Comic book fans are known for their strong opinions, but one hero in particular seems to inspire more passionate arguments than most—Batman. NPR contributor Glen Weldon explores that phenomenon in his new book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. A major theme of the book is that Batman fans—who are predominantly straight white men—have consistently derided any portrayal of the character that was deemed too gay, such as the one in the 1960s TV series or, especially, the one in the Joel Schumacher films.
“This was seen as an affront, a debasement,” Weldon says in Episode 196 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The version that the hardcore fanbase wanted was the grim, gritty badass.”
Weldon argues that comic book fans have such strong feelings about Batman because they identify very personally with his solitude and focus.
“[Dennis] O’Neill, back in 1970, made him an obsessed loner,” Weldon says, “and I would argue that the notion of obsession resonated with his fanbase.”
For years fans felt isolated, marginalized by a culture that ridiculed their love of comic books. But the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins finally made it cool to take Batman seriously. That resulted in a remarkable shift among comics fans, who went from castigating Hollywood for its treatment of Batman to attacking anyone who questioned the value of Nolan’s films.
“We just don’t know what to do with that [mainstream] attention,” Weldon says. “Some of us feel that they want to hold on with a white-knuckle grip to that feeling of acceptance, of being able to talk about superheroes with anybody.”
He thinks that as Batman fans grow more diverse, the fascination with Batman as a grim avenger will fade, and that fans will become more accepting of a wide range of possible Batmen.
“Any medium improves when it becomes less monolithic,” he says, “when it’s not just one viewpoint being asserted loudly and incessantly.”
Listen to our complete interview with Glen Weldon in Episode 196 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Glen Weldon on gay subtext:
“Superheroes like Batman have things sort of ‘factory pre-installed’ that just resonate. … The fact that Batman is afraid of his secret identity being exposed, that has a certain resonance with gay guys. The fact that he’s jacked, let’s not discount that. This idea of the cloak of night. Let’s put in the fact that there’s this homosocial friendship—that it really, really seems like he wants to hang out with Robin a lot more than he does Vicki Vale. All this stuff matters. It doesn’t mean that anybody intended them to be read as gay, but that does not prevent them from being read as gay.”
Glen Weldon on nerds vs. hipsters:
“The thing that I love about nerds is that our passion is infectious, it is completely sincere. … The best thing about nerds is when we want to share our love for the thing we love, we are filled with a desire to interest other people in it. … That easily—increasingly, I think—curdles into exactly the opposite, a feeling of hoarding a thing, what in other realms of public life people term ‘hipsters,’ which is, ‘I loved this thing before you did. I love this thing in a smarter way, I love this thing for more nuanced reasons than you do.’ There is no way to go from there. That is shutting down discourse.”
Glen Weldon on the DC movies:
“DC made Superman Returns, and it wasn’t what they thought it should be, then they made Batman Begins, and it was huge, and they thought, ‘OK, this is how we tell superhero stories, then.’ That is the wrong lesson to learn. And that was only compounded when they made Green Lantern, which was terrible for a whole host of reasons, but the lesson they took away from that is, ‘Humor doesn’t work. We can’t tell jokes.’ … [But] when you flatten everything, by making it as grim and dark as you can, you’re telling only one story, which is why people are going to get sick of these films—not because of superheroes, but because of tone.”
Glen Weldon on Batman and Superman:
“When people say they don’t get Superman because he could do anything he wants and he chooses to help people, I think that says a hell of a lot more about them than it does about Superman. … [Superman] is an ideal. He is something that we strive to be like. … There’s this whole thing about how Superman is the day and Batman is the night, and Superman is good and Batman deals in the sewers. But Batman is a lot closer to Superman than he isn’t. Because again, Batman is dedicating himself to helping others. … That’s how you know that these characters are characters of hope and not rage. … They speak to the better angels of our nature.”