If you’re a fan of Batman, then you’re going to want to get to Baltimore – immediately. Well, technically, you have until August, which is when the University of Baltimore will be offering a course called “The Evolution of Batman”. That’s amazing, isn’t it? I mean, let’s think about this for a moment. In what universe can you enroll in a course where you learn about your favorite superhero? The course will be taught by award-winning poet Steven Leyva, and it will be based on the book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. What’s not to love? Students will be reading comics and watching cartoons and movies. It’s all in an effort to unpack the meanings that have developed around Batman since his first appearance in 1939.
When you think about a college course, you don’t usually think about studying comics or movies. Sure, when I took an American Literature course in college, my professor suggested that I also watch the movie in order to understand A Streetcar Named Desire a bit better. But watching movies wasn’t the heart of the course. It was supplementary. Students in Leyva’s class will be able to watch those movies and read comics as part of the course. Not just to supplement the course material.
But what will you learn? Well, the book that the course is based on suggests that it’s easy to project onto Batman. Meaning, there are different versions of Batman. There’s the hyper-masculine, testosterone-filled version that you see in The Dark Knight Returns. But you can also have the same character, as more of a pop culture, bubble gum icon played by Adam West. Leyva argues that there are very few other superheroes who can have so many different versions.
“Take, for example, Spider-Man. Here’s a character where we’ve got lots of movies, lots of media, you know, cartoons, video games. But he’s always presented in the same way. They share some similarity. in fact, they’re both orphans. Obviously, Peter Parker’s not rich, but the way you see Spider-Man is always as a guilt-ridden teenager or young adult. And yeah, it’s just very different for Batman. He seems to have greater boundaries. So part of the reason of why to teach the class, is because here’s a figure who seems to be able to say something and comment on society, but also reflect society in a recursive relationship. He also has a very broad aesthetic, so we can talk about many [artistic] disciplines and different kinds of social concerns and what media does with them within a single course.”
In the course, Leyva wants to be able to debate and discuss with his students the question – what is the real Batman? Who is the real character? What is his actual origin story? He also wants to be able to shut out all the fanboys. While there is nothing wrong with being a fan, I would argue that it takes away from seeing the character objectively.
When it comes to authenticity though, is Leyva saying that there is only one true origin story? And if so, is that ok? I guess what I’m saying is that why label Batman as one thing or another. If the character has the ability to be present in so many different spaces, why not just allow that to be? Why give him any labels at all? In fact, I would make the argument that we give too many labels to people in society now. When it comes to race, culture, gender, sexuality, and religion, we make assumptions and put people in boxes. Isn’t it better to embrace Batman for who he is than to tie him up and put him in a box? I guess that’s something that Leyva wants to explore, and I for one, wish I was back in college for this reason alone.