Glen Weldon On ‘The Caped Crusade’ And How Batman Helped To Build Nerd Culture [Interview]
Since you're reading this at ComicsAlliance, I'm going to go ahead and assume that you like reading longform pieces about Batman and how he's evolved and changed over the years. If that's the case, then you are in luck, because this week marks the release of Glen Weldon's latest book, The Caped Crusade. Following up on 2013's Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, The Caped Crusade finds Weldon looking at Batman through the lens of nerd culture, exploring how fandom has reacted to --- and been influenced by --- the different ways that the Dark Knight has changed over the years.
ComicsAlliance spoke to Weldon about diving into the fandom of the '60s, the clash between the Batman of the comics and the Batman that existed in wider culture, and the elements that completed his character.
ComicsAlliance: Was there something that made you want to do a Batman book, aside from the fact that you'd already done Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, and this felt like the natural next step?
Glen Weldon: Truth be told, I was always more a Batman guy than a Superman guy. I remember being in the back yard with my friend Dave, and we'd been watching reruns of the 1966 Batman series, so we'd take our parkas and we'd put the hood part over our heads, but let the sleeves and the coat part flap behind us. We'd do whatever we could to quote the dialogue that we'd just seen fifteen minutes before, even though none of it made any sense to us. I remember this one part, "Why is the Statue of Liberty like a woman scorned? Because they both carry a torch!" We really sold that to each other, we really believed it. We had no idea what it meant. Something about that series really reached out to me.
So, when it came time to figure out what the next project was, I looked around and thought maybe I could do what I did for the Superman book, but not just making it a deep dive into the history --- which I love doing, but you're wedded to chronology, which is a harsh mistress. It's just "this happened, then this happened, then this happened," and you really start to doubt yourself after writing five or six chapters, because you start to think, "Am I writing a Wikipedia entry? Is that all I'm doing here? Am I just distilling a lot of the stuff I've read elsewhere and put it in a chronology?"
What I was interested in doing was something a little messier, widening out and trying to figure out how this guy intersects with what we've come to call "nerd culture," because I think there are some interesting resonances there. Cultures are a lot more untidy, they don't lend themselves to a strict chronology in the way that a character history does. You can figure out that influences overlap. The challenge is to try to find a throughline, to find what connects one era to another, and sometimes things that happened back in 1948 influenced something that happened in 1972, and it's not tidy. That's what I loved about it.
CA: When you started from that premise, tying Batman to nerd culture --- and look, he's a dude with a basement full of stuff he's collected over the years, it's not a long leap --- was there a particular lens you were looking through at the history that went a little more specific?
GW: I didn't start there, actually. I wanted to use that as a way in, but I didn't know how to do it. I started in the way that a lot of people who look at the character very cursorily look at him. It's the tidy "Well, Superman is the day and Batman is the night." The premise of the first book is that Superman is a very flattering mirror to us as we want to be seen by the world. He's incredibly powerful, but he also uses that power with restraint, he helps the little guy, all that stuff. So I figured, "Well, okay, Batman must be the dark mirror, right? The stuff that we don't want to admit to ourselves. He must be the feelings of rage and abandonment and the feeling of wanting to get revenge on a guy who took our lunch money in fifth grade."
That's the cursory, you'll forgive me, adolescent fanboy view of the guy, that he's a badass. He's the idea of masculinity as adolescent boys imagine masculinity to be, especially if they've been bullied a bit. He always has the drop on everybody else, he's laconic, he's like a jacked Clint Eastwood. He's rich. It all checks out, it's all wish fulfillment, it all makes sense. But then I realized that the more I talked to people like you, and people like Dean Trippe, I got a better sense that if you just think that's the guy, then you're missing that at the core of the character is a lot of hope.
