Glen Weldon has written countless articles and “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” which was published in 2013 for the character’s 75th anniversary, but he’s probably best known as one of the panelists on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast.
His new book “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture,” traces the character’s history, the rise of fandom, and, Weldon notes — his own life and interests. The book consists of a close reading of Batman comics from Bill Finger to Grant Morrison to Scott Snyder, a look at how the movies have shaped the cultural perspective on Batman, and looks at how so many fans see Batman — and how that says a lot about the possibilities, and toxic realities, of fandom. Weldon also manages to get at what so many of us saw in the character, in large part because he was one of those people who was obsessed with the character from a young age.
Weldon spoke with CBR about the issues he raised in “The Caped Crusade,” which is in bookstores now, including defending Joel Schumacher’s infamous Batman films and re-evaluating Fredric Wertham’s reviled anti-comics crusade.
CBR: Glen, a few years ago you wrote “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” which I’m sure many people remember, but “The Caped Crusade” is very different — could you talk about how you approached the new book?
Glen Weldon: The first book was basically work for hire. The 75th anniversary [of Superman] was coming up and an editor reached out to me and said, “I need somebody to write a biography of Superman.” “The Caped Crusade” was something I pitched because I wanted to write it. I didn’t want to do another straight biography of the character. The thing about a biography is you’re locked into a chronology and you start to doubt yourself. You wake up in a cold sweat many nights, thinking, “Am I writing a 300 page Wikipedia entry?” The way you avoid that — and the thing I really wanted to do with this book — is widen out as much as possible and use the character as a lens to look at something, which is much less tidy than chronology — culture. Culture is a very untidy thing. Because influences overlap, they don’t lead inexorably one to the other the way chronology does. Something in 1939 influences something in 1970 and so you have to be able to pull together those things but also connect them.
Because I had a thesis that was at once a little more diffuse and also more an argument that I was making, it was easier for me to decide, this thing that I love — like, Mogo the Bat-Ape — are cool and goofy and a lot of fun, but they don’t connect to the thesis. They’re not about Batman, they’re about the things around Batman. Why don’t I figure out if they say anything about the rise of nerd culture and if they don’t, they have to go. There was a lot of that. A hell of a lot of that, actually.
Let’s talk a few issues you raise in the book. One is Fredric Wertham, who everyone in comics hates because of what he did, but you argue that he was actually right on many points.
He had some points: when he’s talking about the objectification of women, when he’s talking about the injury to the eye motif, when he’s talking about racism. The answers he espoused were not there. Now thanks to the work of people like Carol Tilley we know that he basically just riffing and stringing together and altering data and doing anything he could to make his argument stronger.
But when it came to Batman and Robin — and it’s important because it wasn’t Batman, it was Batman and Robin. These queer signifiers, this gay subtext, is sort of there with Batman. Yes he’s got a secret identity, yes he’s jacked, yes he haunts the urban night, but when you pair him with Robin — when there’s any male-male pair in popular culture — there is going to be some subtext that emerges. Not because it’s intended but in an environment as rabidly homophobic as the ’50s were — McCarthy was telling the American people over and over again that homosexuals were a moral cancer on America — we didn’t see ourselves in any popular culture.
As I say in the book, straight people don’t think of representation in media as representation in media. They see themselves constantly such that it becomes not representation, but this is what a movie is, this is a what a comic book is, this is a book. Queer folk don’t see that until very recently. When we don’t see it and we’re greeted with a world in which we don’t just see ourselves, but we’re told implicitly that we don’t even exist, we look deeper. That’s what comics do, especially superhero comics, because there is literal subtext. There are words on the page and if you look below them you see the panel where there’s imagery. Where there are things like body language, background detail. Where there are dudes who are jacked in costumes which are basically the naked male body painted so it doesn’t look naked.
