The Letters Page: Episode 141
A story of a new standard!
Run Time: 1:31:46
Adam and I are both rather stir crazy already, but we're excited to be talking about Sentinel Comics! A lot going on here.
We banter a bit, but then dig into justifying Benchmark's backstory against issue numbers. We solve everything, and there are no more problems. Everything is fine. Oh, and also do a bit of thinking on morality/human nature.
Finally, we get into crafting and telling the story of the issue just after 14 minutes in.
We get to your questions at just before the 40 minute mark. We answer a lot of questions, not just about Benchmark, but also about Chrono-Ranger!
And, finally, we talk about the cover around 1 hour and 26 minutes in.
Thanks for listening! If you're on the Patreon, join us on Friday at 11 AM, Central time for the first live Editor's Note done entirely over the internet!
- So, between the official timeline for RevoCorp Presents as they’ve established it now, the old RevoCorp episode, and the Benchmark deck in particular, they’ve realized that things didn’t work at all, so they needed to do some work here.
- Benchmark’s deck would position the big confrontation with Revenant well before the OblivAeon event [“Flash Installation Drive” shows Revenant in Benchmark’s visor reflection and the flavortext quotes RCP #9, which would have been September 2012] when in reality it should have been concurrent with the OblivAeon event. The story details from the RevoCorp episode are mainly correct; it’s the flavor-text attributions that are off.
- The problem is that they had assumed that Benchmark was around for much less time pre-OblivAeon when doing the decks, and as a result we have a few years in there where he’s just straight up doing his hero thing. He came on-board to do this “corporate branded hero” and he does the best job that he can. Regardless, this approach to heroics rubs people the wrong way both in the readership and within the comics setting.
- He occasionally turns up evidence that RevoCorp has done shady stuff, and obviously several heroes are well aware of RevoCorp’s shadiness. They might try to warn him off of working for/with them, but he’s convinced that they’re ok now because they’re letting him be this big hero guy, right? Why would they do that if they were still shady? When he found out about that one thing and reported it, they shut it down too after an internal audit to figure out how that even happened in the first place.
- He’s got some serious sunk-cost rationalizing going on, though. He’s put so much of himself into where he is and what he’s doing now that to undercut his thoughts about himself and what he’s been doing by coming to grips with what RevoCorp is really like would be a difficult thing for anybody to grapple with. It takes him being “activated” so that the suit attacks his fellow heroes for him to deal with/get through it.
- The prompt is a pre-OblivAeon Benchmark story. They want it to be a “normal” issue for him, so it’s probably after the first dozen issues as that’s all of the character-introduction bits and stage setting. Adam kind of wants this to even be something that’s unrelated to other Sentinel Comics canon - let it be a “Benchmark Villain” or a situation that wasn’t being addressed by another hero already in some way and doesn’t need to touch on the other RevoCorp stuff.
- So, what’s a type of threat that he’s uniquely suited to combat as a hero? [Some good bits from Christopher here re: anti-RevoCorp lobbyists or protestors that Benchmark can “take care of”. These don’t work as that’s how a villain would handle it, not a hero.] Since he gets dispatch orders from RevoCorp, maybe it’s something that they’ve been monitoring that he gets sent off to do that, ostensibly, is a good heroic thing. It’s just that we, the readers, know that this is just to further some plot to RevoCorp’s benefit. Like, he gets sent to stop a bank robbery, but the “bank robbery” part of it isn’t the only thing going on (not that, but that kind of way to think about what’s going on - a simple crime that gets some good PR, but he’s really a tool of this evil corporation).
- What’s a good “multiple levels” plot? They haven’t done much in terms of “giant rampaging monsters”, so maybe that. Christopher immediately riffs into a “RevoCorp steals some monster eggs. Giant monster attacks trying to get its babies back. Benchmark is sent to kill the giant monster that’s laying waste to the city. RevoCorp steps in afterwards to take the job to ‘clean up’ the mess - keeping both the monster eggs and also getting access to the monster corpse as well.” So, that’s a whole issue, right? Cool. It’s a simple enough story that they can spend some time getting into the weeds a bit:
- What are the monster babies? They don’t need to be eggs, but something else that could be fun to design. Christopher is fully on-board with making them as sympathetic as possible and “eggs” are too impersonal. There’s probably some reason to keep them alive and propagating them in some way.
