Wednesday, April 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Caped Crusade...

So is he queer or what?
By Don Stradley

Batman comes and goes – a menacing figure of the night, brought forth by National Comics as America was plodding from the Great Depression into WW2, forced to endure the sci-fi ‘50s and Pop Art ‘60s, the BAM! POW! of TV, and then four decades of rebirths, rehashes, revamps and requiems – and I’ve remained immune. This isn’t meant to flatter myself, for while I’ve never been sucked into the one era or another of Batmania, there’ve certainly been other questionable pursuits to eat my time, from Laverne & Shirley reruns on MeTV to old wrestling matches on YouTube. Still, I’ve often admired Adam West’s stuntman for throwing those up from the floor haymakers that could rattle the teeth of any costumed scoundrel. Hence, I was intrigued by Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, a thoughtful look at the long history of Batman, though I wish he’d spent more time on Lewis Wilson, the actor who first donned the ears for a 15-chapter Columbia serial in 1943, a showcase that, pound for pound, kicks as much ass as any Batman incarnation since, including Christopher Nolan’s glum trilogy.

Early in The Caped Crusade we learn about the prickly comic book readers and the bitter outrage they’ve unleashed on anyone who dared portray Batman as anything but a masked hammerhead. The Bat-loyalists, as devoted as Trekkies but even more self-righteous, have traditionally greeted any new development, whether in the comic mags or the movies, with a great weeping and gnashing of teeth, rising as one to wail: That’s not our Batman!  What they’ve wanted, it seems, is Taxi Driver with a Bat signal, with Travis Bickle putting aside his .44 mag in favor of his Batarang. Batman, you see, can never use a gun, which in itself is a childlike fantasy – guns are for adults, after all, so children dream of outsmarting the elders with the gadgets you might find on Batman’s utility belt. Dark Knight my ass. Batman is just a big rich kid with cool stuff and a magic belt. And his parents aren’t around to tell him what to do!

The story Weldon tells is one of endurance, as Batman begins as a garden variety mystery man, “a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art,” patched together from elements of The Shadow, Zorro, and Lee Falk’s Phantom, only to spend many years inhaling the fumes of the far more popular Superman. As of 2016, Batman has overtaken “his older jock brother” and stands supreme, a turnabout akin to Donald Duck overtaking Mickey Mouse and becoming the new face of Disney. Batman’s current status is quite an achievement considering the character had come close to being discontinued on numerous occasions due to poor sales, not to mention the long running joke that he’s a homosexual. (For the record, a few DC writers have said yes, totally. Others say he's simply too absorbed with fighting crime to think about women.)  To the pleasure of his fans, Batman is finally taken seriously. But with a LEGO movie on the way, and the immensely unlikable Ben Affleck now wearing the cape, this could change faster than you can say “Joel Schumacher.” (He was the director who put nipples on Val Kilmer’s Bat suit, which set the fans moaning for years at the indignity. I thought the nipples should have been used as radio dials.)

Even if you haven’t dug into the Batman comics lately, and aren't aware of such events as Batman drowning at the bottom of Gotham River, or that there was once a phone-in vote to have Robin killed off, you can fill in the gaps thanks to Weldon’s thorough research and his entertaining style. I loved his comments on artist Jim Lee’s women, “with their ability to risk spinal torsion by simultaneously aiming the breasts and buttocks at the reader,” and the way he mocks the low budget look of the TV Batman’s third season, when it appeared as if the Joker “had chosen to hide out in a community theater production of The Fantasticks.” At times, though, Weldon works too hard. His description of McDonald’s as “the corporation whose spokesclown pimped saturated fat to children like a whimsical chalk-faced avatar of arteriosclerosis,” takes too many corners to make a belabored point. Still, Weldon’s passages about Batman’s mystique are inspired, such as this bit about, of all things, Batman’s cape: “It will become a major character, a silent but expressive narrator who guides the reader’s eye and infuses the action with layers of meaning, evoking a moldering grave shroud, or the leathery wings of a demon, or the fierce and howling winds of Aeolus.”


Where Weldon stumbles is with his depiction of Batman fandom. By labeling the readers as “nerds” rather than, say, enthusiasts, or fanboys, he renders them as a pimply-faced Greek chorus of whiners. Reading the word “nerd” two or three times per page may be funny for a while, but it ultimately has a dehumanizing effect. The ongoing battle between Time Warner’s clueless toy merchants and the army of hardcore readers carrying the torch for their masked hero isn’t as compelling as it could’ve been, for Weldon can’t elevate these permanent cases of arrested development into anything more than faceless grumblers, impossible to please mopes pining for a Batman of their own, with no Robin to get in the way, with no sunlight to break up the darkness they perceive as making Batman more suitable for adult readers, when any real adult looking for dark literature would simply forget the comics and read some Dostoyevsky.

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