The Letters Page: Episode 136
We have been wrong in the past about the Naturalist, but not today!
Run Time: 1:20:47
We get into a LOT on this one! We just sort of hit the ground running, and keep up the pace for quite a while!
For those of you who like timestamps, we get to the overview around 5 and a half minutes in, the question section just before the 35 minute mark, and finally button things up around an hour and 14 minutes in. A couple minutes after that, we can't remember how the link to our Patreon is spelled. You can find the answer here!
Thanks for listening, everyone! When the next episode goes live, I'll be in international waters doing my best to avoid that COVID-19, but I'll be back the week after that for a live show! See you then!
[Preliminary note: I generally ask Christopher for spelling corrections before posting. As he said, he’s traveling at the moment and so can’t tell me for sure. Once he returns the week of the 16th he’ll let me know and I’ll fix things then if necessary.]
- Preparation for this episode involved going back through the original Naturalist episode and they’ve discovered that it has a number of timeline inaccuracies [not terribly surprising given its placement well before they did their timeline project]. They’re not really going to go into detail on that here, but they note that it’s a thing. The one thing that they will point out is that they would sometimes refer to Naturalist’s “solo book” and he didn’t really have one in that he didn’t have a dedicated title that was for him, but he did have an ad hoc one in the form of Tome of the Bizarre volume 3. He was introduced in #24 (in a backup story) from 1990, and then appeared sporadically. In issue #100 we start a decently-long run of the title (up until the third volume ended at issue #259) where he’s the main feature. It would be “Tome of the Bizarre Presents The Naturalist” as the trade dress - TotB in small letters at the top with “The Naturalist” being the prominent branding (so, different from how the Arcane Tales/Ra: God of the Sun transitions worked). Once volume 4 started back up a few months after volume 3 ended it went back to being an anthology title, but it kind of drifted back to Naturalist-focus eventually due to all of the Akash’Thriya stuff near the end of the Multiverse era.
- Ok, so what’s the deal? He’s got his Natural World stuff and his corporate stuff - up until he sells his shares in the company, the fact that he’s got a 40% stake in Conteh Energy is a major recurring plot point since we know that the rest of the board are the ones behind both Equity and the Slaughterhouse Six coming after him. His identity is supposed to be secret as well, so are there members of the board who know and which specific people support or oppose him? Somebody has to know his secret in order to send the assassins after him.
- Let’s say that there are a dozen people on the board. Easily eight of those people are essentially just cardboard cutouts of suits - while they might technically have names, they aren’t characters for the purpose of actually mattering to these stories. This leaves 4: one could be on Naturalist’s side (even if that has to be quiet support), two are the actively antagonistic/scheming ones, and one who’s the fence sitter who doesn’t come down solidly one way or the other but whose position as a swing voter has been the source of surprise/drama occasionally. Maybe that last one is close to retirement or something and might seem like he’s going along with the schemers but the vote comes down to him actually not liking the way they do business or whatever - he’s been around forever and remains inscrutable (he tends to vote for what will make him money, but he also thinks for the company’s long-term and will occasionally take a principled stand - you never know). They name this older guy Walter Yost.
- While they were off the air for the name research, they decided on some stuff that they needed to have public too, so here we go. So, in his origin story, Naturalist spent days as a Gazelle, months as a Rhinoceros, and years as a Crocodile. Then he walked back into his company, declared that things were going to change, and then he wandered back out into the jungle. That all happened in those first three issues of his existence in comics (TotB #24-26). Then he’s around for a while, is there for Vengeance and other stuff, but eventually we got to where a writer wanted to do his “solo book” run in TotB and deal more with Michael Conteh rather than just his alter ego and so needed to flesh some stuff out. When he wandered back into his company a bunch of people thought he had gone crazy. His explanation for where he was involved him having amnesia while out in the jungle (which isn’t entirely true, but not exactly false either). While he was there he learned a bunch of strength/survival stuff that he applies to business, and also that the company and the natural world are in a symbiotic relationship that they need to consider going forward (which is what actually gets the people running the company to worry: he’d been this standard oil company guy and now after he’s been out in the jungle he’s come back with all of this environmentalist nonsense).
- From there we move into the stuff involving the board of directors blocking his initiatives and the back-and-forth corporate struggles we’d expect from that situation. That also gives him intel on where he can make a difference as the Naturalist - sure, he gets overruled by the rest of the board on whatever measure that’s going to do some damage to the environment, but that’s when he shows up and Gazelles at the problem or whatever.
