Sunday, 8 May 2016

Beer Matching on Free Comic Book Day

Comics and beer seem to fit well together. A single-issue comic book and a glass of beer can be paced to finish at the same time, and the massive variance in comic book art and storylines certainly matches and probably even outstrips beer in terms of variety of styles. The strong visual aspects of comic books mesh with the under-valued visual end of beer enjoyment. The amber glow of the falling sun through the glass of IPA, the thick and sturdy head of a pint of nitro stout, the filthy streets of Mega City One, the eye-gougingly violent goregasms of the post-apocalyptic world of Crossed.

That one scene where Judge Dredd punches Judge Death in the mouth and his hand goes out the other side. Yeah, that's the good stuff. All visual and all massively evocative. Gaze into the fist of Dredd. Gaze into the hazy glass of unfined ale, unpasteurised and unadulterated like Dionysus intended. 

Free Comic Book Day this year yielded a mighty haul, and with a few visits to beer shops on the way home the process of matching some of these comics to beers that complement them began in arch, lubricated, beery earnestness. I've pulled six comics out of the pile and it's time to crack open bottles and do likewise to books.

The 2016 Summer Blast anthology from Boom! Studios is a standout from the overall-great fare of this year's event. A tale from Jim Henson's Labyrinth, the parched desert visions of The Cloud and the set-up story for Goldie Vance's hotel-based sleuthing all are featured, but three other stories stood out instantly as intriguing beer matches.

The Mouse Guard short, "The Tale of Piper the Listener" is sacredly serene, opening with images of a bereft and hermitish mouse swamped by the fat leaves and gothic arches surrounding him. He reads, as if reading to us, a saga of a much more outward-minded mouse which is presented in imagery that could have been ripped from the pages of a medieval holy text, had the prized spot of humanity been held by tiny rodents. With the joint monastic themes of isolation and exploration (take a bow, Saints Brendan, Amaro and Malo) it's hard not to instantly connect this comic with artfully brewed Trappist beer, monkish brews that sing seductive plainsong to this correspondent of little faith.

Trappistes Rochefort 6 is a rich and filling, warm and earthy drop of liquid bread. It parachutes easily into the archaic world of Mouse Guard, but particularly so in this story with which it shares such monkish traits.

"Don't Axe, Don't Tale", a Lumberjanes short that sets the stage for a story of mystery and axe-murdering, begins with scenes of pinewoods wilderness rambling that would suggest that perhaps an incredibly piney, resinous IPA would be ideally suited to this backwoods preamble. As the girls display vastly differing takes on the foraged plants their ramble guide directs them to eat, and with the impending weirdness promised by the last two pages, a fruity sour beer seems well-suited to the task. A divisive thing, are sour beers. Much like the story's curclicue plants, which garner responses ranging from "tastes like asparagus" to "you could be eating slug pee right now", I've seen sour beers elicit reactions all the way from "wow" to the soundless crunch of a human's mouth puckering up in tastebud-tortured agony.

The glorious pink of Hawkshead Brewery's Chuckleberry Sour, a Berliner Weisse aged on chuckleberries which it turns out are a real fruit is in step with the vibrant butterflies and flowers of the first page, and the fruity but untempered and sour taste of the berries makes this drink taste as if it was freshly foraged from some kind of magical beer bush. Which science will one day hopefully create and let me test drive.

Cartoon Network's flagship sugar rush of dungeon bashing, princess smooching and occasional massive weirdness, Adventure Time is represented in this book by "Dirty Dungeon". While the first two stories seemed to pitch beers to this reporter almost straight away, the rapid pace and gross-out content of "Dirty Dungeon" seemed to issue a challenge, like the Ice King himself was throwing down a frozen gauntlet and demanding that I perfectly matched a beer to this lightning fast dungeon crawl seemingly unsuited to any high-brow beer luxuriation.

I hope the Instagram video below proves the Ice King wrong.

With Boom! Studios' (I wonder if their receptionist shouts "Boom!" when they answer the phone. That would be pretty cool) anthology for this year slid into the vault, another anthology beckons.

"Help the CBLDF Defend Comics" is an anthology  presented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group which helps comic producers in the States defend their freedom of speech. Out of the eight short stories presented within, "Owly and Friends in: Picture This" crawled in through my chest and yanked at my heartstrings until I almost threw up. A bookish, spherical owl with eyes almost as big as its entire body becomes endearingly entranced by clouds, seeking to learn more about the weather and basically making my heart hurt the whole time. There's a bit of sadness and then a vastly rewarding happy ending, as all the while Owly emotes beautifully and eloquently, Owly's facial expressions getting the whole story across just as clearly as the written word.

I couldn't not include this story. It's just shockingly lovable. Sorachi Saison from Marks and Spencer (brewed by Adnam's) brings playfulness, rural innocence and earthy spice to the table and this works so well with Owly's gentle, happy world. It's a whimsical and simple seeming beer, which has hidden depths, much like the subtle twitches in our round hero's expression. Failing that, Wylam Brewery's Fluffy Little Clouds would also do an exceptional job (and you can read my review of it here), floaty and farmhousey as it is, and cloud themed to boot!

