Written by Glen Weldon
Audiobook read by Glen Weldon
Published by Simon and Schuster on March 22nd 2016
Genres: Social Science, Popular Culture, Media Studies
A witty, intelligent cultural history from NPR book critic Glen Weldon explains Batman’s rises and falls throughout the ages—and what his story tells us about ourselves.
Since his creation, Batman has been many things: a two-fisted detective; a planet-hopping gadabout; a campy Pop-art sensation; a pointy-eared master spy; and a grim and gritty ninja of the urban night. For more than three quarters of a century, he has cycled from a figure of darkness to one of lightness and back again; he’s a bat-shaped Rorschach inkblot who takes on the various meanings our changing culture projects onto him. How we perceive Batman’s character, whether he’s delivering dire threats in a raspy Christian Bale growl or trading blithely homoerotic double-entendres with partner Robin on the comics page, speaks to who we are and how we wish to be seen by the world. It’s this endlessly mutable quality that has made him so enduring.
And it’s Batman’s fundamental nerdiness—his gadgets, his obsession, his oath, even his lack of superpowers—that uniquely resonates with his fans who feel a fiercely protective love for the character. Today, fueled by the internet, that breed of passion for elements of popular culture is everywhere. Which is what makes Batman the perfect lens through which to understand geek culture, its current popularity, and social significance.
In The Caped Crusade, with humor and insight, Glen Weldon, book critic for NPR and author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, lays out Batman’s seventy-eight-year cultural history and shows how he has helped make us who we are today and why his legacy remains so strong.
THE CAPED CRUSADE: Book Thoughts
I have been a listener to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast for years, and have been following the progress of PCHH panelist Glen Weldon on the book he was writing about Batman, although I wasn’t absolutely certain that I’d read it. I have yet to read his first book, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, and my feelings about Batman as a superhero character are rather ambivalent.
Weldon’s Batman book, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, was published in March. Several weeks before its release, Weldon mentioned that he was in the process of recording the audiobook version–and at that point, I was sure I’d read it, because I’d have him read it to me.
I’m of the generation that was first exposed to Batman by the mid-1960s TV series, which I regularly watched in after-school reruns. It was colorful and campy and fun, and it’s sometimes been tough to reconcile its version of the character with the darker, grimmer representation that has superseded it in the decades since. Mid-20th-century comics were primarily written for and marketed to kids, and that kept the brakes on some of their darker inclinations. As Weldon follows Batman from his first appearances in Detective Comics and through the rise of 60s “Bat-Mania,” it becomes clear that the TV show’s depiction of Batman really wasn’t all that far off from where he’d gone in the comics up to that point…like it or not.
And many long-time Batman fans emphatically did not like it. They took Batman seriously, and they wanted to see him in media that did the same. The show’s cancellation and Batman’s return to full-time comic-book residency in the early 1970s coincided with a shift in comics themselves; they became much less kid-friendly. The more mature perspective allowed writers to give Batman fans what they wanted, and this more complicated, complex rendition of the character evolved into the “Dark Knight” that the movies have given us for a decade.
Batman may have gained stature in recent years, but it seems to have been at the expense of a sense of fun. That’s a central theme in Weldon’s exploration of the development of nerd culture: it’s a mindset often defined by intense seriousness about things that are not innately serious at all. Nerds are not necessarily defined by what they love, but by how they love it. This can make them very protective of what they love, strict about how to engage and interact with it, and sensitive to perceptions of its being slighted.
When Weldon divides the pop-culture audience into “nerds” and “normals,” it’s clear which camp he belongs to–but he’s a nerd with perspective, and he’s effective at bridging the gap with the normals.
I like to think I’m a nerd with perspective too. The Caped Crusade didn’t really change my feelings about Batman–honestly, he’ll never be my favorite, but now I do want to watch Batman: The Animated Series. Batman does provide a very useful lens through which to filter the development of modern nerd culture and its ever-deeper encroachment into popular culture at large, however. Weldon offers some smart insights about his larger topic along with informative discussion about the comics industry, and as I expected, I enjoyed his reading of the audiobook as much as a dozen episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
“The very first thing Batman does—and he does it right up at the tippy-top of page 3 of his very first adventure in Detective Comics #27, which was dated May 1939 but actually hit newsstands in late March—is strike a pose.
“Even then, as he was first set loose upon the four-color world, striking poses was already his thing.
“He stands on a rooftop, behind two burglars. The text floating in the night sky above him offers a luridly gleeful introduction that could have been lifted straight from pulp magazines of the day: ‘As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure standing behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’
“Indeed it is. Instantly recognizable as Batman to our modern eyes, if we allow for nearly a century of iconographic shift, he glowers at the thugs with his feet shoulder-width apart, arms folded across his chest. Despite what those words over his head would have us believe, his carriage does not quite rise to the level of menacing as much as it lends him an air of snitty impatience. He seems a stern and gravely disappointed dad. Standing on a roof. In a Dracula getup.”