- The company itself is based in Nigeria, but board members are from all over Africa (or even elsewhere), like Walter is South African. One of the schemer guys is the American Wall St. type guy. For the other half of that pair, they think maybe its a woman - somebody who was romantically entangled with Conteh back in his oil tycoon days and she tried to worm her way back into such a connection once he returned, but now his priorities are different and isn’t into it. She’s likely the one who discovers that he’s the Naturalist. There’s also good potential for conflict with any other romantic partners the Naturalist winds up having. Spitballing further - they were childhood friends and let the money and power corrupt her over time (which is what had also happened to Michael after all). The ally on the board could be one of his college/business school friends.
- They like the idea that Wall St. guy wants the childhood friend, but she’s still hung up on Michael Conteh (although she’s not above using Wall St. guy to try to make him jealous). Neither of them really have a functioning sense of what love is - everything is just power moves. At some point she’s sneaking around Michael’s home when she finds his Naturalist mask and that’s when she tells Wall St. guy and they start plotting and hire Equity and the others.
- Pause for more names: childhood friend/former lover is Iyawa Zobee, and Wall St. guy is Vince Snyder.
- They needed to hold off on naming his college friend as they first need to decide where he went to college, as that might inform the naming choice depending on where in the world that would be. So, “Fiction School”, possibly a smaller place that he was an out-sized success with his company, or some big name thing that readers can expect to have actually heard about in real life? What part of the world did he go to college in? How did he go to college (smart as a whip and got scholarships?)? They like the idea of him having ambition and knowing that he needed to get out of where he was in order to be a real success and then having him do something really unrealistic like calling up Cambridge and just convincing them that they wanted him to attend there. There, it’s decided, he talked his way into a full-ride scholarship at Cambridge for business [I really appreciate Adam’s question at this stage to ask if Cambridge actually has a business school, because I can totally see a comics writer forgetting to double-check that aspect of it - they do, but the fact that they decided on the school before checking was funny to me].
- Given that Cambridge is the choice, that frees up some options for who his friend is. They decide “not American” and “not African”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “British” is the default either. They ultimately decide on British because it’s easier as a supporting-cast guy to have the guy who might talk to Michael about their time at Cambridge to actually be from the country it’s in rather than something more complicated. They name him Oliver Davies. To everybody else he’s either Oliver or Mr. Davies, but to Michael he’s “Ollie” (and to Ollie, he’s “Mike”).
- So we’ve got Ollie on Mike’s side, Iyawa who seems like she is at first but eventually shows her true colors (and is also the one who discovers his secret), Vince who’s unabashedly just here for the money and his own benefit, and Walter who’s the inscrutable wild card. This comes to a head in the story when Walter dies of old age and there’s a major vote to restructure the board in the wake of that. Michael has the biggest vote and figures he can count on his allies on the board to side with him and continue doing good things with the company - but he loses the vote. Oliver votes with Vince. When Michael comes to him later with “Ollie, what happened?” his response is “It’s Oliver, Michael.” It’s a huge betrayal for Oliver to be working with Vince and is pretty divisive within the readership. That’s the inciting incident for Michael Conteh to decide to walk away from the company - he calls up Aviva Natasha Aldred and sells her his 40% stake in the company for $1 (and gives her all of the dirt on the board members) as was mentioned in the Naturalist episode. All he asks is that she do good with it - and she does. She cleans house, ousting some people publicly, dealing with others privately, but ultimately taking over the company. That’s her story, though.
- They also think he needs some confidante outside of the boardroom. Somebody who might still be at the company, but who knows that he’s the Naturalist and can help cover for him. It makes sense for this person to be a secretary/administrative assistant or similar as from a “covering for him” angle it needs to be somebody who can actually answer for him when he’s not where the board expects Michael Conteh to be. Christopher throws out the idea that it’s not even a person, but like a digital assistant… but that might work now, but not back in the ’90s.
- Background discussion: they like the idea of another childhood friend. Where Iyawa was somebody who rose with him, but got corrupted along the way, maybe somebody who’s really stuck by him. Ooo… better, somebody with whom he was estranged. Someone who ran an environmental non-profit who always thought that Michael could do so much good with his money, but always got rebuffed by oil-tycoon Michael. That changes when he returned after his time in the jungle as a new man. He contacts the person with the “You were right, I was wrong” thing, and in order to prove that he’s really changed he reveals that he’s the Naturalist. Right up front, no hidden identity gimmick, just laying it all out there. Sure, going from running your own non-profit to “just” being Michael Conteh’s administrative assistant is a weird career move, but whatever. “The money is good” is enough cover to explain it, when really what matters is the good that can be done there. They name her Chima Oyawale. They were friends from childhood, but she was critical of the decisions he was making after college and they had a falling-out. So, after his change of heart (but also, like, into a rhinoceros) she comes to manage his schedule and whatnot. She’s got all the details of his personal and professional lives and helps maintain his secret. She even is able to do some corporate espionage of sorts by looking through files and getting stuff that she can feed to her old non-profit (and also serve as a back-channel of what the non-profit people know about what’s going on back to the Naturalist). She’s not just here to help Michael, but to be proactive on what she can do directly in her position too.
