Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #1: Making History

“Batman: Gotham By Gaslight” by Brian Augustyn (W) and Mike Mignola (P) with P. Craig Russell (I) Paired with Black Creek Historic Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

“Batman: Gotham By Gaslight” by Brian Augustyn (W) and Mike Mignola (P) with P. Craig Russell (I)
Paired with Black Creek Historic Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

Superheroes, by and large, occupy a corner of the science fiction genre. Whether the heroes themselves are aliens, or imbued with powers by errant scientific experiments, it is almost presupposed that superheroes are a product of some vague tomorrow. Even an unpowered hero like Batman equips himself with technology beyond what modern science can provide, and fights an unending parade of Jekyll-and-Hyde-type scientists warped by their own mad science. If superhero comics could be said to have eyes, those eyes would be firmly fixed forward.

Craft brewing seems similarly hinged upon innovation. Many brewers were first motivated to make their own beers due to a lack of interesting, flavourful or distinct beers which suited their own tastes. Craft beer, to many conservative drinkers, focuses as much on novelty as quality, and those drinkers choose to keep drinking their Budweiser over any of those newfangled artsy beers (actually, Budweiser recently ran an ad campaign to that basic effect.) This is a basic misunderstanding; what “craft beer” means is that the beer is crafted, rather than manufactured. And, as proven by Toronto’s Black Creek Historic Brewery, that craft is not the least bit newfangled. Using the same techniques and technology employed by Ontario’s brewers in the 1860s, Black Creek Historic Brewery models their beers upon the styles enjoyed in the late nineteenth century.

This is the same period in which Gotham By Gaslight occurs, and it proves a similar point, removing the science fiction trappings of a superhero comics and transplanting that familiar concept and character into a different, decidedly not modern, time. Both Black Creek and Gotham By Gaslight demonstrate that it’s the basics which make something timeless. This book, and this beer, is a fantastic exercise in timelessness: the very first pages of the book retell the familiar scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder, recognizing this moment as a core truth of Batman in any iteration. Similar to Year One’s opening pages, it then moves ahead to Bruce Wayne’s adulthood as he undertakes the journey home to Gotham, after years studying and training abroad. The details are changed only to suit the late-nineteenth-century milieu.

Some things never change. . . (Art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, from Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.)

Some things never change. . . (Art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, from Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.)

It would be easy for the narrative’s familiarity to seem redundant if the basics weren’t handled as well as they are here, but few comics have the pedigree of Gotham By Gaslight’s art team, and Brian Augustyn is confident enough in that team to let the art carry the premise. Mike Mignola was not a household name in 1989, when this book was first published, but his instincts as a visual storyteller are just as strong, even if he hadn’t settled into his distinct style. Of course, Hellboy’s future creator handled only the pencils for Gotham By Gaslight. His inker, P. Craig Russell, became legendary in his own right, acting as sole artist on multiple Neil Gaiman collaborations. Comparing their later work against each other, Mignola and Russell are enormously different – Mignola is noted for bold use of shape and shadow to create striking compositions, like some kind of Lovecraftian art-deco, while Russell’s work is clear, elegant and detailed, almost art-nouveau influenced. The marriage of their styles works surprisingly well in Gotham By Gaslight, though maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, a spooky gothic murder mystery is comfortably in Mignola’s wheelhouse, while Russell is very much in his element drawing Victorian architecture and dress.

Black Creek’s Pumpkin Ale is a perfect match to this book. A malt-forward amber ale, pumpkin is employed subtly and effectively, not as a cloying seasonal gimmick. After all, pumpkin was frequently used by brewers in the late nineteenth century. Modern brewers now rinse the grains to get as much sugar out of them as possible (this is called sparging), but in the 1800s, brewers would instead use the same mash twice, yielding a second weaker, lower alcohol beer which would be served to children (a fermented drink was typically safer to drink than water, and beer was enjoyed by all ages at the time). This meant that, in order to get the desired gravity, brewers would frequently have to bolster their sugar content with sugars from fruit or other starches (for example, Black Creek also makes a fantastic potato stout). On its own, pumpkin imparts little more than a slightly vegetal taste, so it’s usually best complemented by spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg. This beer is only lightly spiced – it lets the caramel notes of the malt carry most of the weight, with the spices and pumpkin as a pleasantly cozy background.

It’s a perfect October beer, and Gotham By Gaslight is perfect October reading: this is a spooky gothic murder mystery, after all, which is why it’s a perfect book to start Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween. A gaslit Gotham, moodily coloured by David Hornung, evokes the setting of horror classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but this story’s antagonist is neither created by mad science nor supernatural forces. Brian Augustyn instead takes a horrific figure from history: Jack the Ripper. The notorious serial killer who murdered five prostitutes in London with almost surgical efficiency was never caught, and Gotham By Gaslight posits that he left England altogether, and continued to kill in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne, a surgeon’s son whose tragic past is a matter of public record, falls under suspicion for the crimes: after all, he was known to be abroad while Jack the Ripper was killing in London, and as soon as he returns to Gotham, the murders resume there.

Striking fear into the hearts of criminals: Now on horseback. (Art by Mike Mignola & P. Craig Russell, from Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.)

Striking fear into the hearts of criminals: Now on horseback. (Art by Mike Mignola & P. Craig Russell, from Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.)

At a tautly-paced forty-eight pages, Gotham By Gaslight is not just an effective demonstration of Batman’s timelessness, it’s a well-crafted mystery story. Yes, the identity of the real Ripper is maybe a little easy to guess, but this doesn’t steal any tension from the plot, using an effective ticking-clock plot device to raise the stakes on Batman’s investigation. You won’t need to sleep with the lights on after reading this one, but nevertheless, Gotham By Gaslight and a Black Creek Pumpkin Ale is a hell of a way to spend a chilly October night.

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  1. Pingback: Beer & Batman #19: Good Old Demons | Gutterball Special

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