When one identifies themselves as a fan or a connoisseur of something, as I do regarding comics and beer, it is hard for that person not to grow hypercritical toward the very thing which they profess to love. I like to think I’ve grown a refined palette for both comics and beer, but what that means is that I can be very difficult to impress, and I end up in a peculiar position where it might seem like I don’t like very much of either. Sometimes, after a week of when no particularly inspired comics have come out, or when I’ve just gone to a restaurant that serves only macro-brewed beer, I even ask myself: I identify myself as a fan, but do I actually like this stuff?
I first encountered both Batgirl/Robin: Year One and Manantler Craft Brewing Co. at a time that I was questioning my professed passions. Though Batgirl/Robin: Year One was originally serialized between 2000 and 2003, I didn’t encounter it until 2013 when the two miniseries were collected in a single volume. 2013 was a bad year; it was my first year out of school (I attended Max the Mutt Animation School in Toronto, for anyone keeping track), and I earnestly hoped to make a go of it as a comic artist, only to have my first freelance gig out of school go sour. Actually, sour is an understatement – the client’s loutish boyfriend actually threatened physical violence against me because he didn’t think the work was entirely as expected (the concept of constructive feedback, like most basic concepts, seemed to escape this gentleman). My professional confidence now shaken, I hoped to remind myself of the positive impact that comics and comic book characters had upon my own life, looking to a character that, to me, exemplified that positivity: Superman. Seeing Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel that same summer offered no such reminder. Instead, that film seemed a message designed to tell me that there was no room for hope even in the last place I could trust to find it: superheroes.
I was less despondent when I first visited Manantler, and more just uninspired. I hadn’t been homebrewing even a year at the time and was just coming off a run of failed recipes and otherwise disappointing brewing experiences. On top of this, beer just wasn’t exciting me – sure, I could get good beer at any local beer store, but it was always the same good beer. I was motivated to make beer because I view it as a craft, but was growing to fear that success in brewing was less about craft and more about manufacturing – a paint-by-numbers when I was more interested in making brand new paintings. Upon first setting foot in Manantler’s basement brewery, I knew that there was no painting by numbers going on. With a slightly punk aesthetic, Manantler is defiantly creative, both on their labels (beautifully designed by Rachel Riordan) and in their brewing. They use their small size to their advantage, making small batches of unique beer rather than churning out large quantities of a single safe choice. They were a brewery that reminded me why I not only brew beer but why I drink it, just as Batgirl/Robin: Year One reminded me why I read superhero comics.
The book is divided into two halves, both of which are excellent. The first is Robin: Year One. The second is Batgirl: Year One. Both have mostly the same creative team: Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon co-write both, but Javier Pulido only assists Marcos Martin for the Robin portion of the book, letting Martin tackle Batgirl solo. I could spend the rest of this post just gushing over the art, because Marcos Martin, with or without Javier Pulido, is magnificent. His clean, crisp art has a slightly retro-tinge, which is a perfect match to the brighter, more bombastic storytelling. Despite the Year One tag, this book owes little-to-nothing to Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli, and as much as I like that book, I couldn’t be happier to see the Batman narrative move in a bold, bright and decidedly different direction here.
The one lesson which Beatty, Dixon, Martin and Co. have taken from Miller and Mazzuchelli is one which Manantler also seems to value: simplicity. See, Manantler regularly brew beers which use only a single hop variety, a series of beers they’ve dubbed “Lollihops.” These beers tend to have a very simple, very pale grain bill, so as to best showcase the flavours and aromas of the highlighted hops. The beer which I’ve paired with this book is one such beer: The Chinook Lollihop. What I appreciate about this beer, and really that whole series of beer, is that it shows an enormous amount of respect and confidence in the ingredients. A good thing can only be made of good things, after all, and by paring it down as much as they have, it really does highlight what makes that kind of hop unique.
This book gives its characters a similar treatment: it keeps the plot straightforward and uncluttered, like a simple grain bill against which the hop (in this case, the character) can best distinguish itself. In the first half, Robin squares off against the Mad Hatter, Killer Moth, Two-Face, and Mr. Freeze, in a series of loosely linked, but mostly episodic, adventures which showcase Robin’s personality and his dynamic with Batman. Dixon and Beatty write suitably snappy dialogue for Dick Grayson but never write him too far beyond his years. It is important that Dick comes across like a believable child because this, pitted against the very real risks of super-heroics, forms the heavy core to this otherwise light and fun read: when Robin gets beaten almost to death by Two-Face, for example, Batman reconsiders the prudence of having a child sidekick. It isn’t until Dick Grayson gets to act of his own accord, without the supervision (or safety net) of Batman, that the story really gets the chance to show the ways in which Robin is extraordinary, and the ways in which his presence truly betters Batman.
The Robin half is great, but it’s the Batgirl portion of the book that makes it something really special. In Batgirl, we get a superhero narrative entirely different than any other – Barbara Gordon is a normal girl, just out of college, working as a librarian. Her past is not marred by some devastating tragedy which motivates her to seek justice. Neither is she imbued with extraordinary powers. She is just a normal person, with a drive to do good, to do more, but any attempt to do so through the conventional means gain no traction: her father won’t even consider allowing her to pursue a career in law enforcement, and when she applies to the FBI, she’s turned down because she doesn’t meet the minimum height requirement. She is brilliant and capable but is underestimated constantly, because she’s just some pretty young slip of a thing, and no one expects anything greater.
Robin, really, is a redemptive reprise of Batman’s own story; his parents are killed in front of him, but whereas Batman is inherently a tragic figure, defined by that tragedy, Robin is an optimistic figure, defined by the good he does in response to his own tragedy. Batgirl is neither, and that is the brilliance of what Beatty, Dixon and Martin do in Year One: she’s not some girl-knockoff of Batman, she’s a character of remarkable agency who is inspired to do the same as Batman does, but must be stronger, more resolved and more resourceful to achieve that, because she is doing so without any extraordinary wealth, and without even the support and tutelage which Robin received. In Batgirl, we get the story of a completely self-made hero, compelled to heroism out of the purest intentions: to do good.
It’s such a simple notion, but incredibly refreshing. Which again, pairs it perfectly with Manantler’s Chinook Lollihop, because it, too, is enormously refreshing – light in both colour and flavour, the malt adds only a slight, biscuity sweetness. The chinook hops – piney and just a little spicy – are, as advertised, the main event. They lend both a great aromatic quality and but a healthy helping of bitterness on the finish (I could draw a parallel there, too, with the overt foreshadowing of The Killing Joke lending a slight bitter tang to the bright optimism of this book). Too few brewers recognize the value of simplicity, fussing with complex grain bills and trying to balance a variety of bittering and aromatic hops to get just the right flavour. While that frequently yields good (even great) results, it’s humbling to drink a beer that so unabashedly reminds us that beer is comprised of just four ingredients: water, malts, hops and yeast. The same goes for comic book heroes. Really, all the tragedy, the torment, the violence – it’s just window dressing disguised as storytelling. All a hero really needs to be is someone who will save the day because it’s just the right thing to do.