Book review: tracking the many meanings of Batman as an icon of popular culture
The actor beneath the cowl isn’t the only thing that’s changed about Bruce Wayne and his pointy-eared alter ego over the years
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture
by Glen Weldon
Simon & Schuster
Batman is a brooding night stalker, grim and remorseless. Also, he’s a guy who might break out into a “Batusi” on the dance floor.
While Superman has barely veered off his flight path over the decades, Batman’s image has swung back and forth like a pendulum since the superhero’s creation in 1939. The night detective of early comics was soon brightened up with the addition of a young sidekick, Robin. By the 1960s, Batman became a camp icon thanks to a hit TV show where he got to show off his dance moves and gravely intone ridiculous lines such as: “Well, well. We’ve come a long way from the prime minister’s exploding cake … or have we?”
The TV show inspired a return in the comics to a darker Batman, one familiar to a new generation of fans weaned on Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie trilogy. Even then, there have been fluctuations along the way. In 1986, writer and artist Frank Miller portrayed Batman as an ill-tempered middle-aged man. In 1997, George Clooney put on the cowl in a widely panned movie remembered mostly for a Batsuit with nipples.
Weldon tracks Batman’s evolution and how the changes played among his hard-core fans. The “nerds” went from being a subculture with hand-copied fanzines to internet-era kingmakers with influential websites and comic conventions that attract top sci-fi stars.
Batman provides the better story. He could have been a forgettable knock-off character inspired by The Shadow. But his creators developed a comic-noir style and a compelling origin story, with a young Bruce Wayne vowing to fight criminals after one guns down his parents. And he’s vulnerable in a way that super-powered heroes like Superman are not.
Writing a book about Batman is tricky. He is a cultural icon deeply meaningful to many because his story touches on themes of loss, adversity and perseverance. Also, he is an implausible character who defies laws of physics and common sense every time he swoops on gun-blazing lunatics. Weldon successfully walks the tightrope, showing reverence for the character but keeping it fun. Plus, he loves Batman, and the nerds that love him.
There is a certain type of nerd who thinks anything less than a dark Batman is a travesty. Weldon is not that nerd. He admits to waiting on line for a Batmobile model and gives an eloquent appreciation of Adam West’s faux-weighty portrayal of the hero in the ’60s TV show.
Batman is 77 years old and ubiquitous as ever, now starring in yet another big-budget movie, this time with Superman. Trailers show Ben Affleck playing Batman as an ill-tempered middle-aged man, proving we’ve finally left behind the dancing Batman of exploding cakes … or have we?