The Caped Crusade shows us that Batman will thrive and endure so long as there are still nerds who see some semblance of themselves in him.
Batman has undergone countless changes in tone and style over the nearly 80 years since his inception. He’s been a grim avenger of the night; a campy, Batusi-dancing, whole-milk-drinking square; a stern surrogate father to a host of Robins and other Bat-family characters; a gay icon wearing body armor curiously outfitted with erect nipples; the most intelligent man in the room, always six steps ahead of everyone else, with contingency plans for every possible scenario; and so much more. Throughout these incarnations, he’s remained one thing at heart: a nerd.
This is one of the major themes of The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon’s hilarious and engaging history of Batman. Weldon posits such an obvious reason for the Caped Crusader’s longevity as a pop culture icon that you’ll be kicking yourself for not thinking of it before: nerds love Batman because they see themselves in him. After his parents’ murder, Bruce Wayne swears an oath to avenge their deaths and wage an all-consuming, lifelong war on crime. Since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman has spent the last 78 years obsessively upholding this pledge. Nerds can relate to this all too easily. To be a nerd is to obsess, to nurture and cherish those obsessions and to cling to them against all reason. Nerds latch onto Batman because they can find validation for their own obsessions through his obsessive quest for justice. Nerd obsessions tend to revolve around reading every single issue of X-Men comics ever published or collecting Star Wars figures. Not nearly as dangerous as an all-out war on crime, certainly, but for nerds it can be just as exciting.
Once Weldon establishes why nerds love Batman and have propelled the character to the highest reaches of the pop culture stratosphere, he delves into the “nerds vs. normals” paradigm. He starts at the beginning and leads us on an enormously entertaining romp through Batman’s history, along the way providing succinct yet detailed analyses of the Caped Crusader’s comic books and various multimedia appearances over the years. He explores how various representations of the character have either satisfied or enraged nerds and how they view the normals’ interest in the character suspiciously, as if they can’t possibly be “true fans”. That’s a key concept Weldon returns to often: nerds have a tendency to place themselves as the all-knowing experts on whatever topic they’re obsessed with, often taking extreme pleasure in pointing out that everyone else is “doing it wrong.” Your fandom cannot possibly compare to theirs. This battle between nerds and normals has occurred repeatedly over Batman’s many decades in existence. The first time it really happened in earnest, though, was after the 1966 television series debuted. Nerds lost their minds.
The Adam West-led “Batman” was such an enormous cultural touchstone for its brief three-year run, reaching an influx of normals who’d never previously cared about Batman one bit. This was bound to ruffle some nerd feathers. Weldon includes direct quotes from comic book letter pages and fanzines from fans raging against the show’s lighter and brighter tone and aesthetic. Surely, this was not their Batman. Ergo, it was not the correct Batman. Weldon then explores how in 1970 this led to a couple of young creators at DC Comics, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, returning the Dark Knight to his roots and revamping him into something that could never be confused with the goody-two-shoes, “Biff!” “Bam!” “Pow!” Adam West version. This was a course-correction of the highest magnitude, one that set the character on a path where he’s remained ever since.
This take on Batman only intensified through the ’80s, Weldon deftly details how Frank Miller was largely responsible for ratcheting up the grim and gritty quotient in comics. With his seminal works The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Miller built on the Batman that O’Neil and Adams had reestablished in the ’70s: an unsmiling, obsessive loner who strikes from the shadows while working outside the law. This dominant comics version eventually became the one that normals would experience in films and television. Christopher Nolan’s self-serious, ponderous and gloomy meditations on the nature of obsession, spread across three overlong films, only further ensconced this iteration of Batman into the public consciousness.
The Caped Crusade shows us that Batman will thrive and endure so long as there are still nerds who see some semblance of themselves in him. Comic book nerds are a niche market, of course, so the normals of the broader culture will also contribute heavily to his popularity with their additional dollars spent on movies and merchandising. Interestingly, we’ve reached a point where all versions of the character are now in play; there’s a Batman for every taste these days. If you love Batman ’66, you can read those fun and brightly colored adventures in comic book form or watch the recently released Batman ’66 animated film, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders; if you prefer your Dark Knight to be, well, dark, then you can revel in Ben Affleck’s grim-dark portrayal in DC’s current cinematic universe. Weldon’s enthusiasm for the lighter, brighter version of the Caped Crusader is refreshing and reveals what many nerds have slowly come to understand: Batman is fluid and can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, each of them as valid as the next.