“Bat Boy Lives” Reviewed, Freaks & Sideshows

BY DAN ALBAN

Portrait of Little Pete, Dwarf Fire-Eater
Melvin Burkhardt, Human Blockhead & Anatomical Wonder

NOTE: This is a review of the book Bat Boy Lives!, not the recent HLS Drama Society production of Bat Boy: The Musical, which this reviewer was unable to attend.

Bat Boy Lives! is “The Weekly World News Guide to Politics, Culture, Celebrities, Alien Abductions, and the Mutant Freaks that Shape Our World.” A large 11×9 book with a picture of wide-eyed, big-mouthed “Bat Boy” on the cover, and a fairly low $12.95 MSRP, the publisher describes it as “the most hilarious college coffee table book EVER.” Sterling Publishing contacted The Record about writing a review of the book and provided a review copy. The topic of the book seemed perfect for the theme of this column, so your local deviant behavior writer was called in to perform the honors.

For those unfamiliar, Weekly World News is a supermarket tabloid that prints outlandish “news” stories about mythical creatures like Bigfoot, Elvis spottings, Nostradamus’ prophecies, groundless celebrity rumors, and the like. Though I approached the book with an open mind, I just wasn’t quite sure what to make of Bat Boy Lives! The book, a three-color compilation of Weekly World News stories, tries to be several different things at once – funny, satirical, outrageous, yarn-spinning – but unfortunately doesn’t seem to pull off any of them particularly well. There are a few amusing bits, and plenty of strange or controversial (even offensive) stories, but most of the book simply falls flat, failing to deliver anything near the same quality or quantity of humor, entertainment, or shock-value as comparable books or other media.

Bat Boy’s Adolescent Sense of Humor

As a work of humor, Bat Boy Lives! appears to be shooting for the niche occupied by books like The Onion’s Our Dumb Century and The Daily Show’s America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. Unlike those books, however, Bat Boy Lives! will likely only be found funny by young teens or those with a similar adolescent sense of humor. Consider a few sample headlines: “Dead hubby’s ghost breaks wind & burps” “3-breasted gal joins Clinton as his new intern!” “Pizza was served at the Last Supper!” “Apollo 11 photographed beer cans on the moon!” “Abe was a Babe!: Lincoln actually America’s first LADY prez.” Other attempts at humor veer into the offensive, as with “Bleeding Statue of Mother Teresa has PMS!” and “Suicide Bomber: ‘There are no virgins in heaven’,” which describes the plight of a despondent Jerusalem bus bomber who discovers that “paradise turned out to be a bunch of fat, naked women who wouldn’t leave him alone!”

Now, there is some potential for humor in the concept of “Karl Marx was one of the Marx Brothers!” but flat-out stating the premise without a set-up or angle just isn’t the way to make people laugh. There are other stories with potential, like “IRS to tax refunds,” “Idiots forming national union,” and “Ape starts new religion!” but the real problem is that, unlike similar items in The Onion, the stories fail to deliver on the humorous or satirical promise of the headline. The stories usually contain a few attempted jokes, but are for the most part fairly straightforward, if somewhat wacky, pastiches of news reporting.

Bat Boy as Speculative Fiction, Cult Narrative?

From another perspective, perhaps Bat Boy Lives! is simply a unique and accessible form of speculative fiction – an everyman’s version of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and horror. Stories like “Space station receives message from God!” and “Scientists set to open Pandora’s box” could just as easily be the premise of a work of science fiction or horror. The difference is that a good science fiction author might use such a premise as a jumping off point to consider how such a development might affect human society, personal interactions, possibly ultimately using the plot device as a mirror to reflect on contemporary society and culture. With Bat Boy Lives!, however, the premise is the starting and stopping point for the story, with nothing particularly interesting beyond the strangeness of the initial idea.

Despite being a compilation of mostly unrelated stories, there is an occasional narrative element to the book due to recurring characters such as the eponymous creature/child Bat Boy and P’lod the alien, a secret lover of Hilary Clinton and Bush presidential campaign advisor. Readers can follow the journey of Bat Boy from his discovery in a West Virginia cave to his escape & re-capture by the FBI to his Mini Cooper joyride to his contributions to the war on terror (“Bat boy led U.S. troops to Saddam…Gotcha!), and finally to his latest antic: “Bat Boy’s new mission: Clean up Argentina.” Along the way, you learn of Bat Boy’s kinship with James Carville and a time traveler’s report that Bat Boy will be president in 2028.

