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.
It might be apparent by now that I love Hallowe’en. I always have – with my birthday a mere four days prior, my birthday parties as a child were always just as much Hallowe’en parties, and I couldn’t be happier to share my birthday. Rather than resenting the day for stealing my spotlight, I simply decided that Hallowe’en was my time. We would spend my birthday carving pumpkins, or venturing out to a haunted house, or maybe watching scary movies – the scarier the better. I would judge a horror film on whether or not it kept me awake at night. Just because I delighted in being scared, however, did not mean I was scared any less. Hallowe’en is like a sly joke, which you’re never sure whether you’re helping play the joke, or the joke is being played on you, but it’s never a cruel joke, as everyone, old or young, is in the same position. It was rich with possibility, possessing a greater sense of wonder than Christmas (at least to me), and even now, observing my twenty-eighth Hallowe’en, I still look to capture that wonder.
This gets a little harder the further into adulthood I get. I’ve outgrown the haunted houses that used to scare me; I’ve seen so many horror films that I’ve taken to watching Hemlock Grove to put me asleep at night, instead of keeping me awake. But every now and then, I find something – a taste or smell, or an intangible tone or quality to some work of art, written or drawn – which rekindles that jack o’ lantern of Hallowe’ens past. Happily, both Great Lakes Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: Haunted Knight, achieves this.
Trying an assortment of pumpkin beers each October is a new tradition (it was certainly not a mainstay of my childhood birthday parties), but it’s a tradition I’ve grown to look forward to each year, and one pumpkin beer which I am sure to get each year is Great Lakes Brewery’s. It is pumpkin beer perfected – superbly well-balanced, it goes easy on the bitterness (just 15 IBUs), using a pale grain bill, with just enough caramel notes coming through to complement the pumpkin. The pumpkin is present here – it’s not forced forward by overpowering spices, nor is it pushed into the background. It’s fresh, like the smell of a pumpkin as it’s carved. This is fall, bottled, and it’s a beautiful, satisfying thing – a single sip is enough to put one in mind of fallen leaves crunching under foot, a cold wind blowing.
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale get a similar grasp on the spirit of the season in Haunted Knight. The three stories collected in this volume were published first as giant-sized Hallowe’en specials in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, a series meant to elucidate Batman’s early career, filling the gap created by the character’s reinvention in Year One. I will be spending the greater part of November pairing beer with stories told in Legends of the Dark Knight, and these Hallowe’en specials get to occupy that same simple, uncluttered continuity. The iconic elements of the Batman mythos are already in place, and the stories aren’t burdened with epic aspirations of changing everything. The winning duo of Loeb and Sale get to do what they do best – demonstrate their solid understanding of the character of Batman, and pit him against some of his iconic adversaries.
This is not to say that Haunted Knight is perfect. Archie Goodwin’s introduction to the collected edition explains that the first story, “Fears,” was originally meant to be a three issue arc in Legends of the Dark Knight, before it was decided that it would be released instead as a giant-sized single issue, and boy, does that change in format ever show. Evidently, Loeb and Sale’s three issues didn’t get much editing or revising before being assembled into a single unit, and it makes for an awkward read, with events that happened mere pages earlier being recapped in the narrative captions, and the Scarecrow is “introduced” multiple times in the story’s seventy-seven pages. Each story, too, follows a very similar structure, which becomes apparent when reading one right after the other.
