We’re now four weeks into DC’s Rebirth push, which is trying to right its superhero line by going back to basics in everything other than publishing schedule — which’ll explain why we’re already at second issues of the books that’ve been launched so far, even though they’re all #1s, because of the unnecessary Rebirth prologue issues. Unnecessary in more ways than one, considering that almost all of the series have better #1s than their official Rebirth relaunches. But let’s get to the capsule reviews, shall we…?
Previously on Baxter Building: It’s all gone wrong! Sue Richards has left Reed and the team! Reed has managed to zap his own son with a ray gun that might have saved his life, but pushed him into a catatonic state! And to make matters worse, the book is just kind of… boring? Where next for our fightin’ foursome? Reed on! (Yes, that pun was intentional. Not good, mind you, but intentional.
0:00:00-0:04:16: A quick introduction — in large part edited down from a longer conversation that was, due to audio quality, almost unlistenable; we were beset by technical troubles this time around, and the audio quality on my side of the conversation is unusually bad, for which we apologize — lets you know that we’re covering Fantastic Four #147 through 159 this time around, with a brief mention of Avengers #127, an issue that crosses over into this run. We’re also not covering the Giant-Size Superstars and Giant-Size Fantastic Four issues that were published parallel to these issues, primarily because I didn’t read ’em… but we might do that at some point in the future. (For those wondering, the annuals that we haven’t talked about for awhile have either been reprints or not actually been published annually; they return soon, though.) And for those wondering what I was talking about when I referenced the Oakland police chief, this is a reasonable round-up.
0:04:17-0:23:00: What’s that, you say? You want to see Gerry Conway write a storyline with a denouement that is so out of character, you might wonder if he’s been possessed by a 1950s issue of World’s Finest? Well, you’ve got it with Fantastic Four #147-149, a trilogy that not only doesn’t hang together well, but has a final episode that seems to feature what I remain convinced is a swift walking back of what had been intended as a sincere opener, turning the whole thing into a weird and weirdly wrong practical joke played by a character who not only isn’t known for their practical jokes, but also doesn’t really care about the people he’s professing to do a nice thing for. (Despite that, I really liked this storyline, purely because the climax is so silver-age DC-ish; Jeff disagrees, however.) We talk about whether or not the final issue is the result of a last-minute rethink, an explanation which would also serve to make the middle chapter less like disconnected filler — but it wouldn’t really help with the fact that neither Reed nor Sue have any real agency in a story that serves to close out their marital dispute. As Jeff puts it, “there’s no internal life to the characters.”
0:23:01-0:33:34: Taking a brief sidestep, Jeff talks about the underwhelming nature of all the issues we’re covering in this episode and wondering if their flaws are the result of Marvel as a company. I then point out a couple of final things I noticed about the issues we’re talking about — that Gerry Conway seems to think that the FF believe that Namor is telepathic, and that Medusa is already being written out the book a full ten issues before she leaves — and then we move on to…
0:33:35-0:50:33: …Fantastic Four #150, which is the second part of a crossover with Avengers #127. “Let’s dive on,” I say, inventing a new phrase which sounds like I’ve just learned english and don’t understand common phrases yet. But dive on we do, nonetheless, talking about how painfully half-assed this issue feels in comparison to the Avengers issue — which, admittedly, is written by Steve Englehart, whom Jeff and I are always marks for. It’s an impressively rushed finale for the crossover, though, with Conway seeming disinterested in the entire premise, and Rich Buckler delivering what Jeff calls a “wet fart” in terms of the artwork. He’s also got a theory that the issue is a stealth re-do for Fantastic Four Annual #2, but I’m not entirely convinced, and think that they’re trying to out-do the Avengers/Defenders War. Also discussed: creeping nostalgia and the end of the Franklin subplot that forgot that Franklin was actually a person and not “the child.”
0:50:34-1:09:28: Gerry Conway becomes the third writer to leave the series in the middle of a multi-part storyline, vanishing before the final part of the Thundra origin in Fantastic Four #151-153. I suggest that he jumped ship to DC, but Jeff (rightfully) points out that Conway would briefly be Marvel E-i-C in 1976, so who knows where he went this time around — perhaps he simply ran away in embarrassment over a storyline that prompts Jeff to describe one scene as “a sexier version of Planet of the Apes,” and introduces a new villain called Mahkismo. Yes, it’s the Battle of the Sexes, 1974-Marvel-Style, and it’s everything you think it’d be and more, thanks in part to a terrible fill-in inking job in #152 that sees Reed Richards have three hands on the splash page and the editors actually apologize at the end of the story for how bad it looks. Things improve greatly with the final installment, which sees the underrated Tony Isabella step in — Jeff and I are fans, it turns out — and Joe Sinnott return, but make no mistake: this is a horrible storyline. “Gerry Conway does not go out on a bang,” I say, in part because his final issue ends like this:
1:09:29-1:19:32: How do you know that you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel? When you have an issue that’s in part a reprint of a Strange Tales story featuring the Human Torch, surrounded by a framing sequence featuring temporary new writer Len Wein (and artist Bob Brown) that literally repeats the gimmick of the original, so that you get not one but two reveals that make little sense whatsoever. Say hello to FF #154, everyone! We discuss the way in which this issue contrasts “current” (1970s) Marvel with the classic Stan Lee period, Jeff references Speed Racer, and then compares Len Wein to Frank Miller, which just seems cruel, let’s be honest.
