MINI-SERIES REVIEWS...

cover #1Batman: Jazz

(1995 - three issues, DC Comics)

Writer: Gerard Jones. Art: Mark Badger.

Jazz was presented as a three issue mini-series, but with the added heading: A Legends of the Dark Knight Special. And I'm not quite sure why. LOTDK was a comic which featured mostly self-contained Batman arcs by a variety of creators, sometimes off-beat or unusual tales. So it's possible maybe the series was intended for that venue -- but then why hive it off into a mini-series (the issues are regular-sized unlike Jones/Badger's earlier Batman: Run Riddler Run)? Nor does it seem to have the same editorial team as LOTDK.

Maybe the finished result was sufficiently odd that DC decided marketing it as an off-shoot of LOTDK was the best idea.

'Cause it is a bit odd.

The premise is that Batman befriends an elderly jazz musician, Willie. But when some oddly-costumed villains try to kill Willie, Batman learns Willie may actually be the legendary Blue Byrd, a jazz musician who supposedly died decades ago. So Batman sets out to discover who would want Byrd dead, interviewing old acquaintances of the man.

At this point it isn't that weird. Indeed, it's actually a kind of nice, old fashioned antidote to so many modern Batman comics with their super villains, mobsters and serial killers (though the assassins wear costumes and there is a mobster). It's more like a mystery/detective story with a healthy dose of human drama.

But it's weird partly in how it's executed. For one there's Badger's wild, cartoony art. Badger (I think) started out as a more mainstream super hero artist, but then evolved (as artists often do) his own style, which is full of cartoony distortion and caricature (the same style he had on Batman: Run Riddler Run). It doesn't exactly feel like a "normal" Bat-comic, though it's effective in its own way and suits the wackier and wilder aspects of Jones' story, from some whimsy, to some weirdness (there's a kind of Ralph Bakshi strangeness in that the costumed villains are dressed in bizarre costumes -- aided by a hallucinogenic gas -- and talk in a cra-azy jazz cats lingo).

Meanwhile Jones' story can seem more like he wanted to write a fictional jazz biography and simply used a super hero as the catalyst. So in investigating who might want Willie/Byrd dead, Batman learns about Byrd's life -- a life story that seems deliberately modelled on real life jazz legends like Charlie "Bird" Parker. But that does mean the plot can seem alternately awkward -- and obvious. To investigate the attack on Willie, Batman just drops in on anyone who knew Byrd in the old days (the fact that the "old" days were some four decades before kind of stretching the plausibility of its being an old grudge). And there's just an overall -- deliberate -- lack of realism to the story (like Batman deciding to drop in to a jazz club...in costume!). Along the way the story has characters constantly talking about the music, about the meaning of jazz, I assume reflecting a real passion of Jones' -- and also addressing issues of racism and black culture with the sensitivity and insight you'd expect from a white comic book writer (sorry -- couldn't resist).

If some of this sounds familiar it's because Jones covered similar ground -- this time looking at rock n' roll -- a few years later in Batman: Fortunate Son. Though in Jazz he avoids the narrative weakness that Fortunate Son had, wherein in order to explore his themes he made Batman pathologically -- almost psychotically -- opposed to rock n' roll. But there's still a similar vibe of Jones intending the story to be slightly impressionistic, even surreal, more about the themes and meanings rather than functioning as a literal Batman adventure about him investigating the attempted murder of a jazz musician.

Which maybe is why they chose to market it as a "Legends of the Dark Knight" special and the readers themselves can decide how much, or if, they want to consider it part of Batman canon.

And that's kind of what it boils down to: much of the stuff that makes it interesting, and unique, and refreshing are equally the stuff that undermine it. The same story (including with its lessons in race and musicology) could've been told in a more grounded way. But the telling courts a certain unrealism (from the exaggerated art to the kind of unconvincing investigation on Batman's part which simply entails interviewing people who used to know Byrd, then swinging away when they tell him they weren't involved in the attack).

As such, Jazz is both worth a read for its willingness to play its own tune, even as the results are mixed.

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