Baxter Building Ep. 28: “Well, That Was Interesting”

April 17, 2017

Previously on Baxter Building: The bloom has fallen off the rose for the John Byrne era of Fantastic Four, it has to be said. After an initial run of issues that got Jeff and I both excited, the series has fallen into a rut that undersells the genuine highlights of Byrne’s skills. Will things turn around this time out?

0:00:00-0:01:47: We were apparently so excited to get into these issues, we have the very briefest of introductions this episode. We’re covering Fantastic Four #261-270, which seems a lot of upheaval for the team, and a fill-in issue that I totally misunderstood. But we’ll get there soon enough.

0:01:48-0:16:35: You can perhaps tell how things are going to go when Jeff and I spend far too much time discussing Namor making out with Sue Richards and whether or not Uatu the Watcher is, as I describe him, “the greatest cosmic enabler in comics,” as opposed to talking about the actual plot of Fantastic Four #261. Clearly we don’t care that much about the rate of Reed Richards. (Although, given the time we spend talking about how Chris Claremont was the accidental instigator for this storyline, we equally as clearly do care about behind-the-scenes comics gossip. So it goes.)

0:16:36-0:41:41: With the Assistant Editor Month FF #262, John Byrne takes the opportunity to turn the book into The John Byrne Show for an issue, complete with a wonderfully passive aggressive dig at Chris Claremont as delivered by… himself. “It’s kind of a wacky issue,” I say, which might be an understatement, but we talk about the differences between Jack Kirby and John Byrne’s ideas of upping the ante, and Jeff comes up with a much better way of doing this exact story, which just so happens to build upon events of the previous issue in a more satisfying manner. As Jeff puts it, this is “a good Marvel comic in the way you mean it in a disparaging way.”

0:41:42-1:02:49: The two-parter in Fantastic Four #s 263-264 cause a schism in Team Baxter Building, as I think that they’re kind of shitty, but Jeff thinks that they’re — in his exact words — “really enjoyably shitty.” On the plus side, believers of Neal Adams’ theories of the evolution of our planet will find much to love in the scheme of “The Messiah,” while believers that Walt Disney was secretly an evil overlord are likely to be just as thrilled. (Jeff falls into one of those two camps, but I won’t spoil which one for you.) Mr. Lester also explains the appeal of appreciating the small stuff, when it comes to John Byrne’s work, while I get upset about a macro disappointment: that the final issue of the “regular” FF before She-Hulk replaces the Thing doesn’t feature the group together at any point.
1:02:50-1:10:43: An attempt to segue into Fantastic Four #265 goes awry, as we take a detour into the continuity of The Thing around this era of Marvel publishing, and I talk about what’s been happening in that title and the way in which it’s pretty much been More Fantastic Four, Kind Of for the first ten issues of its run.

1:10:44-1:21:58: With Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars getting underway, FF #265 — we got there eventually — ends up being an extremely disjointed and disappointing issue, no matter how much I might have liked the slice-of-life element of the issue’s second story. After all, there’s a terrible first story to deal with — which Jeff likens to Will Eisner’s work in an impressive moment of cruelty — and then a rushed cliffhanger to the second that really doesn’t land. But, hey! Welcome to the team, She-Hulk!

1:21:59-1:33:22: Truly Fantastic Four #266 is a banner issue in which there’s a fill-in returning Ben Grimm to the book one issue after he was replaced on the team, and I misunderstand the denouement of the story entirely. (My version of the big reveal was much funnier, and I have to admit, I like the story less now that I know the truth.) Under discussion: Would Sue Richards be the best thief? What is the difference between invisible and not visible, and does even John Byrne know? Also, why does Jeff hate puns so?