- What is RevoCorp doing with them?
- Details about the giant monster itself. What exactly is it? Are there more of them?
- What do they do with the body afterwards? It at the least lets them do more thorough testing without killing the young ones. It possibly makes it easier for them to go in to get more of the babies with impunity.
- So, what is the thing? They want it to be huge, but not just read as a Godzilla knock-off. Maybe something that burrows up from the ground. Do we even want it to fit into our normal conceptions of “animal”? Like, instead of being reptilian, mammalian, insectoid, or whatever it’s like a plant monster or lava monster? Christopher suggests a synapsid. Ok, so technically mammals are all synapsids, but the term usually comes up in with regards to prehistoric animals like Dimetrodon that are ancestors of modern mammals/more closely related to modern mammals than they are to other groups like reptiles, but still very much resembled reptiles on a superficial level. That’s the aspect that he’s suggesting; something that has some reptilian and mammalian features like hair and scales [of course, then he jumps the rails and suggests feathers, which were a feature within the dinosaur/bird clade that branched off after the reptile/synapsid split, but we’re talking weird kaiju things, so whatever].
- More basic stuff: how many limbs and how does it move (all fours, bipedal, etc.)? Christopher starts describing something vaguely mole-like (big front digging paws, flat/broad tail, etc.) but more reptilian. Maybe give it a axe-blade-like “beak” on its face that it can use to break up obstacles. “Reptilian mole with an axe head” is probably enough to move forward with - the synapsid thing may have been a decent thing to bring up for their inspiration purposes here, but it’s not like they need to actually care about its classification in the end.
- So, how big is it? It’s got a big smashy face and big scoop claws in front to knock stuff down. Christopher is thinking that “mole-like” implies that it’s more broad and long than tall, maybe 4 or 5 stories tall when it rears up. Adam had been thinking 4 or 5 stories tall just normally, but that might mean that it’s too big overall - that it would be “natural disaster” level of destruction just by being around in a city as that would also mean its’ probably at least a few city blocks long. Being “only” 15 or 20 feet tall is still huge enough for “giant monster” purposes.
- It’s still a good “villain” for Benchmark, though, as he has the range advantage, but still needs to figure out how to damage it through its thick hide. He could start by trying to distract it or at least drive it back into its hole, but it’s really focused on getting its babies back. Eventually RevoCorp (having reverse engineered something from the babies) sends him a drone to install a new bit of weaponry that can kill the thing.
- They also need some story to tell him for why this thing is making a beeline for the RevoCorp building. Probably something like they’ve got particular radio beacons that are used for something that is drawing it - they’ve “turned them off” but it takes a while for the things to spin down, so he’s got to take this thing out before it’s too late. They might even be able to figure out some sort of containment by the time it would get to the building, but look at all of this civilian infrastructure between here and there. Hundreds, if not thousands, would die if it were allowed to just run its course.
- Name: the terrifying Vorpax. Why didn’t it just burrow up directly into the RevoCorp building? It just didn’t. Maybe it comes up through a construction site that doesn’t have concrete down yet as that’s the path of least resistance to come up. We can also posit that it can hear the babies better from there (panel of the babies looking like they’re calling out, but no “audible” sound - it’s all so low-frequency that people can’t hear it, but mommy can).
- So, the story is this thing burst out of the ground and starts rampaging. Benchmark comes to fight it and evacuate people away from its path of destruction. He occasionally knocks off a scale or two, but as it moves the remaining scales slot into place to cover the exposed spots. RevoCorp eventually sends him the serum to kill the thing - he just needs to get a shot off at an unprotected spot before a new scale can cover it.
- Maybe we don’t actually get the story of what RevoCorp is actually doing until the end. Like, the first 3/4 of the book are straightforward heroics and it’s only the last 1/4 that makes you feel bad for this thing.
- Christopher’s come up with the actual RevoCorp plot too - they can harvest “seam cells” from the spines of the living babies. RevoCorp is in the business of selling powers to people, but often this wouldn’t work/the body rejects whatever’s being done. Seam cells can help stitch together (get it? "seam" cells) the customer’s and “donor’s” DNA or whatever. So, anybody who’s gone to RevoCorp to get powers, I hope you feel bad for being part of monster-baby torture.
