Baxter Building Ep. 46: “That Enemy Is Far Closer Than You Know!”

September 17, 2018

Previously on Baxter Building: I could make reference to just how bad the Tom DeFalco/Paul Ryan run has become by this point — trust me, both Jeff and I will do so many times in the episode ahead — but what everyone really needs to know for the issues ahead are: Franklin Richards was kidnapped into the future by his grandfather Nathan, only to be returned as a telepathic teenager with high-tech armor and a mysterious mission. He’s been followed by someone called Hunter, who is like Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane’s Angela if she were even less interesting, but she has a mission that’s involved here teaming up with Devos, Paibok the Power-Skrull and Klaw, who are like a new Frightful Four with no clear agenda other than screwing with the Fantastic Four. As it turns out, though, they’re out of luck — because Doctor Doom’s just apparently killed Reed Richards in a last-minute suicide move!

0:00:00-0:26:31: What I genuinely believed would be a shorter episode than usual gets immediately derailed when Jeff asks if I’d read Fantastic Four #2 — the current series — and what I thought of it, leading into a discussion about the first two issues of the series, Dan Slott’s strengths as a writer, and what Jeff doesn’t like about Brian Michael Bendis’ Superman. Staying on target as ever.

0:26:32-0:42:01: That conversation leads into our talking about the era of FF that we’re now covering, and how (poorly) it stands up compared with the versions of the book that existed when we first encountered it, and the flaws that the DeFalco/Ryan era has. Or, as I put it somewhat unkindly, “It’s progressively getting a worse and worse comic, and by worse, I mean boring.” (I’m not actually wrong, though.)

0:42:02-0:55:26: We finally get to the point of the podcast and talk about Fantastic Four #382, only to pretty quickly regret it, and the many questions it raises: What’s the point of killing off one of your central characters if you immediately move on from the topic? Why is technology modular for easy updating in Castle Doomstadt? Is the Franklin/Huntara material intentionally obtuse? And why should we be bothered about a cliffhanger quite so underwhelming as this one?

0:55:27-1:18:10: Ignoring the nonsense title, FF #383 brings an unexpected conclusion to the plot line about Sue’s powers failing, a wonderful moment of concern from Jeff about other aliens jailed by the Skrulls and some particularly unlikely strategy working out when it comes to following random people running away from trouble. It also provokes us to attempt to make sense of the mythology that’s been built up around Franklin and Huntara, and to say that it’s complicated and not exactly coherent is certainly a polite way of putting it. Could it be possible that… this wasn’t exactly the most well-planned comic? Surely not.

1:18:11-1:23:40: We speed through Fantastic Four #384, which technically has a couple of big reveals in it — Sue really was being corrupted by Malice, which is maybe an alien perhaps possibly — except that they are utterly undercut by poor execution and a creative team that seems categorically unable to actually offer a definitive conclusion to anything. Still, at least Scott Lang has showed up to be the team’s new science guy, which is… maybe something…?

1:23:41-1:52:24: Both FF #s 385 and 386 interrupt the ongoing storylines with a crossover called Starblast, which — judging from these issues — is all about things happening underwater, but looks are apparently deceiving. As we try to get through the issues as quickly as possible — for #385, at least — there are some things that stand out… not least of which is Lyja the Lazerfist finally giving birth to her and Johnny’s child after issues and issues of teasing, which also means an answer to what a Lacaroo is. Don’t worry; it’s exactly as underwhelming as you think it is, if not moreso. Meanwhile, why is everyone creeping on Sue? Her husband died just a few issues ago!

1:52:25-2:19:37: Even the appearance of the Watcher fails to entertain us in Fantastic Four #387. Indeed, Jeff seems to have problems with his appearance altogether, perhaps because of his long-standing suspicion of bald men in togas. While “Nobody Gets Out Alive!” is, in many ways, a set-up issue for what’s to come, there’s a bunch to chew through here, not least of which are Murphy Brown allusions, the gullibility of our heroes, Namor’s desire to get naked and the inherent creepiness of Paul Ryan’s attempts to make Sue Richards sexy. Oh, and a cliffhanger even more underwhelming than that of #382.

