pressure before and can readily sympathize with Peter. Add on the fact that Peter argues with his Aunt May, much like a daughter and mother would fight, and his own relationships with friends, Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, one can see situations that young women can relate to.
Finally there is the fact that both sexes can identify with Peter’s learning to deal with his secret identity and home life. Spider-Man comes about due to the empowering of Peter Parker, and teens can understand his wrestling with these issues. They too feel they have hidden talents but can not reach them yet, and this makes living through Peter’s exploits more real for them. When Peter first gains his power he tells no one, and chooses to try professional wrestling in order to make some money. In doing so he is living out a fantasy that some teens wish they could, allowing for him to gain fame and fortune, as well as helping out his family. Upon gaining his powers, Peter was given amazing abilities, but most of his major battles he had to solve without using his powers. In the Ultimate Universe Peter lives his life as normally as possible. When he told Mary Jane about being Spider-Man he did not resolve the issue by dressing up as Spider-Man and showing off to Mary Jane. Rather he logically explained to her what happened, “The Spider bit me.” Which explained everything to Mary Jane and only a small bit of convincing was needed to assure her that he spoke the truth. The fact that Peter didn’t need to use his abilities in this situation, and resolved it with a happy conclusion gave the reader a chance to feel better about their own problems, and that they too can solve a difficult dilemma without using magic powers.
Another major fact that allows both sexes to identify with Peter is the secret identity issue he has with his Aunt May. After his battle with Craven the Hunter Peter had to come home and face a rather angry Aunt May. She wanted to know where he had been, and he wanted to tell her the truth, but he could not, so he just stood there, and she refused to talk to him, and grounded him. Peter’s dilemma with his Aunt could easily happen to any teenage reader, be it a boy or a girl, most have been trapped in a similar situation.
The counter balance of the powers is that he has to deal with this secret identity. This is a curse in a way for Peter, because he has to allow things to happen to himself that he knows he could easily stop. For example, Ox, Flash Thompson’s friend at one point figures out that Peter is Spider-Man; and decided to prove it by kicking Peter and making him leap out of the way before his foot meets Peter’s butt. Peter must, much to his annoyance, allow himself to be kicked, and winds up crying. Teenagers know that they have problems like Peter’s where they must make sacrifices in order to keep their own hidden talents in the dark for a while.
It is not only Spider-Man that teens and young adults can identity with. There are several comic books in the world over that provide teens the use of the identification mechanism. Marvel Comics’ X-Men is a big seller of the identification mechanism. The X-Men gain their Mutant powers when they are in puberty, and are an excellent source in dealing with issues of race, teen empowerment, and growing emotions in adolescence. In Japan there are Shonen and Shojo comic magazines that are designed for boys and girls respectively, as well as young men and women comics. Yugi-Oh was created in 1996 by Kazuki Takahashi; the story follows a shy, and small, young boy named Yugi Moto who solves an ancient Egyptian puzzle and combines his body with an ancient pharaoh. The theme of the book is that you should trust in yourself, and your heart. Both boys and girls can identify with Yugi and his story. Yugi, like Peter, is socially awkward but has one big talent in that he has a great ability to play card games, and with the help of the ancient spirit he eventually takes on the bullies and evils that attack him. Like Peter, Yugi struggles with responsibility and is helped by three friends. The spirit in the puzzle is almost a symbol for hidden talent that must be found by testing and trying different pieces in a puzzle.
Anyone who has had some exposure to comics knows something of Dr. Victor Von-Doom, the self proclaimed leader of Latveria and archenemy of Dr. Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Dr. Doom’s major claim to fame is that he blames Reed Richards for everything bad that happened in his life. The two men met in college and one day Richards tried to help Victor re-work his formula so that it would actually work. Doom believed he deliberately tampered with the formula which subsequently caused an explosion that scared Victor’s face. Since that time Victor Von-Doom has lashed out at Richards, blaming him for his failed attacks, and seeks revenge upon the entire Fantastic Four. Doom believes that Richards purposely is out to get him, and believes that Richards is jealous of Doom’s superior intellect. In every way Victor Von-Doom shows exactly how a reader can project their own thoughts and short comings onto other people.
Projection as defined by Coon (2001) is “attributing one’s own feelings, shortcomings, or unacceptable impulses to others” (p G-16). In other words, projection happens when a person places their own weakness upon others in order to cover up, or deny, that they have that weakness. Most notably projection can happen within the comics as well as with readers. Villains tend to be the most logical projection for readers who feel that they have shortcomings, and weakness. Most villains are actually the opposites of the heroes, and over time the reader learns to project the hero’s weaknesses onto his, or her, arch rivals. The most obvious of this projection act being Batman and the Joker. Bruce Wayne the civilian identity of Batman struggles to balance his conscious in his monthly comic. Wayne has a survivor’s guilt complex that has made him split his personality at times, and creating a sharp contrast between himself and his alter ego. Yet fans of Batman are always pointing out how intelligent, and amazing Batman is, pushing his weakness: the fact that he uses violence and other means to pull the truth from his rogue gallery, and his lack of patience with his associates, onto the villains. Recently in the Batman Comic (2001), writer Jeph Loeb had Batman recall what one of his associates, Dick Grayson (Nightwing), said about the battle between Batman and the Joker, “How I [Batman] represent the order that is necessary to live in Gotham City and the Joker is the chaos that disrupts the order” (p. 2).
