The Letters Page: Episode 137
Run Time: 58:28
Under an hour?! An episode that doesn't break the hour mark?!?!
We only had two questions for this episode, so the questions section is much shorter than usual. Not to fear, though - we've already been amassing questions for the next couple episodes, and there are lots. This one just happened to be a bit more on the quiet side.
We get to the overview portion in which we establish the type of story, determine when it lands, and then craft and tell the tale, starting a bit before the 4 minute mark. That process takes us more than half of the episode, so we get to questions after 38 minutes in. Then, only several minutes later, we talk about the cover right after the 51 minute mark. And that's the show!
- The prompt is “Chrono-Ranger in feudal Japan”, but they need to figure out at what point in the publication history this happened and what the story would actually entail. This isn’t a Disparation thing; it’s part of Jim’s missions with CON era. However, if we’re giving it a full Writer’s Room treatment, it can’t just be him popping into the time period, shooting something, and leaving - it’s got to be a longer-form story to be worth doing. It doesn’t even have to be as long as a few days (although it could be, or even longer), but there’s still some fair amount of him engaging with the setting.
- One issue or multi-issue arc? Probably just a single issue, but with that issue being about this story rather than it being just one vignette among several. What book and era would it be? Jim doesn’t have a “home” title until the latter-day Disparation stuff. Let’s run through the timeline:
- He first appears in 1986 for the Akash'Bhuta event, but he’s not really explained.
- After a few additional mysterious appearances, we finally get some explanation in ’88 with the Time Cataclysm one-shot that gets him to the Final Wasteland and introduces CON.
- In 1990 there’s his Draw one-shot that actually explains the whole business with the bounty board and everything.
- Then we jump to 2000 and the Into the Sunset one-shot that has Citizen Truth.
- The limited series The Last Hunt is from 2002-03 where he’s hunting Plague Rat.
- 2010 has the Temporal Targets limited series (technically it starts in December ’09, but whatever) where we deal with Ambuscade on Mars.
- From there we get into the Chrono-Ranger/La Comodora stuff in Disparation starting in 2012.
- That leaves that decade between Draw and Into the Sunset as the period where we get a bunch of individual appearances of Jim showing up to take care of a bounty. They wouldn’t have been “one-shot” issues, just issues of ongoing titles that happen to include him as a plot element. That’s the logical place for this and so Adam gets to do another ’90s cover! An anthology book like Tome of the Bizarre also makes the most sense for where this would happen.
- [They run through the books that were ongoing in the ’90s - somewhat off-topic for what we’re doing here, they do note that the Dark Watch title only got going in ’99 but between Expatriette’s book Terminal Ballistics (which eventually included Setback), Rook City Renegades, and the various limited series that included Mr. Fixer and Setback at various points, we had a lot of the Dark Watch feel throughout the decade, just spread out over a number of titles. They eventually just restructured as Mystery Comics for the genre stuff and Dark Watch as a way to consolidate all of the “team” stuff that hadn’t actually been formalized as a team yet to that point. The team is very much a ’90s-inspired team, but the stories/writing that winds up happening with them is very much of the ’00s era. The team book is much less edgelord than this gritty ’90s team would make you think.]
- The obvious choice is Tome of the Bizarre itself as it’s the anthology book that’s around - Arcane Tales wasn’t around in this period. Of course, given the detail from last week’s episode, it’d have to be before issue #100 in ’96 when Naturalist takes over the title. Christopher thinks that “after Vengeance” is also appropriate and that storyline ended in May ’92, so somewhere in ’93-5. They go with April ’93, Tome of the Bizarre vol. 3 #61.
- So, after all of that we just need to figure out what the thing is that he’s in feudal Japan to kill and what happens to draw the story out for more than a few pages. Christopher’s list: karajishi (the guardian lion-dogs you see in front of buildings), Baku, kirin, kappa, tengu, or maybe just straight up hunting a Japanese dragon. There are plenty of more demony options like oni or whatnot, but they should stick with something more in keeping with the cryptid animal theme he has generally going on - maybe something that can masquerade as human, though to keep things interesting. They figure that some Japanese author who typically does historical fiction is brought in for this one.
- They decide on a tengu, but gotta lean on the monstrous-looking/bird angle rather than just a funny-looking humanoid. It can disguise itself as a normal person, and that lets the story have some intrigue as Jim can get to know that person, but Oh, no!, it’s really the tengu.
- Jim’s job is to go back in time to kill “monsters” early on so that they don’t take over the world later. As such, they should come up with a setting/story here for where tengu are trying to take over some area. They did some off-the-air research to try to figure out where to put things. They found a famous tengu story - Emperor Sutoku was driven into exile, swore vengeance, etc. and comes back as a tengu after his death. Nothing major actually seems to have come from this. Sure, people attributed whatever random bad stuff happened around them to him for a few hundred years, but no great vengeance ever materialized. That’s because Chrono-Ranger got to him first.
