In the latest sign that you’re totally old, no matter how fresh of a hoodie you’re rocking with your beaten-up jeans, the “new” superheroes that were spawned (sorry) when Marvel’s top artists bolted for greener, creator-owned pastures in 1992 have been around longer now than The Vision had when they were created. To celebrate that fact, Todd McFarlane has released a “Director’s Cut” of Spawn #1, featuring the “original” art pages in black and white, and commentary from writer/artist/creator McFarlane himself.
That seemed like a Roundtable-worthy occasion, but Jeff is out of commission. So Graeme and Matt decided to have a two-person Roundtable (also known as “a table”) on this momentous occasion.
Time for a Roundtable celebrating 25 YEARS OF SPAWWWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNNN! [metal guitar lick]
MATT: I remember biking to the comic store and buying Spawn #1 off the shelf–yes, honest, swear-to-god-it’s-not-Spielberg bicycling, as my driver’s license was still a few months away, and they had just punched through a gorgeous, clean stretch of jet-black asphalt connecting my neighborhood to the nearest commercial strip. I didn’t love the story–more on this later, I’m sure–but was of exactly the right age to love McFarlane’s kinetic, twisty expansion on Michael Golden’s gorgeously cartoony art style.
I stuck with it through the first year or so (that’s where I first found the more commercially accessible incarnations of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) and then moved on to other things for a couple of years. (Turns out that when you start driving, there are other places to go besides the nearby comic store.) I never really returned to the character longterm, dipping in occasionally when a guest creator did something with the line (Moore’s weird fixation on the Violator family of characters, his Days of Future Past riff in a WildC.A.T.S. crossover, Grant Morrison’s two-issue stint, Gaiman’s Angela miniseries, etc.), but this Director’s Cut was a powerful nostalgia punch for me.
But Graeme, you come at this thing very differently, yeah?
So Marvel’s Secret Empire event chugs along, amidst what is–based on my Twitter timeline, anyway–a shocking lack of the internet pearl-clutching that they’re clearly trying to create
You might recall that my previous comments on this event have included such searing insight as “Well, it’s kinda dull but really not that big of a deal” and “It’s all kinda familiar, isn’t it,” but until these two issues I would’ve characterized it as a competent if uninspiring superhero event. Now…well, it’s still uninspiring, I guess.
There are, to me, three major problems with the series as it winds through its second issue and its Free Comic Book Day episode, which I’ll enumerate after the jump. Fair warning, though–this one includes pretty direct SPOILERS for events in those issues, especially issue #2, including screenshots of theoretically exciting moments.
Previously on Baxter Building: Actually, forget any previouslies — while the last episode saw us get into the midway point of John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four, we’re skipping out of continuity this time around to read some Fantastic Four Annuals. All you need to know is that the Fantastic Four exists, but the 1970s wasn’t the best decade for them.
0:00:00-0:11:06: We get into things pretty quickly, with the introduction about the fact that we’ll be covering Fantastic Four Annual #14-18 and What If? #36 turning into a brief discussion about the eternal disappointment of annuals in general: the possibility they offer and the way they almost never live up to that.
0:11:07-0:24:06: That brings us to Annual #14, in which Salem’s Seven returns, Agatha Harkness suggests the world’s worst vacation, and neither Jeff nor myself are particularly interested in a plot resolution that can be summed up as “Franklin Richards can love everyone so hard it stops the bad guys.” But we are slightly more impressed by the comic’s surprising Nighthawk representation, Iron Man’s sick burn, and Nick Scratch’s resurrection as Flaming Wario. Take the pleasures of life where you can get them, dear readers.
0:24:07-0:46:01: How much did we love Fantastic Four Annual #15? “If we only had done a Baxter Building where we were just discussing Annuals #14 and 15, you me and every one of our listeners would kill ourselves before the end of the episode,” Jeff says, and that’s about it. Because the meat of the comic is lackluster, we find ourselves discussing how disappointing Skrulls are in general, the specific disappointment of 2008 crossover Secret Invasion (and its similarities of DC’s Millennium) and the bargain basement Philip K. Dickness that writer Doug Moench brings to proceedings in this annual. But we did enjoy the back-up strip a lot more, which I then liken to the Return of Superman story from the 1990s. No, really.
0:47:02-1:08:00: This brings us to Annual #16, which bears the shame of being the only annual in this run not on Marvel Unlimited… although, when you read the issue, you’ll understand why Marvel is happy to leave this in the virtual vaults. The powerhouse creative of team of Ed Hannigan and Steve Ditko deliver the Dragon Lord, AKA the sensational character find of 1981! “Jeff! Do you like this one? “It is migraine storytelling.” So, that’s a no? “I remember getting two-third of the way through this book and thinking, there’s fucking more?” Okay, then.
(We also discuss Jeff’s love of Avatar, my own Avatar PR experience, this annual’s similarities to Ditko’s Shade the Changing Man, and Jeff’s idea of how fathers and sons relate to each other. And then we read ads.) Jeff, one more time, how do you feel about this issue? “Depending on what your tastes are, FF [Annual] #16 is either a can’t miss, or a dear god, please miss.”
