The Caped Crusade
INTRODUCTION Batman, Nerd
Over his seven decades of fictive life, the elastic concept of “Batman” has taken on a host of shapes. He started off simply enough, as a murderous, gun-wielding rip-off of the Shadow. Since then he’s clocked field time as a time-and-space-hopping gadabout, a Pop Art scoutmaster, a globe-trotting master spy, a gadget-happy criminologist, and a grim, remorseless ninja of the urban night.
No single image defines Batman, because any single image is too small to contain the various layered and at times contradictory meanings we’ve instilled in him. 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.
It’s this limitless capacity for interpretation that sets him apart from his comparatively stolid fellows in spandex. It’s why so many different iterations of Batman have managed to escape the nerd enclave of comics to blithely coexist in the cultural consciousness of normals. Anyone can look at Christian Bale’s Kevlar-suited, mouth-breathing Batman, croaking his dire threats like an enraged, laryngitic frog, and immediately recognize him as the same character as Adam West’s Batusi Batman, out there on the go-go floor, shaking what his dead mama gave him.
They are both equally true, because every thirty years or so Batman cycles from dark to light and back again. Twice before in his seventy-seven-year history, the Dark Knight has given way to the Camp
Crusader, and twice before a small subset of his most ardent fans have risen up in protest to demand that Batman return to his grittier roots. These hard-core enthusiasts accept only the darkest, grimmest, most hypermasculine version of the character imaginable and view any alternate Bat-iteration as somehow suspect, inauthentic, debased, and ssssorta gay.
Adam West’s Batman ended one cycle in 1969, and Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Batman began the next the following year. Joel Schumacher’s Batman ended that second cycle in the mid-nineties; ten years later, Christopher Nolan’s Batman began the one in which we now find ourselves.
But this recursive pattern isn’t immediately apparent to the casual fan. To the culture at large, it’s the mix that matters.
To most people, there is no one Batman, but an endless blurry parade of Batmen, broadly identifiable by a series of core signifiers: millionaire Bruce Wayne, dead parents, bat costume, secret lair, and Gotham City. Precisely how these signifiers combine, and in what idiom—crime noir, gothic melodrama, Boy’s Own adventure, spy thriller, broad slapstick, or slick science fiction—remains endlessly, defiantly mutable. It’s exactly this protean adaptability (paired with a multinational megaconglomerate’s marketing muscle) that has ensured the character’s longevity.
That, and his vaunted “relatability.”
THE MYTH OF RELATABILITY
“Batman’s my guy,” a friend and lifelong comics fan told me when I described this book project to him. “No powers, just grit. He’s human. He’s relatable.”
This is an oft-heard refrain among the subset of people who talk and think about superheroes. We were sitting in a diner; our order had just arrived. “You or I,” he said, pointing with his French fry at each of us in turn, before dipping it into his milkshake, “could be Batman.”
Here’s the thing: we really could not.
But we think we could.
There is a widespread tendency, among nerds and normals alike, to dismiss the impact of Bruce Wayne’s billionaire status on the idea of Batman. But of course that wealth is Batman’s true superpower. Its narrative function, in any Batman story, is to turn the flatly impossible into the vaguely plausible. It works, essentially, as magic.
Yet few fans acknowledge that socioeconomic wish fulfillment plays even a small role in the bond they feel with him; many don’t even consider his wealth to be a core element of his character.
Which, given that it is only this unimaginable wealth that makes his whole one-man, Chiroptera-themed war on crime possible in the first place, is a) nuts, and b) fascinating. It speaks to the abiding and uniquely American belief that anyone can become obscenely rich if they just . . . want to, really hard.
This belief aligns closely with the wildly aspirational and borderline-delusional conviction among even the most indolent of nerds that becoming Batman is an achievable goal, given sit-ups enough and time.
That is the key difference between Batman and many of his other super-cohorts: Superman, after all, represents an ideal we can never achieve, and we know it; that’s pretty much the whole point of him.
Yet one unintended and insidious consequence of Batman’s humanity is that consciously or not, we are doomed to compare ourselves to him, and we cannot help but find ourselves wanting. In the ad for the fitness regimen, the miracle diet, we are forever the before photo, and he, always, the after.
But of course, there’s more than just a few workout DVDs separating us from him. However much Bat-fans profess it, Batman’s status as a nonpowered human being is not the true reason they feel such a kinship with the character. There is something lurking deeper in the character’s essence that speaks to them. Something coded into his conceptual DNA.
The bond fans feel with him has less to do with the tragedy that
formed him—the violent death of his parents—and everything to do with his singular reaction to it.
Which is to say: his oath.
Young Bruce Wayne first swore it back in Detective Comics #33 in 1939. He’d been around a while by then, having made his first appearance months earlier in Detective Comics #27. It took him seven issues to merit an origin story, albeit one dashed off in a brisk twelve panels.
Having seen his parents gunned down before his eyes, wee Bruce Wayne makes the following vow by candlelight: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
This oath is ridiculous on its face, so laughably grandiose and melodramatic that only a kid could make it.
