You can’t go anywhere on the internet without running into Batman somewhere. How did the caped crusader go from the original comic books to pop culture icon? That’s the focus of Glen Weldon’s new book, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.
There’s a whole bunch of books about the history of comics, from dedicated books about each hero, to more general surveys, such as Gerald Jones’ fantastic Men of Tomorrow: Geeks Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. (If you like comics at all, you should seriously pick that one up.) Weldon’s book is a fantastic book, one that examines not only the character’s publication history, but how fans reacted over time.
(You can read the first chapter of the book here.)
There’s an interesting part at the beginning of the book that really caught my eyes and got me thinking:
So there you have Batman: a crude, four colour slumguillion of borrowed ideas and stolen art. And yet there was something new, legitimately so, in the precise proportions of those ideas and images found in the stories of Finger, Fox, Kane and Moldoff were grinding out. (pg 28)
Batman comes from a whole bunch of sources, and the question of how such an amalgamation of parts broke out of the pack – because just about every other pulp hero out there was doing the same thing – really drives Weldon as he traces Batman’s history over the course of the 20th Century.
We follow along as Batman goes from pulp comic hero to a more light-hearted affair along with Robin, and back again by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Weldon looks broadly at the history behind the television show and how it went back and forth with the comics, sometimes contributing, sometimes borrowing, to the larger Batman mythos.
Illustration: Adam Clark Estes
What struck me the most about this book was Weldon’s deep dive into fandom, and how fans helped drive the course of the Dark Knight. The hardcore Batman fans hated the Adam West CBS show, and helped steer the character into darker territory. As sales slipped for the character after the show was cancelled, the creators decided to change direction.
I’d heard stories over the years of how Batman fans railed against the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne / Batman, and Weldon helps to provide context for this outcry, and the others along with it as the character was adapted time and time again, all the way up to the modern day. We don’t quite go up to the present – Ben Affleck’s depiction can’t be included, for obvious reasons, but we do get a bit of a look at Christian Bale’s depictions of the character.
I studied history and write about this particular brand of geek backstory, and Weldon has produced a really interesting and useful book for any Batman fan. But studying this as a serious historical topic is useful, because in this internet age, it’s all too easy to overlook just how these characters go from cult hero to title character in the latest blockbuster.
Indeed, studying this is even more important, given Hollywood’s reliance on existing properties, such as comic book titles, science fiction novels and films rebooted for the modern audience. Understanding how these characters have evolved helps us to understand what works with each, and understanding just what works helps to make the story all the more better.
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture is now available in stores.