Drawn Together—The New Nerd Nexus: Beer and Comic Books
A store where you can buy the latest Batman and newest Dogfish Head? Beer bottle labels that tell an actual comic book story? Brewers who were working on their superhero-style origin story for 20 years?
Double IPAs and The Walking Dead don’t have much in common on the face of it, but thanks to the ever-expanding cultural cachet of comic books and growing number of breweries, there are increasing collaborations between comics fans and beer nerds, motivated by their overlapping obsessions, drive to collect and DIY attitude, which is necessary when making small-scale beer or small-press comics. Beer and comics have never been closer.
“I’ll have a Daisy Cutter and the latest Captain America, please.”
The compatibility of comics and beer can be seen in My Parents’ Basement: a Georgia beer/comic book seller that has hosted various comics and beer-themed events since 2013. Co-owners Lawson Wright, Dave DeFeo, and Tim Ensor maintain an eBay store and host events at local breweries such as Wild Heaven Craft Beers in Decatur, Georgia, where every second Sunday of the month the microbrewery becomes part comics store. My Parents’ Basement now has a permanent location: The owners recently opened a brick-and-mortar home in Avondale Estates, Georgia, making it (along with The Geek Easy in Winter Park, Florida) one of very few places that combine beer and comics. With 32 tap handles, the latest weekly comics and inventive food such as Foot-long Pimento Cheese Toast, it is a geek’s delight.
A series of fortuitous circumstances—including the donation of an old friend’s brother’s collection of 25,000 comics—led to the founding of My Parents’ Basement. The timing was perfect. With comic book TV shows such as “Daredevil” and “iZombie,” plus movies like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” there’s never been more comics-related stuff to talk about over a beer. As Ensor says, “Comic books have always been looked at as something kids read, but with all the new buzz around comics from other media outlets, people are starting to realize that’s not the case anymore. For me, it’s just about bringing two things I love and am passionate about and bringing that under one roof: a watering hole for nerds.”
Making an Issue Out of Label Art
Beer labels have often been a canvas for comic book artists. Tim Seeley (Hack/Slash, Revival) illustrated the label for Three Floyds Brewing Co. Zombie Dust, while the Gigantic Brewing Co.’s labels are modeled on comic book covers. But Chicago’s Arcade Brewery has taken label art to new heights: by hiring established comics creators to make actual stories on beer bottles in its 6-Pack Stories series. Beer labels have always told a story, but never so literally. “Festus Rotgut” is a cowboy zombie tale told in six “issues”—each issue being the label of a different bottle of beer. This comic written by Jason Aaron (Scalped, Southern Bastards, Thor) and illustrated by Tony Moore (The Exterminators, Fear Agent, The Walking Dead) is the first 6-Pack Story, but Arcade has already developed a process: comic first, beer second. Aaron and Moore created the comic, then Arcade co-founders Lance Curran and Chris Tourre thought about what sort of beer might complement the story. Tourre said the lead character (a cowboy) herding cattle suggested wheat, while the grimness of zombies lent itself to a darker beer with spices. Matching beer and food is common, but this might be the first beer matched to a comic book. For Curran, it’s all about, “How can we create a better experience around the beer?” Arcade Brewery is doing 6-Pack Stories annually. The next will be written and illustrated by Australian Eisner Award nominee Ben Templesmith (Gotham by Midnight, 30 Days of Night, Fell), whose grotesque yet gorgeous art should inspire an unprecedented beer.
Arcade Brewery has also made a beer for Mike Norton’s popular web comic Battlepug—one of a growing number of beers featuring previously existing comics characters. Similarly, Rogue Brewing Co. Right Hand of Doom Red Ale was created in honor of the 21st birthday of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, one of the most popular independent characters ever. Such beers aren’t limited to fictional characters. In 2014, Shmaltz Brewing Co. released King Kirby Genesis Ale—named for Jack Kirby, who co-created Captain America, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Darkseid and others. That beer was brewed as part of a benefit for the Hero Initiative, which helps comics creators who have fallen on hard times.
Comics About Beer
There have been many great nonfiction comics (or, if you prefer, graphic novels) over the years, covering topics from the 9/11 Commission Report to the life of Andre the Giant. Add beer to the list. In October 2015, Ten Speed Press will publish The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World’s Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today’s Craft Brewing Revolution by writers Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith and artist Aaron McConnell.