- So, the deal is that Sutoku’s plan is to cause pain and conflict, resulting in more people dying in torment and becoming tengu. He wants to set up a vicious cycle of people tormenting one another so that there’s a self-sustaining feedback loop going on. So that’s the job CON sends him on - go and stop him from forming a tengu army.
- While the cover probably gives away the fact that it’s a Chrono-Ranger story, the story just starts off in Sanuki Province in the 14th century, the establishing scene is just everyday life. Somebody runs out of a building screaming and some kind of weird mystical energy flows out of the building after them. A figure in one of those conical hats turns to regard this oddity. The hat tips up, and we see that it’s Jim Brooks.
- Adam wants to back up a bit. Ok, we have the scream and the weird energy, but we have the person who was running get killed by whatever. It doesn’t even have to be a brutal murder on the page, maybe they’re just fleeing in torment and run off a parapet or something. The establishing scene is that something is tormenting people, people wind up dying and then return as evil spirits. Either way, when Jim is introduced, the implication is that he’s actually been here for a while. Not weeks, but at least days as he’s trying to track down the source of the problem. Now, he doesn’t speak any Japanese, but he’s pretty adept at non-verbal communication and is getting by.
- Anyway, the scene is that there’s a shadowy figure walking down a street approaching a group of people. Which of them is going to be the next to die? The twist is that they attack the lone figure, transforming into vaguely birdlike creatures. That’s when the lone figure throws aside an outer layer of his garment, pulls out his revolver and shoots them down. Highly anachronistic, but it’s Chrono-Ranger so that’s kind of expected. [I’m loving the Yojimbo vibe regardless, even if it was the villain who had the revolver in that one.]
- Tengu design for the comics: they want the long nose/beaks. Maybe their arms start as arms but become smokey/vague as they go, giving the impression of wings, and then end in talon-like claws. They’re not strictly going by the traditional Japanese artistic renderings, but are going for some halfway between birds and people look. They need to read as evil spirits.
- Dialog conceit: word bubbles of people have their dialogue [in brackets] to indicate that it’s in Japanese and the idea is that CON is doing some translation for him. That doesn’t let him speak back to people, but he can understand them at least. That requires a little fudging because CON isn’t connected to him at this point, but maybe it’s just loaded enough to act as a translator into his prosthetic. There are probably a few short flashbacks in the story to show how Jim got here and what’s going on.
- Are these things physical? Does Jim have some kind of special bullets or other weapon provided by CON to do the job here? Maybe early on the tengu just sort of keeps the dead body going - they can change between “normal person” and the bird monster, but at this stage we’re still in “If it bleeds, we can kill it” territory. He’s got to get to the bottom of what’s causing this, though, and that one’s likely to be more trouble.
- They don’t think that CON or Jim know that this tengu is Emperor Sutoku in particular. CON just knows that tengu are a problem and gives Jim whatever information on them that he has before sending him back. Part of Jim’s investigation here eventually leads him to a Shinto shrine to the old emperor and he hears from people about the superstitions regarding blaming him (as a tengu) for things. That sort of legend is the kind of thing that’s right in his wheelhouse. So, he hears about this emperor tengu and heads to the shrine.
- There’s some woman he sees there that starts off pleasant enough, but eventually starts taunting (tengu are often shown possessing women/girls and speaking through them). Now the question is “what do you say to upset Chrono-Ranger?” given his pretty stoic demeanor. They don’t think that tengu can read minds (to get good material for verbal torment - the torment they cause is the physical variety), so maybe it’s just stuff like “I’ll flay the skin from your bones” or similar.
- Oh, here’s an option: “Oh, I’m just here to pay my respects to the emperor. I hear that there’s somebody in town that’s hunting the tengu. Whoever it is, they’re sure to fail as the tengu are just too powerful and there’s too many of them,” and so on. Just really laying it on thick that it’s useless for this hypothetical person to try to stop what’s happening.
- Jim, of course, figures out what’s going on and just spins to face her and shoots her in the head. That doesn’t stop her from standing there, smiling. Then she transforms into the tengu form. This is Sutoku - the others died when he shot them, but he unloads his revolver into it to no effect. We get a brief fight scene, which does not go well for Jim. He gets thrown around the place, breaking stuff in the process as he tries to do anything to this monster, before the tengu just flies away with a final taunt.