- She’s the main supporting cast member. While the board is a recurring thing, and even his friend (for most of the run) Ollie is there, that’s generally, like, 1 scene of an issue at most generally and is relegated to the “Michael” aspect of stories since he doesn’t know about him being the Naturalist. Iyawa and Vince find out eventually, of course, and they wind up being something like his primary antagonists (for the Michael side of his life, but even then they wind up setting up some of the Naturalist’s antagonists too), but it’s never clear how much Walter knows.
- After talking through this they have a much better feel for how this book operated in this era now, when they didn’t before. It’s also funny that Tome of the Bizarre is the title that winds up with so much corporate intrigue. Keep in mind, though, that despite most of this episode focusing on that aspect of it the vast majority of the comic is still going to be Naturalist changing into animals and fighting stuff as a superhero. The corporate stuff is maybe 20% of any given book except for maybe one or two storylines that focus on the business stuff.
- They know that Haka and Argent Adept are around occasionally and there’s also the things with Bugbear and the other mentioned villains, but these people are mainly just normal humans who only show up in the Michael Conteh portion of his stories. Like, they could see some other business-related crossover where Vince and/or Iyawa might show up in a Maia Montgomery story or something, but only something like that and only with an editor’s note pointing to the Naturalist’s book to explain who they are because they’d be in that story if it was important to Naturalist, not because they were important to Wraith. That kind of situation would be about as likely as Mark Benedetto showing up in Naturalist’s stories.
- Christopher likes the idea that Michael knows Aviva Natasha Aldred through Chima’s non-profit work. Aviva’s somebody coming at the environmentalism thing from a weird angle. She’s doing a very corporate, take over companies and make positive change from within thing as opposed to the more traditional grassroots style.
- There might be some more stuff that they could get into, but Christopher knows that there are some questions that get into those things, so they’re going to jump right to Questions now and will continue with the Creative Process when applicable.
- Regarding the baggage of Africa-centric stuff from a western perspective, did Naturalist ever deal with a “White Savior” type character (either seriously in the early years or as a deconstruction in later years)? How about stories dealing with out foreign charity actually winds up stifling a culture’s ability to thrive on their own (maybe a philanthropic character who’s seen as benevolent initially, but who is shown in worse light as this trend has become evident in the world)? Almost definitely. Some businessman wants to build a factory or something and he turns out to be a secret villain or something, or there’s a bunch of aid that winds up with warlords. There’s definitely a shift over the 14 years this run of the book goes on. Early on it’s very much the bad businessman turns good and does a bunch of environmentalist stuff as a Rhino/Lorax, but as things go on there’s plenty of time to get into what things are like in Africa and getting into the more global perspective. They can even have Naturalist wind up on both sides of that “aid” problem where he tries to help/be the savior and that winds up having those unintended consequences, but also times when things go better. This is probably one of the more difficult titles to write well, but for running as long as it did it must have had some level of acclaim, at least occasionally. It didn’t get cancelled for being bad, they just needed the niche that Tome of the Bizarre traditionally filled as a title again. They had also only relatively recently switched the Ra book back over to being Arcane Tales, so it was something of a trend.
- Does he have notable animal friends [also, first birthday notice of this episode, however, they kind of ignored the birthday stuff back in the last Editor’s Note, so they’ll count those for this one; Singing commences at 46:26]? Yeah, there are going to be animals. Not every writer’s going to be doing this, but Christopher feels like when it’s a solo Naturalist story and he’s in animal form he just straight-up talks to other animals. The other animals’ responses aren’t in complete sentences, though. They’re very simple. He also has an idea for a cool spread where he’s in human form and walking through a forest and there are a lot of animal sound effects. Then, as he changes into an animal form, the sound effects become word balloons with simple messages (“Trouble!”, “Hungry!”, or whatever). Different animals might have different levels of “intelligence” in this way as well - like, he might have to “talk” his way out of fighting with some predator or he might be able to get more useful information out of an ape whereas a bird is going to be rather one-track minded. As for a regular “sidekick”, probably not, but there might be something like we see him go to a pride of lions and ask for their help “again”. We haven’t seen him actually work with them before, but this is how he approaches many such interactions. There is an implication that he has ongoing relationships with many of the animals that he interacts with, but they’re not regular characters who are around all the time. All of the animals are “supporting characters” for him, but the readers aren’t privy to most of those relationships. Christopher makes a comparison to the Andy Griffith Show where the titular character is the sheriff and as he walks through town everybody talks to him and he learns what’s going on. He’s a notable presence that the animals know about and he operates in a “I’ll see what I can do” capacity for them.
