The Letters Page: Episode 190
Writers' Room: Tome of the Bizarre Vol. 3 #52
Let the spookiness commence!
Run Time: 1:13:48
We start off by talking about a different comic: Disparation Vol. 1 #21... but that's not the issue for today's Writers' Room! Listen and find out!
At the end of the episode, we mention that this week — on Friday, October 8th — we'll be recording the next TWO episodes! So, get your questions for the "Witches and Werewolves: Harpy and Alpha" and "Daybreak Halloween Special" Writers' Room episodes in now!
- Today we aren’t talking about Disparation volume 1 #21 from April 1992. Well, they’ll discuss it a bit, but it’s not the focus of today’s Writers’ Room. The deal is that because we’re looking at a time when stuff a character learned from the Oracle of Discord actually had ramifications in the main comics continuity. That issue of Disparation was when that information was imparted. They have cheated a little this week by choosing that story and working it out ahead of time.
- In the first volume of Disparation they were really sticking to the framing story involving the Oracle. In this issue, the Naturalist (who has only been in comics a few years at this point), shows up at the Oracle and he’s “worried about Earth” in the general ’90s environmentalist way (global warming, pollution, acid rain, etc. - all the hits). He wants to know what to do. The Oracle can’t answer that question - what they can do, however, is show him a world 10 years from now if he were to take no action.
- It’s pretty bleak - the oceans are basically just an oily sludge. Air pollution is so bad that everybody has to carry around lamps to light their way, but the only power source left is to use small fission reactions, so using the lamps is slowly killing the users, but what are you gonna do? They’re not going to go through the entire issue here, but that’s the gist: if the Naturalist does nothing, the world becomes this polluted wasteland. It’s the preachiest thing you can imagine on this topic.
- Today’s issue is going to be about a story where Naturalist acknowledges this weird experience he had (“was it a dream?”) and taking action as a result. This is kind of notable since Disparation is kind of treated as continuity-adjacent. Yeah, there’s this framing device that involves characters we know but when/how do these things happen to them? These are weird experiences, so why don’t the characters talk about them? They just don’t, typically. Today we’re doing one where they do.
- Naturalist “wakes up” or whatever after having this experience, but realizes that for the world to look that bad in 10 years, there has to be something major going on right now. Some specific person/entity/agent who will be responsible for it, so let’s see if we can figure it out and stop them before it’s too late. Also, due to his personal history and the insights it gives him, he figures that for something happening at this scale, it’s got to be something happening in industry rather than just being some lone kook in his lab somewhere.
- The writers of this issue aren’t going to assume that readers are familiar with the Disparation story - there’s an editor’s note box to cross reference it, but they also do a ~4 panel summary as well to get people up to speed on what Naturalist is talking about.
- Which book are we putting this in? Adam asks when Naturalist “takes over” Tome of the Bizarre, which isn’t for a while (that happens in ’96 and 4 years is a bit of a break). That doesn’t mean that TotB isn’t the right choice - it fits pretty well actually, it’s just not part of that specific run. Maybe there’s a slow build-up as they have more and more issues featuring him until they just decide that they’ll just make that “Featuring the Naturalist” official. They decide to put today’s issue just a few months after the Disparation story, in July ’92. That’s volume 3 #52.
- Let’s try to reverse engineer the story by deciding what the point is/where it ends. It’s less a morality tale and more a tragedy in the sense that trying to avert this thing that he’s seen a vision of, Naturalist winds up creating another problem entirely [it can’t quite qualify as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” problem since by definition, the thing he saw was what would happen if he didn’t do anything].
- Anyway, that means that we get a story where Michael Conteh leverages his industry contacts to try to figure out who/what is going to be responsible for the blight he had seen - let’s say that it was somehow utilizing life as an energy source. Plant, animal, whatever - if it’s an organism, this tech can harvest that “energy”. The byproduct of that process is that the organisms themselves are left these shriveled husks and it causes the horrible blight that winds up blotting out the sun and all the other “pollution” type problems he saw.
