Hello, Whatnauts!

Here’s episode two hundred and thirty-nine for your yuletide ears!  Due to some tech problems, the episode ran short (and turned out to be even shorter once you cut out the “Hello, Graeme, hello?” “Jeff?” “Graeme?” “Hello?” joshery).  Nevertheless, it is our hope we will scratch that hard-to-reach comic book podcast itch.

Topics discussed in today’s episode:

Our statement about the upcoming changes to Patreon’s fee structure;
*Jeff’s epitaph;
*An annotated readthrough of the lead story of World’s Finest #251, “Invasion of the Deathless Brain,” by Bob Haney, George Tuska, and Vince Colletta (oh, and good catch by Walter!  Here’s that amazing fan-drawn facial hair on Speedy below);


*The roundtable by Matt and Graeme about Justice League #34 by Priest and Pete Woods, and Batman #36 by Tom King, Clay and Seth Mann, with some additional commentary here by Jeff;
*But Jeff also read and wanted to talk about three kinda recent first issues: John Wick #1 by Greg Pak, Giovanni Valletta, David Curiel and Inlight Studios; Fence #1 by C.S. Pascat, Johanna The Mad, Joana LaFuente; Ninja-K #1 by Christos Gage, Tomás Giorello, and Diego Rodriguez; and the (not a first issue by super-excellent) Rock Candy Mountain #6 by Kyle Starks, Chris Schweizer, and Dylan Todd.
Also:
*The 2000AD 2017 Christmas Special;
*Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History… by Pat Mills;
*The 2000AD Sale currently on their website (update: and thanks to editing this episode, Jeff now also has a digital copy of the Complete Harlem Heroes);
and more!

We will return in two weeks for the last Baxter Building of the year!  Read Fantastic Four #s 322-327 and come join us!

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It’s a truism of writing about comics on the internet that first issues get a lot of attention and hyped issues get a lot of attention but no one ever bothers to talk about anything from issue #3 onward. With that in mind, Graeme and Matt decided to get together to do a good-old-fashioned Roundtable on Justice League #34 and Batman #36. Enjoy!

(Okay, okay. JL #34 is Christopher Priest’s first issue as regular writer, with Pete Woods on art. And Batman #36 is something of a Very Special Issue guest-starring Superman, written by Tom King, pencilled by Clay Mann, inked by Clay & Seth Mann, with colors by Jordie Bellaire. They’re also the first issues to feature DC’s (frankly lovely) post-Rebirth trade dress. Anyway: ROUNDTABLE!)

 

MATT: I cannot help but approach this Justice League title feeling happy for Priest. One of his most common refrains in anecdotes and essays and what-not, is that he (understandably) hated the fact that in the later years of his career he only ever got calls to write black superheroes.

Actually, no need for me to paraphrase him. Here’s Priest in a 2011 essay: Continue reading

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Greetings!  Just in time to close out the first weekend of December is Wait, What? Ep. 238! Here’s a quick breakdown of what Graeme and Jeff talked about in their two and a half-hour episode, in more or less the order they talked about it in:

Advent calendars;
Some of the best books of the year Graeme’s been reading;
Frankenstein’s comic book swap;
What we bought in the recent DC Sale;
Cinder and Ashe;
Batman Annual #2;
speculation about the end of Doomsday Clock;
Bug: The Adventures of Forager by the Allreds;
revisiting Multiversity;
Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville;
C.B. Cebulski and the legacy of Akira Yoshida;
and a little bit more!

And if that wasn’t enough for you, all you have to do is wait a week and we’ll do it all over again!  (Well, different topics next time, one would hope.)  Thank you so much for joining us, and we hope you enjoy!

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Sure, it should be a skip week this week, but in the spirit of the holidays, here’s a compilation of the previously Patreon-only Baxter Bungalow episodes, in which I talk about (deep breath) Alpha Flight #4, The Uncanny X-Men #167, West Coast Avengers #10 and The Thing #s 5, 6, 8, and 10-23, all of which tie in, to greater or lesser extents with John Byrne’s Fantastic Four run. For those who’ve wondered what Ben Grimm got up to on Battleworld, or even worse, what he got up to when he got back to Earth, now is your chance to find out. Spoilers: It’s weirder than you think.

