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Committed: Psychopathic Back-Story Killer

Would someone have to be insane to become a costumed hero, or would they have to be something else entirely? While it is entirely reasonable that super villains can be psychopaths, why can’t superheroes too? And if psychopaths are born, not made, then doesn’t it make sense that some of them might seek out the most bizarre forms of employment?

Yesterday I was reading about psychopaths. Apparently, while it is a word used pretty broadly in discussion, in psychological terms it is actually a very narrow definition, used rarely. I was surprised to learn that a psychopath is considered neither sane or insane, but is a third group all alone. The other news to me is that psychopaths aren’t generally made by growing up in a damaging environment, but have been shown to have a different physiological make up. A child born into a family of healthy children can be psychopathic, even though his/her siblings aren’t, there is often no external reason for the difference, it is simply a neurological absence of emotion. They have an inability to feel. According to MRI tests done by Dr. Kent Kiehl, when we process emotion, the emotional nerve cluster of the brain lights up, but psychopaths in the same tests do not. The nerve cluster stays dark and there is no emotional activity in their brains. There is a defect.

Until now I always thought that every superhero and super villain had to have a back story, some long, drawn out story about their abusive childhood or whatever. I thought there had to be reasons and events which would lead to the desire to do something as outrageous and anti-social as putting on a wild costume and leading a double life, fighting (whether for justice or for evil.) I erroneously assumed that the adoption of an entirely false persona would be a constant act of will and effort, and that anyone living that way would have to be a little insane and damaged to live that way. It turns out that for a psychopath, deception is actually enjoyable and easy.

In his book Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley says that psychopaths are a danger not only because of their inability to empathize and feel things as others do, but primarily because they are able to blend in so well. Behaving like everyone else and adopting acceptable, “healthy” behavior is an act of will instead of a facet of their personality. It is not simply a two-dimensional pretense, but an entire life, built from learned behavior patterns that are not actually felt. Psychopaths enjoy deceiving and wearing the emotional clothing of everyone else while actually feeling very little. In fact, it is possible that this emotional absence or void is what leads them to explore more extreme modes of behavior, like thrill-seeking and criminal behavior, in order to attempt to feel something through extremes. Since there is no moral or emotional hindrance, psychopaths have little compunction about doing whatever is necessary to get what they want with little or no regret.

All of this sounds like a perfect recipe for a super villain, doesn’t it? Suddenly we’re freed up from having to hear about their abusive childhoods, or their missing parents. After all, it would take more than insanity to cause a person to consider costume. What kind of disgruntled, anti-social criminal dresses up and targets superheroes while creating an elaborate secret identity? Clearly we’re talking about psychopaths, people for whom a secret personality is easy, not work, who already feel entirely separate from society. One of my favorite villains; the Joker, is obviously a psychopath and I’m sure this is all pretty standard. It just makes sense. However, we’re missing a great opportunity here. While psychopaths are often criminals, we need to examine what happens when they aren’t. Could the emotional disconnect which creates an effective criminal out of a psychopath, just as easily be subverted to become the origin of a superhero?

Psychopaths aren’t murderers and criminals by their nature, they’re simply people without compunction. Naturally this can make them callous and cold, but it doesn’t automatically make them dangerous. In fact, in cases where it has been demonstrated and proven to psychopaths that they will personally benefit from abiding by rules, then it is possible they can become relatively well assimilated into society. Let me explain, where traditional treatment is used, (like psychotherapy or counseling), the sessions merely act as a kind of unintentional specialized training to help psychopaths more effectively mimic healthy emotional behavior. They are not treated or helped by traditional therapy as any insane (or sane) person might be. But Dr. Robert Hare developed a system whereby by accepting that the psychopath may never be anything but rational and uncaring, and used logical process to demonstrate that it is in their own interest to behave appropriately. Apparently there are criminal rehabilitation systems which are testing out this process, offering instant rewards for psychopathic subjects who follow the rules, appealing to their need for instant gratification and it is shown to be relatively effective. This is the first treatment in the history of psychopathy that has been been effective at all.

