The Letters Page: Episode 139
Creative Process: Absolute Zero Villains
Some frigid foes!
Run Time: 1:33:59
Minimal goofs, mostly due to existential dread. Tough times, these.
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- We're talking about Absolute Zero's villains, so let's first get the ones we already know about out of the way: Proletariat, Char is a small-time AZ foe [his first in-game appearance is in AZ's deck on "Frost Bound Drain"], Chokepoint (in that she's the villain for the Termi-Nation event, which AZ featured in prominently [Highbrow also appears in the Fort Adamant deck as his nemesis in that deck, but they don't mention her here]). Yeah, there we go. Exhaustive list, that. They've mentioned a few times in the past that he just doesn't tend to have a lot of solo stories; he's mostly just in the Freedom Five team stuff. When he does get stories focused on him, they tend to be more about his inner struggle and/or how his own nature isolates him from the world rather than pedestrian interpersonal conflicts. Even stories like the Matriarch where he was the Big Damn Hero doesn't make Lilian an "Absolute Hero villain", she was an event that he happened to have an important role in resolving.
- That being said, with the hundreds of issues of Freedom Five that he was around for it seems unlikely that there were never some solo stories for him here and there. Let's do some for various eras of comics: a Silver Age one, an "Iron Age" '80s one, Proletariat fills the '90s slot already, and then maybe a more modern one in the '00s or early '10s.
- In the Silver Age he would be a new character who just joined the team. The others are in the "we're all heroes and we all smile" (even Wraith whose background would justify not being the smiling quippy hero), but not AZ. There was a period of comics with the "monstrous" hero who was at odds with their own humanity and he kind of fits that role.
- They waffle a bit on what angle to go with The obvious choice for the time period is to go with a "heat villain", although that steps on Char's toes a little. The Red Scare cultural zeitgeist is still there, but that's also Proletariat's shtick (they bring up the odd fact that Proletariat's main modern appearance as a villain, during Vengeance, wasn't until after the end of the Cold War. [For reference, the Berlin Wall started coming down in November '89 with the dissolution of the USSR happening in December '91. Exordium limited series kicking off in August of '91 and the Vengeful Five one-shot coming out and the start of the Vengeance event proper happening in December of that year. How's that for timing?] He was meant to be doing "Baron Blade stuff" rather than "Cold War stuff" at the time, so that worked out. He's back to the latter in the more recent comics, though [see: Perestroika]. Worries of the atomic age could factor in somehow - maybe somebody who's using him, trying to turn him against his team (which only really works early on as the longer things go the harder of a sell that becomes) in order to make use of him/his suit in some kind of new power source/weapon (a "frozen bomb" or something).
- That seems like a decent angle to go with. Somebody who's trying to convince AZ that the FF are robbing him of his humanity and that he can help. Ultimately he's looking to use AZ as the basis for some new energy source for some kind of cryo-bomb, but that's what makes him a villain.
- Now, what they need to avoid is having this drift into the thing they did in the '90s when Wager Master pulled something similar and the readers didn't know for a few months whether AZ was still a good guy or if he was something of a "double agent". Unlike in that case, they wouldn't have the person try to convince him that he doesn't need the suit, but maybe the implication is that they can "cure" him or otherwise somehow give him his humanity back.
- So, the vibe would be that AZ's all "I'm not even human" and the Freedom Five try to cheer him up with the standard "you're one of us" talks, but it doesn't get through because just look at him and his differences. The villain's angle is to promise to help make him human (whether or not that would be a "cure"). He gets under AZ's skin by playing up that "you're not human" feeling - agreeing with/validating his worst thoughts about his predicament. The end goal is to harness his cold powers somehow - turn him into a cryo-bomb to bring about a new ice age. Doomsday device plot seems on-brand for the era.
- Do they want this person to be a Mad Scientist or maybe somebody with resources who's paying scientists to develop the stuff necessary? They're over-complicating this. For the era it's fine to just have a guy who knows how to make AZ into a bomb. No need to explain it with a detailed backstory.