(There’s no Jeff on this, sorry; it was always intended as a solocast, but his absence does point out how necessary he is to regular Baxter Buildings and Wait, What?s.)

Even more than usual, this episode is brought to you by the kind Patreon supporters, who heard these as they were released first time, and who make Baxter Building and the lesser-known Bungalow possible in the first place. On this Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., Jeff and I are particularly grateful for the support shown by them — and all of you who listen — to our comic book ramblings.

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I almost skipped Justice League, mainly because I expected to hate it. I was lukewarm on Man of Steel—liked it more than many people did, but found Zack Snyder’s whole worldview pervasive and unpleasant—and I loathed Batman vs. Superman. My comic book Justice Leagues are the Giffen/DeMatteis version (as mentioned many times before), and the Grant Morrison big-seven version.

The strengths of the first of those include humor, light interpersonal comedy, and strong characterization. The strengths of the second are epic scale, reliable undertones of hope, and a love of the bombastic grandeur of the DC superheroes. Zack Snyder’s cinematic interpretation of the team seemed unlikely to exhibit any of those strengths, and I’m way too frazzled-dad to have time or energy to hatewatch things in the theater. So Justice League was a skip-until-cable-and-maybe-not-even-then.

But my daughter, now nine, declared in no uncertain terms, “If it has Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, I am all about it,” so off to the theater we went. And, much to my surprise, I totally, unreservedly enjoyed it. It wasn’t flawless—far, far from it—and it certainly wasn’t deep. But it pushed a lot of the same buttons as Morrison’s JLA run in the comics: it was all the big-name DC heroes, interacting and fighting a thin, unambiguous bad guy. And sometimes, that’s enough.

After the jump, some slightly more SPOILER-y thoughts….

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Previously on Baxter Building: Steve Englehart arrived, and immediately changed things forever (Really, about twenty issues, but still) by sending Reed and Sue off to domestic bliss in Connecticut and bringing in two new members of the team: Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura; Kamala Khan wouldn’t be created for another quarter of a century) and Crystal of the Inhumans. As if the soap operatics of that shift wasn’t enough, Ms. Marvel and the Thing flew through more cosmic rays, and became She-Thing and Even-Thingier, respectively, leading to an issue where one character kept trying to kill themselves repeatedly. (No, really; she got better.) Meanwhile, Doctor Doom is still out there, waiting to cause trouble. Spoilers: He’s about to cause trouble.

0:00:00-0:10:49: After an extended cold open in which Jeff complains about the lack of visual appeal to the current incarnation of the Fantastic Four — by which I mean, the ones we’re covering, not the current incarnation, 2017-style, because there isn’t one — we talk about the issues we’re going to cover and accidentally lie to you. We really meant to cover Fantastic Fours #314-324 and Annual #21, but… well, we just weren’t up to the task. We only make it as far as #321, and even that was a struggle, as you’ll hear.

0:10:50-0:31:19: We begin with Fantastic Four #314 and #315, in which the team gets lost and only finds a way home through the kindness of strangers who just so happen to take over their comic book, kind of. Jeff and I talk about the appeal of the Thing as the center of the Marvel Universe, the “Emotional Dysfunction Engine” that is Johnny’s relationship with himself and the slightly shifting, kind of repeating monologues it includes, and whether or not the series fulfills the promise of the Lee and Kirby era, despite barely resembling it. As Jeff puts it, there two issues are “an amazingly off-kilter read” that break “so many rules and probably John Byrne’s heart,” and if that isn’t the best pull-quote, what is?

