All-New TEA & COMICS

T&C Logo

When I started Gutterball Special almost a year ago, I hoped to write a feature called Tea & Comics, which would have Dani and I discuss the new comics which came out every week. We managed to keep this going for a little while, but the posts were almost always late, as the process of transcribing our conversations was time-consuming and cumbersome. Despite this, I loved doing that column, but our respective schedules grew prohibitive, and regrettably, Tea & Comics just dwindled out entirely.

Our schedules have not grown any less prohibitive, but I am nevertheless happy to announce the return of Tea & Comics, albeit in a completely different form. Instead of being a conversation between Dani and myself, it will instead be a much more conventional blog post, written solely by me, and will focus instead on a comic or something comics-related which makes me happy that week. The purpose is twofold: it lets Gutterball Special address current comics and happenings on a weekly basis, but more importantly, it adds a little extra positivity into comics coverage. That latter point has recently started to crystallize as one of the guiding principles behind writing Gutterball Special, its raison d’être, if you will.

Comics mean a lot to me, and I would characterize their influence in my life as an unquestionably positive one. At various points in my life, I have found inspiration in comics. Comics have lifted me when I’m low. In very tangible ways, comics have changed my life. Thus, I understand completely when fans take a very serious, personal affront to things that occur within the pages of a comic book. The passion of comics fandom is incredible, but in recent weeks, across Twitter and the comments sections of just about any comics-related website, the differing passions of different comic fans and creators are mixing like fire and gasoline.

Whether regarding the apparent reveal of Captain America as a Hydra sleeper agent or Frank Cho’s disgruntled resignation from drawing variant covers for Wonder Woman, these explosive shouting matches within comics fandom usually contain genuine concerns and thoughtful points at their core but are quickly corrupted by straw-man arguments and needlessly incendiary language. As much as I might just want to read my comics quietly in my own corner and be happy about it, I would never deny that the comics industry offers a whole lot to get angry about. People aren’t wrong to get angry about the lack of visible LGBTQ+ and people of colour in the industry (and in the books themselves), or the chronic sexism apparent in the representation of women in comics, overshadowed only by the blind eye turned toward the consistent issue of harassment faced by women within the industry. Really, it would be wrong to not be angry about these and the myriad other problems within comics right now.

But, in the midst of all these righteous battles being fought, it does get easy to forget that comics aren’t just unending sources of grief. Despite the enormous value in calling out various issues, other (better) writers with more valuable and diverse perspectives than myself are doing an incredible job of doing precisely that – I have very little to add to these conversations other than to emphatically nod. Which, rather than turning this blog into a list of links to articles from The Mary Sue, Women Write About Comics, and Panels, I thought I would contribute something different to the ongoing conversation about comics, something which I find to be sorely lacking: positivity.

2016 isn’t proving to be a great year for a lot of folks – the news every day sounds pretty dire. Terrifying demagogues, at times more cartoonish than comic book super-villains, are spouting hatred on TV, racial tensions are strained, and devastating mass murders continue unabated worldwide. It’s really damn scary. But our modern understanding of comics and superheroes came out of scary times, new myths written right when people needed them. As Michael Chabon wrote in his masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

“. . . the usual charge levelled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf . . . He would remember for the rest of his life a peaceful half hour spent reading a copy of Betty and Veronica that he had found in a service-station rest room: lying down with it under a fir tree, in a sun-slanting forest outside of Medford, Oregon, wholly absorbed into that primary-colored world of bad gags, heavy ink lines, Shakespearean farce, and the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship. The pain of his loss – though he would never have spoken of it in these terms – was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind the sternum. For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing.”

Tea & Comics is named for a routine that Dani and I enjoyed in the early days of our relationship: On Wednesdays, we would walk from her university residence to Paradise Comics to buy the new issues of any series we were following, and maybe an issue or two of whatever Doug told us was good. Then, we would take our comics two doors down to DAVIDsTEA, where we would each order a tea and read our new comics. Outside of the perfect snapshot which that routine provides, everything else might’ve been a mess – we were near broke, and both of us at different points were buckling under an enormous amount of school work and scrambling to beat deadlines. But that isn’t what I remember when I think about that time in our lives: I think of the simple, beautiful, near-magical pleasure of enjoying one another’s company and sharing tea and comics.

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Beer & Batman #31: We Can Be Heroes (A Reprise)

 

B&B

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair craft beer with a Batman story, working my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour). If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.

I’m sure everyone has heard the familiar aphorism, “The night is darkest before the dawn.” In any literal sense, it isn’t true, but it is certainly a helpful refrain in the context of Batman comics. Recall The Long Halloween – the story which corrupted Harvey Dent into Two-Face, it also marked the first definitive and irreparable failure in Batman’s crime fighting career, putting an end to the naïve notion that Batman could ever actually “win” his crusade. Its follow-up, Dark Victory, found Batman in that grim new status quo, and ended with him lifted, given new hope and purpose in the form of a new partner: Robin. Dick Grayson breathed new energy and life into the Batman narrative, but since the dissolution of that partnership, Batman has got darker still. In a quick sequence of violent classics, Batman has definitely earned the moniker of “Dark Knight.” If the night is actually darkest before the dawn, then a bright new dawn is just about the only place Batman’s story could go next.

