The Letters Page: Episode 163
Writers' Room: Ra: God of the Sun #255
First "normal" episode of the year! How normal, you ask? Not very at all, actually! Thanks for asking!
Run Time: 1:31:34
Right off the bat, we get weird. Like really weird. Look. I'm sorry. OK?
The goofs go ever on and on, down from the door where it began... But even we must finally talk about the actual topic of the day. We get into it at the 7 minute mark.
There's a lot of storytelling. It's pretty OK. We seem to still remember how to do this. Whew!
A bit before the 39 minute mark, we begin to address your questions, delightful as they are.
Thanks for joining us! We hope you can join us this Friday for the live recording of this month's Bullpen, featuring Special Guest DAVE! (And Not Really All That Special In Comparison Guest Paul.)
- We’ve got a “Ra and Setback ‘buddy cop’ story” for today. They already know where this goes because there’s only one place for it to go. In the ’90s there’s a period where the writers of Ra’s book don’t really know what they should be doing with him. Ultimately, this results in the book being taken over by a couple of younger guys whose direction leads eventually to the War of Heliopolis/Baptism by Fire story and whatnot.
- This will be in that earlier phase. Ra: God of the Sun #255 from July 1994 begins a period where the title gets an additional imprint/branding on top of it (the official book title doesn’t change), “Backdraft”, for 16 issues ending in October ’95. This is when Setback joins him for a while. There are a few short arcs in this time, but we’re going to be telling the introductory story from #255 today.
- This wasn’t something that had been fully plotted out ahead of time. Setback was also part of Expatriette’s book Terminal Ballistics by now, but they figured that he could also be a part-timer over here with Ra in Megalopolis too. This was an era of writers setting up and dangling some plot threads but then just winging it rather than knowing what was going on the whole time. By the mid/late-’90s there was more of a shift towards such silly things as “plans” and “continuity editing”.
- Anyway, RGotS #255 takes place almost entirely in Megalopolis. Why is Ra in Megalopolis? There’s some Egyptian stuff that’s going on display at the museum and Dr. Blake Washington Jr. has been called in as an expert Egyptologist to help out the curation team. One item in particular is an artifact that “does something” and rather than destroying it or hiding it away, they put it on display but something needs to be done to counter the stuff it’s causing. That’s the excuse for Ra to be in Megalopolis for a while as he’s the one dealing with the fallout. There’s a tension between what Ra has to do and what Dr. Washington feels is the appropriate action (destroy or hide this thing vs. “it belongs in a museum”).
- Christopher has a bit of a eureka moment here: maybe Dr. Blake Washington Jr. essentially “hires” Setback to help keep Ra in check. Like, he can exert some control over Ra, but they’re essentially two different people, so maybe having another hero around to keep him from going off the deep end would be a good idea. Adam prefers Setback just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so maybe that’s where he starts, but then after the first arc Dr. Washington asks him to stick around. Like, Pete’s skill set is a good counter to Ra plus he can help this over-the-top Egyptian god deal with the fish-out-of-water situation of being in a major city (“You call this a ‘hot dog’? This is a hot dog! *fire occurs*). Having Setback be the”responsible" one is just delightful. The by-the-book guy who’s just a bit of a klutz vs. Ra’s literal hot-head wildcard.
- So, we know where this issue ends where Dr. Washington explains that he’s going to be in town for a while and getting Setback to sign on to help deal with the inevitable Ra issues.
- Christopher thinks that there are a few ways this can start: either Ra having a big fight with somebody in Megalopolis, or with Pete Riske walking down the street doing his daily life stuff and happening across Ra having a big fight with somebody in Megalopolis. Adam counters that for this period of comics, we’re likely starting off with exposition instead. We start with Dr. Blake Washington Jr. at the museum explaining for way too long what the situation is with the exhibit or whatever. Sounds good. We have something like 4 pages of Dr. Washington talking about the exhibit. Way more of him than we usually see in the Ra book these days. Then we transition to “later” with the Pete opening.
- This prompts the conversation about Backdraft as an arc - there’s probably an overall villain that the story builds towards, with minor villains along the way. However, there’s that issue that the writers likely didn’t even know who that would be at this time. The story involves this artifact thing, so maybe it winds up creating a villain or being acquired by the villain near the end kicks of the concluding story beats. Because of this, the villain him/herself likely doesn’t appear in this issue (because the writers didn’t actually know what was going on yet), but when that does happen later on it can be related to something that happens in this issue. Christopher and Adam can do things the right way, where they know what is being set up ahead of time, but they need to put it in this issue’s story as something that was only retroactively made important as the writers realized that they needed to be taking this somewhere and just picked something from this issue so that it would look like they had a plan from the beginning.
