In the fourth issue of Superman: American Alien, written by Max Landis with art by Jae Lee, Clark Kent, a mere journalism student and not yet Superman, meets the young ward of reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne. While Clark fishes for any revealing quote about Dick Grayson’s eccentric foster father, their conversation turns toward the Batman. Grayson plays coy, disavowing even thinking that the Batman is real. “He’s the boogie-man,” Grayson says. “It’s a smart move to become a fairytale monster to scare crooks . . . but I don’t know if it’s ultimately a good idea.”
He goes on: “He’s all fear. It’s been shown that – like dogs and whatever – they don’t always respond to fear to train them . . . sometimes, they just get meaner. So I think Batman needs a counterpoint . . . Darkness needs light. Fear needs hope.” He is, of course, right, and his role providing that counterpoint is one of the many reasons I love Dick Grayson’s Robin. Reflecting upon Dark Victory (Robin’s introduction to the Bat-mythos), I pointed to Batman’s acceptance of a protege as a major redemptive beat in the Dark Knight’s story. Batman was created by the loss of his family, and Robin denoted the start of a new family. Narratively, Robin is hope. But Robin is also a child, and as he grows up, as children are wont to do, he looks to build a life of his own, separate from that of his father figure.
That story starts right here, in Teen Titans: Year One, and that preamble was meant to serve as an adequate excuse for why I am discussing what is decidedly not a Batman book in a column entitled Beer & Batman. While I didn’t really have to jump through many hoops to find that reason, the real reason is simply this: Teen Titans: Year One is really good, and it’s my blog, goddamn it, so I can do whatever I damn well please. Amy Wolfram is a writer familiar with the Teen Titans, having written the team in a different iteration over several episodes of the wonderful Teen Titans animated series. Viewers of the cartoon will recognize a similar blend of humorous hijinks, somber power/responsibility coming-of-age themes and big superhero action in Teen Titans: Year One, and it’s all brought to life by the dynamite art team of Karl Kerschl, Serge Lapointe, Stephane Peru and John Rauch. Karl Kerschl is a longtime favorite of mine: his webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher is a stunning work of fantasy with absolutely breathtaking art, and he (along with inker Lapointe) is presently lending his formidable skill to Gotham Academy. Steph Peru and John Rauch apply color with an almost painterly sense, working with Kerschl and Lapointe’s art to make the comic a bright and clear read.
Teen Titans: Year One displays an incredible creative synergy – characters well matched to a writer who is perfectly matched to her art team – and this is why I’ve paired it with an offering from Hamilton, Ontario, brewery Collective Arts. Collective Arts describes themselves thus:
We are a grassroots beer company fusing the craft of brewing with the inspired talents of emerging and seasoned artists, musicians, photographers & filmmakers.
Our brewery is dedicated to promoting artists through the sociability of craft beer.
Each bottle boasts a unique image crafted by an enormous range of artists, and one may use an app to scan the label art to access further multimedia content. The brewery sponsors a series of live music recordings, called the Black Box Sessions. Collective Arts is true to its name, fostering a creative and collaborative community – if it were a house party, it would boast the hippest and most interesting guest list. Their beer, appropriately, would be right at home at just such a house party. Their dry-hopped extra pale ale, Rhyme & Reason, is a wholly enjoyable beer. At 5.7%, it’s sessionable, with well-balanced citrusy hop flavors that stay light and fresh. It isn’t a beer that lets any one element pull focus.
Collective Arts makes this collaborative synergy look effortless, just like the creative team behind Teen Titans: Year One. The comparison can easily stretch to the content of the book, too, as each teen sidekick first gets defined by their relationship with their mentors. It is interesting to observe that none of these relationships are really collaborative at all, with the adult superhero dictating all directions and actions. When these adult heroes are mind controlled by an inter-dimensional villain called the Antithesis, it falls upon their sidekicks to not only beat the villain but to defeat their own mentors. This is where the book becomes an excellent Dick Grayson story: he approaches this trouble in a way that Batman never would, by collaborating with his compatriots, recognizing each of their values and directing them in ways that play to their unique skills and strengths. This not only delivers a wonderfully satisfying sequence of the fledgling superhero team taking down Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Batman, it demonstrates the crucial way in which Robin is better than Batman: he trusts other people enough to allow him to be an effective leader.
As I observed in last week’s discussion of Trinity, Batman and Robin now operate in a much bigger world than just Gotham City. They share this world with aliens, Amazons, and Atlanteans; Batman, as terse and authoritarian as he was shown in Trinity, hinges his entire campaign upon fear, and as such, finds himself ill-equipped for this brave new world, while Robin, ever the enthusiastic optimist, flourishes and sees opportunity.
While the tug-of-war between Batman and Robin provide the real emotional heartbeat of Teen Titans: Year One, it isn’t the only thing at play throughout, though it might be the best. While the first three issues are given over to the Antithesis plot, the last three are more episodic. It’s a lot of fun, to be sure, and I’d happily read a sitcom about Kid-Flash and Aqualad’s roommate hijinks, but Amy Wolfram doesn’t even really seem interested in adding the same amount of depth to any of the other kids as she does to Robin. Wonder Girl gets the worst of it; though strong and effective in the fight scenes, she is otherwise only shown as a boy-crazy teenager who bawls whenever anyone is mean to her. Smartly, Wolfram and Co. places Robin squarely in the focus of the book’s conclusion (a rematch with Antithesis inside Robin’s own mind), even calling back to the first page of the first issue with the final page of the final issue:
It’s a poignant hint of the trajectory of the Dynamic Duo going forward, more telling and effective than the story in which their actual schism occurs. It ends on that bittersweet note, same as how Collective Arts’ Rhyme & Reason finishes with a grapefruit-y bitterness. But really, both the book and the beer make a strong case for the greatness that can be achieved through collaboration. It’s hope over fear; and isn’t that really what any good superhero story is supposed to be about?