The Letters Page: Episode 188
Writers' Room: Engine Block Blues #4
The life of a man who has touched the lives of many.
Run Time: 1:22:54
Adam and I are excited to finally work through this limited series! It's got a lot of creative folks on it, and it's fun for us to work with an ensemble creative cast. We hope you enjoy listening in!
After about 44 minutes of story telling, we get into your questions! On a variety of topics! Not so much this episode, but that's not a huge deal.
Join us next week for a Creative Process episode we're referring to as "A Sticky Subject" ...it's all about Adhesivist!
- Today we’re doing an issue of the limited series Engine Block Blues which ran from April-September 1997 and immediately followed the Mr. Fixer vs. the Organization arc in the limited series Transmission of Honor that ended with his death at the hands of the Operative and the Chairman. EBB starts off confirming that he really is dead, but is a series of stories about his life contextualizing him as a character.
- They don’t want to do #1 or #6 today as they already know what they’re about. The first shows him in the process of dying and really upset at failing at setting things right/toppling the Organization and also sets up the rest of the series of “his life flashing before his eyes”. The last issue shows his thoughts in the final moments, including the fact that he’s at peace with it - he’s done his best and has helped other people be their best selves in the process. He may have failed this particular quest and it’s the end for him, but it’s not the end for everyone. That same month there’s a cross-title event of “Remembering Mr. Fixer” that goes into the impact that he had for different characters and the world of Sentinel Comics.
- From the Editorial end, they wanted to see Black Fist, sifu Walker, “Slim”, and Mr. Fixer stories. They wanted to run the gamut of this man’s life experiences, but not simply as an anthology book - there’s a point. It starts off with him in denial and upset at his failure, but needs to end with him accepting and being at peace. This was meant to really be the end for this character - they didn’t foresee or intend that he would be brought back in a few years.
- Adam suggests 2 possible organizational structures to the title. First, and less interesting, is simply chronological. Christopher agrees that it, in fact, cannot be chronological because it’s not supposed to simply be showing his life, but connecting the pieces and to do that effectively you’ve got to juxtapose the right parts of his life together regardless of how far apart in time they occurred. The journey here is for the reader to also come to the conclusion that it’s okay for this to be the end and for Mr. Fixer to be going away. That’s kind of a big ask of a character that just had two limited series about him - he’s popular if he could sustain sales over both titles. A thematic ordering of events is the second of the options that Adam considered and is exactly what Christopher brought up.
- With that in mind, issues #1-2 are going to be the most “no, I can’t die, I’m not done yet” kinds of vibe and #5-6 are once he’s started to accept things and be okay with them. That leaves the middle two issues as kind of the more interesting inflection point between those two stances, and so one of them would make for the more interesting story option for today. Probably #4, but we’ll see if the stories they come up with feel like they should have more happening after them before the acceptance for the last two issues.
- How many vignettes? They could see as few as 2 or as many as 4, but 3 feels most likely. It depends on how long they are and that, in turn, depends on how they went about making this thing. Adam points out that if he were in charge of putting together an anthology book about a popular character like this, he’d expect to be trying to pull in some top-tier talent to work on it. Get some big names like Frank Miller or Jim Lee involved (or the SC equivalent creators). They would have put a call out to everybody who had done notable work with the character to come in again to do a bit of this farewell series. That could mean that some of those people might only be able to do a couple of pages for whatever reason, but still want to be involved, but results in varying lengths of the various pieces that are being pulled together for the story. A nice result here is that Engine Block Blues is a really cool limited series. It might have fewer than usual advertisements (and more curated ads for what make it in) and may even have a few extra pages to fit more of the cool stuff in it.
- So… uh… where to start in terms of actual content for an issue? It might be best to commit to doing #4 here and have the last story be the one that specifically is the turning point for how Mr. Fixer feels about things. Christopher’s suggestion is to start the issue with a medium-short story, then a couple of really short ones (like a 1-pager and a 2-page spread), then another shorter one (maybe 4 pages), and then end with one that’s something like a third of the total book. Let’s try to work out this last medium-length story, then go back and do the shorter ones, and then revisit the final story to make any necessary tweaks that the shorter stories would prompt for this thematic through-line to work best.