- So, he kills the Vorpax and this is the “last” Vorpax (ignoring the labs full of the young). That leaves the fun eventuality in this title during OblivAeon where the RevoCorp cloning facility or something gets destroyed and we see some of the young ones escape and burrow into the ground. Just a little side detail where a writer wanted to acknowledge this plot thread.
- Can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind “Gary Stu that grows into an actual character” and “elite businessman who, despite everything he has at his fingertips, still dresses in a power suit to rob banks”? Revenant was a hold-over from one of Adam’s college comics (which is also where Setback and Fright Train came from). All of his friends were in that comic, and Revenant was Adam himself (Apostate [or rather, Dark Seraph] was Christopher). Of those characters, Fright Train is the one who’s changed the least, followed by Setback who is really just like their friend Pete. Revenant hasn’t changed so much in execution, but Mark Benedetto is a much different person as well (not that Adam’s original version was the type to make the suit himself either - he was just rich and had people make the suit for him - but he did have more vision than Mark does). Sentinels basically harvests ideas from everything that either of them have ever created. Benchmark, however, was completely unique to Sentinel Comics and came along pretty late in the production. He’s the answer to “What does RevoCorp need to do to better its public image?” and that answer is “hero as marketing scheme”. They thought about Revenant being that character as well (in keeping with the “villains as heroes” theme of the OblivAeon-era hero decks. They knew Luminary, Harpy, Lifeline, and La Comodora, but there was wiggle room for what to do for the remainder (like, would they make Citizen Dawn playable? That sort of thing). Benchmark fits that as a “RevoCorp hero” rather than personally being a former villain himself. “Benchmark is the comics equivalent of whoever it is that’s running Steak-umm’s Twitter account.”
- [Letter from Striped Burrower Turns the Earth, which is a great name for a Vorpax/Spirit Island spirit - this is a total coincidence] One of Benchmark’s accomplishments is taking on the Slaughterhouse Six by himself; what were they up to? Was the whole thing stage-managed by RevoCorp? The Slaughterhouse Six were doing bad things as they do and Benchmark just happened to cross paths with them. Later on, the baddies would ask their RevoCorp handlers what was up and the response is that if they get noticed by a hero while they’re pulling a job, that’s on them. This was probably a standard job for them, which are like 90% either tech or bank robberies. That being said, this would have been during the ramp-up period to when Benchmark learns about RevoCorp. Them being confused by him attacking them is a little bit off to him that gets him wondering. Christopher likes the idea that they’re going after the World’s 4th Largest Diamond that Glamour had gone after way back in the day [unfortunately, that Glamour would have been Madam Mittermeier, not Aislin Allen].
- How obvious was the nature of this battle to the readers? Much more obvious than it was to Benchmark. The “Benchmark is doing a good thing, but RevoCorp is using those activities for bad purposes” was very clear to the readership (see the issue they just made up this episode). That’s part of what makes RevoCorp Presents such a good title.
- The Slaughterhouse Six are shown on Benchmark’s “Auto-Targeting Protocol”, which damages 5 targets; is this a reference to the fact that Ambuscade is an illusion created by Glamour at this point? Yes, that is definitely the intent for that card.
- What did “Threat Neutralizer” do to Glamour? How might one defend against it? Is the suit “smart” enough to adjust automatically for different threats? What did Glamour do to Benchmark’s brain? It’s scrambling her thoughts to the point where she can’t bring her powers to bear, but doesn’t do any serious damage. The best comparison to other hero gear would be to Stun Bolt. You defend by either not getting hit in the first place (at least not getting hit in the forehead - it might make a limb go numb, but that’s not as big a problem as its intended use) or being fast enough to pull it off your forehead before it activates. The suit isn’t “smart” to that level, but Benchmark has a really good handle on what the suit can do and he can get new gear from RevoCorp if necessary, as we saw in this episode.
- Regarding “Flash Installation Drive”, what’s the equipment actually doing to the suit? Is this encounter with Revenant after the sneak attack on Parse and Setback? What’s Revenant doing here? What “isn’t part of the job description”? The “job description” thing places this encounter after the Parse and Setback attack. The device itself isn’t doing something to the suit - it’s basically Benchmark using an external hard drive to download additional information, in this case about Revenant, and the Drive can be used to to “live updates” to the suit.
