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The Variants Review

on Mon, 05/21/2012 - 00:00

For the gang on the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, every Wednesday is “comic book day,” the day when they go to their local Comic Center of Pasadena and buy the latest releases of Batman, Spider-Man and The Flash. The store is owned by the lowly Stuart, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who struggles to make ends meet from a financial standpoint. The clientele, meanwhile, primarily consists of regular customers that not only include Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter but Captain Sweatpants, who wears a superhero T-shirt tucked into his literal sweatpants. The Comic Center of Pasadena also routinely holds such events as Mystic Warlords of Ka’a gaming tournaments, costumed New Year’s Eve parties and signing events involving the legendary Stan Lee.

While the Comic Center of Pasadena is fictitious on The Big Bang Theory, Zeus Comics in Dallas is a real world retail store that also serves as the locale for the fictional comedy web series The Variants. “Crazy stuff happens at the comic shop,” Zeus owner Richard Neal explains of the show’s inception. “Something about the mix of nerds and retail leads to some absurd situations that just get funnier when you retell them. I thought there was something there, so I called my friends to help document it.”

Neal’s original plan was to film a straight-forward reality series, but after meeting with Joe Cucinotti and Ken Lowry—two local actors/writers in the Dallas area who were also regular customers at Zeus—a fictionalized version was created instead. Well, kind of. “Our set is the actual store,” Cucinotti elaborates. “Other than Ken and myself, our main cast consists of people who really work behind the counter. Many of the extras and minor characters are played by loyal customers of the store. While we exaggerate some of the events, the presentation is still very authentic.”

Each installment of The Variants is crafted as a standalone episode and centers upon specific comic book store events, such as the release of a rare variant edition or guest signers to boost sales, as well as general retail situations like offbeat and crazed customers. While comparisons to filmmaker Kevin Smith may immediately come to mind—Cucinotti’s character even dresses as Silent Bob at one point—this web series is more of a homage to the comic book community at large than simply another transplanted update of Clerks.

Similarities also exist between The Variants and both The Big Bang Theory and fellow web series The Guild, each of which features crisp dialogue and snappy one-liners that can be enjoyed by both geeks and non-geeks alike. In the episode “Passholes,” for instance, a group of zombie-esque customers trap the characters in the comic book store after closing. When Richard (Richard Neal) suggests they should go to the mall to escape the mob, Joe (Joe Cucinotti) replies, “Dude, have you even seen a zombie movie?” Other classic lines include, “It sounds like all those fanboys when they found out Disney bought Marvel” and, “Season eight? There was something after season five?”—a reference to the latest Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic.

The second season episode “Reboot,” meanwhile, is a true comedy classic that best illustrates the show’s ability to combine personal and professional subject matters into a single narrative. The installment also spoofs the “Mirror Mirror” episode of the original Star Trek, in which Captain James T. Kirk and his crew find themselves on a USS Enterprise from an alternative universe. During “Reboot,” Keli (Keli Wolf), the lone female employee of Zeus Comics, is set up on a blind date by store manager Richard. “I just want to check Facebook to make sure he’s not really blind,” she explains to fellow cohort Barry (Barry Furhman).

The first half of the episode thus follows Keli on her so called date, which turns out to be with a gym instructor who leads Keli through a rigorous assortment of exercises while asking such get-to-know-you questions as, “Did you grow up around here?” “Are you a cat person or a dog person?” and, “How do you feel about children?” The basketball that Keli has been inaccurately tossing in the air lands on her head during that last inquiry, serving as the potential catalyst for what comes next.

“It’s a whole new universe,” a regular male customer of Zeus Comics tells a disoriented Keli when she arrives at work the next morning and finds herself in The Variant’s version of the Mirror Mirror Universe. “Everything’s different but kind of the same,” he adds. “Just faster, fresher, younger. Edgier. And I’m a lesbian now.” The customer is not the only one with a rearranged sexuality as the gay Richard has been transformed into an ass-slapping, womanizing heterosexual while silent backroom stock boy Vlad (Ken Lowery) is a cheerful, overly-friendly cashier. Then there’s Barry, whose usual snarky, anti-customer attitude has mutated into the same snarky, anti-customer attitude—only now he is dressed as a Starfleet officer, wears an eye patch and displays the same goatee as Spock in the aforementioned classic Star Trek episode. To add to the mayhem, he is also brandishing a weapon.

“I would love to get to the floor and look that up for you but I can’t because Spock has an axe—can you call 911?” a confused Keli asks a random caller before launching into a verbal tirade at her suddenly faster, fresher and edgier colleagues. Instead of an ion storm interfering with the transporter of the Enterprise, however—the scientific justification for Captain Kirk and his landing team being beamed aboard the wrong starship in “Mirror Mirror”—the alternative universe of The Variants has a more non-sci-fi explanation. “It’s Multiverse Mondays,” Barry clarifies in regards to everyone’s sudden change in appearance. “Sure, it’s a marketing stunt but the publishers do it all the time.”

In real life, Zeus Comics is a prestigious establishment that has not only received numerous awards in the Dallas area, including “Best of Big D” from D Magazine, but was also honored with the 2006 Will Eisner Spirit of Retailer Excellence Award. In The Variants, meanwhile, the fictitious Zeus Comics is home to an entertaining cast of characters that generates plenty of laugh-at-loud moments for both the geek-initiated and uninitiated alike. Either version is also the type of store that Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory would feel comfortable as customers, ready to purchase the latest comic book adaptation of Felicia Day’s The Guild.

Anthony Letizia (May 21, 2012)

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