Best Eps: Batman: The Animated Series – “Nothing to Fear”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

Longtime Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy died on November 10, 2022. Conroy’s Batman is the best Batman, a hero who is tireless in his quest for justice, a man who has sympathy in his heart even for his greatest foes. I’d already planned on writing this article before Conroy’s death, but now this feels like a fitting tribute. A quick note – I always loved that Conroy portrayed Batman’s voice as his true self while his Bruce Wayne spoke with a put-on, airy lilt. It may seem a small thing, but it showed that Bruce Wayne was the man’s actual mask. That’s a big difference from the Batmen who put on gruff voices while in costume (see: Christian Bale). Okay, onto the meat of the article.

There are plenty of standout Batman: The Animated Series episodes, but I’ve always gravitated towards the episodes that shine a light on Bruce Wayne’s humanity and vulnerability. Right from the start “Nothing to Fear” puts Bruce on the defensive in the worst way. Dr. Moss, an older man who knew Bruce’s father, insults Bruce and says he’s shaming the family name. As if that’s not bad enough, Scarecrow drugs Batman with a fear toxin, and Bruce is immediately haunted by visions of his father echoing Dr. Moss’s words.

Scarecrow is an interesting villain for Batman because he uses people’s fears against them. Batman is an agent of darkness, and a big part of the reason he’s successful is he instills fear in criminals. That shared connection creates a nice symmetry within the episode. Scarecrow introduces himself in a grandiose way, proclaiming, “I am fear incarnate. I am the terror of Gotham. I am the Scarecrow.” More on that in a bit.

Bruce survives Scarecrow’s attack, but his mind is bubbling over with the fear toxin. He looks and feels terrible, and he confesses his visions to his butler/surrogate father Alfred. He tells Alfred his great fear of shaming the family name. And in his best moment of the series, Alfred says, “That’s rubbish. I know your father would be proud of you, because I’m so proud of you.” I love that.

Of course the Scarecrow continues his quest for revenge, and despite his mental state, Batman rushes to the rescue. The final fight takes place on a zeppelin, and while hanging precariously onto the nose of the airship, Thomas Wayne once again looms large and calls Bruce a disgrace. This is when Batman shows his mettle. He overcomes the fear toxin without an antidote, any tricks, and no superpowers. And then he speaks his best lines of the series: “No, you are not my father. I am not a disgrace. I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” Chills. And there’s that symmetry I mentioned earlier. His words call back to Scarecrow’s, but Batman’s ring true. He becomes Scarecrow’s worst nightmare and takes him down using his own fear toxin.

“Nothing to Fear” shows the resourcefulness and grit of Batman even when he’s at his worst. Because nothing can be worse for Bruce than enduring the cruel words of a father he loves and misses so much. And no one could have conveyed Batman’s emotions the way Kevin Conroy did. Rest in peace.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Appointment in Crime Alley,” “Day of the Samurai,” “Tyger Tyger”

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Music Review: Northstar – Is This Thing Loaded?

This review was originally posted on absolutepunk.net September 10, 2007. Northstar released their debut album Is This Thing Loaded? twenty years ago. Like Brand New, Northstar always felt a level above other bands in the scene. My writing here is far from my best, but at least I recognized talent. Here’s a good retrospective write-up and interview with Nick Torres.

Every music fan knows of a defunct band that never received the success they rightfully deserved. These bands are close to our hearts, and though we wished them the greatest success, we feel honored to be the few who recognize their talent. Northstar was one of those bands.

It’s difficult to recall the details, but at some time before Is This Thing Loaded? was released, I happened upon a demo of “Broken Parachute.” The two things that struck me most about the song upon subsequent listens were the guitar work and the somewhat odd lyrics. At the time I would listen almost exclusively to pop punk, so it was quite a surprise to hear a band that knew what it meant to rock. It was also interesting to hear lyrics of an ambiguous nature describing the stomping of monsters, running from the heartless, befriending a bottle for its soothing contents, and a woeful narrator on the brink of giving up.

