Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins
Everybody knows Batman. We just don’t all know the same Batman. He’s weathered quite a few changes in the past 78 years. In The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture (Simon & Schuster, 2016; paperback March 2017), Weldon makes it clear that they are all Batman, who survive due to the fierce grip of a group of outsiders. Like Batman himself.
Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane created Batman. In May of 1939, Detective Comics issue #27 introduced Batman on the cover, swooping over the city holding a flailing criminal around the neck. He’s the dark, violent, vengeful antithesis of Superman; it was the end of the depression, life was grim, and Batman knew it. His origin story cemented him in our souls by issue #33. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, witnessed the brutal murder of his parents in a dark alley as a young child and vowed, “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” He grows up to follow this noble quest endlessly. This is where we identify with the winged creature, for he is human and possesses no superpowers. We believe we could actually grow up to be Batman.
Weldon charts the rise of Batman through the years and the subsequent signs of the times. Different iterations of the caped crusader balloon and morph throughout the decades. He transforms from his post-depression savage tendencies to a Bif! Kapow! Adam West 60s swinger dancing, the Batusi. He morphs again into a rugged nearly wordless avenger during the Dirty Harry years, then a glitzy, campy skyscraper socialite in the 90s. Weldon moves the book along at a good clip and with humor. In a Village Voice article titled, “Is Batman a Fascist?” the footnote below reads, “The author’s unequivocal answer: yep.”
The nerd culture adopted Batman as their own almost immediately. Weldon himself professes to belong in this group. Outsiders known as geeks, dorks, and a host of other complimentary names are largely responsible not only for the changes in his character but for his enduring legacy. Batman began as an orphan sworn to avenge murderers using only his wits. This is something anyone who has played countless hours of Dungeons and Dragons can relate to. The nerds rose to his defense when he appeared foppish in the initial live action television program — you did not laugh at Batman! Weldon details the letter writing campaigns which were fast and furious, letting DC editors know they’d done him wrong. He was soon taken out of the Bat Cave, installed in a skyscraper, and returned to his brooding ruthlessness. The nerds were happy.
Two things converged to further protect Batman’s legacy; nerds grew up and embraced the internet. Gone were the scrawny kids stuffed in lockers, replaced with geniuses running software companies. With the swell of anonymous comments and chat rooms, nerds would be heard. They defend their hero each time Hollywood or DC makes a mockery of him. Nerds also love comic conventions, and have more disposable income for the collectibles that now make up a considerable sum of the Batman fortune. This push-pull between the nerds and the normals, as Weldon refers to people who have not gone to the dark side of the net, continues. Normals go to movies and enjoy entertainment with popcorn. Nerds immerse themselves in the character’s life and claim a kinship with him and his outsider status. “That is not my Batman” has been uttered more than once after a disappointing screening.
Weldon believes that we have recently reached a place where the nerds and normals have achieved a peaceful coexistence. Christopher Nolan’s films are dark enough to reflect the true Batman’s tortured soul, still yearning to vanquish evil, while retaining enough action and superior acting to hold the attention of the normals. Yet a happy place is not Batman’s legacy. He’s here to rid the world of evil, to which there is no end. And, as Robin would say, “Holy alter ego, Batman!” Hang onto your merchandising as The Lego Batman Movie hits screens in February voiced by Will Arnett.
Weldon’s book is an exemplary history of Batman. He knows his subject intimately and writes about him with gusto. He provides interesting details, dates, and storylines as he tells the tale of Batman chronologically. Weldon follows the effects of the nerd culture as assiduously as he does the Dark Knight’s story. He insinuates his respect for Batman through the pages. If you liked Batman before, you’re going to love him now. And if he’s not your favorite superhero (and why not?) the research into the motives, fiends, creators, and characters is as rich and full as any biography of a living person. To many people, Batman is human, but better, because he is within all of us.