Anyone who regularly has to explain how beer is made may want to invest in this comic, as it could make an invaluable educational tool, as Smith notes: “The graphic novel format also allowed us to use visual metaphors to explain complicated brewing concepts. Mashing is a good example: In countless brewery tours, I used the analogy of starch as a large stack of Lego blocks, where each block is a simple sugar, and enzymes pop the blocks apart to free up the fermentable sugars. We used this metaphor graphically in the book. My girlfriend, whom I’ve tried to explain this to many times, read through an early galley and said, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”
As the most elastic medium around, comics can tell a story as big as the entire history of beer or as small as the origin of a single brewery. In 2014, Ska Brewing published Tales of the Legion of Ska to mark its 20th anniversary. Featuring heroine True Blonde Girl and evil CEO Pinstripe—who represents large corporate breweries—the comic is a classic David vs. Goliath story. These characters have been appearing on Ska’s labels since the beginning, and the script was 20 years old, putting them well ahead of the beer/comics curve.
As for why the comic took so long to make, co-founder Dave Thibodeau says, “The honest answer is we always felt like we were working on it, and it would be done soon. I guess we were too busy brewing beer to illustrate the comic book.” Thibodeau says Ska’s combo of comics and beer “just happened naturally” but has been great for marketing. Ska’s philosophy could work for the entire comics/beer movement: “It takes characters to brew beer with character.”
Beer for Cons
With the omnipresence of comic book characters in TV and movies, comic conventions have boomed in popularity. Big groups of people tend to drink beer, and these events have provided another bridge between comics and beer. Increasingly, fans who get tired of walking around the aisles of comics, creators, and cosplay (fans dressed as their favorite heroes and villains) can refresh themselves with a beer made especially for the event. For example, Breckenridge Brewery made Hulk’s Mash,—a pale ale, for the Denver Comic Con this year, while the Brooklyn Brewery created Brooklyn Defender for New York Comic Con. The most prolific such beer might be the IPA Galaxy Hero, which Revolution Brewing has been making since 2013 for Chicago’s equivalent of Comic Con: the massive entertainment event C2E2.
This beer is not only part of a celebration of comics, but has had a life similar to a comics character: Galaxy Hero spawned Revolution’s Hero series, which features a different single-hop-focused beer (Citra Hero, Crystal Hero, etc.) every two months. Comic book characters evolve in the same way. Recently, an alternate reality version of long-dead Spider-Man girlfriend Gwen Stacy became a new version of Spider-Woman (known affectionately as Spider-Gwen) as part of the Spider-Verse event. That event is over, but Spider-Gwen was such a hit that she now has her own ongoing comic. In beer and comics, you never know which brew or character will be the next hit.
The Drive to Create and the Need to Collect
On why comics and beer pair so well, Revolution’s marketing manager, Aimee Quinkert, says, “Craft beer fans and comic book fans overlap to create a community who love specialty items.” That love of specialty items is a key connection between the beer and comics universes: Both groups feel an obsessive need to collect. Comic fans seeking the new issue of sci-fi family drama Saga or the latest series by Warren Ellis have a lot in common with a beer maven checking out the latest Stone IPA. Both groups want/need the latest issue/beer.
They both also have an appreciation for subtle differences that would be lost on non-fans. Just as a beer enthusiast will always seek another spin on a favorite style, comics fans are all about variations. Over the past 75 years, there have been thousands of Batman stories, portraying the character as everything from a violent psychopath to a patient detective to a total goofball, à la the 1960s TV series. But a true Batman fan can find something to like about all the versions, just as a beer lover can find something noteworthy in the many types of IPAs or barrel-aged stouts.
You can’t appreciate those variations without a keen eye and/or palate—and a nerdy sensibility. Writer and artist Ryan Browne participated in a comics/beer collaboration when Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Co. made Beer Hates Astronauts IPA in honor of Browne’s bonkers sci-fi superhero comic God Hates Astronauts.” On the link between comics and beer, Browne says, “I think there is a big connection between comics and craft beer because they are both analytical and highly opinionated. They attract ‘nerds,’ for lack of a better word, for those reasons. There is also a crossover in terms of brewing and comic making being solitary and obsessive art forms/lifestyles.” As the rise of beercades and the geek takeover of movies shows, there are more solitary, obsessive types than anyone could have guessed.
In comics, Marvel and DC are the equivalent of mammoth macrobrew companies, but creator-owned comics are bigger than ever and forging another link: Corporate comics and beer aren’t going away, but the independent stuff is usually more exciting, and anyone with drive and talent can do it. Dave Thibodeau of Ska sees the main link between beer and comics as this independent mindset: “Brewers have that DIY mentality, like a lot of people who make comics.” Just like homebrewers and microbreweries, more and more writers and artists are choosing to make and own their own work by self-publishing digital comics or working with companies like Image and Oni that let you own what you create. The happy result is there are currently more flavors of comic book and beer than ever before.
Thibodeau noted another connection that comics creators can probably relate to: “I’m so lucky that I get to brew beer—it’s almost like my world is a fantasy world.”
Mark Peters (@wordlust) is a McSweeney’s columnist and the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon, which is out Oct. 27 from Three Rivers Press.