Extending this concept to the world of fantasy and comic books, it is reasonable to assume that a psychopath who encounters the superhero lifestyle could be shown to appreciate the jobs fit for the unique talents. Unlike any other job a psychopath could hold, it is entirely reasonable to have a well-developed secret identity. Lying is an essential skill. There is little need to work with a team or accommodate any office politics. Violence and vandalism are likewise an essential component of the job, and an ability to do so dispassionately would be useful for a superhero (squeamishness and empathy would actually be a drawback.) Being encouraged to fight crime and do so within a certain, previously agreed upon set of boundaries (i.e. no killing, only damage criminals) would pay great dividends for a psychopaths. Instead of being vilified and hated, he could be appreciated and famous, while still retaining his secret identity and being able to live as a “normal” person for a proportion of the time. To my mind a hero like Superman (who is anyway alien, and his mind works differently from ours) would be an excellent candidate for this. Rather than having to sit through endless, tedious rewrites of his damn origin story, we could simply accept that his brain operates outside of regular moral constraints. For many superheroes, I would find it a welcome relief not to have to listen to their seemingly endless, emotionally loaded, rambling inner dialogues. I’m not saying they’re all psychopaths, I’m just saying that I’m very open to a few of them turning out this way. So next time we get a retcon-ned back story, let’s see if someone can’t come up with something a little less whiny and a little bit further outside of the everyday.

46 Comments

Have you read X-Men: Noir? The basic idea is that instead of mutants, the next evolution of humanity is the psychopath. Definitely a great read.
Also, the Japanese anime Darker than Black is like a cross between X-Men and X-Files with psychopathic superbeings.

I have had an interest in psychopathy for a number of years now…glad you found Robert Hare…a great Canadian contributor to this contentious field. I find it annoying that psychotic and psychopathic are often used interchangeably when the former is what we would recognize as crazy, the latter a rational, nihilistic being. I think there are many sub-categories–grandiose narcissistic types lie without a thought to keeping a straight story (you are too stupid to catch them), while others do seemingly strange things like wear the boots they wore during their homicide to a police interrogation (happened recently in Canada with Col. Russell Williams) which seems to be acting like a displaced conscience (not sure he is a psychopath proper). I felt Nolan’s representation of the Joker was more like the nihilistic psychopath, who just wanted to watch the world burn, burned the money, told many lies about his “origin” and wanted to lower others to his own depraved self–to prove that we are all like him. Psychopaths cannot be reformed, despite what you have read–although I do think there has been some improvement with children where there is early intervention–having said that anyone under 18 is seldom diagnosed as a psychopath. What is most chilling though is they are more likely to be paroled even though the parole board knows what they are…their charm carries them far. Furthermore, these are the relatively unsuccessful psychopaths who end up in jail…how many have never been caught because they are on the rational thinking side? Mark Millar’s recent series “Nemesis” touches on this type very well. Also check out Dr. J Reid Melloy’s work on autonomic arousal when in the presence of a psychopath or other dangerous individual–an evolutionary gift to detect intra-species predators: an experience of the hair standing up on the back of your neck, a chill, etc. Apparently women are more adept at detecting these signals. Great topic and one that not enough of us want to think about, know about or investigate further.

“Heroes” cannot be psychopathic for the simple reason that a heroic individual feels fear, but is able to harness it, use it and push through it to achieve something. The psychopath simply does not experience what most of us knows as fear and so are given to hasty judgments and are not inclined to follow orders. By the way, the Hare Checklist has a different standard of psychopathy for people living in North America than those living in Europe–there is a higher score deviation for North Americans because we live in a society that privileges many of the hallmarks of psychopathy. Scary.

I read somewhere that most pyschopaths, also called sociopaths, are in fact fairly successful. They tend not to be criminals, not because they’re above criminality, but because criminal behavior is not usually very rewarding. The fictional (non-comics) character that best reflects this, I think, is Tom Ripley from the Talented Mr. Ripley books and movies. In general he lives a quiet life of wealth and art appreciation, but he has no problem killing to maintain his lifestyle when it comes to that.

As far as comic heroes, Maybe Magneto during his hero phase fits this bill. He didn’t care about the well-being of others, but when Xavier convinced him rationally that it would further his personal goals to work with the X-Men rather than against them, he changed his ways.

“there is a higher score deviation for North Americans because we live in a society that privileges many of the hallmarks of psychopathy.”
Better to channel the psychopath into productive activities, don’t you think?

Interesting read. Gail Simone did do something in this area in Birds of Prey with one of the side characters, Savant…who was interested in this hero business until Batman told him not to, which effectively lead him to go “ok, I’ll be a villain then”. And eventually Oracle started to pull him towards doing something worthwhile again.
Don’t know how much Simone’s psychology actually has scientific ground though…

But it would be an interesting thing to see more of this.