- Who would want a new ice age? What's the motive? Again, Silver Age simplicity: it's somebody who's setting up underground bunkers so that he, and the people like him that he wants to save, will survive while scouring the surface world with the ice age. This can also fit the Cold War/atomic age worries without being too on-the-nose about it.
- So they're setting this up as a group of "outcasts" who don't fit the cookie-cutter mainstream society of white picket fences, 2.3 children, and a dog. You know who else doesn't fit this definition? Absolute Zero. That's the hook. Sure, they really want to wipe out all of those normal people with a new ice age brought about by weaponizing him rather than legitimately welcoming him into the group, but they don't tell him that.
- Oh, well now they need to make sure that this doesn't step on Citizen Dawn's toes, especially since this is pretty much exactly the era when she first showed up. So, they need to steer the vibe of this group away from "cult" which is where they'd been heading with it. Unfortunately, this still just fits a profile in which they could just say that this is a Citizen Dawn story (she'd totally try to recruit Absolute Zero with a "outcast from society because of what makes you special" pitch - that's her standard pitch).
- Screw it - that's now a canonical Citizen Dawn story. Freedom Five #279 in January '71. Dawn is now as much an Absolute Zero villain as Wager Master is. Lets say that some story arc had wrapped up in #248, they had a plan for #250, so they needed a filler story. Up to this point AZ had been on the team but had been grumpy about it, but here we give him an out. He's always been a character who seems to want an excuse to turn his back on the world, but now that he's given the opportunity to do so he winds up not taking it.
Silver Age - For Real This Time
- OK, let's keep things smaller-scale. No cryo-bombs to destroy the world; something more focused on AZ himself who can show up a few times to build some animosity. Maybe rather than approaching an "opposite" from a "heat-based villain" angle, just have somebody who's immune to the cold. Maybe an unfrozen caveman? No, somehow they've already done that gag [Ape-Man, mentioned in episode 109 for the curious]. Maybe a frost giant/troll/mythical being of some variety? [Brief intermission while they look into that.] Unfortunately, most actual names of such beings in folklore don't work well as something in comics. Maybe somebody who just evokes it like "Yeti-man" or something - or probably just The Yeti (yeah, they have a paucity of -man characters, but why make something more cumbersome?).
- OK, so they don't want to be too close to the Hippo or Bugbear here. This is just a big, hairy, slightly bestial guy who calls himself The Yeti. He's not dressed as a yeti, pretending to be a yeti, or actually a yeti.
- What else? Ice breath ("He brings with him the polar wind." "I love it."). In the '60s during his first introduction he doesn't need a lot of explanation. When they build this guy up more later they need to be careful to intentionally distance him from Bugbear.
- They also start blowing his motivations up to big climate-changing stuff before they rein themselves in again. Small-scale plots. Even turning Megalopolis into an ice-city is too big. If he was part of a big plot like that, he would have shown up in SotM. This is a tough guy with ice breath who shows up and fights Absolute Zero. He's strong enough that punches can damage the suit and he's not affected by AZ's ice blasts. He's a small time villain who jobs around for other villains occasionally and winds up fighting Absolute Zero a bunch. Done.
- Now who is he? Christopher [kind of resigned about it] comes up with the idea that he's just some muscle for somebody who was guarding a thing in a refrigerated truck/warehouse/something and an accident/explosion involving all of the coolant chemicals turned all of his hair white and made him cold. He's like the lite version of Absolute Zero himself. He can go out in the winter and be fine. He can go out in the summer and be uncomfortable, but it won't kill him.
- This makes for a fun bit where Yeti thinks that AZ is just being a big baby about his situation, where AZ (rightfully) points out that his situation is much worse than Yeti's.
- After a break to check things, he was the guy who always got assigned the job to guard the refrigerator truck or whatever that the mob kept bodies in before they could dispose of them. He got the nickname of "yeti" because it rhymed with his name and because he was this big guy who was always in this fur coat because of this chilly detail: Freddy "the Yeti" Bronson. His first appearance was Freedom Five #161 in September 1963. He's a good foil for AZ because their powers don't really work on each other, but Yeti still has the strength advantage, and so it's a matter of outsmarting him somehow.