1:19:33-1:41:23: Fantastic Four #155-157 are, according to me, “Fantastic Four on automatic pilot,” and I’m sticking with that. These are, after all, three issues where the second issue is called “Middle Game,” and the third “And Now… the Endgame Cometh!” They’re also issues with an impressively off-model Silver Surfer both visually — he’s newly buff! — and intellectually, because he’s apparently such a sap that he’ll willingly work for Doctor Doom in order to win the heart of a complete stranger just because she looks like his ex-girlfriend. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the main thrust. Kind of.) It’s a three parter that combines the fear of the independent women vibe of the last year-or-so of issues with the rehashing past glories nostalgiafest that has plagued the title for around the same time to come up with a plot that manages to steal from not one but two Lee/Kirby Doctor Doom storylines while still managing to feel impressively underbaked. There are two things going for it, on a purely “oh, shit, no” level, though: the caption explaining Roy Thomas’ use of the word “zugzwang,” and an epilogue that really has to be experienced for the full effect. Don’t worry; we talk about both in detail.
1:41:24-2:07:57: “The best thing, and I shit you not, about [FF #158-159] is the title of #158,” I say, and I’m not wrong. (That title is “Invasion From The 5th (Count It, 5th!) Dimension,” which really is pretty great.) When the thing that amuses us the most about a two issue storyline is the term “Thunderhorn,” you know you’re on a loser, but we also get to talk about the out-of-nowhere career suggestion that Sue should become a private detective — I’m for it, Jeff is against — as well as how great Joe Sinnott’s inks are when it comes to drawing blue guys from the 5th Dimension. Oh, and John Romita makes a surprise (uncredited) inking appearance at the end of #159, for some mysterious reason.
Impressively, we get so derisive about the fact that FF is dipping back into the Strange Tales well for the second time in six months that we forget to mention that the issue ends with Sue officially rejoining the team, but, as Jeff puts it, “these two issues seem like the definition of weak sauce,” so can you blame us? (Yes, you can. Sorry.) Also! The magic of Joe Sinnott and why he makes Fantastic Four feel like the Fantastic Four perhaps even moreso that even Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, and the problems with the Marvel Method when it comes to dealing with younger artists.
2:07:59-end: We close things out by explaining that we’ll be reading Fantastic Four #160-170 next time, and reminding you that you can find us on Twitter, Tumblr and Patreon. Thank you for suffering through the bad audio this episode, and for reading through the shownotes — next time, we’ll try to be better. Excelsior…?
It feels like a cliche to say, man, superhero comics used to be so much weirder. It feels like the sort of thing that grumpy old men say because they can’t wrap their heads around Squirrel Girl, and Civil War II isn’t doing it for them like the first one anymore, and who wants to be that guy?
Nonetheless, the primary takeaway I had after reading Justice League International #52-60 the other day — a decision brought on by nostalgia for the early ’90s and for Gerard Jones’ writing — was “well, that was strange.”
So, the first two weeks of Rebirth books are out for DC — only nine of them, which feels almost glacial compared with the 13-very-week roll-out of the New 52 back in 2011. But how does this latest round of reboots, relaunches and respositionings work, compared with the more extreme makeover of five years ago? Judging by the evidence so far, the answer seems to be “It’s better, and yet…” Let’s go through things old-school, with a round-up, shall we?
0:00-05:25: Greetings! Graeme and I are still recovering from our version of Civil War—the DC Rebirth #1 roundtable from just a few days back. Fortunately, Graeme knows just what it takes to heal the wounds of battle: a story about his friendly nieghborhood Chatty Cat! (Chatty Cat No. 2, no less!)
12:51-30:03: Speaking of squandering precious time, Jeff has been playing Marvel Future’s Fight on his iPad, but before he can get to the point of something he finds quite sad, we have to get through a brief history of RPGs, Diablo, and free to play games. Discussed: who the hell is Singularity; all of the above, plus the absence of The Fantastic Four and The X-Men; and Graeme having read Contest of Champions and loving it but being art-blocked on New Avengers; all those teams featuring Johnny Storm; and a moment of lovely humanity, courtesy of Gene Yang.
