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.
As the year’s end approaches, it’s hard not to reflect upon the previous cycle of 365 days. Lists ranking the year’s best and worst of just about anything proliferate across the internet. Everyone charts their progress, for better or worse, assessing how far we’ve come in a year (as if that could really ever be measured.) No matter if your life was entirely upended this year, if you find yourself living an entirely different life this December than you did last, the end of a year seems to mark a return, even if it’s only really marks the completion of another spin around the sun. The events of our lives rarely happen in an orderly enough fashion to be typified as cyclical, but nevertheless, we organize our lives according to cycles – a rotation of the Earth, a complete orbit around the sun.
Batman’s narrative is cyclical. I would venture a guess to say that this cycle emerged not through any narrative plan, but more through convenience or coincidence. An ongoing serialized narrative is almost doomed to repeat itself, dipping into the same well for inspiration, having to continue telling stories without ever concluding any with so much finality that a new story can’t start in the very next issue. Every now and then, a writer will recognize the cyclic nature of Batman’s ongoing adventures, and will comment upon it, or play with that structure, or otherwise imbue meaning upon this repetition. Grant Morrison, for example, identified that cyclic structure with myth, and built an appropriately mythic opus. Even Scott Snyder’s current run on the character seems to be playing with that notion. Neither are the first to do so; I’m not entirely sure that Archie Goodwin is, either, but nevertheless, his Batman graphic novel Night Cries might be the most effective, concise and heartbreaking acknowledgement of the cyclic nature of Batman.
Beer & Batman is meant as a fun feature, and while Night Cries is a brilliant piece of Batman storytelling, it is not fun. I struggled to find a beer to pair it with, trying to determine which aspect of this story I wanted to highlight. It’s dark, sure; a dark beer, then. It’s strong; an imperial stout seems appropriate. But such elements are superficial – I wanted other points to touch upon. Then, by coincidence of timing, Gutterball Special favourite Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company released their own observance of completing another calendar cycle: The Best of Beau’s 2015, collecting four favourites from the past year. One of these favourites was an imperial stout, Matt’s Sleepy Time. This seemed perfect; it was the style I was looking for, with a name that was themed to the nighttime, same as Night Cries. But better yet, it is a Belgian-style imperial stout. If any beer style could play to the theme of cycles, it would be Belgian. See, the yeast is what makes a beer Belgian style, because Belgian brewers have cultivated a very particular, very unique strand of yeast, harkening way back to the first wild (or lambic) yeasted beers brewed by Belgium’s Trappist monks. These medieval monks didn’t know what yeast was precisely, so they credited the transformation of wort into beer upon God. They learned, however, that they could make the same miracle happen twice if they skimmed the frothy head that formed upon the top of their brew and transferred it to the next beer they were brewing. Thus, the yeast was passed from one brew to the next, continuously, until “Belgian ale yeast” became a distinct variety unto itself. This is the yeast that turned Matt’s Sleepy Time wort into Matt’s Sleepy Time Belgian-Style Imperial Stout, and it lends it a character unique from most imperial stouts. It’s still malt forward, sure, and it still has those chocolate and coffee notes, but there’s an unexpected fruitiness and spiciness. That’s the yeast.
Night Cries, of course, is less concerned about a good thing like yeast being carried forward from one thing to the next, than it is about bad things being carried forward from one person to the next. While Archie Goodwin could easily fixate the narrative upon Batman himself, as Batman is a violent character born out of violent circumstances, but he knows precisely why Year One was such an effective book, and uses the same approach here, focusing instead upon James Gordon. Written in 1992, Night Cries predates The Long Halloween, but comfortably fits in continuity after it – Gordon is newly appointed to the position of Police Commissioner (to anyone keeping track, he got this promotion in Two-Face: Year One, due in large part to closing the Holiday case). He is busier than ever, getting home late, if at all, and the stress of the new position is weighing heavy upon him. His home life, already strained after Year One, strains further. Atop all this, someone is slaughtering families in their homes, leaving children orphaned, and Gordon wants to tackle to case head on, but is relegated to a more bureaucratic role in his new position.
