Book Review: THE CAPED CRUSADES AUTHOR: Robert Reineke
Date: May 13, 2016
SYNOPSIS: A witty, intelligent cultural history from NPR book critic Glen Weldon explains Batman’s rises and falls throughout the ages—and what his story tells us about ourselves.
Since his creation, Batman has been many things: a two-fisted detective; a planet-hopping gadabout; a campy Pop-art sensation; a pointy-eared master spy; and a grim and gritty ninja of the urban night. For more than three quarters of a century, he has cycled from a figure of darkness to one of lightness and back again; he’s a bat-shaped Rorschach inkblot who takes on the various meanings our changing culture projects onto him. How we perceive Batman’s character, whether he’s delivering dire threats in a raspy Christian Bale growl or trading blithely homoerotic double-entendres with partner Robin on the comics page, speaks to who we are and how we wish to be seen by the world. It’s this endlessly mutable quality that has made him so enduring.
And it’s Batman’s fundamental nerdiness—his gadgets, his obsession, his oath, even his lack of superpowers—that uniquely resonates with his fans who feel a fiercely protective love for the character. Today, fueled by the internet, that breed of passion for elements of popular culture is everywhere. Which is what makes Batman the perfect lens through which to understand geek culture, its current popularity, and social significance.
In THE CAPED CRUSADE, with humor and insight, Glen Weldon, book critic for NPR lays out Batman’s seventy-eight-year cultural history and shows how he has helped make us who we are today and why his legacy remains so strong.
With the release of a new Batman movie, you can count on a new book coming out to accompany it. The release of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was therefore accompanied by THE CAPED CRUSADE by NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” contributor Glen Weldon. It’s part general history of Batman, covering many of the notable runs and storylines of Batman in comics in brief overview, part examination of Batman in other media and his presence in the larger pop culture, and part examination of “Bat-nerds,” which I’m sure Weldon views himself as, and their battle for public acceptance of their love of Batman, albeit often in the form that he’s to be taken extremely seriously and always presented as a badass and absolutely not gay, and their, sometimes ugly, lashing out first at creators that aren’t deemed respectful enough, the Adam West Batman series and Joel Schumacher, for instance, and later at critics who dare to pan a Christopher Nolan film. (On behalf of Batman on Film, let me say that Christy Lemire and Marshall Fine, among others, deserve long overdue apologies for bad fan behavior.)
Given the reaction towards BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and the bad behavior by fans – including threats and Disney payola conspiracy theories – the latter has proven to be extremely prescient.
Prescience however, doesn’t necessarily make for a good read. But, readers are in good hands with Mr. Weldon who writes in a breezy, self-deprecating, and insightful style. There are nits to pick with several of his statements of fact, such as examples of Michael Keaton’s lethality in BATMAN (1989), and he’s perhaps as guilty as any Bat-nerd as stating some of his preferences as fact, he rightly asserts that there are many different, valid interpretations of Batman and then asserts that BATMAN (1989) is “not a Batman movie.” Also, he proceeds to analyze BATMAN (1989) to argue why it was a hit, which doesn’t seem to account for the fervor it created before it even opened. But, for every questionable assertion, there are at least a dozen really insightful nuggets of information or insight such as...
* An insightful look at what makes Batman “Batman;” including some puncturing of the “relatability” argument and special emphasis on the oath he swore to spend the rest of his life warring on crime.
* A really fair look at SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and its analysis of Batman and Robin.
* Calling into question whether BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS were really in danger of being cancelled in the 1960s based on actual sales numbers or if it was just a lever to get Bob Kane to yield some control.
* A great analysis of the Adam West BATMAN series – its strengths and weaknesses, and just how brilliant Adam West’s performance was.
* A solid analysis of the contributions that Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil made to reboot Batman in the comics and how O’Neil would resist efforts to essentially turn Batman into The Punisher.
* A continuing thread about the “Great Inward Turn” of comic books where readers got older, the stories became more inside baseball, and publishers would strategize how to get fewer readers to buy more books and reboot in hopes of attracting new readers.
* A longish and admiring analysis of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and YEAR ONE.
* Regrets for voting to off Jason Todd. (I share this guilt too.)
* A rhapsodic appreciation of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.
* An analysis of the way that fans have changed from attackers of Hollywood to rabid defenders of Hollywood against critics.
* Analysis of most major comic book stories and events post-YEAR ONE, including a really long look at Grant Morrison’s “Unified Theory of Batman”. (He’s a big fan.)
* Analysis of all Batman movies pre-BvS.
* Identification of a counter-narrative around Batman as a character that it’s okay to have fun with including LEGO BATMAN, BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, DC and WB finally getting on board with accepting and celebrating the Adam West series, and the way various video games allow one to have an array of costumes allowing one to pick and choose your own version of Batman.
All of that packed into around 300 pages of easily readable, entertaining, and sometimes flat out funny prose makes it a keeper. I expect it will make a few uber-fans uncomfortable and certainly there’s room for disagreements with many of the opinions, but I think it’s a good starting point for a taking a fresh look at Batman, the character and the idea, and our relation to him as fans. It’s a great book for starting a conversation or a debate. I highly recommend it. - Robert Reineke