Most love stories tell a lie of omission, since most love stories focus upon the part when two people meet and fall in love. It’s all dopamine and serotonin, making one feel like anything is possible. The start is the joyful part, the exciting part, a party to which reality is not invited. But maintaining a relationship beyond this takes effort – if the other person is the right one, the effort needn’t be Herculean, but nevertheless, sharing a life takes some work. It isn’t fun all the time – again, if the person is right, there will still be enough fun to offset the less-fun times, but sometimes, that balance might tip.
I’m not really talking just about romantic love, because despite a few popular and homophobic punch lines, the relationship between Batman and Robin was never romantic. The same rules apply, however, and all this beer-fueled philosophizing is a roundabout way of setting up Nightwing: Year One. See, Robin: Year One was the love story – it was bright and optimistic, the start of a partnership, full of hope. When I discussed that book, I talked a lot about simplicity, because that spark, romantic or otherwise, is the easiest thing in the world. In Nightwing: Year One, that spark has fizzled out, with years of hurt feelings and skewed priorities piling up between Batman and the Boy Wonder. It’s a break-up story, in tights.
I paired Robin: Year One with a beer from Manantler Craft Brewing Co. and thus, it seemed only fitting to revisit the same brewery for the sequel. I paired Robin with a single-hopped pale ale, a beer that reveled in its simplicity as much as the book did. This time, I’ve chosen a beer of a comparable style (an IPA), but one which is less interested in spotlighting only a single hop variety, and is interested instead in balancing a more complex variety of hops against a sweet malt background: the Liquid Swords IPA. The difference between the two beers is much the same as the difference between Dick Grayson’s roles and responsibilities in the first book compared to the next, though while I like Liquid Swords a little bit more than the Chinook Lollihop, Robin: Year One remains my preferred book over Nightwing: Year One.
Unlike its craft-brewed counterpart, Nightwing: Year One is simultaneously improved by what has come before it while suffering from the comparisons. Take, for instance, the opening issue: Robin, juggling both the Teen Titans and college on top of his sidekick duties, arrives late to a confrontation between Clayface and Batman. While it isn’t one of the Dynamic Duo’s smoothest takedowns, Robin does manage to succeed in subduing and apprehending Clayface. Nevertheless, upon their return to the Batcave afterward, Batman straight up fires Dick for his tardiness and failure to follow orders. If you’ve been following along with this blog, this makes a reasonable amount of sense – this is just one more in a series of conflicts between the two, and as anyone who has ever broken up with (or been broken up with by) someone else will recognize, the actual event which prompts the breakup is very rarely the real reason behind it. Without reading Teen Titans: Year One (or even Fortunate Son!) in advance, however, this moment reads as an entirely outsized reaction to a minor offense.
The other shadow under which this book lives is obviously that of Robin: Year One, and in most regards, it comfortably follows that book up. As it well should: it boasts the same writing team of Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon, demonstrating here the same great grasp of Grayson’s voice, and even using a similar episodic structure. But the one comparison that Nightwing: Year One truly suffers from is the art. Robin: Year One boasted incredible and retro-tinged artwork from Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido – clean, simple and bright, the art is what elevates that book to something special. Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens, who handle the art on this book, are entirely adequate. Their storytelling is never unclear, and while I can find nothing objectively bad to say about the lean, angular art, it certainly doesn’t captivate or engage to the same extent as Martin and Pulido’s did.
Liquid Swords IPA, on the other hand, is not a beer that demands comparison with the rest of Manantler’s oeuvre, standing comfortably on its own merits. If I am to compare it with Manantler’s Lollihop series, it would only be to stress the point that if the simplicity of those Lollihop beers led anyone to worry that Manantler lacked the confidence to combine and balance flavors, Liquid Swords should assuage all fears. This is a superb IPA – as hoppy as one would expect from the style, but not so much that the sweet malts of the background get crowded out entirely. It’s a magnificent combination of hops both aromatic and bitter, with those citrusy orange notes resolving smoothly into a more piney bitterness.
The pairing with Nightwing: Year One is nevertheless apt: Liquid Swords IPA is a beer that can only be achieved through a solid understanding of hops and when to use them, and which ones to use together. It’s the IPA all grown up, just like how Nightwing is Robin all grown up. Of course, it takes Grayson a little while to get there, just as I’m sure it took the fine folks at Manantler to get the Liquid Swords just right. As mentioned, it’s a breakup story, and it follows the convention of other such stories, as Grayson eat-pray-loves his way to a new superhero identity. (Okay, that’s a little facetious, though not an altogether inadequate comparison.) Newly fired by Batman, Grayson joins Superman to foil a bombing in Metropolis, then returns to explore his circus roots, teaming with deceased circus aerialist Deadman. Each contributes some sage advice which inspires the Nightwing costume and identity, which, as promised, he adopts at the end of the third issue. Issues four through six sees Grayson return to Gotham, reuniting with Batgirl, before learning that Batman has replaced him with a brand new Robin (more about him next week). Further cementing the book’s status as a breakup story, the final act pretty much literalizes Grayson’s acceptance by having him team-up with his replacement to square off against a new player in Gotham’s underworld, a scaly and monstrous son-of-a-bitch called Killer Croc.
It’s a fun book, as any book featuring Dick Grayson as its protagonist ought to be, and while it might be outdone by books which preceded it, it still marks a significant status quo shift for Batman and Robin both. I will definitely miss the optimism which Grayson brought as the Boy Wonder, but hey, nothing can stay that simple forever, and Liquid Swords IPA definitely makes a strong case for that being a good thing.