T-shirts are a fine way to express yourself or profess your love for something. They are like bumper stickers for the torso, stating “hey, I like and/or believe in this thing.” They can help people find members of their own tribe. They can attempt to signal status, opinions, and even identify those who are proximally stupid. And then there are times that they have the opposite effect, making the wearer stick out like a sore thumb, drawing unwelcome attention. One such example happened to me in the summer of 1989.
That year, I was required to make up for a failing math grade in summer school. At the time, I was living in Bridgeport, Connecticut with my mom throughout the school year, and I spent the summers in Fall River, Massachusetts with my dad. As a result, I had to take the summer class at an unfamiliar school in Fall River. I wasn’t thrilled with having to go to summer school in the first place, but the idea of being the new kid made it worse.
For the first day, I decided to wear my favorite Batman shirt, a black shirt with a rather large, moody illustration of The Dark Knight’s face in purple and blue. The Tim Burton Batman movie movie had just come out, and Batman shirts were high fashion back home in Bridgeport though I would have worn a Batman shirt regardless of the trend. The moment I walked into the classroom, one of the students sang, “Batman!” mimicking the tune from the 1960s television show. The rest of the class snickered as I took my seat. I mostly kept to myself in that class and focused on my studies. It wouldn’t be the last time that I’d receive the Batman micro serenade.
In my lifetime I’ve had a wide variety of t-shirts, 90% of which have featured a graphic of some sort. One of my first was a Captain America shirt that was part of an Underoos set that I’d received one Christmas. I wasn’t a big Captain America fan, but it was a superhero shirt and that was good enough for me. From there I’d move on to iron-on t-shirts. I’d browse the enormous books full of sparkly images at the iron-on stores and kiosks that were ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s. I readily selected Star Wars designs, cartoon characters, or a boss looking cobras that were pressed onto cheap t-shirts on the spot.
At the start of my teens, Ocean Pacific t-shirts became my new standby. These gave way to shirts of some of my favorite bands like Guns N’ Roses, and the Doors. After high school, I’d move on to Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone shirts, which gave way to punk selections from bands like The Misfits and the Ramones. These starter kit punk shirts ultimately yielded to more underground representations from my local punk and hardcore scene in the Tri-State area. However, I do recall wearing my old Mother Love Bone shirt at a punk show, and being asked if I really liked the band. I explained that my garment choice was sincere and not attempt at irony. Even in a community predicated on not fitting in, I’d sometimes feel like I was not fitting in wrong.
Many of my favorite t-shirts came from the musty racks at Goodwill or The Salvation Army. Among these were my RUN DMC “King of Rock” shirt that I wore until it disintegrated (I still mourn that loss), and a couple of broken-in batman shirts that survived the 1989 Batman bubble. Once the internet was pumped into my house, the t-shirt options became infinite. My holy grail of internet finds was an original Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department t-shirt that I wore until it died of structural failure.
I’ve grown accustomed to many different reactions to my shirts. Things like, “where did you get that Twin Peaks shirt?” or, “oh man, I used to love RUN DMC!” But of all the t-shirts that I’ve worn, I’ve noticed that my Batman shirts get the most attention. The reactions seem to be specific to males, and are very predicable.
A familiar scenario proceeds as follows: a stranger notices my Batman shirt and look of recognition dawns on his face. In a hypnotic state he utters, “Batman. “ Often, the stranger seems to barely notice that there is a person inhabiting the t-shirt. I get the feeling that this blank commentary is nothing more than an unconscious need to verbalize their recognition, an involuntary vocal tic that is triggered by the visual stimuli of the Batman iconography. Maybe the impulse is somehow a faint reconnection with an inner child, a sort of wistful déjà vu.
Sometimes strangers will meet my eyes, with a nod and smile as they speak the single word, “Batman.” These vocalizations are usually delivered with more eagerness, as if to say, “I too enjoy Batman comics and their deft psychological character study of an orphan who witnesses the violent murder of his parents and then sublimates his post-traumatic stress into becoming a champion of the innocent.” I welcome the friendlier tone of this scenario.
The more socially gregarious types call, “Hey Batman!” With a clear note of sarcasm, this variation feels the most like a taunt. Maybe they think that I’m attempting to pass myself off as The Batman? To this I would love to reply, “I’m sorry sport. I’m not the real Batman. The real Batman lives in Gotham City and is very, very busy. I’m just one of his many helpers.”
The batman shirt phenomenon doesn’t really bother me as much as it confounds me. What is it about Batman that invites these unsolicited comments from strangers? I understand that Batman’s signature symbol is iconic, but so is Milton Glaser’s I Love New York logo. I doubt that people wearing I Love New York t-shirts have to hear people parroting what is written on their shirts.
Perhaps the simple answer is in the percentages. Of the 90% of graphically embellished t-shirts that I’ve worn in my lifetime, I estimate that 5% percent of all of those have been Batman shirts. With such a high concentrated ratio, logic predicts that the Batman shirts would yield the most reactions. This still doesn’t explain why people rarely articulate anything more than the two syllables it takes to form the word Batman. A comment like, “nice shirt” or, “aren’t you a little old for Batman?” might make more sense. Regardless, I’m not going to stop wearing Batman shirts. In fact I’m currently dreading the imminent demise of my current favorite, a vintage Salvation Army find that grows more threadbare with each wash. I’m on the hunt for a suitable replacement.
The intent is clearer when kids notice my Batman shirt, despite the minimal articulation. Their brief looks of confusion (perhaps wondering why the grown-up is wearing a Batman shirt) are quickly replaced excitement. “Batman!” they chirp, sometimes pointing at the design on my shirt. With a nervous smile, the child’s parent steers the child away from the grown man in a Batman shirt. The one-word exclamation is welcomed when spoken by a child. Their approval of my fashion statement, and unabashed excitement is clear. By and large, kids have less impulse control and thus are usually less guarded in delivering opinions, especially to adults. I genuinely appreciate their honesty and return the enthusiasm with a smile and equally excited, “Batman!” This is my effort to show solidarity to the young Bat-fan. They’ll grow out of many t-shirts in the years ahead of them. Hopefully they’ll never grow out of what they love.