- They haven’t worked out if this energy harvesting thing is a type of technology, magic, a superpower, or whatever else it might be yet (we’ll get there), but the idea for the story is that they’re just starting to develop it now when Naturalist finds them. He says something about stopping them before they can blight the world or whatever - the person is taken aback; they’re just looking into how you could use this to get energy, but you’re right in such an application… Basically, the act of intervening at this stage in the process might avert the terrible state of the world in 2002, but this confrontation winds up making this guy into a villain. The problem becomes this guy popping up now and again in Naturalist stories for him to deal with rather than the “tech” becoming ubiquitous to the point where it causes a global disaster. It would be nice if this person wasn’t villainous before and that this is a tragic story.
- The angle they go with this is the tech route. This guy is researching green energy - in about as literal a way as you can imagine. All living things are putting off energy in some way; can we just harvest that directly? The extreme end of that is that if you turn that up all the way you wind up draining all of it and leaving things as the empty husks. That’s not what this guy is doing at this stage, but it’s where the technology can go in its extremes. However, it does already have the sludge end product even at this stage. He’s trying to figure out how to deal with that problem when Naturalist shows up.
- So, as part of that confrontation, the lab gets wrecked (say by Naturalist going into rhino form at some point). While that’s happening, the machine gets turned up to 11 and whatever organism it was drawing on at the time gets husked, but it also draws up a lot of energy. As a result of this whole scene, this guy’s kind of at loose ends. His lab is wrecked and he’s not going to be able to get more grant money and is out of a job. He’s still got this working example of the tech, though, and he knows that he can use it to draw in incredible amounts of energy and selling that might be able to keep him afloat. At first he’s basically just using it to get by, but then it becomes a habit, and then because he’s having to kill things and creates these pollutants he’s becoming a villain.
- Adam suggests a tweak - he gets kicked out of [the institution where he was working] and is left with nothing (“It totally worked!” “You’re telling us that a rhino broke in here and tore the place up? Sure buddy, get out.”). The owners think that the lab equipment is just wrecked, but he knows that the thing worked and is still charged. They toy with having him break in to steal the thing just because he sees it as a meal ticket, but instead there’s a rival company who approaches him to tempt him into stealing the research and coming to work for them. He’s got an in - he often worked late and became friends with Tony the security guy. Tony would probably let him in to get “a few things”. The guy he’s talking to? Vince Snyder of Conteh Energy.
- He talks Tony into letting him in (and Tony feels bad for him so he’ll help clear up the security footage as well). Rather than him knowing about the husk thing before, this really is just some corporate espionage stuff where he’s supposed to get enough of his notes to bring to Vince so Conteh Energy can scoop the project. When he gets into the lab, he sees the husks that were the lab rats he was working with and more of the sludge he’d been trying to get rid of. There’s no way that that’s a result of the rampaging rhino, so he takes a closer look - the device has a huge charge! This is impossible. He decides to take the whole apparatus with him (bulky, but not too big for a person to carry). That, a notebook, and a floppy disk are what he takes.
- On his way out, Tony helps him with the door. Unfortunately for Tony, as he’s passing he loses his grip on the apparatus and it drops to the floor. When it lands it sparks out some energy that hits Tony and he’s turned into a husk as it draws all the energy out of him. Now this guy is panicking because he’s just killed Tony, has generated a ton of energy in the process, and has no idea how to erase the security footage of him doing all of this. We just want this guy’s situation to be as desperate as possible so he has as few options as possible.
- He goes home while he waits for the shoe to drop, but a few days pass without anybody coming to arrest him or anything. It’s not like the company doesn’t have his address on file or anything. When somebody finally does knock on his door and he expects to see the police, it’s Vince. When asked how things are going the guy (who they still haven’t named up to this point - Tony got named but not our focus character) talks about how things went wrong and that he’s in trouble. Vince assures him that he has some contacts and things have been smoothed over. We managed to take the relevant security footage so nobody knows you were there. Well, I do, and I still have a copy, but don’t worry about it. Just come to the lab and get to work. Vince Snyder just owns this guy now.
