The Letters Page: Episode 122
It's the first creepy episode of the second most creepy month: October!
Run Time: 1:12:50
After confessing our sins, we get to our creative process overview at around the 6 minute mark. And we are on fire! (At least, in our humble opinions.) Apparently, we should create in the face of adversity more often!
One successful creation segment later, we get to your questions, at just before the 50 minute mark. Thank you for your questions!
Also, thanks for listening! Don't forget to have a spooky month! (But not as spooky as next month!)
- [In the preliminary chatter, Christopher says “chunklet” which Adam objects to as just sounding unpleasant. Christopher then replaces it with “cellar-door”, which may seem like a non-sequitur. This is because “cellar-door” is generally considered to be one of the most pleasing-sounding words in English, so he picks it just because it sounds better than “chunklet” not because of any meaning to it.]
- [They also lead with a disclaimer that due to the “Creative Process” nature of this, not everything that they wind up saying in the Overview will necessarily wind up being canonical.]
What They Already Know
- When they were first making Spite, they noted this “cool word” barzakh that means something like the liminal space between life and death, physical and spiritual, etc. and so they used it for the Barzakh Wing. Years later, they decided to better explain the name in-setting but without telling anybody. That’s when they came up with a sorcerer named Count Barzakh who just exists in the background of stories. He’s never really a main character, but he’s there filling an “ancient, evil magician” role.
- That’s essentially it as far as what they’d made up for him other than the decision to have him be a major player in one of the alternate realities they were bringing people in from at the end, so they decide to slot him into Supply and Demand Benchmark’s universe as his nemesis.
- [Something they forgot to mention but they bring up at 22:30 or so] The Hand of Glory is associated with him. What this means in the context of Sentinel Comics is explored below [but read the description in the Wikipedia article as the physical description is important].
- First thing, his name. Is “Barzakh” a name or part of a “Count Barzakh” title that can be passed down. They already have “ancient, evil magicians” in Biomancer and Zhu Long that are single individuals, so maybe having it be a lineage/legacy thing could be interesting. They could even have increased longevity be part of it, so you’d still wind up with the same guy in the role for a couple hundred years, so still “ancient” by normal standards, but not on the level of those two, or even Blood Countess Bathory.
- They also decide that the way that they went about creating him is mirrored in the meta-verse. Some writer liked the word “barzakh” as the name for this shady lab and it was only later revealed that there was this Count Barzakh guy around. Also: Pike Industries was using Science! to mimic the magical process that Barzakh was doing when they were doing the stuff that created Spite. This is similar to how the Chairman used Zhu Long’s resurrection stuff to make his own rejuvenation vats.
- This thought of how Pike’s Barzakh Wing is systematizing/industrializing “magic” effects prompts the idea that maybe that’s Count Barzakh’s shtick too - he steals magic from others and that’s how the name is handed down too. The new person steals the power of the previous one.
- Now, for all of that to be true and stated in the pages of Sentinel Comics, between when the Barzakh Wing was named in the ’80s and when Count Barzakh showed up in the Supply and Demand Benchmark story in Disparation in the 2010s, it’s necessary for the title to be transferred. Some new guy must take the title from the old guy otherwise there’s no reason for this information to be known. That’s also probably where we get introduced to the person of “Count Barzakh” in the first place. The one who’s behind the Barzakh Wing isn’t the one we actually see in Sentinel Comics, he’s just the one who’s around on the page long enough to get punked by the new guy who is the one that actually shows up in stories.
- Additional interesting possibility: because he’s stealing magic from people, he’s incentivized to surround himself with other magic users, but this also opens him up for betrayal and the name passing on.
- Back to the “name” bit, this means that we likely know what the new Barzakh’s name was before he took the title.
- What do they specifically need: name, some dates, his motivations/needs, and some abilities (keeping in mind that as somebody who steals power, this can be a little nebulous, but he should have a “visual shtick” so that you can identify it as being Count Barzakh), something about his “lair” (since other evil magician types, even Hermetic, get their own space to work, so what place is he associated with), and which heroes/other villains does he encounter?
