AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, Batman and Superman do battle on movie screens around the country in the much ballyhooed "Batman v Superman." Now, Superman is basically the same Superman he's always been - all-American golden boy, albeit from the planet Krypton, fighting for truth, justice. You know the rest. Batman, on the other hand, is a little different every time he appears on the scene. Sure, there are a few constants...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Tall figure in skin-tight costume, gloves, cape and bat-like hood and mask - Batman.
CORNISH: But depending on the decade, you might get the gritty growl of Michael Keaton...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN")
MICHAEL KEATON: (As Batman) I want you to tell all your friends about me.
CHRISTOPHER FAIRBANK: (As Nic) What are you?
KEATON: (As Batman) I'm Batman.
CORNISH: ...The straight-voiced camp of Adam West...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN: THE MOVIE")
ADAM WEST: (As Batman) A routine question - have you recently sold any war-surplus submarines, and if so, to whom?
CORNISH: ...Or even the cheeky self-reference of Lego Batman, Will Arnett.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LEGO MOVIE")
ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Wyldstyle) Oh, sorry, Batman, this is Emmett. Emmett, this is my boyfriend, Batman.
WILL ARNETT: (As Batman) I'm Batman.
CORNISH: And according to a new book by Glen Weldon, each iteration of Batman tells us a little bit about the culture that produced him. The book is called "The Caped Crusade," and we should also mention that Glen Weldon is a regular panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and writes about books and comic books for our website. Hey there, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Audie - great to be here.
CORNISH: So first, give us a sense of what the very first Batman was like. I understand that comic came out in 1939.
WELDON: Yeah. In 1939, he was, for a very brief time, a thug, basically, a guy who dressed up in a bat costume and would go and terrify his victims and take a robber and pitch him off the roof to his death. He was an international man of intrigue, but he was mostly a bruiser.
CORNISH: And a socialite by day (laughter).
WELDON: Yes, exactly, exactly. That was huge back then. That was the era of topper and private lives. A fascination with the upper crust was a big part of pop culture at the time.
CORNISH: Then, fast-forward to the '40s. Comic books are so huge that parents are actually concerned about them - right...
CORNISH: ...Batman included. What happened?
WELDON: In the '40s and '50s, there was a crusade led by a guy named Fredric Wertham, saying that comics were ruining literacy by breaking up sentences in word balloons. That was thought to be bad. They were presenting sexual imagery, violent imagery - he was kind of right about that; they were - but also that they were contributing to juvenile delinquency.
He proved that by saying, look; I have all these juvenile delinquents. They read comics. At the time, about 90 to 95 percent of kids read comics, so that wasn't really the slam dunk he thought it was.
CORNISH: But it had an effect on the industry.
WELDON: It did. His crusade - testifying in front of Congress and getting a lot parents groups and church groups and local communities together to ban the sale comes to minors - basically made a lot of the industry just go out of business and decimated crime comics and horror comics in a big way. Superheroes hung on but only by their white knuckles.
CORNISH: All right. Then we get to the TV show. This is Adam West starring in the role of Bruce Wayne for ABC. And of course, it has that famous theme song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATMAN THEME")
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Batman, Batman...
CORNISH: All right. So for people who aren't familiar with the show, describe why he was so different from what came before?
WELDON: Well, I mean, you've got to remember when this premiered. It was 1966. The popular shows were things like "Bewitched," "I Dream Of Jeannie," "Gilligan's Island." People wanted escapism. People wanted something that did not remind them of Vietnam, of political assassinations, of youth riots. They wanted something completely encased in a little hermetic bubble, and this fit the bill. This was silly. They just took the comics of the time and put them on the big screen without translating them - just put them on the big screen but invested it with all of this gravity.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")
WEST: (As Batman) I did think it would all end differently, somehow less ignominiously - to drown in my own anniversary cake.
BURT WARD: (As Robin) Drowned - but in quicksand?
WEST: (As Batman) Yes, old chum.
WELDON: All of this seriousness, which is where the humor came from.
CORNISH: So the bright colors that you would see on a comic page - that was the costume - right? - for Robin - the red chest and the, I think - was it green tights?
WELDON: Yes, it was.
CORNISH: Yeah (laughter).
WELDON: Green Speedos - yep - and green pixie boots. The Pop Art movement was huge then, and the Pop Art movement relished things that were slick, mass-produced and colorful like comic books. It really keyed into a lot of different competing trends and was also funny as hell.
CORNISH: When the show ends, there's a transition in the world of comic books that I found really fascinating and hadn't thought about, which is that because the comics aren't really sold in grocery stores anymore - right? - where mom and the kids could see them, they become very much adult entertainment as they move into places where adults shop, right?
WELDON: Absolutely. The comics, up until about 1970, were written for kids. And when the "Batman" television series died, the makers of the Batman comics realized they had to do something. So they said, we need to figure out how to give this character a personality, really, because up to then, he'd just been a cop in a cape, like a lot of other superheroes.
So they decide to look back at the very beginning of Batman where he has an origin, an origin you and I have seen way too many times by now.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Yeah.
WELDON: But back then, it was fresh. And they saw this one panel where this young boy, as Bruce Wayne, decides he's going to dedicate the rest of his life to warring on all criminals. He swears an oath. This oath is a very - it's a childish notion, but that's its power because he is not dedicated to going after the guy who killed his parents. He is dedicated to fighting capital-C crime. And so they made Batman an obsessive.
CORNISH: An the obsessive idea is core to what you call nerd culture
WELDON: That's exactly right.
CORNISH: How do you describe nerd in this context?
WELDON: Well, Batman's a great lens through which to view nerd culture. That's the whole argument of the book. The trait of nerds to insist that the grim, gritty, dark batman is the only batman that exists, which ignores more than 30 years of history, and does not permit something like the Batman character of the Adam West television show to exist is just wrongheaded.
Different people come to this character and bring different things to him. You can look at the Batman Adam West and you can look at Christian Bale's swear-to-me Batman and see that they're the same person not because of the bat ears but because they're all motivated by the same thing, which is this oath.
CORNISH: What makes his character so malleable compared to a Superman?
WELDON: Sure. Well, when I started this book, I thought I knew what I was going to get into. I'd written a cultural history of Superman, where I realized that he is a flattering mirror to us. He is us as we want to be seen by the world. So I figured Batman must be the dark mirror - right? - things we don't want to admit about ourselves like the rage we feel when we get cut off in traffic, the thirst for vengeance we feel when, you know, a fifth-grade bully takes our lunch money - just making an example out of the air.
CORNISH: Right (laughter).
WELDON: But that's just the rage. That's just - you're looking, and you're only seeing the first level. It's this oath, this idea that he will dedicate himself to the incredibly optimistic notion of never again. That makes him ultimately a creature of hope and not rage.
CORNISH: Glen Weldon - you often hear him on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. I talk to him there as well. And Glen Weldon, what else do you do for NPR?
WELDON: Well, I write about books and comic books on the NPR website.
CORNISH: His latest book is called "The Caped Crusade." Thanks so much for coming in.
WELDON: Thank you.
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