I’ve been having trouble with the “Cap is a Nazi” story. Not the in-comics story itself, really, but the real-world response to it. I started writing this post a while back but got derailed by life. With the release of Secret Empire #0 and a few prologue tie-ins today, it seemed like an apt time to revisit. In addition to the zero issue kicking off the big event, I also bought and read Captain America: Steve Rogers #16, Thunderbolts #12, and U.S.Avengers #5.
There are some spoilers for those books below (including the seemingly major revelation from the prologue to Secret Empire #0 which I spoil in the very next paragraph), but the main point is me trying to grasp the reaction to the overall event.
Also, a caveat: with the exception of those four comics, I’m six months behind on the story, because I’ve been following via Marvel Unlimited. So I may well be literally missing something crucial that appeared clearly on-panel in a comic from that six-month gap.
The recap as I understand it goes something like this: when Kobik, the child-like personification of the Cosmic Cube, rejuvenated an elderly Steve Rogers, she actually rewrote his entire history in a way that was shaped (unbeknownst to Cap) by the Red Skull. The crucial What If…? deviation sees Rogers’ mother brought into a Hydra cell in World War 2, which in turn puts young Steve into their clutches and lets them shape him as the ultimate sleeper agent. Secret Empire #0 further clarifies that in 1945, Hydra hid Steve–by then established as Captain America, pretty much the ultimate sleeper agent–in a magic pool to protect him when the Allies (allegedly) used a crude Cosmic Cube to rewrite reality so they, not Hydra, won the war. (The main point of that reveal SEEMS to be, as far as I can tell, to explain how Cap has completely different memories from everyone else in the Marvel Universe.)
Secret Empire, it appears, will be the story of what happens when Cap reveals his true allegiance to the Marvel Universe of 2017.
Previously on Baxter Building: The bloom has fallen off the rose for the John Byrne era of Fantastic Four, it has to be said. After an initial run of issues that got Jeff and I both excited, the series has fallen into a rut that undersells the genuine highlights of Byrne’s skills. Will things turn around this time out?
0:00:00-0:01:47: We were apparently so excited to get into these issues, we have the very briefest of introductions this episode. We’re covering Fantastic Four #261-270, which seems a lot of upheaval for the team, and a fill-in issue that I totally misunderstood. But we’ll get there soon enough.
0:01:48-0:16:35: You can perhaps tell how things are going to go when Jeff and I spend far too much time discussing Namor making out with Sue Richards and whether or not Uatu the Watcher is, as I describe him, “the greatest cosmic enabler in comics,” as opposed to talking about the actual plot of Fantastic Four #261. Clearly we don’t care that much about the rate of Reed Richards. (Although, given the time we spend talking about how Chris Claremont was the accidental instigator for this storyline, we equally as clearly do care about behind-the-scenes comics gossip. So it goes.)
0:16:36-0:41:41: With the Assistant Editor Month FF #262, John Byrne takes the opportunity to turn the book into The John Byrne Show for an issue, complete with a wonderfully passive aggressive dig at Chris Claremont as delivered by… himself. “It’s kind of a wacky issue,” I say, which might be an understatement, but we talk about the differences between Jack Kirby and John Byrne’s ideas of upping the ante, and Jeff comes up with a much better way of doing this exact story, which just so happens to build upon events of the previous issue in a more satisfying manner. As Jeff puts it, this is “a good Marvel comic in the way you mean it in a disparaging way.”
0:41:42-1:02:49: The two-parter in Fantastic Four #s 263-264 cause a schism in Team Baxter Building, as I think that they’re kind of shitty, but Jeff thinks that they’re — in his exact words — “really enjoyably shitty.” On the plus side, believers of Neal Adams’ theories of the evolution of our planet will find much to love in the scheme of “The Messiah,” while believers that Walt Disney was secretly an evil overlord are likely to be just as thrilled. (Jeff falls into one of those two camps, but I won’t spoil which one for you.) Mr. Lester also explains the appeal of appreciating the small stuff, when it comes to John Byrne’s work, while I get upset about a macro disappointment: that the final issue of the “regular” FF before She-Hulk replaces the Thing doesn’t feature the group together at any point.
