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.
This is the first holiday season in four years that I haven’t worked in retail. When one works in retail during Christmas, it is nigh impossible to maintain any Christmas cheer or sense of seasonal wonderment, instead growing to cynically believe, like Charlie Brown, that the holiday has no greater meaning than buying and selling merchandise. This year, having distanced myself from that Christmas commerce, I anticipated a rediscovery of some Christmas magic long forgotten, but find myself maybe less cynical, though no closer to any wisdom regarding the season’s true meaning. If it has any at all – and in its secular observance, it is easy to argue that Christmas doesn’t have much meaning. We all know the rhetoric – it isn’t all about buying more, it’s about giving and being together and loving. These are messages trumpeted again and again in the endless parade of Christmas specials and movies overtaking television, messages watered down by the very crassness of their medium.
Charles Dickens’ seminal classic A Christmas Carol will usually get a few different treatments throughout that annual parade of holiday specials, some much better than others, but even in its worst adaptations, it ranks among the better Christmas fare. The timeless story of a miser forced to reconsider Christmas is endlessly adaptable, and seems to come closest to illuminating some meaningful truth about the holiday season. In Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Noël, we’re treated to another adaptation of A Christmas Carol, casting Batman in the role of Scrooge. This, if you recall, isn’t even the first time this was done. But I’ll forgive it, not just because Noël does it better than Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Halloween special, but because it would be pretty pointless to harp on a Christmas story for repetition. Repetition, in relation to Christmas, is comfortable – Christmas is predictable. Year after year, we watch the same specials, listen to the same songs, eat the same foods. It is tradition, and tradition is comforting.
Regarding comfort, one could do much worse than Black Oak Brewing Co.’s Nutcracker Porter if looking for a beer well suited cozying up with a familiar book. Dark and roasty, this beer has a pleasantly warming quality, lent by the addition of cinnamon. The flavour never gets cloying, and never pushes the beer outside of anyone’s comfort zone. Though not overly strong in alcohol (a reasonable 5.8%), the beer is strong in flavour, with a slight bitterness that makes slow slipping the perfect pace at which to drink it.
Similarly, Batman: Noël warrants slow consumption, because Lee Bermejo’s art is goddamn breathtaking. Handling both pencils and inks, every page is filled with lifelike details that deserve to be examined and enjoyed. Though it isn’t painted, the book almost looks like it – Bermejo uses ink washes to provide the shading, over which Barbara Ciardo demonstrates magnificent understanding of how to employ warm and cool tones to best effect. Bermejo’s layouts are rarely confined to conventional panels, with dynamic and dramatic spreads that makes even little moments striking. Even without considering the story, Noël is a book that just looks really damn good.
Considering the story, Noël remains pretty damn good. Bermejo makes the Christmas Carol reference overt, using a father relating Dickens’ story to his son as the narration for the entire book, matching it against his story of Batman hunting the Joker on Christmas Eve. Throughout, Batman follows a lead he gets from Catwoman, and gets an assist from Superman, before finally being confronted by the Joker himself. These characters act as Christmas spirits of past, present and future, respectively, and each is pretty inspired in these roles.
It is important to note that Bermejo isn’t really talking about Christmas here; he’s taking this opportunity to examine Batman as the grim and joyless Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight (the miserly Scrooge of this story) against the brighter, more optimistic hero of the past. In last week’s column, I wrote, “a real hero does actual good, instead of just preventing bad,” and this book definitely reiterates that lesson, even employing Robin in a similar role (he serves as this story’s Jacob Marley). If Bermejo makes a misstep in this book, it’s that he writes Batman almost a little too cantankerously than is necessary to make the point. Here, Batman has the opportunity to catch the Joker, but it means using one of the Joker’s bagmen as bait – inadvertently placing that bagman’s son in harm’s way as well. Noël takes a look at what Batman would look like if all that mattered to him was to beat the bad guy, and satisfyingly concludes that this isn’t enough. With even Superman getting the grim-and-gritty treatment in Zack Snyder’s films, this lesson is one that I don’t think I can ever get tired of hearing.
Then, if Batman: Noël offers any indication of the meaning of Christmas, I guess it is simply this: do good. Trite, sure, but with all the stresses of the season, it’s a worthwhile reminder, whatever holiday you celebrate. Whatever this season might mean to you, I hope all of you do some good, and are rewarded with the comfort of a familiar story, and a pleasant, cozy drink, like a Black Oak Nutcracker Porter.