Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla offer up another fantastic issue of Detective Comics with today's issue 874, continuing the re-introduction of James Gordon Jr. in a tantalizing discussion with his father, while also exploring the aftermath of Dick's exposure to the Dealer's hallucinogenic gas in the previous story arc.
There are many intriguing elements to this comic, in terms of both writing and art--breathtakingly simple but expressive art from Mr. Francavilla--but I will hold myself to discussing the theme of willpower that Snyder emphasizes throughout the issue, one that psychologists and philosophers have discussed.
SPOILERS BELOW THE FOLD...
The issue starts with Jim and James Jr. talking at a diner over coffee, with James Jr. explaining his past criminal behavior. He explains how, a year ago, he was taunted at a laundromat in Houston, and then became possessed by violent impulses, fantasizing about what he would do to his tormentors, especially the one he tracked down, "thinking how fun it was going to be to hurt them. Hurt their girlfriends or wives. Their mothers. Heck, their pets..."
Jim demands to know what happened next, and his son simply says, "I didn't do anything. I didn't hurt that man in Houston. I stopped myself," and explains how the next morning he checked himself into a clinic and was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), the more current term for psychopathy. He's returned to Gotham to try to help others by working in Leslie Thompkins' clinic, and wants his father (and the Waynes) to not stand in his way.
It is common to regard people with mental illnesses as unable to control their actions; in fact, this is part of the controversy over the insanity defense in criminal law (see here for my post on the topic at Psychology Today). Certainly this is the case with some more severe mental illnesses, but ASPD presents itself as a lack of regard or concern for others as well as poor behavioral controls--both of which may make it more difficult for a person to control his or her actions, but not impossible. If (as Kant wrote) we only know strength by the obstacles it overcomes, someone like James Jr. must overcome a tremendous hurdle to control his antisocial impulses, making his success all the more admirable. But the important point is that people like James Jr. can do it, can fight their urges, and we expect that the more they fight them, the better they will become at it (more on this point below).
(On a lesser note, Jim must also use his willpower to try not to investigate the water leaking out of the restroom over his son jokes about decapitating a waitress and shoving her head in the toilet. I'm amazed he waited until James Jr. left!)
Later in the issue, Dick has a similar problem with the aftereffects of the Dealer's gas, the difference being, of course, that the psychological "interference" came from without rather than from within as in James Jr.'s case. While he and Tim fight poachers, Dick thinks to himself, "The toxin is still in me. I can feel it moving through my veins, my arteries. It's like a whisper--like a voice rising from the dark. Not loud anymore, but soft. Something I can fend off... something I have to fight..."
The way Dick describes his struggle with the effects of the toxin direct invokes the willpower-as-muscle interpretation made popular by psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (in many journal articles and books like Losing Control), and discussed by philosopher Richard Holton (in his own journal articles and his book Willing, Wanting, Waiting). The idea is that willpower (or resolve, or self-regulation) is a limited resource like muscular strength, which can be exhausted with extended use, but which can also grow stronger with repeated "exercise." For example, the dieter who successfully avoided a donut today may find it easier to avoid them tomorrow, and then even easier the next day, and so forth. He may never conquer his craving completely--just as an alcoholic who has not taken a drink in 20 years still refers to himself as recovering--but each day gets just a little bit easier (assuming no extraordinary temptations).
For more on this topic, see the work by Baumeister and Holton above; I apply this idea to procrastination in my contribution to The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, and also to willpower and Green Lanterns in my chapter "Flexing the Mental Muscle: Green Lanterns and the Nature of Willpower" in the forthcoming Green Lantern and Philosophy.
With all the focus on physical struggle in superhero comics, it is refreshing to see a writer focusing on internal, psychological struggle. This theme is naturally emphasized more often in stories featuring street-level heroes like Batman and Daredevil (the patron saint for self-torment among superheroes), but Snyder is showing how this type of struggle unites all types of people: superheroes like Batman, "regular" heroes like Jim Gordon, and those with mental illness like James Jr. We may not all have finely honed physical and mental abilities like Batman--or marvelous power rings like the Green Lanterns--but like them, we all struggle with internal pulls, desires, and other psychological drives, whether "normal" or not. When superheroes are shown, not just fighting evil and wrongdoing in the outside world, but also the demons inside, they provide valuable examples of inner strength as well as outer strength (I emphasize the importance of the latter in another Psychology Today blog post here.)
I hope Mr. Snyder continues to focus on the psychological elements of Batman, Gordon, and the rest of the supporting cast--this is definitely the Batman book I look most forward to reading every month.