Robin debuted in Detective Comics #38, in April of 1940, a mere eleven months after Batman’s own debut in Detective Comics #27. Dick Grayson’s tenure as the Boy Wonder went uninterrupted for forty-four years, until, in 1984, the character finally outgrew the role of kid sidekick and assumed the new identity of Nightwing. Thus, when people bemoan Robin’s inclusion in the Batman mythos as brightening Batman’s supposed inherent darkness and turning the comics campy, people are evidently fondly remembering a mere eleven issues of Detective Comics. Nevertheless, the rhetoric is popular: Batman is better without Robin. Even prior to Grayson retiring the pixie boots in 1984, writer Denny O’Neill’s 1970s run dramatically downsized Robin’s role in Batman’s adventures by sending him to college, all in an effort to cleanse Batman of the lingering campiness of Adam West and Burt Ward’s portrayal of the duo on TV. When Crisis On Infinite Earths reinvented the DC Universe in 1985, it adhered to the same logic, erasing most of those forty-four years of Dick-Grayson-as-Robin stories from continuity. Sure, in the post-Crisis continuity, Dick Grayson was still formerly Robin, but unlike Batman, his early adventures were never revisited or updated for the post-Year One landscape.
As such, Dick Grayson’s long career stands as a conspicuous blank space in continuity. Scrounging for material to fill this space in my boozy tour of Batman’s fictional history, I found a copy of Gerard Jones and Gene Ha’s now out-of-print 1999 graphic novel Batman: Fortunate Son, at Toronto’s Paradise Comics. By no means an essential entry into the Batman canon, it is nevertheless a rare post-Crisis book which documents one of Dick Grayson’s adventures as the Boy Wonder, and thus, here we are: reading Batman: Fortunate Son, and drinking a Distortion American IPA from Montreal’s Microbrasserie Jukebox.
As Fortunate Son tells the story of Batman and Robin on the case of an errant rabble-rousing rock-n-roller, Jukebox’s Distortion IPA seems a good fit. As their name suggests, Jukebox borrows terms and imagery from music for their marketing (apart from Distortion, other beers include “Jazz” and “Mélodie”) and on the beer’s label, they stress the comparison themselves: “Distortion changed the sound of rock forever and this beer will change your mind about how an IPA should taste.” It’s a bold claim, one which it falls short upon delivering, though it is a perfectly enjoyable IPA: lots of hops from beginning to end, starting on the sweeter and more aromatic hops, which lend it plenty of citrus and pineapple notes, and ending on a healthy helping of bitterness (it clocks in at 80 IBUs). It’s more Foo Fighters than Nirvana.
Fortunate Son falls short of Nirvana as well. Actually, it doesn’t even reach Foo Fighter levels. But it tries, with all the earnestness of a teenager who has handled their Nevermind CD so much that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can’t play without skipping – they barely know how to play their instrument, but nevertheless are starting a band with their friends. Heart counts for a lot in rock music, but it doesn’t necessarily make it listenable, and that’s about how I feel about Fortunate Son. But in the case of this book, it isn’t a case of skill: few people know as much about comics as Gerard Jones. He literally wrote the book on it: Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geek, Gangsters and the Birth of the American Comic Book is the essential and indispensable history of the golden age of superhero comics. Gene Ha is no hack either, and his realistic figures and faces perform the story capably. Really, I’m not sure how Fortunate Son went as far awry as it does.
On paper, it sounds all right. Izaak Crowe is a Kurt Cobain-esque figure in rock music, who seemingly begins putting the anti-establishment attitudes which make his lyrics so popular into action by blowing up a television station (he evacuates the building first, ensuring no one is hurt). Dick Grayson, convincingly drawn by Ha as less “Boy” Wonder here than “Teen” Wonder, is very much a fan of Crowe’s music. Batman, even crankier here than in Trinity and Teen Titans: Year One combined, disdains rock music entirely and sees Crowe unequivocally as a criminal. It offers a premise that seems rich with the possibility of examining the generation gap between Batman and Robin, using their views toward rock music as a means of illustrating the widening divide in their partnership. Viewed charitably, I suppose the book does this, but it distracts from whatever promise it has by crowding its plot with a whole lot of ridiculous details and a few very tired tropes.
Throughout, Crowe is manipulated by an apparent hallucination of a dead, deified southern rock-n-roller referred to only as The King, whom Gene Ha draws as a dead ringer for Elvis, but whom Gloria Vasquez colors with disconcertingly yellow hair. The dialogue is frequently silly, especially among the teenage fans who rally around Crowe like disciples. The rapt response to Crowe’s music reads as a little dubious too, considering one of Crowe’s revolutionary anthems has lyrics which uses getting the wrong fast food order as a metaphor for civil unrest. Batman’s characterization, too, is almost melodramatically grumpy, such as when he tells Robin, “Punk is nothing but death . . . and crime . . . and the rage of a beast.” By way of explaining Batman’s taciturn attitude toward rock music, Jones and Ha even play out that most tedious of Batman tropes: inserting further trauma into Bruce Wayne’s past.
This particular trauma took place after the murder of his parents, when, as a young man, Bruce was traveling the world, and a punk musician (designed as a pretty clear analog for Sid Vicious) takes a liking to him. As Batman tells Robin: “The bass player – talentless, brainless, but powerful in his madness – fixed on me like a predator. Like a beast. My wealth, education, self-control spoke to something in his injured soul.” Uh-huh. Well, after Bruce “shakes himself free of the man’s obsession,” this Sid Vicious murders his Nancy Spungeon. Of course, Bruce blames himself, feeling he should have realized the punk’s murderous potential. It’s ridiculous. But the book tops that ridiculousness with its denouement, as Crowe’s hallucinations are revealed to be an Elvis impersonator hired by his manager to drive Crowe into martyring himself in the name of his music for the sake of rock-and-roll authenticity.
Fortunate Son, then, might seem to prove that Robin makes a Batman story sillier, but really, Robin is one of the few aspects of this story that isn’t altogether ridiculous – actually, Jones writes a few great moments for Robin, such as when he comes to the aid of some Crowe fans who are getting brutal treatment from the police. I do also really like how Gene Ha draws the Boy Wonder. Thus, it isn’t an outright bad book, and neither is Distortion a bad IPA. Nevertheless, as I reach the bottom of the glass, I find my mind unchanged as to how an IPA should taste, simply because Jukebox does little to distinguish Distortion from the countless other IPAs out there. Similarly, Fortunate Son doesn’t add or change anything about my understanding of dynamic duo. But, hey, not every concert can be The Last Waltz, right?