the caped crusade

Last week, I released my advanced review for THE CAPED CRUSADER: BATMAN AND THE RISE OF NERD CULTURE by Glen Weldon. The book, out now from Simon & Schuster, takes an in-depth look at how the history of Batman goes hand-in-hand with the history of nerd culture in America. Weldon, author of SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY, is well-versed in his Batman knowledge and his storytelling abilities kept me engaged and wanting to know more. I had questions, about Batman of course, and luckily, Weldon had the time to answer a few of them in an exclusive ComicsVerse interview.

READ: Curious about the book? Check out our advanced review of THE CAPED CRUSADER: BATMAN AND THE RISE OF NERD CULTURE!

ComicsVerse: Before THE CAPED CRUSADER, you had previously written another book called SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY. Why did you feel the natural follow up to writing about Superman would be to write about Batman?

Superman THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY COVER

Glen: I went into this book thinking it’d be easier to write than it turned out to be. I mean, I’d done a cultural history of an iconic hero already, and I’d come away from that experience believing that Superman acts as a mirror to American society–albeit a very flattering one: he’s the us we want to see reflected back. He’s immensely strong, but he uses his power with restraint, he always looks out for the little guy, etc. I figured, as many have before me, that it’s simple: If Superman’s the day, Batman’s the night. If Superman is a flattering mirror, Batman is a dark one, who shows us the aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of–our rage, our feelings of abandonment, our need to get back at the bully who stole our lunch money.

But as I got into it, and I talked to a lot of very smart nerds, I came to realize that the stuff you pick up on when you first glance at Batman–the darkness, the anger, the violence–is only a cursory, adolescent understanding of who he is. If you only see the laconic badass, you’re concentrating on the outer trappings, not what drives him. He’s a lot more like Superman than many realize.

READ: All this Bat talk make you curious? Check out our essential reading of BATMAN!

CV: In THE CAPED CRUSADER, you not only recount the history of Batman but nerd culture as well. What about nerd culture drew you to telling its history along with Batman and not Superman?

Glen: I argue in the book that several disparate cultural threads came together at a very important time to make Batman uniquely resonate with his readers in a way that no other hero ever has or will. It struck me that this powerfully deep affinity made Batman a particularly useful lens through which to examine whatever the hell this thing is that we’ve decided, at some point, to call nerd culture. In the 60s, Marvel realized that comics’ readership was growing older. Teens and adults now made up the core fanbase, so they created heroes who embodied the world as adolescents saw it: wracked with pubertal feelings of alienation, guilt, rage, inadequacy, etc. The industry began to abandon the audience of young children and catered instead to these older readers, who loved Byzantine backstories and heroes with distinctive personalities–and personality clashes. I call this the Great Inward Turn, when superheroes left the grocery store spinner racks to Archie and Casper and Uncle Scrooge.

At exactly the same time this was happening, the creators of Batman comics were trying to figure out where to go now that the Adam West/Burt Ward show was over, and the international cultural phenomenon of POW! ZAP! Batmania had fizzled. So Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created a Batman who represented a visceral repudiation of Adam West’s bluff buffoonish Caped Crusader.  Their Batman was mysterious, grim, laconic, ludicrously good at everything he touched, and sexy. Most importantly, he was obsessed. O’Neil went back to Batman’s origin to look for something he could use to set him apart, to give him the kind of distinctive personality that readers now demanded. He found it in the childhood oath young Bruce had sworn in DETECTIVE COMICS #33 back in 1939–and O’Neil doubled down on it.

He resolved that that oath would no longer be a mere plot point, a box to be hurriedly checked in the narrative rush to get the guy into the Batsuit. It had to become everything Batman is, his fixation. His obsession. Now, the fans who read comics knew a little something about obsession themselves. They bagged and boarded their comics, and carefully cataloged them. They’d gather at cons or in the pages of fanzines to argue with one another over the tiniest iota of Legion canon. They looked at the O’Neil/Adams Batman and saw an obsessed loner who was great with gadgets but not so great with people. They saw themselves.

dennis o'neil and neal adams Batman

 

CV: The early chapters of the book reveal that Bob Kane and Bill Finger drew from early stories of the Shadow to create Batman. In your opinion, why do you believe that Batman has flourished with time and The Shadow has struggled to remain relevant?

