This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).
CORRECTION: In last week’s Beer & Batman, about Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs, I neglected to mention that, although The Man Who Laughs occurs chronologically after Matt Wagner’s The Monster Men and The Mad Monk, it was actually written and published a year previous. Though the works read remarkably well in sequence, it should be noted that Mr. Brubaker was not following up Mr. Wagner’s stories. An enormous thanks to Ed Brubaker himself for drawing this error to my attention!
In The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s famous (or even infamous) graphic novel, the Joker chortles, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” In his afterword to the deluxe hardcover edition of the book, artist Brian Bolland reasserts this view of the Joker’s past: “I, for instance, would never have chosen to reveal a Joker origin. I think of this as just one of a number of possible origin stories manifesting itself in the Joker’s fevered brain.” And while The Killing Joke offers the most widely accepted version of who the Joker is and how he came to be (it’s the one which Ed Brubaker hinged The Man Who Laughs upon), it is by no means the only one available.
As the Joker prefers his past, I prefer my beer. While there are some beers I reach for more than others, I don’t buy any single brew enough to identify any as my beer of choice. I like variety; sometimes I want something boldly hopped and citrusy, or maybe crisp and refreshing, while other times I might want something full-bodied, malt-forward and dark, or even an adventurous brew that uses ingredients beyond the ordinary water, malt, hops and yeast to craft a beer. Some breweries oblige this desire for variety, brewing different beers from season to season, and some helpfully package these seasonal brews in a sampler for my drinking enjoyment. One such brewery, whose seasonal samplers I rarely miss, is Mill St. Though it’s late September, and their Fall Sampler is now on the shelf, today I’m still enjoying their Summer Sampler: a selection of lighter, more effervescent beers better suited to pair with the Clown Prince of Crime.
A) The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland. Paired with Mill St. Ginger Cat.
Don’t worry; I will certainly be dedicating an entire instalment of Beer & Batman to this book when we encounter it in its position in Batman continuity. Love it or hate it, no one can deny The Killing Joke’s enormous impact on both Batman continuity, as well as pretty much any subsequent depictions of the Batman-Joker dynamic, not to mention it’s impact on the landscape of superhero comics. It is a book worth talking about, but for the time being, I will only be discussing the parts of the book which deal with the Joker’s origin.
This, as mentioned, tends to be the version of his origin that is most accepted, and it’s easy to understand why; Alan Moore is a gifted storyteller, a self-described wizard, and he brought a more sophisticated literary understanding of storytelling even to the more mainstream superhero books he wrote, like this one. The Killing Joke offers two narratives: in one, the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, abducts James Gordon and tries to drive him mad through the psychological and physical torment of himself and his loved ones. In the other, we learn how the Joker himself was an ordinary man once, who was driven mad by traumas of his own. This book is like a persuasive essay. It presents arguments and proofs to support a thesis, and it’s different parts play together so well, it’s little wonder it is frequently embraced as the definitive take on the Joker’s origin.
Mill St. doesn’t take many risks in it’s Summer Sampler; two of the beers in the six-pack are their flagship offerings, their Organic Lager and their Tankhouse Ale. One of the boldest beers in the sampler is also one of the most satisfying: Ginger Cat. It’s a wheat beer brewed with the addition of candied ginger and orange peel. Using malted wheat, rather than malted barley, usually produces a lighter beer, and this one is no different, but it uses that to it’s advantage – rather than making the ginger and orange fight with stronger malt flavours, the wheat lets those additives shine right through. In much the same way, The Killing Joke is a risky narrative, but at a slim forty-eight pages, is surprisingly simple.
In Alan Moore’s take on the Joker, he’s an ordinary man, a comedian trying to support a wife, with a child on the way. With gigs few and far between, he’s struggling to provide for his family, and, desperate, looks to score a payout by volunteering information to the Red Hood Gang about his previous employer, ACE Chemicals. The Red Hood Gang here is a little different from the one we met in Zero Year – whereas the entire gang in Zero Year wore red hoods, in this iteration, only the Red Hood himself sports the costume. The catch, however, is that the man under the hood is never the same twice. Breaking into ACE Chemicals, the gang enlists our proto-Joker to wear the hood.
