This week was a little all over the place. There were things that I had expected to be terrible that were actually quite good, and there were things that I had expected to be terrible that were even worse than I had expected. Through thick and thin, though, I was generally pleased with my pop culture grazing, and present to the fine Variant Edition readers the best of the best (and also one terrible thing but that will be explained at the end).
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One of the few books that I loved from the post-Flashpoint DC relaunch was Batman by writer Scott Snyder and penciller Greg Capullo. However, when Batman: Zero Year was announced a little less than two years in, I stayed away from it. I didn’t see the need for yet another origin for Batman. As an established reader I get so tired of the same plot points done over and over again to satisfy a the demands of a new audience. I understand that as a publishing company, DC needs to make things accessible to new readers, and that directing them to a 20- or 30-year-old story is not the way to go about it. Knowing nothing other than the fact that Zero year was a Batman origin, I figured that it was easily skippable, a decision that was seemingly confirmed for me when it was turned into an event with a dozen other DC Comics titles — only two of which I was still reading — crossing over with it. However, as there has been a lot of buzz about the new direction for the series (and the new issue that came out this week), I decided to catch up on my Batman, and that means reading the 12 issues that made up Zero Year.
To my delight, Zero Year is not an unnecessary story that re-hashes the same ground. It’s an important story that is part of an attempt to redefine the character for the current era. Beyond that, it’s a really good story.
With Zero Year, Snyder and Capullo (along with inker Danny Miki and colour artist Dave McCaig) give Batman a new mission and motivation that is a noticeable departure from the tone established by Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. And they do it while still keeping reverence for the characters and the stories that have come before. The story ties in the Red Hood gang and Doctor Death, important antagonists from Batman’s early years, as well as establishing The Riddler as a significant threat to the people of Gotham. There are also important moments and storylines featuring Batman’s supporting cast, including James Gordon and Lucius Fox, but especially Alfred Pennyworth. More than any story in recent memory, Zero Year firmly establishes not only why Alfred is important to Bruce, but why Bruce is important to Alfred. Their relationship has often struck me as a matter of convenience, with few reasons for the long-suffering manservant to stick around other than “he’s supposed to for the sake of the story.” With this story Snyder and company have written my favourite version of Alfred, a character with clear motivation and an important voice that few other writers have managed to harness as effectively.
The first few issues also feature backup stories co-written with James Tynion IV and drawn by Rafael Albuquerque that fill in a few gaps about what happened to Bruce Wayne during his years away from Gotham, short stories that add a little to the history and strengthen the character as well. Occasionally the story gets a little tongue-in-cheek, with visual and verbal references that land a little clumsily to the familiar reader, but on the whole it’s a really smart revamp of the character. Snyder has said that he wants to redefine what Batman for a modern readership, which is also what Morrison was trying to do with Superman in his Action Comics run. After reading Zero Year I can say that so far he is succeeding where Morrison stumbled, and I look forward to seeing what further developments and departures he takes as I catch up to this week’s Issue #44.
After catching Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival at the beginning of August, I knew I needed to have more of their music in my life. Rateliff has spent quite a few years hammering away as a singer-songwriter with little attention, but after shifting gears as part of an R&B combo, he’s making some pretty significant waves. As a live act they were wild and rambunctious and loud, grabbing my attention and shaking me awake at the end of a very long and exhausting day. I figured that their self-titled album, which was released at the end of August, would strike me in a similar way.
To my surprise, the album is not nearly as raucous as their live performance. Most of the songs have an open, almost hollow production quality to them, as though the horns and backup vocals were recorded in a large room a fair distance away from the microphone. It’s a significant departure from the vibrant sound they presented during their live performance, but not necessarily in a bad way. The music is still raw and immediate, but by muffling the sound a little, it becomes quieter and more intimate. And listening to it on vinyl is a real treat, the occasional pop and crackle adding a little nostalgia to the listening experience.
It’s a strange album that seems familiar and new at the same time, like an undiscovered record from the 1960s that has just seen the light of day. Listening to Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats reminds me of classic Van Morrison and the more soulful side of Elvis Costello, R&B with a folk musician’s touch. It’s a throwback album that is clearly trying to echo the music of a particular era, but I find it soothing and reassuring rather than repetitive. And Rateliff’s voice is a huge draw, going from hoarse and throaty on the uptempo numbers to sweet and raspy on the quieter ones. For me listening this album is like soaking in a warm bath — when it’s over I just want to flip the album over and hit play again.
This was the terrible thing I was alluding to earlier. I was fortunate to be asked to be a guest on the That’s Cool, That’s Trash podcast, a show about psychotronic movies that is always fun to listen to and even more fun to participate in. For the most recent episode we watched Flesh Feast, a movie about a scientist (played by an aging Veronica Lake) who hopes that her research with maggots will eventually lead to the secret of eternal youth. Also there are mysterious Latin American gangsters and German septuagenarians. The movie itself is awful so unless readers find that plot summary appealing, I wouldn’t actually recommend watching it. But we had a ton of fun recording the episode; it’s full of digressions and jokes and occasional references to what’s actually happening in the movie. Flesh Feast is hardly a gem but we did our best to polish it up, and I think our episode is an enjoyable listen. (Self-promotion over.)
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That’s about it for me this week. Until next time, get comfortable with redefinition, because it’s coming for you whether you like it or not. Though a shot of the familiar may help with the transition. I’ll see you in seven days.