My experience with Archie Comics goes as far as "knowing vaguely of the existence of a comic book character called Archie", so I'm not aware if the Free Comic Book Day "Archie" is a step away from the comic's usual style or simply a continuation of it. Either way there's an "All New!" on the cover. I'm aware that Archie is kind of a big deal in American comics. I'm aware that he's got perfect damn hair and a strong jawline and as a teenager has the world ahead of him, and just get out of here, Archie. Go be swell somewhere else, you piece of garbage. I learned all of this from the cover, but still dug in,

Page one and the bastard's got a guitar slung over his shoulder but you know he's not like one of the freakish Music Room kids from when I was at school. You can tell he doesn't smell of trenchcoat and masturbation. He's unironically wearing a letterman jacket. He's pining over a girl. Give it a rest mate, hadaway back to Dawson's Creek and sink to the bottom of it.

Damn you, Archie, damn you and the high school plot that sucks me in even though I'm 33 years old, and that one pretty smart scene where people leave a cinema and their speechbubbles are just star ratings and it's actually really funny. Damn you and your friends' mostly well-written dialogue and the intriguing final panel that has kinda got me invested in your story.

Going through the metamorphosis into someone who is enjoying an Archie comic and is totally okay with the whole situation, I crack open a can of Huber and set about drinking like an American teen lad who has sneaked a beer from the fridge while his dad is out of town. This powerfully average beer from "America's second oldest brewery" fits in well with Archie's small-town nature, with the cover art making Pop's Soda Shoppe look like Vegas when viewed through the Riverdale filter. Ah shit, now I know the name of the town he lives in, man.

As the Americana fades into the distance, Lady Mechanika arrives with polished-brass Victoriana, and we're off on a quick tour through this steampunk bionic woman's dark and violent, top hat and goggles world. It is a world of stinking mire and polished metal, bionic birds and biomechanical monster-men. The requisite steampunk trappings are in effect. British characters, big fancy guns, goggles a-go-go, aristocratic bad guys and hey, if you like top hats then guess what? Yeah baby. Top hats for days. While it's not the most exciting of today's haul it does pose the question, just what beer would fit seamlessly with this bionic, beast blasting cog-em-up?

Steampunk really does have a "so British I piss biscuits" feel about it almost 100% of the time, but with its exotic filigrees of science-magic, magi-science and goggles goggles goggles, the genre can't really be underlined with just a simple pint of bitter.

How about a pint of bitter with a sipper of Absinthe on the side? Banks' Bitter is a clean and simple beer, an uncomplicated style from a time of dirt and drudgery. Austere, it is, in its own quiet way. Less and less at pubs across the nation will you hear an old man intone "pint of bitter", a phrase denoting the speaker as Lord of the Bar, the King of Archaic and Unfussy, To this British stern simplicity the Absinthe adds the fin de siècle weirdness and decadence that fits well with a world where aristocratic gun merchants hunt down bionic monsters. It adds that little bit of insanity to jive with images of what looks like a yeti getting shot with a ludicrously gussied up scoped crossbow. Let the Green Fairy mess you up as you gaze upon Lady Mechanika's pursuit by men in what look like leather morph-suits, wielding electric shock batons that would fail every health and safety test known to man.

"Camp Midnight", with its protagonist on the cover loomed over by a red hand in classic horror fashion, seems to murmur "pair me with dark beer". The inside cover lays out the plot- Skye, our hero, was put on the wrong bus by her parents and finds herself the only human girl at an all-monster camp. It seems less of a closed case for dark and gloomy beer, and with its visually jarring (but in a good way!) use of stark colour washes and peppy dialogue, throwing colour and vibrancy into nighttime bunkhouse scenes, it's still any beer's game.

Only when the campers leave for their Midnight Snack and we are slapped with a two page spread looking out on Camp Midnight, its main building twisted and bent and looking like Baba Yaga's shack writ large, but with an eye on it for extra creepiness, leafless trees reaching up to a bat-filled night sky do we realise how solid a beer match Wylam Brewery's Häxan, boilermakered with a shotglass of German herbal liquor by its side, would be.

Häxan is a black wit, a black wheat beer that sizzles with the smoky tastes of weird nighttime fruits, pseudobananas from a dark and skewed dimension. It's delightfully unsettling at first gulp with its smack of candied wheat . I brought the bottle of Baba Jaga home from a holiday in Germany almost ten years ago. I brought two bottles back with me and I think I've somehow drank six of these now, so clearly there's some dark magic at work. Its warming, sticky and herbal taste and feel pour oddness upon oddness, marching in with the black wit to truly eldritch up the scene.

This all fits perfectly with the endearing weirdness that is to come, as we see Skye's juddering encounter with magical reality as the girls around her show their true monstrous forms. The intoxicating warmth of the herbal liquor builds as the "who will blink?" tension rises to a fist-clenching "hooray for friendship" moment; a beer named for witches, a liquor named after a witch, and a witchy tale of monster summer camp all in slick synergy.

Free Comic Book Day 2016 ends in a mess of empty bottles and foam-laced glasses. Pairing comic books with beers is a whole world of fun and I plan to make this a regular thing, although I realise I'm coming quite close to being the beer equivalent of Jon Stewart's "enhancement smoker".

Got any suggestions for stuff I can pair beers to? Sound off in the comments or get at me on Twitter!


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