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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His name is Rio! And he dances on the sand! My name is Jeff! I was not a fan of the meme!

Together, we are here to finish what we started, which is answering the questions of the beautiful benighted souls on Patreon!

First up is Tim Rifenburg:

Hey Guys,

Thanks for doing the question thing again.

  • Question 1: Is there any character / company crossover you would like to see and who would write and draw it?
  • Question 2: Are you ever sorry you started the FF read through? I enjoy listening to your thoughts but you sometimes seem like you are struggling through the books.

Then there’s Ethan Johnson:

There are two variations, I don’t care which one you answer.

  • Marvel buys DC and moves existing Marvel creative teams intact to take over DC properties.  Pair creative teams with books.  I’ll allow recent iconic teams, because if you don’t put Hickman & Opeña on LSH, you’re crazypants.
  • Same scenario, but no DC.  Just shuffle existing intactcreative teams onto other properties, like when Byrne & Mantlo swapped Alpha Flight & Hulk!

(Psst! Because Jeff was so proud of his list, he insisted on including it here:)

  • Okay. Hickman and Opena on LSH. Sure. But honestly I think a better take would be Gillen & McKelvie?

And, then, uh, in no particular order, other than how I think of ‘em:

  • Al Ewing and Barry Kitson on JLA;
  • Al Ewing and Elsa Charretier on The Flash;
  • Al Ewing and John Cassaday on Forever People;
  • Dan Slott turned Spider-Man into Batman; maybe if he wrote Batman, he’d turn him into Spider-Man? No, just kidding: I’d give Dan Slott and Sanford Greene Angel & The Ape. (Maybe Slott could have Batman, Inc?)
  • Chip Zdarsky and Leonardo Romero doing Ambush Bug: Year Done;
    Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Steelfreeze doing Superman (I should probably say Wonder Woman and then they can just lightly rewrite their issues?);
  • And I guess Mark Waid and Chris Samnee on Action?
  • Jason Aaron and Goran Parlov doing Jonah Hex as one title, Batman as the other (I guess I was kidding about Dan Slott?)
  • Bendis doing Green Lantern (with Mike Deodato?), Aquaman (or maybe that’s Mike Deodato?), Green Arrow & Black Canary (with Dave Marquez), and Teen Titans (with Mark Bagley)
  • Ryan North and Erica Henderson get the coveted The Brave & The Bold treatment
  • Greg Pak and Chris Samnee/Stuart Immonen could take Wonder Woman?
  • Felipe Smith writing and drawing Vibe;
  • G. Willow Wilson and Tradd Moore on Teen Titans;
  • Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood on The Rose & The Thorn;
  • Ryan North (again!) and Gurihuru on Lois Lane;
  • Becky Cloonan and Olivier Coipel on Nightwing;
  • David Walker and Robbi Rodriguez on Batman and the Outsiders;
  • Tom Taylor and Phil Noto on Catwoman;
  • Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz on Freedom Fighters;
  • Chris Hastings and Daniel Acuna on Metal Men;
  • Mark Waid And Humberto Ramos on Impulse;
  • Roxane Gay and Jackson “Butch” Guice on Suicide Squad;
  • Jason Aaron and Alex Maleev on John Constantine;
  • Matthew Rosenberg and Joe Quinones on Harley Quinn;
  • Gerry Dugan and Jim Cheung on Secret Six;
  • Jeff Lemire and Mike DelMundo on The Question;
  • Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo on Thriller.

Thomas Williams is curious:

The past two years during either SDCC  or NYCC, Valiant do a huge sale and I end up buying the entire past year of back issues and binging them. I always find that the comics are just great with solid story, characters and art. However once this sale is over I am back to forgetting these books in my weekly purchases. What can Valiant do to get people like me to remember them throughout the year?

Also Graeme, of VanLente’s Archer and Armstrong and Timewalker which do you prefer?

Evan Cass wants to know:

Are there artists that you used to adore aesthetically that you can’t stand anymore due to those same aesthetics? Two of my favorite artists as a teen were Art Adams & Ron Lim; I loved their work. Now as a 40something their work literally upsets my stomach; it repulses me. I’m curious if you’ve experienced similar with any former favorites, and why you think that might be. Thanks for the show.

Here comes good ol’ Badger Mushroom:

You asked your Patreon patrons (of which I am one) for questions to waffle about. So here’s one: what do you two think of the recent purchase of The Beat by Lion Forge? Any implications for comics journalism?

(I should note that I have great respect for Heidi MacDonald and the staff of The Beat. I just want to hear the experts weigh in. 😉 )

Thanks to you both for an entertaining and informative podcast, and thanks to Empress Audrey, Queen of the Galaxy, for bestowing her mercy on us all.