- We know that Naturalist is one of the few characters to successfully keep a secret identity long-term, but given that the Conteh Energy board sent many villains after him somebody must know, so who found out? We were told that people wanted to kill Michael Conteh, so if the Slaughterhouse Six were sent after Michael and he winds up in the water tank in the carnival as the Naturalist it seems that at least Glamour figured it out; did she tell anyone? Who now knows? Good question - they think that Equity was sent after Micheal Conteh, but the Slaughterhouse Six were sent after the Naturalist. As they decided earlier this episode, his childhood friend/former lover Iyawa Zobee. In both cases it was she and Vince Snyder who did the hiring, though, just one was before and the other was after his identity was discovered (they decided it was better to keep it a secret than otherwise). They like the idea that they held it back as leverage, since he was doing illegal things as Naturalist (sure, it was mainly disrupting his own company’s stuff, but it’s still something like eco-terrorism). Once he sells his stake of the company they threaten to reveal his “secret”, but he doesn’t care. “Michael Conteh is dead.” Once he’s out of the company, he’s got no real reasons to remain part of normal human society in general. As for who else figures it out… Glamour probably just does the dumb villain thing where she captures him and doesn’t immediately take his mask off - she just dumps him in the tank. She also doesn’t know/care who Michael Conteh is anyway. Equity probably figures it out - they really like the idea that he shows up to kill Michael Conteh who turns into a crocodile. That’s not what he was paid for - he was paid to kill a man and this superpowers thing wasn’t part of the information he was given when he signed up for the job. So he makes a judgement call and just leaves and returns the money (along with his reasons that they didn’t provide an appropriate amount of information on the target; that’s what prompts them to look into him a bit more). They also like this as it doesn’t degrade Equity as a character - he’s meant to be the greatest assassin in the world and he doesn’t fail here. He’s just got a fairly rigid code and the people hiring him didn’t give him all of the information. To elaborate on that a bit further, most of the encounter with Equity would have been with Michael in human form - he would be trying to escape without revealing his powers and it’s only once he was cornered (like an animal) that he’s forced to change, and once that happens Equity just straightens up, looks at him, and says something like “We’re done here. Good day. Sorry for the inconvenience,” and leaves.
- In the Naturalist episode you mentioned this Aviva woman who he sold his stake in his company to; how did they meet and why does he trust her with it? Good questions, which they’ve already answered earlier. He met her through Chima, and at the time it was just a passing thing - it was only later when he was looking to get out that he came back to her with the offer. Additionally, with what resources Aviva is already working with, she could be doing much worse things than Conteh Energy is, so the fact that she’s already using her powers for good is something in her favor. Selling it to her for $1 is all well and good, but all of the dirt on the rivals within the company is the really important thing. Her getting Conteh Energy is what allows her to, later on, take over RevoCorp.
- Given her family’s history (their company is responsible for Omnitron), have her skills/knowledge been called upon by heroes (say, Unity when she was trying to rebuild Omnitron-X)? No. She’s the heir of the company that made Omnitron, but she’s not a roboticist or inventor or anything, she’s a businesswoman. She grew up seeing her family involved in this weapons manufacturing industry and she learned a lot about business, but also that she didn’t want to have anything to do with that business in particular.
- Did she play any role in the Deadline event? Yes. Not a major role shown in comics, but there’s a general knowledge that she would be one of the people leading the charge on the recovery efforts. It’s worth keeping in mind that pre-OblivAeon she’s a super minor character and only shows up like a dozen times. She becomes a bigger deal later.
