Before Batman was going hoarse barking at the grime of Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s movie trilogy from 2005 to 2012, he was a grumpy old man playing at “Dirty Harry” in Frank Miller’s comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns” in 1986. And before that, in 1966, he was sliding down the pole to the batcave, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. on ABC. The ease with which billionaire Bruce Wayne and his pointy-eared persona leapt from the insular pages of comic books into mainstream pop culture mirrors the ease with which he adjusted to changes in his audience. In his new book, “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture,” out Tuesday, NPR critic Glen Weldon charts the Dark Knight’s evolution, from his roots in 1939 as a gun-toting pulp knock-off to his slick ascension into the modern digital mainstream. Speaking over the phone from Washington, Weldon gave his thoughts on Batman past, present, and future, including his take on Ben Affleck’s turn behind the cowl in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Q. One of the central ideas in this book is that over the years Batman changed with the audience. Exactly how did that work?
A. Batman changed over time to remain relevant. As an example, the Batman was changed during the days of the Adam West TV show in the 1960s to be fun and campy, and it became very popular, but the fad faded quickly. The makers of the comic were stuck, because all of a sudden their sales were dropping. DC Comics realized they were left with their core readers who wanted a superhero with a darker, more complex personality as he had been. So they looked back to the very beginning of Batman, when he’d basically been a pretty brutal thug, tossing goons off the roofs of buildings to their deaths. And they found this one panel in his origin, and [writer] Denny O’Neil keyed into this: After his parents are murdered Bruce makes an oath by candlelight that he will spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals. And it’s a really melodramatic scene. He’s sitting by his bed, and there’s candlelight, and one single tear dripping down his cheek. It’s a silly notion, but that’s exactly the power of it. He’s turning this trauma that occurred to him into a lifelong obsession. So the evolution of Batman starting in the 1970s came in reaction to Adam West.
Q. And from there, Batman got even darker and more complex in the ’80s and ’90s to match what the people making him thought fans were responding to. The movies of the ’90s, on the other hand, were made by nonfans who Batman nerds felt were misunderstanding their hero by lightening him up for bigger audiences. You take a few jabs in the book at fans who might choose the meaner, more violent Batman and dismiss the others as “not my Batman.” Is it fair to ask who your Batman is?
A. There’s an old saw, that the comics you read when you were a kid, when you were 12 or 13, are the comics that define you for the rest of your life. For me, that’s certainly the Bronze Age Batman [in the ’70s], or, you know, I grew up on the Adam West Batman, and I think there is something inherently fun. I do believe that comics are supposed to be fun, and what happens when you remove that fun to make them ever grimmer and grittier, is you take away a lot of the animating principle. It denies something deeper in the character, which is this hope.
Q. So you’re not jazzed about the darkness of “Batfleck’’ in the new movie?
A. I reserve the right to be surprised, but it seems like they’re putting a gloss over the proceedings. Something happened in the ’90s, where they took the grim and gritty stuff that was occurring in the ’80s, and they turned it up to 11, making everything extreme. And so what we got in the ’90s was a lot of heroes becoming ultraviolent, with a lot of spectacle and gorgeous-looking art, but no stories.
Q. They’ve hinted he’ll even be a killer, too. With all that flexibility in the character, is there room for a change that big?
A. To make a Batman that kills is kind of a betrayal of the character, but this is the whole point of the book. Batman is an ink blot. You can look at him and make of him what you want. Not every Batman is for everybody, and to the people who look at Adam West as “not my Batman,” I can kind of look at the Batman of Zack Snyder [the director of “Batman v Superman’’] and say, “Yeah, not for me.”
Q. So he’s not your Batman?
A. Not my Batman.Interview was edited and condensed. Joe Incollingo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org