Brendan O’Hare has all the best questions!

For Jeff: Who did you wife/husband up on Stardew Valley?

For Graeme and Jeff: I know Jeff recently parted ways with most of his comic book collection, but are either of you still going through back issue bins to fill in a run? If so, which ones?

And finally, here’s our pal Roger Winston:

I totally missed submitting a question for the Q&A podcast, but I see you are extending it to a second episode. I know you are already full of questions, but here’s mine just in case you need another:

Background:

I sold off the bulk of my collection (~22k books) several years ago and stopped reading. But a few years after that, I discovered digital and got back in (mostly thanks to my iPad and Locke & Key). Now I am totally addicted to Comixology (and to a lesser extent, Marvel Unlimited) and spend way too much money there, buying a lot of books, most of which I will probably never read. I think I felt a need to replace my print collection with digital. At least it takes up less space.

Question 1:

Do you ever think there will come a time when we will lose the rights to the comics we have bought digitally? I don’t think I ever read the Comixology terms of condition, out of fear. But I worry about them going out of business or changing their model or dropping publishers or whatever. Although them being owned by Amazon does make me feel more secure. I have downloaded DRM-free whatever I can for backups, but that is limited to some indie publishers (mostly Image in my case) -Marvel & DC don’t allow that. So was I stupid to have sank so much money (most of it during sales, luckily) into something that could potentially go away before I have a chance to enjoy it? Oh, the hazards of being an obsessive collector, even when there’s no physical component.

Question 2:

Do you think DC will ever come out with a DC Unlimited type service? The bulk of the digital comics I have bought are DC. On one hand, I would love this, because then I could stop buying back issues. (I’ve bought very few Marvels since subscribing to MU.) OTOH, I would hate this because it means I spent a lot on things I could then read a lot cheaper. I have heard some suggestions that DC’s new TV streaming service might include a comics unlimited type service as well, which does make a certain amount of sense.

And that’s that!  Again, our thanks to all of you for tuning in, and a super big thanks for those of you on Patreon for you generosity!

Join us next week for a Baxter Building!  Issues #314-324 of The Fantastic Four!

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If I had to imagine the meeting where everyone discussed The Curse of the Crimson Corsair — which is technically the full title of Before Watchmen: Crimson Corsair, the prefix unused for reasons we’ll get to momentarily — then I’d imagine a conversation that went something like this:

“So, we’re doing all these Watchmen prequels, so let’s do a pirate comic.”

“You mean, like unseen issues of Tales of the Black Freighter, maybe the ones mentioned in that fake history of the comic?”

“Yeah, like that, but not actually Tales of the Black Freighter. Just a pirate comic.”

“Oh, okay. But it’ll serve the same purpose as Tales of the Black Freighter, right?”

“Yeah, sure. It’ll be a pirate comic.”

“So, it’ll be meta-textual commentary on what’s happening elsewhere in the prequels, then?”

“No. None of that. Why would anyone want to read that? It’s just a pirate comic.”

“But it’s a pirate comic as if it was created in the 1980s timeframe of Watchmen, or maybe some other point in comics history, surely.”

“No. That stuff’s dumb, that’s not why anyone liked that shit in the original Watchmen. It’s a pirate comic. That’s all it is. That’s all that people liked. Pirates. You’ve seen those Johnny Depp movies, right? There you go.”

“Can we have anything to make it relate to Tales of the Black Freighter, other than the fact that it’s a pirate comic? Seriously. Anything.”

Fine. Whoever writes it can do it in that same purple prose. Happy now?”

It’s almost impressive just how much Crimson Corsair throws away, in terms of what made Tales of the Black Freighter work in Watchmen. It’s the worst of every world for everyone aside from those who really did just want to read a pirate comic, and even then, it turns out to be a shitty comic. That there’s literally no metatextual element to the entire project genuinely makes it seem as if everyone responsible — creators Len Wein and John Higgins, but also editors Wil Moss and Mark Chiarello — seemed to think that the selling point for the pirate sequences in Watchmen was only the genre, and nothing else. Worse yet, that there’s literally no narrative connection made between what the audience knew of Tales of the Black Freighter and Crimson Corsair underscores that impression; why not even try and connect this project to the characters of the original, even if you’re not trying to address any of the more highbrow (and more important!) ambitions of the sequences?