0:31:20-0:52:27: FF #316 explains the secret history of the parts of the Marvel Universe you never cared about, but does it matter without the emotional through line to keep the reader engaged? We discuss that, because I liked what happens in the second half of this issue far more than Jeff did. Also, we get into the FF as passive participants in their own comic, the very ideal of what it means to be the Fantastic Four in the first place (and whether Steve Englehart has a different idea of what it means to be heroic than contemporary writers), and Jeff raises the idea of an Englehart version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which still blows my mind a little.

0:52:28-1:05:31: By the time we get to Fantastic Four #317, it’s time to talk about Alicia and Johnny’s relationship and whether or not it’s a believable one, especially given the awkward bit at the start that Jeff is sold on, and I’m not. Other topics of discussion: Alicia as being the emotionally mature one in the Ben/Alicia/Johnny bizarre love triangle, the strange notion that AIM apparently works in intergalactic currency, and what happens when Steve Englehart has an enemy… and it’s Steve Englehart! (No clones were involved with the creation of this comic, to the best of ur knowledge.)

1:05:32-1:23:50: As we careen into FF Annual #21, we talk about the strange stuttering effect of these issues and how “Wait, how the fuck did we get here?” works as a hook to get readers interested in each issue. Meanwhile Crystal leaves the team, Quicksilver returns to the series (and leaves both of us confused about an apparent rehabilitation that neither of us believe), Steve Englehart becomes Jim Shooter in the strangest way possible, and there are the finest pin-ups any comic has ever displayed. No, really:

1:23:51-1:31:19: Doctor Doom arrives in Fantastic Four #318 and everything immediately gets better. What is the best thing about Doctor Doom? Jeff and I pretty much agree it’s his seeming inability to stop himself betraying everyone around him even when he really doesn’t need to. (As Jeff points out, this might make Master Pandemonium smarter, but Doctor Doom is still far cooler.) Plus, Blastaar returns and he’s taken care of so quickly, it’s as if Steve Englehart and Keith Pollard understand how shit he is.

1:31:20-1:47:47: Is FF #319 — which is really called Secret Wars 3 — a better ending for the Beyonder than Secret Wars II? I certainly thought so when I was 13 years old, and knew no better. The story of the Beyonder gets a particularly Englehartian wrap-up that also includes the Molecule Man, as Jeff and I discuss philosophy, Millennium and the nature of existence, as you do. Oh, and we decide that we have to just ditch the last three issues were going to cover, because it’d taken us this long to do these ones. We’re only human, Whatnauts. Sorry.

1:47:48-2:01:01: From the sublime to the ridiculous, and the one-two punch of Fantastic Four #320 and 321, in which the Thing fights the Hulk, and then Ms. Marvel fights the She-Hulk… kind of. Jeff’s into one of these issues, but I didn’t really enjoy any, in part because it seems like Englehart is producing these stories under duress. (Also, #321 is just terrible, and gets us talking about the difference between John Byrne’s She-Hulk and Steve Englehart’s, and why Byrne’s might be… better…? Nobody wants to hear that, not even us.)
2:01:02-end: We look ahead to what’s coming in the future briefly, and remind you all how tired we were when we recorded this. No, wait, I mean, we remind you all about our Tumblr, Twitter and Patreon. In a month, we return hopefully somewhat rested for Fantastic Four #s 322-327, which might mean a shorter episode for once. (Who am I kidding?)

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Hello, wonderful Whatnauts!  If you’ve been paying attention, you know that we are scheduled for a Baxter Building this weekend.

And!  I am happy to say you will indeed be getting a healthy dose of Jeff & Graeme in awe of what Steve Englehart is doing to the Fantastic Four.

But! Considering how crazy the comics news has been the last few weeks, and considering Marvel announced a new Editor in Chief just two days ago, we thought it might be a good idea to convene a quick 2017 check-in with what happened, what will happen next, and classic ’70s TV show, What’s Happening!!  (Sadly, I’m only joking about that last one…for now.)

So! Join in on the bemusement with this episode: it’s barely over an hour but still chock full of the quality bemusement you expect from us!

