Brewing is a craft steeped in tradition, regulated with rules and even laws, and it’s unsurprising that some brewers feel the need to push boundaries. After all, why bother brewing a beer if it’s just going to be the same as the beer someone else is making? Lots of craft brewers embrace this punk spirit, but few embody it as completely as Rogue Ales & Spirits does. Hailing from the DIY State, Oregon, Rogue has even articulated this attitude in their creed:
Rogue is a small revolution, which expresses itself through handcrafted Ales, Porters, Stouts, Lagers and Spirits, and this is the way we conduct our business. The spirit of the Rogue brand, even the name, suggests doing things differently, a desire and a willingness to change the status quo. A Rogue Ale, Porter, Stout, Lager or Spirit is crafted to give it unique character, innovative in its makeup and brewing, a process that has not compromised quality. We believe if a Rogue Ale, Porter, Stout, Lager or Spirit cannot be all of these things, it should not be made at all.
In this spirit, Rogue makes an impressive array of innovative beers, but few are as boldly different as their collaborations with Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts, in which Rogue adapts one of Voodoo’s signature doughnut flavours into a beer, such as a Lemon Chiffon Crueller. After the malts and hops, the list of ingredients on Rogue’s Voodoo Doughnut Lemon Chiffon Crueller Ale gets decidedly more unexpected: Lemon juice, vanilla beans, marshmallows . . . We ain’t drinking Steam Whistle, folks.
In my last instalment, I waxed poetically about balance, in both beer and Batman. Indeed, balance is pretty fundamental to the character of Batman. Having no superpowers, he needs to be meticulous, careful, ordered. Thus, it’s unsurprising that a character would enter his mythos who would push those boundaries, who is pure, gleeful anarchy, a nemesis not motivated by rhyme or reason. So, stop me if you’ve heard this one . . .
Of course, I’m talking about the Joker. The tease on Year One’s last page is paid off in Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs, and similar to Matt Wagner in The Monster Men and The Mad Monk, this book takes care to link itself to Frank Miller’s seminal classic, even using the dual perspectives of Jim Gordon and Batman to narrate the story. The Mad Monk promised “a warehouse full of bodies, seemingly poisoned . . . all bearing some semblance of a rictus-like grin, even in death,” and that’s precisely where The Man Who Laughs opens:
Doug Mahnke’s art is more detailed, defined more by line than by shadow, which is what we’ve seen from David Mazzuchelli and Matt Wagner, and it’s a good fit for both the expressiveness of the Joker and the grotesqueness of his crimes. Smartly, Brubaker & Mahnke don’t make this an origin story, and we get to see Doug Mahnke’s classic take on the Joker step into panel only eight pages into the comic. This book knows it’s main attraction, and knows there’s little purpose to making us wait.
The Joker is not a character known for his subtlety or nuance. Neither is the beer that I’m drinking: even by smell, the lemon and vanilla aromas are evident. I remember, as a child, reading the labels of wine bottles. They would promise sweet notes of strawberry, floral qualities, hints of oak, and it would sound so lovely I’d ask my parents for a sip, but I didn’t taste any of that, just the tart, alcoholic tang of wine. This is not like that; Rogue is not interested in making the doughnut notes apparent only to refined palettes: they place it front and centre, like the Joker publicly announcing himself on the local news.
The Man Who Laughs, unfortunately, doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly as Rogue does to it’s anarchic mission statement. Year One, The Monster Men, The Mad Monk and this book form a remarkably coherent narrative, and the care which Ed Brubaker takes to fit this story into that narrative comes at the detriment of his characterization of the Joker. Like the preceding chapters, this one is a straightforward case, with the Joker very directly leaving clues, right from the start. This makes a good Batman story, but a confusing Joker story: the Joker is targeting very specific individuals with ties to his very specific origin as the Red Hood. While I’ll happily buy into the the Joker’s origin as the Red Hood, I find the Joker to be scarier when no one is sure who he is and how he came to be, and a truer expression of chaos to counter Batman’s meticulous order if he has no discernible motivation. In The Man Who Laughs, Ed Brubaker ascribes the Joker clear motivations, and that, I think, dilutes the impact of his debut if his crimes are ones that can be solved.
Nevertheless, this book is the sort of short, tense work that Ed Brubaker excels at: his noir pedigree is well-proven in his creator-owned work Fatale and Criminal, or even in his wonderful run with Greg Rucka on Gotham Central. Few people in comics craft procedurals as well as Ed Brubaker, and this one is a hell of a read. The Joker, big, bold and theatrical, announces his victims on television, and despite the best efforts of Batman, Gordon and the entirety of GCPD, the Joker poisons each of his targets right on cue. Batman is at a loss, failing to get a step ahead of his new enemy, until he’s able to get a new perspective, by dosing himself with the Joker’s own toxin.
Clocking in at a lean seventy-one pages, this book is a satisfactory introduction of Batman’s classic archenemy, and by keeping it simple, it does manage to feel iconic despite it’s missteps. Thematically, maintaining the close ties to Red Hood here cements the Joker as a villain directly of Batman’s own making, which is a pretty effective character beat, and I don’t fault Brubaker for taking this approach. Brubaker and Mahnke do deliver some fantastic scenes which lay the groundwork for future stories; Batman and Joker’s showdown at Gotham’s reservoir is fantastic enough that it becomes a touchstone for a scene in Scott Snyder’s much more recent Death of the Family story arc. At the end of this scene, Batman is confronted with the opportunity to let the Joker fall into the poisoned reservoir, but he instead saves him. I suspect that Ed Brubaker crafted this scene to serve as the root for the famous bit of Batman’s narration in The Dark Knight Returns, when he reflects: “I’ll count the dead, one by one. I’ll add them to the list, Joker. The list of all the people I’ve murdered by letting you live.”
This book lays a solid foundation for more interesting stories going forward, enough that I don’t feel off base as recommending this one as indispensable Batman reading. There’s a lot to recommend this book; Doug Mahnke’s art is superb, and Ed Brubaker nails his characterizations of Batman and Gordon, making it a worthy follow up to Year One. But a character as brazen, chaotic and bold as the Joker deserves a book that flaunts conventions as flagrantly as Rogue’s Voodoo Doughnut Lemon Chiffon Crueller Ale. Which, I ought to mention, is better than a doughnut-inspired beer has any right to be: a little sweet without being sugary, the lemon notes only push the tanginess a little further than hops would, smoothed out nicely by the vanilla.