1:02:50-1:10:43: An attempt to segue into Fantastic Four #265 goes awry, as we take a detour into the continuity of The Thing around this era of Marvel publishing, and I talk about what’s been happening in that title and the way in which it’s pretty much been More Fantastic Four, Kind Of for the first ten issues of its run.
1:10:44-1:21:58: With Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars getting underway, FF #265 — we got there eventually — ends up being an extremely disjointed and disappointing issue, no matter how much I might have liked the slice-of-life element of the issue’s second story. After all, there’s a terrible first story to deal with — which Jeff likens to Will Eisner’s work in an impressive moment of cruelty — and then a rushed cliffhanger to the second that really doesn’t land. But, hey! Welcome to the team, She-Hulk!
1:21:59-1:33:22: Truly Fantastic Four #266 is a banner issue in which there’s a fill-in returning Ben Grimm to the book one issue after he was replaced on the team, and I misunderstand the denouement of the story entirely. (My version of the big reveal was much funnier, and I have to admit, I like the story less now that I know the truth.) Under discussion: Would Sue Richards be the best thief? What is the difference between invisible and not visible, and does even John Byrne know? Also, why does Jeff hate puns so?
1:33:23-1:48:57: To say that neither Jeff nor I appreciate FF #267 is an understatement; I’m deeply upset by using miscarriage as what is essentially a Macguffin for a superhero comic, while Jeff doesn’t appreciate the way in which the story is really all about Reed instead of Sue, and wonders whether this is something that inspired Watchmen. (Lord, I hope not.) It’s a trite issue that, in Jeff’s words, underscores “how much Byrne’s interest in Sue really does feel like a sham,” and one that reduces a genuine real world tragedy into little more than cheap melodrama to fuel male comic book angst. Nope, in other words.
1:48:58-1:55:40: “Let’s continue the grossness,” I say, as we journey into Fantastic Four #268, and oh boy, do we. Sue gets literally two lines of dialogue as the follow-up to her miscarriage focuses on how neat the Baxter Building is, how bad-ass Reed Richards is even while grieving, and watching a mask kick the asses of half of the team. It’s old school superheroics the way that nobody quite wanted at this particular time, and as Jeff puts it, “it’s a very minimizing issue in many ways.”
1:55:41-2:13:42: With the end creeping up on us, we speedily cover FF #s 269 and 270. “It’s what I want from the Fantastic Four,” I say at one point, and what I mean by that is, “relatively fast-moving dumb sci-fi with Wyatt Wingfoot returning and a good conceptual gag or two.” It’s pretty much Byrne-by-numbers as Terminus shows up to demonstrate that it takes more than a dramatic name and reasonable design sense to recreate the glory days of the Lee and Kirby run, but it’s good enough for me in the context of recent issues to convince me. Jeff, meanwhile, is less impressed, making this the mirror image of FF #s 263-264. Now we know what we both like, it seems…
2:13:43-end: As we slide towards the close of the episode, we talk about the way our expectations of Byrne’s work on the comic has changed, and of our shifting definitions of quality. Are we being beset by creative Stockholm Syndrome, or is something else happening? We also reveal that we’ll be covering Fantastic Four Annual #s 14-18 and What If? #36 next month, and remind you to visit our Tumblr, Patreon and Twitter, because who doesn’t want to be recognized every now and then? Next week: an all-new Wait, What?, but Patreon supporters might get something extra midweek as long as my schedule doesn’t blow up. (Note: This is not impossible.) As always, thanks for listening and reading; it’s much appreciated.
I’ve been a little cold on comics in general, lately. It happens to me every now and then–usually around big crossovers or when my backlog of unread stuff gets out of control (although I guess that’s a chicken-egg question). Most of what I’ve been enjoying these days are things like Saga and The Wicked + Divine–long-running books not connected to anything else–or the fun, lightweight stuff on Marvel Unlimited: Squirrel Girl, all of Al Ewing’s stuff, Mockingbird, Gwenpool, stuff like that.
Whenever this cooling happens, though, it brings what I think of as the Puff The Magic Dragon question in the back of my head: is this the time that my regular comic fix will make way for other toys? So far (obviously) that hasn’t happened. There’s always been something to pull me back. A title (Scott Pilgrim comes to mind) or a new creative direction (Grant Morrison on New X-Men) or even a new technological innovation (I think I would be all but done with monthly comics if it weren’t for digital).
