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As primitive as it might look today, Batman’s 1939 newsstand debut was an auspicious one. It laid the groundwork for a bond between readers and a sullen crime-fighter that would weather more than seven decades of gothic peaks and mortifying, cash-grabbing lows. “The Bat-Man,” donning a hyphen along with ashy grey tights and long, lean ears back in Detective Comics #27, was caped and mysterious, a little more than a knockoff of pulp hero “The Shadow.” In the years that followed, comic story arcs like Knightfall and Batman: Year One starred a moody Dark Knight who steered clear of the sunbaked moral high ground patrolled by Superman, instead prowling a city governed by crooks and obsessing over avenging his parents’ alleyway murder.
He’s hurting, claims no superpowers, and in spite of his inordinate wealth, he’s somehow a relatable superhero.
“The Batman school preferred a vulnerable hero to an invulnerable one, preferred a hero who was able to take punishment and triumph in the end to a hero who took comparatively little punishment, just dished it out,” wrote Jules Feiffer in 1965’s The Great Comic Book Heroes.
In The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, NPR critic Glen Weldon examines DC Comics’ most relatable property as well as the mainstream’s wresting of him from the death grip of “nerds.” Weldon—a self-proclaimed nerd of the highest order, whose Superman: The Unauthorized Biography also found him mulling the prized comics of yesteryear—argues that there is no one Batman but an “elastic concept” that has enjoyed commercial success across a variety of mediums.
“No single image defines Batman, because any single image is too small to contain the various layered and at times contradictory meanings we’ve installed in him,” Weldon writes. “Since his first appearance, we have projected onto the character our own fears, our preoccupations, our moral imperatives, and have seen in him what we wish to.”
Batman forced superheroes out of “a perpetual age of adolescence,” offers Weldon, and after eons of fraternizing via fanzines, comic letter columns, in comics shops, and later online, nerds’ niche interests are now mainstream. The Caped Crusade’s subject no longer belongs solely to an outsiders’ club—he “acted as the catalyst for billions of ‘normals’ to embrace the culture they had once dismissed or rejected.”
Incisive criticism of specific comic runs and graphic novels in Weldon’s smart, pugnacious book offers an inside-baseball chronology of Batman, but will surely bore the normals. Analysis of adjacent components fares much better: There were jingoistic, “deeply weird” 1940s movie serials; a silly Adam West–led TV show; and of course, astronomically high-grossing films.
Behold the assessment of what a behemoth “$10 million marketing budget” yielded for Tim Burton’s Batman (partners included Taco Bell and JC Penney). Or that Warner Bros. received “over fifty thousand petitions and letters of complaint” from Bat-fans who’d heard rumors that Burton would take cues from the 1960s show. Such nuggets have gossipy appeal, but non-nerds should take heed that there’d be no Burton, Schumacher, or mumbling Bane were it not for Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Before teenaged New Jersey artist Jerry Robinson introduced a character he called “The Joker,” or psychiatrist Frederic Wertham led a fraudulent, comics industry-crippling witch hunt and suggested Batman and Robin “might make a kid worry that he was (gay),” writer Finger overhauled the crude sketch that scored Kane a work-for-hire contract with (a pre-DC) National Comics.
Finger “introduced the iconographic elements now universally associated with the concept ‘Batman’ […], effectively transformed Kane’s Winged Underwear-Man into a Dark Knight,” writes Weldon. Finger scripted Batman’s origin and more, but in lockstep with comics’ tradition of immoral business practices, Kane snagged sole authorship credit for decades. Recognition for co-creator Finger came only after his death. This is ancient history in the towering shadow of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Lego Batman: The Videogame, but in The Caped Crusade, it’s a singular swerving and knotty ride that’s probably not unlike The Dark Knight Coaster at Six Flags.
“It’s no longer just nerds like me who love Batman and things like him,” writes Weldon. “Over the past few decades, ‘geeking out’ has become the new normal, the default mode in which many millions of us engage the world around us. When we love a thing, we love it deeply.”