- What kind of threats is he getting kitted out for on “Overhaul Loadout” as that’s a rather intimidating look for him? That’s just a depiction of him with everything equipped. It should be noted that most of his gear isn’t meant to be lethal - or at least to his knowledge he hasn’t been given lethal capability (of course, then they need to try to justify the “‘Inferno’ Missile Pod”).
- Is the flavortext on “Reinforced Chassis” another reference to his fight with Revenant? Yes (it’s talking about his “contract” with RevoCorp and the line would be from after he’s unmasked Mark Benedetto).
- What’s the difference between the white and blue suits? Since he had to destroy a lot of the suit when it “took over” to attack Setback and Parse, the reinforced look is him then going to find replacement parts. Note, however, that the “basic” Benchmark suit color is a light blue already, not white.
- You’ve said that Benchmark’s introduction into the comics was kind of forced - why add him in the first place? Was he just an attempt to get new reader on-board? Adam’s thought is basically that there was an egotistical writer. It wasn’t so much that the established characters weren’t selling, just that this guy had his self-insert character who was good at everything character he wanted to write. Sure, other new characters get introduced from time to time. Some last and some don’t, but something particular to Benchmark is that he was somebody’s pet project, and because he did good work elsewhere he was allowed to prop this guy up for a while. The best Benchmark stuff that makes him a worthwhile character started happening around OblivAeon as other good writers got their other projects all lined up for that and so could start doing other things again. It was one of these writers that took the reins and actually did something good with him rather than his original creator.
- What other heroes (besides Benchmark and Unity) took longer for readers to warm up to? Not really the ones you’ve seen - for the most part the SotM heroes are the most popular heroes just based on the conceit of only the A-list characters and storylines getting decks of their own. Benchmark is an outlier in that he was unpopular for so long (Unity really only had detractors initially and people warmed up to her quickly in comparison). There are other heroes whom you’ve never seen who were never liked by a wide audience. Like, we only know about the Shrieker because Glamour is important.
- How often do we get to see Supply and Demand Benchmark [also first birthday notice: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five]? Only a couple of times. There’s very little time between the Disparation story where that comes up in the first place and the end of the Multiverse era [they described that issue in the Count Barzakh episode and it occurred in September 2014 with the OblivAeon story proper being the entirety of 2016].
- To what extent is Randall a technician for his Benchmark suit like Tyler Vance is for the Bunker suit? Does he have some supporting cast staff member he trusts at RevoCorp? He’s not really an engineer - he’s able to hack stuff together occasionally (he knows some emergency protocols and enough to keep it running for a while if its damaged), but it’s not his aptitude. Tyler Vance knows a lot more about the Bunker suit than Randall knows about the Benchmark one, but he’s not like the person who invented it or anything. Heck, Tachyon knows more about the Bunker suit than Tyler does. That being said, Tyler is a soldier who wants to know enough about his gear to be able to handle problems that come up in the field - like field stripping, cleaning, and reassembling a rifle or sidearm. The Bunker suit is just a much more complex version of that to him. Yeah, there’s probably somebody at RevoCorp that he’s probably communicating with during his fight with his own suit; someone who knows more about it who can talk him through how to disable it. Of course, that’s probably more of a “here’s everything I can send you now, because if I stick around I’m likely to get fired or worse” before bugging out.
- How useful would somebody be using the Benchmark suit without the real-time support from RevoCorp (sending out new hardware packages on the fly, for example)? Adam starts off thinking that the Benchmark suit is more self-sufficient than the Bunker suit, but Christopher disagrees. RevoCorp would have a strong interest in keeping the suit locked down as a proprietary thing, especially early on, and Randall has to figure out some hacks later on to keep things going. However, in either the Bunker or Benchmark case, the man is more important than the suit. Well, maybe not Benchmark at first. To begin with he was basically just the face/voice behind this corporate “hero” product, but he really does grow into it and become a true hero in his own right. At first he would say that he’s a hero, but that wasn’t true. Later on, he’d probably claim that he wasn’t a hero, but that wouldn’t be true at that point either (he’s taking responsibility for the bad stuff that wasn’t his fault, but he feels the need to make up for it). Anyway, the Bunker suit is mostly complete as is, just with occasional upgrades when necessary. The Benchmark suit isn’t complete by default and relies on remote deployment (which is what the deck is all about).
