Writing about Marvel’s Secret Empire event has been…not fun. It’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an amusing snarkread, but it’s also largely felt so bloated that there hasn’t been much to say about each issue. I’ve tried to point out specific areas where I felt the series was coming up short, but I can feel myself occasionally drifting over into vague complaining.
Well, good news! Secret Empire #7 was a marked improvement on nearly every area of the book I’ve complained about. Sure, it was still a bleak, depressing story possibly too in love with its own grittiness. And, sure, you could argue that after six issues (plus a zero issue, plus a Free Comic Book Day issue, plus a bunch of tie-ins), the plot certainly SHOULD be kicking into gear.
But to focus on that would be churlish and needlessly downbeat. Let’s focus on the positives, just this once. (Please note: focusing on the positives is going to require some very direct SPOILERS for this issue. If you haven’t read it or had the major plot events revealed elsewhere on the internet, click away now.)
[FULL DISCLOSURE: When I started writing this piece, it was entitled “Matt on Secret Empire #3″. Then it sat there, eventually becoming “Secret Empire #3 & 4″. When #5 was released, I *thought* about updating this but couldn’t be bothered. And somehow, here we are today, at “Secret Empire #3 – 6″. That foot-dragging delay all by itself is probably a more accurate summary of my reaction to these issues than anything I could write below, but what the heck–I’ll give it a shot anyhow. I’ll start with my original content and jump in with these notes where applicable.]
One of my foundational points in what has turned out to be an ongoing readthrough of Marvel’s Secret Empire event is that I didn’t understand the strength of the backlash against Nazi Cap. My argument, initially, was that this was just another incarnation of a fairly stock comic book story, and not nearly worth the fuss it was eliciting.
After reading Secret Empire #3 and 4 [NOTE: and 5 and 6], I have to walk that back: it’s barely even a story of its own, and not worth any fuss at all. But I can’t shake the feeling that the backlash itself is partly responsible for rendering this story so toothless.
Previously on Baxter Building: The Thing is gone! She-Hulk is here to stay, despite topless sunbathing on the Baxter Building roof! And the series has brought on Jerry Ordway to ink John Byrne’s pencils, and the comic looks better than it has done in some time as a result. Which is a good thing, because what’s to come is pretty ugly, when it comes down to it.
0:00:00-0:07:45 After a Skype-enabled false start, Jeff and I get down to work analyzing what’s to come in Fantastic Four #s 278-284 — issues in which John Byrne definitely intends to make one, if not more, Serious Points About Things. (Not Ben Grimm, he’s still out the book.) The problem being, the execution doesn’t exactly follow through on the ambition. As Jeff puts it, “It’s not so much like he gave up, but…”
0:07:46-0:25:50: We get started with Fantastic Four #278, in which Doctor Doom returns (Kind of), but we’re far more interested in the fact that John Byrne apparently lost a bet and had to use the word “Remember” as often as humanly possible, the rewriting of Doctor Doom canon and an epilogue that only hints at the troublesome to come. But before we’re done with the issue, there’s one thing I really wanted to talk about…
0:25:51-0:33:31: …and that’s an editorial note in the letter column for the issue that is, essentially, a pre-emptive apology for the racism in this issue and the next one. Jeff and I talk about why the attempt at an explanation and defense ring hollow, and the ways in which this storyline wants to have its sensationalism and eat some holier-than-thou-ness, too.
0:33:32-0:54:57: FF #279 brings with it some anti-nostalgia for me; despite this being the first actual Fantastic Four issue I bought way back when, I really hate it in large part because of its overlong opening sequence. Jeff is far more understanding, although he wishes there had been more Doom, which isn’t an unfair criticism. We also talk about where this larger plot is going (or, as the case may be, not going), tease the Steve Englehart era, and get into why the Hate Monger plot is quite so ugly. (We keep talking about an X-Men issue when discussing this subject; we don’t say it in the episode, but it’s Uncanny X-Men #196, for those wanting to go track it down.)