Which is exactly its power.
That oath is a choice. An act of will. A deliberate reaction to a shattering injustice. More crucially, it is an act of self-rescue. It’s these twenty-four words, after all, that give his life purpose and launch him into an existence entirely devoted to protecting others from the fate that befell him. This is why, for all the character’s vaunted darkness, he is now and has always been a creature not of rage but of hope. He believes himself to be an agent of change; he is the living embodiment of the simple, implacably optimistic notion Never again.
But in the 1970s, something odd happened to Batman’s childhood oath. It entered puberty.
Writers of Batman comics spent the seventies and eighties desperately striving to course-correct for what they saw as the grave disservice done to the character by a late-sixties fad of frothy Pop Art Batmania. In a very real sense, everything about the dark, grim Batman that exists today in the public imagination was born in reaction to—and would not exist without—Adam West’s goofy, groovy Caped Crusader.
Many of the changes introduced by the writers of the post-Batmania era were obvious, like sidelining Robin the Boy Wonder and returning Batman to his very earliest incarnation as a lone urban vigilante. But
they also took his ceaseless war on criminals (which had remained a part of the character, even in the heyday of his most outlandish interplanetary adventures) and submerged it in a steamy broth of seventies pop psychology. Thus, a crucial element of his backstory long treated as subtext now became the central, driving text in every issue: his childhood vow curdled into psychological obsession.
In the eighties, writers like Frank Miller went even further, amping up Batman’s obsession into a study in violent sociopathy.
ENTER THE NERDS
At exactly the same time Batman was becoming an obsessive, a new breed of enthusiast began its rise to prominence. For years they had lurked in the shadowy corners of popular culture, quietly pursuing their niche interests among themselves, keeping their heads down to avoid the inquisitive, judgmental gaze of the wider world.
They called themselves fans, experts, otaku. Everyone else, of course, called them nerds.
Nerds had spent decades creating and policing carefully wrought self-identities around their strictly specialized interests: comic books, computers, science fiction, video games, Dungeons & Dragons. What truly united them, however, were not the specific objects of their enthusiasm but the nature of their enthusiasm itself—the all-consuming degree to which they rejected the reflexive irony their peers prized. Instead, these fans blithely surrendered themselves to their passion.
The rise of the Internet would fuel this passion by connecting them to others who shared it. In only a handful of years, their particular species of enthusiasm—“nerding out”—would supplant irony to become the dominant mode in which we engage with each other and with the culture around us.
And it was Batman—Batman the obsessive, Batman the ultimate nerd—who acted as the catalyst for billions of normals to embrace the culture they had once dismissed or rejected. It is Batman whose comics,
television shows, and movies continue to serve as gateway drugs to the nerdly life. Because whether it is treated as lofty mission statement or driving obsession, his childhood oath is the thing about this character—far more central than his “relatability”—that resonates deeply with us, ardent Bat-fan and casual moviegoer alike.
COMIC-CON AS MICROCOSM
July 2013. San Diego, California. Comic-Con.
I am a forty-five-year-old man standing in line for a toy Batmobile. And I am not alone.
The line in question begins at the Entertainment Earth booth in the 2300 section of the convention floor, wraps twice around a dining area where families huddle in clots to listlessly chew terrible pizza at one another, doubles back and extends down over the thick blue carpet to bisect no less than twelve aisles, travels past the Small Press Pavilion (whose beardy, be-flanneled residents regard us line-standers warily), and continues on through Webcomics, to reach its terminus somewhere beyond the horizon in the mist-shrouded recesses of the 1100 section, where there be dragons. And dungeons. And mages and paladins, presumably, as I think the 1100 section is Tabletop Gaming.
I have been standing in this line for the past forty-five minutes. I don’t know it yet, but I will be standing in it for another hour. When I at last make it to the front, I will too-happily plunk down sixty bucks for a chunk of extruded plastic in the form of a “CON-EXCLUSIVE!” toy Batmobile—the classic version from the late-sixties television show.
Like most nerds my age, my first exposure to Batman didn’t come in the form of a comic, but from television. In my case, from reruns of the Batman TV show every afternoon at three thirty on channel 29.
By age six I had memorized the schedule of every Philadelphia station, so while other kids spent their after-school time sweatily to-ing and fro-ing in the sunshine, I’d run inside, kneel before the TV, and
spend the hours until dinner spinning the UHF dial like a safecracker: Spider-Man on channel 17. The Space Giants on channel 48. And always, every day, Batman on channel 29 at three thirty sharp.
The show is famous for its bifurcated appeal: kids love its bold colors, its fight scenes, its derring-do, while adults appreciate the goofy, po-faced “Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods!”–iness of it all.
But that’s not the whole story. Because something happens to us nerds between childhood and adulthood, as the long, greasy night of our teenaged years settles over us. Our youthful ardor for the show decays into a pitched loathing. “That’s not Batman,” we begin to insist. “Batman’s a badass, that show doesn’t take Batman seriously.”
