Saturday, June 13, 2015

Batman: Jazz (a legends of the dark knight special)

I recently reached issue #100 in my chronicles of Legendsof the Dark Knight. It occurred to me that I had completely forgotten to review any of the annuals or specials that were attached to the series, so I decided to start with Batman: Jazz. I remember reading this 3-part mini-series once or twice in the past and I remember not liking it at all. But it’s been a while since the last time I read it from cover to cover – how bad could it be?

Thankfully, I can honestly say that Batman: Jazz is not so much bad as it is lame. There’s actually a creative, fairly original story at the core with some interesting moments; it’s just that the execution of it is really… boring. This comic also contains a heavy-handed social commentary – which isn’t bad per se, just that the creative team of Gerard Jones and Mark Badger seem completely out of their league with this material.

The premise is fairly simple: Batman comes to the aid of an old black (apparently homeless) man who’s jumped while playing jazz on the street at night. It turns out he’s actually a professional musician and seems to be the second coming of a 1950s-era jazz musician named Blue Byrd who “died” nearly four decades prior. Apparently Byrd was a heroin user and had many intellectual property beefs with other musicians and producers and now – for whatever reason – a trio of costumed goons is trying to kill him. This sends Batman down a proverbial rabbit hole as every suspect he interrogates has a different description of Byrd – but who has the motive to want to off him?

Batman walks into a bar (no, seriously).
Judging by the dialogue, it appears that Jones and Badger really know their jazz history. In fact, pretty much every character in this story is inspired by real people; which makes this a work of historical fiction. The problem is this just can’t work for a number of reasons:

1.       All the characters are constantly talking about the je ne sais quoi effect of jazz and music in general. Since comics are a silent medium, there’s a major element of the story that’s missing (and glaringly so). When we hear the corny lines about Byrd playing with his soul and single-handedly inventing bebop music, it’s lost on the reader who has no idea what the difference is.

2.       They don’t know their audience. Consider who was most likely to be reading these comics when they were released in 1995: young white men. What does this audience know about the history of jazz? Probably very little. And are they fans of the music? Highly unlikely. In fact, the jazz enthusiast characters are constantly poo-pooing “modern music” for being too crude, uncivilized and vulgar – gee, I wonder what kind of music they’re referring to?

3.       There’s a major racial component to the story, which is generic and cliché and straight fromthe liberal progressive handbook of “Let’s blame everything on the actions of privileged white men from several generations ago.” If you’re going to make a commentary on race and institutional racism and how it’s affected history you need more nuance, subtlety and specifics than what are offered here. The entire first chapter contains literally dozens of references of the overused, oversimplified excuse of “because racism”. I’ll bet Jones and Badger see themselves as being good, apologetic, anti-racism white guys, but it comes across as them trying to fight a battle that’s not theirs to fight. Frankly, it’s rather offensive.

4.       This premise doesn’t lend itself to a good Batman story. Sure, there’s a mystery in need of solving, but Batman doesn’t do any actual forensics work – he just keeps interviewing suspect after suspect. These interrogations simply create for page filler, when in the end none of the suspects and their anecdotes have anything to do with resolving the conflict. This would be totally fine if this were a reality-based drama (such as any of the police procedural shows that have been on TV since the 1990s), but this is superhero comic book – the reader wants action and adventure, not sob stories and lectures of why drugs are bad, our grandparents’ were racists dicks and why music used to be so much better back in the day. 

One of the few (vaguely) interesting layouts in the comic
5.       There’s a serious sidebar dealing with intellectual property theft. Yes, Batman is about ready to give someone a beatdown because someone claims that a suspect ripped off one of Byrd’s songs years ago. Really?

6.       The art is just really unattractive. I will say that Badger’s style is very unique and stylized, but it’s also extremely messy, arbitrarily abstract and unrealistic. Again, if this weren’t a Batman comic it would probably work (and certain panels and pages do work), but here it’s just grating on the eyes.

Throughout my review of the LOTDK series I’ve often wondered what the point of a certain story arc was, and I’d reiterate that lament here, too. Why did this need to be a standalone miniseries that doesn’t even use the LOTDK logo (it just says “a legends of the dark knight special” [sic] along the top or bottom of the covers). Considering the wide variety of stories that have been told in that series, Batman: Jazz would’ve been fine as just another entry. In fact, doing it as its own special – with a higher cover price – gives the reader an expectation of higher quality. That’s probably why it’s remembered as failure.

Score: 2/5

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