- On “Micro Fabricator” the flavortext is a quote from Time & Time Again #9 where Biomancer seems amused at Benchmark’s lack of knowledge about the nature of his suit; what are Biomancer and Benchmark doing in a Chrono-Ranger title? Does Biomancer know what the Benchmark suit entails and who’s controlling it? T&TA is a Chrono-Ranger book, but Benchmark is showing up in everybody’s books at this point and Biomancer just happens to be part of this particular story. Of course Biomancer knows everything about the suit - he’s generally behind killing/otherwise removing people and replacing them with puppets that he created and he knows a puppet when he sees one. Benchmark, as a living puppet who doesn’t know about the strings controlling him, amuses him.
- [Also, second birthday request is “Our Time Now” by the Plain White T’s] A problem here is that neither of them are familiar/comfortable with singing either of the requested songs, plus being remote makes things even more difficult. How’s this: they keep taking birthday requests and once everyone’s back in the office they do them all and have Trevor layer the various takes on top of one another. Sound good?
- Can you tell us more about the longevity, tone/theme, etc. of RevoCorp Presents? They talk about that some today - it has some “freak of the week” aspects, but it always has that undercurrent of what’s really going on with RevoCorp. It does have the occasional recurring threats/villains. It’s frequently seemingly disconnected from the rest of Sentinel Comics, but there are always those asides to RevoCorp that ties things back in. It ran for 62 issues [given the other positioning we’ve gotten - that means it ends 2 months after OblivAeon wraps up with a two month gap from then before the line-wide relaunch in May ’17].
- Was the annoying “Benchmark comes in and shows up more established heroes” thing just in his own book, or was it pushed into those heroes’ own books? He was less annoying in his own book as there were fewer crossovers there. His intrusion into the other books was the main problem (Adam’s general philosophy is that if the book is named after you, you should be the coolest character in it - Benchmark upstaging the headliner whenever he shows up is counter to that).
- How do more villains not know Wraith’s identity already? Didn’t the Chairman unmask her at one point? Does he just keep that to himself? There have been a bunch of stories over the decades where she’s unmasked, but there’s always some “definitive” proof that it’s not true and so we return to the writers’ status quo of “nobody knows who the Wraith is”. Chairman probably still knows, but it’s more useful for him to hang onto that bit of knowledge. It’s still a bit of comic storytelling handwaving, though - part of the Wraith’s character is that she has a secret identity and so the continuity is a bit fluid on that matter to keep it so. In reality, the number of times she’s been revealed to be Maya Montgomery would make the subterfuge not work, but because it’s part of the character, the “proof” that they can’t be the same person keeps working.
- Since Benchmark’s primary villains (the Slaughterhouse Six and Plague Rat, for example) have their own ties to RevoCorp, do any of them ever make a reference to the fact that they’re playing for the “same team”? They wouldn’t really say that the SH6 or PR are his “primary” foes - the only one of those he might be said to have is Revenant - those encounters were just notable one-off stories. Most of his stories, however, are connected to RevoCorp in some way. He thinks he’s a hero and does good things, but the readers get to see how RevoCorp is benefiting. He’s not a buffoon for not seeing it, though. He doesn’t have enough clues that something is up, but once he finally starts getting clues he does follow where that leads him.
- Does he think it’s weird that RevoCorp already had handlers for Plague Rat? Were they not present during his run-in with the rodent? What’s RevoCorp’s story to him about Plague Rat getting free as he was supposed to be in their custody prior to that? Monsters get free from containment all the time. It’s just going to happen, especially over how long a period they had him. As for handlers, they’ve got handlers for all sorts of stuff. For any given monster he defeats, there’s probably some handlers ready in short order to take custody. Powerful villain taken down? They’ve got some kind of containment thing for them. They’ve got like a whole division specializing in containing powered threats.