Everyone knows about Bruce Wayne and his parents, but this is the first book ever to shine some light upon Jim Gordon’s parents – or, at least, his father. What gets illuminated is decidedly unpleasant, in a heartbreaking juxtaposition of the murder investigation, Gordon’s home life, and his own upbringing, as Gordon comes to recognize traits of each in the other. Mercilessly berated and beaten, abused both verbally and physically by his father, Gordon struggles not to handle his own stress with violent outbursts. This, of course, is where that cyclic theme is introduced: abuse is a cycle – it is largely learned, passed from abuser to abused.
Though virtually a supporting character in this graphic novel, Batman plays into the theme very comfortably. He may not have been abused, but childhood trauma nevertheless shaped him, and Archie Goodwin uses some cleverly subtle narrative to draw comparisons between Batman himself and the murderer which he and Gordon are attempting to apprehend. When, in the book’s third act, Batman and Gordon come to realize that the murderer is not only a victim of abuse himself, but is solely targeting abusive parents, Batman is confronted by another unending cycle: the tragic futility of his own fight against crime when held against the wrongs which he is powerless to prevent or correct. I was strongly reminded of Night Cries recently when reading Batman #44, written by Scott Snyder with art by Jock – Dani and I discussed that issue in Tea & Comics, so I will refrain from expounding upon it much further. Whereas that issue addressed complicated issues of gentrification, poverty and race as each relates to crime, this graphic novel addresses domestic abuse. What both heartbreakingly highlight is something very real for which superheroics cannot provide an easy solution.
The dark themes and somber tone of Archie Goodwin’s script is matched perfectly by Scott Hampton’s stunning art. Painted in watercolour, Hampton uses a palette mostly of navy blues on black, making a book darker than the stout I’m drinking. The watercolour effect lends the book an almost spectral quality, as though the intent was to make a book that would haunt the reader. While at times the dark-upon-dark palette might make it difficult to attribute dialogue to a particular character, Hampton knows when to employ colour and detail, and in this book, he usually does it to punctuate some pretty horrific violence. Neither Goodwin nor Hampton attempt to make their subject matter palatable to readers, and neither should they: though it’s a Batman book, at its core it is a book about some very real, very unpleasant topics, which deserve a realistic handling.
As is true of too many things which address uncomfortable topics, Night Cries does not seem to have maintained much ongoing popularity. Lots of folks don’t like reminders, no matter how poignant or well painted, of the limitations of their fictional heroes, and that might be why the book is presently out of print. This is unfortunate, because not only is Night Cries a quote-unquote important story, it’s also just a really good Batman story. Where most subsequent writers (like the aforementioned Grant Morrison) turn any examination of Batman’s cyclic nature into something of a grander, more mythic, scale, Night Cries accomplishes this by scaling it down to a single case. But while it’s a good Batman story, it’s a great James Gordon story: it remembers that flawed and human depiction he was given in Year One, and advances the story of that man, as a struggling husband and father. It also serves as a useful bridge between Gordon’s status at the conclusion of The Long Halloween and his status at the start of Dark Victory (next week, folks!), while also starting James Jr. upon a trajectory which will not be wholly realized until Scott Snyder writes Black Mirror almost twenty years later. But Gordon also gives the book it’s sole optimistic beat, providing some hope at the conclusion. Though the book concludes with him separated from his wife and son, as they leave Gotham to spend some time apart from him, he is determined not to repeat the same cycles as his father. He is inspired to get better.
Matt’s Sleepy Time Belgian-Style Imperial Stout definitely makes good upon the “Sleepy Time” promise of its name – having enjoyed the whole 600mL bottle, I feel tired, relaxed warm. Of course, at this time of this writing, it is late. It’s the end of another cycle – a day, a year . . . Like every year, my hope is the same: may all of us carry forward only the good things from the year previous, like those Trappist monks lifting the head from one beer onto the next as-yet-unfermented wort, and leave behind the bad and hurtful things.