Like so many of his contemporaries, The Bat-Man began life as a pale imitation—an inverted Superman suit draped over a Flash Gordon pose. On his face, a small mask preserved his uncertain anonymity. The pièce de résistance: a pair of bat wings designed to strike fear in the hearts of the cowardly criminals lurking the back alleys of the city he’s sworn to protect.
By the time Batman actually reached the pages of Detective Comics, all of the most iconic elements were pretty much in place—the jagged cape, the pointed cowl, the color scheme. Sure, decades of publishing house and movie studio churn have played around with the formula, but like a small handful of his most archetypal contemporaries, the Dark Knight’s basic visual elements have remained remarkably consistent more than 75 years after he first hit those pulpy pages.
And as Glen Weldon tells it in his new book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, those visuals, as universally recognizable as any radio hit or corporate logo, are the only true through line for one of pop culture’s most enduring characters—a character transformed across mediums and remodeled by such polarizing figures as Frank Miller and Joel Schumacher.
“One reason it was so easy to iterate Batman into Bat-Monster and Bat-Baby and all his other cowl-and-cape wearing mutations,” explains Weldon, depicting the hero at his most cartoonishly comic, “was that the character had become a cipher, recognizable only by his design. The cowl and cape were all that defined him; he’d become, in a very real sense, an empty suit.”
Like much of Weldon’s observations, this one is tough but fair. The author/NPR contributor’s followup to 2013’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography tracks the World’s Greatest Detective from birth to the dawn of the Snyder-verse in an attempt to get to the heart of precisely what has made Batman such an enduring figure, transforming from a hyphenated wholesale cribbing of The Shadow to a multi-generational box office record-setter.
The truth lies as much in Batman’s curators as the nerd culture that has grown up around him, and as such, the author charts the symbiotic rise of fan culture, which, much like the caped crusader’s costume, has remained remained remarkably constant through the years. This is no better exemplified than in a breathless quote Weldon pulls from the mid-60s Batman fanzine Batmania penned in response to the now classic Adam West series.
“Batman played straight just wouldn’t make it,” explains publisher Biljo White. “That’s the romance of being a fan. Batman will be ours again someday, long after the plastic Batarangs have joined the ersatz coonskin hats that great surplus warehouse called Yesteryear.” It’s eerily similar to early internet reaction issued in the wake of Schumacher’s garish 1990s Bat-sequels and even the initial reaction to the news of Michael Keaton’s casting in the first Tim Burton adaptation.
With the arrival of Batman v Superman, we’ve hit peak Dark Knight. Batfleck is jaded, he’s tired, he’s angry, he carries a gun (a big one at that). And perhaps most glaringly to longtime fans, he kills and doesn’t seem to take all that much issue with the act. It’s a far cry from the comic book character who famously made an oath to never take a life—and at least promise to be really, really upset when the rule had to be bent. It’s an even farther cry West’s portrayal, in which the violence was rendered as cartoonishly as live action would allow at the time, replete with the now infamous Biffs, Bangs and Pows.
The ‘60s series was a pure mainstreaming of the character for a primetime network audience, an earnest technicolor take that smoothed away rough edges for an all-ages audience, including Batman’s dark origin story, which only earned mention in the pilot episode of the program. The unprecedented popularity of the series helped the Caped Crusader crawl out from under his second banana position behind Superman. It also served to define the character as a blue-suited do-gooder for decades to come.
But while the mainstream was continually served up a kindler, gentler Batman through venues like the Super Friends cartoon series (where, to be fair, Bruce Wayne was downright gritty standing next to colleagues like the Wonder Twins and their funny monkey sidekick), something darker was bubbling up in the medium the character first called home. At the hands of now legendary creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the character took on a new complexity, and by extension, a dark side that had only been hinted at.
Following an initial fan backlash at the off-brand casting of Michael Keaton, 1989’s Batman was as much a showcase for director Tim Burton’s darkly comedic sensibilities, striking a sort of middle ground, with mentally unbalanced gangsters set to a soundtrack by Prince. After two films, Joel Schumacher took the reigns for a more cartoonish—and, as some would gladly point out, downright camp—take on the character.
After the nipple suits, gratutious butt shots and Mr. Freeze puns of 1997’s Batman & Robin, the film series was overdue for some thematic course correction. In 2005, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale took direct inspiration from the darker Batman of the comics pages and gave the character’s long-suffering fanbase the film it had been clamoring for (even more loudly now, having swapped the fan zines for comment sections) with Batman Begins, the one that kickstarted a much more adult take on the character.
The battle for Batman that plays out in the pages of The Caped Crusade is downright Shakespearean as opposing forces battle between grit and grandeur, each laying claim to the character’s true identity. The result is a character that cycles between the darkness and the light, eventually straying too far in one direction, only to have his course corrected. (A rare exception is the truly all-ages Batman: The Animated Series, which Weldon cleverly classifies as a pop-cultural Schrodinger’s cat).
The book strikes a seemingly impossible balance in its own right, serving as both a reasonably concise crash course in the character’s history and an astute pop-sociological analysis of what this all means, complete with a truly personal touch, including the author’s insight as a gay male reader. It’s at once brisk and breezy and exceedingly well researched and lovingly constructed, offering something for both nerds and “normals” alike in a time when the nerds have won.
“Now, at last, Batman was a thing they could talk about publicly, proudly, with anyone,” Weldon writes about the the impact of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight triology. “He was a lingua franca. He was sports.” It’s the perfect sentiment in the wake of Batman v Superman leading the box office with a record-breaking $166 million opening, even as the pop cultural pendulum seems primed to swing back the other way.