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).
After October’s macabre detour, we now get back to basics, and I don’t just mean that Beer & Batman is now returning to it’s usual pub-crawl through Batman continuity. This is true, sure, but both the beer and the Batman up for discussion today really exemplify the basics in their respective categories.
When last we left our Caped Crusader, he was confronting the Joker for the first time. By this point, most elements of Batman’s mythos are established; Year One gets him under the cowl and fighting crime, and gives him an ally in James Gordon. The Monster Men and The Mad Monk sees the debut of the Batmobile, and takes away his optimism that he may have an ordinary life. The Man Who Laughs introduces his greatest enemy, one of his own making. Though these books were written years apart and by different writers, we’re treated to a pretty concise and focused narrative of Batman’s early career, and Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Prey seems to aspire to carry that narrative forward.
Prey was first published as an arc in the series Legends of the Dark Knight, a series designed to fill the newly opened gap in Batman’s past. With Year One, Batman’s origin was rewritten, but rather than simply proceeding forward from that point in their ongoing comics, DC returned to “present day” after Year One’s conclusion. This meant that his entire past, between Year One and the present day, was open to reinvention, and this is precisely what Legends of the Dark Knight was built to do. The series rolled out in self-contained arcs that would tell individual stories of Batman’s early career. Bookended by Year One on one end, and the modern comics on the other, the stories couldn’t aspire to change the status quo irrevocably, and thus usually focused instead on first encounters, or concise cases. When reading Prey, it is important to bear in mind that The Monster Men, The Mad Monk nor The Man Who Laughs were written yet; thus, I’m sure, Doug Moench designed it as a more direct follow up to Year One.
First, I want to say the I like Prey, which I feel is important to state outright because what I’m about to say will probably suggest otherwise: Prey makes a poor follow up to Year One, but makes a decent addendum to The Monster Men, while concluding some stray plot points from Year One as well. Matt Wagner, Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke all took great care to match Year One’s tone and evoke it’s visual style in their follow-ups. Doug Moench’s script does his best to match Year One’s style, once again using the tried-and-true trick of trading narration back and forth between Batman and Gordon. He even attempts to continue Catwoman’s plot, despite it having very little relevance to the story he’s telling. Riffing on Miller, though, is not enough to keep Moench’s errant wackiness and melodrama (which he so proudly displayed in Vampire and Haunted Gotham) from creeping in. Departing completely from Year One, in style and tone, is Paul Gulacy’s art. Again, this probably sounds like I don’t like Paul Gulacy’s art, and while there certainly are things I don’t like, I do think Gulacy is great where it counts: the basics.
This, as mentioned, is also where The Publican House Brewery excels. A local fixture in my present hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, the Publican House is like the-shop-around-the-corner to me: it’s not much, but it’s ours. Other craft breweries throughout Ontario might be demonstrating more creativity in both their brewing and their branding, but The Publican House seems content to keep it simple, offering two flagship beers and the same seasonal rotation year after year. It’s easy for someone like myself to feel that The Publican House is a little boring, but I would not dream of skipping the Publican House on the tour if I were showing a visitor around the city. Because, even if they fail to excite, Publican House makes good beer, plain and simple.
Like The Publican House, Paul Gulacy’s art does little to make itself noteworthy over any given superhero artist. Even his flaws are ones shared by an enormous portion of comic artists. While it might be easy to overlook, however, the man has a tremendous eye for visual storytelling. He understands the principles of sequential arts, expertly guiding the eye on each page through the characters’ movements. He excels at the little things which most won’t notice unless they’re looking for it, but which everyone would certainly notice if it were absent.
This is a fair assessment of Prey as a whole, and of Publican’s flagship Pub House Ale. The beer, crisp, clean and bright, is labelled as an ale but styled as a pilsner. The label makes it uncertain whether it is actually a kölsch (which is to say, a lagered ale), or whether it is simply inspired by one, but the effect is the same regardless. It’s light, with hops only adding some bitterness to the finish – the sweet, biscuit taste of the pilsner malts are the focal point. The yeast adds a surprising fruity note, reminiscent of apricot, which lingers on the aftertaste. It might not be a beer to inspire an enthusiastic recommendation, but I can’t imagine anyone who likes beer uttering much complaint at the prospect of drinking a second.
Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy offer a second helping in Prey as well, which again is no cause for complaint: the most recent collection of the arc packages the original story with it’s sequel, a later Legends of the Dark Knight arc entitled Terror. It’s a smart move to collect both in a single volume – while Prey could certainly function without the follow up, Terror better integrates some of the stray plot threads of Prey, and reading the two together allows one to speculate that Doug Moench knew what he was doing with Catwoman all along. (Though after reading Moench’s work on Vampire and Haunted Gotham, I’m much more inclined to believe that Catwoman is a favourite of Moench’s, whom he will insert into any story whether her presence is required or not.) As well, Terror puts enough distance between Moench and Year One to allow him to indulge in a story that is pure, uninhibited Moench.
As mentioned previously, the first half of this collection is an uneasy result of Moench trying to align himself with Year One. His decision is sensible enough, as he is directly pulling upon a thread left dropped after Year One: Batman’s adversarial relationship with the Gotham City Police Department. Sure, Gordon knows Batman is a good guy, and his promotion to captain has seen the department cleaned up to a great degree, but officially, Batman is a vigilante and a criminal, just as he was in Miller’s book. Popularizing and fanning the fires of this anti-Batman sentiment is Dr. Hugo Strange, playing psychiatrist to Batman on Gotham television. Though Moench is writing this as Strange’s first appearance, this does give us another cause to praise Matt Wagner’s meticulousness while inserting his two stories into continuity – we find Strange at the start of Prey precisely where Wagner left him at the end of The Monster Men. The mayor calls upon Gordon to form a task force to catch the Batman, and Dr. Hugo Strange is asked to consult, presenting himself as the foremost expert on Batman’s psyche.