- So, it's the gritty '80s so people are probably dying. Adam's basic idea is somebody whose touch is decay - touching a person has the obvious effect, but touching metal can cause it to rust and whatnot, which is bad for AZ. Christopher starts laying out a confrontation where the guy gets the upper hand, destroys part of the suit and grabs AZ's arm, but cellular decay doesn't really work because... dang, this is just the "Absolute Zero is immune to Baron Blade's death ray" gimmick again. OK, so maybe it does work on him, but not to the same extent.
- First things first: how does he put on clothes? "Because comics." [Asides into stuff like his saliva being the dangerous thing - leading to some terminal wet-willy goofs.] Maybe it's his keratin so coming into contact with his hair and fingernails is the problem? That seems kind of a modern rationale… Easy, he was introduced with this killer touch thing, but later on got a better explanation for why he could handle anything without destroying it. Maybe they have to puncture with the nails for it to work - although they don't want to have "claws" or just be a woman with long fingernails. They like the "deadly touch" angle too much. Maybe it has to be grasping with the whole hand and handling things with just the fingers is OK?
- [After a discussion off-the-air] Maybe it's not just touch makes things dissolve away, but while he's holding onto something it ages super fast, so duration is important. Maybe it also ramps up, so holding something for a short time isn't so bad, but the longer he holds on the faster the aging happens. This can totally be a killer move too as he can age someone to death by holding onto them until they crumble to dust.
- And now they've designed somebody who's actually less dangerous to Absolute Zero than to just about anybody else. Sure, breaking the suit is bad, but this guy just grabbing anybody else's arm is going to be worse for that person than AZ. Maybe pull it back a bit more so that the power only works on inorganic material (and the power is also probably something the person uses intentionally rather than being a Midas' Touch situation). They power they'd been describing has the potential to be a major threat and so would either have rated being in SotM or they'd have to have been killed off really early. On the other hand, somebody who has to turn the power on and it only works on inorganic stuff can fit for a minor player who is a good foil for AZ. Even if they want to keep him around, it's something that they can have power creep apply to later on.
- So, they've backed away from the initial grittiness that Adam had envisioned as he's no longer killing people by grabbing their faces, but now he can just erode his way into bank vaults or whatever. That's probably OK, though, as this is the Freedom Five book, not Mystery Comics. Ooo, or maybe he can be a contract killer that can get to protected targets by breaking through physical security measures like walls and stuff. He doesn't use his powers directly to kill, but he can get to you [wait, now they've just described Equity]. He can also use his power to distract the heroes (say, by taking out a monorail support column). We even get to a fun bit of counter-move to Absolute Zero in particular since if he puts up a barrier of ice, "fast aging" just melts it really fast. It takes almost no effort to bypass. They seem to think that water is "organic" and thus they adjust this guy's powers to work against "nonliving" stuff, but in Chemistry terms, it's carbon-containing compounds that are called "organic" and water doesn't qualify. "Nonliving" means he also can't wither trees or whatever, but this could be an evolution down the line.
- [Break for name discussion.] It's the '80s and the person is breaking down things (including, like, the Establishment, man) so he's got a punk vibe to him and he goes by Degenerate. Of course, they now have a Billy Idol-looking guy in their heads and want to shake things up, so it's also now a woman instead. This gets us more Absolute Zero personality stuff. He's been kind of an outsider himself, but he sees value in the System regardless. Sure, he might be skeptical of it and not just a blind follower, but he doesn't want to just tear the whole thing down.
- [Break for origin.] Ashley Peterson was this normal happy young woman, but then she started hanging out with the wrong crowd in high school. They got her into drugs (and music, but lets focus on the real problem here), she did too many drugs, had to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance because she was dying from the drugs (Don't do drugs, kids!). While en route, an inattentive driver of a corrosive chemical truck crashes into the ambulance killing everybody but Ashley, who only had her hands doused in the chemicals. Even after her hands healed she could still feel the chemicals eating into them. If she recalled that feeling she could corrode objects with her touch.