“Broken Parachute” was a fitting introduction to Northstar, but Is This Thing Loaded? offers so much more. For one thing, the album proves that guitarist/vocalist Nick Torres is a songwriter to be appreciated. “Rigged and Ready,” the first song of the album, provides an example of what Torres is capable of. His delivery is drawn out and smooth (‘I’m thinking she needs me / Well do you girl? / I guess we’ll see’), but amplifies with the music while avoiding unnecessary screaming. However, there are moments in every song in which Torres produces short bursts of scratchy singing when he reaches his breaking point. Such a moment can be found on “My Ricochet”, as he repeats ‘I guess it’s that bad’ to the crashing of drummer Gabe Renfroe’s cymbals. These moments exist in every song, usually set to climactic music, and they are always welcome. But even if his voice is commendable, what really makes Torres’ vocals shine are the lyrics he articulates.

As mentioned previously, the lyrics of Northstar go beyond simple writing and implement grammatical tools like metaphors, similes, and symbols, so technically they lean more toward poetry than prose. The result is writing that is deep and satisfying in its vagueness. And like so many poets that came before him, Torres has a female target in mind. On “My Ricochet,” he serenades with the best of them, creating a holy image of his intended lover: ‘Why do you float way up there? / In disguise in dirty air / Why don’t you melt way down here / With heaven so far and hell so near.’ Though he can be smooth, Torres is not always gentle when speaking to the ear of a lover out of grasp. He has something to prove as he pursues his “Cinderella.” She’s shot down every one of his friends, and he is clearly frustrated in his attempts to win her. Still, he falls victim to her disinterest just as his friends before him, and Torres comes to realize the futility of words: ‘Well under razor wrists lie the gorgeous words that will put her under my skin / But I’m alone again.’

By this point the review probably sounds like a personal dedication to Nick Torres, but rest assured the whole band deserves credit for helping make Is This Thing Loaded? sound so damn good. Torres, Renfroe, guitarist Tyler Odem, and bassist Shawn Reagan add complexity to their instruments and provide an almost flawless foundation for Torres’ voice and words. The dual guitar combination of Odem and Torres is serene at times, but has a perfect crunching distortion to match the heightened action of choruses and outros. A fitting example of this can be found on “Taker Not a Giver,” one of the album’s best. Airy guitar sounds accompany Torres as he sings, ‘I’m falling together, alone in wonder… land,’ but as soon as the last word is uttered, the real show starts. Rhythm and lead are wonderfully hectic together as Renfroe inserts drum rolls to heighten the commotion. “Taker Not a Giver” has a great chorus in the traditional sense, but the instrumental work between the band is the real high point of the song. Reagan can be overshadowed by the guitarists at times, but he is anything but a backseat bassist. He controls the tone of verses, setting the mood well, especially on “My Ricochet,” while Torres ruminates on matters of heaven and hell. Renfroe accordingly paces the songs, though he does lash out at moments, leaving the band behind to speed things up and take control. Listen to the abuse he dishes out on the bass pedal at the final moments of “Cinderella” to see what I mean; it’s three seconds of bliss just when it seems all the surprises of the song have been revealed.

Torres’ final lyrics of the album are ‘I’m classic and late / Plastic and fake,’ then only the feedback is left. Is This Thing Loaded? is indeed a classic, though there’s nothing fake about it. This is the real deal. There’s no need to nitpick which exact genre the album falls under, so let’s not. Is This Thing Loaded? will appease anyone stuck merely reminiscing about depth in musicians and lyrical content. If you don’t own this album yet, what are you waiting for?

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Scene It, See It Again: X-Men: First Class – “Magneto the Nazi Hunter”

Inspired by the Ringer’s Rewatchables podcast, I present to you unforgettable scenes that demand repeat visits. The movies, shows, or books these scenes are part of don’t necessarily have to be all-timers. Even mediocre media can surprise us with a haymaker. That being said, these scenes only elevate their respective stories. Read below, then queue up the classic scene. Again, and again, and again.

X-Men: First Class isn’t perfect, but it reset the X-Men movie franchise in a big way, recruiting talented young actors like Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne. Sadly, the rebooted franchise sputtered out and fell back on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine to remain relevant. That disappointment can’t take this scene away from us, though.

