The man who helped create the Joker flashed a wide grin beneath his crisp white whiskers. This artist, then in his 80s, had lived through every incarnation of Batman, honing the primordial superhero during World War II and witnessing the cinematic shifts in the character during America's second Iraq war. And that smile said it all.
The late Jerry Robinson was the last studio man who truly spanned the life of Batman. On a dark night six years ago, I asked him whether he liked Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker, the grinning villain that Robinson helped created.
The verdict: He loved what he saw.
That anecdote reflects the most fascinating pop aspect of Batman: How does one comic-book character remain so consistently intriguing to so many people over eight decades?
An engaging new book takes up that question. Batman is the World's Greatest Detective, and so it's apt that author Glen Weldon approaches his subject like a metaphor-loving sleuth for a mission that could be called "The Case of the Rubbery Mutability."
Three years ago, Weldon published Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, which shed light on how another DC hero has stayed popular since his 1938 birth. Now, Weldon, a pop culture journalist and podcaster at NPR, delves deep into Batman's story in The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, just in time for the release of the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Weldon goes on the trail of the Gotham hero's popularity as if he's crafting a procedural. He hews tightly to the chronology to piece together clues from each distinctive era, and his ultimate conclusion is that for every generation, Batman becomes what we need him to be. "No single image defines Batman," Weldon writes. The Caped Crusader functions like an inkblot: "He's whatever the reader brings to him."
Batman was born 77 years ago last month, as Bob Kane and Bill Finger borrowed from numerous pop influences — comic strips, pulp detective stories, children's books, even German Expressionist film — to create a "winged figure of vengeance." Weldon deliciously calls this many-fathered creation "a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art." Orphaned by his parents' murders and powered by an oath to forever wage war on criminals, this dark-caped hero became the "badass Batman of 1939" — who soon began to acquire one of the greatest rogues' galleries in comics history.
Through the succeeding decades, Batman went through cycles as a driven loner, then a father figure to sidekick Robin, and then paterfamilias to a growing cast before being returned to the role of solo vigilante.
And through these iterations, Batman was adapted — on page and screen — to environments involving sci-fi, saturated-color high camp and bloody noir. If his cape is sometimes as black as a movie theater, all the better for us to project our literary needs onto him through each reinvention.
Weldon especially shines when rendering Batman's shift from '60s TV camp to the reactionary "Great Inward Turn," when "Batman changed for good" as a dark figure, and then again in the '80s, when Frank Miller's influential The Dark Knight Returns morphed Batman from merely "obsessive" crimefighter to a nocturnal vigilante saddled with "full-blown schizophrenia." The author rightly calls the '70s move the "most dramatic and influential reboot of any character in the superhero genre" and deftly emphasizes how Miller "set out to engage with, and update, Batman the Idea, not Batman the Character."
As Weldon documents the rise of geek culture in recent decades — he's fond of dividing comics consumers into "nerds" and "normals" — he also shines a Bat-light on how the casting of on-screen Batman projects, including Michael Keaton and George Clooney, has excited fevered fan reactions and off-the-charts criticism, even prior to social media.
What Weldon ultimately achieves here is a character and comic-franchise history that is itself flexible enough to become what the reader needs it to be. If you're a Bat-neophyte, this is an accessible introduction; if you're a dyed-in-the-Latex Bat-nerd, this is a colorfully rendered magical history tour redolent with nostalgia.
If Batman has become an idea as much as a character — an invention that engages "our darkest selves" — then Weldon is a well-suited detective to illuminate these darkest literary places. With the newest Hollywood iteration, it's noir or never.