- So, the first time “Count Barzakh” is named in Sentinel Comics is probably in the actual letters page of an issue of Rook City Renegades or Mystery Comics or similar to answer a reader question about where the “Barzakh Wing” name came from. Somebody threw out the “ancient sorcerer” idea and later writers just ran with it.
- After some wrangling, they decide that maybe we get a few “appearances” of him as a shadowy figure before we get to the hand-off to the new guy who we see more direct actions from. Like, maybe there’s some weird magical nonsense going on in an issue of Tome of the Bizarre that the heroes have to take care of, but they don’t find out what caused it (but the readers know it was “Count Barzakh”). That sort of thing is what we get through the ’80s.
- We need some breathing room through the early ’90s, though, since most villain worth mentioning was part of Vengeance. Maybe the changeover to the new guy is shortly post-Vengeance and is actually part of the explanation for why Barzakh wasn’t involved in that event (there would have been plenty of letters page questions of “why wasn’t [a specific villain] not involved?”), so that could happen sometime in the mid-’90s.
- So, in that “shadowy figure” phase, he’s probably causing trouble in TotB for the most part in the late ’80s. The problem with shadowy figures plotting to unknown ends is that because they’re unknown the readers aren’t given enough reason to care. He’s dropped for a few years until somebody has the idea to bring him back - we’ve already seen him “stealing” magic as part of his modus operandi, so let’s make that part of the gimmick and the title of Count Barzakh is stolen by successive magicians. The idea is that he finds recruits, trains their magical abilities, then once somebody shows a particular ability that he lacks, he steals it and then kills them all off. It’s in this training up sequence that a recruit would see an opportunity and pull the trick on Barzakh first. It’s not a battle of wills or of magic ability, it’s an anticlimactic sneak attack.
- He’s associated with the Hand of Glory. The idea is that the one he has is the original that all of those folklore stories are based on/are pale imitations of. It’s something that continues to be the possession of each successive Count Barzakh and is made from the left hand of the original Count Barzakh. That may have been that guy’s original name, but his student/rival/whatever stole his magical ability, chopped off his hand, rendered his body into the candle on it, and started calling himself Count Barzakh. Stealing the hand is what steals the name. Even better, let’s say that the candle needs to be replenished as the life of Count Barzakh is tied to it (and is why they can live a long time). They don’t just steal their students’ powers and kill them for the power itself, he also uses their essence to replenish the candle.
- There’s probably a two-part story in TotB in the early-to-mid ’90s that introduces the Hand of Glory stuff and leads into the transfer of power to the new Barzakh. Awesome twist on the story: the new guy doesn’t have a left hand or cuts off his own left hand and magically grafts the Hand of Glory onto himself which had never happened before.
- Thoughts on identity: maybe the new guy was not seen as a threat due to his missing hand? Alternately, maybe he’s not even one of the current batch of pupils - he’s just some out-of-left-field guy who had independently researched all of the hints and legends about this mysterious Count Barzakh and tracked him down. This latter would make a good framing device for the TotB story - he knows all of this stuff he’s relating to the reader because he’s hunting Count Barzakh and he’s performed a ritual that involved cutting his hand off as part of the tracking process. They’ll go with this last option.
- Who is he? Maybe a relative of a former pupil out for revenge? No, how about he was a researcher at the Barzakh Wing and noticed this mysterious guy around the place and got curious. The Man of Science Turns to Magic angle is a good one. It can also set him up as a good foil for tech-based heroes as he’s not just stealing “magic” like his predecessors, but power and he knows that power comes from many sources.
- Working through the timeline from the fact that the Hand of Glory folklore crops up in the 18th century, they decide that the “current” Count Barzakh (that the Wing is named for) is the 3rd (if we consider that the 1st was the guy who made the Hand of Glory, so there was the original Count Barzakh whose hand it was that’s outside of that accounting) and the new one who grafts the HoG onto his arm is the 4th. Part of the new guy’s gimmick is that the prior ones were still stuck in modes of thought from the 1600s and he’s getting with the times.
- They also decide definitively here that new guy definitely had a hand and it wasn’t lost as an injury or something - him cutting off his own hand specifically to replace it with the HoG is him making a stand. He’s going to be Count Barzakh forever. Nobody’s going to steal it from him. His #1 goal is “be Count Barzakh forever” and his plans keep that in mind. No more students to farm magic from, he can get power from other sources and he’s not going out like a chump the way the prior ones had.