It's a weird hope. It's a kind of Sisyphean hope, because what does he do when his parents get killed? He dedicates himself to helping others. He's not seeking vengeance --- that's my only disagreement with Batman: The Animated Series, when he says "I am vengeance." Well, he's not, really. It's not what he's about. He's not about revenge, he's not about getting back at the guy who killed his parents, he's about widening out. He's about overcoming what happened to him and dedicating himself to this idea of "never again." "What happened to me is never going to happen to anyone else, because I'm not going to let it."
Which is a very simplsitic, childish and unrealistic notion, but that's what I argue in the book is his power. That's why this guy is a hero, because of that sense of hope. It's a futile hope, it's what Superman would call a never-ending battle, but dedicating yourself to that is an ultimate selfless act, as opposed to looking for revenge, which is the ultimate selfish act.
CA: I've been trying to figure out how to bring up how great your sources are and the fact that we talked while you were writing, so thank you for doing it yourself so that I don't seem like quite such a jerk.
GW: [Laughs] Talking to you, Chris, actually helped a lot, as did talking to Dean Trippe. Dean wrote this amazing webcomic, Something Terrible, that basically said, "Batman to me is someone who had something terrible happen to him and overcame it, rescued himself by dedicating himself to being of use to others," and that is something that I don't think people get. If you get caught up in the trappings of this character and you miss the Adam West noble "careful chum --- public safety" side of this character, I think you're missing a huge chunk of what he's about.
CA: That's something that I think comes through in the book. You go into the '66 TV show in a really interesting way in the book, and I think you and I have pretty similar feelings on it. The idea that Lorenzo Semple and William Dozier had was that the big joke is taking something inherently worthless and presenting it as though it's extremely grave and serious, which is where the comedy comes from.
GW: That's exactly where the comedy comes from, because they were cashing in on the pop art fad, which was about valuing something that was colorful and slick and mass produced, and valuing it in this arch way, this Andy Warhol soup can kind of way. Whenever people tell me that it was making fun of the comics, or making fun of Batman, you know, all it was doing was taking the very simple premises of those comics, and just following them to their logical extreme. So if there's a label on everything in this comic, because kids need some kind of anchor, let's put labels on everything!
It's linear. It's a very cut-and-paste job, amped up with all the colors, and with a very good sense of humor, but also, if it wasn't for that performance, if it wasn't for Adam West, I don't know if that show would've flown.
CA: And in doing that they accidentally hit on what makes Batman work. You and I probably come from the same place, in that our original exposure to Batman was through, if not the '66 show, something very tonally similar. Growing up in the late '80s, the comics I had were way more violent than the Batman I had in my head because I was watching an hour of Batman '66 every day.
GW: I'm a little bit older than you, but I remember when I was six years old and, being inundated with Batman and wanting to find out more, going to the West Goshen Book and Card Store in the West Goshen Shopping Center, going right to the spinner rack, and getting a copy of what I'm pretty certain was "The Laughing Fish." I'm pretty sure it was one of those two issues, the Englehart and Rogers story, where the Joker is just slaughtering people.
I remember thinking "Well I don't know what this is, but this isn't Batman." It took me a while. There was a disconnect there. But that's the thing that I think is so fascinating. Part of the book is about how the Batman that existed on the comic book page, after about the '70s, when comics started to focus on teen and adult nerds and kind of abandoned kids, looked nothing like the Batman that existed in the wider culture. He was the Super Friends Batman, the reruns of the TV Show Batman. That was all very "careful, chum," very safe, very anodyne, as opposed to this tortured, mysterious, grim, gothic Batman that was in the comics.
CA: Do you think there's a generational divide there? Because you mention in the book that Chuck Dixon, one of the primary Batman writers of the '90s, had a story about getting in a fight at school when he was a kid because Batman '66 wasn't serious enough.
GW: Well, that's a thing that fascinated me. I always thought the grim, gritty badass stuff was a relatively recent addition, a function of what Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams brought back when they went back to basics and picked up on his need to be an obsessed loner. I figured that was a recent addition, but then I talked to Mark Evanier and a bunch of folks of that age. In Michael Uslan's book, he talks about the same thing, about how his goal in life was to rescue Batman from "Pow! Zap!" What was the Batman in his head?