Erik Lehnsherr (later known as the supervillain Magneto) had everything taken away from him in the Holocaust. The man he blames the most is his fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw. Erik journeys to an Argentinian bar and finds two German men connected to Shaw. Then the fun begins.

There’s so much I love about this scene. The Germans are jovial until Erik points out his parents didn’t have names, only numbers. The musical score is absolutely perfect, a slow build with a percussive flourish as Erik reveals his own number. In a short three minute scene the characters speak three different languages: greetings in Spanish, the reveal in German, and Erik’s motivation in English (Fassbender makes the Frankenstein line sound so sinister). My favorite part of the hunt is Erik could easily kill all three men using his mutant powers, but instead he blocks a knife attack and disarms the pig farmer using physical prowess.

Here’s something I didn’t think about until writing this feature – Erik is not the aggressor in this fight. That sounds untrue considering all the killing he does. But watch the scene again. Erik talks about his tragic family history, shows his number, and he’s attacked. Sure, he might have killed these Nazi bastards regardless, but that’s beside the point. Speaking of Nazi bastards, this is only one of two Nazi killing bar scenes Fassbender has been a part of. The Inglourious Basterds scene is more bloody and brutal (it’s Tarantino, natch), but Fassbender doesn’t make it out of that one alive. Though I enjoy X-Men: First Class, I’d prefer a Magneto film focused solely on retribution. I could watch Fassbender hunt Nazis all day.

Best quote: “Blood and honor. Which would you care to shed first?”

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Treasured Track: At the Drive-In – “Rolodex Propaganda

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

I’ll admit, I don’t know what the hell “Rolodex Propaganda” is about. I’ve never cared. There’s talk about half eaten beards and scarecrow plots. Is it about a battlefield? Government censorship? Both? Again, don’t really care. All I know is the song fucking rocks.

There are plenty of At the Drive-In songs I could have chosen to highlight here. I thought hard about “Invalid Litter Dept.” and “Enfilade,” but I stuck with “Rolodex Propaganda” for a few reasons. Iggy Pop’s spastic vocals combine so well with Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s manic energy you’d think Iggy had always been a part of the band. It’s also a fairly light song, considering it’s violent imagery. It’s pop as hell, short and easily repeatable. I’ll bet there are At the Drive-In fans that hate how fun this song sounds. Screw ‘em.

Relationship of Command can be a heavy listen, considering its dark themes and Texan aggression. So a track like “Rolodex Propaganda” is a welcome break – an invitation to dance to keyboard sounds and melodic gurgling. I also dig that during live performances Cedric, Omar Rodríguez-López, and Jim Ward all got in on the vocals. Still, nothing beats Iggy delivering that “Manuscript replicaaaaa” line.

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Book Review: Chris Ware – Rusty Brown

I received Rusty Brown as a Christmas gift from my wife. The book is an awkward, heavy rectangle that juts out of my bookcase. Before opening it up I knew nothing about its titular character or the author Chris Ware. When I sat down to read the book I thought, okay, this is about a funny looking kid who’s the class outcast. Now here’s a new girl at school that misses her best friend. Wait, this book is also about a burnout kid’s whole life?

I definitely didn’t expect all this. Rusty Brown is about isolation, self-destruction, sexism, racism, family dysfunction, and life in general. It evokes suburban tales like American Beauty and The Wonder Years, but without any kind of candy coating or overarching moral judgement. Life simply happens, and the characters influence their own lives in both positive and negative ways.

The characters and stories feel real and grounded, due in large part to the Omaha, Nebraska setting (the same place Ware grew up). Mundane rituals mix with signifiant happenings to create an experience that can be uncomfortably personal. The colorful pop art style and cartoony characters belie the complex themes and sometimes graphic events. Watching a little boy flee his abusive father is all the more horrific because the same art style could be used for a Family Circus type of story.

The more I read Rusty Brown, the more I wanted. It reminded me of reading Maus or Watchmen for the first time. The works have little in common aside from the fact they are all unique art pieces that showcase the graphic novel medium. In case I haven’t been clear enough, Rusty Brown is a must-read. Also, I discovered that Rusty Brown and Maus do share a connection. Many years ago Art Spiegelman invited Ware to contribute to Raw magazine, helping Ware move forward as an artist. Game recognize game.