- After a bit of thinking out loud, Christopher comes to the conclusion that the last story should be about sifu Walker teaching the kids, before things go wrong, and have him think about the lasting impact he has had on people. Issue #5 can then be relating that concept to more modern interactions (the future members of Dark Watch, the Freedom Five, etc.). In fact, this could be a moment presaging the formation of Dark Watch in a few years as they look at his interactions with Expatriette, Setback, and NightMist. If we want this last story to be the positive turning point, we probably want to precede it with a negative Operative story.
- Adam suggests a story (which might not necessarily go in this issue) of the Operative where she’s struggling with her anger and her humanity and what Mr. Fixer had done for her that, ultimately, shows her crushing her own humanity. This isn’t his fault; it’s a conscious decision she makes at some point to be this way going forward. This could involve her looking at something that he’d given her at an earlier point and then breaking/burning/destroying it before going out to do bad things. Christopher likes it, but this might be more of an issue #2 (or even #1) story as she’s just killed him and we can see a bit of when she last had a potential to think well of him - she considered what he had taught/given her but then threw it away. That being said, this can play into another Operative story we get in today’s issue.
- If we saw earlier something from her perspective as she thought about him, maybe one of the tiny stories today could be when he first observed her and realized that she was going to be trouble. He doesn’t know how he can help this person, but he has to try. Maybe he’s observing some sparring and sees things going off the rails, calls for a stop but she keeps fighting, requiring him to intervene physically to get her off of her opponent. He sits her down offering some advice and it’s at this point that he gives her the thing we saw her destroy in the earlier vignette. He may even see her grip the thing tightly and get a tear in her eye or something - an indication to him that he’s gotten through to her, even though we the readers know how that went in the end.
- Spitballing more ideas: a Black Fist story and one that is from somebody else’s point of view. The through-line of this earlier stories of this issue is failure, so maybe keep that in mind for the shorter stories leading up to the longer sifu Walker story.
- A candidate: a Parse story where she wants to kill some drugboy and he doesn’t want her to, reminding her that a drugboy is also just a boy (also giving him an opportunity to catch an arrow, which is always cool). On the failure theme, maybe we get a montage of this drugboy growing up to become an Underboss within the Organization. Let’s open with that one, some kind of early Parse story and a really early Fixer one. Like, she has no idea who this guy is that’s trying to talk her out of killing this kid. This could even be him intervening before he becomes Mr. Fixer - this encounter could be happening just outside the auto shop or something and he’s just in his coveralls. She’s cleaned out some gang hideout and this young guy gets out, running away carrying some stuff. She shoots at him and Slim grabs the arrow as it passes his shop and then they have the conversation.
- Part of that prompts a line like “corruption starts with the kids” which sends them on a tangent about early, inexcusable Parse being just wrong and it being hard to think of a character more in need of a reboot. She might even be pushing the definition of “antihero”. Sure she kills villains, but that doesn’t make her any shade of “heroic”. She’s not trying to set up anything good; she’s just trying to stop bad by the quickest means available.
- [Also a note from later on:] They want to be clear that “drugboy” is a colloquial term referring more to the job and doesn’t mean “child”. They imagine the one from this story is in his teens to early 20s during the encounter with Parse, but you can easily be in your 30s and still be a drugboy.
- Anyway, they think this leads to this guy growing up to be the Deputy as a knife twist on the “gets a second chance, turns his life around, joins the police” angle. We get a little hope before the failure is revealed. Well, as much hope as you ever have when you’re reading a story set in Rook City that involves a police officer. Those are always about corruption somehow.
- Seeing what eras of his life we’ve seen failures for so far, one from Black Fist and one from Mr. Fixer proper are probably the right choice to round out the shorter stories. They can probably relegate the Fixer one to being the tiny story as we’ve got a lot of recent stuff involving him in that era to pull from. Getting a little more room to explore the earlier period is good.