1:23:59-1:29:21: Devin King asks: “My question: Why is Watchmen a bad movie? I know its reputation but can’t find any critical responses to it. I know the common reaction was that it tries too hard to emulate the book but…isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?”
Hello, Whatnauts! Given the complete lack of promotion for it — I’m being sarcastic, I hope you notice that — it might have escaped your notice that DC released the DC Universe: Rebirth oneshot this week, intended to re-orient the superhero line in a new, more hopeful and more-palatable-to-longtime-fans direction. Written by Geoff Johns with art by Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis and Phil Jiminez, it’s an issue that features all kinds of fan service to those who grew up reading DC, as well as the opposite of fan service to those who love Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Guess which we end up focusing on when we talked about it this week? (Spoilers for those who somehow haven’t been utterly spoiled on this just yet.)
A few weeks back, Jeff, Graeme and I spent like a billion words revisiting the Preacher comics. One of the primary motivators for that lookback was the then-imminent debut of the Preacher TV series; I was skeptical of the show going into the reread, and doubly so after finding how much the passage of time had dulled my fondness for the book.
“Obviously there are going to be some major changes across the board,” I wrote, full of my characteristic optimism and good cheer, “but … I’ve gotta be honest, I left this re-read thinking that if the show is even remotely faithful to the book, it’s going to be unwatchably bad. I just don’t see any way that these elements can work onscreen, no matter how they’re reconfigured.”
That’s the attitude I took into Sunday night’s public debut screening of the show’s pilot episode, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that nearly every change the creators made–and there were a lot of them–was a marked improvement over the rapidly-aging source material. It’s not a perfect show, and I’m not even 100% sure that I’m fully onboard with it yet, but #realtalk, that pilot was about 2,000 times better than I expected. Here are a few reasons why (chock full of SPOILERS, so stay away if you’re planning to go in clean).
Previously on Baxter Building: The old order changeth! Sue Richards has left the team — and her husband! (Feminism is to blame, and certainly not Reed Richards’ offensively paternal attitude, oh no.) She’s been replaced by Medusa, because one of the rules of the FF is that, when Sue goes, an Inhuman has to take her place. Meanwhile, Johnny Storm is reconsidering his life choices after breaking up with Crystal, Reed Richards is sinking into as much of a depression as superheroes could in comics from 1973, and Ben Grimm is… well, just being Ben Grimm. The world’s greatest comic magazine? More like the world’s soapiest soap opera, am I right?
0:00:00-0:11:36: “Jeff is much more positive than either of us feel about these issues,” I say about Fantastic Four #134-146, issues I describe by saying “some of these are just not very good comic books,” even though Jeff says that some of his favorite comics are in these batch (He’s talking about #136-137, as you’ll find out). Is that because he grew up reading them? We discuss, with references to Steve Englehart’s Avengers, Gerry Conway’s Amazing Spider-Man and how children are willing to accept bad writing as genuine emotional content because they don’t know better. Also, what is “Star Trek Syndrome”? Jeff explains!
0:11:37-0:28:29: Fantastic Four #134-135 launch the awkward nostalgiafest that is Gerry Conway’s run as writer (Yes, he scripted the previous issue, but that was from a Roy Thomas plot; this is Conway flying solo for the first time). Marvel at my ability to accidentally mash-up Fantastic Four and Scott Pilgrim, which is arguably more entertaining than the two issues that make up this storyline because who wanted to see Gregory Gideon and Dragon Man again? We talk about bad nostalgia, and the way that that nostalgia is almost subverted by good character work on Conway’s behalf — except where Franklin Richards is concerned. But, oh, that Johnny scene with Dorrie…
0:28:30-0:51:15: According to Jeff, FF #136-137 are “practically Grant Morrison levels of insanity,” although he then corrects himself by saying that maybe he means Mark Millar. The esteemed Mr. Lester attempts to summarize “Rock Around The Cosmos!” but we immediately sidetrack ourselves in a discussion about the portrayal of Medusa versus Crystal or Sue Storm, the potential for this storyline being a Venture Bros. episode and Jeff’s unexpected — even by him — fandom for the Shaper of Worlds, and the metatext that he gives this particular era of Fantastic Four. (How self-aware is Roy Thomas, anyway?) Oh, but that’s before we even get to the exciting, surreal antagonists of this storyline, who look like this:
Oh, yes. And that’s before we get to the wonderfully racist anti-racism message and the possibility of one of Oakland’s favorite sons showing up as the villain of the story. All this, plus a panel that might predict Tarantino’s Kill Bill and the surprising creepiness of the cliffhanger of #136.
0:51:16-1:10:58: Help us, Whatnauts: is this opening page of #137 a reference to something that neither of us recognized? Both Jeff and I are sure that it is, purely because of the rendering used, but we couldn’t even guess at what beyond Jeff’s EC suggestion.
