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.
The tradition of Halloween, at its roots, is about crossing borders. In most traditions, it marked the end of the harvest and the start of the winter. Historically, this marked the end of a time of warmth, bounty and life, and marked the start of a time of cold, scarcity and death. This represented a symbolic breach of the border between the living and the dead, observed by many cultures as a time in which the spirits of the dead could wander the land of the living, and should be shown respect. These traditions translate into our modern All Hallow’s Eve.
Steve Niles and Scott Hampton’s Gotham County Line is also primarily concerned with borders. The title refers to a literal border, at the edge of Batman’s usual purview, but those more Halloween-ish borders between the living and the dead are Steve Niles’ real concern in his 2005 DC Comics debut. Though new to superhero comics at the time, Niles was already a household name in horror comics for his and Ben Templesmith’s IDW miniseries 30 Days of Night. The mid ‘00s was precisely the time I started reading comics, and Steve Niles was a name that I grew used to hearing as I learned the ins and outs of comics at that time – few writers were as buzzed about as he was. Thus, with Gotham County Line, Niles was crossing a border of his own, moving from creator owned, independent comics to mainstream superhero books.
Mill St. Brewery debuted the same year as Steve Niles’s blockbuster 30 Days of Night, with similar effect. Their impact on the Canadian craft beer landscape was monumental, becoming a recognizable and accessible choice to even those who wouldn’t typify themselves as “beer snobs.” Their growth was so meteoric that, within only four years, they outgrew their modest brewery on Mill St. in Toronto and relocated all brewing operations to a facility north of the city. There are no real parameters on how big a brewing operation can be before the term “craft” stops applying, and while it grew increasingly difficult to place Mill St. in the same weight class as, say, Lake of Bays or Sawdust City, they continued to produce a lot of solidly good beers despite their large scale, while still indulging in a few creative brews with varying rates of success. Last week, however, Mill St. crossed a border which definitively places them outside that “craft” label, selling their brewery, their two brewpubs, their recipes and all their brands to the soulless swill manufacturing conglomerate, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Thus, this week I raise what might be one of Mill St. Brewery’s last “craft” beers: a perennial favourite, their Nightmare on Mill Street Pumpkin Ale. Though labelled as a wheat beer, it’s grain bill does include malted barley as well, imparting some caramel notes which pair so well pumpkin. The pumpkin is decidedly present here, though not cloyingly so, and the spices are pleasant but subtle. It isn’t too hoppy, and the usual sourdough taste of wheat beers is nicely tempered by the addition of vanilla. This is a good beer, well balanced – the precise qualities which elevated Mill St. to the heights that placed them in the sights of giants. In grand Halloween tradition, let’s respect the departed, and take a peek on the other side of the border, with Steve Niles, Mill St. and, of course, Batman.
Gotham County Line opens with Batman and the Joker squaring off, which seems as routine to the characters as it is to their longtime readers – they seem so disinterested in trading blows that they trade existential reflections on life after death between punches. It’s an odd opening which illuminates both the book’s strengths and weaknesses in a single sequence. The strengths are obvious at first glance: Scott Hampton’s art. No stranger to Batman, Scott Hampton provided the stunning watercolour illustrations to Archie Goodwin’s graphic novel Night Cries (which we are mere weeks away from in our Beer & Batman coverage), but in Gotham County Line, he eschews watercolours for pen and ink, turning in heavily shadowed, scratchy art that goes a long way to make this an effective horror story. The six page Batman-versus-Joker sequence that starts the book demonstrates Hampton’s eye for choreography and composition – he’s an expert visual storyteller, and Steve Niles is lucky to have him. Niles provides an interesting script, though his characterization of Batman is a little unsteady. He seems less interested in crafting his narrative to suit the character of Batman, and more inclined to reinterpret the character to suit his narrative. Here, Batman is cast as the familiar horror-genre archetype of the skeptic, the logical deductive mind who has never encountered a phenomenon he can’t explain.