Glen: One word: Robin.

The addition of Robin the Boy Wonder instantly set Batman apart from the crowded field of Shadow-ripoffs back then. (Dude wasn’t even the only bat-themed Shadow-ripoff.) It lightened the tone, which was important, as Bruce had gotten into the habit of offing his foes at story’s end; his publisher worried that parents groups might come sniffing around unless something was done. It also gave Batman’s Sherlock a pixie-booted Watson to explain things to. And it upped the stakes: now Batman had someone he cared about, which meant that all Finger had to do to inject a bit of narrative tension was have the kid kidnapped. Again, still, some more.

As for The Shadow, keep in mind that he was primarily a creature of the radio airwaves–his theme song, his catchphrase, his whole schtick was ideally suited to that medium in the way that Batman’s visual iconography was ideally suited to the comic’s page.

Jim Lee All Star Batman and Robin

CV: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s BATMAN run took a turn last year that left Bruce Wayne dead and Jim Gordon taking up the cowl of Batman. Grant Morrison told a similar story in the mid-2000s with the original Robin, Dick Grayson, becoming the Bat. Without the obsession of waging war on crime, are these characters truly Batman? Why are stories like this important to the mythos?

Glen: They’re vital to the mythos–and to the medium. Superhero comics are soap operas, essentially: they deny their characters the ability to go through true narrative arcs, where they grow and change and emerge from an experience a wholly different person than they were. Superheroes, in comics, get adventures, not storie–because the thing that makes a story a story is the thing that no corporate-owned, heavily licensed nugget of intellectual property is permitted to have: an ending. (Elseworlds/DKR notwithstanding). Instead, we get endless iteration.

Now, to nerds like me, that’s a feature, not a bug. We LOVE seeing how these characters work within their strict genre confines. And letting other characters assume to role of Batman mixes things up–and serves to bring what we love about Bruce’s Batman into sharper relief.

(And no, without the obsession that defines him, no one–not Dick, not Gordon, not Azrael, no one–is truly Batman. But that’s okay. This is comics. Wait a year; he’ll be back.)

Batman Superheavy Jim Gordon

CV: One of the most interesting things I found in THE CAPED CRUSADER was the dedication to Bill Finger and the negative tone used when talking about Bob Kane. It’s clear that you believe Finger deserves credits on creating Batman, but in your opinion, is he more important than Kane?

Glen: Every time it would occur to me that I was taking too many potshots at Kane I’d go online and read the guy’s tombstone, which is a paean to his own amazing feat of creativity and insight and how he was touched by God and … see, Matthew, even now just the thought of it is angering up the blood. Look: if dedicating the book to Finger and highlighting his singular contributions and central importance can, even in some tiny way, defray even one iota of the credit and attention Kane disingenuously claimed for himself over decades in a systematic attempting to erase Finger from history, then I’m happy to do it.

LISTEN: Want to learn more about the current Batman run? Listen to our latest podcast on Scott Snyder’s BATMAN!

CV: The main theme of the book was that Batman is an inkblot, people see what they want to see when they look at him. When you look at Batman, what do you see?

Glen: I see someone for whom being Batman is NOT an act of vengeance or rage, but one of self-rescue, and ultimately, hope. Something terrible happened to him, and he resolves to take that act and transform it, dedicating himself to an implacably optimistic notion: “Never Again. What happened to me will not happen to others. I will personally make sure of it.”

It’s nothing so selfish as revenge. Instead it’s a profoundly unselfish act that opens out, that embraces the entire world, not just the mugger who set him down this path. It’s not a vendetta–it’s a crusade. It all goes back to that oath he swore as a child, which is, on its face, a childish one. Soaringly unrealistic. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is how it motivates him to make himself of use to others. That’s what I mean: beneath all that dour, badass, hyper-machismo fanboys prize, he evinces a species of hope, albeit a Sisyphean one. Because he’s consigning himself to eternal struggle–to a never-ending battle. That selflessness is what he has in common with Superman, and it’s what makes him a hero.

READ: Interested in more Batman? Check out our review of the 50th issue of DETECTIVE COMICS!