2:19:38-2:31:41: There’s no way to get around it; FF #388 is a mess amongst a run of messes, and manages to make the team look both stupid and also uncaring. It’s also the most curiously, the most retro issue in a run that has been astonishingly retro to date, with appearances from the original Avengers and the early Fantastic Four, and a villain who’s stolen his entire look from a previous FF villain without anyone commenting on it, strangely. There’s certainly some kind of aesthetic at play, even if it’s an inexplicable one.

2:32:42-end: We finish by being once again very unkind about what we’ve just read — “These issues are so devoid of inspiration or fun or anything good,” I say, apparently particularly unimpressed — and looking ahead to what we’re covering next month, which is to say, Fantastic Four #389-396. Disaster is awaiting, and not just in the sense of this comic continuing to go downhill! While you wait for the episode, why not check out our Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter or Patreon? You can collect the set, or something similar…!

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14 comments on “Baxter Building Ep. 46: “That Enemy Is Far Closer Than You Know!”

  1. Dan Coyle Sep 18, 2018

    is that… is that a riff on the big lifting scene from the master Planner Spider-Man story, starring Sue Richards?

    Jesus Christ, DeFalco is one original sonofabitch. That he’s allowed at all to write comics- even now, Archie just gave him a Reggie comic- in the year of our lord 2018 is nothing short of astonishing to me.

  2. Carey Sep 19, 2018

    “The big take away from these issues are apparently my peanut butter and chocolate is superheroes and romance.”

    And in one sentence Jeff Lester sums up my entire world view. And also points out where so many superhero interpretations, no matter what the medium, fall down nowadays.

    For me it’s why the first 150 issues of Spiderman are so very good. There are very rarely any outstanding individual issues but the background romances make things so much more special. It never mattered to me whether Spiderman would defeat Dr Octopus, but whether Peter would cop off with Betty Brant. And then followed the bizarre love triangle of Peter, Gwen and Mary Jane. See also Dr Strange and Clea; Captain America and Sharon Carter; The Vision and the Scarlet Witch; Cyclops and Jean Grey, etc.

    • Nate A. Sep 20, 2018

      I think the soap operatic dimension of superhero comics is underrated, and that mainstream comics are poorer for having jettisoned it in favor of high stakes, big event comics that emphasize the big “wow, cool!” moments over the smaller, “oh, no!” moments. I’d go as far as saying that the illusion of change lives and dies with minor subplots and interpersonal interactions (character moments/beats) because these are the mechanisms by which a writer can create stakes without threatening the fabric of continuity or the core of a character.

      • Jeff Lester Sep 24, 2018

        I love both of these comments, and co-sign them both wholeheartedly. Thank you, Carey & Nate!

  3. I just checked out the FF Annual with Herb Trimpe’s Rob Liefeld impersonation. Don’t know what Graeme is talking about. It is amazing. He’s great at it. It’s the same style but more dynamic. Some panels are truly hilarious too. I laughed out loud when Hercules showed up looking like a balloon animal. Trimpe was definitely in on the joke and having some fun. More power to him.

  4. David M Sep 20, 2018

    These are very processed comics, not much in the way of fibre or flavour. My only notes are being impressed by the heroic Skrull doctor attempting to keep the only lacaroo his hospital had from the marauding alien invaders and wondering at the mindset of people who wear masks to conceal their identity from a team, who has a member who can make things invisible.
    Comparing his work here with things like Quasar, I think Paul Ryan is trying hard to raise his game in these comics. I almost feel embarrassed by not liking his work, because I get the feeling of effort from the pages. Please keep trying to convince me he was cynical, I’d feel happier believing that.

    • Voord 99 Sep 22, 2018

      That raises a question I had. Why does the facility only have one lacaroo? I mean, it has one, so it’s not that it doesn’t do obstetrics. They’re not big, so you could have a cabinet full of them. I suppose that it just shows us how alien the Skrulls are.