With this premise, I really want Prey to be a fantastic, iconic Batman narrative which would earn a place as an indispensable follow-up to Year One. In the weeks following the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I recall hearing rampant speculation that it’s inevitable sequel would take inspiration for Prey. Despite this comic lacking the pedigree of the other comics upon which Nolan drew inspiration, like Year One and The Long Halloween, it’s premise would lend itself very well to a sequel to The Dark Knight, considering that the film ended with Batman allowing himself to be seen as responsible for the crimes of Harvey Dent, which would thus position him as Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of Gotham. It certainly is apparent that Christopher Nolan or David S. Goyer has read Prey – a scene in which Bruce Wayne is hobnobbing with Gotham’s rich elite, and is questioned as to his take on the whole “Batman” issue, will seem mighty familiar to anyone who has watched Batman Begins (indeed, later in the same scene, Bruce is told that a man should be measured not by what he says, but by his deeds). I would’ve liked to see this premise utilized for the sequel, as it is executed so imperfectly in the comics that it leaves a great deal of room to be improved upon by adapting it to a different medium (and it would almost definitely be better than the sequel we got).
Despite it’s excellent premise, I must admit that Prey mostly works as well as it does due to context retroactively provided by Batman and the Monster Men. Without the events of The Monster Men, Dr. Hugo Strange has no discernible motivation for his obsession with Batman. Removed from that context (which is to say, viewed in the more objective context in which it was originally published), Hugo Strange is an outright madman. Moench sells crazy pretty well, giving Dr. Hugo Strange a mannequin girlfriend. Strange dresses this mannequin in lingerie, a pours a glass of wine for it when he pours one for himself. He talks to it, and perceives it responding, usually derisively or judgmentally. This is that wackiness I mentioned – Moench can’t seem to help himself, and Strange moves from a sophisticated inverse of the Batman, turning more to the borderline silly lunatic villains of Joel Schumacher’s Batman films.
I’m even reminded a little of Joel Schumacher’s films in the book’s secondary antagonist, a new and wholly forgettable vigilante called Night-Scourge, who does little more than serve as Strange’s muscle, lest Batman not have someone to fight. Now, with Paul Gulacy on art, I am glad that there is occasion for fights, because Gulacy’s fight choreography is great. But otherwise, Night-Scourge – a GCPD officer who fronts the Batman task force who is manipulated and hypnotized by Strange – is the least interesting part of Prey. Of course, the competition is stiff – Moench weighs heavily upon the murder of Bruce’s parents throughout, and the constant parading of that thoroughly-played-out event gets a little wearisome. Meanwhile, Catwoman gets a series of vignettes throughout which play as a near exact repetition of a part of Year One in which she grows frustrated that the media credits or blames Batman for her actions.
Prey does, though, advance the Batman narrative. The bat-signal debuts here, and in the denouement, the mayor concedes that Batman is doing good for Gotham, and discretely shifts police efforts to other matters (even this moment, though, is just a variation on how Gordon came to trust Batman, resulting from Batman rescuing the mayor’s daughter, just as he rescued Gordon’s infant son in Year One.) Terror, the book’s second part, advances the overall Batman narrative further, introducing Catwoman and Batman’s back-and-forth flirtation, but also offering a our first in-continuity encounter with a classic Batman villain: the Scarecrow.
What is unusual about Terror’s use of the Scarecrow, though, is that it doesn’t even pretend to be Batman’s first actual encounter with the character – when we meet him here, Jonathan Crane is not only already the Scarecrow, but is locked in Arkham Asylum. Scarecrow occupies a strange loophole in Batman continuity, not treated to an in-continuity origin story until 2005’s Scarecrow: Year One, which only muddled things further by setting itself during Dick Grayson’s tenure as Robin, despite the Scarecrow making appearances in pre-Robin stories like The Long Halloween and this one. Like many things about superhero comics, it’s better not to think too much about it.
Terror sets itself up as a continuation of Hugo Strange’s campaign to destroy Batman, but Scarecrow steals the spotlight when Strange ill-advisedly enlists him into his plot. The Scarecrow kills Strange and co-opts the plot for himself, kidnapping and blackmailing Catwoman, thus giving her an actual reason to be in the story, and pitting her against Batman. Like the first part, this sounds like a pretty great premise. Like the first part, it gets derailed by the thin characterization of it’s central villain. While Moench doesn’t confusingly make the Scarecrow speak only in nursery rhymes, he constructs his entire interpretation of the character around a single simplistic psychosis or fixation; in the Scarecrow’s case, it’s the punishment of bullies. Yes, Crane was tormented by bullies, and learns to use fear to torment those who did the same to him – it’s a simple, stagnant notion, an uninteresting take on a striking character whose use of fear should allow for an interesting reflection or perversion of Batman’s own mission statement of striking fear into criminals. Instead, Crane, like Strange, is another wacky Doug Moench madman, and it’s wholly entertaining and entirely comic bookish, though never elevates the story to the level of those which preceded it, nor even to the potential suggested by their premise.
Nevertheless, Prey almost serves to provide a baseline for Batman continuity, just as the Publican’s Pub House Ale makes an adequate baseline for craft beer. There are better stories and better beers, but without something comfortably sitting in the home position, nothing could be recognized as being bold or revelatory, because such praise as that can really only be used relatively. These are the basics; this is beer, and this is Batman.