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Drink and Think with “The Comic Book Story of Beer”

“Beer alone moves the wheels of history,” fascist dictator and World War II antagonist Benito Mussolini once famously said. Or was that “blood”? Writer Jonathan Hennessey and brewer Mike Smith argue for beer in their newly released non-fiction graphic novel, The Comic Book Story of Beer. And look, they’ve got the images to prove it!

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See? Actual wheels!

Okay, it’s not photographic evidence, but artist Aaron McConnell helps bring the birth and growth of beer to life, with the same style as in previous historical collaborations with Hennessey, like The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. Growing up in eastern Massachusetts together, Smith befriended Hennessey early on (Jonathan had a car), and after sharing a place in Austin, Texas, for a bit, the two went their separate ways—Hennessey became a screenwriter in California and Smith fermented into the head hopster at Connecticut’s Back East Brewing Company. Hooking up again and hearing Smith’s regaling of beer tales during a brewery tour made Hennessey realize their own wheels were turning in sync again.

“Mike is one of the most gifted natural storytellers I’ve ever known,” Hennessey says, and he insisted that gift not go to waste. “This is something we have to do together!” Hennessey told Smith then.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s natural that a graphic novel is needed to describe 9,000 years of beer history (well, chemical evidence of beer “only” goes back 5,000 years, but what’s a few millennia between drinking buddies?). And it’s a lot easier to digest that way.

“Beer is the drink of the people and comics is sort of the the literary medium of the people,” Hennessey says. Smith notes that sequential art panels come in especially handy in Beer‘s second chapter, devoted to the brewing process, which is deceptively simple yet often hard to grasp.

Check out the use of Lego-type blocks to show how the different molecules fit together.

“If you were to read that in a regular prose book,” Hennessey adds, “I think it would be much drier and much harder to pick up on.”

“I’ve been living my life researching this,” says Smith, who’s been a professional brewer for the past 17 years. Smith provided prose for the book, which Hennessey would then whip into a comic script, complete with art cues for McConnell. Hennessey says that no matter how specific he got, McConnell would still dig deep into reference images when drawing unusual concepts, like a mash tun.

“The thing that I love about Aaron is his versatility as an illustrator,” Hennessey says, pointing out McConnell’s consistency of style throughout the depiction of several centuries. Smith loves that in the chapter on medieval brewing, McConnell even went so far as to use historiated letters, which contain fully-drawn pictures—a style popular with monks at the time.

Of course, being a comics artist, McConnell had to sneak in a few modern touches, too. “I use Kirby Krackle as a reference to beer carbonation,” McConnell says. “There’s a great opportunity to do a lot of different types of drawing.”

Hey, what’s that up there?

Style aside, make no mistake, The Comic Book Story of Beer is indeed a history book. If you’re looking for a guide to current brewers or some funny images of Hipster Ale (yes, that is a real beer), you might want to look elsewhere. There’s some of that near the end, along with some beautifully rendered descriptions of individual beer styles, but this is, quintessentially, a march through the past—a timeline that’s guided and been influenced by the brewing of beer. You’ll enjoy that chai tea double mocha rye saison a lot more if you know how it came to be in the first place.

But if your palette’s a little less refined, that’s fine, too.

“There’s no such thing as a bad beer in this book,” Smith says. “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a cold PBR.”

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