0:54:58-1:15:32: Face it, true believers, Fantastic Four #280 has it all, as long as your definition of “it all” includes a surprisingly shoddy cover and some questionable stereotypes popping up as John Byrne attempts to build his “Oh No Men Are Racist But Especially When Aliens Are Involved” storyline. Jeff and I talk about all of that, the failure of Byrne to fulfill his own aims, the surprising (but welcome?) cowardliness of the issue when it comes to hate speech when compared with the previous two issues, the return of Reed Richards Patriarch At Large and, of course, the first appearance of Malice. Don’t forget: comics aren’t even for kids anymore.
1:15:33-1:29:45: There’s a lot to dislike about FF #281, including a horrific conclusion — that boots the end of the Hate Monger thread over to another comic entirely — and Reed Richards saving the day through being a misogynist. There’s also the fact that neither Reed nor Johnny recognize Sue when she’s being Malice (including, as Jeff points out, Johnny pointing out how hot this new villain is), Jeff and I talking about whether or not I’m reading too much into this plot being the culmination of a thread that started back when Sue had a miscarriage, and whether or not this entire storyline is trash. (Spoilers: It is.)
1:29:46-1:47:54: Considering everything ended with a big cliffhanger in the last issue, Fantastic Four #282 has to start with excitement right out the gate, right? Or, you know, a multi-page, mostly silent dream sequence for Franklin that is basically an advertisement for Power Pack. That John Byrne! Always zigging when you expect him to zag, or perhaps provide a coherent reading experience that doesn’t ask you to read multiple other comic books! Jeff did his homework and explains what happened in Secret Wars II as it relates to this issue, while I come up with conspiracy theories and we discuss whether it’s easier to get to the Microverse in a hot water bottle or a hip flask. Oh, and the mullet. The mullet.
1:47:55-2:08:36: Talking about FF #s 283 and 284 somewhat run together, as we run out of both time and patience with the storyline when it hurtles towards its conclusion, but there’s still stuff to talk about here — including a dream sequence for Sue that might be the most interesting thing in this entire episode, and provide a key as to how Byrne sees the character, and also Byrne’s horrendous treatment of She-Hulk that pretty much undercuts whatever larger point he was trying to make around Sue in the first place. (One of the sad things about the fact that we were tired at this point is that neither Jeff nor I pointed out that Sue’s Nightmare Reed talks very much like the real Reed did when trying to break the Malice persona, interestingly enough.) Also, given that Byrne purposefully leaves out what Sue actually did to Psycho-Man, we come up with a couple of possible, if somewhat unlikely, alternatives. (Spoilers: the Malice costume comes into play more than might be expected here.)
2:08:37-end: So, how were these issues overall? According to Jeff, they make “for some really distressing reading,” which… doesn’t feel like that much of an overstatement, to be honest. We look ahead to the issues we’ll be covering in the next Baxter Building — #285-295, which finish off Byrne’s run — with some trepidation, while trying to work out why we both kind of enjoyed this episode’s reading despite knowing better. If you don’t want to join us on that particular emotional journey, perhaps you should check out our Twitter, Tumblr and Patreon instead, or simply tune back in next month for the end of another era. Until then, as always, thanks for listening and reading.
Previously on Baxter Building: Technically, last time we covered a few years’ worth of annuals, but in terms of the monthly comic book, John Byrne has settled into a comfortable rut of retro attitude and safe, if enjoyable, storytelling. Anyone expecting that to change this time out will be disappointed. Just saying.
0:00:00-0:07:12: Welcome back to the show that never ends, dear Whatnauts. (Or, at least, won’t end until we’ve reached the final issue of this volume, and that’s aways away yet.) This time around, we’re covering Fantastic Four #s 271-277, a run of issues that prompts Jeff to consider just what writer/artist John Byrne is trying to do with the series, and why it isn’t better than it actually is. Is it a failure of ambition, talent, or both?
0:07:13-0:23:58: From there, we jump straight into FF #271 and the horror of Sue’s mullet, which Jeff believes fails to conform to the truest definition of the mullet form. Thankfully, there are other things to distract us from the follicle horror, including the undiscovered secret of Johnny Storm’s powers, the unknown wealth in Reed Richards’ family, and how much fun it can be to see Byrne channel 1950s monster comics in a flashback. All this, and a revelation about Reed Richards’ health that will… not be followed up on in future issues! Truly, this is the age of Mighty Marvel Forgetfulness!
0:23:59-0:40:27: Fantastic Four #272 causes a schism as Jeff is left utterly cold and I am, well, warmer than lukewarm, at least. (I actually like the issue a bunch.) We talk about the ways in which Byrne is an unapologetic thief of other people’s ideas, iconography and images, as well as the strange mix of disappointment and potential that is Nathaniel Richards, and what that means for the parentage of the Fantastic Four as a whole. (Oh, and we digress a little about Byrne as artist, inspired by a note he writes to the readers warning that he’s about to start experimenting with his pencils. Spoilers: He doesn’t really.) Despite all of this, Jeff is adamant on the fact that the comic isn’t fun, because he likes, like, good comics or something.
0:40:28-1:00:58: You know what isn’t a good comic? That would be FF #273, which closes out this trilogy with an especially subpar issue. What’s the blame? Maybe it’s the terrible lettering, provided by Byrne himself, although it’s far more likely to be the fact that even John Byrne can’t seem to bring himself to be interested in the story he’s telling here. “It’s amazing how much Byrne stops giving a shit,” Jeff says, and he’s not wrong. Nonetheless, we give some conversation the old college try, with Byrne’s potential desire to be a “fun cartoonist” and the actual, real history of the world. Oh, and this comes up, as unlikely as it seems:
All this, and a return of Jeff’s “shadow self” theory, but this time it’s not about Reed. Will wonders never cease? Actually, just wait until the next issue.
1:00:59-1:10:39: You can tell how interested Jeff and I are about Fantastic Four #274 — which I call “what can only be described as John Byrne’s weird attempt to try and raise sales of The Thing” — by the fact that we barely actually talk about the comic, which is to all intents and purposes a Thing story in the wrong title, instead spending time on Thing continuity around this time in general. But at least Jeff likes the art — this is the first of two issues inked by Al Gordon — even though I am unconvinced by his Barry Windsor-Smith comparison.
1:10:40-1:28:03: The infamous FF #275 sees the true, as Jeff puts it, Victorian nature of John Byrne come out: not only is this the “She-Hulk photographed topless on the roof of the Baxter Building” issue — a plot that is, to be kind, more than a little flimsy and tripped up by Byrne’s own objectification of She-Hulk — it’s also the issue where the true horror of Alicia’s Cursed Vagina of Shame is revealed, as Johnny and Alicia talk about their night before in an especially cringeworthy scene. There’s much discussion over the Alicia/Johnny pairing, and whether or not we buy it. Spoilers: we don’t.
1:28:04-1:39:20: Running out of steam, we tackle Fantastic Four #s 276 and 277 pretty much together, which is mostly all that they deserve. Ostensibly a two-parter, there’s a lot of strange going on here, including the fact that the Thing’s return to Earth is covered in half of one issue that also happens to be a crossover with ROM Spaceknight (“Who gives a shit?” asks Jeff, which surely prompts at least one ROM fan to declare, “I do!”), and a Reed and Sue plot that goes nowhere not particularly entertainingly despite a Doctor Strange cameo. It’s not all bad, though; there’s a fun bunch of newspaper strip cameos, and the arrival of Jerry Ordway on inks is something that both Jeff and I find a great boon to the book’s look in general. Overall, though, things have been so much better. Is this the shape of things to come…?
1:39:21-end: We wrap things up by looking ahead to what we’ll be covering next episode — FF #278-284 — and, en route to wrapping things up, take an entirely unexpected detour to discussing the roll-out of the first series of X-Factor and the way it was promoted. Quite how that happened, I have no idea. As you try to work that out, think about visiting our Tumblr, Twitter and Patreon, and know that you have our thanks, as ever, for listening and reading. Next week: Back to normal with a regular Wait, What?!