It feels like a long while since the last Beer & Batman. Between April’s Joker-ized and gin-soaked detour, the unfortunate but unavoidable delays caused by moving, and some initial internet connectivity issues here at the new Gutterball Special headquarters, the last time I paired a beer with the Dark Knight’s ongoing exploits was March 28. Entitled “That Meddling Kid,” that post discussed the introduction of a new Boy Wonder to the Batcave: Jason Todd, a parentless boy whom Batman caught stealing the wheels off the Batmobile. Prior to that, I discussed a sequence of stories which resolved in the dissolution of the original Dynamic Duo. Due to plot contrivance and some heavy-handed attempts to emulate Frank Miller, Batman was written as increasingly moody and withdrawn over the course of these stories (though, if you’re looking for an in-story explanation as to Bruce’s newly dour outlook, Son of the Demon does provide a convincing explanation). I mention these points not just because a recap seems necessary, but because Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson’s The Cult actually does something interesting with the darker corners of Batman’s mind that, up until now, have only served as a single-note reminder that he is a Serious Character™ who should be taken seriously.
I am delighted to have reached The Cult, and not just because it’s a book that offers a lot to talk about. No – I am excited because I have the perfect beer to pair with it. I’ve had this pairing queued up since this blog was a mere twinkle in my eye. Holy Smoke, from the fine folks at Church-Key Brewing Company in Campbellford, is a peat smoked scotch ale, and like it’s comic-book counterpart, it is dark, strong, and a little spooky. The bottle explains that it is a Celtic style ale – “An homage to our brewmaster’s Graham Clan ancestry.” Though the knots and symbols adorning the label hail from an entirely different culture than the totems employed by The Cult’s Deacon Blackfire, both evoke something ancient, mythic and mysterious. Simply put: though the name might call it “holy,” this is one hell of a beer.
Speaking of hell, that is pretty much where Starlin and Wrightson have deposited Batman at the book’s start. The book opens with a dream, in which Bruce tellingly visualizes himself as a child still. Confronted by the Joker, the child Bruce then transforms, like a werewolf, into a monstrous Batman, who murders the Joker with an ax, and moreover, enjoys it. (“It feels great! Why did I wait so long?! If I’d known it would be so satisfying, I would have done this a long time ago!”) It is an arresting opening, rendered beautifully by the legendary Bernie Wrightson, and also serves as a neat (if inadvertent) foreshadowing of some subsequent stories. Waking from this dream, Batman delivers us into this story in media res: he is chained up and drugged in the sewers of Gotham City, where a congregation of the homeless and disenfranchised regale him with the stories and teachings of their shaman, even as his drugged psyche attacks itself. Of course, flashbacks then detail the case which landed Batman in this unenviable position, but Starlin and Wrightson remain less interested in plot mechanics than they are in dissecting what makes Batman tick, and then repeatedly poking him at his weakest points.
Like Holy Smoke, it’s dark and has a surprising complexity, with a boldness and richness best suited to slow consumption. While the story does escalate its stakes to near-blockbuster levels, The Cult maintains its focus, with Bernie Wrightson fitting a lot of story on every page. While he doesn’t attempt the level of detail as he did in his famous Frankenstein illustrations, Wrightson still proves his mastery by making the storytelling clear and coherent even on pages boasting fifteen or more panels. He’s a perfect artist for the story, seamlessly blending the horror elements of the various nightmare sequences, making the reader, like Batman himself, doubt what’s real. Wrightson is remarkable as an artist in much the same way that Holy Smoke is remarkable as a beer. Both grab attention with an undeniable hook: in the case of Wrightson, it’s his distinct gothic stylings, and regarding Holy Smoke, it is the promised smokiness. But neither are content to rely on a gimmick – just as Wrightson’s storytelling and visual narrative are superb, the beer behind all the smoke is magnificently balanced, offsetting much of the smoke with a slight molasses sweetness.
Just as how the predominant peat smoke in Holy Smoke calls to mind a scotch whiskey, there is much about The Cult recalls other things. The use of talking heads on television screens, for example, seem an intentional decision to align it stylistically with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Even the antagonist feels a little recycled, as Deacon Blackfire reads mostly as a cut-rate Ra’s Al-Ghul. Otherwise, though, I was surprised by how much The Cult is evoked, consciously or not, in various stories and adaptations written well after it. Blackfire attacking Batman’s mind as a means of breaking him predicts the tactics used much later by Dr. Hurt in Batman: R.I.P. and his shtick of recruiting Gotham’s homeless to make an army was recently repeated in the first arc of We Are Robin. Gotham City getting overthrown and turned into a disturbing dystopia ruled by a madman evokes both No Man’s Land and the Riddler’s bat-shit crazy Zero Year plot. Nothing else owes quite as much to The Cult, however, as The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s last film in his Batman trilogy. While Bane breaks Batman physically rather than mentally in that film, the result is largely the same, and certainly Bane’s domination of Gotham and the weird martial law he imposes in his new dystopia resembles Blackfire’s macabre Gotham more than any other. The final acts of both stories, in which Batman returns to reclaim Gotham, are remarkably similar. Even a scene in which Batman visits Commissioner Gordon in the hospital has many of the same beats between the comic and the film.
The most significant detail which Nolan seems to have borrowed from Starlin and Wrightson, however, is a psychological revelation, one which Bruce confides to Jason as he attempts to piece himself together after Jason rescued him from Blackfire’s thrall. “I’ve been fooling myself all these years . . .” Bruce tells his sidekick. “Always claimed I became the Batman to avenge the death of parents . . . to fight crime. That was a lie. I really did it to overcome the fear.” Nolan placed fear front and center in Batman Begins, as a motivator throughout – even the symbol of the bat, in Nolan’s take, was something that Bruce himself was afraid of, a literal becoming of his own fears as a means of overtaking them. This remarkably simple but inspired notion gets its first, or at least most explicit, textual mention in The Cult, and it works wonders to instill the terse and clench-jawed Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight with both nuance and humanity. The story tears Batman down, and leaves him vulnerable, which has the bonus effect of thrusting Jason Todd into a take-charge role. It’s a role he fills wonderfully, showing glimmers of the personality that won’t fully come to fruition until he assumes the identity of Red Hood much, much later: this Robin is a brawler who is never quite as happy as he is in the thick of a fight.
Overall, both The Cult and Holy Smoke are tremendous successes: both dark, sure, but not using that darkness just for the sake of itself, employing it instead as a backdrop against which it sets some interesting and complex ideas and flavors. Given the ambition of both this book and this beer, it is impressive how effectively each achieves precisely what it sets out to – even making it look easy, as only those who have really mastered their craft can.