The Batman-Joker dynamic is consistently played as a superbly disciplined, logical deductive mind versus a pure chaotic force, and Alan Moore reflects that almost poetically in his take on Joker’s origin. This desperate, sad comedian is not a criminal mastermind; he’s just a guy who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an even crueler twist, on the same day as the robbery, his apartment catches fire due to a faulty radiator, and his wife and unborn child, the very people he was so desperate to support, die in the fire. He’s already undone even before a confrontation with the Batman sends him tumbling into a vat of chemicals. None of the events which turned him into the Joker were calculated or intentional; it was just dumb luck.
B) Lovers & Madmen, written by Michael Green with art by Denys Cowan. Paired with Mill St. Lemon Tea Beer.
DC frequently leans pretty heavily on Batman’s origin, and in 2006, while Grant Morrison was spinning an insane epic which included even the most esoteric pieces of Batman’s history in the character’s main title, the publisher offered another, simpler Batman title, Batman Confidential, which purported to tell untold stories set within Batman’s early crime fighting career. Never mind that another title, Legends of the Dark Knight, was doing precisely the same thing for almost twenty years, begging the question: how many stories of Batman’s early crime fighting career were left to tell?
Not many, as it turned out. In Batman Confidential’s second arc, the Joker was given another origin story. Written by Green Lantern screenwriter Michael Green, the six issue arc was a little unusual. Not due to it’s subject matter (in that regard, it’s really quite straightforward), but due to it’s position in continuity. See, Batman Confidential was never branded as an out-of-continuity title, but at the time, The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs were already pretty firmly established as tent-poles of Batman continuity, and as we’ll see in a moment, Lovers & Madmen pretty much outright contradicts both those books. As such, more time was probably spent puzzling over why this book existed at all, rather than discussing if it was actually a good book.
Which, though by no means outstanding, it is. The funny thing about Lovers & Madmen is, it would be entirely all right if the only Batman book you read prior to it was Year One. But it’s a problematic book to try to situate in the Batman canon, and most of its most significant story beats are rendered redundant by better stories which preceded it. The best reading of this book would be comparable Batman: Earth One – which is to say, as a continuity-free reinvention of an iconic origin story.
Like Earth One, the entire book seems predicated upon making itself accessible, but without much consideration as to who it’s meant to be accessible to. I wonder the same thing about Mill Street’s Lemon Tea Beer: like the Ginger Cat, it’s a wheat beer, but angling toward the refreshment of iced tea, it’s actually been infused with orange pekoe and Earl Grey teas, and brewed with actual lemon puree. The idea, I’m sure, is to make a beer appealing to those who might want to drink a beer without it tasting much like one, but instead it tastes too much like a beer to have the appeal of iced tea, but too much like iced tea to satisfy as a beer. Whether it’s the astringent tang of the tea, or an excess of bittering hops, it leaves a bitter aftertaste which does nothing to smooth out the sour bite of the lemon notes. It seems an exercise in making something which aims to extend it’s appeal as much as possible, but ends up being the favourite of no one.
In a similar fashion, Lovers & Madmen sounds all right on paper. Like Batman and the Monster Men, the story is sure to demonstrate Batman’s careful balance and his meticulous dedication. Whereas Matt Wagner elegantly showed this throughout his work, Michael Green is sure to tell us via Batman’s rather heavy-handed narration, and repeats it a few times. This book, too, wants to play with the order-chaos dynamic between Batman and Joker, and Michael Green is sure to clearly and repeatedly delineate Batman as an orderly, logical mind.
On the chaos end of the dynamic, we are introduced to our man Jack, a hired gun and safecracker, wallowing in existential despair. Jack is very good at what he does, and feels uninspired and bored, his work neither exhilarating nor providing him a challenge. This might be because his character is actually already played out: his name, and even his profession, seems to be borrowed from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, in which the Joker is a gangster named Jack Napier. Like adding iced tea and lemon to beer, this seems like an attempt to bring something familiar to broader audiences into a different medium, but, also like adding iced tea and lemon to beer, the results fall a little flat. It’s pretty gutsy to presume that one can reinvent a story told so iconically in The Killing Joke, but simply borrowing from a film adaptation is hardly bold enough to warrant the retelling.