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Read in 2017, by anyone who’s even the least bit aware of… well, the cultural context of 2017, to put it bluntly — I almost wrote anyone who’s even a little bit woke, but that term feels odd coming from the fingers of a 43-year-old Scot — it’s inescapable how oddly limited Watchmen is, in terms of cultural outlook. Yes, it features everyone from Nice Guys to Omnipotent Men and Smart Men and… well, you get the picture, but it’s unmistakably the work of two straight white men of similar ages — Moore is four years younger than Gibbons, surprisingly, despite permanently seeming the older of the two — and upbringings, which is to say, “mid-20th century English.”

It’s clear, for example, that Watchmen is an especially white book. There are those who’d argue, pointing to Bernie — the kid at the newsstand — or Malcolm and Gloria, Rorschach’s psychiatrist and his wife, as evidence that that’s untrue, because three whole black characters with names is a big deal, right? Except, of course, two are essentially glorified cameos, with only Malcolm getting any kind of inner life of any kind, and even then, it’s one that shows how easily he’s bullied and pushed around emotionally and spiritually by the white man he’s dealing with. Similarly, Bernie’s role is apparently to be lazy, get shouted at by the white guy running the newsstand and say things like “sheee-it!” while calling people “turkey”; he’s literally an uncomfortable stereotype dropped into the book, hilariously, as a framing device for a story about another white guy who is more complex than he is, despite being a comic book character inside a comic book.

(Gloria, at least, gets to be… what, impatient, selfish and difficult to talk to? Yeah, that’s much better. Oh well, there’s also the unnamed mailman and some random thugs when necessary. Yeah, nothing wrong here at all.)

There’s also the story’s treatment of lesbians, which is… “problematic,” I believe the phrase is. Silhouette, one of the Minutemen from the book’s backstory, is the subject of gossip-y discussion in the book’s back matter — where we learn that her and her lover’s murder is deemed less serious than the original Silk Spectre quitting the team (Literally, from the Under The Hood text: “In 1946, the papers revealed that the Silhouette was living with another woman in a lesbian relationship. Schexnayder persuaded us to explore her from the group, and six weeks later she was murdered, along with her lover, by one of her former enemies… in 1947, the group was dealt its most serious blow when Sally quit crimefighting to marry her agent”), and that Sally Jupiter didn’t like her, but her sole line of dialogue in a flashback sequence is her being bitchy to Sally, as if to suggest that Sally was right all along.

Of course, Silhouette is just a ghost in the book’s back pages for the most part; there’s also Joey and her girlfriend, two of the regulars at the newsstand whose relationship is at best dysfunctional, at worse abusive. Unable for either to properly communicate, their storyline dies when Aline is on the ground, being beaten by Joey, whose self-loathing — “And I buh-wanna be straight… and, and I wanna be dead…!” — has erupted outwards.

There’s an argument to be made for the idea that, well, at least Moore and Gibbons tried to be inclusive and therefore should be applauded (Jeff, I think, made it when we talked about Watchmen awhile back, before I wrote this series), but… Really, I don’t buy it. Lesbians are figures of dysfunction and disdain in Watchmen, and black people are there to be harassed and used as props to illustrate the stories and struggle of the white men around them. Is that really inclusion? Is that any different from the only black faces in movies being servants or slaves or comic relief idiots?

Really, though, Watchmen is the story of white men being white men. There’s something prescient about Dan’s throughline at Nite Owl — he’s a nerdy white guy who the girl falls for because he’s nice, laying the groundwork for countless pop cultural takes on this idea in subsequent decades — as well as the book’s strange hero worship of the Comedian (a character that every single character seems in awe of, despite their different viewpoints on almost every single other thing, to the point where even the woman he raped loves him, a character beat that to this day feels beyond creepy and unnecessary) and distrust of the intellectuals Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan. The journey of various white male archetypes across the last 30 years feels visible in Watchmen, and I can’t tell if it’s because Moore and Gibbons were successful in predicting the future, or that they laid out a map in this series that larger culture has learned from and unwittingly accepted given the impact Watchmen had.