- Did the writers ever try to insinuate that something was shady about Benchmark prior to him figuring out that RevoCorp was no good? Not in RevoCorp Presents, possibly in one of the other books but even that is unlikely given the short time frame and the characterization they pushed for him being this really earnest guy trying to do good, unknowingly working for the baddies.
- [Moving on to letters about the Chrono-Ranger in Japan story - first up the writer confirms just how bad The Ninja novel by Eric Van Lustbader mentioned in that episode is] Besides Zhu Long having ninja minions and Black Fist/Mr. Fixer probably punching his fair share of guys in black pajamas over the years, is there more to ninjas in Sentinel Comics? Did any books specifically attempt to cash in on their popularity in the ’80s and ’90s? Wraith in a shinobi warrior outfit? Did Eric Van Lustbader himself guest-write an issue? No, he did not write for Sentinel Comics. There weren’t “ninja specific” books, but they were a commonly-used throwaway style of minion in that era in whatever book. No Wraith-as-shinobi-warrior appearance, but she’s definitely fought a bunch of ninjas. Just about any time you see ninjas that are important to a plot rather than being convenient cannon fodder it’s going to be a Zhu Long story, though.
- [The letter prompt to close things out, along with Christopher prodding him, results in Adam delivering these last questions in an old timey western accent starting at around 1:18:00. He doesn’t keep it up the whole letter, but enjoy it while it lasts.] You carefully established that Jim Brooks never killed anybody as sheriff of Silver Gulch and that he only shot varmints for CON - he objected when things started pointing him at people - but that leaves Doc Tusser; you’ve said that he’s not exactly human, but he seems to definitely be a person (“wears pants, smokes bad cigars, carries a six-gun”), so how does that not get on Jim’s conscious? Was he a product of his time (and of the time of his origins in comics) and there’s an easy explanation of prejudice that lets him exclude Tusser as an “other”? What was he like as sheriff with regards to outlook on Blacks, Indians, or other racial groups that might have been looked down on at the time? Were his older stories marred by racial prejudice? Some combination that varied from issue-to-issue? That last thing is on-point as how bad that got in Covered Wagon Comics back in the day would vary from writer to writer. Some would have been just bad/racist while others would actually be trying to say something progressive for the time. Comics writers have generally seen themselves as progressive, even if they weren’t really. It runs the gamut. There was probably some story where the townsfolk were itchin’ to lynch an innocent man and only Jim Brooks stood in the way and that’s kind of the angle to depict the “goodness” of Jim Brooks - not so much progressive stances, but his interest in the law and justice.
- What exactly did Doc Tusser do that would have warranted a hit-job from CON (he doesn’t seem to have propagated into the Final Wasteland, and seems like a pretty small-time villain all things considered)? We haven’t seen everything that exists in the Final Wasteland, so don’t think that because it doesn’t show up in the deck that it can’t be there. DocTusser is some kind of troll-like being and is functionally immortal under normal circumstances. He is probably the point of origin of many “troll” villains in stories (think “Three Billy Goats Gruff” types of things). There may have been other trolls at some point, but its pretty much just him now. He looks human enough to get by while he gets away with killing people or doing other horrific things. Even if he gets caught, he can just “die” and then go somewhere else. The “personhood” of Doc Tusser isn’t a question, but also his vileness isn’t a question. Jim probably had some introspection about the measure of a man at some point in there, but over the course of their run-ins over time Jim gets to see just how bad an impact this being has had on the world over the centuries (far worse than, say, Jack the Ripper). It makes for some interesting dynamics between them as Tusser can be a recurring villain. For Jim, these encounters are over a relatively short period, but for Doc Tusser it’s spread out over the ages. Jim’s books don’t really tend to be introspective or philosophical - they’re mainly “Jim fights a monster”. Sometimes you can get some philosophy in there edgewise (either getting into Jim’s perspective on things or just how his disparate destination cultures contrast), but it’s still mainly a monster-hunting book.
- So, which issue of RevoCorp Presents? They don’t want it to be too early on, but he still has no clue that something’s up with RevoCorp. Let’s say late teens or early twenties for issue numbers. They land on November 2013, issue #23.
- For trade dress, does it just say “RevoCorp Presents” or is it “RevoCorp Presents: Benchmark”? The former. That’s the title.
- So, obviously it’s Benchmark fighting this monster. Pretty straightforward what to depict here.