1:33:23-1:48:57: To say that neither Jeff nor I appreciate FF #267 is an understatement; I’m deeply upset by using miscarriage as what is essentially a Macguffin for a superhero comic, while Jeff doesn’t appreciate the way in which the story is really all about Reed instead of Sue, and wonders whether this is something that inspired Watchmen. (Lord, I hope not.) It’s a trite issue that, in Jeff’s words, underscores “how much Byrne’s interest in Sue really does feel like a sham,” and one that reduces a genuine real world tragedy into little more than cheap melodrama to fuel male comic book angst. Nope, in other words.

1:48:58-1:55:40: “Let’s continue the grossness,” I say, as we journey into Fantastic Four #268, and oh boy, do we. Sue gets literally two lines of dialogue as the follow-up to her miscarriage focuses on how neat the Baxter Building is, how bad-ass Reed Richards is even while grieving, and watching a mask kick the asses of half of the team. It’s old school superheroics the way that nobody quite wanted at this particular time, and as Jeff puts it, “it’s a very minimizing issue in many ways.”

1:55:41-2:13:42: With the end creeping up on us, we speedily cover FF #s 269 and 270. “It’s what I want from the Fantastic Four,” I say at one point, and what I mean by that is, “relatively fast-moving dumb sci-fi with Wyatt Wingfoot returning and a good conceptual gag or two.” It’s pretty much Byrne-by-numbers as Terminus shows up to demonstrate that it takes more than a dramatic name and reasonable design sense to recreate the glory days of the Lee and Kirby run, but it’s good enough for me in the context of recent issues to convince me. Jeff, meanwhile, is less impressed, making this the mirror image of FF #s 263-264. Now we know what we both like, it seems…
2:13:43-end: As we slide towards the close of the episode, we talk about the way our expectations of Byrne’s work on the comic has changed, and of our shifting definitions of quality. Are we being beset by creative Stockholm Syndrome, or is something else happening? We also reveal that we’ll be covering Fantastic Four Annual #s 14-18 and What If? #36 next month, and remind you to visit our Tumblr, Patreon and Twitter, because who doesn’t want to be recognized every now and then? Next week: an all-new Wait, What?, but Patreon supporters might get something extra midweek as long as my schedule doesn’t blow up. (Note: This is not impossible.) As always, thanks for listening and reading; it’s much appreciated.

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11 comments on “Baxter Building Ep. 28: “Well, That Was Interesting”

  1. I always blamed the clumsiness of the miscarriage storyline on an assumption that it was imposed from above. I don’t know if Shooter really issued a “no more babies” edict, but it was taken as fact at the time.

  2. So this is the run of books that led me to drop the book back in 1984, after buying the book for about fifty issues, which is quite a lot at age 14. My memory is that I really liked the Doom/Terrax story, after being disappointed by the Negative Zone “saga”, was really excited by the idea of the “Trial of Reed” story and incredulous by just how awful the conclusion was. By that time the writing was on the wall, so the mediocre two-parter with “Alden Maas” didn’t turn it around, and #265 was it for me (I vaguely recall thinking of giving it one more chance and flipping through the next issue and seeing it was a fill-in). I also really disliked how the book seemed to constantly be trying to get me to read Alpha Flight or The Thing or Avengers, so asking me to get Secret Wars to find out what happened to Ben was a step too far.

    [by the way, more than a decade later I started hearing about Neal Adams “theories” of geology, and thinking they sounded familiar, and still had these issues at the time and recognized the anagram, and wondered just how long Adams had been publicly insane]

    As I mentioned on an earlier episode, my library has some of the FF VISIONARIES books of Byrne’s run, so I’ve been reading them. Unfortunately(?) they don’t have the book with most of this run. Of the stuff I re-read (#241-#257), I found it more readable than I was expecting, although I also found that most of the stuff that I remembered clearly and fondly I now recognize as the most blatant Kirby riffs, where the originals were unknown to me when first published. The actual Byrne bits had a few good concepts that usually fall apart if you think about them too much, and a lot of annoying quirks (I cringe whenever he uses the expression “lady-love”). And Byrne’s art definitely drops off several cliffs in that run, especially towards the end (which looks like it was around the time Alpha Flight started).