- [Another Maurice writing in, this time it’s Mind Has Pierced the Veil, Ancient Beyond Reckoning Maurice] The letter is mainly about Aviva Aldred as well, but they also just answered all of those parts so they’re skipping them, leaving them with: In order, who’s the best at running a company; Aviva Natasha Aldred, Maia Montgomery, Graham Pike, Mark Benedetto, and Paul “Big Money” Bender? Bottom of the list is Benedetto. Adam’s take is that the Chairman is the best as he’s maintained control of his company for a very long time. Christopher would amend that to being tied with Maia, just he relies on underhanded practices to bolster his company while she’s mainly running an above-board operation - his company might be “more successful” because of his “do anything for success” attitude gives him an edge, but she’s the best at doing things her way and is only slightly less successful. It’d be better to work for Maia, of course. They’d put Aviva and Paul on similar levels, but operating in vastly different spheres as she’s running multinational corporations with billions behind her and Paul doesn’t have those resources. People should definitely greet him as “Big Money”, though. Do that business handshake where you clasp his hand in both of your hands. [Christopher goes on to tell an amusing anecdote about a business-bro guy trying to pull some weird handshake dominance thing on him, but he’s got the rock-climbing hands and just crushed the guy.]
- Is he capable of communicating with rhinos, gazelles, crocodiles, or any animal in general? Any animal in general, as discussed previously.
- Does his supporting cast include animals? Sort of.
- Can he command the animals? Not intrinsically, but as much as you can command any given person to do things. They might listen or you might have to convince them. He might be more effective when interacting with the types of animals that he can turn into (like, he’s still better at talking to rhinos and crocs even if he’s currently a gazelle).
- How does he get the Kraken to help against Doc Tusser? He asked nicely. It may have been more difficult, but it’s like how people who speak Spanish and Italian might still be able to work things out. He’d also have approached this ancient thing with a certain level of deference to get on its good side.
- Is there a similar effect going on regarding Blend into the Pack where he’s hanging out with Triceratops since they’re not natural animals? Who says that Triceratops aren’t natural? He might even get along well with them as their “dialect” is likely somewhere between “crocodile” and “rhino”. He probably just says something like “Hey guys, can I hang out with you?” “Sure, we’re just eating grass.”
- This prompts their own question: when he’s an animal, does he eat like an animal? They think he does. He lived for years as a crocodile and he had to eat and wouldn’t have human taste buds in animal form. They think that once he eats in animal form he probably has to wait a while before changing back due to mass/digestive issues and whatnot. He can’t dodge his grocery bill by eating a bunch of grass as a gazelle and then changing right back. Although, groceries are probably a negligible worry for him considering his wealth.
- That prompts another question: does he give away the rest of his money when he sells out to Aviva for $1? Probably not just giving it away and he might use it up as he goes as he doesn’t exactly have income at that point, either. He might use it to buy some land that he then donates to some group to run as a nature preserve and he can also just live there when he wants. He might just use it to help erase “Michael Conteh” from modern society. He was around and then just eventually faded away in the records.
- We were told that he spends some time in Rook City dealing with the Organization; how does he fit into the dynamics of Dark Watch? Does he stay in contact with them later? He doesn’t really fit in with Dark Watch as a group, but he was supporting cast for NightMist in particular for a while. He is a useful resource for her regarding Nature as he just gets it. He’s probably spending most of his time there as a crocodile in the sewers. The thing is he would have been there to do a specific thing and then he would move on again - he wasn’t a regular inhabitant of Rook City for any real length of time. How does one fight the Organization anyway? Guerilla tactics [Christopher: But he can’t turn into a gorilla. Adam: exasperated sigh] - if the Naturalist is anything, he’s patient. He’ll turn into an animal and hang out in an area for a long time, do what he can, then move on. He knows that Nature can outlast humanity if humanity doesn’t destroy it in the meantime.
- While Akash'Bhuta is generally shown as coming out of the ground and looks rocky and Akash’Thriya looks more like a tree, you’ve called them both “tree ladies” before, how does that work with Akash’Bhuta? Akash’Bhuta is both/neither - she’s mountains, magma, trees, whatever the environment has to offer. She is Nature itself in Spirit form and/or she’s Spirit in Nature form. She can manifest through the plants and rocks. Adam included “water” in that list, but Christopher counters that while she can affect it she doesn’t actually manifest in water. The rules are fairly arbitrary in what she manifests as (not water, not air, but yes to both rocks and plants?), but she’s not just rocks as Akash’Bhuta, but you’re right in that she’s more rock-presenting and Akash’Thriya is more tree-presenting. [They try to get into it a bit on why she doesn’t present as water and it comes down to as just that she doesn’t and/or that it would be more of the domain of another Void spirit. My take on it is that she presents as “the landscape” which would include the ground and vegetation on it. Not the most clear-cut way to describe it, maybe, but it works for me.]