- Let’s use the “kid grows up to be the Deputy” story as an excuse to segue into a short Mr. Fixer-era story that’s something where he’s at odds with the police. Maybe they’re shaking down local businesses - well, for brevity, it can just be Slim’s Auto Shop. It can even be a “Mr. Fixer” story without Mr. Fixer in it. The cops have “had reports” of a blind guy matching his description “starting fights” in the area and he can plead ignorance. They think he can fairly easily convince them that he’s not the guy, but they’d still lean on him for any information he could provide. That’s fine, he just invents a Mr. Fixer character with a bunch of details like where he hangs out and whatnot that will send them on a wild goose chase. In the process of telling them about “himself”, he gets a little too real, though. Talks about how he heard that this guy is a real wash up that used to be somebody and could have made a difference, but now just picks fights with thugs. That’s fun - this could actually be meant to represent something that led to the Transmission of Honor story itself. In telling this story to the cops, he’s realizing himself that he could be doing more, and so decides to take down the Organization.
- Adam thinks the cops here need to be overtly corrupt and we’re light on that detail so far. They can be knocking stuff over and generally being a nuisance in order to get his cooperation (or a bribe). It’s funny that an auto shop is kind of hard to just casually make a mess in, though. So the thing is that there’s a peg board on the wall with a bunch of tools in labeled spots (the labels are for any help he gets in the shop, he tells where things are by feel) - the point for the story is that there’s something organized and these jerks just knock everything to the floor.
- That leaves the Black Fist story. This is his young and arrogant/thinks that punching will solve problems period (although, in the comics of the time, that was presented as correct). Something that could be interesting here is that we start off at the end of one of those “Black Fist punching things” stories and then follow one of the guys he was punching after that. Like, he is actually injured to the point where he can’t find any work, legit or crime, and become a drain on their family, causing the guy’s younger brother to have to get involved with crime because that’s the only thing he can do that would pay enough and eventually he has a run-in with Black Fist. From the perspective of this story, Black Fist is this shadowy figure that keeps beating them down (literally and figuratively) when all they’re trying to do is get by but they’re stuck in this cycle of violence with this vigilante. The story then ends with the older brother we started with resorting to getting help with his injury from Zhu Long, so Black Fist’s efforts have just resulted in misery for this family and growing Zhu Long’s forces.
- Okay, so that’s the first four (Parse, the drugboy, and Slim; crooked cops looking for Mr. Fixer; sifu Walker trying to connect with a young Operative; and Black Fist just inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of violence and misery), so all we’ve got left is the hopeful story with sifu Walker. How do we actually bring this back around? The first two issues of this series are about him still needing to fight/not being done with what he needs to do. The next two are about what fighting has given him/what that fighting has done in the world, with this issue they’ve described so far is so much just grinding him down further. They want to end this one with hope.
- This one is going to be from before the other one in his sifu era (with the young Operative). The others, especially the Black Fist one, have involved him “fighting” and not solving anything by it. Maybe have this one be something like: kids are being chased by some people who are going to do them harm and he intervenes. Oh, maybe this is Black Fist and this is the moment where he decides to become a teacher - they hadn’t really talked about the moment where the transition from vigilante Black Fist to sifu Walker occurred and having it be told here is interesting.
- What’s happening is that there are two gangs of relatively young people. One is being chased by the other and the pursuers are a little less bedraggled and are armed with sticks and other stuff like that, but they’re all still just kids without help or direction. If you zoom out a bit, there are only victims in this situation - the bullies aren’t “villains” just because they’re the aggressors here. They’re just kids too! Black Fist steps out to intervene on behalf of the kids being chased, but has this moment of realization that they’re all kids and even if this set are ready for violence, using violence on them is wrong.
