Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #5: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Batman!

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

For the month of October, that spookiest month of the year, I will be focusing on the more horrific and supernatural corners of Batman’s oeuvre, pairing each with a seasonal pumpkin beer.

Don’t forget to “like” Gutterball Special on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!

Batman: Haunted Knight, by Jeph Loeb (W) and Tim Sale (A) with Gregory Wright (C) and Todd Klein (L). Paired with Great Lakes Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

Batman: Haunted Knight, by Jeph Loeb (W) and Tim Sale (A) with Gregory Wright (C) and Todd Klein (L). Paired with Great Lakes Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

It might be apparent by now that I love Hallowe’en. I always have – with my birthday a mere four days prior, my birthday parties as a child were always just as much Hallowe’en parties, and I couldn’t be happier to share my birthday. Rather than resenting the day for stealing my spotlight, I simply decided that Hallowe’en was my time. We would spend my birthday carving pumpkins, or venturing out to a haunted house, or maybe watching scary movies – the scarier the better. I would judge a horror film on whether or not it kept me awake at night. Just because I delighted in being scared, however, did not mean I was scared any less. Hallowe’en is like a sly joke, which you’re never sure whether you’re helping play the joke, or the joke is being played on you, but it’s never a cruel joke, as everyone, old or young, is in the same position. It was rich with possibility, possessing a greater sense of wonder than Christmas (at least to me), and even now, observing my twenty-eighth Hallowe’en, I still look to capture that wonder.

This gets a little harder the further into adulthood I get. I’ve outgrown the haunted houses that used to scare me; I’ve seen so many horror films that I’ve taken to watching Hemlock Grove to put me asleep at night, instead of keeping me awake. But every now and then, I find something – a taste or smell, or an intangible tone or quality to some work of art, written or drawn – which rekindles that jack o’ lantern of Hallowe’ens past. Happily, both Great Lakes Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: Haunted Knight, achieves this. Continue reading

Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #4: The Devils We Know

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

For the month of October, that spookiest month of the year, I will be focusing on the more horrific and supernatural corners of Batman’s oeuvre, pairing each with a seasonal pumpkin beer.

Don’t forget to “like” Gutterball Special on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!

Tales of the Multiverse: Batman - Vampire, by Doug Moench (W) and Kelley Jones (P) with Malcolm Jones III and John Beatty (I). Paired with Grand River Brewing’s Highballer Pumpkin Ale.

Tales of the Multiverse: Batman – Vampire, by Doug Moench (W) and Kelley Jones (P) with Malcolm Jones III and John Beatty (I). Paired with Grand River Brewing’s Highballer Pumpkin Ale.

There is much to be said in praise of the obvious. As a creative type myself, I admit to a tendency toward dismissing the obvious idea, instead searching for something more distinct. It’s a decent instinct, and though I’d never claim as much in my own work, it can get striking results. This is true when making comics, and when making beer, and I’ve done both. For me, and for many creative individuals, the impulse to create comes from a desire to create something new, and it makes a great deal of sense to be skeptical of the obvious if your aim is to make something new. But this means a good, if plain, idea can get passed over by many a creative mind, no one recognizing it’s potential.

This fall, my father and I brewed a pumpkin beer. It was our second attempt – the year previous, we brewed a pumpkin dubbel, which bordered upon the undrinkable. The spices were too cloying, and grain bill too busy, with too many strong flavours aggressively fighting for attention. With last year’s failure leaving it’s potent bad taste in our mouth, we could be forgiven for retreating to the ordinary, playing it safe with a straightforward wheat beer or pale ale whose uncomplicated and light grain bill would let the pumpkin and accompanying spices take the starring role. Instead, we did the opposite, making a dark, heavy stout, but learning from last year’s mistakes, we paid closer attention to making sure our flavours paired well together. The result was not perfect (it’s a little more ester-y than I prefer my stouts) but it was good, and almost as important, it was decidedly different from any of the pumpkin beers which crowd the shelves of the local liquor store this time of year. After all, other brewers are doing a fine job of crafting the plain and simple pumpkin ale, and you could do much worse than Grand River Brewing’s attempt, the Highballer Pumpkin Ale. Continue reading

Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #3: Crossing the Line

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

For the month of October, that spookiest month of the year, I will be focusing on the more horrific and supernatural corners of Batman’s oeuvre, pairing each with a seasonal pumpkin beer.

Don’t forget to “like” Gutterball Special on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!

Batman: Gotham County Line, by Steve Niles (W) and Scott Hampton (A) with Jose Villarubia (C). Paired with Mill St. Brewery’s Nightmare on Mill Street Pumpkin Ale.

