If Batman is anything, both as a character and as a concept, he is endlessly adaptable. This March sees a new iteration of the character come to the big screen, played by Ben Affleck in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Cryptic teasers of a “rebirth” from DC Comics recently gave rise to speculation that their comic universe might see another reinvention this year, in the tradition of previous universe-altering events like Flashpoint and Crisis on Infinite Earths. But the character endures throughout out it all.
Tales of the Demon is a book that invites consideration of the very timelessness and immortality of the character, in numerous regards. Thematically, the book marks a departure from all the previous stories I’ve considered thus far, taking Batman both literally and figuratively beyond Gotham, giving Batman an epic scope befitting the self-actualized hero he has become. Even the story’s content reflects upon immortality, introducing a new (appropriately epic) adversary who himself is immortal. But the book itself is a testament to Batman’s timelessness: the issues which comprise the volume were all published between 1971 and 1980, it’s last issue predating Year One by a whole seven years. The story has remained more-or-less in continuity (give or take a few details) through two and a half wholesale reboots of the character.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would pair this book with an offering from Black Creek Historic Brewery, because no other brewery encapsulates the same quality of both old but timeless. If you don’t recall Black Creek’s previous appearance in Beer & Batman, this is the Toronto-based brewery which uses only techniques and technology which were available in the 1830s. This particular beer, Thomas Benson’s Strong Ale, is brewed from a traditional 1835 recipe, pulled from the family records of Thomas Benson, who became the first mayor of my hometown of Peterborough in the 1850s.
Neither Tales of the Demon nor this strong ale is altogether catered to modern tastes. Dialogue, narrative captions, and thought bubbles have a tendency to over-explain what the art is already making clear, and Dennis O’Neill’s storytelling is a whole lot more compressed than most modern comics. But this is not a criticism of O’Neill by any means – that was the fashion of the time, just as how beers of the 1830s were more lightly carbonated than most beers today. While both the book and the beer might be a little dated, though, that’s not to say either is quaint. Quite the contrary, actually: Thomas Benson’s recipe earns the moniker “strong ale,” packing an unexpected bite that I at first thought was a pronounced alcohol taste, though the alcohol content (a healthy yet modest 6%) wouldn’t likely contribute it. Certainly, some of that bitterness might come from the hops though virtually no hop aromas are present. I wonder if there might not be some molasses in the brew to bolster the gravity because there is a sweetness that stops just shy of cloying. Mayor Benson was, evidently, no lightweight – he brewed a potent beer.
What really adds a comparable kick to Tales of the Demon is the art. It boasts a veritable who’s who of definitive Batman artists (Neal Adams! Dick Giordano! Irv Novick!), providing some superb visual storytelling and dynamic fight scenes (Batman fights ninja assassins! Repeatedly!). Sure, by today’s standards, it might seem a little derivative, but it’s important to recall: if it were done today, it would be derivative of these artists. With Dennis O’Neill on scripting duties, this was the team of gentlemen who reinvented Batman before Frank Miller ever did, responsible for moving the character away from the campiness of the 1960s. In fact, a case could be made that Year One mostly served to adjust Batman’s origin to better fit this iteration of the character, though it isn’t a perfect fit. Tales of the Demon is more James Bond than film noir, for one, and it isn’t entirely without campiness, such as when Batman gets an assist from a peppy, ready-for-anything Olympic ski champion. Tonal differences aside, it is pretty remarkable how little shoehorning it takes to keep these comics in their position in the Batman narrative.
Because, while tastes and fashions may change, when it comes down to it, good beer is good beer and good storytelling is good storytelling. The storytelling is what impresses me most while reading Tales of the Demon: it starts quite simply, as Batman investigates a shadowy organization called the League of Assassins (which Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty retroactively introduced to us in Robin: Year One, if you’re keeping track). He traces their activities back to their leader, an adversary who will dog him for the rest of his career. Well, not immediately. He first traces the League’s actions to one Doctor Darrk. Batman’s investigation does introduce him to a woman named Talia (this Bond movie’s femme fatale) whose father, she tells him, has some feud with Darrk. Darrk runs afoul of an oncoming train at the end of the first issue, and it isn’t until the next issue that Batman meets Talia’s father: Ra’s Al-Ghul.
Ra’s Al-Ghul is not positioned immediately as the story’s villain – he actually reaches out to Batman for assistance when someone seemingly abducts Talia. Of course, it comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ra’s Al-Ghul that the entire plot is a test to assess Batman’s skills, but even in the subsequent issues, Ra’s Al-Ghul’s morality is much more ambiguous. It creates an interesting dynamic between Batman and Ra’s Al-Ghul, one of mutual respect, even as neither trusts the other. It isn’t really until the end of the collection that Ra’s Al-Ghul reveals the extent of his villainy, manipulating Batman as a pawn in a plot to wrest control of the League of Assassins away from it’s current master, the Sensei. It’s even more remarkable to consider what a long game O’Neill and company were playing, with nine years separating the first and last issues of this book.
With an introduction like this, it’s little wonder that Ra’s Al-Ghul has become one of Batman’s most formidable enemies, despite being among the most recently created. Batman’s contentious romance with Talia starts here as well, and Ra’s Al-Ghul’s immortality through use of the Lazarus Pit is established. It’s an introduction to a character every bit as essential as The Man Who Laughs, but blown up to epic, globe-trotting proportions. Like Ra’s Al-Ghul himself, this book (and this beer) serve as an enjoyable reminder of the difference between old and timeless.