- Instead of starting the punching, he speaks. You want to fight? I’ll show you how to fight. I’ll also show you what to fight and why. He then takes them on as students, not just of the fighting techniques but the philosophical side too. This is the first story, out of the first four issues of this six-issue series, that has a positive ending. The first time we see him choose to not fight when he could have. We end with him, as a teacher, looking over his students, but then the perspective shifts and we see the beaten and bloody Mr. Fixer looking over the whole scene with understanding. “That was something good.” That sets up the next issue that will go into his positive interactions with other heroes. Issue #5 is probably the big, positive-feeling issue of the whole arc with #6 being just the acceptance and moving-on part.
- It’s a neat series and they like what they’ve come up with for it. Given the all-star creative team they’re imagining for it, it’s likely that there are a number of neat splash pages and other interesting art pieces throughout. There’s probably at least one story involving Scratch, his cat. In addition to the heroes he interacts with, there’s likely other general Rook City people like Tony Taurus or Bruce Watkins [this stumped us for a while, it turns out he’s the guy who wrote the newspaper article about Plague Rat that’s featured on the back of Plague Rat’s deck - that’s the only reference to him that we’ve seen so far, but he’s been a canonical character since the first SotM expansion]. One of the early issues of this series likely has a Bruce Watkins thing where he responds to Mr. Fixer’s activities with a derisive “Look at this, more thugs in the street!” kind of reaction.
- In the Black Fist Writers’ Room that everybody calling him something different was a common thing, but did that continue into the Mr. Fixer era? If so, who calls him what and why? Mainly, we see this happen in the animated series. Some of the comics writers in would do so, but not all of them bother. The show can get away with it because it’s more tightly scripted. Whether it happens in comics tends to be how familiar that particular writer was with the character’s history when they got assigned to a book/story that involves him. In the animated series: NightMist calls him Harry and he calls her Faye. They’ve both been part of the Rook City ecosystem long enough to be familiar with one another, Setback calls him Slim, and Expatriette calls him Fixer (no Mister) [and in Editor’s Note 38 we’re told that Harpy calls him “Mr. Walker” and the Chairman calls him “Old Man”]. The main reason for this is to exemplify that he is not a monolith. Different people see him and interact with him differently and more than any of their other characters, he’s this fragmented person with a lot of different, distinct facets to him - not only in terms of what role he’s held for other people, but just looking at his own past (especially once we get into the RPG era where he takes up the name Mantra when he can look back at who he was at various times and be disappointed with himself, but coming to terms with it). One they haven’t said before that the letter writer suggested is the Operative calling him “Master”, but with a ton of irony to it. She doesn’t always call him that, but it’s surely happened at some point.
- How difficult is it for the comics writers to balance Dark Watch stories around the more street-level heroes of Expatriette, Mr. Fixer, and Setback alongside the mystical might of Harpy and NightMist? Do Setback and Expat ever feel out of their depth when up against magical threats? Are there more grounded Rook City stories that have to write in excuses for why NightMist doesn’t just magic the problem away? How often do the two types of stories collide and does it often wind up messy in terms of theme? You’ve kind of nailed it in practice. Setback and Expat being out of their depth is a great place to put them from a narrative perspective. Sometimes you solve that by having NightMist do something to them to let them “do” magic stuff. Other times you have them have to figure something out on their own to take down a magical threat. NightMist has a great role to play in street-level stories: she’s a detective. Sure, she uses magic to make her better at that job, but that is her role and where she started as a character. For her in terms of a personal level, you also have the fact that her magic is a curse and having her need to deal with that (and her eventual loss of humanity in her Dark Watch incarnation) can be interesting to explore. Harpy’s got the built-in problem that she lacks control and so can cause more problems than she solves if/when she loses concentration. The difficulty to “balance” the two types of stories is a constant of the title, but it means we get plots involving the Fae Court or werewolves but also things like the Organization or ninjas (although Zhu Long stories can be fantastical or mundane depending on the exact foes/stakes for any given story). Nobody really feels totally at home in these conflicts all of the time - which is different from teams like the Freedom Five. The Freedom Five are thrown into a situation and respond like “We’re the right people for this job!” whereas Dark Watch is more often “Well, somebody needs to do this job and we’re here, so I guess it’s on us.” Then there’s Prime Wardens who are generally “This threat is more powerful than anybody should have to deal with, but if anybody’s got a shot at taking them head-on it’s us so let’s go!”