Batman: Gotham County Line, by Steve Niles (W) and Scott Hampton (A) with Jose Villarubia (C). Paired with Mill St. Brewery’s Nightmare on Mill Street Pumpkin Ale.

The tradition of Halloween, at its roots, is about crossing borders. In most traditions, it marked the end of the harvest and the start of the winter. Historically, this marked the end of a time of warmth, bounty and life, and marked the start of a time of cold, scarcity and death. This represented a symbolic breach of the border between the living and the dead, observed by many cultures as a time in which the spirits of the dead could wander the land of the living, and should be shown respect. These traditions translate into our modern All Hallow’s Eve.

Steve Niles and Scott Hampton’s Gotham County Line is also primarily concerned with borders. The title refers to a literal border, at the edge of Batman’s usual purview, but those more Halloween-ish borders between the living and the dead are Steve Niles’ real concern in his 2005 DC Comics debut. Though new to superhero comics at the time, Niles was already a household name in horror comics for his and Ben Templesmith’s IDW miniseries 30 Days of Night. The mid ‘00s was precisely the time I started reading comics, and Steve Niles was a name that I grew used to hearing as I learned the ins and outs of comics at that time – few writers were as buzzed about as he was. Thus, with Gotham County Line, Niles was crossing a border of his own, moving from creator owned, independent comics to mainstream superhero books.

Mill St. Brewery debuted the same year as Steve Niles’s blockbuster 30 Days of Night, with similar effect. Their impact on the Canadian craft beer landscape was monumental, becoming a recognizable and accessible choice to even those who wouldn’t typify themselves as “beer snobs.” Their growth was so meteoric that, within only four years, they outgrew their modest brewery on Mill St. in Toronto and relocated all brewing operations to a facility north of the city. There are no real parameters on how big a brewing operation can be before the term “craft” stops applying, and while it grew increasingly difficult to place Mill St. in the same weight class as, say, Lake of Bays or Sawdust City, they continued to produce a lot of solidly good beers despite their large scale, while still indulging in a few creative brews with varying rates of success. Last week, however, Mill St. crossed a border which definitively places them outside that “craft” label, selling their brewery, their two brewpubs, their recipes and all their brands to the soulless swill manufacturing conglomerate, Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Thus, this week I raise what might be one of Mill St. Brewery’s last “craft” beers: a perennial favourite, their Nightmare on Mill Street Pumpkin Ale. Though labelled as a wheat beer, it’s grain bill does include malted barley as well, imparting some caramel notes which pair so well pumpkin. The pumpkin is decidedly present here, though not cloyingly so, and the spices are pleasant but subtle. It isn’t too hoppy, and the usual sourdough taste of wheat beers is nicely tempered by the addition of vanilla. This is a good beer, well balanced – the precise qualities which elevated Mill St. to the heights that placed them in the sights of giants. In grand Halloween tradition, let’s respect the departed, and take a peek on the other side of the border, with Steve Niles, Mill St. and, of course, Batman. Continue reading

Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #2: A Werewolf Killed My Parents!

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

For the month of October, that spookiest month of the year, I will be focusing on the more horrific and supernatural corners of Batman’s oeuvre, pairing each with a seasonal pumpkin beer.

Don’t forget to “like” Gutterball Special on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!

Batman: Haunted Gotham, by Doug Moench (W) and Kelley Jones (P) with John Beatty and Jason Moore (I). Paired with Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company’s Weiss O’ Lantern Pumpkin Weiss.

Batman: Haunted Gotham, by Doug Moench (W) and Kelley Jones (P) with John Beatty and Jason Moore (I). Paired with Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company’s Weiss O’ Lantern Pumpkin Weiss.

Batman and horror are pretty easy bedfellows. He designed himself to strike fear in criminals, using the gothic symbol of a bat, and many of his adversaries reflect this same theme: Scarecrow and Man-Bat are obvious examples, but even Two-Face plays with a Jekyll-and-Hyde archetype, and of course the Joker plays on a commonplace fear of clowns. This means it isn’t hard to push a Batman story toward the horrific.