Discussing the sunrise after The Long Halloween‘s darkest night, I wrote, “it isn’t enough to just beat the bad guys – a real hero does actual good, instead of just preventing bad.” This notion of Batman as not just a vigilante or benevolent boogeyman, but as a bonafide hero, is again placed at the center of Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and Jim Aparo’s A Lonely Place of Dying. Heroism, too, is what has inspired the folks at Toronto’s Southpaw Beverage Company to brew Heroes blonde lager. This beer, the can proclaims, “recognizes ordinary people doing something extraordinary,” and even does some quiet heroics of its own by donating proceeds from the sale of the beer to support Wounded Warriors Canada, a charity which provides support to veterans. Continue reading

Beer & Batman #30: We’re All Mad Here

B&B

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair craft beer with a Batman story, working my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour). If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.

The great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Many would (and have tried) to apply this sentiment in regard to Batman, and it’s easy to understand why: after a childhood trauma, Bruce Wayne was damaged to such an extent that the only way he could cope was to dress as a bat and fight crime. Which, frankly, is insane in any realistic context. Speaking about his current run on the character’s comic book, Tom King referred to Batman as “psychotic,” a turn of phrase which Panels contributor Alice W. Castle took some exception to. In one of a series of thoughtful and insightful tweets, Castle observed, “batman is a story of the intersection of trauma and mental illness and making yourself into the hero that you never had.” I don’t know a summation of 75+ years of comic books could ever be expressed in less than 140 characters, but Castle comes pretty damn close. Which, if we accept that as the central premise at Batman’s core, means that Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s clunkily titled Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth might just be the single most significant entry in the Batman canon.

Of the staggering number of monumental Batman classics released between 1987 and ’89, Arkham Asylum is undoubtedly my favorite, and, arguably, objectively the best. I’ll confess some bias, however, as my entry point into comics as an adult was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman opus, and Dave McKean’s art provided a stunning through line between Gaiman’s mythic storytelling and the conventional super-heroics of Batman comics. Bias aside, Arkham Asylum is better and more sophisticated than most superhero comics and is certainly more visually striking. McKean’s hallucinatory visuals provide the perfect accompaniment to Morrison’s core question: is Batman crazy?

Continue reading

Beer & Batman #29: An Adequate Adieu

B&B

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair craft beer with a Batman story, working my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour). If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.

Every craft brewer owes some intangible debt to Ken Grossman and his Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. A homebrewer throughout the 1970s, Grossman recognized an absence of homegrown, hop-forward beers, and took it upon himself to brew them. He was such a pioneer that he couldn’t even acquire the equipment required to brew beer at his planned small scale – brewing systems were only built to suit large commercial breweries, and he had to cobble together his own brewery from repurposed dairy equipment. Sierra Nevada practically invented the craft beer movement in the United States, and to this day, their pale ale is trumpeted as the standard against which all other pale ales are held.

With all that historical context established now, I will proceed to state an unpopular opinion: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, though undeniably well-balanced, is a timid, if not outright unremarkable, pale ale. As a homebrewer like Ken Grossman myself, I want to heap praise upon Sierra Nevada, because I have the privilege of walking every trail which Grossman has blazed. Objectively, though, I have to admit that I find their pale ale dreadfully uninteresting. It boils down to that perennial tug-of-war between importance and actual merit, and that is why I have paired Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with Batman: A Death In The Family. Continue reading

Beer & Batman #28: Better Days

B&B

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair craft beer with a Batman story, working my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour). If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.

This was supposed to be a different post entirely. Following up The Killing Joke in continuity, I ought to be writing about A Death In The Family. While I will discuss that controversial classic next week, I am not talking about it now, because I want to talk instead about Darwyn Cooke, an unparalleled titan of comics storytelling who passed away on May 14. But I haven’t suspended continuity only because I want to eulogize Darwyn Cooke by discussing his 2000 Batman graphic novel Ego – no, I don’t want to write about A Death In The Family, because, like The Killing Joke preceding it, it worked to push superhero storytelling further into a relentless grimness to which Cooke’s work was a welcome antidote.

Darwyn Cooke’s visual stylings evoke a bygone time – his art is like the Golden Age perfected, with all the same wide-eyed wonder and bombast, but with a more dynamic understanding of human figures and a more sophisticated knowledge of visual storytelling. Like any master of a given craft, Cooke made comics look easy, achieving more with fewer lines than most draftsmen could accomplish with near-photorealism. Somehow, he accomplished a similar result in his writing – spare and concise, he nevertheless possessed an uncanny understanding of any character he wrote. Consider his superhero opus, DC: The New Frontier – juggling an enormous cast of DC’s superheroes, he managed to capture each character at their best and most iconic, crafting the single greatest Justice League story ever committed to paper. In that book, and in Batman: Ego, he understands that the core of the best superhero stories is as deceptively simple as his art: hope. Continue reading