The Batman in his head was that early '60s Batman. Maybe the New Look Batman, maybe that's who he was thinking of, but even that guy was basically a cop in a cape. There's nothing in that Batman that has the kind of DNA of the 1939 Batman.
But that's the same thing I saw when I looked at the fanzine, Batmania, where all these nerds would gather. One of my favorite things in the book is seeing those issue before the television series premiered, and how they're all so excited, and they boast about being in touch with the producers. "Can you imagine that when Batman punches a guy, you'll see a big POW! on the screen?" And then you see this slow-motion car wreck happening in each issue after the series premieres. There's just this rolling boil of resentment and, "This isn't my Batman!" I still don't have a good sense of what Batman was in their head.
Now, for people like Biljo White, who was the editor of that particular fanzine, you know how there's that thing where the comics you love when you're ten years old are the comics you take with you for life? It may or may not be a coincidence that he was about ten years old in 1939. If he did get started on Batman that early, that might be some vestige of what he had in mind, but it was fascinating to me to see that this nerd notion of "you're doing it wrong!" goes back much further than I thought it did.
CA: It was weirdly comforting to read that and come away with the idea that we've always been this way.
GW: I talked a great deal to [former Comics Buyer's Guide editor] Maggie Thompson, who was there at the beginning of fandom, and the thing that I really realized by talking to her and a bunch of other folks is that this fandom existed, these networks existed, they just didn't have the internet to connect them. They had the beginnings of conventions. They had fanzines.
CA: They had Roy Thomas.
GW: They had Roy Thomas, exactly! All the internet did was map this electronic infrastructure over these nerd networks. This feedback loop of people discussing and debating and having these talmudic dissections of these little bits of Arcana is almost as old as comics.
CA: Over the course of writing and talking to people of different generations who came to Batman through these different ways, whether it's the TV show, the Tim Burton movies, the TV shows, the more recent Christopher Nolan movies, was there an idea that you had about Batman that you found was challenged or changed?
GW: I remember as a kid thinking that the Burton films were fine. Going back to them as an adult, and really digging into them for this book, I see over and over again that if you have a character like Batman, who's a comic book character, which means that he's basically a soap opera character, which means that he's owned by a corporation that wants to prevent him from changing and deny him the very thing that makes a character a character and a story a story, which is an ending. These characters don't end, they have adventures but they don't have stories, and I'm not complaining. I love that. What you do within very strict confines, and the creativity that you have to use to make this compelling, adventure after adventure, is something that I and many nerds like me love.
But when you take him out of that medium and you put him into, say, a movie, all of the sudden you have to deal with the narrative infrastructure of movies, which means rising action, romantic interest, third act big dumb explosion thing, and that changes the character. It can change him for better or worse, but it does change the character.
So the Burton film, for example, the first one, is basically this weird studio action movie with Batman in it. It doesn't necessarily map to the character that we know, because the producers --- not Sam Hamm, Sam Hamm was a true nerd and he knew what he wanted to do --- felt that it needed to tie up. You needed Chekhov's Gun, the thing that happens in the first act that has to come back in the third, which meant that the guy who killed Bruce Wayne's parents has to be the Joker. That turns Batman, whose very thing is that it's not about revenge, it's not about vengeance, it turns him into Charles Bronson, and that's just not who he is.
In the second Burton film, you get a lot more of Burton's gothic weirdness. It's a weird fit, and it's a rough fit, but there's certainly some resonances there. We can talk about the [Joel] Schumacher films --- I've read what you've had to say about the Schumacher films, and I happen to agree with you about the Schumacher films, and I love them in a weird, weird way. But what I keep noticing is that the more I look at how this character is treated in different media, you're always bringing in something else and dumping something on top of the character to make it your own. When you're a director, when you're a writer, when you take him out of the comic book medium, you're changing him.