Michael Green’s story definitely differs from the Tim Burton film, and where it’s most pronounced is the thematic material, which seem mighty familiar after reading The Monster Men and The Mad Monk. This story also gives Bruce Wayne a love interest, an unmemorable woman named Lorna. According to Bruce’s ongoing heavy-handed narrative philosophizing, we are meant to think that Bruce has real feelings for this woman, and, like in Matt Wagner’s books, is optimistic that he can soon end his war on crime and make space in his life for a functional relationship. But thanks to our man Jack, Batman still has some crime left to fight: on the advice of an unnamed bubbly blond Bostonian bartender-cum-psychology-student who addresses him as “Mister J,” Jack embarks on an anarchic crime-for-the-sake-of-crime spree, in an attempt to reinvigorate his passion for crime. Because the crimes are unmotivated, wanton, and senseless, Batman’s logical, orderly mind can’t get ahead of his new adversary, while Jack rediscovers his smile by bamboozling Batman.
This does not make for an altogether terrible story if viewed by itself. Sure, it’s not perfect – Michael Green has an awkward tendency to tell us the story through narrative captions rather than let Denys Cowan’s art show it, which is a shame, because the sketchy, angular art is one of the few elements of this book that feel like something we haven’t seen before (and Cowan does draw a hell of a Joker). Redundancy is the book’s major failing; while it tells an entirely okay Batman story, there is nothing this book does which isn’t done better by another Batman story. If Lovers & Madmen is read as a solitary work, rather than part of the expansive Batman canon, it still wouldn’t be great, but it would probably be more satisfying, and might better excuse some moments which seem pretty out-of-character for our favourite Caped Crusader. Namely, the rather significant moment in the story when Batman calls in a favour from a gangster to have Jack straight up killed.
No prior or subsequent characterization of Batman would support the notion of him ordering a hit against a criminal, but in the context of Michael Green’s obsessive, humourless and emotionally-stunted take on the character, it works well enough. Like The Man Who Laughs, this story also chooses to sink it’s teeth into the thematic meatiness of the notion that Batman created his own worst enemy. But Lovers & Madmen is much more overt: the hit against Jack, of course, goes awry, culminating in Jack being doused in antipsychotic chemicals in what is surely an attempt at irony that reads instead as a severe misunderstanding of how pharmaceuticals work. But the moral of this story is clear: don’t order cartoon thugs to murder your problems, kids; if you do, your problems will turn into a murderous clown, which is much, much worse than the original predicament.
C) Zero Year – Secret City, written by Scott Snyder with art by Greg Capullo. Paired with Mill St. Stargazer Summer Ale.
I’ve discussed this work as a whole already, but it’s worth making mention of again as it pertains to the Joker’s origins. Zero Year acts as something of an “all-of-the-above” answer to the Clown Prince of Crime’s past, while also leaving all the right mysteries intact. As in The Killing Joke, our proto-Joker here is the Red Hood, and same as in Lovers & Madmen, he is an anarchic career criminal whose motives even Batman can’t peg. In Zero Year’s iteration of the Red Hood Gang, as mentioned previously, all it’s members wear a red hood, but are distinguished from each other by a number assignation, and the leader of this gang is Red Hood One. A sadistic and intelligent psychopath, he enlists members through blackmail – even his cohorts don’t know who he is under the hood.
I appreciate simplicity; you might have noticed this in my previous comments about Year One, or even mere moments ago when you were reading my take on The Killing Joke above. It’s difficult, I think, for many writers to embrace simplicity in their storytelling, mistaking sophistication for complication. Brewers can frequently make this mistake as well. In their summer sampler, Mill St. tried something different which worked well (Ginger Cat) and they tried something different which didn’t work very well at all (Lemon Tea Beer). With their Stargazer Summer Ale, they don’t seem to aspire to reinvent beer, instead just aiming to make a good, simple English-style ale, and while it won’t inspire the reactions of those other offerings, it also doesn’t rely on gimmickry to be noteworthy.
That is precisely how Scott Snyder handles Red Hood in Zero Year, and it wasn’t until I started considering the multiple takes on the Joker’s origins for the sake of this post that I even realized precisely how well he did this. Yes, he shows us the familiar scene of the Red Hood falling into a vat of chemicals, but never illuminates the man or his motivations. It’s not a hapless comedian or a bored gangster (though it could be either, I suppose) and thus, we get to know where the Joker came from, while the Joker gets to remain a scary-as-hell man-with-no-name.