- They take a quick plunge into the timeline spreadsheet and the right time for the “Hand of Glory” story is October and November ’94, TotB vol. 3 #79-80. Issue #79 has narration as hand-written text on parchment-looking boxes and the reader doesn’t know whose account this is. Issue #80 then gets into the backstory of this scientist guy who worked at the Barzakh Wing, learned about magic as they “chased immortality”, and had to know more. This successful scientist (albeit one working for a super shady division of an already super shady company) gives up everything in his life as he goes about this obsession of the mysterious Count Barzakh. They were trying to unlock the secret of immortality, but he sees where they’ve gone wrong in limiting their scope of operation. He’s playing all the angles, though.
- Montage scene of them coming up with names and Googling stuff, not good radio, so we get a recreation of the process: They know that this is a name that they’re throwing away. Once he becomes Count Barzakh, his old name doesn’t matter anymore. They are picking something that’s fitting for the character of this scientist guy, but that could also point to the thematic thing they’re doing with the story. As such, they want it to kind of be an Easter egg - something that is “just a name” but if somebody were to research the name’s origin it becomes clear that the writers knew what they were doing with it. So, Christopher looks up surnames that mean “thief”. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t a lot of options, but there is one of Hungarian origin: Tolvaj and so Dr. Tolvaj it is. Leaning into the Hungarian thing, they look up some names and Jakab is an interesting spelling (equivalent to Jacob). Let’s look up what that means: “following after”. They couldn’t pick something better for a character in a lineage of identity. So, that’s established as his name, Dr. Jakab Tolvaj, a couple of times in those few issues and then discarded forever as he becomes Count Barzakh. [Language nerd powers activate: In Hungarian spelling, the letter J represents what we’d consider a Y sound, as it does in German. Jakab Tolvaj would be pronounced something like Yakab Toll-vie (rhyming with “by”) as opposed to the way the guys say it here. Additionally, in Hungary names are given with surname first and personal name after, so he’d be Dr. Tolvaj Jakab there. Of course, comics are a print medium, so the pronunciation that readers would use is likely all over the place.]
- Powers: He can do magic. He sneaks around stealing power (not just magic) from other people. If, as mentioned earlier, he’s willing to work with others, that probably means that he’s also a course of power for others. Bring him somebody with an interesting power for him to steal (killing them in the process) and he’ll help out with whatever you need from him. He’s a power broker. He can probably put the HoG on somebody’s shoulder and transfer a power he’s already stolen.
- Lair: We probably see him in a variety of locations (sewers, ancient ruins, etc.) but without a clear idea of where his home base is on occasions where we see it. Could be Megalopolis, could be Rook City, could be Egypt. It’s just not clear (and the mystery is part of the point). Maybe he has lairs in all those places. He just pops up here and there. If you’re looking for him, he’ll find you.
- So, he shows up with a relatively interesting 2-part story in TotB in ’94. Then what? He’s got to start doing stuff to justify all of this. Not that he’s going to be a major player. He doesn’t have a “take over the world” plot - remember that “be Count Barzakh forever” is the #1 goal. He doesn’t want heroes to notice him. He doesn’t want to overreach in any of his schemes. That’s Biomancer’s big problem - his machinations lead him to do Big Things that warrant a response. Sure, Biomancer has the long-term “all according to plan” thing going on, but we don’t know what that is. We know Barzakh’s: Gain Power, Live Forever. His specific involvement in any given scenario might be mysterious, but we know what the end goal is.