“I read somewhere that most pyschopaths, also called sociopaths, are in fact fairly successful.”

I have, too, and I wish I could remember where. Some have become extremely successful, and I’m reasonably certain that at least one CEO I’ve worked for in the past, and a couple of upper-level executives at other companies where I’ve worked have been psychopaths. I currently work with a salesperson that I strongly believe is a sociopath. This individual won’t even acknowledge another human being’s existence unless/until that person can be used to this individual’s benefit. It’s bizarre to watch, but once you realize what’s going on, it actually simplifies a lot of things. No need for small talk.

When you think about it, an utter lack of compassion and empathy can be quite useful in many business settings. If you don’t care about your fellow employees, firing them or stabbing them in the back is no problem. If you don’t care about your customers, cheating them and lying to them doesn’t bother you. Breaking laws is not an issue unless you get caught. And once they reach a certain level, they don’t really have to interact with anyone as an equal, which further disguises their true natures. Lex Luthors are probably a LOT more common than most people realize.

Sociopaths are the same thing–they don’t murder–they embezzle and yes they do tend to be successful, but their success is often built on a house of cards. Robert Hare co-wrote a book called Snakes in Suits examining this issue. Madoff et al at the centre of the financial collapse were until a few years ago these same “successful” people…we all know how that went. As for channeling their energy–how would you channel Ledger’s Joker? How does one channel an unstoppable force? A very recent study looking at cheating at the University of British Columbia (UBC) looked at undergraduate business students cheating habits (self-reported as is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist); the results astonished the researchers–a very high proportion of these students actually tested quite high on the psychopathy scale. So, you are right, North America is very much a business/financial oriented continent which is where psychopaths find their fortune–at shareholder and public expense. Robert Hare once said that if he started his career over he would study psychopathy not in the prison system as he has, but rather he would study the Stock Exchange…frightening if you ask me. There are way more of these predators walking around than the 1% of the population that is so often cited.

Psychopaths make pretty good supervillains, for obvious reasons, but they don’t work as superheroes at all.

Lacking empathy, the psychopathic “superhero” will fail to come to the rescue of the little old lady being mugged if he finds anything more interesting to do that night (like having sex with a superhero groupie).

Empathy and emotion are the foundation of being a superhero. It’s not always named as “empathy”, but that is what it is: compassion for the plight of the helpless. Even anti-heroes like the Punisher and Magneto can’t be psychopaths, since they’re compelled to do what they do because of the death of their loved ones. Psychopaths are unable to have loved ones.

Now, characters like Bullseye and Sabretooth fit the definition to a T. But not the Kingpin, since he seemed to really love his wife (or at least feel something genuine for her).

Lex Luthor I’m not so sure. I also would like to point that there is some exaggeration about the “talent” of psychopaths. One of the things they lack severely is the capability for long-range planning and defered gratification. Psychopaths are usually impulsive and impatient. They’re more likely to be the con man that is always escaping from place to place than the established, successful industrialists like Luthor (though you could find plent of psychopaths among businessmen in places that value short-term profit).

There’s also an underlying problem with the fictional psychopath usually being an object of audience disidentification, a character most readers — with their relatively normal levels of empathy — are invited to perceive as almost alien in a way. This works sometimes, but an entire rogues’ gallery of psychopaths will become rather flat. Oddly, even the Joker, the example used above, is often given features of schizophrenia (by Grant Morrison, for example, and in a different way, Ed Brubaker) or an origin in which he has a sympathetic or at least non-sociopathic backstory (as with Alan Moore).

A psychopathic protagonist playing the role of the superhero has the problem of working as an intellectual exercise or thought experiment, but is more likely to lack the capacity to affectively engage the audience. Notice that when fictional psychopaths are protagonists, they have to be modified from any “pure” pathology: Hannibal Lecter gets a sympathetic backstory and M.O. around the time he goes from being the monster in the cage to he main character of the book, why Tom Ripley gets a distaste for murder and “vulgar” crimes in the later Ripley books, and why Showtime’s Dexter has to be given his “code” and a fatherly affection for his stepchildren for the show to keep working.