- The lab is a pretty good setup. A variety of plants and animals of all sizes in their own enclosures, lots of energy storage capacity, and the same kind of setup he had in the old lab. We want to get these things charged up and we want to see more of those weird husks as we think that they’re the key to something important. If we can develop “energy free life” we might find a way to create a truly autonomous workforce.
- The work begins and he gradually moves from rats, to rabbits, to sheep, etc. until one day they bring in a person for him to work on. By the end of the sheep trials they’d figured out a way to attach some equipment to the husk and “drive it around” like a drone. He won’t participate any more with a person, though. He’s going to blow this whole thing wide open even if it means going to jail. Adam starts with a suggestion that the human subject has volunteered for a “pharmaceutical trial” but Christopher says no, it’s just a homeless person pulled off the street with the promise of a sandwich and $20. We’re really pushing on how bad this whole thing is.
- He’s interrupted by Vince as he tries to leave. “You’re right - we’ve gone too far with this. Just go unhook him and we’ll let him go.” Of course, this is a ruse so that Vince and his goons can just take care of this little problem by using the machine on him. Unfortunately for them, this guy has been working with this stuff in close proximity for long enough that somehow he’s absorbed some of the ambient energy of the thing. The energy arcs that typically draw the energy out of things instead rebound off of him, hitting the other scientists and security that Vince had with him (Vince himself manages to dive for the door before getting hit himself). All of this energy, rather than being stored in the capacitors as usual, gets drawn into our new character, along with all of the sludge byproduct. Additionally, all of the husks start animating around him. His mind is twisted in the process as he’s turned into this new life-energy-absorbing, husk creating/animating, blight monster (brought to you by Conteh Energy) that they need a name for.
- Names! Finally! The guy’s name is Dr. Benjamin Garner. He’s a relatively informal guy, though, and goes by Benji. By the end of the story, he has become Necrosis. He has this tech-based origin, but he’s just natively able to do all of this energy/blight/husk/sludge stuff now. He starts his time as a villain in a kind of revenge mode regarding Conteh Energy, Michael Conteh by proxy due to his connection to the company, and he likely even discovers his identity as the Naturalist eventually. Their conflicts even likely have an element of “we can help/fix you” to them, but Benji doesn’t trust them and besides, Conteh Energy is part of the problem with all of the pollution it creates.
- They like Necrosis - he’s able to both do his own villainous plots, but is convenient to use in other villains’ plots if they need a lot of energy generated for some reason and make a deal with him.
- Is the Oracle of Discord a “they” or an “it”? The Oracle is a singular (not Singular) thing, but because it’s made of a group of individuals so it depends on how the rest of the sentence is phrased (whether you’re referring to the Oracle as a unit or the group of “people” that it’s comprised of). Like, think of a Home Owners Association - the HOA is a single thing and “it” can do stuff, but the people that comprise it are also a “they” who can do things. The Oracle blurs the line a bit more than that example as it’s not entirely clear how separate from one another the individuals are.
- Does the Oracle appear at all in volume 2 of Disparation? Yeah, they certainly show up. It’s not every issue like volume 1, but they also show up occasionally in other titles.
- Are they the same across different realities? If not, how do they differ? If so, are they connected/are they a Singular Entity? They’re not Singular. Every Realm of Discord has an Oracle. In the Animalverse, the Oracle would appear as animals (although still obscured in the details). They all serve the same purpose in that they show people visions of what could be that it’s not entirely clear whether they’re “real” or not. Are they connected to each other…? Not really. They can all peer into the Multiverse and they can “reach out” to one another, but they’re not all linked all the time.
- If you were to create a hero with the Oracle in their backstory and seeing into other realities as part of their shtick, what would that look like? Assuming we’re using the RPG… Pre- and Post-cognition as powers? You’ve done a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of character design just in the process of asking the question. Pick an appropriate Background, Multiverse as power source sounds on-brand. Archetype depends on what you want to do with the character. There isn’t a character like this in the comics, so they’re not going to be definitive on this. Adam’s opinion for the kind of role this type of character would have in comics (as opposed to your RPG character) would be along the lines of Marvel’s Destiny or Gateway - an ancillary supporting character rather than a lead hero. In Sentinel Comics, honestly that’s also the kind of level that the Scholar operates in rather than being a main character.