And, in the end, that was what Watchmen felt like to me: The ultimate “Toxic Masculinity” comic, the urtext of countless Men’s Rights activists and red-pillers who can look at this and hold two thoughts in their heads: that this is as good as comics get, and that men — white, straight men — have it so much worse than anyone else could ever understand, but only a lone visionary standing against the crowd can save the world. Whether that’s the Comedian, Rorschach or Ozymandias — the first two fail, of course, although that’s arguable given the epilogue scene — is open to question, but it almost doesn’t matter. Watchmen is a book that can appeal to anyone who’s white, straight and believes they know better than everyone else. An attitude that really is, when it comes down to it, quintessentially mid-20th century English.

Read today, however, the politics — social, far more than the purposefully blunt, comedic party politics — look fragile, brittle and unconvincing. As with all important cultural artifacts, it’s not only a product of its time, but something that should be revisited on a regular basis, and re-evaluated. Watchmen is unmistakably an ambitious work, and one that had the kind of impact on the industry and arguably the medium that is almost unimaginable. But it might be time to accept that it’s flawed, dated and ready to be replaced as the be-all and end-all of the superheroic genre.

The only question is, by what, and from where?

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Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca have been part of Marvel’s Star Wars comics relaunch since the beginning, almost three years ago. They teamed together to deliver a strong 25 issue run on the initial Darth Vader series; Larroca moved to Star Wars immediately afterward, and Gillen now joins him as the flagship’s regular writer with Star Wars #38.

Given that pedigree—not to mention their previous comics work, and Gillen’s other huge Star Wars-related success with Doctor Aphra—it seemed like a safe creative team to follow on Jason Aaron’s opening 37-issue salvo.

For the most part, “The Ashes of Jedha, part I” succeeds. As the title suggests, this issue brings a number of elements from Rogue One into the series. It’s the sort of thing that only a large-scale serialized fiction can do, and it’s rare (and oddly exciting) to see it happen on this level and with this fractured of a chronology.

Here’s what I mean: the timeline of the Star Wars comics that have come out since 2015 falls after the first Star Wars movie, which was released in 1977, but before the next installment (1980). These issues, like all other Star Wars media, incorporate characters from the sequels (1980, 1983) as well as the prequels (1999, 2002, 2005), plus occasional additions from ancillary media like the Clone Wars and Rebels TV series, as well as their own expansions to the canon.

The sudden influx of Rogue One characters (speaking and background), along with settings and ideas, is fascinating, because Rogue One was set just before the events of the 1977 film, despite having been released just last year. So this series has to create the impression that none of these new-to-us bits of IP are in any way new to the original series’ characters; conversely, it braids the events of Rogue One even tighter into the Skywalker canon by retroactively assuring us that Luke and company had all dealt with the fallout from Rogue One.

I’m not quite sure why that feels so brain-bending to me—maybe just because it crosses the streams of major motion pictures released 40 years apart while also jumping an in-canon bridge between movies and comics—but it very much did. (It’s the nerdy secular version of, I dunno, if the writers of The Ten Commandments had had Charlton Heston’s Moses stop by Gesthemane while wandering in the desert, just to seed that easter egg (no pun intended) for the New Testament.)

Also, I absolutely loved Rogue One and everything it brought to the Star Wars universe, so that gives this incorporation some personal heft as well. And Gillen and Larroca (and the rest of the creative team) mostly deliver.

Continue reading

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So, did reading Before Watchmen change my experience of Watchmen on the most recent read-through? Surprisingly — to me, at least — yes, and for the better, although potentially not in the way that anyone intended with the prequels had intended. (And, no, not in the sense of, “After reading some shitty comics, Watchmen shone even brighter,” either, to those pre-writing the snark in their heads.)

