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Vancouver event delves into psychology of superheroes

Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures action adventure Man of Steel.

Clay Enos/Warner Brothers Pictures release

A panel of four academics – one dressed as Bat Girl – psychoanalyzed superheroes at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in downtown Vancouver, Thursday night.

The event "Superheroes on the couch" drew an almost full house of comic book fans, graduate students and academics.

Powerpoint slides contained names like Freud, Nietzche and Zizek alongside drawings of Wonderwoman and Superman.

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The idea for the event started with a joke, said one of the event coordinators and panelists Hilda Fernandez, a psychoanalyst and professor at SFU who was dressed as a "classier version" of Bat Girl. After a conference, some colleagues were joking about the psychology and complexity of superheroes and they said "why don't we organize a panel," explained Ms. Fernandez.

"I think there are definite overlaps between psychoanalysis and comic literature, comic movies and popular culture more generally," said panelist Dr. Paul Kingsbury, a Simon Fraser University professor who was dressed as the Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner.

The Hulk is already prominent in clinical psychology as can be seen through the popularization of the term "Hulk syndrome," said Dr. Kingsbury. "We witness the importance of anger management as a way of dealing with Hulking out," he said.

Another panelist, PhD candidate Dan Adleman talked about Superman throughout the ages. Superman taps into an important element of American identity, said Mr. Adleman. Superman is the "defender of liberal American values" and an "avatar for America itself."

Superman came to life on the pages of DC Comics in 1933. Considered a cultural icon, he celebrated his 75th birthday last year with the release of Man of Steel.

While academia and comics might seem like unlikely bedfellows, the relationship is not a new one, said Dr. Kingsbury. In fact, the title for the evening's event, "Superheroes on the couch," was borrowed from an article published in 2012 in The Journal of Popular Culture.

Superheroes connect at a "deep level" with human fantasies, said Ms. Fernandez. "Why do we need fantasies?" asked Ms. Fernandez. "For Freud, it was the fastest and safest way to satisfy an unconscious desire."

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Comics have a staying power, said Ms. Fernandez. They're a "kind of modern mythology" that inform who we are, she said.

Ms. Fernandez ended her presentation in retro comic style by saying: "To be continued. Shazam."

The event was a joint production by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Lacan Salon. The Lacan Salon was established in 2007 and is a psychoanalytic study group that meets bi-weekly.

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