- At least he has some information now. He pulls himself back together and the remainder of the book has him all bandaged up and using an improvised crutch. Adam like the idea of him going all Rambo now - he goes to some house and starts setting things up, but we don’t really know what he’s doing. It’s not really traps, but he’s prepping the place in some way. Then he goes back to the shrine and desecrates it. They don’t want to be crude, so he’s not peeing on stuff or whatever, but the idea is that he’s going around doing stuff to disturb things (throwing ash on stuff, knocking over monuments, etc.). Eventually, the tengu just forms without any of the preamble from last time. “If you haven’t had enough you can die in torment and join my ranks.” Jim’s never been one to turn aside from a fight.
- Neat retreating battle on Jim’s part, through some trees in the town, he probably gets thrown through a few walls here or there, but eventually he makes his way back into the house he prepped earlier. The fight continues and eventually Jim’s thrown into a bedchamber. As the tengu follows him he does something and drops a wooden beam from the ceiling, impaling the tengu. It doesn’t seem bothered by this given that it’s a spirit and isn’t bothered by material things, but then Chrono-Ranger calls him out by his name as Emperor Sutoku. This is the place where he died in his old life and now he’ll die here again. The tengu dismisses this as just talk that has no meaning, but now it’s stuck on the beam. Jim had set the whole place up to collapse and now that the tengu is stuck that’s what he does. “The shrine is where Emperor Sutoku was remembered, but nobody will think of these ruins as a place to remember the tengu.” Then he sets fire to the ruins and walks away without looking at the flames behind him.
- Christopher insists that they back up to an early fight, though. There has to be a scene where he’s unloaded his gun, but there’s still one tengu left. He pulls out a wakizashi and fights the last one hand-to-hand. If this issue doesn’t have Jim Brooks fighting something with a wakizashi or katana, what are they even doing a story set in feudal Japan for? Even carrying a sword is kind of not his style, though… Maybe one of the “people” was wearing the daishō and he just grabs one of the swords when it gets close. It’s not important to the story, but it’s a thing that needs to happen. Hell, “Chrono-Ranger in Japanese garb with a pistol in one hand and a katana in the other” is pretty great cover art material on its own.
- The story proper probably ends with him returning to CON because basically any story involving him needs to have some nod to what his deal is considering his mostly-disconnected-from-continuity position in the setting. He can say something about maybe next time getting a bit more information about what he’s going to be facing and CON responding that he gets everything that is available. Why weren’t there more records about this guy? Because you stopped him. He’s a computer working off of records regarding myths and legends and then throwing time travel into the mix. Records are going to be spotty.
- Which Akira Kurosawa film are you giving the Sentinel Comics treatment? Not really any of them. I mean, I guess if you’re going to do one with Chrono-Ranger it’d be Yojimbo with the stranger coming in from out of town to fix things. If it was more of a multi-issue arc they could have set something up as an actual homage, but in a single issue there really isn’t much room for it, sorry.
- What’s Jim’s take on actual western films? Does he prefer the classic White Hat/Black Hat stuff, or the more ethically ambiguous Spaghetti Western thing? Has he seen Blazing Saddles? That prompts the question of when would he have even seen movies at all? Chrono-Ranger wouldn’t ever have done so, but Time-Slinger has, well, time to experience such things. His students would definitely have brought things up. Adam thinks that he would enjoy the Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” Spaghetti Westerns. Christopher thinks he’d really like True Grit. Anything that romanticizes the era without going too far and having the heroes be too clean cut. Keep in mind that his time in Silver Gulch was pretty uneventful right up until when he fell through a portal in spacetime. Stuff that shows the mundane, “boring” things that go on would get his approval. Adam thinks he’s also like The Searchers, but Christopher hasn’t seen that one to form an opinion.
- Given the likelihood that something like a duel comes up in his stories would our gun/throwing knife wielding heroes/villains stack up in a quick draw contest (so, Chrono-Ranger, Wraith, Expatriette, Stuntman, Marxman, Sheriff Pratt, Sergeant Steel, and Heartbreaker)? While nothing like that happens in this story (this was more of an investigation story where he’s dropped into an unfamiliar culture and he has to navigate it well enough to figure out what’s going wrong), yeah it’s come up. He had a whole book titled Draw! after all. What kind of competition is this, though? Different characters would rate differently depending on the context. Sergeant Steel probably doesn’t rate highly regardless. Neither does Sheriff Pratt. Marxman is really good, but his whole deal is sniping which implies taking your time and setting up the perfect shot. He doesn’t take the shot until its perfect. He can run and gun since he’s a soldier, but it’s not his preference. Expat is good at run and gun. Chrono-Ranger’s going to have the best quick draw. They can’t remember how much they’ve talked about who’s a better shot than whom over the years - Adam’s opinion is that Jim’s likely the best general shot of the gang, Christopher thought that might have been stated to have been Expatriette but can’t say for sure that they haven’t said that she’s more “spray and pray” in mentality.
