The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture
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A witty, intelligent cultural history from NPR book critic Glen Weldon explains Batman’s rises and falls throughout the ages—and what his story tells us about ourselves.
Since his creation, Batman has been many things: a two-fisted detective; a planet-hopping gadabout; a campy Pop-art sensation; a pointy-eared master spy; and a grim and gritty ninja of the urban night. For more than three quarters of a century, he has cycled from a figure of darkness to one of lightness and back again; he’s a bat-shaped Rorschach inkblot who takes on the various meanings our changing culture projects onto him. How we perceive Batman’s character, whether he’s delivering dire threats in a raspy Christian Bale growl or trading blithely homoerotic double-entendres with partner Robin on the comics page, speaks to who we are and how we wish to be seen by the world. It’s this endlessly mutable quality that has made him so enduring.
And it’s Batman’s fundamental nerdiness—his gadgets, his obsession, his oath, even his lack of superpowers—that uniquely resonates with his fans who feel a fiercely protective love for the character. Today, fueled by the internet, that breed of passion for elements of popular culture is everywhere. Which is what makes Batman the perfect lens through which to understand geek culture, its current popularity, and social significance.
In The Caped Crusade, with humor and insight, Glen Weldon, book critic for NPR and author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, lays out Batman’s seventy-eight-year cultural history and shows how he has helped make us who we are today and why his legacy remains so strong.
charts, never dropping below the number three slot. DC Comics took note and ensured that the grim ramifications of Identity Crisis would redound through many of DC’s story lines for years. The series’ putative subject was good people forced to perform evil actions in the interest of justice. It was Meltzer’s ham-fisted attempt to address the use of torture in the War on Terror, and it would cast a pall over the entire superhero genre that lingers still. But it was a stand-alone Batman comic that
time as a time-and-space-hopping gadabout, a Pop Art scoutmaster, a globe-trotting master spy, a gadget-happy criminologist, and a grim, remorseless ninja of the urban night. No single image defines Batman, because any single image is too small to contain the various layered and at times contradictory meanings we’ve instilled in him. Since his first appearance, we have projected onto the character our own fears, our preoccupations, our moral imperatives, and have seen in him what we wish to.
highly ambivalent. In her debut story, he uncovers her secret identity and convinces her to give up her crime-fighting career by mansplaining, “If I found out, crooks could do so, too, eventually!” In her subsequent appearances, he stubbornly resists her advances, lecturing her that crime fighting is “too dangerous for a girl.” Like any emotionally unavailable boyfriend, he is not above throwing her the occasional bone, as when, facing their imminent death in an alien dimension in Batman #153
seen on-screen. He was repudiating it. Violently. “I took it all very personally that Wednesday night in January when the series premiere broke my heart,” Dixon recalls. “That wasn’t my Batman! Hell, my parents were laughing at the show! Laughing at Batman!” Later, at school, Dixon’s friend “proudly showed off his new [Adam West] Batman T-shirt. He thought I’d dig the shirt . . . but instead, I saw red. I knocked him into the coat closet.” It was, very possibly, the first recorded instance of
didn’t need to worry about life and death, so we channeled all that time and energy into obsessing over this TV show or that comic book.” This blunt theory—let’s call it “the Lamest Generation”—is one that hits close to home, as I have spent much of the last few days wondering how Comic-Con’s garish gewgaws and ephemeral delights would strike my dour, Welsh-immigrant grandparents, who came of age in the Depression. That night I imagine the ghost of Norman “Bud” Johnson, who as a boy would wait