Comic Book Therapy: How Superheroes Empower Us All

Comic fans rejoice! We finally have a reason to justify spending hundreds of dollars on new comics each year – and no one can’t get mad at you for it!

Sydney’s first Oz Comic-Con last weekend has been labelled an amazing success, Free Comic Book day had one of it’s biggest years in 2014 and Guardians of the Galaxy continues to smash records weeks after entering the box office. Thanks to avid readers, comics are not only more popular, but more helpful than ever before. This year Wizard World, the owner of Comic Con, boasted profit growth of 188% making the first quarter of 2014 its most profitable recorded. The comic book convention industry is now estimated to be worth over three billion dollars. Readers agree that this growth is attributed to the changing dynamics of story lines and the creation of new, more relatable characters.

Seeing this success, a clinical psychologist in the United States of America recently begun using comic books as a form of therapy for his patients who suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Invented by clinical psychologist Patrick O’Conner, Comic book therapy is a form of art therapy in which those undergoing rehabilitation are able to express their experiences through personal narratives using comic books that enable them to process their memories and emotions. It has been so successful that the U.S. Army has begun using it on troops as a therapy project helping troops who might otherwise resist discussing their experiences. Let’s just say, comic books pack a punch these days.

While the prescriptions for comics are yet to take off in Australia, comic experts agree that reading comic books can only benefit everyone involved! Rejoice! Comics are more valuable than ever before and reading about your favourite superhero is now proven to benefit your state of mind. If you want to be a better person, why not try reading more comics?

Here is why you should buy and read more comics today (not that you needed the excuse, really).

Why Comic Books matter

John Karatovic was the co-founder of the University of Western Sydney’s Geek Group in 2009. Today that group’s online social media team is bringing people together as it spans 3 campuses with hundreds of members. He, like many others, identifies strongly with Marvel character Spiderman and believes comic books help people understand themselves better. “I was a huge outcast in High School, and [Spiderman] embodies that fantasy of ‘if only you really knew who I was’.” Comics allow us to embrace ourselves, rather than repress what they fear is different as characters are not limited to what can be filmed on TV or picked up by major film companies that only represents a select few groups in society.

He further attributes the success of comic books to the fact that “nerds have had kids”. Comics have emerged as a new medium in which parents can grow and connect with their families, a new way to teach morals and ethics, and a new way to showcase that differences are okay. “No one has told them to outgrow them,” he passionately explained, citing comic authors Frank Miller and Alan Moore as influential writers of the 1980s who changed the simple Superhero storylines previously told in comics. Mr Karatovic explains that adult comic readers simply “want to share with our kids what we enjoyed as kids”.

In fact, it was that connection that led Dr Patrick O’Conner to the transformative power of comics. He began comic book therapy and incorporating geek culture into his sessions in 2010 while working with kids in foster care. He recalls in an interview to The Daily Beast earlier this year a particular moment that encouraged him to continue comic book therapy even further, “we had a person who came up to us and said ‘I have Crohn’s disease and comic books have been the one consistent part that has been there for me. When I am at my worst, comic books helped me to return to my best. Hearing that there are therapists out there doing stuff like this is just incredible,’” To people struggling with physical or mental illness, comic characters are more than simply entertainment. They have become a way to understand and analyse our deepest, darkest fears.

Help you help yourself

The common recurring themes in comics like “facing fear,” “losing a loved one” or “being different” allow us to explore our own insecurities by finding characters we can understand and empathise with. Mr Karatovic explains that “origin stories, there relatable to the modern day and I guess there relatable to someone with social anxiety at the same time. Superman starts of as a person with a lot of social issues, and as a result they can relate to that.” Former UWS Geek Group member, Luke Monaghan, believes this empathy helped him get through some darker days learning from Spiderman’s storylines, “he’s just this guy who always has the worst luck, and I identified with that”. By identifying with these characters, he was able to fight for what he thought was important, inspired by heroes fighting for their loved ones and beliefs.

Cailey Monaghan met her now husband Luke through UWS Geek Group, but not before having to come to terms with her own insecurities. Identifying with Marvel’s Rogue, Cailey grew up for many years unsure of where she belonged, and Rogue helped her figure it out. “She’s strong, and goes through all this stuff…I had strong abandonment fears as a child and I had to deal with that.” Cailey also reminisces on the support the comic book culture offered her, allowing outcasts to find like-minded people to bring together. Without that inclusive community, she never would have met the love of her life.  “One of the first things that made me interested in him as a person, was his huge leather bound X-Man encyclopedia…There was this handsome guy that liked what I liked…I was nervous to say what I liked, but it’s just not like that. In my experience I’ve been really accepted”.


From Superman struggling with Clark Kent’s love life, to a newly pregnant and confused young adult in Most Fruitful Yuki, the sheer quantity of comic books characters available today mean that there is someone relatable for almost anyone who is suffering anxiety, depression or an identity crisis.

Help others who need help

Store Manager of Ace Comics and Games in Brisbane CBD, Elizabeth Franchina, illuminates how comic books help people who unknowingly need it most. “I would say a lot of comic book readers that actually come in here, like twenty percent, twenty-five percent have autism and then I would say there’s probably five to ten percent that are gender variant.” Miss Franchina believes the success of Free Comic Book Day, Comic Con and the surge in growth of comic books worldwide is due to the underlying nature of comic book stories to be about inclusion and acceptance and that “stuff is more broad, more easily opened, has themes in it that more people can address”, ultimately allowing people to start a conversation they normally wouldn’t know where to begin.

Mr Karatovic agrees, citing his reasons for beginning UWS Geek Group. “Whether you are white, a girl, queer – it’s just a part of you. That doesn’t matter. We have passionate arguments about stuff in the grand scheme of things don’t matter. Like, ‘would you have sex with your own clone?’ Do you need a place to meet friends, then Geek Group is the place to go.” Mr Karatovic, Cailey and Luke all agreed the group allowed them to learn about each other’s differences and become more culturally aware. Acceptance is learned through comics. And, surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people would have sex with their clone (I had to ask) – but then is that considered masturbation?

Help society as a whole

Mr Karatovic believes comic books make you a better person, and that’s reason enough to encourage people to pick up an issue any day. “The reason why we’re seeing such a great influx of racial, gender and queer representation in comics is that when they were younger they read comics that said ‘everyone belongs here’ and it’s our responsibility to protect everyone’s right to be here. That’s how comics helped me to become a better person so I could help everyone else join the fun”. The fun is evidently contagious, as shown through the tremendous growth in members of the UWS Geek Group, and the sales figures of the comic industry worldwide.

“A lot of different people are being represented and they want to be represented…it lets them know they are not alone”, explains Luke as he reiterates just how influential comics have been in his life journey for finding acceptance and happiness. Cailey sees this as only having a ripple effect in the future as more fringe groups find acceptance and inclusion, “people that are in subcultures – like Lolita – are all represented…It’s an amazing experience we can’t have any day, and people want that”. We’re all aware of the ability for pop culture to make you laugh, and to make you cry. The use comic books and superheroes as a legitimate psychological treatment is being kept alive by a small group of therapists.

You never know, picking up your next comic book might make you discover what you really want to do in life, come to terms with an unexpected tragedy or even meet the love of your life.

TLDR; read more comic books.


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