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.
There is much to be said in praise of the obvious. As a creative type myself, I admit to a tendency toward dismissing the obvious idea, instead searching for something more distinct. It’s a decent instinct, and though I’d never claim as much in my own work, it can get striking results. This is true when making comics, and when making beer, and I’ve done both. For me, and for many creative individuals, the impulse to create comes from a desire to create something new, and it makes a great deal of sense to be skeptical of the obvious if your aim is to make something new. But this means a good, if plain, idea can get passed over by many a creative mind, no one recognizing it’s potential.
This fall, my father and I brewed a pumpkin beer. It was our second attempt – the year previous, we brewed a pumpkin dubbel, which bordered upon the undrinkable. The spices were too cloying, and grain bill too busy, with too many strong flavours aggressively fighting for attention. With last year’s failure leaving it’s potent bad taste in our mouth, we could be forgiven for retreating to the ordinary, playing it safe with a straightforward wheat beer or pale ale whose uncomplicated and light grain bill would let the pumpkin and accompanying spices take the starring role. Instead, we did the opposite, making a dark, heavy stout, but learning from last year’s mistakes, we paid closer attention to making sure our flavours paired well together. The result was not perfect (it’s a little more ester-y than I prefer my stouts) but it was good, and almost as important, it was decidedly different from any of the pumpkin beers which crowd the shelves of the local liquor store this time of year. After all, other brewers are doing a fine job of crafting the plain and simple pumpkin ale, and you could do much worse than Grand River Brewing’s attempt, the Highballer Pumpkin Ale.
An oddity among craft breweries, Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ontario, seems a little conservative, identifying more strongly with the history of their craft than any attempt to pioneer its future. Their flagship beers have names like “1913 Traditional” and “Plowman’s Ale,” and their stated mission is “to produce full flavoured beers with alcohol contents less than 5% for today’s population concerned about over indulgence.” Knowing this, Highballer Pumpkin Ale, pushing the envelope at 5.2%, is precisely the sort of pumpkin beer one might expect from Grand River. It doesn’t aim to wow, it doesn’t aim to innovate. It aims for the obvious, and delivers. Amidst the bold variety of pumpkin beers on offer, it would be easy to overlook Highballer, and that would be a shame, because it is very solid beer.
Similarly, I passed over Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’s vampiric Batman saga for an entire decade. Originally published as three graphic novels between 1991 and 1999, they were pretty well considered classics by the time I started my foray into Batman comics in 2005. While never ranking as high as Year One or The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke, this Vampire trilogy was frequently included on lists of the best Batman stories which helped me orient myself in the sprawling and (at times) confusing landscape of Batman comics. But I never read it. The idea of combining Batman with the Dracula mythos just seemed too obvious to be interesting – one a symbolic bat-man, the other a more literal one, both nocturnal in their pursuits and decidedly gothic in their aesthetics. While this admission might cost me some geek cred, I have only just now read it for the first time, for the sake of this blog.
One more thing to be said about the obvious ideas, they almost always work. But it’s not often it works as well as Batman: Vampire. Doug Moench knows his Batman, and he knows his Dracula, only taking a few liberties with Bram Stoker’s classic character. Like Stoker’s original, this Dracula is unquestionably monstrous, more predatory psychopath than the tortured, suave charmer. Doug Moench still inserts the eroticism requisite to any post-Anne Rice vampiric narrative, as Bruce Wayne has, um, big boy dreams about a red mist creeping in through his window and materializing into a woman. Bruce thinks at first that this is a dream night after night, but it proves to be real – the woman is a vampire named Tanya. This harkens again to Bram Stoker’s novel, as Dracula used a similar trick to seduce Mina Harker. The purpose of her nighttime visits aren’t simple seduction, however: she is fortifying Bruce with her blood, giving him vampiric strength, to better equip him to confront Dracula.
Same as how he settles on an iconic version of Dracula, Moench uses a pretty iconic version of Batman. This book exists in it’s own continuity (hence the “Tales of the Multiverse” tag on the new edition), but unlike in his later Haunted Gotham, Moench does little to reinvent Gotham’s status quo at the start. Kelley Jones even reins in his intense gothic stylization in the trilogy’s first volume, taking a few visual cues from Year One to evoke the same downtrodden city populated by gangsters and prostitutes. Todd Klein’s narrative captions also evoke the familiar, using the same lettering he used in Year One for Bruce and Gordon’s viewpoints. Moench and Jones are smart to start from something familiar, because that makes the subversion of the ordinary as the narrative unfolds more effective.