- The idea they come up with is for there to be a museum administrative guy who gets roped in. Like, he’s not one of the academics involved in the exhibit itself, he’s just one of the “business” people in charge of operating the museum but he winds up being a casualty in whatever initial bad stuff happens around the artifact. He wasn’t a bad guy or anything and his death is treated as the terrible thing it is at the time, but whatever nonsense is happening results in him coming back as some suitably Egyptian-themed baddie later (like his body gets infested with corpse beetles that then puppet him around and hijack his brain to make him [Adam’s series of vaguely Egyptian syllables], the Scarab Lord or whatever). They can even have to deal with a swarm of Scarabs or have the phrase “Scarab Lord” mentioned in this issue.
- Additional twist from Adam - whatever being shows up here that ends up fighting Ra in this issue can also be shown later to have actually come to try to prevent the Scarab Lord’s return. Like, it’s a “guardian” of some sort specifically there to prevent this, but they only figure that out later (like it turns back into a statue or something and it’s got a broken seal where there’s some hieroglyphs that can be read afterwards that hint that it was actually just trying to head off some bad thing from happening).
- That’s a lot of fun as now, for the rest of the arc, basically everything in the exhibit is now suspect as they’re not sure what the thing was guarding against. That prompts the idea that there are a bunch of new artifacts. Like this exhibit is showing off the results of one of the biggest digs in history in terms of recovered artifacts. Dr. Washington wasn’t involved in that dig, but he’s still brought in as a consultant (he’s one of the highest authorities in terms of reading hieroglyphs for one thing - because he’s got Ra in his head).
- Exposition scene establishes the dig, the exhibit, the fact that Dr. Washington is brought in as a consultant, etc. Then at some point we see stone flakes drop away from the eyes of a statue (which is going to be this guardian thing) to show the glowing eyes beneath. Then we cut to Pete.
- Christopher had been thinking that the guardian would be coming in from elsewhere, giving enough time for the exhibit to be set up. Adam’s suggestion is that people having the artifact out and handling it is what sets the thing off. The fact that they’re losing something like a third of the issue to opening exposition means that it’s not a bad thing to just have it be already there so there’s no explanation necessary for where it came from.
- They decide that the statue/guardian is a sphinx. It’s the last of the various items of the exhibit to be mentioned in the exposition and is noteworthy for being in such good shape and that the archaeologists think it was meant to be the guardian of the dig site. They’re not sure exactly how or in what capacity, but that’s part of the ongoing study they hope to get done.
- Anyway, when we get to Pete’s part he’s just walking down the street near the museum and as he comes up to it the wall gets blown out (falling on him, because of course it does) as Ra and the Sphinx are locked in battle. Pete’s not really involved in the fight itself much. His role is more to observe Ra’s fire blast be deflected over into a nearby park and then scramble to try to deal with that and put out any other metaphorical/literal fires as they come up. This collateral damage thing is not usually something that Ra deals with, so its interesting to have him in a setting where it does happen. Or rather, it happens but it’s not generally important to the story being told.
- Along those lines, eventually Pete gets a chance to “suit up” and Setback joins the fight - not in that he’s attacking either participant, but he is playing defense/running interference. He’s trying to steer the fight away from collateral damage and casualties.
- How does this end? How about the fight actually results in them breaking the head of the statue or something and it goes inert. They find a canopic jar inside that had a seal that’s now broken. That’s where they read that it was a great warrior whose spirit was put in the jar and bound to defend this place and prevent the return of bad stuff.
- Christopher comes up with the detail that maybe it didn’t wake up earlier due to the care that archaeologists take when handling things. Then, during the exposition scene, we see some guys drop a box full of things that spill out and that’s when it wakes up.
- When/how does the administrative guy who narrated the exposition die? They kind of want it to seem incidental at the time because the writers didn’t know how important it was yet. An idea is for one of the things that were dropped break open and release a cloud of bugs that the guy breathes in, killing him, but that seems “too important”. Oh, okay. After the fight when they discover that the Sphinx was a guardian and there’s bad stuff here we can cut away to this guy who is inspecting the stuff that got dropped earlier to see if anything was damaged, finds the one box that is broken, and then dies - at this time it’s just an example of “this stuff is bad news” to drive home the discovery they made.