But it’s been hard to see where something like that might come from this time. Marvel is mired in what looks increasingly like a death spiral. DC is cheerfully bogged down in the Rebirth project, which a lot of people seem to love, but which left me largely indifferent (as my failed attempts to get caught up probably show). Many of the creators I used to love have moved on to work that doesn’t resonate with me, and many of the newer folks getting regular work–aside from Ewing and Tom King–feel either fungible (I’ve confused Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes more times than I can count), committed to one book that I’m already reading (Ryan North, etc.), or pleasant-enough-to-read-on-Unlimited but not really anything that’s going to drag back my wandering attention.
I’m not sure why I forgot about Kyle Starks.
0:00-7:32: Greetings from a very relaxed Graeme McMillan and a perhaps somewhat less relaxed Jeff Lester. But, relaxed though they may be, they are still reading some of the books they discussed last week: Graeme is still making his way through Hostage by Guy Delisle, and Jeff is still making his way through (deep breath) Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane, Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga Uncensored by Pat Mills, Mike McMahon and just about everybody, and although he finished vol. 1 of West Coast Avengers by Englehart, Milgrom, and Sinnott, he’s just barely dug into volume 2 (which actually starts seven issues after volume 1. Boo, Marvel!)
7:32-21:46: The discussion about 2000 A.D. pacing in the 70s leads fittingly into Rob Williams’ current writing on Suicide Squad with art first by Jim Lee and currently by John Romita, Jr. (and a plethora of artists for each issue’s back-up strips, such as Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreria in issue #14). Also discussed: the combat banter of Steve Englehart; the use of shtick and the back-up story structure in Suicide Squad; and more.
21:46-29:52: Jeff was a bit bummed to hear one of his favorite comics, DC’s The Flintstones, is ending after issue #12. And asking about this is a very fine way to get Graeme to talk about the upcoming DC/Hanna Barbera crossover annuals for which Graeme has read the review copies. Discussed: Flintstones/Booster Gold by Mark Russell and Rick Leonardi; the Snagglepuss back-up; the Batman/Top Cat crossover; and more.
29:52-35:28: This episode was recorded on the day the new Justice League trailer was released (see above), so it made sense to transition from talking about the latest DC comics to DC’s latest attempt to build a franchise. What’d we think?
35:28-59:47: And from the DC movie trailer, to the latest Marvel (non-Marvel Studios) movie, Logan. Please note this is a full spoilers discussion—pretty much every bit of it gets spoiled so stay away from this section if you still haven’t seen it.
59:47-1:02:46: From there we pivot to discusss…the other Wait, What? podcast! (Wait, what?) We are many, and we contain multitudes, apparently?
1:02:46-1:12:12: And hey, here we are discussing this Marvel retailer conference thing that’s happening kinda/sorta of the downlow. Jeff is wondering what Graeme has heard about, and if he thinks the Marvel Leopard can change its spots.
1:12:12-1:23:11: What should’ve been a discussion on what Graeme’s reading becomes a longer discussion about Tom King’s Batman—Graeme is enjoying it tremendously, but Jeff is so far behind, will he ever catch up? And if so, how?
1:23:11-1:35:50: Graeme is also very impressed with what Joshua Williamson (with a raft of artists such as Carmine Di Giandomenico, Jesus Merino, and others) is doing to reinvent Barry Allen for The Flash, by taking the TV Barry Allen and doing an even better job with it. And that gets us into a discussion of characters that we care enough about that we’ll check out no matter who is on the title.
1:35:50-1:57:08: Graeme had linked to an article on Medium by Meg Downey about fanfic and although Jeff still hasn’t read the piece (he fav’d it for later), we discuss a bit about fanfic’s ability to give audiences what they want on certain properties better than the corporate owners of the properties. And then there’s some more talk from Jeff about Englehart and West Coast Avengers because, hey, who can stop him?
1:57:08-2:02:05: Also, thanks to another A+ manga recommendation from a Whatnaut, Jeff just finished the first volume of Interviews with Monster Girls by Petos, and wants to talk about it.