It strikes me, mid-rant, that Crimson Corsair isn’t alone in this; the 2009 Watchmen movie stripped out all Black Freighter material, choosing instead to issue it as a standalone direct-to-DVD animated feature, as if Tales of the Black Freighter has particular value outside of as a meta commentary on what’s happening elsewhere in the story. Maybe it’s me; maybe I’ve misunderstood the entire point of Tales of the Black Freighter all these years. Perhaps it really is just that people really like pirates.

If that’s the case, though, Crimson Corsair would still disappoint. It isn’t just that the conceit behind the story is older than a shanty sung by a drunk old sea dog — short version: a sailor tries to do the right thing, is thrown off the ship he’s serving on, rescued by g-g-ghost pirates and then has to go on a quest to save his soul — but that everything about the writing, from the horribly overwritten narration to the choices made concerning character and circumstance, feels cliched and, often, offensive. (The introduction of a voodoo priestess with the dialogue, “Ju-Ju Lady, she come!” being a particular lowlight. Later, said voodoo priestess steals a baby, saying, “Ki ka, ki ki kia, I take baby. You not want baby.” This is something that was actually published in 2012, staggeringly.)

Despite all of this, there’s a sense that a different artist could have staged this in such a way as to make it feel like the EC-era comic the writing appears to want it to be; John Higgins doesn’t offer anything of the sort, however; the layouts are constantly overlapping with no seeming rhyme, reason or page design; the staging is consistently mundane, and the colors monochromatically muddy and indistinct. It’s not just a figuratively ugly comic, it’s a literally ugly one, as well.

Crimson Corsair clearly had some issues in its creation — Len Wein disappears as writer midway through the run, with Higgins replacing him (the shift is, at least, fairly smooth), and the story appears to end abruptly, perhaps suggesting that rumors of a cancelled one-shot that would’ve tied everything up have some truth to them — but there is nothing in evidence at any point of reading to suggest that this is a project that could’ve been great, but went off the rails at some point. It’s a Before Watchmen project that literally has zero to do with Watchmen in any respect other than it being a comic book like Watchmen is, and featuring a pirate, like Watchmen did. It is, in every single respect, a disaster.

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For my birthday a couple months back, I went longbox diving for random things that are not available digitally, not least because I could then write posts about them here. This is one of those things. 

THE BOOK:  Essential Punisher Volume 2, a massive black-and-white phonebook sized reprinting of the first twenty issues of the 1987 Punisher ongoing series, along with Annual #1 and Daredevil #357.

THE CREATORS: Written primarily by Mike Baron; the murderer’s row of art teams includes Klaus Janson, David Ross & Kevin Nowlan, David Ross & John Beatty, Whilce Portacio & Scott Williams, Larry Stroman & Randy Emberlin, and Shea Anton Pensa & Gerry Talaoc; and lettering is primarily by the underrated Ken Bruzenak, with occasional issues from Bill Oakley, Jim Novak, and the immortal Tom Orzechowski. The one exception to all of the above is the Daredevil issue, which is written by Ann Nocenti, drawn by John Romita, Jr. & Al Williamson, and lettered by Joe Rosen.

THE CONCEPT: On the heels of a successful 1986 miniseries that turned Frank Castle from an intermittent guest-starring vigilante into a super-popular antihero, Marvel made the logical business decision of launching an ongoing solo book. This could’ve gone in any number of directions, as the character was still remarkably inchoate. What writer Mike Baron appears to have largely settled on is an overt, conscious attempt at catching the spirit of the era’s action movies. But instead of making Castle a quippy Stallone or Schwarzenegger type, Baron channels the zeitgeisty weirdness behind Bernie Goetz’s 1984 vigilante subway shooting and the Punisher’s ’70s-era Charles Bronson-ish roots. And then he tries to find a way to sustain it indefinitely.

The result is basically the entire “Action” shelf from a circa-1987 Erol’s video store pureed into a fine paste and extruded as a comic book.

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For all of its formal playfulness — which attempts to embrace the spirit of Watchmen‘s “Watchmaker” issue, even if it doesn’t quite hold itself to the same standards of obsessiveness wth regard to detail — Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan is a confounding series, for multiple reasons, not least of which is that it’s a massive “What If?” that sprawls across four issues without actually accomplishing anything of value, while also drastically changing the continuity of the Watchmen universe.

The gimmick of the series, so to speak, is that Dr. Manhattan, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, has become unstuck in time. Or, more properly, he unsticks time; in revisiting his past during the first issue of the series, he revisits the moment he went from Jon Osterman to Dr. Manhattan, only to discover that it doesn’t happen.