This would not be an entirely unusual take on the character, but this story positions itself well into Batman’s career – Jason Todd, the second Robin, is already deceased, and James Gordon has retired as police commissioner, placing Gotham County Line after No Man’s Land. At this point, he has confronted immortals, and within this very book, he professes familiarity with DC’s supernatural heroes such as Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, and the Specter. His skepticism here, then, seems a little forced for narrative impact. Certainly, this story’s themes would not be nearly as effective if Batman were played here as the veteran of the strange and unexplained that he is, as Niles does craft a reasonably compelling narrative that pushes Batman to the boundaries of his jurisdiction, and not only in literal terms.
A series of ritualistic home invasions and murders draws Batman into the suburbs outside of Gotham. It’s a spooky case, but seemingly straightforward, and Batman solves it in short order – the murderer proved to be one of the sheriff’s deputies, Radmuller, but he hangs himself before Batman can apprehend him. The case seems closed, even if Radmuller’s motives remain unknown – but then, of course, Radmuller seems to rise from the dead, accompanied by a horde of the undead. While it’s a delight to see Scott Hampton illustrate zombies, the narrative starts to falter a little at this point. The rules of whatever occult magic Radmuller is dabbling in are awfully vague – you see, Gotham’s suburbs aren’t actually overrun by the living dead, but rather, Radmuller’s ritual creates a pocket universe or something, in which the dead coexist with the living. Though inexplicably, Alfred also becomes a zombie, even though he isn’t dead.
The supernatural, by definition, exists outside the ordinary, and some might argue that it doesn’t require any rules. This might actually be what Niles is going for, trying to create a story far enough outside logic that Batman’s deductive skills won’t be of much help. The trouble with going far outside of the ordinary, though, is that it offers no point of reference with which to relate to, and without something to relate to, much of what should be scary plays instead as just odd or confusing. Of course, sheer, rampant weirdness can be effective as well, but as a Batman story, Gotham County Line keeps itself a little too grounded to play it as weird as it could if it were, say, a Deadman story. Deadman is present in this book, playing Virgil to Batman’s Dante, but this is still Batman’s story, and like Batman himself, we expect to find a logical explanation.
What we get instead are some truly fascinating, though half-formed ideas, about the afterlife: Niles seems informed somewhat of the Swahili concepts of sasha and zamani, the two dimensions of the dead, which are dictated by memory – basically, a deceased person who was known and is remembered by those still alive, exists in sasha, and are not wholly dead, as they are kept alive by memories. Niles takes a twist on this concept; in Radmuller’s pocket universe, it seems as though the savagery of the undead is dictated by one’s culpability (or perception of their culpability) in their death. Basically, the dead are only as fearsome as one perceives them. It’s definitely an interesting take on the topic, but it leads to a conclusion that hews a little too close to the “it-was-all-just-a-dream” trope to be entirely satisfying.
Comics readers, like craft beer aficionados, always have some reservations when a favourite indie creator hops the fence to peddle what the Big Two are selling, and Gotham County Line is a good example of why. But in comics, at least, a creator can always hop back across that fence if Marvel and DC aren’t keen on publishing the stories they want to tell. Many comics creators’ careers follow this trajectory – Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen, for example, both started out making independent comics, spent some time writing an impressive array of Marvel comics, and have since returned to making their own independent comics again. Steve Niles did the same: his DC Comics career lasted just shy of three years, before he happily resumed writing his own horror comics published by IDW. The craft beer industry, unfortunately, does not work the same way. Despite assertions that Mill Street’s beer will remain the same without any sacrifice to quality, it’s hard not to have some reservations: when Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased Lakeport Brewing Company in 2007, much of the same rhetoric was used, but it took only three years for all of Lakeport’s operations to be folded into AB InBev’s Labatt facility, closing the old Lakeport brewery and leaving 143 people without jobs. Now that Mill St. is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, they’ve crossed a threshold over which there’s no coming back.