- Anyway, she gets really into Punk music and starts going by "Ash Wednesday", but also starts robbing banks and whatnot and picks up the name Degenerate.
- Her first appearance was in Freedom Five #382 from February '82.
- Christopher throws down a gauntlet that this one should be a rogue AI. Maybe either something that was installed in his suit to improve its functionality or one that was developed elsewhere that just got into it eventually. He's just thinking about an AZ opponent that's coming after the suit more directly rather than at him.
- Maybe Tachyon programs something to help optimize the suit, but also be something like a companion for AZ since he's isolated so much? Christopher would prefer something that was created elsewhere that just happens to find its way into his suit, though. The suit has to have some degree of automation already, but there's no "personality" as it is.
- OK, so what if we have AZ fighting something else at some point, but during that he notices that the suit is working better/more efficiently, but as time goes on weird stuff starts happening. Was this something that was written to mess with his suit or was it an emergent phenomenon of some sort? They decide on "alien AI from space".
- The team is out in space for something and he winds up getting his suit damaged. He grabs some piece of what looks like scrap at one point to put over the hole and then ice it over as a patch. This alien metal has some weirdness where it assimilates itself into whatever its attached to, so when he goes to repair his suit later on he finds that it's already "healed" on its own. Eventually they find that while his suit has been working better, it also starts becoming autonomous (like, the suit gets up and "sleepwalks" without Ryan in it) - that's the "event" of this whole thing, having the suit itself go bad and stopping it. What's important for our purposes here is that the "brain" of this chunk of metal is what gets into his normal systems as this recurring AI thing - once they get it out of the suit it's now just Out There in the technological aether and shows back up occasionally, having cobbled together a new form (recognizable for readers' sake). Given that it arose in a situation where it was optimizing AZ's suit, that's its motivation and why it keeps showing up in FF stories. Of course, optimizing the suit's functions includes getting rid of the occupant, which is kind of dead weight.
- The gets them off on a tangent that the suit starts off doing stuff that Ryan doesn't want to do. Like, he's tired and doesn't want to finish putting some canisters away or something, but the suit does it while he's asleep. He figures out that it's reading his brain patterns in an attempt to do things more efficiently which, at first, is a neat function.
- We get a fun story where the FF are out fighting something, but AZ gets just obliterated by some attack, only for us to realize that he's still back in his cryo chamber and the suit was just out fighting the thing for him. He gets a new suit built, but how is the AI is still there? Uh oh, that must mean that it's installed in more places. That's the groundwork for how it shows up even after they've gone through the trouble of clearing it out once they get to that point. Sure, they've locked it out of their systems, but it's already out in the world.
- [Break for names and issues for main events:] Tachyon eventually dubs it the Schema Process (due to the redesigning stuff it does when it comes into contact with a system). They've come up with 6 notable issues for this thing. Most "first appearance" issues will throw in enough basics for that one story and then, if warranted, the character gets more backstory detail filled in later on. This one has all of that development happen on the page in "real time", so they're telling us where the important stuff they talked about above fits in:
- January '02 Freedom Five #621: The FF are fighting Infinitor out in space where he gets the weird alien metal "patch".
- August '02 FF #628: The suit "sleepwalks". There had been implications of somebody playing pranks or sneaking around, but this explains what's going on.
- November '02 FF #631: AZ starts "remote piloting" the suit while the team is unaware.
- January '03 FF #633: The team learns that he's doing that when the suit is destroyed. He gets a new suit, but the AI is still there, so they realize that it must have infected the whole lab.
- February '03 FF #634: Continued from previous issue, they see that the AI has been modifying stuff throughout the lab. They work to isolate it, wind up fighting it, and finally clearing it out.
- August '03 FF #640: First appearance of Schema, the villain AI who's cobbled together a new body out of a broken AZ suit and other stuff. It becomes an intermittent AZ/FF villain. It's got a much different vibe than Omnitron, in part because of its specific interest in/focus on AZ in particular and the central goal of optimization/efficiency.