Dr. Doom and the Joker are but two of villains that are used to project a hero’s weakness away from him. Two of the more interesting projection cases are DC’s Lex Luthor and Superman, and Marvel Comics’ Norman Osborn and Spider-Man. Lex Luthor is a self made man, and extremely smart businessman who has been Superman’s rival for years. Superman is known as the “Boy Scout” by most comic fans. Superman is supposed to be the most moral character in the DC Comic Universe; he is the essence of honor and good. Super strong, with special abilities which make him the premier super hero in the DC Universe, Superman does not seem to have any psychological weakness or shortcomings. His alter ego Clark Kent is normally used to show Superman’s human side, and does have some shortcomings, but is never shown to be unmoral or wrong. This is where the character of Lex Luthor comes into play. Luthor, like Joker to Batman, is Superman’s opposite, he is greedy and he only acts moral when it can benefit him. In 2000 DC used their mega-series Batman: No Man’s Land as a launching point for Lex Luthor to make a bid for the Presidency. In the Superman comic’s that followed, Luthor pretended to be an honest politician, and Superman found himself conflicted. Luthor was trying to better the United States, but his main goal was to empower himself. He later helped to create the Worlds at War saga that helped bolster public opinion of him. Unlike the “Man of Steel” Lex is a normal man with no super powers, yet readers are able to project upon him undesirable traits that will not work on other DC villains.
Shifting is a defense mechanism in which the person changes his attitude from one extreme to another. For example, a person who normally respects authority may shift to behavior in which he does not respect authority as a consequence of an irritating event. For instance, when a person who usually supports the police gets a speeding ticket he may develop a less respectful opinion of the police for a short time. According to Minelli (http://digilander.libero.it/romanzi/comicspsycho.htm, 3/20/2003), individuals who are not normally prone to violence may shift to violent attitudes when it comes to patriotic ideals or perceived injustices. They may at least harbor feelings that it would be justifiable to behave barbarously as long as it is in defense of one’s country or ideals, or as revenge against perceived wrongs and injustices. This is most pervasive in comics that deal with war, and battles against evil protagonists. Frank Castle is a vigilante. He was once an FBI Agent whose family was killed by a group of mobsters. When the murder took place Frank shifted from the devoted government agent, to a man who no longer feels bound by the law. As the Punisher, Frank feels justified to be judge, jury and executioner. Readers who feel outrage at injustice may gain a sense of satisfaction from reading stories in which the Punisher breaks the law to serve a higher justice.
The last defense mechanism that I will explore is idealization. An ideal is the thought of a personality, type of character, or line of action in emotionally colored terms as representing a goal to be sought after. Idealization is representation of an object or person in terms of one’s ideals or desires (Wolman, 1989). Kinko Ito at the University of Arkansas, at Little Rock, says that many Japanese find Caucasian facial and body features then their own, and this is reflected in their comics (Ito, 2000). This has been referred to as “the Japanese gaiiin complex,” a “psychological, racial inferiority complex towards foreigners, especially Caucasians and their physical features” (as cited in Ito, 2000). The effect of this complex is noticeable in such Magna as: Yugi-oh, Love Hina, Sailor Moon, Astro Boy, Pokemon, Cute Honey, Lupin the III, and countless others. On the American comic scene, Superman is perhaps the most glaringly obvious example of idealization. Even setting aside his super powers he is the perfectly moral and upright human. A close second to Superman is Captain America, the penultimate patriot. Steve Rogers embodies all that a real American should be, and does so with grace and humility. On the female side we have Wonder Woman, the premier super heroine. She is considered a goddess, and was sculpted from clay. As Mark Waid has stated in the JLA, Wonder Woman is the spirit of truth. She is considered the perfect woman.
There are many other psychological mechanisms at work both within comics and between reader and comic. Sadly, I have found very little research available in English, though there is much more in foreign languages, especially Italian. The reading of comic books is an activity that is part of the lives of billions of people. There are many other forms of entertainment that they could be using or reading, and yet they choose to read comics. This indicates that they, the public, have a real need for this form of entertainment. Since comics are significantly different from other forms of entertainment and art, the psychology of comics must then be at least somewhat unique. Existing studies of comic psychology have been indicative but have barely scratched the surface. It is important that further studies be made in the psychology of comics, because comic book reading is a significant world phenomenon that it merits more study.
Coon, D. (2001). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Minelli, M. (1992). Psychology of Italian Comics. [6 paragraphs.] Available: http://digilander.libero.it/romanzi/comicspsycho.htm
Ito, K. (2000). The world of Japanese “Ladies comics”: From romantic fantasy to lustful perversion. University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Wolman, B. B. (Ed). (1989). Dictionary of behavioral science. New York: Academic Press Inc.
Loeb, J. (2001, June). Hush: Chapter seven the joke. Batman, pp.2