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).
For the month of October, that spookiest month of the year, I will be focusing on the more horrific and supernatural corners of Batman’s oeuvre, pairing each with a seasonal pumpkin beer.
Batman and horror are pretty easy bedfellows. He designed himself to strike fear in criminals, using the gothic symbol of a bat, and many of his adversaries reflect this same theme: Scarecrow and Man-Bat are obvious examples, but even Two-Face plays with a Jekyll-and-Hyde archetype, and of course the Joker plays on a commonplace fear of clowns. This means it isn’t hard to push a Batman story toward the horrific.
Beer and pumpkin are a pretty comfortable combination as well. As mentioned in last week’s discussion on Black Creek Brewing’s Pumpkin Ale, pumpkin used to be frequently incorporated into brewing beer. This went out of fashion for a time, but resumed recently as a seasonal gimmick. Nearly every craft brewery offers a pumpkin beer in the fall. One of my favourite breweries is Beau’s All-Natural Brewing, out of Vankleek Hill, Ontario. This year, Beau’s has brewed a pumpkin weiss. Having taken a year of German in university, I can tell you that the word “weiss” means “white,” but the beer style seems to stem from a contraction of “weizen,” which means “wheat.” Though pale in colour (albeit not quite pale enough to be considered white), weissbiers are consistently brewed with more wheat than barley. Wheat usually lacks the richness and body of barley, imparting a brighter, livelier taste, with a slight, almost sour, bite. Beau’s pumpkin weiss is no different, and I can understand why they opted for this style as the base for this year’s pumpkin offering – wheat beers usually provide a light, inoffensive canvas to showcase other flavours. What’s funny about Weiss O’ Lantern, however, is how little the pumpkin comes through – it’s an entirely drinkable beer, but neither the pumpkin puree, orange peel, ginger or cinnamon added to the brew make it terribly distinct from most weissbiers.
In much the same way, Haunted Gotham takes a comfortable combination and confusingly sidesteps the obvious. Like Gotham By Gaslight, this book is outside of continuity, offering an entirely new interpretation of the concept of Batman. Unlike Gotham By Gaslight, the premise of Haunted Gotham is not a clear or concise concept that can easily be summed up in a simple elevator pitch. Gotham By Gaslight transposes Batman into the late nineteenth century – simple, right? Well, Haunted Gotham imagines that Gotham is a town under the control of actual demons, and Batman was conditioned from birth to battle the demonic legions and spare the souls of Gotham’s people from eternal damnation.
While not exactly straightforward, if anyone were to make this idea work, it would be Doug Moench and Kelley Jones. One of the definitive Batman creative teams of the ‘90s, their work frequently skewed toward the horrific. Kelley Jones wears his Berni Wrightson influence on his sleeve, but filters that influence through a neon 1990s lens, which works to peculiar effect in Haunted Gotham. This is a book published in 2000, which looks like a product of an artist in the ’90s doing his best to evoke the premiere gothic artist of the 1970s. Thus, our “haunted Gotham” looks a little like Halloween kitsch, rather than the moody, gothic illustrations of Wrightson.
Which is all right, because Doug Moench provides a script that evokes Vincent Price’s collaborations with director Roger Corman. Like those films, though, it’s a little unclear as to whether camp is what Haunted Gotham is aiming for – there are even bizarre incongruities in the art that seem too obvious to be mistakes, reminding me again of the blatant continuity errors in some of the horror genres schlockier classics. But like those films, the intent doesn’t much matter when the results are as dementedly overwrought and melodramatic as they are. Moench and Jones created a wholly entertaining horror comic, even if it is an oddity as a Batman comic. Which, undoubtedly, Haunted Gotham is; in this iteration, Bruce Wayne is an adult when his parents are killed. Same as usual, his parents are murdered in front of him after a night at a theatre, though this time, it was a medical theatre where the deranged Doctor Emil Varner was demonstrating a Frankenstein-esque reanimation procedure. But in case we’ve grown bored of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne (and if you’re following Beer & Batman, this is the fifth time you’ve heard this story, after all), Doug Moench and Kelley Jones keep it interesting by making their killer a werewolf assassin.
While werewolf assassins are definitely a novel way of livening up a familiar narrative, Haunted Gotham starts pushing the boundaries of how many details of the Batman mythos can be changed until it ceases to be a Batman story at all. After his parents’ lupine demise, Bruce learns that his father was a member of a secret society, dedicated to the defeat of the dark demonic forces through the virtuous means of science. Moreover, without him knowing why, Bruce was trained and conditioned from birth to assume the identity of the Batman upon his father’s death. Bruce seems to have little say in the matter – the literal ghost of his father sets him his mission, and gives him his costume and identity. Like Earth One, this squarely focuses Batman upon a specific enemy, rather than the less finite objective of fighting to prevent Gotham’s criminal element taking from anyone else what it took from him. While Earth One provided a last minute twist which broadened Batman’s objective, Haunted Gotham maintains this specific focus throughout, and I think this dilutes some of the essentials of what makes Batman who he is.
The miniseries is arguably at it’s best when it detours away from Batman trying to solve his parents’ murder or battling Gotham’s demonic overlords. In it’s third issue, it tells a more episodic story, following the sort of bizarre and supernatural case which Batman must solve in this particular bizarre and supernatural version of Gotham. The case involves a snake-man name Jeremy Adder, who fronts a cult which worships an ancient snake god, and while it’s pure B-movie material, it’s one of the few beats in this book where Batman functions as the crime-fighting Dark Knight we all know and love, rather than a cowled Hamlet, if Hammer Film Productions were to remake Shakespeare.
Like Hamlet, Batman even gets a skull to talk to, but unlike poor Yorick, Batman’s skeleton buddy Cal talks back. This, too, represents another strange decision which Doug Moench makes: rather than giving us reinventions of Batman’s familiar cast of supporting characters and villains, he mostly eschews existing characters for new ones. The only supporting roles which are directly translated into this different, spooky Gotham are James Gordon and Alfred. Though Doug Moench labels characters as the Joker or as Catwoman, neither resemble any recognizable version of the characters; Joker, now a patchwork reanimated corpse a la Frankenstein’s Monster, is only distinguished by his rictus grin, while Catwoman is now a psychic and medium named Cat Majik, who can turn into an actual cat-woman. Otherwise, Batman’s allies in his fight against the dark forces are the aforementioned skeleton Cal, a Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-type named Cassandra Knight, and the ghost of Thomas Wayne. This is a shame, because it would be a lot of fun to see more familiar Batman heroes and villains reinterpreted for the weird world of Haunted Gotham, and would go a long way to make this a more effective Batman story.
But, just as the Weiss O’ Lantern is an enjoyable wheat beer despite not delivering on the promise of pumpkin, Haunted Gotham is a dementedly entertaining B-movie style horror story, despite not making good on the whole “Batman” portion. With both, if you ignore the promises implicit on the label and let yourself enjoy it for what it is, you will find lots of ridiculous, spooky fun, which will surely only be enhanced the more beer you drink – and with as light and refreshing as Beau’s Weiss O’ Lantern is, it’s easy to drink more than one.