Remember, the other sid eof Cleckley’s analysis is that the psychopath is ultimately self-destructive, and indeed stupidly so: they have no basic personality structure, and almost no real impulse control. Their studied charm lets them skate on the stupid little scams and violences they commit, but a psychopath’s story generally ends with them doing the same pointlessly anti-social thing again and again. His case studies bear this out; they’re actually quite dull to read all in a row.

The fictional psychopath is usually a neat idea but a definitionally flat character…and generally doesn’t stay a psychopath (or “just” a psychopath) for long when given an expanded role that forces them into non-action-oriented character interactions.

I do disagree that psychopaths couldn’t be superheroes.
After all, as said in Kelly’s text, they are able to blend in and fake “healthy”, “acceptable” behaviour and thus if a psychopath for some reason has decided to adopt a heroic lifestyle (and finding that admiration etc is gratifying), he will go and rescue the little old lady being mugged. He might not do it out of empathy but he could do it because “it’s what these superheroes do”.
They might have weird priorities however (aforementioned Savant in BoP went and stopped arsonists by force, which Batman disapproved of, since rescuing the people from burning building was higher priority) and might end up doing things in odd ways due to lack of empathy. They might also have problems to keep the heroism thing going for a long time, and might not do that well under pressure or if they come to find the whole heroism thing unsatisfying (Spider-Man couldn’t be psychopath)

And as main protagonists in a book they probably wouldn’t work for reasons Omar gave. Might be interesting side characters though, or subject to individual stories or miniseries…

it seems to work on the TV show ‘Sherlock’ (though I think he said he was a sociopath, not sure)
but Watson balances Sherlock out by being an empathetic character

Part of it is then of course how the writer decides to stack the deck, that the stories are such that the psychopath character does not crash and burn immediately (the writer can, of course, also do stories where being overly emotional is the destructive behaviour and the key to failure).
But yes, on Rene’s example, getting superhero groupies requires saving little old ladies from being mugged, thus one saves those little old ladies. One can of course decide at some point that “ok, my little-old-lady-saving quota for this week is met, someone else can take care of the that one” since one does not really care about those little old ladies…

(Oh, and sorry, Sonia, for calling you Kelly above)

AS –

Certainly, they can “pass” as superheroes for a while. At least to the general public. I doubt many readers would see them as superheroes, though. I am reminded of when Mark Gruenwald introduced John Walker (USAgent) way back when, he was initially known as “Superpatriot,” an up-and-coming, new superhero seeking to displace Steve Rogers as American icon.

There is a nice little scene where Walker is cruising the city in his limo with his manager, and an old lady is being mugged. And the manager asks Walker if he wants to stop and go stop the crime, and Walker says there is no point to it, because there is no publicity in saving some random little lady in a random corner of the city.

(And Walker wasn’t even a true psychopathic, just an immature jerk)

The psychopathic superhero would do even worse than Walker, I suppose. One doesn’t need to do the hero thing for real to gain fame and approval, after all. You only need the publicity. Since psychopathics are innately averse to hard work and self-sacrifice of any kind, I see an hypothetical psycho doing the same as Booster Gold in 52. Even though the media has painted psychopaths as murderers, most of them are con men by nature.

What about Ennis’s “The Boys?” Seems to me there are some serious psychopaths in that series–like Dexter, with grafted superegos allowing them to channel their anxiety and rage.

In Avengers Academy, Finesse is pretty much a psychopath, and she’s trying to learn how to be a hero. Gage makes the point that everyone in the group could go either way, but that’s what makes the book interesting.

Well, the BOYS is a case of a world that is as pessimistic about human nature as the usual superhero comic is optimistic.

2000 A.D. features often have pseudo-psychopathic protagonists: Judge Dredd started out that way, and one can make a case for characters like Nemesis the Warlock, Zenith (and especially Mandala in that series), and D.R. and Quinch.

Interesting article, but as a psychotherapist and soon to be psychologist, I do have to disagree with one point. Neurological evidence that psychopaths have abnormally low emotional reactivity does not mean that they were just born that way. We’ve learned a lot about brain development and attachment styles in children from birth to age five over the past 20 years, and the environment can definitely shape and ultimately hinder the development of a growing brain. The neurological evidence can be due to nurture just as much as nature. As is the case with things like this, it’s likely both factors. I guess there will always be a place for abusive childhood retcons. Instead of a hard-drinking father at age 10, though, maybe a villain, or “hero,” will spend the first three years of life in an Eastern European orphanage where no one even picks them up and holds them when they cry.