It’s the first retcon in a number of retcons in the series, a series that seems to exist to retcon everything in its own way. Oddly enough, there’s something about this idea — and about the exploration of alternate timelines where the past behind the world of Watchmen didn’t happen, or happened in an altered state, with the differences seen side-by-side or playing out on the page in more subtle ways, revisiting and recurring — that feels fitting for Dr. Manhattan, the one actual superpowered member of the Watchmen cast, and the one who is, essentially, God.

The plot, such as it is, of the series is that Dr. Manhattan, by witnessing history, alters history so that his accident doesn’t happen — there are so many Schrödinger’s Cat references that it’s impossible to miss that J. Michael Straczynski has read up about the observer effect and quantum theory a little and wants to show off — leading him to revisit different areas of his past, from childhood forward, and see things unfold in slightly altered ways. Ultimately, he realizes that he has to force the accident to occur, but doing that doesn’t restore everything to the way it previously was… which brings up the final, most important, retcon of the whole thing.

Dr. Manhattan isn’t, actually, a Before Watchmen book in anything but name. For one thing, the Dr. Manhattan at the center of the series comes, chronologically from after the events of Moore and Gibbons’ story (At least, I think so; it’s unclear, but he certainly seems to have memories of the end of the Moore/Gibbons story even after that timeline has been overwritten, which would seem to suggest he’s from the end of that story). For another, it’s a series that actively overwrites not events from the original series, per se, but perspectives and meanings — everything still happens as it originally did, but the free will of the characters is at least undermined, if not in some cases, in arguably the most dramatic case, removed entirely. And, finally, there’s the fact that Dr. Manhattan actually extends after the end of Watchmen #12, in that we see where Manhattan went after he left Veidt in that issue.

There are problems all throughout Before Watchmen in terms of continuity — things that seem at best out of synch, if not outright contradictory. Compare the Comedian’s behavior in Minutemen to his behavior in Comedian, say, or Rorschach in Nite Owl and Rorschach. For all that it plays about with continuity and the re-writing thereof in Dr. Manhattan, it’s something that speaks to these problems. If this book is to be believed, Manhattan has to repair the timeline by implanting Veidt’s plan in his mind during their first meeting — a significant change to Watchmen and its mythology, because it actively robs Veidt of the responsibility for what he does in the name of world peace. But, elsewhere in Before Watchmen, the Ozymandias series has Veidt come up with the plan before that meeting. Are we supposed to believe that that timeline was overwritten, leaving Manhattan to try and repair it by implanting the plan at a later date? Perhaps, but Ozymandias also suggested that pieces of the plan were already in motion by that later date, meaning that Veidt must have played a dramatic game of catch-up in order to keep everything on schedule.

Or else, you know, writers and editors weren’t exactly paying the closest attention to what was going on in each series, and how they related to each other. Shit happens.

You might have noticed that I’ve avoided actually saying anything about the quality of the series, of whether or not I liked it. There’s a reason for that; I don’t actually know. The art, by Adam Hughes and Laura Martin, is beautiful; luscious and inviting, and filled with character while avoiding the cheesecake offered by the first issue’s cover. The story, though… is just there. It lies on the page, reading as much as anything for me like Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman issues in terms of tone and lifelessness. While there are, technically, cosmic scale issues at stake, it’s impossible to become emotionally connected with them, even on a comic-book-event level, because there is nothing after this for it to impact. It’s not like it’s Zero Hour or Crisis on Infinite Earths; if continuity is changed, what does that matter? There’s literally no more story after this to explore what that means, if anything. There’s literally no point to changing history, other for the bragging rights of having done so.

There are meta concerns to changing the continuity, I guess; I can imagine people wondering if it’s an attempt by DC’s hive mind to wrest control of the original Watchmen further away from Moore and Gibbons — a charge that doesn’t resonate to me, although I think Before Watchmen is ultimately an example of bad faith on DC’s part over all, displaying at the very least that it believes the original will never go out of print, if the rumors about the original contract are true — or, in some people’s eyes, laying the groundwork for Rebirth and Doomsday Clock. That seems even more outlandish, given that Rebirth was four years away when this was published, and likely not even an idea in Geoff Johns’ head at the time. (Also, having seen much of Doomsday Clock #1, I suspect that there’s even a possibility that Dr. Manhattan as a series will be utterly ignored by Johns and Gary Frank in the new book.

In terms of story, then, I’m left cold by Dr. Manhattan in both intent and execution. For all its clear desire to be saying something, it turns out to be nothing more than a pretty distraction that turns out to be empty of meaning. There’s probably a metaphor here about clocks falling into sands of Mars, but after making it through four issues of J. Michael Straczynski’s attempts to recreate Alan Moore’s none-more-cosmic narrative voice, the last thing I want is more pretty language that isn’t actually saying anything, even from myself.

