Comic-Con Joker Panel Was Wild: Recap and Reflections

By - September 6, 2009

Bob_Kane_headstone_thumbnailIt’s amazing how much information a single experience might yield. A few months ago, Peter Coogan – who, with my colleague Dr. Randy Duncan, co-founded the Comics Arts Conference, the academic conference-within-the-convention held in conjunction with both WonderCon and San Diego Comic-Con International – asked if I’d like to help moderate a CAC panel on the psychopathy of the Joker. “As if I had to ask,” he’d added parenthetically because he already knew I have strong interest in studying the psychology of Batman. A presentation I made during the WonderCon’s 2008 CAC was, frankly, one of the best talks I’ve ever given in my life. If I’d only known how well that one was going to flow, I’d have had someone record it for me.Psychology_Superheroes_thumbnail

Dr. Robin Rosenberg, editor of The Psychology of Superheroes, had submitted “Is the Joker a Psychopath? You Decide!” for presentation at this year’s Comic-Con CAC. The Comics Arts Conference submission materials tell the potential presenters that if they’d like help getting industry professionals to join a panel, they can ask and we’ll try to help them. I say “we” because, while I’m not one of the three people who ultimately plan the CAC schedule, the CAC submissions go through me before those three fine folks see them. So I’d already seen Robin’s submission, plus I’d actually used her book The Psychology of Superheroes in my Comics & Psychology course the month that book came out. Robin already knew Michael Uslan, who has produced six Batman movies, and I helped recruit the rest of our panelists: cartoonist Jerry Robinson who created the Joker in 1940, comic book writer Steve Englehart whose story “The Laughing Fish” is still cited by many 30 years later as the tale which established that the Joker really is insane, and actor Adam West who played Batman in the 1960s television series, the first full-length Batman movie, several animated series, and a few television specials which had been attempts at a revival. I’d contacted Adam so late in the process that it’s a wonder we got him at all. The Comic-Con schedule had been printed long before and Comic-Con organizers were too busy to update that entry online, so his arrival at the start of the panel took most of our audience members by surprise.

Together or separately, Robin and I spoke with each of the panelists beforehand. I reported some of those discussions to you on this website.

Okay, I didn’t actually tell you much about my discussion with Adam West and I said that I would, but I’m not sure I’m going to. I’ve had some time to think about this. I met my childhood hero. I know, I can’t really meet Batman, but I met the man who’d embodied my hero, and there’s something very personal about that. It’s not just that Batman is my favorite superhero. That’s like saying Times New Roman was my favorite font a decade ago. “Favorite” isn’t powerful enough to convey what Batman was to me and, admittedly in a different way, still is, nor why the Batman played by Adam West remains so important. Plus, going into that too deeply kind of detracts from appreciating Adam himself as a fun and smart human being.

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While they were leading Adam from the convention floor up to our conference room, Adam told Nick and Alex that he’d never met Jerry before and was really looking forward to it.

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The panel itself, I’ve reported in four parts, ordering them by topic rather than strict chronological order with regard to how each anecdote and question came up over the course of our hour and a half.

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I haven’t even covered Robin’s introduction at all because she’s working on that. We plan to put some of this together in a journal article. Posting blog excerpts from the rest of the panel has helped me organize and plan my part of that report. We’re both psychologists – Robin a therapist and myself a psychology professor – and in our discipline, it’s not real until it’s in a peer-reviewed journal.

I’m grateful for the fact that this event created experiences for those who went to Comic-Con with us. Adam West may mean more to some of them as Mayor Adam West from The Family Guy, but he’s still a celebrity in all their eyes. When Adam called upstairs to ask for someone to show him how to get from his Adam West Enterprises booth to the Comics Arts Conference meeting room, which was probably as far from his booth as you could get and still be in the same sprawling convention center, it took half an hour for them to lead him back to the room because of all the people who kept gathering around Adam. He loves his fans and he wants every single one of them to feel appreciated, so that slowed things down, and yet it also gave Nick and Alex more time with the man, who chatted with them and cracked jokes along the way. I hadn’t realized that he’d never met Jerry Robinson before, but that’s what he told Alex and later mentioned on twitter.

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Afterwards, we formed a larger group to escort Adam back to his booth. That meant our friends and my students got to be Batman’s bodyguards, Adam West’s entourage for our trek through the Comic-Con crowds. Our business associate Katrina Hill of actionflickchick.com missed our panel because she was busy interviewing cast and filmmakers from The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, but Adam made time for her a little later because he wanted to learn more about twitter from her. While he was at it, he judged the winning entry from her readers’ answers to the question, “What would be the worst superpower to have?”

Also see what other celebrities like David Hayter, Lou Ferrigno, Adrian Paul, Carrot Top, and Stan “The Man” had to say about the worst superpower question: Single-Shot Interviews: Worst Superpower, Celebrity Takes.

I’ve mined the actual panel for every topic worth hitting you with, short of typing up our introductions (which were entertaining too), transcribing what Robin had to say about psychopathy and psychosis (which she’s writing up elsewhere), or giving you Jerry’s story of the Joker’s creation (which we really covered in the two-part report on our pre-panel interview). Other anecdotes like the story Jerry told elsewhere about the time he spent drawing Lassie (“I learned to really hate that dog.”) can wait.  For now it’s nice to have some of those moments just for myself.

With Bob Kane and Bill Finger long gone, Jerry is the only surviving member of that early team of Bat-story creators. I’ve long said that there were two people I most wanted to meet from the comic book business, “Bob Kane and Adam West, and Bob Kane is dead,” and yet through this I’ve come as close as humanly possible to fulfilling the whole thing all at once.

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Speaking of Bob Kane, my parents also visited California this summer. While touring celebrity graves, my mom (Papa Llama’s mama, Gramma Llama) happened to spot Bob Kane’s. Although she hadn’t gone looking for that one, she knew the importance it would hold for me – and hey, she grew up reading comic books too. She read Batman comics to me when I was little, and looking through those Batman stories whenever she wasn’t in the room made me want to read.

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The Joker begins with Jerry Robinson, but let’s remember: Batman begins with Bob Kane.

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3 Responses to “Comic-Con Joker Panel Was Wild: Recap and Reflections”

  1. […] Comic-Con Joker Panel Was Wild: Recap and Reflections […]

  2. Really enjoyed this article. Can’t think of a more fun application of psychology.

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