Instead of a hard-drinking father at age 10, though, maybe a villain, or “hero,” will spend the first three years of life in an Eastern European orphanage where no one even picks them up and holds them when they cry.

How can a person not pick up and hold a child when they cry?
Makes me want to cry just thinking about those poor children.

This is absolutely fascinating, amazing discussion going on, very enlightening. Generally I try to restrain myself and stay out of discussions in the comments section, since I’ve had my say in the article, but there are some important ideas that I need to clarify so that we can move on.

Regarding whether psychopathy is untreatable; Above I mention and link to a 2006 study done in a Wisconsin juvenile facility. There psychopaths have been successfully treated for the first time and were 2.7% less likely to become violent than teens with the same issues who weren’t in the program. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is making a difference and it is a beginning.

Regarding neglect or abuse being the cause of psychopathy; Dr. Hare states that psychopaths are born with a powerful predisposition to psychopathy, possibly exacerbated by abuse and neglect. To take it further, current data (see links in the article) suggests that abuse and neglect not only don’t cause the problem, but that symptoms appear so early in childhood and even in entirely stable homes (where there are healthy siblings too) that the condition appears to be something people are born with. Distressing to imagine that someone could be dealt a hand like this, like genetic russian roulette, but apparently this is what current thinking is pointing to.

I recall reading a Jungian who talked about how some cultures appear sociopathic from outside them, but within they adhere to rules. The cited example was the Roma, who do not pull cons on one another (within the group), but view all others as pigeons begging to be conned. They have a moral/ethical code–sort of like the Mafia I guess. I think some psychopaths are born, some are born with a predisposition and are nurtured into developing the predisposition and others can be made through neglect or the necessities of survival (The Walking Dead fits into this). Very complex without a single cause or solution.

Common sense would say that you can’t “become” a psychopath after a certain age (probably childhood). Once you’ve developed empathy, you can’t unlearn it, except by very specific and rare forms of neurological damage.

A person hardened and twisted by necessities of survival is not the same as a psychopath, even though they can adopt some psychopathic-like behaviours.

The problem isn’t so much that psychopaths (using the amoral person definition here) cannot be heroes or villains as that the public perception of what those are supposed to be is very limited. Heroes are Good and Villains are Bad, right? Not always, at least not in series that have more realistic ranges of morality. In fact I’d say that few villains are truly “evil” – most are out for their own benefit at the expense of others but don’t really enjoy killing or torturing for itself, it’s just a means to an end. Truly sadistic villains stand out even among other villains, some of whom would rather betray those to the heroes than work with them.

Some “heroes” could be psychopaths as well. Every time they try to come up with a “logic over emotion” hero that’s where they usually head to (poor Tony Stark.) You don’t need to care about people to help or save them… but it makes you an untrustworthy ally. Not to mention a character most people cannot sympathize with, which is the point of being the protagonist.

Not all the children who were left in some of these awful orphanages in Eastern Europe turned out to be psychopaths–most suffered from cognitive and emotional deficits that more resembled autism. Sonia–the study you cite with the 2.8%–I’ll say 3% “success” rate seems to me to fit within statistical drift? I just don’t see how that is promising given what we know about attachment theory (Bowlby, Fonagy, Stern, and others)–the key is early affect attunement and mirroring.

would Robert Kirkman’s Irredeemable Ant-Man qualify as a psychopath or, at least, a hero who has adopted the behavior patterns of one? he wasn’t necessarily evil but showed a marked lack of empathy; not hesitating to engage in sexual activity on the freshly dug grave of his deceased “best friend.” among his other traits were compulsive lying, voyeurism, and parasitism. he also seemed to engage in heroism more because it was what is expected of someone in costume as opposed to it being the “right” thing to do.

This is good stuff. But I would say you impose the findings of these books onto the superhero a little too forcibly, perhaps without engaging any prior work on the function of superhero or situating it alongside some kind of genre/narrative/archetype academia.

I don’t mean to be too dry though. I bet there are a queue of prospective creators lining up to christen the ultimate psychopathic hero (yeah, its already been done, but for the sake of this comment it hasn’t, okay?).

Why is someone who once wrote off therapy as ineffectual writing about psychology?

