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).
It hasn’t snowed where I live, at least not at the time of this writing. It is an unseasonably warm November, but the nights still get cold, and winter is an inevitability. Canadian winters are famous, to such a degree that I suspect many of our neighbours to the south suspect that Canada is always buried in snow. This, thankfully, is not true. But like many Canadians, I both loathe and love the winter. Though it drags on much too long, and my fair city must lead the nation in Most Deplorable Winter Sidewalk Maintenance, winter is a great season to indulge in the comfy and the cozy: hot cocoa, tea, sweaters, hot apple cider, soup. By my estimation, though, fewer things are as cozy as an Ontario craft beer, and a good Batman comic.
First, the beer: Great Lakes Brewery might be familiar to this blog’s readers, as their pumpkin ale crowned the Halloween season. With their Winter Ale, Great Lakes Brewery proves that they can make a beer for all seasons; like their fall offering, this is a spiced ale, and like their fall offering, it is superbly well-balanced. I waxed poetic about their Pumpkin Ale, saying: “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.” Well, winter is colder still, and Great Lakes Brewing counters with a healthier helping of cinnamon, but combining it with the warm and cozy flavours of honey, ginger, and orange peel. The name says it all: this is a winter ale, designed to warm the cockles of the heart when it gets really damn cold.
Through pure coincidence of my own reading schedule and Batman continuity, I am considering the book Snow right as we teeter precariously on the brink of winter. This, like the past two stories I’ve discussed, was an arc of Legends of the Dark Knight, and details the origin of an iconic villain and Batman’s first confrontation with that villain. If the title didn’t give it away, that villain is Mr. Freeze, a character not dissimilar to a Canadian winter: simultaneously loved and loathed. He is loved because of the absolutely essential television masterwork which is the “Heart of Ice” episode of Batman: The Animated Series – the damn thing won an Emmy, which was unprecedented for any episode of a “children’s cartoon.” It was just that good. He is loathed because of the hilariously terrible cinematic catastrophe which is the Joel Schumacher-directed Batman & Robin, in which he was portrayed by the once-and-future-Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is always a struggle, I think, when a character is perceived as having a perfect iteration, and it is only compounded when the same character gets disastrously mishandled in a different iteration. I know I would certainly be hesitant to write the character, worrying that the best I could hope to achieve would be an homage to Paul Dini’s script for Batman: The Animated Series. Like winter itself, though, it was inevitable that the character would receive some reinterpretation for the post-Year One continuity, and it was Dan Curtis Johnson and J.H. Williams III who took on this unenviable task.
I know far too little about the background of Snow. J.H. Williams III is a tremendous artist in his own right (if the name sounds familiar, it might be because you read me unabashedly gushing about his Sandman: Overture artwork), but he is, curiously, only the co-plotter of Snow. While he could have undoubtedly produced jaw-dropping art for this story himself, the art is instead handled by an entirely different, entirely wonderful genius of comics storytelling: the late and great Seth Fisher.
I love Seth Fisher. Every work in his small but impressive body of work is worth poring over and admiring. Few artists can claim to be as distinct as he was, and there are few artists whose work I would seek out regardless of the story or what character it is about. I even bought a Green Lantern comic, a character I’m almost wholly apathetic toward, just because of Seth Fisher’s art. His work is simultaneously much more cartoonish than the usual superhero fare, while somehow being more lifelike and realistic. His characters are clearly defined individuals, bordering upon caricature, with naturalistic faces and bodies and demeanors. Even his Batman is not the idealized and heavily muscled human form which most artists conceive; instead, this is definitely a man in a bat suit, and at times that looks just as ridiculous as that would in real life.
Due to my enormous affection for Seth Fisher’s work, Snow, to me, is a comfy and cozy comic, perfectly suited to winter, and perfectly paired with the comfy and cozy spices that warm up Great Lakes Brewery’s Winter Ale. I could happily post every single page of Snow and gush enthusiastically about little details on each one, without once even mentioning the story, but that, of course, is not really what Beer & Batman is about. Seth Fisher’s contribution to Snow, however, is truly inspired, and it is what elevates the book from out of the shadow of the classic episode of Batman: The Animated Series, as well as washing away the stink of Batman & Robin.