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Movie Review: The Last American Virgin

What the heck is this movie? The Last American Virgin is about teenagers in high school, but it’s not a straightforward comedy. It does begin as a comedy, though. The 1982 movie follows three horny buddies – Gary, Rick, and David – on a constant quest for girls and booze. It’s all fairly lighthearted until pizza delivery boy Gary catches a glimpse of Karen and instantly falls in love. Gary manufactures a meet-cute and gives Karen a ride to school while “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon plays (a great bit of foreshadowing). A different movie would wallow in Gary and Karen’s teenage romance. Instead, Gary’s suave buddy Rick swoops in and sweeps Karen off her feet. Then Rick impregnates her.

Heavy, eh? I won’t ruin the ending, but The Last American Virgin is the sort of movie you need to talk about after the credits roll. It’s more true-to-life than most movies, specifically teen movies. Nudity, debauchery, prostitution, abortion, infatuation, manipulation – this is teenage life. The Last American Virgin isn’t as twisted as Kids, but it lacks the rosy glow of most teen flicks. And I appreciate that. I also appreciate the excellent soundtrack. I wouldn’t place The Last American Virgin on the list of all-time best teen movies, but it might be a must-see experience. That ending hits like a sledgehammer. I wish I’d watched this movie back in high school. It would have crushed me.

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Music Review: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I looked through my last.fm top albums of all time and noticed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at number 16. I’m surprised it’s not higher. I played the hell out of this album in 2010 and on into 2011. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is peak Kanye West. It’s the closest we can come to peeling back the celebrity layer to party with the man underneath. All the pomp, the debauchery, the ego, the vulnerabilities, the unbridled aggression, the rap royalty. It’s all here, and it’s all for us.

Feeling feral? Transform into a “Monster” that Frankenstein would flee from.

Feeling disheartened? “Runaway” is one for the scumbags.

Feeling yourself? Embrace “Power” and don your superhero cape.

Want a banger? Take your pick.

For as low as Kanye’s reputation can sink – remember, President Obama once called him a “jackass” – this album is proof he can play well with others. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye brought together many voices and various genres to blend together some of the best rap music of the past couple decades. The album fizzles out a bit at the end with “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America,” but let’s forgive that because “Blame Game” is great and so is Chris Rock’s spoken word contribution. Today My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains legendary while Kanye continues to flirt with infamy. What more can we expect from a man obsessed?

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Video Game Review: Golf Story

Everyone is the hero of their own story, but no one believes in your Golf Story protagonist. The plucky hero dreams of golf glory, and despite conquering different courses, no one is convinced of his talent. It’s great. Far too often NPCs swoon in awe of a game protagonist, and it’s refreshing (and funny) to see so many characters brushing aside your golfer.

Indie games often attempt to impress gamers with humor, and that humor often comes across as forced. Golf Story doesn’t fall into that trap. There are disc golf weirdos, the uninspiring coach makes awkward sexual advances toward his crush, and I love the rival Lara. She’s April Ludgate with the aggression meter cranked up, constantly throwing shade. The plot of Golf Story is nothing special, but the game’s bright environments, fun tone, and colorful characters make it a lovely little world to visit. Oh yeah, and the golf is real fun too. The game mechanics should be familiar to anyone who has every played Mario Golf or Hotshotz Golf. Adjustable attributes like power and spin combined with special golf clubs allow the player to make tactical choices. The gameplay is just the right amount of goofy. Golf balls can be carried off by moles, and they can bounce high off of ice, but piranha plants don’t block your shots.

If there’s one feature missing from Golf Story, it’s more versus challenges. Playing against a score card isn’t nearly as fun as beating individual players (especially if they’re talking shit). In one competition you’re forced to pair with an elderly man for a two vs. two game, and he sucks. But compensating for his weak shots makes the victory all the sweeter. One other critique – most golfers you play against commit regular errors, making the game easier than I’d like.

Side mission lists in a game can be annoying or overwhelming, but I would have liked one in Golf Story. I didn’t want to miss any of the fun. Golf Story is part golf simulator, part RPG, and an all-around enjoyable adventure. I’m highly anticipating the Sports Story sequel. I hope Lara shows up for it.

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