Title: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture
Author: Glen Weldon (Twitter)
Rating: Highly Recommended
Genre/Category: Nonfiction, Batman, Comic Book
Release Date: March 22, 2016
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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Note: This review was originally written for a graduate level course I took last semester where we had to write a review for a scholarly book that was related to our thesis. As this book actually inspired my current thesis project (about queer readings of a queer-coded Joker and the role that homophobia plays in these readings), I couldn’t pass up on the chance to review this book.
A regular panelist on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Glen Weldon is probably the best author that could have ever been drafted to write a book about how Batman’s creation shaped the development of nerd culture and fandom as it exists right now.
His book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture seeks to put Batman into a certain cultural context, looking at the way that the character’s history has shaped generations of fans, comic and film creators, and the fans that would grow up to become these creators. Weldon looks at how, over the course of the past seventy-seven years, Batman and nerd culture have participated in certain cycles that alternated between “camp and cheery” and “grim-dark and gritty”.
In The Caped Crusade, Weldon approaches the heterocentric canon of Batman’s various texts through a perspective that only a gay man can bring to the table. In his close queer reading of Batman’s history, canon text throughout the decades, and the fan community (or fandom) that sprawled up around him, Weldon looks at how queerphobia shaped Batman’s trajectory and inspired hundreds of thousands of fans to eschew the very idea of a queer Batman while queer fans clung to the potential opened up for them by the subtext embedded within the character.
Weldon introduces his book by introducing his readers to Batman and the idea that the character exists outside of a single image. Weldon argues that, Batman’s “limitless capacity for interpretation” (1) is what sets him apart from his fellow superheroes. Audiences, even those who have never consumed a Batman comic or watched a cartoon episode, can connect what Weldon refers to as “Christian Bale’s Kevlar-suited, mouth-breathing Batman,” (1) to the same character that joined up with Scooby Doo to solve mysteries in the seventies.
In addition to the way that the character is almost always immediately recognizable to his audience, Weldon also points out that there is no single idea of the Batman. After all, when seventy-plus years of comic books are considered canon at any given moment as long as core signifiers are present, it’s quite difficult to decide that there’s such a thing as a one “true” Batman.
In his introduction, Weldon also begins to set up a core aspect of “The Caped Crusade,” something that he refers to as a “recursive pattern” (1) “where every thirty years or so Batman cycles from dark to light and back again” (1). This pattern is heralded by so-called fans of the character reacting negatively – and sometimes, violently – to any change that didn’t end in “the darkest, grimmest, most hypermasculine version of the character imaginable” (2). Additionally, Weldon supposes that the patterns visible in Batman’s long history in fact lend towards his longevity. That and his “relatability” (2).
Weldon also points out that the idea of Batman as a “relatable character” drives his popularity (3). Despite the fact that Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne is worth billions of dollars and comes wrapped in privilege stemming from the way that his whiteness, his maleness, and his richness combine, comic book fans a world over seem to related to Batman because they don’t see those things as a superpower.
Weldon is one of the few comic historians to actually point to the ways that Bruce Wayne’s privilege makes him appeal to a straight, white, and male audience, something that makes The Caped Crusade stand out amidst its denser peers (3).
Weldon’s first chapter “Origin and Growing Pains (1939 – 1949)” looks at the birth of the Batman and the comic book culture that sprang up in the early “Golden Age” of comics between 1939 and 1949. Weldon starts by looking at the men who made Batman possible: artist Bob Kane, who claimed almost exclusive credit over Batman’s creation for much of his life, and writer Bill Finger, the man actually responsible for the character that comic book fans came to love (18).
As The Caped Crusade centers specifically on Batman’s creation and the evolution of the character, Weldon goes where few other comic historians have gone before: looking at how Kane’s claims of creation aren’t the entire truth as he deconstructs the Batman’s origins and just how much the character owes to other, pre-existing characters.
In Weldon’s second chapter “Panic and Aftermath (1948-1964)”, Weldon looks at one of the very first blows to Batman’s character and characterization: the writings of Dr. Fredric Wertham whose seminal work “Seduction of the Innocent” changed the landscape of comic book history and culture (46). This chapter takes a different approach to Wertham’s homophobia, using his description of Batman and Robin’s relationship – queered due to out-of-context panels – in order to talk about how queer comic book fans have always looked for subtext that they took on in the place of representation (52).
Other comic book historians (from Bradford W. Wright in Comic Book Nation to 2013’s Superheroes!) focused more on how Wertham’s crusade against comics shifted the shape of the industry than on how Wertham’s methods of farming out-of-context panels for subtext influenced not only queerphobia against characters like Batman and Robin and mocking centered on their relationship, but how, in the future many queer fans would mimic his process in order to facilitate queer readings of the aforementioned characters for decades to come (53).
Weldon’s next chapters (“Same Bat-Time… (1965-1989)”, “Back to the Shadows (1969-1985)”, and ” Bat-Noir (1986-1988)”) provide a look at the pattern mentioned in the introduction of his book.
These two chapters look at how the creation of the “campy” 1960s Batman television show inspired anger from fans who though that the character should return to his original grim and gritty roots. Weldon supplements his writing with anecdotes (including one from former DC Comics’ writer Chuck Dixon about punching a classmate as a child over the show) that demonstrated the way that the rise of fandom was also connected to the rise of nerd rage and entitlement (72).