The first volume of this trilogy, Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, is focused on the confrontation of the titular characters, and it is fantastic melodrama. By separating this story from continuity, Moench gets to make bold story choices which make sense for the characters as he’s delineated them here. Batman, a character who will always do what needs to be done to save Gotham, takes the only option available to him in order to defeat a monster: he becomes a monster himself. While this first volume is certainly rewarding, it’s what unfolds in the subsequent installments that makes Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’s Vampire saga a worthwhile read.
Dracula defeated, Batman retains what humanity he can by refusing to submit to his thirst for blood, asserting that not all vampires need be evil. The Joker, however, has a different idea – with Dracula gone, the surviving vampires of his “hive” are directionless, and Joker seizes upon the opportunity to organize them and use them to take over the entire Gotham mob scene. It’s a fun plot, providing an effective escalation from the previous volume, even if it’s an odd beat for just about any iteration of the Joker – this Joker is well-organized, making meticulous plans with multiple steps. The volume’s climax would have less impact if Moench chose a different villain to inhabit the role, for sure, but the Joker is the first character that Moench doesn’t give an iconic treatment, changing the character to fit the narrative instead. The next familiar character subjected to an even greater change is Selina Kyle. Moench and Jones try out the notion, one which they would try again in Haunted Gotham, of making Selina Kyle a literal cat-woman, and their first attempt faired little better than their second. Here, she is bit by a vampire in his wolf form (yes, vampires can turn into wolves – this is another bit of the mythos borrowed from Bram Stoker), but is not killed by him. Thus, she doesn’t turn into a vampire, but does gain its shapeshifting powers. In a moment that seems inspired by Batman Returns, her injuries are licked by her many cats, which is evidently why she turns into a were-cat in the moonlight, rather than a werewolf. Having read this after Haunted Gotham, I feel like this is an idea that Moench and Jones really, really like, which they try to insert into any story at any available opportunity not unlike producer Jon Peters and his giant mechanical spider.
Admittedly, it works a little better here than a mechanical spider would, as it aligns Selina and Batman both as nocturnal monsters desperately grasping at the last straws of their humanity, making their near-immediate romance a little more plausible. Sex, it seems, curbs bloodlust (who knew?), though Batman’s melodramatic narration describes it as “the selfless love of a woman” which is keeping him from going full vampire. (Bizarrely, in the multiple scenes in which Batman and Selina are shown wrapped in each other’s arms as the sun rises outside, Selina is fully naked while Batman is still in full costume, cowl and all. It’s really strange.) But at this point, Moench is employing characters and events as symbols and plot devices designed for the exclusive purpose of telling the story he wants to tell, and it’s a story worth telling, even if it does mean that Selina gets straight up fridged for that story’s sake. Because the story that Moench is interested in telling, is the story of Batman crossing the line.
See, vampires and werewolves are almost always metaphors for mankind’s baser, animal aspects, which is why this particular sub-genre is usually pretty sexually charged. Doug Moench and Kelley Jones are doing the same here, which has led many a reviewer to praise Batman: Vampire as “poetic,” and while I mean no insult to Doug Moench’s writing, if his writing reads as poetry to you, I might prescribe a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Doug Moench has a keen sense for the melodramatic and matches it with the purple prose of penny dreadfuls, and I mean this in the best possible way – Bram Stoker’s prose was also rather overwrought, after all.
Poetic or not, though, the metaphor, which is effectively employed in Batman: Vampire, is an examination of what it would mean if Batman let his more savage instincts take control rather than his discipline and intellect. Though this book literally turns him into a monster, it’s a great look at what would happen if Batman broke his rule against killing criminals, and the result is horrifying and tragic. The third volume abandons the reflective, tormented moodiness of the first two, and instead delivers a full-blown blood-soaked horror story. Most horrifying of all, though, is how satisfying it is to witness Batman set loose upon his rogue’s gallery with such finality.
Like any good tragedy (and Batman: Vampire is undoubtedly a tragedy) it’s conclusion is almost inevitable. Thus, it plays the obviousness of it’s premise to its advantage, and as both this book and the Highballer Pumpkin Ale I’ve paired it with demonstrates, there is much to praised about the obvious.