Podcasts help me to get through the day. From my three hour, roundtrip commute to and from work, through performing the responsibilities required of me at my job, and even when doing mundane chores at home such as cooking and cleaning, I’m always listening to a variety of shows ranging from film discussions to political debates. One of my all time favorite podcasts, however, is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. A regular panelist on this podcast is the always enthusiastic author and critic, Glen Weldon. Naturally, when I discovered that he had written a book about my favorite pop culture subject – Batman – I immediately ordered his novel The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture from Amazon.
Weldon is as excited an author as he is a podcaster, which strikes a tone that is more than appropriate for a novel about the most popular superhero of all time: Batman. The book charts the Caped Crusader through the decades, from his inception in 1939 through 2016 when the Dark Knight came face-to-face with the Man of Steel for the first time on the big screen. Though the creation of Batman and the behind-the-scenes fight for credit that occurred between Bob Kane, Bill Finger, their families, and Warner Bros. is touched upon, it’s not the main thrust of this novel’s narrative. This book instead explores how the character of Batman changed over time to reflect the changing times in the real world in which it was being published. This, in turn, is framed in the context of the never-ending “war” that continues to occur between hardcore Batman fans who tend to prefer the character as a dark, brooding, loner, and the more casual fans, who tend to prefer Batman as a more heroic, amicable, family-friendly figure.
This debate has raged since Bob Kane and Bill Finger first came up with the character of Batman and his world, and it rages through this very day. It’s an everlasting argument; an epic game of tug of war between people who don’t seem to realize they’re engaged in a fight that will never be won. For as light and as campy as Batman can get – like the television series in the 1960s, Batman, and Joel Schumacher’s 1997 film Batman and Robin – the character always returns to its darker roots eventually – like in Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. And the same holds true in reverse: for as dark as Batman can get, he always lightens back up eventually.
As Weldon explains in the book, there’s something about Batman that appeals to the majority of people, wherever they may fall on the spectrum of nerdiness. It’s because of this, as he elaborates within the pages of his novel, that every interpretation of the Dark Knight is a valid one – from Adam West’s campy version in the 1960s to Christian Bale’s brooding take in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and yes, even the portrayals given to us by George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and even Will Arnett in Lego Batman form. It’s this idea that the World’s Greatest Detective speaks to something deep within all of us – that he allows people the fantasy that any one of us could don the cape and the cowl if we were in peak physical condition and had the money – that makes him so popular, and so all encompassing regardless of race, gender, age, or sexuality. It’s this relatability and enormous spectrum that gives Batman his long lasting endurance.
Besides offering a study of the Batman mythos themselves, Weldon also examines Batman fans, their quest for acceptance, and the rise of fanboy rage – which has become more prominent over the years, thanks to the internet. He also offers insight and analysis into: every television and film incarnation of the Dark Knight – animated and live-action – including offering his opinion as to why why he believes Batman v. Superman failed to resonate with people in a new afterword; popular comic book storylines including Year One, The Long Halloween, Death in the Family, and The Dark Knight Returns; the undercurrent of homosexuality that has permeated Batman stores for decades, normally most prescient in stories that include Batman’s sidekick, Robin; and the multiple ‘reboots’ of Batman that have occurred throughout the comics over the years in attempts by DC to keep the character fresh and relevant.
As an avid fan of Batman – one who has read many books about the character and his history – I found The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture to be an easy, quick, and informative read. It’s well researched and presented (it even includes a bibliography!), and it’s clear in every sentence that Glen Weldon is as big a fan of Batman and his world as anybody. I can’t recommend this book enough, both to hardcore fans of the character who think they know everything there is to know about him already, and to casual fans who are interested in learning a little bit more about the various aspects of Batman and his world.