- We don’t necessarily need to go into which specific stories he shows up in, but we should at least identify who his opposition is. The magic-using heroes would seem obvious, but he’s not going to go head-to-head with NightMist because that’s not going to go well for him. Maybe adjacent to Argent Adept stuff since he’s less likely to just take him to pieces like Faye would. Maybe her death is a major event for him since Harpy/Pinion is much less of an obstacle for him. Maybe he’s not directly involved in Scholar stuff, but it’s possible Scholar’s current mentoring subject is opposed by somebody being supplied power by Barzakh so we could have an interesting proxy war/chess match between the two of them. This guy’s outlook of not restricting himself to magic could make him a decent foe for just about anybody. He’s not going to show up in the Freedom Five, Prime Wardens, or Dark Watch books as that kind of powerful team is beyond what he’d be willing to face. Maybe the Southwest Sentinels if they hadn’t already nailed down what each issue of that book was about. He could show up in an odd PW issue as an instigator, but he’s much more of a solo-hero book villain. So, AA’s book or Fanatic’s could be good. Naturalist could also be good. He’s likely going to show up in TotB and Arcane Tales a lot, he’s never going to have a real Nemesis relationship to any hero, but he’s a “side-side-side-background character” that people are aware of.
- Description of the Hand of Glory itself: It glows when he uses magic (including taking/giving power). It looks dead, but he can still use it as a hand. Adam draws a comparison to an early Simpsons Halloween episode involving a wish-granting monkey’s paw and to the creepy, stiff way the fingers move when it’s used. They like the visual of him slapping somebody who has super strength with his glowing hand and just seeing them wither away as he draws the power from them.
- All of this paves the way for a story in:
Disparation vol. 2 #145, Sep. 2014
- Benchmark has been around for a little while at this point [RevoCorp Presents #1 was January 2012] and we haven’t quite gotten into the OblivAeon stuff yet (although portents are pointing the way). This is in the “La Comodora doing stuff” era of Disparation, and so she winds up in this reality to do something where villains are running amok without any heroes to stop them. That is, there’s only one hero, Benchmark. She comes to him to help and he’s aghast at her presence and urges her to leave. The reason there are no heroes here is because this villain who he will not name is “consuming” them and their power. If he gets La Comodora, then he won’t just be restricted to this one timeline anymore which is a Bad Thing. Most places that La Comodora goes aren’t a threat to her. This place is. If he gets her he’s essentially a Singular Entity (or at the least he could track one down and pull an Oblivion to consume it), a Multiversal Threat.
- The difference in approach is that this Count Barzakh didn’t do the low-key thing. If there’s somebody with power doing stuff publicly, he shows up and embarrasses them with how he can just take their power and leave them a corpse in his wake. The other villains we see (on the Foil SaD Benchmark card) can be subservient ones that report to him. They have to pay tribute and bring him somebody to consume so he doesn’t do so to them. This suits them fine. They run the world, and Barzakh just sits at the top of the food chain. This neatly also ties into the “Supply and Demand” name.
- Which came first, the Wing or the Villain? Was the Barzakh Wing named after a minor villain in the main timeline with “Count Barzakh” being the alternate universe counterpart? Was the Supply and Demand Benchmark version an important part of that story or just a minor reference? As just discussed, Count Barzakh is the major part of the SaD Benchmark story/timeline and results in La Comodora fleeing that reality instead of saving Benchmark (which he would agree with as a tactic). As they worked out above, the “Barzakh Wing” was created/named first, but was then retconned to have been named after/involved with a Count Barzakh character (and they really enjoy having the first reference to him being in a letters page response).
- We’ve heard a little about him, mostly with regards to his inclusion in Prime War, but who is Count Barzakh and what are his goals? They kept this letter in just in case they somehow didn’t address it earlier. He is Count Barzakh and he’s the most recent and most ambitious person to hold that title. He’s supplied with the powers of the previous Counts Barzakh and whatever else he steals. The Supply and Demand timeline’s version of him is the one that’s in Prime War. His goals in Universe 1 are “be Count Barzakh forever” and “acquire power” and the second one is just a means to accomplish the first. For the Prime War guy, he’s a refugee - the reality where he was in charge of everything is gone, and now he’s on Team Conquest (because of course he is - this is another case of just great coincidence because they hadn’t worked out his story prior to this, but it’s just perfect). He’s out to survive and figure out what’s going on, but don’t think that he hasn’t noticed these Prime Aspects hanging around at the top of the current food chain.