2:02:05-2:09:43: And Graeme wants to talk a bit about Terms and Conditions by R. Sikoryak which he is, uh, coolish about. He also wants to discuss Boundless by Jillian Tomaki, which he loves. And then…
2:09:43-: Closing Comments! Look for us on Stitcher!Itunes! Twitter together and separately: Graeme and Jeff! Matt! Tumblr, and on Patreon where a wonderful group of people make this all possible, including the kind crew at American Ninth Art Studios and Empress Audrey, Queen of the Galaxy, to whom we are especially grateful for their continuing support of this podcast. Oh, but before we go, Jeff has a theory about the Cursed Earth Saga, a certain creation of Pat Mills, and a certain creation of Jack Kirby.
First things first, make sure you don’t miss out Matt talking about that Logan movie right below this very entry, y’hear?
Good stuff, right? And now, some show notes:
I saw Logan a week ago, my wife and I sneaking out to late show on Sunday night despite both needing to work the next day. My hopes were not high, despite the generally positive reviews and my residual fondness for Hugh Jackman (in general and as Wolverine in particular), mainly because I found the previous James Mangold-directed entry (The Wolverine) to be a disjointed mess.
(I also tried to watch X-Men: Apocalypse for free on-demand the night before, and found the first 20 minutes so dreadful that I (a) Turned it off to do literally anything else with my life, and (b) Felt like it might’ve been bad enough to make hate the entire concept of live-action films about the X-Men.)
(And, no, I haven’t watched Legion yet. It’s backlogged on my DVR. I’m sure it will restore my faith in superpowered live filmed entertainment, etc. Not yet, though.)
I wound up enjoying it a lot, to the point where I’m still thinking about seven days later. This post is my attempt to figure out why that is. So it’s listicle time again!
(Assume pretty FULL SPOILERS FOR LOGAN BELOW. At a minimum, it’s written kinda presupposing that you’ve seen the movie, or are at least largely aware of the details of it.)
Previously on Baxter Building: After an impressive debut, the John Byrne era of Fantastic Four stumbled as the writer/artist completed his first year — but he certainly continued to be ambitious, bringing in some old favorite characters like the Black Panther, Doctor Doom and Galactus so early into his run. But what happens when his ambition outstrips his execution?
0:00:00-0:06:13: We launch into the episode by admitting that these aren’t the most memorable of issues, and that our happy glow when we think of the first Byrne episode is fading fast. We’re covering Fantastic Four #248-260 this time around, and it’s an uneven grab bag that mostly spirals down in terms of quality, be warned.
0:06:14-0:18:39: When is a story not a story? When it’s that laziest of things, a dream sequence. Enter FF #248, in which Byrne tips his hand way too early about whether or not what’s happening on the page is “real,” while also not being particularly bothered in setting up the context surrounding the whole thing. Why is Reed dreaming of Treens and Space: 1999? Just what is going on with Triton? Is all of the Marvel Universe a dream, when you really get down to it? (I mean, yes, but still.)
0:18:40-0:31:37: “This is when John Byrne moves into becoming Unfortunate John Byrne” says Jeff when referring to Fantastic Four #249, and he’s not just saying that because of some unfortunate layout choices. Nope, it’s the writing that we really attack here, because Mr. Byrne knows just how the Fantastic Four and its surrounding world should act and he’s here to make sure you understand exactly what he means, no matter how dull that might make a fight issue. Also, the worst cliffhanger of the Byrne run to date? That would be this one, leading into…
0:31:38-0:43:34: FF #250, which works best if you assume that (a) all anyone wants out of an anniversary issue is an appearance by the main cast, regardless of quality or common sense (Really, what else is Alicia doing in here?), and (b) that all superheroes are stupid and have never, ever met the X-Men ever before. On the plus side, we do get to get a preview of how John Byrne will approach Superman years hence, which isn’t exactly what anyone would have expected. And, as I note, as bad as this issue might be, it’s still better than what’s just around the corner.