- Then we get the postscript where Dr. Washington asks Setback to help out while he and Ra are in town. Usually, he tries to use what influence he has on Ra to try to get to a place where the fight won’t cause too much damage. That’s not really possible in the heart of Megalopolis. While he gets to the bottom of whatever is going on with the artifacts in the museum, he needs Setback to “chaperone” Ra.
- They really love the dynamic of Setback being the responsible party in the story.
- Names! They decide on Hotepsekhemwy, the Scarab Lord (with simply “Scarab Lord” being his comic book Villain Name). They also decide that the administrator was named Chakrapani Singh. They didn’t actually invent the Egyptian name - he’s an early pharaoh that is known to have existed, but other things (like his tomb’s location) are still unknown. One known thing that is known from his reign is that a large chasm opened and a lot of people fell into it and died. They decide that for our purposes this was a result of a ritual he performed to extend his life and become the Scarab Lord (turning him into this swarm of beetles). It would have worked had a court magician not known what was going on and captured him in the box that got damaged in today’s story.
- Appearance! They figure that Scarab Lord starts off looking kind of mummy-like but over the course of his story transforms into something bigger and more impressive as he gains power. They like the idea of some fight about 3/4 through the story or whatever the still mainly human-looking villain hunches over, screams, and has giant golden beetle wings erupt from his back.
- “Buddy Cop” movies tend to have certain tropes:
- “The Odd Couple” - what Roger Ebert called a “Wunza” (“One’s a hot-headed Egyptian deity, one’s a lucky lab experiment”). They hadn’t heard Ebert’s description before. That’s a good one.
- “You’re sending me where?” given that Setback is mostly associated with Rook City and Ra’s off in exotic locales fighting monsters, which one is out of their element here? Ra.
- “The Chief is angry at them” - whose office do they get called into? Well, Dr. Washington probably has to deal with the museum director at some point. Legacy is also likely to make an appearance to ask just what Ra and Setback think they’re doing.
- “The car gets trashed” - Between Ra’s fire and Setback’s luck, what winds up getting destroyed? Everything. This is an explosion-heavy book. Granted, that’s with Setback mitigating even worse disasters. Like, a building gets destroyed, but Setback manages to evacuate it first.
- “The conspiracy, and how deep does it go” - what do the heroes discover? They think they covered this pretty well with the general plot overview. They want to point out that they don’t think that Ra could have defeated the Scarab Lord in the end without Setback’s bizarre luck.
- How much of Setback’s bad and good luck a result of Kismet’s own luck powers having a self-correcting element (if she makes something bad happen, something good will happen later)? Yeah, that’s why they set up Kismet’s powers to work the way they do, so that Setback’s wild swings of luck had an explanation.
- Has Ra ever run into somebody else with as bizarre luck as Setback over the centuries (curses featuring in a lot of “Egyptian” stories)? Does he feel wary or look down upon cursed individuals? There was that early story where Marty Adams got the wasting curse that he has to deal with. He’s probably sympathetic to cursed individuals and that trend in “Egyptian” stories probably means that there have been a lot of stories where he’s dealing with such things. However, the specific case of somebody being as unlucky as Setback seems unlikely.
- I had a question after the explanation of the Egyptian gods/relics from the Magic in the Multiverse episode: are there characters from other pantheons? Say, Greco-Roman ones - are they around/how are they different from the Egyptian one? The short answer is “barely”. They’re sure that there are Golden Age stories where somebody used various characters from other cultures. By the time that Sentinel Comics was well-established (which really started to get nailed down in the ’70s - prior to that people just wrote whatever they wanted because who cares?) there was more of a push to actually decide what the mythos of Sentinel Comics was going to be. At that time it was decided that the Egyptian one was the one that they would be dealing with and that leads into the original “bad” version of the Ennead story [Ra: God of the Sun #89, September 1980] which was the point where the Egyptian pantheon is the one that’s cemented as the “real” one for our purposes, or at least the one that is going to have significant story presence.
- Can Ra speak fluent ancient Egyptian? Yes. [I point out that “ancient Egyptian” would still cover something like a few millennia - that’s a lot of time for language drift to happen. Being generous with estimates, there’s around as much time between the writing of the Old English poem Beowulf and today than there was between the building of the Great Pyramid and the reign of Tutankhamen, and even then there were several centuries until the Ptolemaic period and, for example, Cleopatra.]
