Beer and comics, a natural pairing? Brooklyn Brewery’s Tim Rozmus thinks so. Rozmus moderated one of the more unconventional panels at this year’s New York Comic Con, which took place right around happy hour on Saturday and aimed to prove that comics and craft beer go together like a nice steak and a smoked porter.
Or, at least, that there’s great creativity in making both. Mike Van Hall oversees what’s called the Committee on Opprobriations, a group meant to bring art into food and drink presentation. He regularly collaborates on bottle and can labels with Brian Strumke, head brewer of Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Like all artists, they have a process.
“Our process is, Brian and I will get really drunk and come up with a crazy idea,” Van Hall said. “Maybe it’s crazy enough [to use].”
It’s an effort that’s usually appreciated by Stillwater fans, but everyone’s a critic. “They’re brutal sometimes, and ruthless in commentary,” Van Hall said. One label in particular made some customers gripe that it made the beer look like it belonged in a department store, which Van Hall said was exactly the point.
“Sometimes people don’t get the art, and that’s fine,” Van Hall said, adding that it’s the polarizing pieces that end up being the most memorable.
Comic artist Khary Randolph, known for his work on Justice League Beyond 2.0 and BOOM! Studios’ Starborn, will also be remembered for designing the label of 2015’s Brooklyn Defender, made by Brooklyn Brewery with a tweaked recipe every year to honor New York Comic Con. Unlike Van Hall, his process involves the shutting out of all social and chemical stimuli.
“I find the best creating I do is at night,” Randolph said, when the emails and other things aren’t pouring in. If he absolutely has to work during the day, Randolph will take a walk to clear his head, or hole up in that grand chamber of universal inspiration — the bathroom.
Randolph always tries to be aware of his audience, wondering as he conceived the Defender label if it was easy to read and if it made sense. The thoughts of the clients who typically commission his comic work don’t usually enter into his mind, though, as trying to figure out what they wanted seemed to bring out the worst in his work. It wasn’t until Randolph said “I don’t really give a f--k anymore” that larger publishers started to accept his submissions.
Despite the potty mouth, Randolph has a simple rule about decency in his work. “I wouldn’t draw anything I wouldn’t show my mother,” he said. More adventurous comic artists were able to push the boundaries when the infamous Comics Code lost relevance toward the end of the 20th century, but beer labels still have to submit to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Lauren Grimm and her husband Joe brew the beers of Grimm Artisanal Ales together, and Lauren often draws the labels, too. “Hearts are not allowed,” she was told by the TTB, as they could trick consumers into thinking the beer is good for their health. The fight can sometimes continue at the storefront, Grimm said, as one retailer refused to stock a Grimm ale that tastefully depicted a naked woman, even with a Miller Lite bikini babe stand-up nearby.
Grimm ventured that just as with art, when brewing a new beer, you have to be true to yourself. “We’re just thinking about what we want to drink, what we want to see,” she said, although they do consider how any particular batch they produce expresses the style it’s meant to represent.
Anthony Accardi of Long Island City’s Transmitter Brewing feels a greater responsibility to the consumers. “The audience is critical,” he said. Self-expression is fine, but you need to be able to connect with potential customers. Regardless of that edict, though, Accardi isn’t interested in chasing trends. That’s why Transmitter brews farmhouse ales, rather than the ever-popular IPAs.
“I do not need to make [just] another beer on the shelf,” Accardi said. “That’s not why I was born.”
The fantasy art of Aaron McConnell doesn’t look much like other stuff that’s out there, with a greater attention to detail. He did have to go a little more mainstream, though, when drawing for The Comic Book Story of Beer, the New York Times bestselling graphic novel written by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith. The non-fiction volume that unites beer and comics more than anything else, as with all graphic media, was a constant back-and-forth between writers and artist, something that McConnell loves.
“I definitely thrive on collaboration,” he said.
The panel ended with questions from the audience, as one person wondered if anybody ever considered putting narratives on their labels, as Stone Brewing is famous for. Van Hall said that Stillwater had one-upped that idea, as they’d entered an inter-brewery, label rap battle with New Jersey’s Carton Brewing.