- What’s wildlife like in the Extremeverse? There’s a forest that somebody (intentionally) dropped a cyber virus on so every animal in it is a transforming cyborg (although no two, say, mountain lions got cybered up in the same way). There’s definitely some animals that don’t look like they’re XTREME, but they really are. Like, that “suburbs in the Extremeverse” story could feature a dog that looks like a regular dog, but he’s also a fighter pilot. Sometimes the Extremeverse takes itself “seriously” (like the original Prime Wardens story that involves Apostate crucifying Fanatic who then pulls herself free of the cross and everything - that story was taking itself very seriously within the universe it’s set in, as is the Freedom Five story later on). It’s just that later on some writers look at this developing setting and ask “Just how bonkers do we want to go with this?” and the answer turns out to be “Very.” It winds up being XTREME in the coolest way possible, but also in the silliest way possible (Orbo having a planetary ring of pouches).
- Is the Akash’[x] spirit of the Extremeverse Akash’Shoota, a giant gun spirit? That’s really funny - that could totally fit in that later XTREMEly silly type of approach, but most likely Akash'Bhuta would have shown up in an Extremeverse story before that point. The Akash’Mecha story happened in the ’90s and so they probably don’t want to use that name in the Extremeverse too [this is likely a reference to the RevoCorp-related Earth, Inc. one-shot in September 1996 - we know about this as the Definitive Edition Critical Event card for Akash’Bhuta is visible in the DE rulebook PDF if you poke around in the image assets enough]. An appropriately XTREME option would be to double-down on the lava with something like Akash’Magma. Straight-up a volcano spirit, so she’s the mountain, the spewing lava, and the ash cloud. At some point during the fight with the Prime Wardens she picks up a volcano and fires it like a cannon. Like, she could just form her arm into a gun or whatever to do this, but this is cooler. She attaches it to her shoulder or something and it becomes something with multiple “barrels” and each projectile impact spawns a lava monster for the heroes to deal with.
- What was the OblivAeon event like in the Extremeverse? We know that OblivAeon himself is Singular and so doesn’t change between realities, but what were the XTREME Scions like? This is a fair question, but unfortunately we don’t really see what’s going on in the Extremeverse during the event. The main action just never happens there. We might get a page or other short “snapshot” as part of a montage where we see the usual XTREME denizens fighting some XTREME Aeon Men or something. What we see of the Extremeverse in the OblivAeon event is much more represented by the characters coming to Universe 1 to fight him directly. It’s a fun thought experiment to think of things like “XTREME Borr just keeps exploding forever once he starts” or “XTREME Nixious is less of a boot licker and more of a boot swallower, he swallows boots whole!” guitar riff Adam has an idea that they could look like “evil angels” if they’re leaning into the “servants of this powerful ‘god’” thing. Christopher counters with the really weird angels as described in the bible. Maybe Nixious is just some kind of big tentacle dragon.
- How does Voss usurp OblivAeon in that reality (and what happens to the rest of the Scions)? Voss only usurps OblivAeon’s power in Universe 1. That’s a result of OblivAeon himself being Singular - while the event itself happens all across the Multiverse, the main action of it/how it plays out just happen the one time.
- Does La Comodora use the same names we do for the various alternate realities she visits (Extremeverse, Inversiverse, Animalverse, etc.)? They don’t think so. She’s more likely to use some kind of navigational terminology and then would describe it to Jim. The names we use are largely editorial inventions.
- If La Comodora visited the Animalverse, would she be walking around as her normal human self or would she get transformed into a gimmick-appropriate shape, would she find some way to transform herself in order to not freak out the locals? She doesn’t get shaped by the universe she visits automatically. She probably doesn’t both with a disguise either. Most of the time when she’s going into these alt realities she’s not really looking to interact with the locals in the first place. They don’t really know if we ever see her visit the Animalverse anyway given that it’s largely a setting used for comedic effect.