But I might argue that, when it comes to seasonal storytelling, we don’t look for perfection – instead, we look for something evocative of the season which the story is meant to represent. A Christmas Carol is undoubtably not Dickens’ finest work, but it absolutely nails the meaning of Christmas, and Haunted Knight similarly understands the sly joke which is Hallowe’en. Oddly, the first story, the Scarecrow-centric “Fears,” is the weakest of the lot, though it easily has the most overt Hallowe’en-ish trappings. Loeb and Sale are a tremendous creative team – in The Long Hallowe’en and Dark Victory, they craft Batman narratives that rival Year One in their iconic status. In so many ways, it feels like Loeb and Sale deliver the essential versions of many a character, but one character which Loeb consistently and spectacularly mischaracterizes is Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. I have never understood why Loeb’s take on the Scarecrow speaks only in nursery rhymes – I fail to see a connection between the basic premise of the character (weaponizing fear), his chosen symbol (a scarecrow), and communicating only in nursery rhyme verses. It seems to only serve to make him seem crazy, which I think somewhat dilutes the character’s efficacy – he is actually scarier if he has all his faculties about him. Loeb never backs down on this interpretation of the character, trotting it out in The Long Hallowe’en and even Hush (a full ten years after “Fears”) and it’s an even greater shame because Tim Sale draws a wonderfully creepy Scarecrow.
Sale’s art is what’s best in “Fears,” and it’s what really sells it as a Hallowe’en story. Loeb looks to root the narrative in Bruce Wayne’s own fears and insecurities, but chooses to tie these to a throwaway love interest, and it fails to be very convincing. In the second story, though, Loeb steps up his game to match that of his collaborator, offering a great Mad Hatter story in “Madness.” One of Batman’s seemingly wackier adversaries, Jervis Tetch is actually very unsettling when you think about him – his preoccupation with young girls of a certain description can easily be read as an allusion to pedophilia, though I’m sure DC’s editorial would never allow any such inferences to be overt. In “Madness,” he abducts young Barbara Gordon to play a role in his demented recreation of Alice in Wonderland, while Batman grapples with some contrived mommy issues. Here is the first instance of an ugly tendency which shows up a lot throughout Legends of the Dark Knight and any stories set with Batman’s early career – a clumsy attempt to add impact to any given story by imposing some link to Bruce’s childhood. In “Madness,” it’s forgivable, as it’s the first time we’ve encountered this. But, as a word of warning, we will be seeing this a lot as we carry on through the Batman canon, and I’m sure you’ll grow as tired of it as I am.
Despite Batman’s best efforts to make a child abduction case all about him, “Madness” has a lot to offer, and deserves a place in continuity: though we met Barbara Gordon in Dead to Rights, this story serves as a more effective introduction, and it also provides and introduction to Leslie Thompkins, the psychiatrist who treated Bruce immediately following the murder of his parents. Dr. Thompkins is not a constant presence throughout Batman comics, but she is counted among Bruce’s friends, and plays a key role from time to time. Similarly, the third and final story in the collection adds a key player to the Batman mythos (Lucius Fox), and brings Bruce Wayne to an important realization, though it reaches that point in a decidedly whimsical fashion.
While the story opens with a confrontation with the Penguin, the real adversary in this piece is the scariest yet: bad seafood. Well, possibly. Bad seafood is posited as the logical explanation for the unusual specters which visit Bruce Wayne during his fevered sleep on the night before Hallowe’en, but of course, it might be an actual visit by three spirits determined to teach Bruce Wayne to real meaning of Hallowe’en. That’s right – “Ghosts” is a retelling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and it is absolutely delightful, with the ghosts of past and present represented by Poison Ivy and the Joker, respectively. Despite the unusual premise, the story is quite effective – Bruce is no Scrooge, to be sure, but he has let his mission as Batman make him unapproachable, pouring his energy and money into fighting evil rather than doing good. This is the lesson the spirits teach him, prompting him to work with Lucius Fox to create the charitable Wayne Foundation.
A little silly, sure, but this is the first book this October which recognizes that horror isn’t the only ingredient in Hallowe’en. If anything, horror is an aesthetic, and it’s one which Tim Sale does beautifully. With stylized art relying on heavy shadows, his work evokes a little Mike Mignola, but has a timeless, nostalgic look which reminds me of Darwyn Cooke. Of course, nostalgia might be as key an ingredient as horror to a great Hallowe’en story. Just as Great Lakes Brewery has crafted a pumpkin ale which hits all the right notes to embody fall, Loeb and Sale make a book that gets it right where it counts. Haunted Knight is a true treat, but, like Hallowe’en itself, there’s just enough askew about it to make you wonder if it might be a trick.