Caped Crusade" by Glen Weldon; Simon & Schuster
(325 pages, $26)
has been a lot of things during the past 77 years: A
gun-toting vigilante, an object of panic at the height
of American homophobia, a campy ’60s television icon,
a grumbly middle-aged antihero and a mass media star.
through all of these iterations, what has given Batman
his longevity? The answer lies in the pages of "The
Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture"
by Glen Weldon, a sharp, deeply knowledgeable and often
funny look at the cultural history of Batman and his
Weldon writes, Batman’s longevity has less to do with
"relatability" and more to do with the oath a
young Bruce Wayne makes to spend the rest of his life
"warring on all criminals" after witnessing
the murder of his parents: "(F)or all the character’s
vaunted darkness, he is now and has always been a
creature not of rage but of hope," Weldon writes.
"He believes himself to be an agent of change; he
is the living embodiment of the simple, implacably
optimistic notion Never again."
an NPR critic and the author of "Superman: The
Unauthorized Biography," offers readers a tour
through the annals of Bat-history — his origins as a
ripoff of the Shadow, other kid sidekicks at the time of
Dick Grayson/Robin’s debut, "The Dark Knight
Returns," the death of second Robin Jason Todd (in
1988, Weldon phoned in his vote to kill off "the
insolent punk" when DC put the character’s fate
in the hands of readers) — as well as adaptations in
mass media, including the 1940s movie serials, 1960s TV
series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, Emmy-winning
cartoons, video games and memes.
such a rich history, Weldon centers on Batman in
particular and not on the character’s extended
universe. You won’t find a deep exegesis on the likes
of Joker, Catwoman or Two-Face, but, like Bruce Wayne’s
decision to don a cape and cowl, that’s by choice.
is more interested in cultural reactions to Batman, such
as "the gay stuff," as he jokingly calls it.
The 1940s and ’50s saw increased scrutiny of comic
books during a "fervid species of paranoia that …
effectively conflated Communism, juvenile delinquency,
and homosexuality." The 1953 Kefauver subcommittee
hearings and psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s
"Seduction of the Innocent," which in part
argued Batman stories offered a "subtle atmosphere
of homoeroticism," added to that paranoia.
is even-handed when it comes to analyzing Wertham’s
dubious research, pointing out Wertham’s manipulation
of data to suit his agenda, but also jokes that
"The guy had a point" about panels depicting
the Dynamic Duo in bed together or lying naked on
even-handedness leads to an interesting discussion of
what is and isn’t subtext. Weldon argues Batman, while
never intended by creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger to
be anything but heterosexual, is a character who comes
"factory preinstalled with rich and varied ideas
— ideas in which gay men historically find
affinities." More to it, "Batman is an
inkblot; we see in him what we want to see — even if
we aren’t ready to admit it to ourselves."
"gay panic" that engulfed the ’50s resumed
in the 1990s when director Joel Schumacher put rubber
nipples on the Batsuit in "Batman Forever"
(1995) and "Batman & Robin" (1997).
Schumacher, under pressure from Warner Bros. to lighten
the film franchise, intended the gag to be cheap laughs
for gay men and straight women, Weldon writes, but that
didn’t stop fan outrage and the creation of websites
such as "Bring Me the Head of Joel
rough treatment, however, doesn’t compare to the
treatment some critics received in 2012 for writing a
negative review of Christopher Nolan’s "The Dark
Knight Rises," the final film in his acclaimed
trilogy starring Christian Bale. "Be prepared to
have a bomb stuck up your a —— " and "You’re
a stupid f —— b—— and I hope you die" were
just two comments critics received. And that wasn’t
all: Within six hours of the film’s first review being
posted on Rotten Tomatoes, some 460 comments from
outraged fans criticized the criticism — all without
seeing the film themselves.
fan culture got to this point is more complicated than
just the growing accessibility of the Internet. Weldon
argues the changes in fan culture came from belated
mainstream acceptance — only to see their hero become
a villain. Nolan’s trilogy delivered hardcore fans the
films they longed for and the acceptance they craved:
didn’t have to feel self-conscious about reading comic
books or watching a children’s animated series, and
the love they felt for Batman was shared by billions of
people around the world, people who took him — and by
extension, them — seriously… Now, at last, Batman
was a thing they could talk about publicly, proudly,
with anyone. He was lingua franca. He was sports.
a fascinating take, and one that makes "The Caped
Crusade" both a page-turner and a Riddler Trophy
because, as Weldon writes, "We read books, but we
feeling is a big part of Batman’s fandom.
is the story every one of us, nerd and normal alike,
tells ourselves when things seem at their worst,"
Weldon writes. "The story of someone dealt a
savage, crushing blow that should wring the life from
them but doesn’t. Because they choose not to let it…
Instead, they resolve to go on. To stand up. To
Caped Crusade" is a great read for those who are
proud Gothamites, those less initiated, and those who
flip the switch on the Bat-Signal in order to find