- A meta-level question, how far removed from an episode/topic can I get when asking questions? It’s not a hard and fast rule, but if they’re not about a recent episode and there aren’t any upcoming episodes that are relevant, they’ll just get shelved until there is an appropriate time. Go ahead and ask, but it’s often easier to work with things if you group questions on a given topic together and do one topic per letter. It might be a while, but if it goes for long enough and there are enough questions on a topic to warrant it, they’ll often cover them in an Editor’s Note.
- Is there an issue of Disparation where the writers start with the character asking a question rather than starting with whatever reality/story they wanted to explore (as in, rather than starting with “What if Voss won?” they started with "What would Legacy ask the Oracle?")? Well, they kind of did that today. Yeah, that happens sometimes.
- Is there a character who met the Oracle and either refused to ask or just walked away? That sounds like the sort of thing that would be explored in a non-Disparation appearance of the Oracle.
- Does the Oracle have a grand plan or goal that it’s working towards? Does it have a “theme” like Singular Entities do? It just wants to show people the things that people need to know. It’s kind of a weird thing in comics in that it’s entirely created for a function. That being said, everything an Oracle shows is real and true somewhere. Why does it “want” to do this? It’s beyond our understanding.
- Can the Oracle be destroyed? If it were killed would it reform elsewhere and/or would its lack cause problems for the Realm of Discord or that universe as a whole? Would it prevent other universe’s Oracles from being able to see into that universe? Individual “members” of the Oracle can be destroyed, but that doesn’t mean the Oracle as a whole can be “killed”. Additionally, it’s kind of hard to destroy the thing as anybody with the goal of doing so likely could never find it. Thinking about it as a hypothetical (somebody finds it for other reasons, but then decides on a lark to destroy it), they don’t think it’s possible. It’s like trying to grab a handful of water from a sink. Additionally, it would likely require Singular Entity (or at least Prime Aspect) levels of power to try.
- If an alternate Guise was being observed by an Oracle, would his 4th wall awareness extend to the person asking the question? Is there an issue involving two Guises arguing through the Oracle? That isn’t a specific story, but that could work. They’re imagining Guise looking up and saying “what are you looking at?” or the Oracle looks in on him while he’s in the shower and he gets startled. Like, there’s a funny issue of Disparation where somebody asks the question and the view portal starts panning through several scenes and that’s one of them (Guise, in the shower, shrieking in alarm at the interruption). It’s just a gag that the reader might consider later (“Wait, he knew he was being observed?”) but is just glossed over in the issue. Guise always knows when he has an audience because it’s the thing he wants most in life.
- Has anyone ever gotten anything out of the deal made with the Oracle? Why would anybody make the deal of “giving up something” (like Voss gave up his concept of “home”)? Has anybody looked at what happened, seen that “wow, that did not work”, and then make a point of avoiding whatever that pitfall was? A lot of characters are presumed to have made the decision to “do something different” after visiting the Oracle. That was basically the prompt for today. It’s reasonable that there’s a 70/30 split where the larger portion refuse to take whatever hint was being supplied and the smaller actually gets something useful from the experience. Additionally, we hardly ever see what the “deal” involves. The early issues had it more than the latter ones (and volume 2 almost never involves it), but that detail does get pulled into stories occasionally if the writers think of something interesting to do with the concept. The contrivance was “find a way to more easily tell alternate universe stories” so why make things harder for yourself by detailing all of the extra stuff?
- Does Soothsayer Carmichael think that the Cult of Gloom is doing magic right (performing ancient rites, taking knowledge from old tomes, adhering to tradition, greatly encouraged to do things correctly due to the consequences of failure)? Say, if Carmichael was captured and trussed up to be the sacrifice in a ritual and he noticed that they were doing it wrong and his soul would go free instead of being sent to GloomWeaver, would he correct them? He might appreciate the artistry of it (“You guys are definitely putting in the work”), but if you were doing a ritual to him he’s more likely to sit there and mutter about these fools not even being able to do this right than he is to help out. That being said, the way to “get him” isn’t to expect a long-form explanation of how to fix things, but just to get a minor detail wrong. Like, if you mispronounce your ancient Sumerian incantation he might correct you before he can stop himself. You might be able to continue this kind of getting something wrong that he can’t help himself to correct and just escalate how “big” the detail is until he finds himself working the whole thing out for you.