      Subsequent continuity has however disposed of the problem that Jeff Lester pointed out, that Skrulls could not have evolved to need mechanical means to reproduce. Since the Skrulls are now officially the Deviants of the ancestral Skrull species, it’s all the fault of Arishem the Judge or whoever.

  5. Voord 99 Sep 22, 2018

    I think our hosts are absolutely right, in their opening discussion, to observe that these issues aren’t even terrible.

    But weirdly, they don’t seem cynical to me. They communicate to me this sense that the creators, or at least DeFalco, genuinely does want to do a greatest hits comic (with an injection, as our hosts have already explored, of X-Menification) and thinks that this is what the Fantastic Four should be in the early ‘90s.

    It doesn’t have quite the “flailing” quality that one would expect from a genuine cynic just doing stuff to goose the sales. The creators seem determined, in the face of what our hosts explained were collapsing sales, to stick with what they’re doing: stories about Paibok, and Devos, and Lyja, and Franklin, Teenage Warrior, and the New Sue.

    Especially the last. In principle, it should be admirable that DeFalco and Ryan are clearly committed to a vision of the FF in which Sue is the central character. That’s not actually been done before. Of course, we all know where it goes horribly wrong. It gives me the sense, incidentally, that Scott Lang is a stand-in for the creators having fallen in love with their own revision of Sue’s character.

    But, on a brighter note, reading these comics gave me a new appreciation for how brilliant Kirby’s eventual Thing character design is (i.e., the rocky one, not the original muddy one).. It’s not until you mutilate his face and stick a helmet on it that one really gets just how important the Thing’s face is to the Fantastic Four.

    It’s so amazingly expressive. There’s something about the design that makes it just cartoonish enough that it can get away with exaggerated emotions without making them seem to be exaggerated, and yet fit into a world of realistic characters. That it looks like a teddy bear is important to this.

  6. Bill J Sep 22, 2018

    You wondered in this episode what it was like to work on these issues. I would like to point you to the 2005 essay collection Comics Creators on Fantastic Four where Tom DeFalco interviews 14 creators who worked on FF including Paul Ryan.

    There are some interesting takeaways.

    First, they consciously attempted to introduce some new plot element every issue, but make no mention of any systematic attempt to resolve any of them. That explains how they ended up piling up so badly in these issues.

    Second, Ryan describes his collaboration on many of the big changes as “kicking and screaming”. It was definitely DeFalco driving the bus.

    On the “Nobody Gets Out Alive” storyline, Ryan says: “I don’t know what the writer was thinking at that point. I thought, “He’s gonna kill them all off and he’s not telling us what happens next.” … I suffered with that, because I never knew from one month to next what was gonna happen. I was in the same kind of possition as the readers; I just suffered earlier than they did.”

    And DeFalco ends with “I thought it was interesting that month after month we would get all this hate mail, and yet people kept buying more and more copies of it. I guess it works better when they hate you.”

  7. Matthew Murray Sep 24, 2018

    First of all, Jeff, I’m happy to send you my copies of Fantastic Four Unlimited. Goodness knows I don’t want them in my apartment anymore.

    Second, I made this a while ago, but I created a timeline of when characters were members of the FF. I threw in some data about the lengths of times various characters had been members. I didn’t count Frankie Raye Nova as a member of the team. All the data is from http://marvel.wikia.com/ when it says “Joins team” or “Leaves team”. (This is why Johnny leaves the team twice, first in 401, then in 403.) I’m sure there’s some errors somewhere.

    Anyway, a link that will hopefully work: https://i.imgur.com/CWS5FQH.png

    Finally, I read them so you don’t have to! I’ll see if I can put together some notes for the entire Starblast crossover for you. The Namor/FF stuff is almost completely separate from the rest of the crossover. I’m also happy to send these issues on to either of you if you are desperate to find out about the New Universe.

    • Jeff Lester Sep 30, 2018

      Wow! Matthew, thank you for this amazing resource! I wish I’d had it for the episode we just recorded because it would’ve made me sound much better educated than otherwise. It’s amazing I keep thinking one member of the team is absent a lot but the numbers really don’t bear that out.

      And I’m *almost8 tempted to take you up on that FFU offer…almost?

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