Meanwhile, the FF are at war with each other thanks to some brainwashing, but that only lasts until the introduction of Warhead, whom Jeff recognizes as Robot Monster, which… can we talk about Robot Monster for a second? Look at this:
That is amazing. I mean, amazing — and, yes, the monster really is Warhead in this story, weirdly. I guess it’s period specific…? But we shouldn’t get too distracted by that because there’s some well-meaning racism at play because it’s the 1970s, ya dig? Sorry, there I go with the slang of the sixties again…! Face it, buster. It really is the most Star Trek issue of Fantastic Four yet, and that’s including those late Kirby ones which literally rip off the plot from “A Piece of the Action.” But does it actually work?
1:10:59-1:27:55: Hey, everyone! Fantastic Four #138-139 brings back Wyatt Wingfoot, even if he’s more of a background player than ever before. But he’s back nonetheless! He’s back to graduate from college and act as a living Macguffin to bring the Miracle Man back into the lives of the Fantastic Four, which is… well, we all could have done without this. Also discussed: Flame toupees! More well-meaning racism! Jeff accidentally conjuring the idea of Ben Grimm as Donald Trump!
1:27:56-1:46:41: All things Franklin come to a head with FF #140-141, the latter of which proclaims “The End of the Fantastic Four!” But before we get there, we get the return of Annihilus — disappointing to Jeff, even though we get his origin as a nerd alien insect who was bullied by the jock alien insect — and the chance to talk about how John Buscema’s art has changed for the better across his Fantastic Four run (These are his last issues for awhile). Also, what gets Jeff going? Apparently the sight of Reed Richards shooting his kid with a massive gun. No, really: “It’s kind of great, you get to see Reed Richards shoot his kid with a big gun,” he says. Who knew that would be Jeff’s thing? Still, it does lead to some good character work, which really is Conway’s strength in these issues, so let’s just accept it all and move on.
1:46:42-2:16:36: We move straight into Fantastic Four #142-144, which sees Rich Buckler arrive on art and bring a less subtle, and definitely more Kirby-inspired look to the book. (Really, #143 is filled with Kirby swipes.) It also sees the return of Doctor Doom, the arrival of Darkoth the Death Demon — who, as Jeff points out, feels like a strange dry-run for Deathlok in some ways — and the idea of curing Alicia’s blindness. We end up talking briefly about why the latter bothers me both as a general concept and specifically when it comes to Alicia, and also about the Medusa/Reed relationship both as it appears in the text and in the subtext of the issue, and how it affects the general reading of Medusa in these stories. Also! Is Johnny losing it? Does Gerry Conway really, really have issues about being bullied at schools? What happened to Darkoth’s tail? And what the hell happened to the pacing in this storyline? Oh, and this panel:
Really, no-one thought they should perhaps redraw that panel?
2:16:37-2:26:53: Jeff calls FF #145-146 “somehow a fill-in issue that became two fill-in issues,” and he’s not wrong; not only does it feature guest art by Ross Andru (again, not being served to well by Joe Sinnott’s inks) but it feels very disconnected from everything else that’s been going on in this run to date, being essentially a Johnny/Medusa issue of Marvel Team-Up that ended up in FF because of an extended Thing cameo. On the plus side, we do get to talk about Marvel’s institutional love of all Asian men being wise old ancient ones in their own right, so there’s that. (There’s honestly not much else going for these issues, sorry.)
2:26:54-end: We wrap things up looking back over these 13 issues and wondering what the reason was for the swing towards nostalgia, while also planning our next adventure into this part of the Marvel Universe: next time out, we’ll be covering Fantastic Four #147-159, wrapping up the current era of the book — finally, we’ll get to a conclusion of the Sue/Reed split plot! — and trying to do so in a slightly shorter time frame than this episode. Maybe. Possibly. For those who want to find us elsewhere, we remain available on Twitter, Tumblr and Patreon, and otherwise, we beseech you to return in one month for more Baxter Building or just one week for more Wait, What?. Thank you, as ever, for listening and reading.
Someone on Twitter–I can’t remember who, but it was some comic creator that got RT’ed into my life–made the point that more comic reviewers needed to review second issues, and fourth issues, and other non-“jumping on” issues. It stuck with me, for some reason, as I think I tend to be pretty guilty of writing only about things that (a) are first issues and/or notable jumping-on points, or (b) random runs of old comics that are of specific interest only to me.
Which isn’t exactly how I decided to look at The Fix #2 and Black Panther #2 this week, but it did make me feel retroactively good about the decision. No, what got me to associate these two books in my head was (siiiiigh) a random run of old comics that are of specific interest only to me. Specifically, Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther.