Baxter Building Ep. 27: “This Is A Contingency I Had Not Calculated.”

March 13, 2017

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!

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13 comments on “Baxter Building Ep. 27: “This Is A Contingency I Had Not Calculated.”

  1. Rick Vance Mar 13, 2017

    This episode more than any other made me wish you guys were continuing beyond volume one of FF because having not read these issues but having read the Claremont run following Heroes Return the similarities between the two seem deliberate.

  2. Chris Brown Mar 14, 2017

    Come on you guys, you’re being way too hard on these comics! You’ve given a pass and found things to enjoy in much crappier stuff.

    “The Quest” for example was not bad at all. Sure, Heinlein had done it in the 50s and Star Trek had done it in the 60s but hey, Byrne was probably the first to do it in the 80s! It’s a perfectly fun little comic with some good twists and reveals (which Graeme snarked all over but didn’t really critique), there’s some good art with the oversize aliens, the ancient ship, the planet with all the moons, etc. You guys crapped all over it and I couldn’t really understand why.

    Sure, the ending of the Negative Zone Saga was a big nothingburger (behold the excitement of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fighting a slow-moving invisible wall!), but after that we got a Galactus issue that I thought had some pretty interesting and well-executed ideas (his relationship with Death which you didn’t even mention, Nova’s feelings, the destruction of the Skrull homeworld), and I thought the Doom issue was pretty interesting as well (the “daily routine” bits especially). And both 257 and 258 had opening page splashes followed by double page spreads that were pretty darn great, both featuring classic interpretations of the character and their milieu. Issues 259 and 260 had some pretty great superhero slugfest action in the Byrne style. Jeff mentioned the panel in the cab, but right after that are several pages of Tyros and Ben going at it which were suitably big and fun. The confrontation between Doom and Sue was great as Byrne seems to be realizing how powerful Sue can be if you think about it.

    I agree that there are missed opportunities and things that are a bit undercooked in this run, which seems to really bug you two, but overall I still think these are some pretty entertaining comics. And at the risk of being insulting (so just know that I’m saying this out of love), I think you guys are letting your distaste for Byrne’s subsequent (and current) persona to color your judgement of this run. It’s better than you’re giving it credit for.

    • David Morris Mar 15, 2017

      ‘The Quest’ always put me in mind of ‘Incredible Hulk’ #165, by Englehart and Trimpe, in which a bunch of people living in a submarine are seriously maladapted to life on the surface.

      • Chris Brown Mar 16, 2017

        So you’re saying someone did it in the 70s. That completes the picture!

  3. Oh man – I feel so vindicated. I went back and re-read all of my cherished Byrne Fantastic Four issues about a decade ago and thought they did not hold up to my nostalgia. I’d done the same thing with Byrne’s Superman run just a bit earlier (a run that I loved as a kid but found very problematic on a re-read) so my friends thought I was just on an anti-John Byrne kick. But I had the same trajectory that you guys did – an early feeling of “this guy gets it” followed by a creeping sense of boredom as he lost it. Plus I didn’t realize that he’d picked up his exposition-heavy “tell, don’t show” storytelling tics so early – I thought he picked them up when he was working on Superman (where he liked to draw panel after panel of talking heads filled with word balloons) but it really has been baked into his style from the beginning.

    They’re still better than the dross that preceded it, and than a lot of what came after them, so they look good in comparison. And they’re not horrible, just not as good as they should be.

    (Also – is there a problem with the download from itunes? When I download it via the RSS feed the last 10 minutes are cut off)

    • Try deleting and redownloading. I eventually got those missing few minutes.

      • Yeah, there was some weirdness with the originally uploaded file that we fixed yesterday morning. (Quite what happened, I have no idea, but it was certainly my fault.) Sorry!

  4. John Q Mar 15, 2017

    Hey guys, another great episode. I had a random question while listening (and apologies if you’ve already mentioned it) – any plans to cover the What If issue Byrne did?

  5. David Morris Mar 15, 2017

    Ah yes, let’s all go into the Negative Zone with Graeme and Jeff…I kid because I enjoyed your thoughts, you’re both so much clearer on plot and writing than I am. I find myself carried along with Byrne’s art as he appears to enjoy things like the destruction of the Skull Throneworld. Byrne’s statements about fans and fans as creators seem odd reviewing his work. One of you remarked on the inking of the Thing in the In humans issue- I think he’s got Ditko’s inking of Kirby from the FF’s first visit to the blue area on his mind. It’s the same way he never draws Daredevil at this time without thinking ‘Miller’, his swipe, sorry, homage of the cover of Spider-Man’s first appearance in a panel of FF#250 and also Reed’s thought projecting hat in that issue comes from FF #27. ‘What if John Byrne Hadn’t Felt The Need To Justify His Interests!’
    When Graeme mentioned Ben and Alicia fucking as small robots, I realised, for the first time that the Puppet Master made that tiny sex capable robot version of his stepdaughter. That’s a thought I’d managed to not have for over 30 years. Pret-ty weird.
    Like Jeff I enjoyed Reed’s thoughts about barbiturates. It raises the question whether he’s tasted all the drugs just in case an enemy would use them against him.
    Finally , on a happy, but digression note, Namor. I’ve been reading 1960s Bill Everett Submariner recently and he’s the best. He has a wonderful range of casual wear (he was wearing a terrific orange pullover last night), cheerfully homicidal and very clearly polynamorous…

  6. I had a similar response to Jer – I read most of these issues in the 80s and liked them, bought them again in the 90s and was mildly underwhelmed, read a few of them again in the early 2000s and couldn’t believe how dull they were. And how many of Byrne’s tics, visible to me only later, were clearly there from the start.

    But mostly I just wanted to say that Byrne clearly blew a golden opportunity to have Doctor Doom, trapped in his fused armor and desperately searching for a way out, enter and slowly dominate the mind of Aunt May. Now I really want to read that story…

  7. Might end up regretting this, but my local library has six of the eight collections of Byrne’s FF, and I just took them out. Unfortunately, they’re missing the first, which has issues I remembering mostly liking, and the fourth, which includes the issue when I finally said “I haven’t liked this book in a while” (aka the issue where She-Hulk joins). So two books of stuff I read before and liked at least enough to keep buying, then four books of stuff I’ve never read before.

    I guess if I manage to finish them I can finally take that free month of Marvel Unlimited and to read the rest. Kind of curious how I react. I have a pretty low opinion of Byrne in general, but I’m not sure how much is a reaction to his later work and his public persona.

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