Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

Based on his self-description in The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon and I are close in age. Unlike Weldon, the limited selection of broadcast television channels in my rural community did not present 1960s Batman series. My childhood impressions of the Dark Knight came almost exclusively from the comics. My favorite version of Batman is the “World’s Greatest Detective” (when I came across his team-up with a very old Sherlock Holmes in Detective Comics 500, I had to have it). I’m also fond of the adventure hero who hues close to his pulp roots—basically the Shadow or Doc Savage in a bat suit (I also had to buy Batman 253, in which the awestruck superhero acknowledges the Shadow as an inspiration).

I suppose that I staked out my position on Batman because that is partly what Weldon’s book is about, the contradictions between Batman the character and Batman the idea, and the tension between stories loved by hardcore fans and stories appreciated by a wider audience who engage with Batman in diverse ways.

Weldon illustrates this tension, and the character’s shift as the pull is sometimes stronger in one direction or another, through the history of the character. He sees a cycle in Batman’s depiction. He starts as a dark loner. He becomes a father figure (most directly to Robin). He grows into the patriarch of a family (Robin, Alfred, Batgirl, and Huntress just to start a list). Then a desire to revitalize the character, get back to roots, or satisfy the core fandom returns him to the loner stage.

The hardcore fans Weldon writes of generally conceive Batman as serious. They want a Batman who is realistic and gritty. In my experience as a reader of comics, “serious,” “realistic” and “gritty” are often code words for prurience, grotesquery and gore. I’m not interested in that in comics or any other media.

These fans have a love-hate relationship with the Batman of other media (they just hate the Adam West version). The Tim Burton films revitalized public interest in Batman when the comics were in a serious sales slump. (The hardcore fans hate the Joel Schumacher movies. I’m with them on that.) In the Chris Nolan trilogy they finally got a Batman who is serious and has acceptance in the wider culture.

That culture is much wider now than ever, especially due to the Internet. Comics fandom was once very insular, and in some ways it still is. In the Internet age, many people are engaging the character and idea of Batman. Comic book fans, cosplayers, fan fiction writers, movie buffs, fashionistas, retro TV watchers, hipsters and a host of others are interacting with Batman’s stories, history, image and iconography. It is a world that some of the old hardcore fans may find discomfiting, but it may be a place where Batman can have lasting relevance.

Weldon plainly likes that prospect. In his view, the super-straight Adam West Batman and the grounded, brooding Chris Nolan Batman can coexist. They are both really Batman. People have always focused on the aspects of the character that resonated with them. They have also imposed on him interpretations that the writers and artists that created his stories never imagined. We do this with every text, but few texts have the longevity of Batman. That may be the Weldon’s other point. We can take any version of Batman as seriously as we want, or we can simply enjoy the stories. He is a fictional character after all.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in:

Weldon, Glen. The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.