Comic books shadow how we react to threats

November 15, 2005

In times of social danger and economic turmoil, many psychologists believe that people become more aggressive, more conventional, and less interested in feelings and emotions. A new study published in the latest issue of Political Psychology finds that comic book characters do these things as well. In times of higher threat, i.e. the events of 1979 which included the Iran hostage crisis, comic books contained more aggressive imagery, focused on male characters, and were less introspective. The authors reviewed comic books published between 1978 -1992 frame by frame to judge the amount of violence and conventionalism drawn, the number of women and minorities in speaking or subordinate roles, portrayal of wrongdoing by the authorities, and the amount of reflection (thought in balloons rather than dialogue). In general, the authors found that women spoke less and a significantly greater number of panels were devoted to aggression during high threat periods.

The authors reviewed eight Marvel comic books that are still published today. These titles included four titles that featured more conventional heroes that represent American virtues like U.S. patriotism (Captain America) and the everyman (Spider-Man). The other four heroes were less conventional with themes such as persecution by society (X-men) and a vigilante who lives in an "amoral urban hell" (Daredevil). When compared against their own sales, the unconventional titles sold more copies during the low-threat times compared to the high-threat times; whereas the conventional hero sales remained flat. "As an aspect of popular culture, comic books have always reflected the historical time period in which they were produced," author Bill Peterson explains.
This study is published in the December issue of Political Psychology. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article please contact

Political Psychology, the journal of the International Society of Political Psychology, is dedicated to the analysis of the interrelationships between psychological and political processes.

Bill Peterson is a professor at Smith College. He is a personality psychologist who has published many peer reviewed articles on topics related to political psychology. Dr. Peterson is available for media questions and interviews.

Blackwell Publishing is the world's leading society publisher, partnering with more than 600 academic and professional societies. Blackwell publishes over 750 journals annually and, to date, has published close to 6,000 text and reference books, across a wide range of academic, medical, and professional subjects.

Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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