- Back in the Absolute Zero episode, you mentioned that he didn't really have his own roster of villains because he didn't have a solo title - so did the villains you just created mostly show up in Freedom Five or in The Iceman Cometh where they went into his background a bit more? These are all FF villains that singed him out or are particularly dangerous to him for one reason or another. The Iceman Cometh was more about him than anyone else. Having an ensemble cast book is weird because you have to rotate who the main focus is. Sure you can have some issues that are about the group as a whole, but a lot of the time the story will be focused on one member in some way.
- Besides The Iceman Cometh did AZ have any solo series? Not offhand.
- Can you explain what was going on with Char on "Ice Bound Drain"? That was in The Iceman Cometh. Most of the book was dealing with the "Man vs. Self" and "Man vs. Machine" conflict types. Char is around as the backdrop for all of the internal struggle stuff that makes up the meat of it, so while Char was the villain present in the book, the actual fight with him (with the art on the card being from right at the end) was incidental. As for what specifically is happening there, Char was going on about setting a bunch of people on fire and whatnot, but AZ just has him chill out.
- Does AZ have any villains that he takes on that don't manage to damage his suit? Schema isn't interested in destroying his suit. That doesn't mean the suit doesn't get damaged/destroyed in the process, but that's not part of the villain's goal. From a narrative perspective, though, the suit is his "body" for purposes of enemy attacks, so damage to the suit is kind of inevitable (it's also his "weak point" so it makes sense for people to try to damage it in the first place). They draw a direct comparison to Superman and how often Kryptonite shows up. It's not every issue, but if you need to evoke the hero's weakness, it's right there. There's a lot of stuff that just won't hurt AZ in the first place, so you either go after his suit, or you go after his "heart" by attacking other stuff/people that he cares about.
- How does he see out of the visor in his "Freedom Five" variant suit as the triangle seems to be oriented upside-down from what would make sense for him to see through? The triangle doesn't represent a visor that he sees through - the entire inside of the helmet is basically a HUD that's being fed video from the outside.
- Are there any book recommendations for the Tachyon/Absolute Zero book club? Tachyon recommended that AZ read The Knight in Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher. It's about a guy who wears this suit of armor which he claims is so he can protect people, but in reality the armor is hurting those around him.
- Many heroes' rogues galleries share a theme in some way (Wraith's, for example, are people who can't/won't stop what they're doing), so having just made up a bunch, what's AZ's villains' theme? This was unintentional, but now that you've brought it up: AZ's theme as a hero is "disability" and that wound up being the theme for his villains too. Also: "outcast".
- [Cult of Gloom letter with a bunch of Social Distancing stuff at about 1:11:50] For being a core-set hero and member of the Freedom Five, why didn't AZ (or Bunker) ever get a proper nemesis? Hey, Fright Train is a proper nemesis.
- Was his true nemesis inside him all along? Yes, that's it.
- Since, as a member of the Freedom Five, he's likely fought Baron Blade more often than any other villain, how do the two of them view one another? Has his ability to so often continue fighting without his suit won him any respect? Initially he sees this "guy in a tech suit" and figures that he can make use of this to his advantage. Then he learns that what's inside the suit is dangerous and backs off those plans. Baron Blade 1) views anybody on the team other than Legacy as incidental and 2) doesn't care about inventions that aren't his. The Absolute Zero cryo-suit is a technological marvel, but he just shrugs it off as inferior to whatever he'd have made for that purpose. For all of AZ's human traits, negative like ruthlessness or positive like resilience, Baron Blade doesn't really register them as he's just bad at human emotions generally. Even the emotions he is capable of expressing (anger, vengeance, etc.) are all extremes.
- Is he currently in the market for a new nemesis (the Cult of Gloom is currently open to one since their old one pulled a self-sacrifice to defeat some other extradimensional god thing that doesn't use Voodoo)? He would prefer to have no nemeses. He's pretty well-suited to his role in the Freedom Academy teaching/helping heroes, in particular those who have significant obstacles to overcome along with the ethics of heroism. "He's got a book, What Do We Owe to Our Foes?."
