Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glen Weldon

We should start, as most any writing about Batman must start, with a confession.  As I write these words, I am wearing a Batman watch.  And, perhaps more to the point, I own two pairs of Batman socks.

Batman socks.

I know.  I know.

So it is with more than a touch of self-awareness that we read Glen Weldon’s funny, insightful and lacerating look at Batman and Batfans, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  If you are going to read only one book about Batman and the fanatical devotion he inspires, make it this one.  Weldon is the perfect guide through the world of Batmania: erudite, accessible, and more than a little snarky.  Even if you have only a fleeting interest in either Batman or the hermetic world(s) of fandom, you will find this book irresistible.

Weldon shares my sense of discomfort, as well as my submission to delicious junk.  While Your Correspondent has railed against cultural decay with a Batman watch on his wrist, Weldon looks at his toy reproduction of the 1960s Batmobile upon his desk, and wonders what his hardworking grandfather would make of a 45 year old man gloating over a Battoy.  Weldon justifiably dubs us The Lamest Generation, but the good humor of the jest does not sponge away the indictment.

Weldon works his way through the gestation of Batman, showing the many influences he co-opted en route to his final realization: The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and more than a bit of Flash Gordon.  He also takes a no-prisoners stance on the contribution of Batman “creator” Bob Kane (1915-1998), who, it seems, did little more than come up with the name.  Then, stealing art and layouts and harnessing the talents of various writers (and more gifted draughtsmen), Kane managed to mint a fortune in coin through his creation and ceaseless self-marketing. 

Weldon is crystal clear in his assertion that, as conceived, Batman is a protector of Moneyed Interests; it is not just tenor and tone that made early Batman the antithesis of Superman, but inherent philosophy, as well.  Kane, a poor Jewish boy from the Bronx, dreamt of a world of socialites, supper clubs and celebrity, and Batman delivered that to Kane in spades.  Oddly enough, Batfans tend to find Batman more “relatable” than Superman, arguing that most anyone can become like Batman though application, discipline and hard work.  Weldon dismisses those risible fantasies, arguing that one of Batman’s key superpowers is his incredible wealth.  Without it, the entire world of Batman would be impossible.  (Left unsaid: the strange irony that Superman has steadily diminishing cultural currency in a world of growing economic inequality.)

Weldon manages to touch upon every era and incarnation of Batman, from grim avenger in his first-year, to smiling scout master in the 40s and 50s.  His affection for the 1960s Batman television series is sincere and well-placed; and he chronicles how much of the Batman material to follow in comics and movies are a response against that show and its astonishing success.

The 80s saw the most dramatic change in Batman: he was more than just a grim avenger of the night, but an out-and-out violent psychopath.  The comics grew increasingly dark and nihilistic and, strangely, this is the stuff that hardcore Batman fans seemed to relish the most.  Batman fans were serious, and Batman was serious, and what better way to demonstrate seriousness of intent than a wallow in testosterone-driven, adolescent nihilism?  Or, as Weldon so wonderfully puts it:

What these fans saw when they looked at Batman was the object of their childhood love legitimized.  It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amuck on the mean streets of New York.  Where he brutally mauled Piglet.  And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real.  That would be badass.

His assessments of the Batman films are largely spot-on, though Your Correspondent disagrees with his dismissal of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), an arch gothic fantasia that seems to get better every year.  Weldon finds most of the Batman films of a piece – all rather dark and somber, but not necessarily good.  His affection for the animated Batman series is as great as his love for the 1960s show, though motivated by different aesthetics.  Weldon finds the animated Batman series to be the perfect fusion of obsessive, fannish desires, and the good, uncluttered story-telling necessary for non-obsessives.  More importantly, the animated series gave Batman back to the children, an audience that the comic book industry turned its back on long ago.

Weldon argues that Batman is very much an inkblot, and readers and viewers see in him what they bring to him.  He also posits that Batman changes with the times, and that the Batman of each succeeding era is both a reaction to, and a comment on, the times that generate him.  (In this regard, Batman is very much like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – a core idea that can be continually reinterpreted in changing times.)  It is this protean quality that has ensured Batman’s longevity; and it is a crucial fact that hardcore Batfans seem to miss.

The key beauties of Weldon’s book are his chronicle of fannish reactions to each new incarnation of Batman, and how the Internet harnessed fannish power to be a powerful cultural force.

Weldon calls fans Nerds (a handy shorthand), and non-fans Normals (not quite so felicitous).  Nerds see the object of their affections as a deep and murky pool in which they happily swim, looking for inconsistencies, searching for new insights in the darker eddies, and creating little fiefdoms within the turgid waters.  Normals want to swim in a clean pool in which they can see bottom, then get on with their normal day.

For Nerds, Batman (or Star Trek or Dr. Who or ….. insert the nerdish obsession of your choice here),is more than a comic book and movie property, but a way of life, a religion.  And while they delight in his cross-cultural (and out-of-fandom) successes, there always remains an undercurrent of resentment.  A Nerd loves indiscriminately, but jealously.  Weldon argues that when mainstream culture appropriates a source of Nerd-love, he feels as if someone is telling HIS joke in a roomful of strangers, telling it badly, and still getting a better laugh.

Filmmakers now attempt Batman at their peril; as scripts, costume choices and plot points will be endlessly debated and the film judged (and often executed) on the Web before it’s released.  The proprietary feeling Batfans have for the Caped Crusader has been largely responsible for the manner in which the character has been stewarded over the last 35 years or so.  In short, the fans have been making the creative choices, and most of them have been dire.  Weldon believes this is finally beginning to correct itself as greater diversity in fandom is leading to a wider range of “acceptable” Batmans … but time will tell.

Perhaps my sole criticism of this involving and amusing book is that Weldon chronicles the rise of fandom, but fails to put it into any kind of perspective.  The first Comic-Con in 1970, for example, had some 100 attendees.  In 2015, that number was 170,000. What happened to us as a culture and a people to drive those numbers up so high, and what does it mean today to be a fan of anything?  And if we all love junk … do we have any passion left for weightier material?  Has online technology enabled us to trap ourselves in a perpetual adolescence?

Tune in tomorrow [same Bat-time, same Bat-channel; sorry, can’t help it] while we try to answer some of those questions.

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