1:08:01-1:19:06: From the ridiculous to the… dull? Who could have suspected that John Byrne of all people would turn out to be too pedantic to fully take advantage of the “What If?” concept? What If #36 sees Byrne answer the question “What if the Fantastic Four had not gained their powers?” by writing the story, “Oh, they’d become a boring version of the Challengers of the Unknown.” I call it “an interesting oddity, but not an exciting one,” which on reflection might be far too generous.
1:19:07-1:32:27: By far the best issue of this episode, Fantastic Four Annual #17 sees John Byrne succeed in large part by completely ditching the eponymous heroes for half the issue and creating a surprisingly tense horror story in the process. I mean, sure, things fall apart when the F.F. do show up, bringing with them Byrne’s larger problems when it comes to the series, but still; the first half of this issue really is pretty great. Of course, because this is one of the most digression-y episodes in some time, we also manage to work in talk of both Skrull Kill Krew and the median age of Americans. Why wouldn’t we?
1:32:28-1:50:32: Finally, we arrive at Annual #18, which sees two great ideas brought together for one very mediocre comic book. Thankfully, we find better things to talk about, including the idea of Reed Richards as Marvel’s Great Cosmic Un-Fixer, Jeff’s amazing “Sad John Byrne” theory, and Grant Morrison showing up in (and being killed in) Suicide Squad. I said this was the most digression-y episode, right…?
1:50:33-end: As we wrap things up by badmouthing that which came before, Jeff reveals that I am Darth Vader to his Luke Skywalker and I get confused about just when the next episode is. We also wrap things up by reminding you to check out our Tumblr, Twitter and Patreon, and thank you for sticking with us. Also, Jeff really was remarkably sick while recording this, so let’s thank Jeff for sterling work, as well. A well-deserved round of applause for everyone, I think.
0:00-12:06: Greetings! Greetings and a long, perhaps too-detailed story about Jeff’s niece’s walkathon. So we discuss physical fitness for kids today, and what it was like back when we were kids. SPOILERS: Graeme’s story is a lot like this:
After reading Secret Empire #1–after all the tumult and fanfare and Wagnerian bombast of the run-up to the event–I found myself not only non-enraged, but mildly bored. This is, it seemed to me, writer Nick Spencer’s take on exactly the same event Marvel has done at least half a dozen times before: [BAD GUY] has successfully taken over [AMERICA] and now our heroes are down to their last-ditch hope to turn things around. Ultron, Doom, Apocalypse, Sentinels, Doom again, and now Hydra–the details change, but the feel of the whole story stays depressingly the same.
And I don’t like being depressed! I’m a cheerful, upbeat guy! I like liking things!
So I decided that the only logical thing to do was create a positive, happy review of the book–but, to be true to the spirit of this issue– to cobble it together entirely of text from reviews of 2013’2 Age of Ultron #1. I changed character and creator names and the occasional pronoun (in [BRACKETS]) but left everything else intact. The numbers in parentheses link back to the original source texts, and the list of references directly follows. So, without further ado, [MY] happy review of [SECRET EMPIRE] #1.
I’ve been having trouble with the “Cap is a Nazi” story. Not the in-comics story itself, really, but the real-world response to it. I started writing this post a while back but got derailed by life. With the release of Secret Empire #0 and a few prologue tie-ins today, it seemed like an apt time to revisit. In addition to the zero issue kicking off the big event, I also bought and read Captain America: Steve Rogers #16, Thunderbolts #12, and U.S.Avengers #5.
There are some spoilers for those books below (including the seemingly major revelation from the prologue to Secret Empire #0 which I spoil in the very next paragraph), but the main point is me trying to grasp the reaction to the overall event.
Also, a caveat: with the exception of those four comics, I’m six months behind on the story, because I’ve been following via Marvel Unlimited. So I may well be literally missing something crucial that appeared clearly on-panel in a comic from that six-month gap.
The recap as I understand it goes something like this: when Kobik, the child-like personification of the Cosmic Cube, rejuvenated an elderly Steve Rogers, she actually rewrote his entire history in a way that was shaped (unbeknownst to Cap) by the Red Skull. The crucial What If…? deviation sees Rogers’ mother brought into a Hydra cell in World War 2, which in turn puts young Steve into their clutches and lets them shape him as the ultimate sleeper agent. Secret Empire #0 further clarifies that in 1945, Hydra hid Steve–by then established as Captain America, pretty much the ultimate sleeper agent–in a magic pool to protect him when the Allies (allegedly) used a crude Cosmic Cube to rewrite reality so they, not Hydra, won the war. (The main point of that reveal SEEMS to be, as far as I can tell, to explain how Cap has completely different memories from everyone else in the Marvel Universe.)
Secret Empire, it appears, will be the story of what happens when Cap reveals his true allegiance to the Marvel Universe of 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.