Book Review!: “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture”

In the age of the internet (slightly fewer cullings than the Age of Apocalypse), there’s an inversion of an old TV trope. Whereas we’ve all known the old “1,000 channels but nothing good on TV,” we now have 1,000,000 tweeted articles, but nothing to read. As always, this is an overstatement, but the value of intelligent, witty, interesting articles increasingly stands out.

It’s a joy to stumble upon (TM) that rare piece of literary finesse that reaffirms the joy of reading, and better yet, teaches you something.

It’s even better when that “something” is Batman, and that’s exactly what we have in Glen Weldon’s “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.” The new book is equal parts history of the Bat, and informative, insightful, often humorous dig into fan reaction to the Bat-Man’s many incarnations and rebirths.

Simply put, “The Caped Crusade” is the best book I’ve read this year. (Well, at least best book without pictures, but semantics.)

It’s worth disclosing that Simon & Schuster sent me a review copy of “The Caped Crusade.” While this often becomes a chore (I know, I know, comic book blogger problems), I found myself completely engrossed. At the expense of reading actual comics! Holy time management sacrifices, Batman!

At its best, “The Caped Crusade” is a thorough history of Batman, from his origins and influences all the way through Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s New 52 Batman. Weldon deftly navigates both the comic book and pop culture appearances of Batman, exploring the reality that Batman wasn’t always the uniformly golden ticket he is now for DC Comics.

What saves this book from the trappings of snoozy¬†history is Weldon’s keen eye for the big picture. Throughout each era of Batman’s history in the comics, and later in television and film, Weldon smoothly shows how Batman ties into pop culture, society, and well, nerds at large. The end product is a thought provoking blend of the factual (Bob Kane took way too much credit for Batman’s creation) and the provocative (Why all the ‘Batman is gay’ jokes?).

Weldon divides the world into nerds and normals, balancing his perspective appropriately between the two. The dive into “nerd culture” as promised by the subtitle is typically fascinating, if ultimately the most uneven portion of the book. Weldon makes a strong effort to chronicle fan reaction to the different phases of Batman, from Chuck Dixon’s youthful outrage at the campy Batman of the 1960’s (“That’s not my Batman”) to the less youthful outrage of every 90’s early internet adopter during Joel “Nipples” Schumacher’s Dark Reign.

The Bat-nerd chronicles are a welcome additional layer, if clearly supplemental to the thorough and well-researched history. In my view, the tales of the Bat-nerds become increasingly less compelling as they progress from self-published fanzines in the 60’s to more modern hateful internet comments, but this could just be the power of nostalgia. The modern rise of nerd culture particularly suffers, as Weldon’s analysis is confined to the realm of Batman, and the influence of the Nolan-verse Dark Knight Trilogy.

Speaking of the influence of the perceived Dark Knight (popularized most emphatically in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), Weldon’s core thesis seems to be that this Dark Knight is only one version of Batman. Sure, the brooding, strategic mastermind is the fan-favorite Batman of many, but Weldon makes a case for the value of the Adam West Batman ’66 as well. To Weldon, “The Court of Owls” is what happens when Batman gets depressed; what’s so wrong with¬†the Batusi and a little bit of joy?

Weldon never commits quite as singularly, but “The Caped Crusade” reminds me a fair amount of Chuck Klosterman’s “Fargo Rock City.” Both defend the indefensible with gusto (“Fargo Rock City”=80’s Hair Metal, “The Caped Crusade”=Batman ’66), albeit at a time when cultural perception has already started to accept that the “indefensible” is actually cool again, if still a mainstream joke. Weldon is hardly fighting for the right to enjoy Batman ’66 without ridicule, but there’s a clear perceived need to broaden our scope of Batman.

The best comparison I can make, though, is Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunleavy’s “The Comic Book History of Comics.” If you find comics (and in this case Batman) endlessly fascinating, this is a read worthy of the esteemed Caped Crusader himself.

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