CV: Throughout the book, you acknowledge your adoration for the 1966 Batman television series as well as a lot of comic book fans’ hatred for the series. With the films and television series bringing so much attention to the character and more money to Warner Brothers, do you think Batman’s history on screen is more important to the character than the comics?

Glen: It’s a numbers game, ultimately. The comics are read by hundreds of thousands of hardcore fans, the movies and TV shows are seen by billions of casual ones. When it comes to injecting an idea into the collective consciousness, nerds are monks in the Dark Ages, keeping the idea alive when no one outside the abbey walls gives a crap about them. That’s where Batman the character lives with all his convoluted backstory and reboots and retcons and multiple Robins. But Batman, the idea, doesn’t belong to nerds, he belongs to the world, and its the movies and tv shows that keep sending that idea caroming across the globe, touching people the comics never will.

At times, over the years, the character and the idea share a lot of conceptual DNA, and other times they have little to do with one another. But that’s okay; I remember delighting in re-runs of the “Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods!” Adam West show as a tow-headed youth and thinking I knew Batman, only to pick up an Englehart/Rogers issue that led off with the Joker casually slaughtering folk. I came away shocked, discomfited, confused–and buzzing with excitement.

66 Batman and robin

CV: With the upcoming release of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, two characters that you’ve written books about are going to have a silver screen fight that fans have been dreaming to see for years. So, who wins, Batman or Superman?

Glen: (Let’s pretend we don’t know that they’ll just fight to a draw until they realize they’ve been duped into battling one another, and then they’ll unite against the common foe and win the day.)

This is a deeply reductive analysis, but what the hell. What you got here is raw power(s) vs. strategy. Which is to say: Jock vs. Nerd. In such cases, always bet on nerd because cunning beats strong any day of the week.

Or, to look at it another way: Superman seems like he’s got a lot of powers, but in a very real sense he’s got just the one: He never gives up. Batman doesn’t seem like he’s got any powers, but in fact, he’s got one, and it’s a doozy: He always wins.

Either way: Advantage Batsy.

bvsquad2

CV: Why should fans of Batman be excited for THE CAPED CRUSADER? Why should people without much knowledge of the character be excited?

Glen: Fans of Batman should know that I went out of my way to ensure this book didn’t read like a Wikipedia entry. Yes, it’s a deep dive into the character’s history–and true fans won’t see a lot discussed here that they haven’t seen before–but what I hope I bring to the table is some critical faculty. I worked to find the through-line that connects the different Batmans over the years. I tried not to write about anything simply because it happened–it spent several drafts interrogating every notable piece of Bat-history, demanding that it justify its presence in the book. If it connected to the overall story I was telling, it stayed, if it didn’t, but I just thought it was cool, it probably got ditched (sorry, Mogo the Bat-Ape, you mad, beautiful, glorious creature, you.)

For those who aren’t Batman fans, I hope they find that the book’s exploration of how and why nerds have infiltrated the culture is worth noting. Admittedly, Batman and Batman’s hardcore fans are my way in, but I loved widening out and tackling the broader culture every chance I got.

Writing about the a pop culture icon’s history is something I deeply enjoy, but it’s so beholden to the tyranny of linear chronology: THIS happened, then THIS happened, then THIS happened. It can start to feel like writing a term paper. That’s why I’m happy I got to talk about the culture that surrounds him because cultures are satisfyingly messy things to me: influences overlap in non-linear, stubbornly untidy ways that–if you can pull apart the threads–show you many facets of a given era all at the same time.

Plus, comics are supposed to be fun, and I resolved to make the book that; if I go more than a couple paragraphs without a joke I break out into a cold sweat because I swear I can feel the reader’s eyes glazing over.  That, um, may just be a me thing.

PURCHASE: Like what you’ve read? Order a copy of THE CAPED CRUSADER: BATMAN AND THE RISE OF NERD CULTURE!

There you have it folks! Glen Weldon is a man of many talents but his knowledge of the Bat has to be my favorite. You can find THE CAPED CRUSADER: BATMAN AND THE RISE OF NERD CULTURE in bookstores and online today. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find a copy in your local comic book shop this week for New Comic Book Day. No matter how you pick up the book, physically or digitally, this is a must read for any fan of Batman, history, or damn good reading. Give it a read. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did.

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