Beer & Batman #8: Normal is Weird

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).

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Batman: Gothic, by Grant Morrison (W) and Klaus Janson (A). Paired with Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery’s Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale.

Batman: Gothic, by Grant Morrison (W) and Klaus Janson (A). Paired with Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery’s Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale.

If I were asked to express a preference for a particular style of beer, I might say stout or porter – really, the darker the beer, the more inclined I am to try it. Sure, there are good pale lagers and bad pale lagers, but most of the market is populated a whole host of unremarkable and mediocre pale lagers, and one thing I can always count on from a dark beer is that it will not be mediocre. Dark beers don’t please everyone, and thus a brewer knows not to even try to please everyone when brewing one. This gives them license to make bold decisions and brew an uncompromisingly flavourful beer.

Few Canadian craft brewers do “bold” quite as well as Barrie, ON, brewery Flying Monkeys. From their psychedelic aesthetic to the tongue-in-cheek faux-folksy sayings printed under their bottle cops, they live up to their tagline: “Normal is Weird.” For Flying Monkeys, just making a dark beer isn’t a bold enough decision; they hop it up a few notches to turn their Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale into some unholy fusion of a stout or porter with an IPA. In their own words:

Beseeching the Dark Beer Spirits of Stouts, Porters and IPAs with copious offerings of Cascade Hops, this shadowy brew emerged from our kettle with its own mutated mojo.

Mud-black with eerie ruby tinges, this darkly coloured but medium bodied brew fronts roasted coffee and cocoa flavours, but always lurking underneath the darkness is the cryptic green miasma of the Hop Swamp invoking juniper, herbs, and light citrus presences. There’s something deceivingly evil, but eerily nice afoot in this Flying Monkeys abomination. Go ahead – embrace the darkness.

I couldn’t do a better job describing it myself. It’s true: the coffee and chocolate notes, a staple of stouts and porters, are what I notice at first sip, but then the Cascade Hops hit, letting it finish with refreshing citrus taste of an IPA, with a slight, not unpleasant, bitterness that lingers past the last sip.

If Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery has embraced the darkness when making their Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale, the same can be said of Grant Morrison when writing his Legends of the Dark Knight arc, Gothic. Like the language which Flying Monkeys chose to describe their Netherworld dark ale, Gothic parlays in the supernatural, and also like the beer, results in something of an oddity – a fusion of styles and genres which yield unusual, though not unappealing, results.

As unusual as it is, Gothic nevertheless seems well-loved – it ranked at #16 on IGN’s list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels – and I wonder if it’s writer, Grant Morrison, is the real reason why Gothic seems impervious to criticism. Because Grant Morrison, the mad genius of the comics industry, is smarter than you. This makes his work very difficult to criticize, because one always feels that they might not understand the layers, the symbols and the references which Morrison draws upon to craft his unusual, almost mythic, narratives. Don’t get me wrong – many people dislike, even despise, Morrison’s work. Like dark beer, he is divisive. But those who dislike him seem less to do so from any critical perspective, and more because his work frustrates or confounds them.

Even within Morrison’s extensive Batman oeuvre, Gothic is among the more straightforward entries, though Morrison’s own interests still find their way into the story – we see the references to the occult, and the symbolic use of architecture within the story, which are seen in his earlier landmark Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, as well as his sprawling run on Batman and Batman & Robin more than a decade after Gothic’s publication. Gothic is not Morrison’s Batman opus, but in some of it’s themes, it begins to predict it, which makes it an interesting read retrospectively. (Even Gothic’s antagonist Mr. Whisper reads as something of a prototype for Morrison’s Batman: RIP antagonist, Dr. Hurt.) Placed at it’s position in continuity, however, Gothic is a very strange, occult detour in Batman’s early days, one which would seem to have very little to do with the narrative we’ve followed so far, and very little impact on that same narrative going forward.

This is not to say that Gothic is inconsequential. Well, in continuity, it might well be. But I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading – rather, it stands on its own, reading almost as a more insular graphic novel than as a part of any greater whole. The storytelling is solid throughout, starting with a great hook: someone is murdering Gotham’s crime bosses, and the surviving bosses are scared enough that they turn to Batman for help. This is a brilliant premise for a Batman story, but then the narrative leads us into wholly uncharted territory, some of which is satisfying, some of which is clumsily handled, and some of which is just plain odd and unexpected, like an abundance of cascade hops in a stout or porter.

Despite that hook, Gothic betrays it’s flaws pretty early on. Klaus Janson’s art is good (he is the man whose inks fooled the masses into thinking Frank Miller could draw, after all), but is a little too workmanlike to fit a story as heavy on mood and symbolism as Gothic is – I mean, the book is called Gothic, which gives a fair indication of the aesthetic one would expect. While Janson does do some great work with the architecture throughout, the work overall ends up looking a little dated, though I do concede that this might be more the fault of the colouring job in my 1992 edition of the book.

Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.

Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.

It’s Morrison though, not Janson, who makes the biggest missteps in Gothic. The strangest among them is the characterization of Batman. This is not the first time Morrison wrote Batman, having penned the tremendous Arkham Asylum a year previous, but his attempt at writing a Batman still early in his crusade against crime comes off as forceful, grandiose and frequently melodramatic, making pronouncements like, “Gotham City is Hell. We are all in Hell. And I am the king of Hell!” and pontificating to the crime bosses appealing to his better nature, “It’s not good to see me. For scum like you, it’s never good to see me. How dare you bring me here?” This mischaracterization extends to Bruce Wayne, but for entirely different reasons: Morrison makes the perennial mistake of trying to open that book which is always better left closed, in an attempt to turn Batman into a sympathetic, human protagonist who will experience a conventional arc over the narrative’s course. Batman is a character of steadfast conviction, who can be challenged, for sure, but by his very nature, cannot and will not change – he was created by a tragedy which can’t be repaired, and thus, the most effective Batman stories don’t give him a personal or emotional obstacle to overcome in order to attain some sort of actualization. Even Year One, the story best positioned to tell a story based on a conventional “hero’s journey” model, knew better than to shoehorn Bruce into that role. But writers ever since have tried, and Gothic marks Grant Morrison’s only attempt to do so, before presumably acknowledging that it’s better not to even try.

Batman, king of hell, and of melodramatic overstatement. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

Batman, king of hell, and of melodramatic overstatement. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

Stories like this one usually show Bruce reflecting upon some heretofore never mentioned aspect of his past. In Gothic, this comes in overtly symbolic dream sequences  which evoke memories of his boarding school days prior to his parents’ murder. Now, this plays better in Gothic than in some other Batman stories that employ a similar plot device, as Gothic involves some deep occult and supernatural elements, which makes me more willing to accept the remarkable timing of Bruce’s trip down memory lane occurring precisely when it is plot relevant. It is odd, though, to see Bruce accept this remarkable timing as something greater than coincidence, even going so far as taking an old, seemingly unrelated, tape recording of his father as a clue worthy of his investigation. Gothic’s Batman plays like the opposite of Gotham County Line’s Batman – he is too quick to accept the role of something supernatural when it would be more appropriate for him to be skeptical. (Other characters fare better under Morrison’s pen than Bruce – the characterization of Alfred, for example is wonderful, with a brilliant awareness of the plot’s absurdities, observed with a bone-dry wit.)

It was just all just a very convenient, plot-relevant dream, Bruce. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

It was just all just a very convenient, plot-relevant dream, Bruce. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

Nevertheless, few writers can manage the deus ex machina quite as effectively as Grant Morrison, and it doesn’t impede the story to such an extent that it derails it. Yes, it’s a little forced that Mr. Whisper proves to be the same man as the abusive headmaster of Bruce’s old boarding school, but it’s easy to move past this coincidence with the more important reveal that Mr. Whisper is a centuries-old monk-cum-Satanist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality.

Ignoring any tenuous personal connection between Whisper and Batman, it is an interesting story well told. Whisper’s contract with the devil is nearing it’s end, and he is attempting to renew the deal by offering up every soul in Gotham City, using a gothic cathedral which he designed, built in Gotham City in 1790, which serves a dual purpose: the functional one of housing a preserved strain of the bubonic plague to release upon Gotham, and the more spiritual one of acting as a “soul trap” which would funnel the souls of all Gotham’s dead down to hell. Batman requires no personal motivation to foil this plan; saving Gotham is always his business. Despite the lofty themes of Faustian bargains and eternal damnation, that business proceeds pretty much as usual, complete with him getting tied to a delightful death trap which was almost definitely designed by Rube Goldberg, while Mr. Whisper monologues, revealing his entire history and dastardly plot.

Come for the Faustian bargains, stay for the delightful death traps. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

Come for the Faustian bargains, stay for the delightful death traps. (Art by Klaus Janson, from Batman: Gothic.)

If you want a stout or a porter, the Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale might not satisfy. But to pass it over would be to miss a wholly enjoyable, unique, and bold beer from an inventive brewery. Likewise, Gothic definitely deserves a read, even if it isn’t essential to your understanding of the character or his ongoing narrative – indeed, this is the first book I’ve discussed here that doesn’t somewhat mine Year One for inspiration, style and tone. But it is the work of a good and undoubtedly interesting storyteller, with as many points to recommend it as there are to criticize it. Thus, I can only repeat Flying Monkeys’ entreaty: Embrace the darkness.

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