While some of Before Watchmen (Silk Spectre, definitely, and elements of Minutemen and Nite Owl) gave me an emotional “in” to characters who had, until that point, remained little more than cyphers to me, the more interesting contribution was that submerging myself in Before Watchmen had, somehow, stripped Watchmen of the scary prestige that surrounded it in my head; the idea that it is an Important Work Of Art That Should Always Be Approached And Discussed With Respect disappeared after it had been brutalized by 30-odd comics that sought to pay tribute and cash-in in equal respects, and what was left was… a 12-issue series that isn’t what I thought it was.

One of the most obvious things that stood out to me in this re-read was how meandering it is, and also how filled with tropes and elements lifted from everywhere; Moore has never been a writer who’s shied away from, shall we say, artfully repurposing his influences, and on this read-through, Watchmen seemed far more of a patchwork than I had previously noticed, with cops talking in crime novel cliches, while Philip K. Dick and Stephen King and Tom Wolfe peek in from the periphery, waiting for their moments on-stage. This isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism, just an observation; Watchmen is much more of a literary League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than I had noticed on earlier reads.

All of that said, Watchmen remains a book that feels curiously devoid of emotion and warmth, for me; perhaps it’s simply that Alan Moore and I vibrate on different frequencies or whatever, but I can see what he intends and where the emotional beats are supposed to land, but every single one of them feels empty. On this read-through, at least, I could appreciate the idea that the Watchmen I was reading and failing to find feeling in was a story being shared by Dr. Manhattan, and therefore of course it’s emotionally empty.

Another discovery: that, for all that the 14-year-old who read this first time out thought that this was “realistic” superheroing, Watchmen is as artificial as the traditional Marvel or DC universe, just in different directions. That only makes sense, of course; it’s limited by the experiences and imaginations of those responsible, and for all their ambitions, Moore and Gibbons were both Brits of a similar age, and that shows in the work. The politics of the book — personal and party political — are simplified to suit the purposes of Moore’s story, and even there, the story shifts and moves direction as Moore and Gibbons get distracted by what they’re doing and start to poke in new places. (Note how utterly unimportant the murder mystery thread of the first issue eventually becomes; there’s a point, around the third issue or so, where Moore and Gibbons see what they’re doing and start showing off, to each other and themselves, with more and more formal play while the plot falls into the background.)

Gibbons emerged as the most valuable player of the series for me on this read-through, his work grounding the book and also giving life to things that, in other artists’ hands, would have lay flat on the page. There’s something to the simplicity of his line, and also the way in which his artwork speaks directly to the genre Watchmen is examining (parodying, critiquing, bemoaning and expanding, as well, maybe); look at the Minutemen in flashback sequences and there’s something about Gibbons’ art that feels like the natural destination of classic Golden Age and Silver Age artists, which gives an urgency and gravity to the contemporary sequences that wouldn’t have been present had, say, Bill Sienkiewicz or Frank Miller had drawn the book. Gibbons’ clean line gifts Watchmen with a legitimacy that appeals to the subconscious, so that the characters read as superheroes visually even as Moore is writing something else entirely.

(That Gibbons can also make some of the more heavy-handed symbolism of the book work on the page as well as he does, and also bring in visual influences alien to American Superhero Comics like Moebius, who feels a particularly heavy note on the way Dr. Manhattan looks, is just more grist to my mill of, “Why don’t more people talk about what Gibbons brought to the book?)

Shorn of the understanding that Watchmen is inherently important and grandiose because it’s Watchmen — a belief borne as much of my own delusions and misunderstandings of the work and its place as a kid as anything else — I rediscovered Watchmen on this read-through as something far messier, imprecise and imperfect than I remembered, or had maybe even noticed before. It made me appreciate the book more, if not necessarily like it much more than before.

Part of the reason for that was the discovery, this time, of a whole new set of concerns. I’ll tell you about those next. (Yes, a cliffhanger! I did it thirty-five minutes ago!* Or something.)

(* This isn’t true at all; because of how crazy the last week has been with comics news, I haven’t done it at all yet. But there’s still time!)

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