Every craft brewer owes some intangible debt to Ken Grossman and his Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. A homebrewer throughout the 1970s, Grossman recognized an absence of homegrown, hop-forward beers, and took it upon himself to brew them. He was such a pioneer that he couldn’t even acquire the equipment required to brew beer at his planned small scale – brewing systems were only built to suit large commercial breweries, and he had to cobble together his own brewery from repurposed dairy equipment. Sierra Nevada practically invented the craft beer movement in the United States, and to this day, their pale ale is trumpeted as the standard against which all other pale ales are held.
With all that historical context established now, I will proceed to state an unpopular opinion: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, though undeniably well-balanced, is a timid, if not outright unremarkable, pale ale. As a homebrewer like Ken Grossman myself, I want to heap praise upon Sierra Nevada, because I have the privilege of walking every trail which Grossman has blazed. Objectively, though, I have to admit that I find their pale ale dreadfully uninteresting. It boils down to that perennial tug-of-war between importance and actual merit, and that is why I have paired Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with Batman: A Death In The Family.
While not a direct equivalent to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (a more accurate comparison, if measuring impact, might be The Dark Knight Returns or Year One), A Death In The Family is without a doubt important. My comment regarding The Killing Joke (that it is “such a significant entry in (and influence upon) the Batman canon, it scarcely matters if it’s good”) can easily be repeated in regards to A Death In The Family. This is the story in which the Joker murders Robin, but it is just as famous for the events which occur within the pages of the story as it is for how those events were decided: DC Comics left it up to their fans to determine if Jason Todd lived or died, setting up two 1-900 phone numbers which fans could call. Calls to one number served as a vote to let the Boy Wonder live, while calls to the second voted for a death sentence. A narrow margin, 5,343 votes against 5,271, sealed poor Jason’s fate.
Obviously, it was a controversial decision, prompting even Frank Miller, a comics creator known for his ugly and cynical portrayals of humanity, to comment, “To me the whole killing of Robin thing was probably the ugliest thing I’ve seen in comics, and the most cynical.” But I will defer instead to Tony Wolf’s wonderful comic 1-800-DEAD-ROBIN to elucidate upon the circumstances which compelled many fans to condemn Jason to death, and will instead myself focus upon that question which I aim to answer in every Beer & Batman feature: Is it good?
I have read A Death In The Family multiple times, and apart from the shocking savagery of the scene in which the Joker bludgeons Jason Todd with a crowbar and that iconic moment in which Batman cradles Jason’s lifeless body in his arms, very little ever lingers with me past the last page. With each reading, I enjoy it; Starlin writes a wonderful Batman, marrying elements of Frank Miller’s brooding Dark Knight with Dennis O’Neill’s confident Caped Crusader. Aparo is a capable, expressive artist whose storytelling is always clear but dynamic, his action sequences magnificently choreographed. This is a team with a steadfast foundation – like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Starlin and Aparo feel a little old-fashioned, mastering the basics of their craft but not doing much to build upon it.
The plot sees Batman suspend Jason’s Boy Wonder privileges due to recklessness, a quality well-established earlier in Starlin’s (perplexingly as-yet-reprinted) run. While Batman pursues the Joker (escaped in record time after his apprehension at the end of The Killing Joke), Jason learns that the woman he thought was his mother was not, actually, his mother, and undertakes a global search for his real mother armed with little more than an initial and his father’s address book. A series of downright incredible coincidences sets Jason on a collision course with the Joker’s newest nefarious plot, hopping from one strangely dated political-commentary-setpiece to the next until Jason finds himself tied up in a warehouse, face to face with a smiling sociopath with a crowbar. Though the circumstances are entirely implausible, it is decent of Starlin and Aparo to construct Jason’s last story as one in which he is the protagonist rather than a mere accessory in Batman’s – a courtesy definitely not extended to Barbara in The Killing Joke.
I don’t mean to continuously invoke The Killing Joke as I discuss A Death In The Family. The two stories have little in common – sure, both feature the Joker as the antagonist, and one follows immediately after the other in continuity, but whereas one is a tightly focused, meticulously structured narrative, the other is, frankly (though lovingly), a big dumb comic book. Those differences aside, however, I keep circling back to The Killing Joke for one exasperating reason: both serve the exact same narrative purpose in the overall Batman canon. By outdoing The Killing Joke‘s brutality, A Death In The Family almost trivializes the role of Moore and Bolland’s story, rendering it (to borrow Frank Miller’s turn of phrase) even uglier and more cynical. Thus, while The Killing Joke is the better-crafted story, A Death In The Family more efficiently deals a personal blow to Batman, ripping off the scab left by his parents’ murder and pushing him more decisively away from the reasonably well-adjusted vigilante who fought crime in Gotham City since 1939. This story is the one which tore Batman down, letting him be rebuilt in subsequent stories to more closely resemble Frank Miller’s popular interpretation.
But as Wolf observes in his comic about A Death In The Family, tragedy is a sound storytelling decision, promoting character development and growth. Therein lies another similarity between this book and the beer I’ve paired with it: it is hard to criticize it very heartily when it has cleared the way for other, better, more interesting things. Yes, the Joker’s plot in A Death In The Family is ridiculously outsized, with a greater focus on international politics than fits his modus operandi. And yes, Sierra Nevada is the same as just about any American-style IPA, just toned down to its most inoffensive iteration – pleasant citrus aromas, sweet malt up front, resolving with just a slight bitterness. Sure, A Death In The Family‘s third act (after Jason’s murder) pretty much squanders the emotional gut-punch of the previous act. And sure, Sierra Nevada is less a great pale ale than it is the platonic ideal of a pale ale. But without Sierra Nevada and A Death In The Family, beer and Batman would look entirely different than it does today, and that, I think, is worthy of raising a glass of perfectly adequate pale ale.