Superheroes Impart Life's Lessons

March 1, 1997
Volume 14, Issue 3

The power of Superman's spell endures mightily, and the values of truth and justice he communicated through comics, and then television and movies continue to pass undiminished from generation to generation.

He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and, when I was 7 years old, Superman broke my arm. Well, in a way he did. A towel tied around my neck to replicate the Man of Steel's flashy red cape, a misguided leap from living room chair to couch landed me in a cast and abruptly ended my reverie for the day. But the power of Superman's spell endures mightily, and the values of truth and justice he communicated through comics, and then television and movies continue to pass undiminished from generation to generation.

For Alan Manevitz, M.D., a family psychiatrist at the Payne Whitney Clinic-New York Hospital, Cornell Medical Center in New York City, a childhood fascination with comic book superheroes deepened over the years into a rich understanding of the positive values they communicated to millions of children. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, the third of four children, he started looking at his older brother's comic books when he was 2 or 3 years old. As he grew older, Manevitz told Psychiatric Times, comic books were one of many types of reading materials he devoured, his parents constantly encouraging him to read "everything."

Manevitz never threw his comic books out, the collection grew and today, he has over 30,000 of them-some now rare and astonishingly valuable. But more important than their monetary worth, Manevitz said, is the influence comic book characters had on millions of children, and the impact they still have on a society deluged with the instantaneous images produced by today's media.

"I don't want to make this sound like these are real characters," Manevitz said, "but the lessons that we [have] learned are important, like developing skills, talents and powers and then using them in a responsible way." Currently, he is working on a book that will analyze the effect media and entertainment has on youth and society.

In reflecting on his own career, Manevitz said that he can see correlations between his choice to become a psychiatrist and the values he absorbed from his fascination with superheroes. Over the years, he has trained in areas such as marital and family therapy, psychopharmacology, geriatrics and addiction. At Payne Whitney Clinic, he was deeply involved in residency training and was the first psychiatrist to explore psychiatric treatment of Chasidic Jews. As president of the National Mental Health Project, a private foundation based in New York City, Manevitz works on projects that use the power of the media to educate the public about mental health issues.

"Serendipitously, I became a generalist, but wanted to have all the skills," Manevitz said. "This is like the way Batman would develop. He would study and learn one discipline, and then he would learn another discipline, and then another, and then figure out how to apply them to the general problem."

During the World Trade Center bombing, the New York City subway bombing and the crash of TWA 800, Manevitz volunteered his assistance to traumatized victims. He also does psychiatric house calls, an anachronism during these days of managed care. Although he denies that these efforts were meant to emulate those of superheroes coming to the rescue, he recognizes that the belief in the importance of helping others that brought him to medicine and psychiatry are grounded in the comic books he grew to cherish. "The superheroes developed philosophies about helping your fellow man," Manevitz said. "It took courage and self-sacrifice and hard work to develop talents and skills like Captain America, Green Arrow, Batman or Spiderman."

In the clinical environment, Manevitz said that an understanding of pop culture has become a mandatory part of treating individuals and families. Cultural elements beyond music, theater and art, such as comic books, help "put you in touch with people," Manevitz said. "What you're dealing with is a systems issue of society, so it has to be addressed as a systems issue in psychiatry. You can't just treat the individual alone, you have to treat the individual within the context of their family, and understanding their exposure to media...is part of the therapy..."

By having broad interests, he added, he realized that he was able to relate to patients in a more honest way. "I read the Wall Street Journal and I knew about the Flintstones. This was helpful in understanding both the CEO who was working, and also his kids."

According to Manevitz, comic book characters in the 1960s and 1970s began to develop psychological components. For instance Spiderman underwent a transformation from a self-indulgent teenager to someone who ultimately learned to use his great powers responsibly. The Incredible Hulk had to cope with an inner rage, while the members of the Fantastic Four each developed attributes that reflected their personalities and developmental stages.

For the most part, comic book publishers used their characters to comment upon relevant issues of the day. "There were really weighty issues of racism and bigotry, war and envy and friendship, as well as the individual sense of responsibility and balance in life that were themes and issues in comic books. Those are the positive aspects," Manevitz said.

But he concedes that a dark side also evolved, one that contributes to current-day concerns about media influence on children and society as a whole. Underground comics no longer followed the standards adopted during the 1950s by the Comics Code Authority and infused their publications with overt sexuality, brutal violence. "In order for the comic books to keep up with MTV and the movies, they had to become more shocking to capture attention," Manevitz said.

As a result, how to protect children from the onslaught of images has become one of the main parenting questions of our time. The Internet, global television and other instantaneous forms of communication have made it nearly impossible to fully regulate what children see and hear, and Manevitz does not see the recent trends to revert to codes of conduct as a panacea for the problems mass media create. Ultimately, society and psychiatrists must face these issues head-on, since there will be no way to avoid them.

"You can't run scared, you have to run informed," Manevitz said. "I don't think we can be fearful of the media. Fear never does anything and you can't run away from it."

In a modern society, pop culture and instantaneous media are going to have a significant influence on the way people think. So when a child presents in a clinical environment wearing handcuffs as jewelry for instance, it will be necessary to separate the message families think the child is conveying from what the child is actually communicating.

"Is that any different from a child wearing a leather jacket in the late 1950s because James Dean or Elvis Presley was wearing one?" Manevitz asked rhetorically. "Understanding that allows you to focus the therapy on what the exposure of the child is, what the fears of the parents are, and allow [those issues] to become the topic of conversation."

Ultimately, the comics that have survived carry a "universal psychological message of family, of wanting to connect to people," Manevitz said. Similarly, "part of the privilege of being a psychiatrist is sitting in your chair and hearing... all these different stories from patients. You get your experience and wisdom from so many thousands of stories that people tell you unedited. The one thing that people regret all their lives is not the deal that wasn't done or the extra dollar that wasn't earned, it was the family that's not there or the lack of other relationships."