- Can Blake Washington Jr. speak it as well? He can read and understand it, but speaking it is a bit rough still as it’s just not something he would have much practice in. It’s about as good as Christopher’s attempts at an English accent. The extent to which he can read/understand it is a big part of why he was invited to consult with this exhibit.
- How do historians/archaeologists even operate in this universe when we have people like Haka, Zhu Long, Blood Countess Bathory, Biomancer, and others? Do the academics ever get help from some of these long-lived individuals? That’s an interesting question. In theory, yes, the presence of such people would have an effect on how those fields operate. The issue here is that most of the people who could help out are usually pretty busy with their own things and so aren’t often available to answer archaeologists’ questions.
- The NightMist example from the PSA episode prompted a memory: at one point the US Government wanted Marvel to do an anti-drug PSA comic, but the stringent rules of the Comics Code Authority still blocked such a thing from happening - did anything similar happen in Sentinel Comics? Yeah, maybe not drugs in particular, but there was probably some instance of a PSA or just a writer wanting to spread awareness of a problem as a pet project that ran afoul of a rule saying that you couldn’t talk about that thing in question.
- The underage drinking bit prompts the question of whether drunk driving was ever addressed, or if those were relegated to those TV/Film Strip PSAs? Probably not. The audience for comics aren’t the drinking and driving audience.
- LevelUpLeo provides a list of well-known Canadian PSAs for potential Sentinel Comics analogues [they do a few connections to the comics, but then just comment on the rest - mainly that the specific topics aren’t familiar so maybe Sentinel Comics wouldn’t have addressed them]:
- Don’t put it in your mouth - you covered this topic already, but this is one that pretty much any Canadian of a certain age would remember.
- What’s your thing?: This sort of thing is good for non-powered heroes like Wraith.
- House Hippo as an example of “question things you see in advertising”: Unfortunately, we tend to get the opposite messaging here in the States.
- Louie the Lightning Bug (Seems to be American created, my bad. Local electric companies would put their logos on the add stuff, kinda fooling me) as an electrical safety thing: Adam remembers Louie the Lightning Bug. Felicia Fields, post OblivAeon, actually works with this topic from a “don’t overload the grid, our power all comes from a magical tree now and we don’t actually know how it works” angle.
- Astar from planet danger (so good they even rebooted it regarding amputation injuries and avoiding them: That doesn’t seem familiar, maybe they’re just more common in Canada.
- Seizures - what to do if a classmate has one/what the different types are [Leo couldn’t find the exact ones he was thinking of to provide example videos]: They can think of “signs of heart attack or stroke” but not seizures.
- Workplace injuries. The following one come with trigger warning to it. SERIOUS INJURIES ARE DEPICTED REALISTICALLY. Chef burns her face: Wow, Canada means it. If you want a good time look up forklift training videos. Jodie and Christopher have watched a bunch of them and find them hilarious/disturbing.
- Are you familiar with the Tandy Computer Whiz Kids (comics put out as a joint effort of DC and the Tandy computer company - plots often involved a couple of kids using computers to help out some DC hero)? So, did some company pay to do self-insert/product placement promotional/PSA comics? Probably. Adam actually had a Whiz Kid when he was a kid.
- Mage of Magic Place follow-up to a question in a prior episode about animated versions affecting character popularity: He meant the later Animated Universe iteration (that we got episodes about), not the ‘90s show that introduced Unity. Did the shows/movies push any characters from the B or C tier to higher popularity? The answer has to be yes. Honestly, all of Dark Watch probably got a big bump that likely resulted in their book getting a second volume. That might also be the case for Prime Wardens other than Fanatic who likely remained in the popular consciousness due to religious groups’ attention put on her. The general population’s knowledge of comics is probably mainly just Legacy and Wraith. Maybe Tachyon depending on how tuned into things people were. The Freedom Five show would have made Absolute Zero and Bunker more popular than they had been.
- Which of the heroes are smokers (and so in need of PSAs themselves)? By the ’00s they likely would have changed standards such that they don’t have anybody smoking in the comics anymore (or barely anymore, definitely none by the ’10s - The Thing doesn’t have his cigar anymore in real comics), but in the past Expatriette and Mr. Fixer (although his Dark Watch iteration didn’t). They don’t think Jim Brooks did (they have him chewing straw on occasion that might visually resemble it). Expat was likely the last to stop - it may have even been a background detail where she was in the process of quitting over some period of time. The ’90s actually likely had more characters smoking who didn’t prior to that - it’s interesting to draw (it gives opportunity for adding some visual interest to the character/page) and that was the era where it happened. NightMist would sometimes have one as a prop to “hide” her mistiness, but the visual appeal part never applied to her because she already has that effect going on to fill up empty space on a panel.
