Batman has two identities: his costumed, crime-fighting persona and his everyday identity as billionaire Bruce Wayne. Right? Or maybe it's not quite that simple — as Glen Weldon compellingly puts forth in The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. The follow-up to his 2013 book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, this new superhero overview peeks under the iconic cowl to unveil the many faces of Batman — as well as the many faces of his millions of fans — since the character's creation 77 years ago. And it accomplishes what so many supervillains, from The Joker to Bane, have long desired to do: pin down Batman and systematically dissect him.
That's not to say Weldon's out to deconstruct Batman. He writes from the enthused, informed perspective of a diehard fan — one of the selfsame nerds of the book's subtitle — while keeping just enough journalistic remove to give the book a rigorous backbone. Laid out chronologically, Caped traces Batman's evolution, starting with his origins as a Depression-era mishmash of existing characters and archetypes, from demons to Dracula to pulp antiheroes like The Shadow. Creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger — the former a pathological tracer of other cartoonists' artwork — are the first in a long line of writers, artists, actors, and filmmakers who have defined and radically redefined Batman over the decades, from his start as a wealth-defending "Pinkerton man in a leotard" to a campy Pop Art avatar, to the gruff, grimacing specter of vengeance he's best known as today.
Weldon breezes through this oft-told history with authority and ease, highlighting the big moments in Batman's timeline while providing rich, witty commentary. "Dude was basically wearing an umbrella," he says of Finger's original depiction of Batman's cape in 1939; describing Adam West's scenery-chewing screen test for the '60s TV show Batman, Weldon jests, "He inserts pauses that are not merely pregnant but two weeks overdue." Even his footnotes are funny. To its credit, the book's light tone never veers into full-on snark. Instead, Weldon has a keen eye for paradox: "Kane and Finger's attempt to cash in on the Superman craze had birthed a character who was in so many ways the Man of Tomorrow's antithesis," he notes, then later makes a convincing case for why Batman: The Animated Series from the '90s triumphs as both lavish fan service and a gateway for the uninitiated.
The Caped Crusade does the same. Winks and in-jokes for the hardcore fan abound; casual Bat-lovers, though, won't be lost. Weldon navigates Batman's history with an expert step, teasing out the latent homoeroticism of his relationship with Robin — a point of contention since psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's anti-comics crusade of the '50s — with a winning mix of humor and incisive social analysis. He sprinkles the book with anecdotes, including a framing sequence involving a trip of his own to San Diego Comic-Con that eloquently illustrates his views on Batman — and on Batman fandom. The Caped Crusade is as much about the cult of Batman as it is about Batman himself, including Bat-fandom's growth from a network of homemade zines in the '60s to its current, massive Internet iteration.
Weldon doesn't pull any punches when it comes to his fellow fans. The book might as well be his Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the door of geekdom — an excoriation of how insular, homophobic, and at times violent the fan community has become, up to and including the horrific shooting at a 2012 showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo. But he's quick to celebrate the positive, creative ways fans have become proprietary about Batman in recent times, most notably through fanfic and cosplay.
The history of Batman is tied intimately to the people who perpetually reinvent him, but also to those who worship him — or frighteningly relate to him. "Batman is an inkblot; we see in him what we want to," Weldon writes. It's The Caped Crusade's mantra — and under that famous cowl, Weldon sees ugliness, wonder, and the undercurrents of pop culture in all their conflicting glory.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.