Let’s talk some comic books for a change. A good six months ago or so I got a Batman book called Fortunate Son, written by Gerard Jones and drawn by Gene Ha. Jones is a well-established writer of comics and an Eisner Award winner, and Ha is probably best known for his beautiful work on Alan Moore’s awesome Top Ten. Neither of them are exactly lightweights, really, and Ha’s art is consistently good throughout the story, which should be no surprise to anyone — when it fails, it’s mostly because of what he has to draw, not how he draws it.
Reading Fortunate Son, the most frequent feelings the reader gets are puzzlement and embarrassment. It’s that kind of a book. In a nutshell, here’s the premise: hugely popular rock star Izaak Crowe hallucinates that Elvis Presley (who’s never called that and is blonde so that they can pretend that they’re not using Elvis, which strikes me as kind of pointless) talks to him, appears to go completely and dangerously nutzoid and incites his young fans to riot. Batman wants to bring Crowe in, but Robin is a fan and he think Crowe’s being set up.
Described like that, it doesn’t exactly make me clap my hands in glee, but what the hell — I admit that it could work. But what Jones is doing with this one is just plain fucked up. The story just spirals into the kind of weirdness that unfortunately isn’t a charmingly chaotic romp, as Grant Morrison might write it. Instead, Jones’ interpretations of the main characters’ psychology and the influence and meaning of rock music could be summed up as follows:
Batman’s all fucked up… by rock and roll.
Yeah. See, here’s a little something I bet you didn’t know about Batman: he hates rock music. And not in a fairly commonplace “well, I really kind of prefer jazz” way, but in an insane “it’s criminal music!” way. Why? Because his father, Doctor Thomas Wayne, says so.
“No, Bruce. We don’t listen to that kind of music in this house,” he explains in a flashback. “Now you’d better get ready, if you don’t want to miss that Zorro movie.”
Ooh. That Zorro movie. Cue Joe Chill with a .45. So, besides his father being murdered, Batman’s last real memory of this saintlike man is the exhortation that he shouldn’t listen to rock music! And you’d definitely better not bring up punk, because that’s right out. When Robin is dumb enough to mention it, the Caped Crusader informs through clenched teeth the Boy Wonder of the facts of life: “‘Punk’ is nothing but death… and crime… and the rage of a beast.”
Thereby hangs a tale, of course. As we know, before Bruce Wayne actually became Batman, he walked the Earth honing his skills, learning all kinds of mad shit from various grade A badasses of international fame. And during his travels — apparently during the seventies — the young Mr. Wayne made his way to London — excuse me, “a foreign city”, where he encountered punk music. See, he was just walking along and minding his own business, when things started rolling along! As Batman explains it, “I heard a scream of rage and anguish — and rushed to stop the crime I thought was being committed.” He barges in, but it’s not what he thinks. Oh, no! “But the scream — and the crime — were music.”
So, uh, Bruce Wayne heard a Sex Pistols gig, and thought it was a crime in progress. I can only conclude that Bruce Wayne’s personal learning curve was pretty fucking steep, if he went from a that kind of a hopeless retard to the world’s greatest detective. I mean, I’m going out on a limb here since I never saw the Sex Pistols live, but unless the acoustics in that place were really different from what the recordings sound like, it sure sounds like a music to me. Noisy and angry and rough music, sure, but music. When hearing one of their songs, my immediate reaction is not “oh no, there’s a crime in progress!” Bruce gets roped right in, though.
So. After Sid Vicious lets the batteries run out on his magical super charisma and poor helpless Bruce finally gets away from him — that whole thing is kind of, uh, unclear too, but let’s not go there — Sid goes and stabs poor Nancy Spungen. And it’s a tragedy that Bruce will never forget. And that’s why punk is evil, even more so than rock and roll.
(And yeah, yeah, the timeline of there being a Pistols gig and Nancy dying within a few weeks of that is all wrong, and it didn’t happen in what Wayne would consider a “foreign city”, since she died in New York City, but let’s chalk that up to artistic license — it’s not like these characters are ever actually called Sid and Nancy, either.)