0:43:35-0:57:44: Fantastic Four #251 launches the you-won’t-believe-it-drags-on-so-long Negative Zone saga, which seems like a good idea but that’s because you’re imagining the best version instead of the Byrne version. This issue has a lot to recommend it, however, including some good “Day in the Life” stuff (and the introduction of Christopher Reeve, above), a toyetic and Tardis-like spacecraft, the best proof yet that John Byrne takes this stuff far too seriously, and a cliffhanger that couldn’t have been more lampshades if the dialogue had actually included the words “What about this guy we’re mentioning right now, do you think he’ll show up before the end of the issue to cause trouble? What are the odds?” Feel free to be as surprised as I am that neither Jeff nor myself tried to make “Byrne’s Annihilus” into the comic book version of “Chekhov’s gun.”
0:57:45-1:08:55: Everything goes sideways in FF #252, as Jeff tries (and fails) to make the argument that turning the page sideways to draw it constitutes an experiment, but that still might be one of the most interesting things about the issue. But at least we also get to see… Reed getting sick, which allows the rest of the team the only opportunity they have to fuck up…? Okay, maybe that’s not the most convincing argument in favor of the book. Welcome to the new era of surprisingly light, throwaway done-in-ones, everyone!
1:08:56-1:14:17: If nothing else, let’s take note that Jeff’s love of the splash for Fantastic Four #253 gives us a chance to say something positive about an issue that is, in almost every other respect, entirely throwaway, as if written by someone for whom “But what if it’s not?” is seen as a worthy plot twist in and of itself, separate from, you know, actually having a story attached on either end. That said, we do get to find out about Negative Zone pranks here, and let’s just be honest: Annihilus’s sense of humor is a thing of wonder.
1:14:18-1:24:07: Things pick up for all the wrong reasons in FF #254, which debuts the new catchphrase Jeff wishes that Reed Richards would adopt, while both of us agree that, for once, Byrne seems to get that all of the team are adults while also demonstrating that no-one ever wants to see a topless Reed using his powers ever, ever again. Who knew that pink stretching man would seem so much more gross than blue stetting man? And yet, now we have the proof.
1:24:08-1:42:48: Perhaps reflecting our dislike for the way this plot line goes, we end up discussing Fantastic Four #255 and 256, and its crossover issue Avengers #233, all in one go. (The issue titles, which I think we skipped, are “Trapped” and “The Annihilation Gambit!”, if you’re bothered.) Under discussion: overly-purple prose when Daredevil shows up, the fact that it turns out to be trouble when your big climax hinges around a plot that no-one had really thought out (who knew?) and the arrival of the Byrne-era FF costumes, which come about because no-one apparently thought to explain to him that the “negative,” or inverse, of a black and blue costume would be a white and orange one. Annihilus, you deserved better than this weird plot line, even if you apparently couldn’t tell when people are alive or dead.
1:42:59-1:49:29: “Fragments,” AKA FF #257, lives up to its title with an especially scattered issue that feels very subplot heavy, but it’s actually doing the heavy lifting for what’s coming up in a few months. Meanwhile, I tell Jeff about The Thing #2, which ties into this issue despite that not being obvious anywhere in the issue itself. Oh, and Galactus destroys the Skrull home world, and it feels very much like the afterthought that I’m treating it as.
1:49:30-2:02:40: With both time and our attention span dwindling, we once again group a number of issues together, this time covering #258-260, which have a lot of things you’d think we’d enjoy more: A Doctor Doom spotlight issue centering on his psychological issues! The apparent death of Doom (although that’s obviously not the case, despite the fact that Jeff misses the get-out clause)! Three issues entirely without Reed Richards! And yet, our enthusiasm is dampened not only by the fact that Byrne himself feels less than enthusiastic, but also because one of the two antagonists of this storyline is the former Terrax the Tamer, a character who will never, ever be interesting despite how much creators feel otherwise. That we spend more time talking about Namor’s hair from a brief cameo sequence than how awesome Terrax is should be a clue.
2:02:41 – end: We wrap everything up by wondering just why these issues were underwhelming, and then looking ahead to next month’s episode, where we’ll go from #261 through #270. In the meantime, you can check out our Tumblr, Patron and Twitter, or simply return back here next week for a brand-new Wait, What?. As always, thanks for reading and listening, and sorry for everyone who got caught out by the faulty file uploaded earlier. Things are fixed now, honest!