Friday, April 1, 2016
Recommended Reading for 4/1: The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Ride of Nerd Culture
I've read a lot of Batman books. Not just books featuring Batman, but books about Batman. Histories, analyses, treatises of all make, model, and manner. But as of this week, I have a new favorite, on I mentioned briefly last week. The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture was written by Glen Weldon, NPR's comic book critic, and it's a book about much more than Batman. It's a book about how we as fans interact with Batman for good and ill, and how the Dark Knight shines a mirror, sometimes a very dark one, on nerdery and those of us who practice it. But, like Weldon and I would agree, Batman is an inherently hopeful character, and so I walked away from the book feeling inherently hopeful about who and what I am, what I do here, and what's to come.
Writing criticism of criticism is an odd little ouroboros (that's the snake eating its own tale, something most nerds know, and which most normals would recognize symbolically but not necessarily know the name of). I'm putting forth my opinion of someone else's opinion. But it seems oddly fitting when discussing a book about fandom and about how we as fans react to other's opinions and views of a character, both fan and "non-fan" alike. I use the quotes around non-fan because I think I've made it clear what my opinion about nerdiness and inclusion is.
Before I get into Weldon's thesis and the points on which we agree and disagree, almost uniformly the former, I want to talk about style. As I said, I've read a lot of books and essays about Batman, from discussion of his morality, his psychology, his history, and his imagery, and rarely if ever have I found any of them as much a pleasure to read as this one. Weldon's prose is smooth, and except when discussing the most grim of topics, specifically the Aurora shooting and the threats surrounding criticism of The Dark Knight Rises come to mind, both of which he discusses with the gravity due them, he keeps things light and flowing. Even when Batman is at his darkest, Weldon is able to find something to make the reader smile about, whether it's a particularly odd character or plot, or a slightly barbed comment directed at reaction to a plotline or person. It keeps the book from getting bogged down in a series of, "And then this happened, and people reacted like this," anecdotes, which could have easily happened.
What pleases me most about the book is that Weldon espouses the idea that every Batman is an acceptable Batman. There's much talk of die hard comic book Batman fans (something I count myself among) who are sure that the only Batman that's a real Batman is the brooding avenger of night, and how history has proven this accurate. Adam West's camp Batman is as much Batman as O'Neil & Adam's lone avenger, who is as much Batman as the Dixon/Grant/Moench urban commando with a large family of allies from the pre-No Man's Land era. And naturally, they're all a part of Grant Morrison's Unified Theory of Batman, which Weldom discusses at length. And I can't help but be pleased since this is a line of thought about Batman I've espoused myself before.
But beyond that, Weldon isn't dismissive of any of those versions or the fans of them (well, with the exception of internet trolls who can't spell and threaten people, But I can't fault him for that one). Weldon talks about being a kid and running home to see afternoon syndicated re-runs of Batman with Adam West, and waiting on line at San Diego Comic Con to get a con exclusive TV series accurate Batmobile. But as a fan of that, he doesn't dismiss out of hand any other version of Batman. He has quibbles with some of them and how they don't represent the core of Batman to him, but that's scholarship and criticism. You will find every version of Batman you can imagine in this book, and get some really cool behind the scenes facts that even all my years of Bat reading haven't provided.
Weldon makes a lot of interesting points about Batman, and while discussing them all would take an entire book of my own, one of the most fascinating ones is the idea that Batman cycles through three distinct phases: "Lone avenger to father figure to head of an extended family." It's looking at Batman in a way I never had thought of, and even in my own time as a huge Batman fan of about thirty years, I can see the cycle repeat numerous times, both in the comics and across media. One of the main examples he uses is Batman: The Animated Series, where the series went from just Batman, to The Adventures of Batman and Robin, to Batman: Gotham Knights, where you had various other Bat characters. It's a fascinating microcosm of a trend in a character that I had never interpreted that way.
The idea of the nerd and the normal, and their different views of Batman, is central to Weldon's discussion of the rise of nerd culture, and how Batman shaped it. And I won't deny shaking my head and feeling a might bit ashamed at times that I consider myself among the nerds who have said some really harsh, and honestly pretty dumb things over the years. But it's interesting to me to look at that rise from the outside in, While Weldon is a self-avowed nerd, he finds a way to look at this cultural phenomenon both from inside and out. I know the internet effected fandom, but it's fascinating to see the difference it had between the time of Batman and Robin and the time of Batman Begins. Also, I never knew how fanzines of the 60s reacted to Batman on TV, and how similar it was to nerd rage that we get today. Also, in what might be my favorite part of the book, Weldon discusses how Batman: The Animated Series serves as the nerd/normal nexus, a product that is steeped deeply in a nerdy love of Batman, but transcends that to appeal to pretty much everyone.
And of course, as a Batman fan, I have some of my own favorite stories, and it's nice to see them get some love. The Long Halloween is called out as,"a whsistle-stop tour of Batman's rogues gallery." Gotham Central is mentioned as, "the true spiritual successor to Batman:Year One." And the excellent and sadly out of print, Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, where the Planetary team meet various different iterations of Batman, sums up a lot of what Weldon says about Batman in general, with, "Ellis's point- a controversial one among many of the most vocal adherents of the "badass Batman" school of fandom- is that all of these versions are Batman."
I consider myself among the most diehard of Batfans. I have tens of thousands of Batman comics. I own every bit of Batman on film you possibly can. And I love my Batman as the Dark Knight Detctive, broody and driven, but still with a heart that would comfort those he rescues. But I also have a signed picture of Adam West as Batman, holding a bomb over his head from Batman: The Movie (a gift from my wonderful former co-workers), hanging in my home office right above the computer I'm typing on now. And when I go to get lunch today, I'm swinging by the Hallmark to pick up the new limited edition (ah, words that make any nerd's heart pitter-pat) Itty Bitty Penguin and Harley Quinn. I love my Batman in any way I can get him. And reading a book like The Caped Crusade, discussing how others like me have interacted with this icon, and how others less like me can still love him in his own way, is a great thing. If you've ever been the least bit interested in Batman or nerd culture in general, please do yourself a favor and pick up this book.
But, just in case you read this Glen, you ever want to talk about Batman or the book, drop me a line. I'm a nerd, after all, so that means I have notes...
The Caped Crusade is available at bookstores everywhere, both physical and digital. The audio book is read by the author, which means I'm going to have to check that out at some point soon.