Beer and pumpkin are a pretty comfortable combination as well. As mentioned in last week’s discussion on Black Creek Brewing’s Pumpkin Ale, pumpkin used to be frequently incorporated into brewing beer. This went out of fashion for a time, but resumed recently as a seasonal gimmick. Nearly every craft brewery offers a pumpkin beer in the fall. One of my favourite breweries is Beau’s All-Natural Brewing, out of Vankleek Hill, Ontario. This year, Beau’s has brewed a pumpkin weiss. Having taken a year of German in university, I can tell you that the word “weiss” means “white,” but the beer style seems to stem from a contraction of “weizen,” which means “wheat.” Though pale in colour (albeit not quite pale enough to be considered white), weissbiers are consistently brewed with more wheat than barley. Wheat usually lacks the richness and body of barley, imparting a brighter, livelier taste, with a slight, almost sour, bite. Beau’s pumpkin weiss is no different, and I can understand why they opted for this style as the base for this year’s pumpkin offering – wheat beers usually provide a light, inoffensive canvas to showcase other flavours. What’s funny about Weiss O’ Lantern, however, is how little the pumpkin comes through – it’s an entirely drinkable beer, but neither the pumpkin puree, orange peel, ginger or cinnamon added to the brew make it terribly distinct from most weissbiers.

In much the same way, Haunted Gotham takes a comfortable combination and confusingly sidesteps the obvious. Like Gotham By Gaslight, this book is outside of continuity, offering an entirely new interpretation of the concept of Batman. Unlike Gotham By Gaslight, the premise of Haunted Gotham is not a clear or concise concept that can easily be summed up in a simple elevator pitch. Gotham By Gaslight transposes Batman into the late nineteenth century – simple, right? Well, Haunted Gotham imagines that Gotham is a town under the control of actual demons, and Batman was conditioned from birth to battle the demonic legions and spare the souls of Gotham’s people from eternal damnation.

While not exactly straightforward, if anyone were to make this idea work, it would be Doug Moench and Kelley Jones. One of the definitive Batman creative teams of the ‘90s, their work frequently skewed toward the horrific. Kelley Jones wears his Berni Wrightson influence on his sleeve, but filters that influence through a neon 1990s lens, which works to peculiar effect in Haunted Gotham. This is a book published in 2000, which looks like a product of an artist in the ’90s doing his best to evoke the premiere gothic artist of the 1970s. Thus, our “haunted Gotham” looks a little like Halloween kitsch, rather than the moody, gothic illustrations of Wrightson.

The actual dialogue on this page: "You're dead, zombie . . . Act like it!" (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

The actual dialogue on this page: “You’re dead, zombie . . . Act like it!” (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

 Which is all right, because Doug Moench provides a script that evokes Vincent Price’s collaborations with director Roger Corman. Like those films, though, it’s a little unclear as to whether camp is what Haunted Gotham is aiming for – there are even bizarre incongruities in the art that seem too obvious to be mistakes, reminding me again of the blatant continuity errors in some of the horror genres schlockier classics. But like those films, the intent doesn’t much matter when the results are as dementedly overwrought and melodramatic as they are. Moench and Jones created a wholly entertaining horror comic, even if it is an oddity as a Batman comic. Which, undoubtedly, Haunted Gotham is; in this iteration, Bruce Wayne is an adult when his parents are killed. Same as usual, his parents are murdered in front of him after a night at a theatre, though this time, it was a medical theatre where the deranged Doctor Emil Varner was demonstrating a Frankenstein-esque reanimation procedure. But in case we’ve grown bored of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne (and if you’re following Beer & Batman, this is the fifth time you’ve heard this story, after all), Doug Moench and Kelley Jones keep it interesting by making their killer a werewolf assassin.

The classic scene we all know so well, when an adult Bruce Wayne sees his parents killed right in front of him by a werewolf. (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

The classic scene we all know so well, when an adult Bruce Wayne sees his parents killed right in front of him by a werewolf. (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

While werewolf assassins are definitely a novel way of livening up a familiar narrative, Haunted Gotham starts pushing the boundaries of how many details of the Batman mythos can be changed until it ceases to be a Batman story at all. After his parents’ lupine demise, Bruce learns that his father was a member of a secret society, dedicated to the defeat of the dark demonic forces through the virtuous means of science. Moreover, without him knowing why, Bruce was trained and conditioned from birth to assume the identity of the Batman upon his father’s death. Bruce seems to have little say in the matter – the literal ghost of his father sets him his mission, and gives him his costume and identity. Like Earth One, this squarely focuses Batman upon a specific enemy, rather than the less finite objective of fighting to prevent Gotham’s criminal element taking from anyone else what it took from him. While Earth One provided a last minute twist which broadened Batman’s objective, Haunted Gotham maintains this specific focus throughout, and I think this dilutes some of the essentials of what makes Batman who he is.