In some ways, this bizarre episodic narrative about outlandish creature characters is reminiscent of the campy B-movies made by Troma, the low-budget independent film company behind such cult classics of shock exploitation as The Toxic Avenger series, the Class of Nuke’em High series, and Tromeo and Juliet. Like Bat Boy, Troma’s signature creature, the Toxic Avenger, appears frequently throughout Troma’s films with cameos that are essentially a sly wink at long-time fans. But the difference between Troma’s work and Bat Boy Lives! is that while Troma films are frequently more disgusting, immature, and offensive, they are usually at least fairly creative and original in their own twisted way. In contrast, the rote stories in Bat Boy Lives! often feel rather prefab, like a Mad Lib completed by an unenthusiastic office drone desperate to find another job. Combine a far-fetched creature from column A, a polarizing celebrity or politician from column B, and an everyday occurrence from column C, and something disgusting from column D, mix quickly -and voilĂ !-you’ve got yourself a Weekly World News article.

Bat Boy as Freak Show?

Despite its other failings, Bat Boy Lives! still tries to deliver the freak-show goods, with pictures of a three-legged model, chest hair crop circles, a man with the world’s longest nose hair, the skeleton of a half-human, half-alligator, a fold-out centerfold of a sasquatch porn star, and much more. But these pictures are almost immediately rather boring because we, the readers, know they’re fake. Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it’s often a lot more interesting. If you’re into this sort of thing, why spend time looking at what a Weekly World News intern can crank out in Photoshop rather than looking at real pictures of genuine oddities, curiosities, and anomalies?

Freaks & Sideshows

Those interested in the freak-show aspect of Bat Boy Lives! should instead consider checking out a variety of nonfiction books and other media on carnival and sideshow entertainers. The Last Sideshow by Hanspeter Schneider is a large coffee-table size pictorial of the bizarre sideshow entertainers – human blockheads, fire-eating dwarfs, and a fatman – who winter in Gibsonton, FL because of that locale’s Residential Show Business zoning, which permits exotic show animals to be kept residentially. Lobster Boy by Fred S. Rosen tells the noir-like story of Gibsonton resident Grady Stiles Jr., aka Lobster Boy, a man afflicted with ectrodactyly (sometimes called lobster claw deformity) who murdered his daughter’s fiancĂ© and was later himself murdered by a hitman hired by his own family.

Freaks & Fire: The Underground Reinvention of Circus by J.Dee Hill is a provocative photo-filled look at independent circus, sideshow, vaudeville and burlesque acts ranging from the bizarre to the barely fathomable. For instance, somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of deviance is Kinko, an alcoholic, porn-reading, masturbating clown who is a fixture of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Similarly interesting and
picture-dense, though less radical and edgy, is James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed: On & Off the Midway, an interview-filled casual history of freakish side-show performers like Frank Lentini, a genuine three-legged man who could use his third leg to kick a football during performances. Side Show: My Life with Geeks, Freaks & Vagabonds in the Carny Trade is the memoir of Howard Bone, a life-long carnie and sideshow magician. While offering only a few pictures and illustrations, Bone gives an authentic, gritty and occasionally self-promoting insider account of life in a traveling sideshow.

Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women has already been mentioned in this column, but another work of interest is Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, a collection of the sixteen issues of his quarterly journal on “Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Side-Show Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments” and more. The book contains few photos (most notably a fold-out spread of the full cast of Coney Island’s Dreamland Circus Side Show, featuring Mortado, “the man crucified and alive to tell of it”) and numerous illustrations, along with captivating tales of bizarre feats and unusual performers. Jay doesn’t represent that all of the acts he presents are real, in the sense that they actually did what they claimed, but they are all historically genuine performers who were at least able to convince an audience of their extraordinary abilities.

For those who’d rather watch than read, the obvious starting point is Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 classic Freaks, an hour-long film starring genuine side-show freaks, in a racy tale of ill-fated love and revenge. This is the film that gave birth to the chant “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her- we accept her, one of us,” popularized in Ramones lyrics, among other things. There are also numerous film and television documentaries on the subject, including Gibtown, a documentary about Gibsonton, FL, and at least two television shows about the Lobster Boy murder, The Murder of Lobster Boy: The E! True Hollywood Story and an A&E City Confidential’s Gibsonton: The Last Side Show. Those interested in a fictional portrayal of a traveling sideshow should check out HBO’s Carnivale, an outstanding series that unfortunately wasn’t renewed after the second season. The first season is already available on DVD, but it’s not clear when the second season will appear on DVD.

Dan Alban is a 3L with a perfectly normal interest in human blockheads and fire-eating dwarfs.

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