- Does he have a favorite album/recording artist and/or did he ever play an instrument with any proficiency? He likes Miles Davis a bunch and that's probably his all-time favorite, but there's so many to pick from. Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday get named. Right now there's an artist named Vance Gilbert that he's really into. [Part of the problem here is that AZ is more knowledgeable about this stuff than Christopher is.] He doesn't play an instrument. He's a fan who likes listening to, learning about, and writing about music, but he's not a musician himself.
- How popular is/was AZ when compared to the rest of the Freedom Five (citing his kind of morose/angsty characterization)? Does he have many detractors? To get at what's sort of an unstated question: many writers probably write him as angsty, but that's not really right. He's not "moody" either as that implies swings up and down and he's pretty much just always "down". He is, for quite legitimate reasons, depressed, but eventually overcomes that depression. A good word to describe his personality (especially early on) is cynical. He's not "all woe is me", but more "the world is wrecked already, so who cares?" He's always been a character who's down on his luck and down on the world in general as a result, but still does the right thing. There's a glimmer of something (optimism, hope, etc.) down in there somewhere. To the questions asked: the least popular member of the FF is probably Bunker. He's the most boring. While they all probably have significant numbers of readers who would claim them as their favorite, Bunker's numbers probably rise and fall with the popularity of military/wars in general. He was likely not as popular during Vietnam, for example. Most everybody likes Legacy, Wraith, and Tachyon. Absolute Zero has the benefit for being the dark horse, edgy, guy who's also the most philosophical of the group. In general rankings it's probably Legacy and Wraith at the top, then Tachyon, AZ, and Bunker in that order, but none of those gaps are very big.
- "How cold man make fire?" The card you're thinking of is "Hoarfire", which shows ice on one side of himself and fire on the other. Adam's explanation here is that he's a better artist now than he was then. What's intended here is that there's fire around him and he's taking some fire damage to boost up his cold damage and this card will be much different if he ever gets to redo the art for the old sets. From a mechanical point of view, yes, he does occasionally deal fire damage. Usually that's to himself and that's to represent that letting in any amount of heat from the outside world hurts him. Fire damage that he's dealing to others [which, in his deck, is only one clause on "Hoarfire" and I will frequently use even that clause to hit AZ himself if he's fully set up] is him redirecting heat/fire around him/"pulling all of the cold out of an area, leaving only heat"/cold so bitter it feels like a burn/whatever other explanation you feel like. He's not shooting fire - as the man says, "all I know is fire gets all weird around me."
- What villainous challenges await him in his "ethics professor" role going forward? Does he deal with people undermining his teachings/philosophy or threaten his students more directly? How does he relate with his students in general (is he the type to go and play some ice hockey with students or more just chill in his office listening to some vinyl as he prepares his next lesson)? He's mostly a teacher now, but still gets out in the field to fight crime when necessary. That fighting is still "shoot cold blasts" rather than philosophical stuff. The Sentinels of Freedom book is one that has a massive cast and it's typically one or two of the core heroes with a handful of students. It's an excuse to expand the universe and acts as a catch-all book. That being said, the stories that use AZ do tend to be the more philosophical ones. He's not the type to go play hockey with the students and the vinyl option is the more likely. He likes the fact that he gets a chance/reason/excuse to do more thinking and writing now. He's not great at relating to his students. If they're engaging with what he's putting out there he can work with them, but if they're checked-out and don't care he's not going to pull teeth getting them to come around.
- How is his online-dating thing working out now that he's doing the teaching thing that gets him in contact with people more often? Was this narrative thread just dropped at some point? He's doing this teaching thing and that's taking up a lot of his time. He's not opposed to romance, but we'll see if anything happens there. The world just had a major shake-up and basically everybody has had somebody they care about die recently, so it's a weird time in general. [Christopher jokes here that AZ and Fanatic make out a bunch in the wake of Ra's death, so you know what to do with that information, everybody.]
- Has AZ ever grown a thick beard of ice just to try out the look? What did Mainstay think of somebody challenging him on the "manliest beard" front? Maybe some alternate version of him - like, maybe some philosopher version of him has a big ol' Socrates beard.