- What was he up to in the main SotM continuity, the Vertex timeline, and Universe 1? They talked about his Multiverse-era main timeline stuff and that guy is still around in the RPG timeline. There’s no reason to believe that he’d be doing anything differently in Vertex, but those stories were so specific and limited that he probably never actually showed up in those comics outside of maybe some passing reference to him. He’s so much of a side character that a lot of writers forget he’s even around to use. That being said, he’s not going to be forgotten in the RPG setting (in one of the very few recording pauses they had this time around, this episode was just a blast and they’re exceedingly happy with/proud of what they came up with, and they came up with some plans for him).
- What exactly can he do with his magic? Something weird with his hand? The Supply and Demand guy can send his Hand off to do stuff, and while that’s going on he doesn’t have access to it, but he can recall it [my guess is that this has to do specifically with the Prime War mechanics]. This is more risky than what the Universe 1 Count does. SaD Barzakh is unafraid where the main continuity one is cautious - it’s likely that the former should be more like the latter.
- Do the Count and Zhu Long know one another? Any team-ups or blood-feuds where one’s shadowy plot ruined the other’s shadowy plot? There wouldn’t be any crossover there. Zhu Long would know about the line of Counts Barzakh, but they mainly try to stay under everyone’s radar. If they came across something that smelled of a Zhu Long plot, they would steer clear as it’s not worth the risk. That being said, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Zhu Long would contact Count Barzakh eventually. Oh, this is good. He’d send two emissaries, one as a sacrifice and the other to return with the thing that Zhu Long wants. Count Barzakh goes along with this because he’s not going to cross the dragon and Zhu Long’s take is “power respects power” so he knows the deal with Barzakh and just treats it like any other transaction. Zhu Long is in no way afraid of this guy, but there’s also no reason to rock the boat. There isn’t much that really concerns Zhu Long, but he’s also not chaotic.
- What led this man to be a weird hand magician? Kick a magic rock? Bitten by a were-hand? On the were-hand idea Christopher brings up the Handlingers from China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books - parasitic, sapient hands that attach to people to control them. The Scar is one of his favorite books of all time [the three books, which are chronological but don’t share a plot, only the setting, are Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council]. To actually answer the question, they discussed that above. The original guy, Count Edwin Barzakh [first name thrown in there, who knows if that’s canonical], was a practitioner of magic but not to the level to the later ones. The guy who killed him to take his hand and power was his friend who coveted his power.
- What exactly are Barzakh’s powers? Christopher starts with “the power to move you”, but he can do a lot of close-up card and coin tricks. Seriously, the general magical things you’d expect. Telekinesis, pyrokinesis, etc. The fun thing is that he can steal powers from other people and then either use them, give them away, or consume them for the life force he needs, so if the writers need him to do something new, there’s an easy explanation and makes him a really dynamic villain for every appearance. The consistent bit is the glowing hand he can use to drain powers from/give them to people.
- Did Prime War Barzakh’s timeline get destroyed by OblivAeon, his own actions, or something else? OblivAeon. It was mostly considered a throw-away universe to begin with considering the type of story being told with it, but we do see that universe’s Benchmark during OblivAeon (before he was murdered/consumed). People liked that version of Barzakh enough to use him in the Prime War property. The idea being that he was seen as notable/usable by the Prime Aspects and so got pulled out before the reality ended. Malavox thinks this guy is great.
- What is his role in the Conquest group and what do his teammates think of him? He’s used to having underlings that he could send off to do things (and he would have killed his version of both of them already). They might not think he’s all that (having known about their version of him), but all of them are power-hungry in these iterations. If you think about the team dynamics in battle, Fanatic is still front-line chopping people up and Argent Adept is still doing to hang back and control the battlefield. Barzakh is weird. He hides and sends his detachable hand out to do detachable hand things, taking power from people and giving it to others. That’s his whole deal.
- Will we see the Universe 1 version of him in the RPG materials? Yes.
- The art we have of him (the SaD Benchmark non-foil incapacitated art) has him in headgear that looks a lot like Sanction - are they related? It’s just a general comic costume convention that he followed for both of them. It’s meant to evoke weird and magic while being impractical (thus making you wonder even more how he’s actually getting stuff done). The Universe 1 Barzakh looks a lot different and by the time he shows up in Prime War his look will have evolved somewhat.