Except in Batman: The Animated Series. As I say in the book, that, to me, is the instance where instead of dumping a lot of your personal stuff on top of the character, you strip away. You take all the stuff that has been added to him over the years and reduce it to the essence of the thing, and what makes him him. I think that's because, a) there were a hell of a lot of nerds involved in that series, and b) because the format of the half-hour episodic animation is as close as we're ever going to get to the format of a comic book. It has a beginning, middle and end, but it returns everything to more or less the status quo. Over the course of many years, as you're exposed to more hours of this thing, you start to see characterization seep in. You start to see tonal shifts, there can be funny episodes and darker episodes. It reproduces the infrastructure of a comic in a really smart way. It's also two-dimensional, so it scans well. We've seen Batman in two dimensions for much of our lives, and when we see him moving fluidly on our television screens, it just works.
A lot of people have come to Batman through different things and everybody has their favorites, but for me, the animated series is as close to the essence of the character as we're ever going to get.
CA: There's something you do that I think is very interesting, and it's right at the start of the book. You take a view of the Golden Age Batman that's similar to mine, where he's not fully formed at the start of things and takes a while to get there, not even getting an origin until Detective #33. But you talk about these specific elements that you feel form the core of Batman.
GW: I basically went back over those stories to see what made this character different from the Shadow. As you pointed out, as I pointed out, as Bob Kane and Bill Finger pointed out, he's basically a rip-off of the Shadow --- and that's not a dig! There were a hell of a lot of rip-offs of the Shadow. Batman's not even the only bat-themed rip-off of the Shadow.
So what sets him apart? You have to remember that he comes out of a time where we're climbing out of the Great Depression, and there were a lot of pieces of mass media and popular culture that were dedicated to life among the upper crust, the rich and famous. Your Private Lives, your Philadelphia Story, eventually. That was a huge deal. And he was also coming out at a time when the infatuation with gangster films was sort of on the wane, and life among the rich and famous was on the rise, so he melds those two things. He's a rich person, a socialite, who gets down and dirty and mingles with the gangsters of the world.
I do think it's interesting that for much of the first year, he isn't really helping the little guy. He's helping rich people protect themselves from the little guy. For the first two issues, he's basically looking out for incredibly wealthy people, and it's a while before he fights any crime that affects the little guy.
So you've got the fact that he's a detective. That's very clear, because the very first case is a case, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate." He unravels the mystery. He does it kind of off panel, we see him reading something and smiling and then just going to the bad guy's lair, so he's not really bringing us along with that whole thing in the way that he'll do later, once he has Robin to bounce ideas off of, but for now, he's a detective. We can tell that he's a thug, or a bruiser anyway. He'll become skilled in martial arts down the road, but for now he's pretty great with the fisticuffs.
What really occurred to me is that he's not really who he is until Robin shows up.
And that's not simply because Robin lightens the tone, which he does. My reading suggested that the publishers saw the writing on the wall. There was no national uprising against comics yet, that would not come for another ten or fifteen years, but they were worried about parents groups. Batman did have a reputation for offing the bad guy at the end of the story, so they suggested, "Hey, why don't we tone that down a little bit," and they introduced Robin.
Robin is half the story. Robin gives Batman someone to care about, so that the stakes rise. He goes from being a grim, lone avenger of the night to being a father figure, and he has someone to protect. You can inject drama into your story by putting this tyke in pixie boots in danger, and that's a very convenient way. Also, he just looks good standing next to Batman. He's got the right color scheme to pop against the character, this very dark, grim figure of the night, and they just instantly, overnight, become a two-man team that defines the notion of a two-man team. It's Burns and Allen and Batman and Robin, they become a double act overnight. They become inseparable, and that's a huge part of who Batman is.
The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon is on sale now, published by Simon and Schuster.