Actually, Rene, not sure how far you’ve read in The Boys, but I wouldn’t consider the book pessimistic by any means, more cynical, and more in terms of the superheroes that Ennis has set up to be pretty much strawmen in the book. There’s still a center of tenderness, loss, and heart throughout the book up to the point I’ve read (volume six) that is quite powerful.

nice article. though one could actully apply being pychos to every comic character not just the villain’s though would put Luthor more in the same catagory as the kingpin or even Magneto for Magento really should not by considered pycho more like an broken guy and any discussion about if super villain’s can have the term pycho applied should include the greatest one who fits the bill the joker. for he fits perfectly the term actully more a soci pycho. but the joker would be tops for if super villain’s should be classified as pychopaths.

Hey Ivan, I’ve been reading these all year and she’s never “written off therapy.” Maybe you are thinking of someone else.

I’m very open to the idea that a superhero could be a psychopath – but I can’t imagine that such a person could be a very good superhero. The need to make sacrifices, to even put one’s life on the line, would seem to be something that most psychopaths would have difficulty doing. It is possible that such a psychopath might calculate that a certain amount of risk would be acceptable, but not to the point of death.

Also, many superheroes are clearly not psychopathic. Superman is the prime example of the hero motivated by his emotions, values and empathy. But I agree that it would be very interesting to have alien superbeings who are genuinely distinctive in how they think.

Awesome food for thought, Sonia! Thanks for a fun and in depth article!

Is Batman’s son Damien a psychopath? He certainly comes across as a hard-nosed little git and the deprived childhood kind of fits. I find him a fascinating character, one of my new heroes of the past few years.

And Wolverine’s son Daken as well, for similar reasons.

I would love to read about a hero who was fully aware that he was a psychopath and yet chose to do good by having other superheroes keep him in check. Who better than Superman or Wonder Woman to keep you on the straight-and-narrow? A psychopath on the Justice League – what fun!

It would certainly be much more interesting than the usual card-board cutout square-jawed stereotype I’ve been reading about all these years.

Re: psychopathy and nature/nurture, current evidence is very conclusive that psychopathy is, at its core, a neurological disorder involving abnormalities of brain structure, nerve responsiveness and so forth, and resulting from genetic factors (probably connected to the Y-chromosome). That being said, there is also strong evidence that while nature might determine whether or not one is a psychopath, the form a given individual’s psychopathy takes is very much impacted by environment and experience.

To put it simply, psychopaths brought up in violent environments are more likely to become violent psychopaths, such as stone-cold gangland killers, mob hit men and so forth. In contrast, psychopaths brought up in relatively stable and privileged situations may be violent if they see violence as the best way to get what they want, but they are more likely to be seek to meet their desires through more subtle forms of power and influence. The crooked busines executive, lawyer or so forth… these sorts of psychopaths are more likely to be found on the floor of the US House of Representatives or in the boardroom of an energy conglomerate than they are to be out doing drive-by killings or home invasions.

Those with the genetics and neural abnormalities underlying psychopathy who grow up in severely abusive situations, or those in which the strong overtly prey on the weak, in contrast, tend to be some of the more disturbing psychopaths… serial rapists and murderers and so forth. Most survivors of abuse do not go on to harm others, but psychopaths who are physically and/or sexually abused during childhood have a very high propensity to do onto others what was done to them.

It should be emphasized that, contrary to common belief, most psychopaths aren’t violent. The typical psychopath is a habitual liar, a con artist or a thief, not a deranged cannibal. While almost all serial murderers are psychopaths (the rest are severely psychotic individuals who kill in response to delusions and hallucinations, as opposed to getting off on it), serial murderers make up only a tiny portion of the psychopath population.

One shouldn’t underemphasize the harm done by nonviolent psychopaths, however. While a serial murderer inflicts horrendous harm to a few people, someone who jumps from relationship to relationship, taking advantage of parters and stealing credit cards and bank account information, can cause even more, and be more likely to get away with it. Similarly, one can argue that corporate psychopaths such as the Enron folk do vastly more damage than even the most prolific serial murderers, based on the huge financial cost of their rampant greed and lack of concern for consequences.