    For the new to me stuff, I read the last three issues you talk about in this episode, and I’m pretty sure I’d have been thinking of dropping the book every month if for some reason I had continued. The artwork is definitely worse, and that Terminus story is just awful, maybe my least favourite to date. I also thought that he was basically doing the exact same story he mocked in #248, which is odd when you read them just a few weeks apart.

    I’m up to #278 now, and I can tell you Byrne finds a few more cliffs to fall down. I look forward to hearing what you think of those, and especially what you think about when Byrne stops inking.

    • These issues in particular (and a few from last ep) are among the earliest comics I ever read, and I don’t think I’ve reread them since, but it’s funny how to this day I recall very specific panels with crystal clarity (Jarvis bawling out Sue, that mask flying around, Triton randomly choking to death) but retain next to nothing else.

      I’m also a little disappointed you guys didn’t mention or didn’t notice that anagram, yeah! I’ve never actually heard whether Byrne was feuding with Adams or if he just couldn’t resist the potshot…

  3. David Morris Apr 18, 2017

    I enjoyed the drawing of the Thing in the first part of the Alden Maas story and Byrne’s take on Wyatt and a bunch of other stuff here and there, but as you said, not so much the stories. Something which jumped out at me was the giant Sue in panel 4 of page 8 of #261. I seem to remember Byrne being critical of Gene Colan’s use of perspective in Night Force at around this time. The degree to which that irked me fed the ignoble glee when I noticed this.

  4. It would be great if this was followed up on with discussion of other John Byrne comics, as his egotism, pettiness, pedantry, and various sexual hang-ups provide far greater interest than any of his comics.

  5. Bengt Apr 19, 2017

    I first read this stuff in Swedish translation in the late 80s when I was in my early teens and I remember liking it quite a bit. Now it’s mostly just dull.
    The trial of Reed is terrible though, it just seems like an excuse to have various cosmic entities gorge themselves on Reed’s stretchy member. Also, John Byrne’s so called “most perfect legal system in galaxy” seems to amount to presumed guilty with indefinitely long trials, Kafka would have been proud!
    I note that there is both a What If Reed had been found guilty (v2 15) (in which the Shiar home planet gets blown up…) and a Sue hadn’t had a miscarriage (v2 30) (which includes an Omen style demon child…). They came out about 10 years after the applicable issues though, so maybe you’ll get to them later?
    I also hate She-Hulk going “Reed is so smart and I’m just a stupid lawyer” in several places in these issues.
    Will you be doing the She-Hulk Graphic novel? It came out at the same month as FF 284, a couple of years before the She-Hulk ongoing, and is tonally a lot more like FF.

  6. Matthew Murray Apr 20, 2017

    Haven’t listened to the episode yet as my hold for the Byrne FF omnibus vol. 2 just came in yesterday. All four copies in the Las Vegas library system were checked out, so I can only assume there’s at least that many other people in this city listening to the podcast…

    • Martin Gray Apr 21, 2017

      Great episode. I was buying FF at the time and hated The Trial of Reed Richards even more than I abhorred the Galactus story from which it sprang. ‘Galactus is a fundamental universal entity, he must be allowed to be exist at the expense of countless worlds.’ Yeah, except Earth. Reed is the ultimate enabler.

      Johnny getting together with Alicia, yuk. This was the girl introduced as his sister’s double. And the betrayal of Ben was unforgivable – sometimes you just have to put your libido on the back burner.

      If you do hit another Patreon level, how about addressing feedback on the podcast? I don’t post often because it’s like tumbleweed.

      • Martin Gray Apr 21, 2017

        Oh Lord, I sound tragic/pathetic! Soz 🙂

      • Jeff Lester Apr 26, 2017

        This is a really good point, Martin, and Graeme and I discussed it after recording ep. 223! I can’t speak for Graeme, but I promised I’d make it a point to post more. (Sadly, Hibbs trained me out of it back in the SavCrit days, and I always worry all I’ll end up doing is killing any conversational steam that gets going…

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