Rosenberg is a practicing clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. She is also the editor of The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (Benbella), a collection of essays with such titles as “Prejudice Lessons from the Xavier Institute” and “Coming to Terms with Bizarro.” She is small, quick, gray eyed, and she really, really digs Batman. “I’m very much looking forward to The Dark Knight. I thought Batman Begins was so true, psychologically. Batman’s great struggle is between revenge and justice — he’s really the go-to guy for that issue. And, of course, that’s something we’re struggling with as a country right now.”
I express to Rosenberg my concern that, in so many of these superhero flicks, the bad self is rejected — electrified or exploded or otherwise done away with. Shouldn’t it be embraced, tamed? “Well, there is that side of American culture — we’re so big and pleasure-seeking, and there’s that sense that, if there’s someone you don’t like, you can just cut that person or that part of yourself off, and just reinvent yourself.” But isn’t there some terrible psychological consequence to that? To the amputation of one’s lower self? “Yes and no,” says Rosenberg. “There are parts of ourselves that aren’t as morally or ethically righteous as we would like, and we may succumb to those aspects of our nature, but we can also rise above them. The question is, when you have a relapse, how quick can you recover? What interests me is the villains who keep returning. In the Batman stories, it’s the Joker. For Superman, it’s Lex Luthor. These figures, these problems, recur. They don’t go away, which to me is very real. They come back, and you have to figure out how to deal with them. It’s about figuring out how to deal with yourself, and them, over and over again.”
And what, finally, of the argument that comic books, and comic-book heroes, and movies about comic-book heroes, are stoopid? That we are being infantilized by this trash? Rosenberg takes her time. “The concept of someone who just wants to have fun, and be like everybody else, but at the same time is compelled to do the right thing — I think that’s a lesson that kids can’t see too often, and there isn’t enough of it anywhere else. Our culture is filled with celebrated figures who do morally reprehensible things, and kids are getting mixed messages about that all the time. So to have these models is very useful, I think.”
Up,up, and Obama!
It’s not easy creating a superhero — and if you think it is, try it. Me, I pondered for two days, scratched in note pads and pulled my beard, and the best I could come up with was Tiny Cat Boy: a bovine pro football player who in moments of moral jeopardy becomes as simpering and ineffectual as a kitten. Hardly a figure, you’ll agree, to illuminate the national psyche. No, the men who invented the superheroes were tapped in, in the way that only junk artists can be — this junk was Jungian. It was Jungk. Stan Lee, Bob Kane: poets and forgers of myth. Their legacy surrounds us: can there have been a more superheroic occasion, a scene more cast in Marvelline bombast, than the recent appearance of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton together onstage in Unity, New Hampshire? Their 16-month slugfest concluded, the two faces, the two aspects, of the Democratic Party, appeared to achieve a state of perilous integration — Obama bending to murmur sweet political nothings in her ear, Clinton responding with that deep, hacking, and (to me) rather attractive chuckle. He’s a long cool drink of water; she is compact and rumpy, pugilistic, with a smile like a cattle prod. In combination, surely they are unstoppable! We’ll see, we’ll see — the opposing team is led by a broken-down Captain America.