Monday, May 9, 2016

Signal Watch Reads: The Caped Crusade - Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture (audiobook, 2016)

Here's what I know after reading Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture (2016) - I would love to spend a couple hours at a bar with author Glen Weldon knocking back a couple of cocktails and talking comics.  

The book is a perfect compliment to the sort of discussion we've been having here at The Signal Watch the past few years, from our Gen-X Recollection Project (still ongoing!  Send in your posts!), to trying to contextualize what we see in movies of the past and present as seasoned dorks.  

As a matter of course, I've read a few Superman retrospectives, but very few feel like an honest conversation.  Les Daniels' works read like what they are - honest if fairly sanitary historical accounts of the rise of Superman in all media.  The very-well-selling Larry Tye book felt like a lot of research into something the author felt would move books but for which he had little personal affinity and seemed surprised that Superman wasn't the character he remembered from his years watching The Adventures of Superman.  Author Tom De Haven has the strangest relationship with Superman, having written a full novel re-imagining the character from the ground up (in ways that often seemed far, far off the mark), and then a sort of retrospective that made it clear - he kinda hates Superman.

But aside from Les Daniels and a few excerpts in books like Ten Cent Plague and Men of Tomorrow, I haven't read up as much on Batman.  I actually heard of author Glen Weldon when he put out a book called Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.  I purchased the book, but hadn't read it as I had a stack of books I was making it through.  Still haven't read it, honestly, aside from the first few pages, which had me cackling in recognition of someone who truly knew their Superman.  But, two days after I picked up the Superman book, Weldon announced on twitter his Batman book was coming, and as I'd just finished the Tye Superman book, I figured - I'll just wait for that one.

I really can't recommend Caped Crusade enough.  This is a "run, don't walk" sort of recommendation.  

For lifelong Gen-X'er comic fans, Weldon is one of us.  You may not come down on the same side of the Bat-fence as Weldon on every issue, but you can understand the perspective from which he positions his book.  At no point did I ever wonder why this author was writing this book.  He has a very certain angle from which to look at Batman, and in our modern era of internets and superhero-saturated culture, one well worth considering- especially for a multi-billion-dollar franchise.  

It's not just Batman, the pointy-eared martial artist/ detective/ crime-fighter/ boomerang enthusiast/ ward of orphaned boys/ beater of mental cases that Weldon examines.  He keeps his eye on the symbiotic relationship nerd-culture, from it's paleolithic era, has had with The Caped Crusader as character, pop culture fixture, and the cultural construct Batman is beyond the pages of the comics, and how that concept is reflected off of society as well as a base of fanboys, which Weldon refers to as, simply, "nerds".

Weldon brings a sensible approach to the oft-batted-about "gayness" of Batman, a topic that has been a part of the cultural discussion of Batman since Dr. Wertham made an issue of two men living together back in the 1950's.  I don't want to speak for Weldon or get too much into his discussion, because I don't think I'd do it justice, but I appreciate the personal perspective from a guy who eyerolls at the online vitriolic bat-homo-phobia which seems to stream consistently from a wing of the Bat-fan community.  

While, certainly, the book is a history of Batman - readers will definitely get a very full (but not tediously exhaustive) account of Batman's interpretations in comics, movies and other media throughout the long history of the character - it's really a cultural deconstruction of both The Dark Knight Detective and his fans.  From an historical perspective, Weldon is merciful to those of us who've read the comics, watched the cartoons, tried to make it through the serials...  saving his discussion for the more interesting bits and why's and wherefore's of various interpretations and what they said about the culture in which they appeared and the people who produced them.  This goes from Silver Age and Bronze Age comics.  Frank Miller of course, as well as Burton, Schumacher and Nolan's interpretations.  He spends considerable energy on Batman: The Animated series, Adam West as Batman, and Grant Morrison's take.  

In a sign of true nerd bona fides, Weldon even mentions the Planetary: Night on Earth one shot, a sort of predecessor to what Morrison's exploration and exploitation of Batman as a multi-faceted cultural construct.   

But at the core of all of this, beginning especially with the Batman television show, Weldon investigates how nerd-culture seemed to become self-aware as a reaction to the un-serious take on Batman, crystallizing around a certain image of Batman - one that didn't actually have all that much to back him up in reality, but which has slowly but steadily taken over as the Batman of the modern zeitgeist.  And, as the internet unleashed these passionate fans, how that changes the conversation in a multitude of ways that Hollywood, comics and culture in general are all still figuring out how to wrangle.  As Weldon sums it up, this Batman must be "Bad-Ass".

There's some diving into the why's and wherefore's of the nerd-culture take, and - you know - if there's not a definitive answer there, that's okay.  I think Weldon hits close enough to the mark without ever just taking pot-shots.  After all, we see ourselves in this more than we're ever supposed to admit.

And, of course, guys like me get a bit of a nod, who maybe moved on beyond the need of a "Bad-Ass" Batman if that definition denies Batman his raucous past of Bat-Mites, wacky team-ups or space travel.  And, of course, some of us still like Adam West.  A lot.

I didn't find myself quibbling with Weldon's perception of the comics, movies, etc... I might have come down at a slightly different angle on the how's and why's of a particular nerd rage-plosion a bit differently here or there.  But even if the facts are all intact and something you may already know - it's really that combination of inserting the fan culture, which always has been and likely always shall be a bunch of entitles jerks defending their perception of "My Batman" or "My Superman".*

While Weldon may attempt to rise a bit above the fray, it's not that hard to see the man has his opinions, and has a Batman he - in his hear of hearts - considers "his Batman".  And it's one he promotes and defends.  The sign of a righteous nerd.

I listened to the book as an audiobook, read by Weldon himself.  Weldon is NPR on-air talent - at least pod-cast-wise, and a go-to geek-guy for the network.  He's written other books and reviews, and did a bang-up job narrating the book.  Really, I think you're in good hands reading the book as paper and listening to the voices in your head, but Weldon goes ahead and imbues various real people and imagined voices of nerd-dom with their own speaking voices, from Tim Burton to... nerds.  Who are, of course, "Comic Book Guy".    

Yeah, it can be reductionist, but the voice - for those of us who remember usenet bulletin boards and websites of the 1990's - fits so well.

In a lot of ways, as an audiobook it feels perhaps more like a conversation, or podcast.  It's not a retelling of facts, its someone contextualizing and recontextualizing, and Weldon handles this job deftly in both writing and performance.

In short, I highly recommend the audiobook.

*the Sam Wilson: Captain America volume which just arrived in my mailbox is names, hilariously, "Not My Captain America".  


Paul Haine said...

If you're looking for more reading on Batman, I recommend Hunting The Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman by Will Brooker. The essay collection Many More Lives of the Batman from the BFI is also worth a look.

The League said...

Thanks, Paul! Adding them to the list.