- Are there any heroes that have had a problem with alcohol? Yeah, probably. It’s too good of an arc to have never been used by somebody. Christopher posits “character vices” as an interesting Creative Process topic. That would also cover the rest of the letter’s topics (weed [Adam: coughScholarcough], drug addiction, painkillers [possible for Expat], any of Spite’s drugs [they don’t know about that one])
- Did the “Weed Demon” ever become a meme in the Metaverse? Any later writer that considered bringing them back (either for or against)? They had a cocaine demon… they don’t remember saying there was a weed demon. There was probably something along the lines of Reefer Madness at some point.
- You said that Akash'Bhuta/Thriya’s eye color is somewhat tied to her mood, but there are plenty of art showing her in rather serious situations where she still has green eyes - at one point does break out the red eyes? Another thing that comes into play is just the artist’s decision of which to use. For Adam’s part, he had red eyes on ’Thriya’s “Vitalized Thorns” card specifically because he wanted to evoke roses/match the rose petals already there. Her eyes are generally green, sometimes red.
- How would Biomancer react to a flesh child being subjected to some magical nonsense and having its connection to him severed (in either the SotM era or the RPG timeline where he seems to have some more screws loose)? He doesn’t have any more screws loose in the RPG than before - although he definitely has some screws loose in general. The flesh child was likely part of plan, so if it got free of him he’d like to figure out what happened/get it back in line. The most expeditious option might just be to destroy it and replace with a new one (which might just involve him sending out some more flesh children rather than going after it himself). If somehow one got loose without him noticing, it would basically just continue on a a “normal” person. If he ever encountered one that was free of him he would automatically recognize it as one (unless plot reasons required that he not - like something was specifically done to prevent discovery or whatever).
- Have you thought of a better acronym for K.U.D.Z.U.? The one that they had come up with was Killers United to Drive Zealous Upheaval. The name was originally not explained. It wasn’t until the reboot that took itself less seriously that it was spelled out and it was like “that’s the best you could do?” They haven’t come up with a better one - it’s supposed to be intentionally not great. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves to remove the need to come up with a better one.
- How would RPG Absolute Zero respond to a little kid telling him (or one of his students leaving him a note or something) that he was their favorite member of the Freedom Five? As a teacher, he would have enough awareness to understand that this has less to do with him and more to do with the kid (his more cynical self would think “Wow, you chose wrong, kid”). He would try to respond in a way that would foster that experience. Internally he’d have a struggle between that “you picked wrong” feeling and the “I made a difference in somebody’s life” thoughts. They both have this internal reaction to people telling them that they’re their favorite game designer/artist.
- Does Void Guard Writhe have eyelids (I’d have just said Writhe, but he appears to have them in a few cards in the team deck)? They don’t think he has eyelids, but he can close his eyes.
- [From Brian Le Wolfhunt] I liked Adam’s suggestion of ending the year with a positive note, so here’s mine: in February I started making videos where I talk about SotM, over this very rough year with very little human contact and no work, this has been a way for me to remind myself of things I love and connect with people who share the enthusiasm and get some validation by having people talk about what I’m doing. It’s been a big help for my mental health, so thanks for making this stuff. I skipped last year, but can you do a birthday song? How about anything from Sentinels Digital, your choice. They’re not doing birthday songs anymore, but as a cap on the whole thing they’ll each hum a different one right now. [1:23:49 is when it starts.]
- The obvious option is Ra and Setback fighting a Sphinx thing. Christopher suggests, being in the ’90s and the first issue of the Backdraft thing they could do something more abstract. They’ll probably just do the fight scene, though. Adam thinks that even if you’re doing something different, you kind of need to show what the different thing is.
- They could lean into the nonsensical nature of this team-up by having Ra in his fiery fighting glory with Setback standing over to the side holding his face in his hand like “oh, this guy again.”
- They could break the 4th wall a bit - have Setback tripping/falling through the page, as he’s an intruder in the book. Ra can still be in the Sphinx fight with Setback intruding.