Again, Weldon is one of the few comic historians to directly connect the shift from the Silver and Bronze Ages of the comics industry to a metaphorical “Dark Age” with the rise of fans-turned-creators that got jobs in the industry and then eventually crashed the comic industry. Weldon writes that, “The decision to turn inward and cater to the tastes of the adult nerd had gained the comics industry abiding fan fealty but had lost them any access to the wider world (130).
In these chapters, Weldon looks at the industry environment that heralded the rise of three of comics’ most famous writers in the time period: Frank Millar, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore.
These three men, considered geniuses by most of their peers as well as fans of their work, were responsible for a major shift towards seeing Batman as a “god of vengeance” (131). Their point of views came alongside a mentality that the audience – who Frank Miller believed consisted of “children, and adults who like childlike entertainment” (131) – needed to change.
By the end of this part of the cycle, works like Miller’s futuristic The Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s The Killing Joke had changed the face of the industry into one where female sexual assault and casual, senseless violence were doled out as crumbs to flesh out male heroes’ backstories (144). Weldon actually writes that, “these books would inspire a wave of imitators who ushered the superhero genre into a cheerless era of “grim and gritty” tales that substitute extreme, nihilistic violence and dourness of mood for storytelling” (145).
One such “grim and gritty” tale that Weldon references is DC Comics’ decision to kill off Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd, after getting the results from a phone survey. Weldon points out that the publisher literally took that approach after editor Denny O’Neil watched a Saturday Night Live skit that did the same thing – albeit with lobsters rather than a fictional teenager (148).
In his next two chapters (“The Goth of Gotham (1989-1996)” and “The Caped Crusade (1992-2003)”), Weldon looks at Batman’s return to the screen — with the successful Tim Burton films, Joel Schumacher’s anger-inspiring Batman and Robin, and eternal hit Batman: The Animated Series.
What stands out in these chapters is Weldon’s analysis of the animated Batman series of the early nineties brought children back into the fold as Batman fans (188).
For the first time in decades, children were once again the target audience for Batman. Weldon points out that it wasn’t that the series was childlike – he writes that the show’s Batman, “stepped in and out of the shadows like an apparition, and—when he wanted to—looked convincingly terrifying” (183).
As a person that grew up with the Batman animated series fueling their interest in superheroes, reading Weldon’s analysis of everything from the series’ imposing opening (184) to the series’ shifting relationship notes as it went on (184), provided me with a closer look at a series that shaped my academic and professional interests. These chapters also look at the way that the comics themselves were changing in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience and introduces readers to a novel aspect of the comic book industry: the multi-series crossover (171).
In “Trilogy of Terror (2005 – 2012)”,Weldon talks about Christopher Nolan’s award-winning Batman trilogy and the way that a new type of fandom – one fueled by the internet – rose up around the franchise. For many people who call themselves “casual” fans of Batman, the Nolan trilogy is the most significant and recent experience that they have with the character and for these fans, it was their first foray into fandom.
This chapter is the first to reference the way that marginalized fans of comics – queer and/or female fans of Batman in particular who had been ignored by mainstream fandom – took an entirely new approach to the character.
Yes, Weldon brings up how internet fandom increased the rise of fan-created fiction. Different from the fanzines of the Seventies, fan fiction provided a new way for queer and/or female fans of comics to develop what Weldon calls “an ongoing interactive dialogue with beloved fictional characters” (231). Weldon’s inclusion of an oft-ignored aspect of fandom – especially the comic book fandom – is yet another aspect of the book that raises it up another level.
The Caped Crusade’s final chapter “The Unified Theory (2004 – )” serves as a glimpse of the future of Batman as a character and as a comic book franchise. In this chapter, Weldon shares comic book facts and features from the past decade with a major focus falling on the way that the industry now looks nothing like it did in the past.
He ends the book by focusing on the way that with the start of DC Comics’ New 52 soft-reboot in 2011, we have returned to the start of the cycle, restarting Batman’s canon and opening it with a “grim and gritty” Batman for the 21st century (273).
However, Weldon immediately notes a difference between Morrison and Moore’s Batman and the character that was (at the time of publication) being penned by Scott Snyder: how Batman handles being backed into a wall (274).
Of this new Batman, Weldon writes that, Snyder showed us “a Batman who had known actual defeat and who in his darkest moment surrendered to hopelessness. Thus his Batman added a new symbolic resonance to the character’s emotional utility belt—beyond the willfulness of O’Neil, the rage of Miller, and the livid insecurity of Meltzer” (275). Snyder, at least in his work at the time of publication, put a depth into Batman the Character that he had been lacking for decades.
Weldon’s The Caped Crusade is one of the most inclusive and concise superhero “biographies” published within recent years. Additionally, Weldon brings a point of view to comic book history that is often ignored, focusing on multiple aspects of fandom as well as the positive and negative effects of fandom on canon. Within the book, Weldon’s insightful analysis of comic book culture, history, and canon through a lens colored by his experiences as a gay comic book fan are necessary and breathe life into this work of nonfiction.
Other books on Batman look at what the character has done in his many solo and team books, but they don’t necessarily look at what the character has done to change not only the industry, but all of the fans who see a man dressed up as a bat and feel a sense of camaraderie with him because of that.