Comics

Scott Snyder’s Original Batman

Matthew Derman

Before DC relaunched their entire line, Scott Snyder had an 11-issue run on Detective with artists Francesco Francavilla and Jock. Bruce Wayne was believed to be dead at the time, so his first protégé Dick Grayson was under the cowl instead.

For just about two-and-a-half years now, Scott Snyder has been the writer of Batman. In the age of the multi-title crossover event, and at a time when DC is publishing more bat-books than anything else (seriously, it’s like 25% of everything they put out), being the person who gets to create the stories of the flagship series is a big and high-profile job. Snyder has already been the architect behind two enormous storylines that spilled out of Batman and into several other DC books, and he’s currently in the midst of his third, titled “Zero Year.” The scope of his Batman tales is clearly vast, so they need a lot of time and space to be told in full, and this string-of-epics approach has made Snyder immensely popular as the Dark Knight’s head writer. Obviously, he must be doing something right. Yet for my money, Snyder’s strongest Batman work isn’t in the pages of Batman at all but, instead, can be found in his preceding run on Detective.

Right before DC relaunched their entire line with the New 52 (which is when Snyder took over as writer on Batman), Snyder had an 11-issue run on Detective with artists Francesco Francavilla and Jock. Bruce Wayne was believed to be dead at the time, so his first protégé Dick Grayson was under the cowl instead, giving up his Nightwing persona for a time so the world wouldn’t need to go without a Batman. Logically enough, Snyder wrote Dick–as-Batman quite differently then than he writes Bruce in the role now, but it’s not just the differences in the protagonists’ personalities that distinguish one series from the other. The way Snyder structured his narratives in Detective was also distinct from his current Batman arcs, far more intimate and contained. There is a unifying thread that runs through all the Detective issues dealing with the return of Commissioner Gordon’s sociopathic son James Gordon, Jr., but even as Snyder slowly builds on that overarching tale, he tells a few complete smaller stories along the way. Batman discovers and shuts down an underground auction of supervillain paraphernalia, and also defeats a couple of up-and-coming arms dealers, all of which is accomplished quickly enough that the James Jr. story can be developed in between and resolved by the end of the run. The sprawling storylines Snyder would ultimately employ in Batman are nowhere to be found in Detective, and it makes those comics more arresting and hard-hitting. There’s a greater sense of urgency to them, and a heavier emotional weight, because they can zero in more closely on the emotional lives of the cast when there isn’t such an unruly plot to get through. Snyder’s Batman is a series of blockbuster action stories while his Detective a series of tense noir-ish thrillers, and at the end of the day he writes the latter better than the former.

To be fair, it’s not solely because of Snyder’s scripts that I prefer Detective; the artists play a major role in that as well. This is not to put down the fantastic and ever-improving work Greg Capullo has been doing all along on Batman. Capullo’s Bruce Wayne is built like a brick house even out-of-costume, and as Batman, he’s a terrifying, intimidating, larger-than-life figure, which is exactly what he’s going for. Capullo nails that look, and even though he doesn’t technically have any superpowers, it’s easy to believe that Capullo’s Batman can survive all the insane violence and accidents and whatnot that he lives through every day. Physically, he’s a tank, perfect for the high-octane action of the book. Emotionally, he’s stern and deadly serious pretty much all the time, ever the brooding stoic, which adds to the atmosphere Snyder’s narratives evoke. The villains in Batman operate on a large scale: a secret society that controls all of Gotham from behind the scenes, the Joker attempting to murder the entire Bat-family, etc. Capullo’s Batman, and indeed every character he draws, fittingly add to the severity already in the air.

In Detective, where Dick Grayson is Batman and Bruce is nowhere to be found, things are no less grim, but they are a bit less intense in their grimness. Dick is able to joke and smirk and even sometimes smile, and the enemies he battles, while evil and insane, are not as big-time or ambitious. They are street-level baddies, thieves and thugs rather than the criminal masterminds of the Batman stories. Even young James Jr., who does have a rather lofty evil scheme he’s trying to pull off, has a more personal (familial, actually) motivation behind his plot. The problems Dick faces are serious, but their solutions are not nearly as complicated as what Bruce has to deal with. And the art from Jock and Francavilla reflects this.

Jock is the artist for the Batman-centric stories, while Francavilla steps in whenever the Gordon family has the spotlight. Eventually, these things intersect, and the two artists split up the duties accordingly, sharing issues with one another without ever steeping on each other’s toes. Jock makes it instantly obvious that Dick Grayson is Batman as opposed to Bruce Wayne -- he’s slender, graceful, and even a bit playful when appropriate. Letting his personality shine through like that also adds to the reader’s emotional investment in the story, because Dick feels like a real person instead of just a character. The world around him is creepy and unnerving, but not as forcefully scary or overwhelmingly dark as when Capullo is in charge. Jock’s Gotham sneaks up on you, Capullo’s looms over you right away, more intimidating than startling.

The Francavilla-drawn sections focus on the Gordon family, specifically the return of James Jr. and how his father and sister react to it. Barbara refuses to trust her brother’s claims that he is a changed man, and while Commissioner Gordon wants to trust his son, he, too, struggles with that decision. Which is ultimately for the best, since it turns out that James Jr. is just as insane and dangerous as everyone feared, if not more so. He attacks his family brutally, almost killing his mother and sister both. He also creates a drug designed to turn babies into sociopaths, his endgame being to put it into vats full of baby formula and turn an entire generation of Gotham’s children into emotionless killers just like him. It’s a very personal story, one about the outcast member of a do-gooder family trying to make himself fit in somewhere, even if it means chemically attacking an entire city. Francavilla’s art is up close and personal, too, a lot of tight shots and panels of nervous, pregnant silence that draw you in and refuse to let go. James Jr. shows back up in Gotham unexpectedly, spouting a story about how he wants to be a better person now. While it’s evident right away that he’s lying, the depths of his deceit are only revealed gradually. Francavilla slow-burns the resulting tension expertly, so that each new piece of horrifying information we learn about James Jr. is just as gripping as the last. By the time all of his cards are on the table for the rest of the cast to see, we as readers have gotten glimpses of each of them individually already. We slowly but surely come to understand James Jr.’s true, hideous inner self, so his final defeat is a moment of tremendous catharsis.

All three of Snyder’s artistic collaborators do exactly what they need to do in order to most effectively tell their respective stories. So it’s not at all a case of Jock and/or Francavilla being objectively better than Capullo, it’s just that they and Snyder produced something heart-wrenching and gut-punching, whereas Capullo and Snyder seem to be going for more of the mind-boggling, eye-popping side of things. Neither is an inherently better tactic, and all of these artists are at the top of their game, but taste being what it is, Jock and Francavilla happen to win me over more fully than Capullo.

I want to make that abundantly clear, and also reiterate that on principal I have no problem with Snyder writing Batman so differently than he writes Detective. Those two series should be distinct from one another, especially since Batman’s secret identity was different in one than it is in the other. It’s admirable that Snyder took the time to write Dick-like stories for Dick and Bruce-like stories for Bruce. It’s impressive that he sees and understands the differences between those men so clearly and highlights them in his writing. All of that is to be applauded for sure. What I’m saying, though, is that Snyder is a writer more suited for the very human, unsettling, creeping dread type of narratives seen in his Detective run than the widespread, uniquely superhuman stuff he’s currently bringing to Batman. What he’s doing now is good, but what he did before was amazing, and no matter what happens moving forward, I will perpetually miss the days of Snyder writing Dick Grayson as Batman in the pages of Detective Comics.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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