I am surprised no one has brought up Dexter, I know he is not comic related, but I am pretty sure there are a lot of crossover fans. In my opinion Dexter is a superhero, or maybe just a hero. He is an emotionless, hero/psychopath. I think he displays the perfect formula for a psychopath hero. I acknowledge if anything it makes more sense to refer to him as an anti-hero, but he is a hero nonetheless. Dexter is emotionless, 99% of the time, and he has an incredible need to kill, but because of his code he only kills evil, and does it in a very regimented way. Should Dexter really be anyone’s hero, NO, but he is a hero because he takes a curse and turns it into something good for other people. In the comic world many anti-heroes can be likened to Dexter at times, i.e. Deadpool, Punsiher, Lobo, Venom, even Dr. Manhattan all fit the bill at times. I like the idea of exploring Superman’s different psyche, and that was kind of the whole point of Dr. Manhattan, but I would be up for that story…also Martian Manhunter having not grown up on Earth is a better mind to explore than Clark Kent’s IMO.

I guess you didn’t enjoy yet another retelling of Superman’s origin in Earth One? :P

Really cool read by the way. Very interesting.

I don’t think the Joker is a psychopath. He obviously feels emotion such as anger and joy, just twisted versions of them.

Ivan, thanks for that link. Looks like the title is kind of misleading, because I don’t see any negative content about therapy.

You are right, stealthwise. I should have said THE BOYS is extremely pessimistic about superheroes and what they do with their powers, as compared to Marvel/DC.

Brian from Canada

November 8, 2010 at 10:22 am

Actually, MW, I would point to the opposite with Joker: his twisted versions of anger and joy are plastic responses to the chaos he creates, and for Joker that’s all it’s about. His goal is chaos. And, like a serial killer, the revelling stems from the level of chaos he is able to create given the tools he has, as if it was a test he had to pass, versus the joy at successfully achieving misery upon others.

Or, put it this way: in the animated feature Batman: Under The Red Hood, Joker shows neither sympathy nor hatred for Jason when he beats him with a crowbar — it’s a necessary lesson — and when Jason turns out to be the latest villain, it is enjoyment over Batman’s plans being ruined rather than investment in either opponent succeeding or failing in the actual fight between the two of them.

In the Chris Nolan film The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s performance of The Joker performs every task as a series of puzzles. This is opposed to Jack Nicholson’s version, which finds a twisted perversion in evil, which in turn is contrary to Cesar Romero’s madman in the television series of the 60s. What’s interesting most about Ledger’s performance is that the removal of evil as an attraction — it’s all about returning the chaos back to what it was — is not only leaning to the psychopathic but adheres to a point in the script taken not from Miller’s Year One but from Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: Batman and Joker cannot exist without the other.

Which in turn, of course, defines Batman as THE ultimate psychopath on the side of good, particularly in his post-Crisis appearances throughout the DC Universe were he is presented as the cold, logical guardian of all secrets. Even when kicked out of the JLA during Mark Waid’s run, Batman just plots a way back in… not caring about how the others feel his actions hurt them. The contrary position would be his demonstrated emotion towards Richard (“Dick”) and Alfred, but both are making emotional investments themselves in Bruce to redeem him in their own view — Dick is set up for life, though he doesn’t know it until he’s told, and Alfred feels pity for young “master” Bruce (not “mister” Bruce) after the death of his parents.

In contrast, Marvel’s psychopathic characters are not leads with the exception, perhaps, of Taskmaster. Or Squirrel Girl. ;-)

Frank Castle has been retroactively turned into a sadistic bastard on the battlefield, but his happy family life being ended prematurely has more hallmarks of the Hollywood psychological break. Magneto’s actions are purely dictated by his emotions, and both Xavier and Summers have shown him perceptions different enough at the times in his life when he is capable of admitting he needs a change. Even Doom has an emotional core which gives him human qualities, and Silver Surfer’s are what broke him from the hold of Galactus.

re: Dexter, remember that one of the themes of that show, established from the very first episode, is that while Dexter WAS/is a psychopath, it is implicit that in that world at least that a psychopath has potential to develop away from that state if given enough time and the right support system. Dexter is slowly finding he is able to feel emotions and attachments, even though they weren’t there for most of his life. In the first season, he tries to help a young psychopath stay alive so that he might be “saved” in the same way, but the kid kills himself in his cell. This might not be relevant to “true psychopathy” but it’s possible.

What about a sense of humour? Can psychopaths actually find things funny or is this a learned response or imitation thing too?

Superheroes don’t come across as psychopaths, they have emotional strength and integrity ?

Many psychopaths experience anger/rage–a primary affect.

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