- [I can find two things on this. First is the following from the Perestroika episode that touched on a similar topic of Marxman and how others stack up: “Parse, for example, isn’t necessarily the best at shooting but she knows exactly what the correct target is. Marxman is specifically a sniper and given the time to line up his shot he will hit what he’s aiming at (he could outperform modern teams with computer-assisted ballistics calculations - a scary combination would be him shooting with Parse as his spotter). Heartbreaker is more about thrown or up-close fighting - improvised weaponry. Of those named [which was Marxman, Heartbreaker, Expatriette, Chrono-Ranger, and Parse], Expat is his closest competition, but they have different strengths. He’s a better shot, but what she lacks she can make up for in terms of ‘more bullets’ and she is better at a ‘run and gun’ scenario than he would be (although he could still manage it).” Following up in Editor’s Note 25 we also learn that Stuntman is also a “quantity over quality” guy and isn’t particularly highly rated in this group. The implication here is that Expat is a better shot than Chrono-Ranger but it’s also not explicitly stated.]
- Continuing the discussion of who’s the best shot here and now, they do bring up Parse as another “perfect shot” type of person, but her deal is more in dealing with target acquisition. If we’re in a situation where everybody is hitting the target bullseye every time, she’s the one who would notice that if she instead shoots a little up and to the right the whole target will fall apart, so she’ll shoot there instead. They kind of land on Jim being the better shot, but Expat is generally also doing other stuff in assessing/planning/executing a battle strategy, run and gun fighting, and adapting on the fly. Jim can do that stuff to, but that is her top-rank skill.
- Back in the Temporal Targets episode, you mentioned El Oso as another western hero who fought against oppression generally, even if that’s from existing systems of authority - many heroes are at least somewhat government-affiliated and brushes with authority are generally signposted as being corrupt in some way (crooked Rook City police being part of the Organization, for example); which heroes would most likely walk in El Oso’s footsteps and push back against government authority, even without the motivation of a villain’s hand guiding things? Dark Watch fits the bill here. They’re primarily in Rook City, sure, but “pushing back against unjust authority” is a story that’s kind of predicated upon there being bad actors in the place of authority in the first place. The fact that they’re dealing with the Chairman being behind everything is incidental to the storytelling vibe of them working against a corrupt police force. Freedom Five stories don’t really deal with the fact that they’re government-backed until we get to the “the call is coming from inside the house” problem that was the Termi-Nation story when a problem within the government crops up. We are still dealing with comic book stories that tend to be more cut and dry on this sort of thing (plus there’s the Comics Code getting in the way for the vast majority of the time - authority figures were to be respected, so any cop that wasn’t had to be a dirty cop by definition). That being said, Dark Watch are the character archetypes that fit the anti-authority angle already. Naturalist is somebody who’s about tearing down extant systems, not only his own company, but the broader economic system that exists because of companies like his. For a comics story you’ve generally got to have a villain, even if it’s someone unassuming like Mark Benedetto who’s just taking advantage of whatever he can for business purposes. “The Government” isn’t a monolithic entity, it’s a collection of people and so, ultimately, the plot will always come down to an individual or group of individuals that are “behind” the problem.
- So, what would it be if it wasn’t the “Chrono-Ranger wielding a pistol and katana” option they came up with earlier? Do they want to not ruin the surprise of the first few pages where it was just “life in feudal Japan”? No, you’re in the business of selling comics so you shouldn’t bury the lede here. Covers are ads, so he should be on the cover to let potential readers know that he’s there. Christopher talks about when he was at his most comics-reading days in the ’90s, he’d often see a cover that caught his eye, but then try to ignore/forget what he saw anyway. It was either lying or a spoiler - either way he should ignore it to get on with experiencing the story itself.
- Since covers are ads, they’re just going with the option they thought of before as it’s the best advertisement for this issue. Jim in his Japanese outfit (maybe with his normal clothes visible underneath) with his pistol in his organic hand and the sword in his metal one. Bird claws coming in around the edges. Christopher proposes maybe make it look something like a samurai movie poster, but Adam doesn’t think that genre-evoking covers like that were really a thing until the ’00s unless it was a parody (so a Guise book could do it).
- Any words on the cover? It could go either way. He’ll see if it could use it as he’s drawing it, but there isn’t a particular message that needs to be conveyed that isn’t already by the image. The obvious message for any Chrono-Ranger story is “Chrono-Ranger in [where/whenever he is]” and the picture already tells that story for them here.