For Bonus Marks:
Dead to Rights, written by Andrew Kreisberg with pencils by Scott McDaniel and inks by Andy Owens. Paired with Mill St. 100th Meridian Organic Amber Lager.
Not good enough to devote an entire Beer & Batman to, but not nearly bad enough to ignore entirely, Dead To Rights is not actually another interpretation of the Joker’s origins, but seems instead to be designed as a wholly optional, retroactively-inserted epilogue to The Man Who Laughs. This book collects two short, closely linked, arcs of Batman Confidential, the first of which, entitled “Do You Understand These Rights?”, recounts Joker’s first ever stint in the custody of the GCPD, dropped on the steps of the police station by Batman. Similarly, the 100th Meridian Organic Amber Lager rounds out Mill Street’s Summer Sampler in an enjoyably unremarkable way, with a beer that does little to separate itself from their other organic lager, offering the same thing only a little hoppier with a slightly darker hue.
Dead To Rights is worth reading for a pretty spot-on characterization of the Joker – Arrow co-writer and co-producer Andrew Kreisberg writes a wickedly funny Joker, with lines that are hard not to hear in Mark Hamill’s Joker voice from Batman: The Animated Series. As tends to be the case with retroactively-added stories like this, though, nothing much of impact occurs. Kreisberg does his best to give the story some weight by shifting the focus to a new character, GCPD officer Geoff Shancoe, whom we meet just returning to work for the first time after his honeymoon. Kreisberg gives Shancoe some shorthand pathos (former alcoholic, recovered only through his wife’s love and support) before allowing the Joker to merrily ruin his life. This plot plays out like a subdued restatement of the Joker’s “one-bad-day-is-all-it-takes” thesis from The Killing Joke, and frankly, Kreisberg doesn’t seem interested in making it more than that; he’s here to write the Joker, and he has almost as much fun doing it as the Joker has causing trouble in this story.
The Joker spends pretty much the entirety of this story in custody, and it makes for a fun concept to explore how much harm the Joker can cause even when not at large. It should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen Kreisberg’s work on Arrow, though, that the means in which the Joker accomplishes this mayhem is neither subtle nor clever, and frequently seems a little farfetched or silly, despite being played straight-faced. Among the ways in which the Joker kills people in this book:
- using a conveniently placed peanut to cause anaphylaxis in a conveniently peanut-allergic judge.
- smuggling a banana peel up his pant leg, which he then plants on the courtroom floor, causing a psychiatrist to slip and strike her head against a table.
- straight up talking Officer Shancoe’s wife into hanging herself.
Scott McDaniel’s art deserves a lot of credit for adding details which help sell some of these moments (a fun bit of slight-of-hand in which the Joker palms a pen which later ends up in a police escort’s jugular, for example, or even just by making a Medicalert bracelet visible on the judge’s wrist in an earlier panel) and his energetic, angular and animated style probably makes some of the more preposterous plot points a little easier to accept than they would be in the hands of a more realistic artist. It’s a book which offers enough fun moments to forgive it’s absurdities, though it does weigh heavily on poor unfortunate Officer Shancoe in the first arc’s climax, as he, undone by his wife’s death and seeing that due process will never stop the Joker, tries to take matters unto himself by shooting multiple police offers in order to get to the Joker himself. He is, of course, stopped by Batman and Lieutenant Gordon, and gets himself locked up in Arkham Asylum in a cell right next to the Joker.
Shancoe takes the spotlight in the second arc collected in the book, entitled “Bad Cop.” The Joker is relegated to a more supporting role, as Shancoe escapes Arkham to try and see how bad a thing he will have to do to provoke one of his former police compatriots to shoot him. Serving as a follow up to the least interesting part of “Do You Understand These Rights?” it bears very little discussion. Noteworthy moments include the in-continuity chronological first appearances of the GCPD’s Renee Montoya and Gordon’s daughter Barbara. In more Joker-relevant moments, the book does conclude with the Joker escaping Arkham, which does leave him at large for his next in-continuity appearance, which, if I’m not mistaken, will be the tremendous Long Halloween.
But we won’t get to that one for a little while yet, because Beer & Batman will be taking a long Halloween of it’s own: throughout the month of October, I will take a detour in our beer-soaked exploration of the Batman canon, pairing a different pumpkin beer with some of the spookier and more horrific stories of the Dark Knight. Next: Gotham By Gaslight!