If viewing the story separate of the art, Snow could definitely be said to lean heavily on “Heart of Ice” as inspiration for Mr. Freeze’s origin: Victor Fries is a scientist, motivated by his wife Nora’s ailing health. He intends his cryonic inventions for benevolent, medical applications, but his employers see its potential for weaponization. This culminates in a laboratory accident which leaves Nora frozen and Fries in an endothermic state, only able to function in subzero temperatures, or otherwise sustained by his own cryonic suit. While the details vary from the television screen to the comic, the broad strokes remain the same, and Fries is a character with plenty of pathos, though Johnson & Williams characterize him as rather more delusional than the methodical, calculating and, yes, cold characterization of the cartoon. Seth Fisher manages to sell his delusions though, indulging a wonderful fairytale whimsy as poor Victor speaks to his catatonic wife in a hallucinatory winter wonderland. (These sequences are beautifully coloured by Dave Stewart, who delineates Fries’s hallucinations with a desaturated pastel palette, instead of the bold, bright tones, so uncharacteristic of a Batman story, which are used throughout the rest of the book.)
The script knows it can’t improve upon the cartoon, though, and Johnson & Williams are smart enough to give their story an entirely different focus. This is not really Victor Fries’ story; he is a compelling antagonist, for sure, but the story is really more about Batman trying to escalate his fight on crime in the face of crime’s own escalation. Mr. Freeze, after all, is something new: he is a super-powered criminal, and while Batman might have extraordinary resources and equipment at his disposal, he is still an ordinary man operating outside of the law. With James Gordon and Harvey Dent limited in the support they can provide to him, and himself pushed to his own physical limits, Batman attempts to expand his operation to include a handpicked team of people each with particular expertise of use to his cause.
This makes a lot of sense to me as a narrative beat for Batman, when you place this book following The Mad Monk and The Man Who Laughs. Though Batman saved the day in both those stories, both stand as something of a personal defeat for Batman himself: in The Mad Monk, he realizes his war will probably never end, and recognizes he might never get to live a normal life; in The Man Who Laughs, he is faced by the prospect that he is making his own enemies. It would make sense, then, that he would try a different strategy to try and achieve a different result. Of course, in Snow, he doesn’t achieve a different result: it ends outright catastrophically.
The hazards of involving other people in his fight will get demonstrated over and over throughout Batman’s history, and many of those times are truthfully more effective than Snow. The harm which befalls James and Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, the murder of Jason Todd, and even the corruption of Harvey Dent all illustrate this point better than Snow, which uses a group of characters which are first introduced here and which are never seen again after to make the same case. The outcome of Batman’s side-project in Snow seems pretty well inevitable, and it might be easy to think that Batman ought to know better. But this is a Batman only a year and a half into this vigilante business, and as I mentioned, this decision makes sense at this juncture in his career.
Though this book might lack the narrative impact of those other stories, Snow is still a well-told story, and one well worth reading. While the story might tread some familiar ground, the art is unlike anything else one might find in a Batman book. It’s easy to only talk about the story when one reviews or discusses comics, and that is because the art, of course, exists to tell that story. Thus, if the art is done well, it is frequently easy to ignore. But art makes all the difference. Just as how the addition of those cozy, warming spices takes Great Lakes’ Winter Ale from being just a good, simple beer and elevates it to a comforting and wholly satisfying seasonal staple, Seth Fisher’s art takes a familiar story and makes it something extraordinary. Consider winter: some artists might draw it bleak and colourless and drab, while Seth Fisher makes it something wonderful. If we’re all to last another long winter, we might as well try to enjoy what wonder we can find in it. To that end, another Winter Ale might not hurt.