It goes on in the same vein. In one bizarre scene, Batman tries to make Robin denounce Crowe. “Insanity reverberates in every chord of this music music you love, and I’m going to show it to you,” he says. He does so by taking Robin to Arkham Asylum and showing him the numerous Elvis impersonators locked up in there. Let me just repeat that, with some very subtle emphasis in case it didn’t really sink in the first time you read it: Batman tries to prove that ROCK MUSIC IS INSANITY by showing Robin the MULTIPLE ELVIS IMPERSONATORS at the Arkham Asylum for the CRIMINALLY INSANE.
I realize that Gotham is has more freaks than there are stars in the sky, but I was previously unaware that the criminally insane Elvis impersonator epidemic had reached this level of intensity. Arkham has enough of them to fill at least two floors of the place, and they’re not content to just stick with impersonation gig, they apparently want Batman to break off a piece of Robin for them:
Yes, that’s a midget Elvis impersonator on the right. An evil midget Elvis impersonator.
In addition to the evil Elvis impersonators — and I admit it, I love saying “evil Elvis impersonators” — Batman also shows Robin another horror: “A seminal record producer of the 60’s — after a life in the rock industry!” A more charitable part of me thinks that a lot of this stuff is supposed to be funny, but Batman’s dialogue isn’t really ironic — there’s nothing humorous about it, he’s deathly serious all the time, and so is Robin. So’s most everyone else. Furthermore, even if we assume that this stuff isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, it’s still not very funny — not unless the whole thing should be read as a ridiculously insane and surreal, yet deadpan romp, and I’m sorry, I don’t have that much faith in this dog and pony show.
Anyway, we also find out whether Harvey Dent likes Abba, thus finally answering that age-old question. Two-Face naturally likes something a little more evil.
And so forth, and so on. Batman knows nothing about rock music, so he finally has to learn everything about in order to solve the case. (“In times of aesthetic crisis, as Greil Marcus points out, the rural protestant spirituyality of rock seeks the ‘fundamentalism’ of its ‘purer ancestors,'” as Batman explains to Robin when they fly to Graceland to catch Crowe. Because he’s studied rock’n’roll for several hours and can now accurately predict Crowe’s movements.) Meanwhile, Crowe goes around and mobilizes an army of kids. People start arming themselves because they’re worried that the police won’t protect them. Because, y’know, adults just can’t be hip enough to get this devil music the youngsters are into. It’s very tense, I’m sure.
In the end, it turns out that his manager is evil. He has manipulated Crowe to get him martyred, so that he becomes an immortal rock legend. He does this because, uh, he’s actually Elvis Presley’s twin brother and this way he can create a new rock God so that he can finally live without having to be constantly in his fortunate brother’s eternal shadow…
…I know, I know. I don’t write ’em, folks, I just read ’em.
Jones is apparently trying to say something profound-sounding about the nature of rock music and the music industry — it’s either that, or he’s just leaking some kind of insanity onto to the page. Either way, what we end up with is, at its best, a deliciously confused mess, but at its worst a boring and kind of nonsensical romp. Whatever; in the end, the whole setup is just too idiotic to hold water.
Batman hates rock music, because his dad said so and because Sid killed Nancy — I guess I could buy that, but his ridiculous belief that it instigates violence is just, well, stupid. Batman is obsessed, sure, and not exactly right in the head, but he’s not prone to rampant idiocy of this kind. Furthermore, if he believes that music is so terribly dangerous, how come he’s so ignorant of it? Wouldn’t it become a part of his obsession? This is not a guy who ignores threats. Robin, on the other hand, acts like the world’s most devout and naïve Catholic, who’s freaking out because the Pope is being accused of murder…
But in the end, once the case has been solved and closed, Batman lets Robin listen to rock music in the Batcave.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have officially achieved closure.
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