It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these. In that time I read Secret Empire #9, Captain America #25, and Secret Empire #10, which wraps up the main thrust of the event. They were…uninspiring, at best. (I also read all of the U.S.Avengers tie-in issues, which were absolutely great in all the ways the main books weren’t–fun and thoughtful and character-driven and interesting. Graeme covered some of why over on the tumblr, if you’re curious, but it feels outside my whiny, dreary remit here.)
I’ve made a bunch of complaints about the series here before, and I don’t feel particularly compelled to just repeat them in a general sense. Instead, I’ll point at a few specific examples from issues #9-10 that seemed particularly disappointing.
First, though: I came into Secret Empire by way of trying to understand what had people so worked up about Hydra Captain America, which we all–including most of the people who objected to HydraCap–knew was going to be reversed. Now that we’ve seen the ending of that story, the outcry seems even more pointless to me. It was a toothless version of a familiar trope, resolved even more toothlessly, barely worthy of acknowledgement by the book’s readers, let alone by outside critics.
But enough about that, for now. On to some more concrete issues, after the jump. (TOTAL SPOILERS, obviously.)
Previously on Baxter Building: Sue Richards no more! No, wait; I mean Invisible Girl no more, because after facing off against Psycho-Man and the Hate Monger, Sue has become the Invisible Woman because she did… something mysterious off-panel…? Oh, and John Byrne is running out of steam and then some as we speed towards the end of his run.
Important Note: There is an increasing amount of static on Jeff’s side of the call from about 20 minutes in until about 40 minutes in. We’re sorry! I’m also sorry these show notes are up so late: Blame work deadlines and me disappearing to see the eclipse.
0:00:00-0:06:23: A brief introduction lets you know that Jeff and I are talking about Fantastic Four#s 285-295 this time around, which closes out the Byrne run, and we talk for a second about how disappointing the issues are overall (“I think it’s fair to say that he is not going out with a bang,” as I put it) and the editorial collateral damage of Byrne being forced off the book. And then things really get going with…
0:06:24-0:24:18: …Fantastic Four #285, in which John Byrne clearly thinks that he’s producing a work of deep emotional value, despite it being a clumsy, cloying self-satisfied mess. While it’s obvious what he was going for, the lack of… well, any real emotional value whatsoever in the story, combined with an impressively misguided attempt at an uplifting ending, collides to make a disaster of an issue. Did Tommy die for nothing? Well, it depends if you consider “John Byrne’s ego” to be nothing, but basically, yes.
0:24:19-0:42:40: FF #286 brings Jean Grey back to life in an X-Factor prologue that manages to get over quite how boring those initial issues of that series was, while also bringing in a couple of uncredited guest creators so upsetting to John Byrne that he takes his name off the book. As you might expect, Jeff and I were both thrilled by an issue that evokes the spirit of Bob Layton, but even as we try to ignore the static, we imagine how patient Hercules must be when he’s not sexually harassing the women around him, discuss the apparently terrible memory the Avengers and Fantastic Four have for faces — they have met Jean Grey before! — and Jeff touches on why this comic makes him feel for Brian Michael Bendis. No, really.
0:42:41-1:03:37: A sound effect — and, in reality, a break while Jeff works out different audio options to fix the static — later, and we’re back to talk about Fantastic Four #s 287-288, in which pedantry is the order of the day as the Beyonder steps in to try and fix the Doctor Doom continuity error accidentally caused by the first Secret Wars and we get to see, as Jeff points out, Jim Shooter’s fictional analog get berated by John Byrne’s fictional analog — because, oh yes, Reed Richards is in fine “Reed Knows Best” form here. Also, turns out that the pairing of John Byrne and Joe Sinnott is not a good one, especially when it ends up with Sue getting a new haircut that looks like this:
Also! Are godlike beings restricted by history? Does anyone besides me miss the Watcher about now? And is “John Byrne, Continuity Cop” actually a good thing…?
1:03:38-1:10:59: We take a short detour to discuss the equally short tenure of John Byrne’s Imperial Period: Are Fantastic Four and Superman as good as it got for him, and if so, does that mean he was only on top of the world for seven or eight years or so? (And even during that, there was the not-very-good Alpha Flight…)
1:11:00-1:26:41: I am, shall we say, somewhat non-plussed by FF #s 289-290, in which Byrne apparently looked at his previous Annihilus storyline and thought, “Well, too much happened in that story, I can do something far more boring.” Jeff describes the execution of the story as being the product of a man in “gotta catch a bus mode,” which might explain just why Johnny Storm acts like the world’s most idiotic man here, Reed gets apparently killed twice without no-one caring apart from Sue, and the villains come across as even more of an afterthought with little aim or ambition than they usually do. Oh, and Sue and Johnny have the same hairstyle. No, really, look:
Seriously, what were you thinking, John Byrne?!? The worst part? There’s a really good idea at the heart of this story, as we riff about momentarily. Don’t make us do your job for you, Byrne…!
1:26:42-1:45:36: But, wait! Could Fantastic Four #s 291 and 292 be even worse than the previous couple of issues? It’s not impossible, but before we get there, I share a theory about whether or not Byrne was phoning these issues in because he had actually quit Marvel a year earlier. From there, it’s all talk of repetition, Star Trek rip-offs and whether or not a plot about Nick Fury traveling in time and planning to kill Hitler years before World War II would actually be a big deal or not had someone else been working on the book at the time. Does it matter? Of course not, because we are trudging through the very end of an era here, and it’s not pretty.
1:45:37-1:51:18: Okay, Fantastic Four #293 is actually the end of an era, being that it’s John Byrne’s final issue — and, in great Fantastic Four tradition, it’s the first part of a storyline that he won’t get to finish. If you’re hoping that means he’ll get to finish in style, then… well, prepare to be disappointed with an issue that barely features the FF, and in fact kind of feels more like a West Coast Avengers fill-in… Still, our long national nightmare is over. Kind of.
1:51:19-end: Things devolve slightly as we tackle FF #294-295, the first Byrne-less issues of the series in five years by… kind of ignoring the story and concentrating on comparing how temporary replacements Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway did in comparison to what had come before. (Spoiler: Just because they seem to care about the work, it feels like a step up, although Byrne was arguably more talented than either?) We also talk about what John Byrne did next, our secret plans for a John Byrne podcast and look ahead to what’s upcoming in the next Baxter Building — #206-304 — and what’s coming in the next Wait, What?, because the answer is, somewhat surprisingly, more John Byrne. Even more than usual considering the audio problems, thank you for listening and, considering how late this is going up, thank you for your patience in reading. We’ll do better next time! Honest!
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.