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(Alternate Episode Title: Ask The Answer Men!)

Lo, again it is the time!  Graeme “Rio” McMillan asked our fine supporters on Patreon for questions so that he and Jeff “Union of the Snake” Lester would answer here.  We got fourteen questions from our patrons, and surely—as Graeme puts it at the beginning of the episode—surely we can get through all fourteen questions in one episode, right?

Right?

Paul Spence starts us off with:

  • Who do you think hates superheroes more: Pat Mills or Garth Ennis.


  • If you had to chose to read either The Boys, or Marshall Law, which would you choose and why. Of course, there is a third option, which would be to read neither, but I am not going to let you off the hook that easily. 


Jon Andrews has a request:

Can I get you guys to read Finder?

I can’t get anyone to read Finder.

I would settle just for issue #22 _Fight Scene_ (a replacement for Wolverine’s Origins Storyline that is 1,000 times more compeling).

I turn to you because no one hears my cries J

Tomas Syrstad Ruud wants to know:

DC has eaten many other universes over the years (Charlton, Fawcett, Wildstorm, Milestone…etc) and with varying degrees of success incorporated them into itself. Is merging universes like this inherently impossible because of slightly different underlying assumptions?

Which two superhero universes would you want to see a merger of?

Douglas O’Keefe asks:

I read mostly Marvel, mostly Silver- and Bronze-Age stuff, but I like to dip my toe in the waters of the present from time to time.  I’ve heard good things about the following four series and would love to know your thoughts about them as I figure out what to read.

The series are:

Saga (Vaughan)

Ms. Marvel (Wilson)

The Silver Surfer (Slott)

The Vision (King)

Also, is there one series from the last few years other than those I just listed that you (either or both of you) would recommend above all others?

Thanks, and keep up the good podcast!

David Brown says:

In 1986, several of my favourite series, such as All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc were ruined by the destruction of Earth 2 and the other infinite earths as they all merged into one in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The reason usually given for this was that DC continuity was too confusing and the infinite earths were too difficult for new readers to understand. My question is what exactly was so complicated and confusing about the old infinite earths that required this to be done? Especially when it is considered that most character histories (Hawkman, Legion of Superheroes etc.) only seemed to become more complicated afterwards (and much as I enjoy many books how about trying to explain current DC continuity to a new reader!) I could understand, and really liked, the alternate earths, JLA/JSA crossovers etc. and was only a boy pretty much getting random issues, as distribution to the UK was erratic before specialist comic shops were a thing – so was it really so confusing?

Adam P. Knave asks:

You are each exposed to ELEMENT-X and receive super abilities. HOWEVER according to the old fun comics rule they are powers that reflect who you are (Johnny is a hot head – human torch, etc etc etc)

What powers do you each have now?

Kevin Moreau asks:

Regarding Jeff’s assertion that Tom King doesn’t love Batman (and forgive me if my paraphrasing of Jeff’s argument inadvertently misstates said argument):

In your collective opinion, is it necessary for a writer to possess a great fondness for the character he’s writing about? As long as he displays an understanding of how that character works (even if it’s different from yours), his stories adequately lay out that understanding, and those stories provide some level of entertainment and hopefully a satisfying character arc, shouldn’t those things be what matter?

P.S. Is there a Patreon reward level I can upgrade to that would ensure that Jeff never, ever uses the phrase “dosh” ever again during his regular Patreon thank-yous? I know it’s a commonly accepted word, but for some reason it scrapes against my nerves in much the same way that King’s take on Batman seems to scrape against Jeff’s.

Brian Ruckley is curious:

Lots of questions, for you to pick and choose from (or ignore entirely if you so choose!) clustered under a single theme:

An idea that gets floated every so often, without anyone ever taking it terribly seriously I think, but I’m curious:

With sales going the way they are, can you imagine a world in which Disney or Time Warner finally licensed out their Marvel/DC IP to other comics publishers (IDW, Boom, Dark Horse, whoever) so that they didn’t have to bother with the thankless and not at all lucrative task of publishing comics themselves?

Can’t imagine it’s on the horizon yet but there must be a sales level below which it makes more sense, isn’t there? Or is the direct market toast by then anyway so who cares?

Or perhaps it would make even more sense without the direct market and single issues to worry about: if comics move toward a digital then graphic novel format, or graphic novels only, maybe it makes even more sense to sub-contract the actual publishing business?

Would it make any difference to you – if the only Batman comics were coming from IDW, the only Avengers from Boom, would it change how you felt about them at all?

And there you have it.  Join us in a week for Part 2, when we will (hopefully) finish the rest of the questions.  Place your bets now!

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