Michael Chabon had a really good essay in the New Yorker years back about how the male superhero — and female superhero, for that matter — costume is basically the naked body drawn with lines on it and color so it looks like it’s not naked. These things are there. They are not intended. When we don’t see ourselves, we go deeper. So all of a sudden the way that Batman’s hand is on Robin’s shoulder means more to gay kids than it does to straight kids. I don’t think Wertham had a point when he said that it could cause children to question their sexuality or feel, as he said, “sexually misaligned.” No straight kid is going to look at Batman and Robin and go, gee, what’s going on with me, but I would put it to you that every gay kid is going to go, “huh.” So they live together in a mansion. Look at those drapes. [Laughs] It’s not intended but it doesn’t matter.
One thing I wanted to mention is that you’re much nicer to Bob Kane than a lot of people who write about Batman.
Actually a lot of the people I’ve talked to so far said, you don’t let up on the guy. I do think that Finger is getting his due now — decades too late — thanks to the efforts of people like Marc Tyler Nobleman. Bob Kane was a piece of work. I do think that he was an integral part of this. He was the guy who came up with the original idea but also the guy who sold it. Finger created — and I mean that literally he created — everything that we think of today when we think of Batman. But Finger was not a particularly expressive salesman and Kane was not a particularly good cartoonist, but he was an effective salesman. He sold the concept and then for the next three or four decades he sold himself to the world.
I would keep his tombstone on a browser on my computer and whenever I would feel like I was being too harsh on this guy, I would look at that and just get freshly incensed. I don’t know if he wrote that or his family wrote it because they just wanted to make a tribute to the guy, but the fact remains, it is infuriating.
You also make a good point, which gets lost, that “Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” are books about the 1980s, set in the 1980s. They’re reactions to the Silver Age from the vantage point of the 1980s.
Absolutely and that is why when you make a film of “Watchmen” decades later and these screwed up, violent, psychopathic characters are now going to be badasses –you’re kind of missing the point. [Laughs] They are not to be admired. We are not to sit there and think, awesome. We’re supposed to be thinking, what the hell? What happened to heroism? That’s the point of it.
My issue with things like the Snyder films is not that you can’t tell a story in that mode, it’s that that seems to be the only story we’re telling anymore. That tone is the one we’re adopting. Any thing — any genre, any medium — gets better once it becomes less monolithic. Once we allow for variation. Once we understand that for these characters to have any resonance at all they have to reflect everybody’s values and everybody has to be able to see themselves in some way.
If you were going to write an additional chapter, there’s the latest movie, so what do you think of Ben Affleck’s Batman?
It’s perfectly serviceable. He’s not given much to do except glower — which is the Batman that exists in the public consciousness. For better or worse he is going to be Batman. That’s the power of these movies to shape the version of these characters that live in the public consciousness — the idea of the character, not the character itself. The idea of Batman gets reshaped depending on the most recent blockbuster film — [Zack] Snyder and his screenwriters’ decision to age up Batman to set up that whole “Dark Knight Returns” confrontation and also to push him. To say, I must brand criminals so that they will be killed in prison because the stakes are higher now. If we don’t buy that, the whole movies crumbles. I didn’t buy it for a second. There was no set up. There was no coherent explanation as to why he would abandon decades worth of parameters and pick up a gun.
There are action movie heroes and there are comic book heroes and superheroes are not action movie heroes. They have genre constraints around them which means that they can iterate iterate iterate, but they always have to return to status quo. That’s part of the deal because we don’t give them an ending. And that means that they can’t kill because there has to be an issue next month and the Joker has to escape and get captured and escape and get captured because you’ve got to tell another story next month.
In action movies, we dispense with that. We give them a narrative arc that nerds and normals alike can sink their teeth into. That leads inevitably to a lot of very silly decisions like having the Joker be the guy who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. That is the kind of thing that is very satisfying. It’s the kind of storytelling that we in Western civilization have grown up with and we expect. We want everything set up in act one to come back in act three in a very tidy way. When you do that with a superhero you are destroying that character — and turning him into an action movie character, which is why every superhero film has some big explode-y thing at the end which just feels rote, like you’re delivering spectacle but you’re not telling a story.