- In her time as the headliner of Disparation, how often does La Comodora encounter/interact with alternate versions of recognizable heroes? Almost every issue. There’s maybe a few issues where she doesn’t. That’s kind of the whole point of the book.
- Does she often wind up helping alt-heroes fight alt-villains while hunting down alternate versions of herself? Yeah, that interaction might be more incidental to the reason she went there for her in-story reasons, but the meta reason for her to go there is to interact with alternate versions of recognizable characters.
- If they did go to the Animalverse to hunt down La Capybara, would they mainly be interacting with “normal” animal people or with animal heroes? [They get sidetracked by some animal onomatopoeia in the letter sign-off and don’t actually answer this one. From the above answers I expect that interacting with heroes would be likely.]
- We’re told that the Clone-Ranger was set to awaken when the energy signature of CON sending Jim back in time was detected, but if it had been necessary for CON to develop this technology over a long span of time until it was perfected, shouldn’t that time-travel signature have been active over a period of years, if not centuries or millennia? It worked this way because that’s what the story required. They can justify it in-story as it was the specific combination of CON+Jim that creates a distinctive signature that Biomancer has set it to look for.
- Would a Writers’ Room about “The final days of the heroes before the Final Wasteland” be acceptable or not something you’d be interested in doing? They don’t think it’s too out of the question, but it’s going to be “a lot of cryptids eat a bunch of heroes”. You can submit it, but we’ll see if it gets votes.
- Is NightMist opening the Mist Portals a Fixed Point (given that it connects to every reality by connecting to every other NightMist in the Multiverse)? Generally, connecting to other timelines/realities is very difficult and so in order to pull this off, is she leaning on the work being done by every other NightMist out there to help form the connections? It’s kind of a Fixed Point in that it happens to every NightMist out there, but it’s not a Fixed Point in the “every universe has a Vanessa Long and all of them develop powers” sense. It happens in all realities simply because of the way that Being The Gate works necessitating that it happen to all of them. An important distinction here is that there are still other Faye Diamonds out there in the Multiverse - it’s just that none of them became NightMist (other people may have, or at least something “close enough” to being NightMist). If you think about it, NightMist likely kills more people during OblivAeon than many of the Scions do. Another point: they think that the power involved in all of this is sufficient to let her connect to every reality, even ones that didn’t have a NightMist equivalent. She doesn’t rely on the presence of a NightMist in any given reality to become the portal on that side, it’s that the collective NightMist energy between all of them that existed is used up to make the portals to everywhere.
- This is an anthology book, and it’s a book they haven’t done before. All of these covers are going to have the problem that they’re not about a single story, so how do you pick which thing to put on the cover? Adam thinks that picking an artist to do a style homage will help narrow it down. Christopher thinks that thinking about what all 6 issues’ covers would be might also help. Maybe they’re all kind of the same? Like, not just one picture spread out over the 6 covers, but like the scene/blocking is similar on each cover, just maybe depicting a different phase of his life. Or maybe the first and last are about “the death of Mr. Fixer”, but #2-5 all have this gimmick. That is, #2 could have Black Fist, #3 sifu Walker, #4 Slim, and #5 is Mr. Fixer. The others can be #1 with him on death’s door and #6 is more of a “sainted Mr. Fixer” look? Oh, of course, we can have #1 be him training with Shuen Zhang.
- They don’t have to be the same “scene” either. They can just be “iconic Mr. Fixer moments” done by notable artists. If that’s the direction they go, “Training a young Operative” is good for this issue.
- They don’t imagine any words on the cover beyond the trade dress. Adam will have to just play around with it but Christopher has a general suggestion of “Engine Block” being in blocky, more mechanical looking lettering with “Blues” more free-flowing below. Also, the “B” and “K” are larger, descending below the line of the rest to kind of bracket “Blues”.