The miniseries is arguably at it’s best when it detours away from Batman trying to solve his parents’ murder or battling Gotham’s demonic overlords. In it’s third issue, it tells a more episodic story, following the sort of bizarre and supernatural case which Batman must solve in this particular bizarre and supernatural version of Gotham. The case involves a snake-man name Jeremy Adder, who fronts a cult which worships an ancient snake god, and while it’s pure B-movie material, it’s one of the few beats in this book where Batman functions as the crime-fighting Dark Knight we all know and love, rather than a cowled Hamlet, if Hammer Film Productions were to remake Shakespeare.

A fellow of infinite jest. (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

A fellow of infinite jest. (Art by Kelley Jones, from Batman: Haunted Gotham)

Like Hamlet, Batman even gets a skull to talk to, but unlike poor Yorick, Batman’s skeleton buddy Cal talks back. This, too, represents another strange decision which Doug Moench makes: rather than giving us reinventions of Batman’s familiar cast of supporting characters and villains, he mostly eschews existing characters for new ones. The only supporting roles which are directly translated into this different, spooky Gotham are James Gordon and Alfred. Though Doug Moench labels characters as the Joker or as Catwoman, neither resemble any recognizable version of the characters; Joker, now a patchwork reanimated corpse a la Frankenstein’s Monster, is only distinguished by his rictus grin, while Catwoman is now a psychic and medium named Cat Majik, who can turn into an actual cat-woman. Otherwise, Batman’s allies in his fight against the dark forces are the aforementioned skeleton Cal, a Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-type named Cassandra Knight, and the ghost of Thomas Wayne. This is a shame, because it would be a lot of fun to see more familiar Batman heroes and villains reinterpreted for the weird world of Haunted Gotham, and would go a long way to make this a more effective Batman story.

But, just as the Weiss O’ Lantern is an enjoyable wheat beer despite not delivering on the promise of pumpkin, Haunted Gotham is a dementedly entertaining B-movie style horror story, despite not making good on the whole “Batman” portion. With both, if you ignore the promises implicit on the label and let yourself enjoy it for what it is, you will find lots of ridiculous, spooky fun, which will surely only be enhanced the more beer you drink – and with as light and refreshing as Beau’s Weiss O’ Lantern is, it’s easy to drink more than one.

Beer & Batman’s Long Halloween #1: Making History

“Batman: Gotham By Gaslight” by Brian Augustyn (W) and Mike Mignola (P) with P. Craig Russell (I) Paired with Black Creek Historic Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

“Batman: Gotham By Gaslight” by Brian Augustyn (W) and Mike Mignola (P) with P. Craig Russell (I)
Paired with Black Creek Historic Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale.

Superheroes, by and large, occupy a corner of the science fiction genre. Whether the heroes themselves are aliens, or imbued with powers by errant scientific experiments, it is almost presupposed that superheroes are a product of some vague tomorrow. Even an unpowered hero like Batman equips himself with technology beyond what modern science can provide, and fights an unending parade of Jekyll-and-Hyde-type scientists warped by their own mad science. If superhero comics could be said to have eyes, those eyes would be firmly fixed forward.

Craft brewing seems similarly hinged upon innovation. Many brewers were first motivated to make their own beers due to a lack of interesting, flavourful or distinct beers which suited their own tastes. Craft beer, to many conservative drinkers, focuses as much on novelty as quality, and those drinkers choose to keep drinking their Budweiser over any of those newfangled artsy beers (actually, Budweiser recently ran an ad campaign to that basic effect.) This is a basic misunderstanding; what “craft beer” means is that the beer is crafted, rather than manufactured. And, as proven by Toronto’s Black Creek Historic Brewery, that craft is not the least bit newfangled. Using the same techniques and technology employed by Ontario’s brewers in the 1860s, Black Creek Historic Brewery models their beers upon the styles enjoyed in the late nineteenth century.

This is the same period in which Gotham By Gaslight occurs, and it proves a similar point, removing the science fiction trappings of a superhero comics and transplanting that familiar concept and character into a different, decidedly not modern, time. Both Black Creek and Gotham By Gaslight demonstrate that it’s the basics which make something timeless. This book, and this beer, is a fantastic exercise in timelessness: the very first pages of the book retell the familiar scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder, recognizing this moment as a core truth of Batman in any iteration. Similar to Year One’s opening pages, it then moves ahead to Bruce Wayne’s adulthood as he undertakes the journey home to Gotham, after years studying and training abroad. The details are changed only to suit the late-nineteenth-century milieu. Continue reading