As you were working on this book, and I don’t know everyone you talked to, creators, fans, but how did you perspective on things change?
I didn’t speak to too many creators. It was much more important for me to talk to fans, hardcore fans and casual fans. I talked to a lot of people who know this character from the movies. I think that’s how you determine how it’s shaping the culture — or not shaping the culture.
I was interested in that more than the behind the scenes. People can tell you why they did what they did, but it may not have a connection to what they ended up doing. I went into this book thinking this is going to be easy. I’d already written a book about a character who represents the best of us, an ideal that we can’t achieve; and if Superman is a very flattering mirror, then Batman is a dark mirror and he reflects the stuff that we don’t necessarily want to tell people about. That changed for me when I talked to Dean Trippe. He wrote this amazing webcomic “Something Terrible” about how he as a childhood survivor of sexual abuse looked to Batman as somebody who transformed his life to become of service to others because of the thing that had happened to him. An act of self-rescue was to put himself out there for others and be of service to others and that’s what the character is about.
In the introduction I talk about that oath as the core of his character, but it took me a long time to arrive at. I kept talking to people who would say he’s a badass, he’s just like me, I could become Batman, he’s relatable. I thought, no, you couldn’t. [Laughs] For just a whole host of reasons, you really couldn’t become him. You’re always going to be the before image and he’s always going to be the after image in the workout program. Yes, he is attainable, theoretically, if you perfect your body and your mind. If you become an Olympic-level athlete. In all the encyclopedia entries about Batman it’s like he became an Olympic-level athlete, but that’s just not a thing that most folks can do. Particularly the folks I see at my comic book shop.
I talked about this in the book as well — nobody would tell me anything about his wealth. People would say, that’s not a core element of his character. The core element is that he’s a martial artist and a detective. I’d be like, nothing happens in a Batman story without that wealth. People I talk to outside of the United States were like, well, he’s rich. I talked to fans elsewhere and they’re much more clear-eyed about what this guy represents and how much he flirts — particularly in the hands of somebody like Frank Miller — how much this power equals right, crypto-fascism is an element that you have to acknowledge. You don’t have to accept it, but you have to acknowledge it. That runs underneath all the superhero mythology.
That does get ignored a lot and people outside America point out that superheroes are a very American concept.
My friend, the novelist Alex Chee, called them, “extralegal agents of benign intervention.” Which means that it’s something we desperately want to believe in. Save me. It’s a great thing to believe in. It doesn’t exist. We admire their restraint, which is why it’s so important that they don’t kill. Which is why it’s so important that they don’t abuse their power. Because they do have more power than we do and as long as they don’t lord it over us, they are people to admire.
In post-Vietnam War America, a lot of people like the idea of taking the gloves off power and not having restraint.
Miller shows us that in “Dark Knight Returns.” That’s one of many reasons why it has this power. Not only because it reached nerds but because it contradicted the notion that normals had in their heads which was still, “Pow, Zap, Careful, chum, Pedestrian Safety Batman.” When you would talk to a normal in 1986 they would think that was who Batman was, because they had no real knowledge of the comics. That’s why as much as I talk about the comics I always try to make the distinction between here’s what he looked like to nerds like me and here’s what he looked like to the wider world. In terms of shaping public consciousness, TV and the movies have much wider power than the comics do.
Let’s close with a few shorter questions about things you raise in the book. First, defend the Schumacher films.
OK, he was taking the gay subtext that people had been picking up on forever and just turned it up to 11. That’s all he was doing. It was all there. I would say that the Batman that carries a credit card that says Batman on it, that has an expiration date of forever — which, you know, is awesome — that goes to gala fundraisers and has ice skates that pop out of his boots and nipples on the costume, that is as valid a version and has as long a history as brooding Batman. You need to acknowledge that this character isn’t one thing. He is many things to many different people. While those movies were godawful, they were at least leavened by a sensibility that wasn’t quite camp, because camp didn’t really exist in the same way that it did in the ’60s. Camp was harder, queerer, a little bit more defiant, and so you get Bat nipples. The bat nipples are a joke. The bat nipples are an explicit joke on Rambo, First Blood, Commando and this muscular Schwarzenegger-ization of American masculinity. That’s what it was commenting on.
