‘The Caped Crusade’ details the cultural history of Batman

April 4, 2015

"The Caped Crusade" by Glen Weldon; Simon & Schuster (325 pages, $26)


Batman 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.

But 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 fandom.

As 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."

Weldon, 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.

With 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.

Weldon 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.

Weldon 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 tanning beds.

That 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."

The "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 Schumacher."

Schumacher’s 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.

How 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:

(Fans) 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.

It’s 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 feel comics."

And feeling is a big part of Batman’s fandom.

"Batman 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 fight."

"The 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 themselves.



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services