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).
If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.
Comics and beer both have some image troubles. Never wholly bouncing back from the blow that psychiatrist Fredric Wertham dealt to the industry with his anti-comics treatise in 1954, comics spent much of the subsequent decades pigeonholed as escapist entertainment which indulged adolescent male power fantasies, read only by maladjusted social misfits. Beer, though, didn’t require anyone to malign it in order to get a bad reputation: the ubiquitous marketing monster fueled by the big macrobreweries attended to that just fine. Squarely targeting heterosexual male sports fans between the ages of eighteen and fifty with more testosterone than brains, beer grew to be associated with alpha male irresponsibility-without-consequence. Neither beer or comics were seen as anything of value – both were decidedly lowbrow, if not outright viewed as garbage.
This, thankfully, is changing on both fronts. In the beer scene, this is due in enormous part to craft brewing – by placing an emphasis on “craft,” people have started to get the idea that beer is something that can be appreciated to the same extent as wine. By crafting beers with unique or complex characters and profiles, beer culture is changing from chugging to sipping. This trend is apparent when a craft brewery releases a special seasonal beer, as Muskoka Brewery has done with their Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. With such a rich combination of flavours, an ABV of %8, and packaged in a 750mL bottle, this beer begs to be treated more like a bottle of wine. It’s even corked, rather than capped. The box in which it comes even provides a guide for aging the beer, encouraging the discerning drinker: “Exercise patience. We know you want to raid your cellar. Be patient.”
Regrettably, I’m in no position to exercise patience, as I have a comic to discuss. But I feel I am still giving this classy beer it’s due deference by pairing it with a book as tremendous as Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. Like Muskoka’s Winter Beard, The Long Halloween is big and complex, crafted with a great deal more sophistication than anyone would demand of a beer or a superhero comic. Loeb and Sale are a duo even more dynamic than Batman and Robin, and in The Long Halloween, they take a more novelistic approach to writing a superhero narrative. It’s books like this that have worked so well to elevate the reputation of comics out of the cliched parents’ basement.
Published over 1996 and ’97 as a thirteen issue miniseries, The Long Halloween might not carry The Legends of the Dark Knight tag on it’s cover, but it shared the same editorial direction and occupied the same space within Batman continuity as that series. Like most stories placed in this position, it does mine Year One for story material, but never leans too heavily on Miller and Mazzuchelli’s classic – The Long Halloween is assured enough to stand as an iconic story unto itself, and whereas books like The Monster Men and The Man Who Laughs make a worthwhile addendum to Year One, this book is the first that feels as though it advances the Batman narrative into an entirely new chapter.
Like sipping Muskoka’s Winter Beard, The Long Halloween takes a while to reveal it’s complexity. It’s opening is a simple sequence, in which Bruce Wayne fulfills his social obligation as one of Gotham’s elite by attending the wedding of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone’s nephew. Narratively, it’s a smart and well constructed opening, reintroducing Falcone’s influence upon the city, and positioning the story’s personae vitae as they orbit around Falcone: Bruce Wayne (of course), The Roman’s son Alberto, his rival Boss Maroni, Selina Kyle (having reinvented herself as a Gotham socialite), ambitious DA Harvey Dent, and police captain Jim Gordon. The first sip of Winter Beard has much the same effect, establishing the ordinary first: a well-brewed stout, dark and full bodied, with those familiar cocoa and coffee notes, and a hint of bitterness from some old world hops.
This introduction is essential, as The Long Halloween is, at its core, a murder mystery, and we are introduced to our suspects before the first shot is actually fired. That shot is fired by the first issue’s end, of course: Falcone’s newlywed nephew is shot twice in the head with a .22 pistol on Halloween night, a small jack o’ lantern trinket left at the scene of the crime. Despite some Batman and Catwoman shenanigans earlier in the issue, it’s clear that Loeb and Sale’s influences are less superhero comics and more films like The Godfather, Scarface and Goodfellas. There it is: a sophisticated red wine note in the stout, lent by the subtle fruity tang of cranberries as the beer warms in the mouth and throat.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight received a lot of praise for applying a more sophisticated understanding of storytelling to a superhero film. While Nolan is not entirely undeserving of some of that credit, many of the aspects of his film that got such a rapturous response draw heavily upon Loeb and Sale’s work on The Long Halloween; the pivotal scene in which Batman, Gordon and Dent meet on the rooftop of the GCPD, for example, is a direct adaptation of a scene in the comic. I actually think The Long Halloween is a more effective work than the film, because, despite having an enormous amount of plot to juggle, Loeb hinges it all upon the tragic trajectory of one character: Harvey Dent. Sure, Harvey Dent was pretty damn important in The Dark Knight, but he became apocryphal to the Joker, simplifying his own narrative to such an extent that his third-act turn to Two Face seemed tangential. In The Long Halloween, his turn to Two Face is still inevitable, and the creative team knows that everyone is anticipating it – Tim Sale delights in casting half of Harvey’s face in shadow throughout the book. However, his corruption is constructed carefully throughout the entire story, such that when it does happen, it makes sense, and even though it is expected, it is all the more gut wrenching for it.
I have already compared Muskoka’s Winter Beard to a wine, and like a wine, it is definitely a beer to sip slowly, due as much to its richness as to its alcohol content. The Long Halloween also seems designed for slower consumption, eschewing the frantic action-movie pacing one has come to expect from superhero stories for a methodical, deliberate pace. The entire story takes place over a whole year, with each issue set upon a different holiday. On each holiday, another murder occurs: always two shots to the head with a .22 pistol, always leaving some seasonal trinket at the scene. With multiple weeks separating the events of one issue from the next, each is given the opportunity to breathe and fill its deserved space. The books treats us to great character moments throughout (the small glimpses into the home lives of James Gordon and Harvey Dent are particularly effective) and also allows Loeb to take a more episodic approach to the storytelling which lets him include a whole panoply of iconic Batman villains in the narrative, without it ever feeling bloated or unnecessary.
Actually, the inclusion of characters like Joker, Poison Ivy, The Riddler, Scarecrow and Mad Hatter does more than just give the book an iconic feel, it does a whole lot to cement one of the overarching themes of the book: the notion that Batman has created a new kind of criminal for Gotham, which is replacing the old gangsters like Falcone and Maroni. This entire story serves as a death knell for those cultured mafioso types, ushering in a new age of the lunatic costumed criminal. This gets played out pretty literally in the book’s climax, when Two Face does what Batman, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent never could, ridding Gotham City of Carmine Falcone. It’s a great ironic twist, that although the goal of shattering Falcone’s criminal empire is achieved, it leaves Batman not victorious, but facing down enemies far more terrifying and dangerous than men in suits. It’s a poignant, pessimistic (if not outright nihilistic) examination of the costs of Batman’s crusade against crime, summed up beautifully by a reprise of the earlier meeting of Batman, Gordon and Dent on GCPD’s rooftop (Tim Sale, master that he is, even visually mirrors the earlier scene when drawing the later one). This isn’t just good Batman storytelling; it’s good storytelling, period.
I feel I could write volumes about everything that is great about The Long Halloween, but 750mL of an imperial stout probably won’t let me write much more with any semblance of coherency. Suffice it to say, this is one of the best, most iconic, and most perfect iterations of Batman, a strong story expertly told, bolstered by the timeless, retro-tinged art of Tim Sale, with Gregory Wright lending a noir-ish feel through his subdued colour palette. Like the bitter, pleasant aftertaste of dark chocolate after my last sip of Winter Beard, this book lingers, and I find myself reaching for the same descriptors for both: dark and rich.