There is also something that he picked up on which is that the superhero idiom is as fascinated with the human body as is porn. There’s an overlap there. Again this touches on the whole fascist glorification of the body. That’s what he was doing. It wasn’t good, but it inspired a hugely homophobic backlash. If the Schumacher movies came out today they would be just as terrible, but the homophobic backlash would be one voice among many.
The fanbase has not changed but the barriers to discourse have gotten lower because on the internet, women can enter the conversation and they often do. They can get shut down by trolls and homophobic dicks, but they’re a voice in the mix. Queer people are a voice in the mix. People of color are a voice in the mix. Again, anytime we can allow more voices we get a better, healthier fanbase.
You get into this notion about how fandom can be toxic.
Because what are nerds but passionate? Passion is great when it wants to be shared, but passion can push discourse to other ends of the spectrum. My thing is the best and your thing is the worst. You’re not doing it right if you don’t like it for the same reasons that I do.
That crap is toxic. It’s about hoarding. It’s about being what we call in other parts of culture, “hipster.” Saying, I discovered this first, it was my mine first, how dare you pretend to like it because you don’t understand it to the same degree that I do. With the internet, a lot of those barriers to entry have fallen away. You can learn a lot without becoming an otaku, without devoting your entire life to it. That is good. That means there are more people in the mix and more people in the mix is good.
You make a joke at the end of the book that all your relatives have been asking, so what are you going to do now, write an Aquaman book? And they all think that’s funny.
The amount of people who would read a book about Aquaman are me and the guy who runs The Aquaman Shrine. That’s two books right there. [Laughs]
Depends how many pictures are included in the book. [Laughs]
That’s true. [Laughs] I love writing about culture and I do think that there’s more to talk about with nerd culture. I’m writing a piece about what happens next now that “nerd culture” has become “culture” essentially. What happens next? At the end of the day to be able to call yourself anything because of your interests, to define yourself as a nerd because you like X,Y or Z is not the same thing as saying I’m queer, I’m Latino, I’m a Muslim. There’s something fundamentally different there. I
t is a very privileged thing at the end of the day to be able to define yourself as a nerd. I’m not saying they don’t get victimized. I was pushed into many a locker, but the kind of victimization, the kind of agency you have, is just different. And I’m still puzzling through that. Once I figure out what I want to say about that, I think that might be at least a part of the next book.
I think the most disturbing thing I’ve seen about online fandom is people thinking of “nerd” as an essential identity in that way.
Where there’s this woundedness that emerges. This woundedness of, how dare you, this is mine. This is a very privileged, entitled thing to be able to say, I love Batman therefore X. I get it. I love Batman, too, but lots of different people like Batman for different reasons. That’s the thesis of the book.
People likely know you best for NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, which I listen to every week, and I have to ask, is it as much fun to do as it sounds?
Absolutely it is. I am constantly amazed that as many people listen to it as apparently do, because to me it’s a conversation with my friends. Yes I do prep. I do more prep than I do for conversations with my friends not in front of microphones. [Laughs]
I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts where it’s people trying to get their word in. What gets under-appreciated, I think, is just how good Linda [Holmes] is at doing what she does, because basically she is guiding this conversation. We have a planning document but it’s very sketchy. We don’t go in there and let each other know what we’re going to say. The other thing is that this show is heavily edited and I don’t think people appreciate the extent to which it is. We sound much smarter than we actually know ourselves to be. It is good chemistry. I think as much as we miss Trey [Graham], who was in the original fourth chair, getting more people into the mix of different ages and races and backgrounds, again, the more you can do that, the deeper conversations you can have.
Glen Weldon’s “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture” is on sale now.
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