For the last three decades, the American superhero has been trapped in a perpetual age of adolescence, with fans and creators peevishly avowing that these spandex-clad fantasy characters created to entertain children must now be taken seriously, by which they mean they should be mired in joyless nihilism: badass.
It was Batman and his fans who brought this benighted era about, and there are hopeful signs that Batman and his fans may soon be responsible for ending it.
For now, however, I am standing in this endless line in hopes of scoring me some of that sweet, sweet Batmobile action. I decided to wait in line for it because waiting in line is, on one level, sort of what Comic-Con is all about. But mostly because I feel for the sixties Batman TV series a profound and passionate love.
It’s not simply nostalgia, though of course nostalgia is the nutrient agar upon which all of nerd culture grows. No, I love it because of what it represents, what it argues against: the mere existence of Adam West’s Batman breezily yet effectively rejects the notion that the only valid Batman is a grim, gritty badass.
This is why I am so heartened to look around me at Comic-Con and see, for the first time, toys and merch based on the 1966 television show, after long decades when it seemed as if DC Comics wished to disavow any trace of it.
The young men ahead of me in line are waiting not for the Batmobile, but for some robot action figure thingy. Yet I hear something familiar in the urgent rush of their voices, and in their adjective choices, like “superior,” marked by the telltale overarticulated terminal r to which we nerds default in conversation. I see it lighting up their faces as they tick off the names and combat specs of their favorite kaiju-whomping fightin’ mechs. It’s what I saw in my friend’s face at the diner as he rhapsodized about how and why being Batman was an achievable goal. Same passion, just dressed up in a different suit. And that’s all that Comic-Con is: a whole lot of different suits.
THE WAY WE NERD NOW
It’s no longer just nerds like me who love Batman and things like him. The entire cultural context around him has changed. 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.
Hobbies have been around forever, kept discreetly in a tidy, out-of-the-way corner of one’s day-to-day existence. That’s not what I’m talking about.I
Now, spurred by the Internet, which inspires and nurtures niche interests, many millions of us define ourselves by our specific enthusiasms: Foodie! Politics wonk! Wine snob! Music geek! But this is misleading, because the object of our enthusiasm isn’t what matters. What’s important—what we share—is the delirious, all-consuming, and blissfully unself-conscious nature of that passion.
The passion is not new. But its current cultural ubiquity very much is.
I talk to a couple of San Diego locals, for whom Comic-Con is not the Great Nerd Hajj it is for me, but an annual family tradition in which they’ve taken part for as long as they remember. To them, dressing up and hitting Comic-Con just comes with the zip code, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Mummers Parade in Philly.
That’s how it worked for comedian Scott Aukerman, who grew up in Orange County and has been coming to Comic-Con for decades. I ask him the question I’ve been asking everyone this year: Why do you think that what we’ve come to call “nerd culture” has grown so pervasive?
I get lots of different answers, and I’ve noticed, unsurprisingly, that the answers seem to be a function of one’s perspective.
To the comics pros I’ve talked to, it’s simply that the wider world has finally discovered the appeal of comics. The medium of the comic book carried a stigma that acted as a barrier to entry and kept the normals out. But today’s cinematic special effects can reproduce comic book action easily, so the joy and wonder of these characters and stories can now be seen and enjoyed by all.
To many of the fans I’ve talked to, especially those couples who come to Comic-Con in themed costumes with their kids in tow, it’s just a family thing. Their parents were/are nerds who instilled in them a love of nerdy pursuits. They love the things that brought them together as a family; it’s just that simple: My family had Uno. Theirs has Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
To the bloggers I’ve talked to, it’s the Internet that changed everything. They were nerdy kids loving the thing they loved for their own reasons, and then one day they found a message board or website that told them they weren’t alone. Communities formed, communities that not only accepted them but reinforced their nerdiest behavior traits. They found a home.
All of these answers, and many more, are perfectly correct, of
course. Because cultures are messy things that grow and thrive for a host of overlapping reasons. But Aukerman is the first person I talk to who puts the rise of nerd culture in a wider sociopolitical context.
“We were the first generation without a draft,” he says matter-of-factly. “We didn’t need to worry about life and death, so we channeled all that time and energy into obsessing over this TV show or that comic book.”
This blunt theory—let’s call it “the Lamest Generation”—is one that hits close to home, as I have spent much of the last few days wondering how Comic-Con’s garish gewgaws and ephemeral delights would strike my dour, Welsh-immigrant grandparents, who came of age in the Depression.
That night I imagine the ghost of Norman “Bud” Johnson, who as a boy would wait by the railroad tracks to scavenge lumps of coal that fell from passing trains so he could heat his parents’ house.
I see him floating at the foot of my hotel bed, glowering incredulously at the nightstand, where I, his forty-five-year-old male heir, have lovingly placed my new toy Batmobile. I
. Sports, of course, are the one area of public life where a nerdy obsession is so uniformly embraced by the culture at large that it is not recognized as nerdy, and is even considered a sign of healthy, normal development. That’s not the issue here, either.