Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
Glen Weldon is far from the first historian to explore the extensive Batman history in a full-length critical study. Perhaps the densest and best researched book on the topic, at least up to its publication date, was Bruce Scivally’s 2011 Billion Dollar Batman. Over recent years, the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization has featured many scholarly titles on various aspects of Batman’s place in comics, television, and films like its impressive essay collections on the 1966 Adam West television series, the work of Grant Morrison, and Julian Darius’s
2011 Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. Now, Glen Weldon picks up the mantle, er, cowl, and takes us back to the beginning and brings us up to the present by tracing Batman’s evolving place in popular culture. Unlike other studies, he also focuses on the responses of “nurds” to the character and Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City milieu.
Naturally, the saga begins with the debut Batman stories created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in Detective Comics in 1939. Thereafter, Weldon looks at how and why Batman was a figure forever changing in re-boots, re-sets, re-moldings and re-framing in popular media. The first serious course correction for the character and comic books in general took place in 1954 with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham. That book attacked the comics industry claiming it was an assault on the morals of youth. Were Batman and Robin homoerotic characters?
Were the street fights with criminals too gritty for young readers? To deal with the cultural controversy, Batman became less a dark crime-fighter and more an out-of-place sci fi space voyager.
Then came the 1966 Adam West TV series where the battle lines were drawn between the nurds wanting their comic book Batman to not be bowdlerized by the TV nonsense and the “normal” viewers who really didn’t care all that much about the character. Ironically, as Bruce Scivaly noted in his 2011 study, the comic book Batman wasn’t really that “adult” before Adam West, although DC Comics had tried to tone down the more fantastical elements in recent years.
After the TV series’ demise, the “nurds,” by use of fan newsletters and letters written to National Periodicals, championed the return of their “Batman,” that is, a more adult-oriented, dark vigilante. In the main, the nurds got their way as comic creators like Neal Adams, Steve Englehardt, Frank Miller, Denny O’Neill, and Grant Morrison gave readers a more and more violent, grim and gritty brooding bad ass. Then came the surprisingly successful Tim Burton movies and the Fox animated series that could appeal to both “nurds” and “normals” while the comic books became tougher and tougher and far removed from the children’s stories of yore. Then Joel Shumacher reversed that course before Christopher Nolan got things back on track for both “nurds” and “normals” alike.
Weldon gives more or less equal time to the creators of Batman projects, the fans and their responses to each new twist and turn, as well as the marketing and merchandising shifts that had much to do with how Batman had to be reshaped for each new generation of readers and viewers. For example, Batman wasn’t the only character to be packaged in more and more garish covers during the heyday of comic shops and collector’s editions during the 1990s. The advent of the internet was tailor-made for a fan base of nurds already poised to debate, discuss, and champion their visions of just who and what Batman should be. This included, and includes, online forums, websites, blogs, games, and fan fiction. Not to mention cons and even Legos.
I have to admit, Weldon seems rather obsessed with the “gayness” of Batman. I sort of understand why, but this is an area in which he gets rather heavy handed. Obviously, the primary audience for The Caped Crusade is fans of Batman, the very sort of fans the book is written about. I also think that those interested in nurd culture in general would be interested in this exploration of one thread of who they are. I guess that includes me. And perhaps you.