- Soothsayer Carmichael/Ray Manta friendship (and maybe more)? Cedric doesn’t have any patience for Ray. The conspiracy theorist makes leaps of “logic” that aren’t based on facts and this drives Soothsayer Carmichael up the wall. Ray is a brilliant inventor and is good at making things, but he’s a crazy person and Cedric has the burden of sanity.
- [Letter without much in the way of questions, but a lot of humorous shipping content that gets the occasional indications of agreement regarding the Metaverse shipping community definitely having some of these ideas:] Way back in the Argent Adept supporting cast episode where he was created, you made Soothsayer Carmichael a man because if the character had been a woman there would have been a romantic subplot involving the two of them; okay, fair, it would stop comics writers, but it’s not going to stop shippers - if anything it would encourage them given that Cedric is basically a male tsundere towards basically everybody, particularly towards Argent Adept [Adam has to explain tsundere to Christopher]. In the NightMist/Soothsayer episode you wanted to head off the shippers, but too late - I’ve been shipping them since you said that AA viewed Carmichael as his grumpy friend, but NightMist viewed him as knowledgeable/helpful and I feel like the Metaverse fanfic writers would be all over the Magical Girl saving her friend from the monster of the week angle. I also imagine the Soothsayer/AA shippers argue a bit with the Soothsayer/NM shippers (with a third faction suggesting that OT3s are a thing - then there’s everybody else being like "ugh… shippers").
- How to Harpy/Pinion and Soothsayer Carmichael get along (in canon, I swear)? Yeah, they’re not even going to start to try to get into what the Metaverse shippers think of that. Harpy would have encountered him a few times, but for all of his knowledge, he’s not a great teacher. He’s too impatient. She’s trying to learn things the right way and so if/when she tries to show off what she knows and inevitably gets details wrong, his nitpicking criticisms really get her down. Later, when she’s Pinion (“because he’s definitely around in the RPG era for sure”) she’s a bit more confident and, having lost NightMist, she would probably occasionally have reason to approach him. Her opinion would very much be “I don’t particularly want to talk to you, but you’re the best option I have to get my questions answered” and in the early years of this era there’s likely a bunch of “this guy knows everything and I have to prove myself to him” packed into her approach with him (really, “proving herself” is a major component to her character in general, but his status in particular leads to this dynamic).
- Where is Cedric Carmichael from originally (the name and the tweedy appearance you gave him both give a super British vibe - plus the whole “these bloody Yanks do everything wrong” lets him complain about all sorts of non-magical stuff too)? He’s definitely British. He was likely introduced during the “British invasion” when we started getting a lot of British writers in American comics.
- [Comment about the evolution from “Magical Doomsday Prepper” to “Muggle Magic Researcher” loses a little, but winds up being funnier in the long run.] They think a little of the Doomsday Prepper thing was retained - he mostly thinks that magic “being done wrong” will lead to horrible things that can be avoided if people would just do it right!
- Is Soothsayer Carmichael as much of a fan-favorite in the Metaverse as he is here? Was his appearance in the Animated Universe met with excitement or “who is this guy?” Both - he’d show up in a lot of top 10 supporting cast lists, but his introduction in the Animated Universe would elicit both reactions. The broader audience who know Legacy and Wraith and generally think that they “like comics” probably have no idea who he is. If you were to make a live-action Argent Adept movie he’d likely be in that first movie, but as a side character. He’s around and is important enough to the stories, but he’s not necessarily “common”.
- Given his tendencies to get annoyed with quite literally everyone, does he ever appear in any Guise stories? It’s possible. It’s more likely for him to show up in a Guise/Scholar story, but given where those books go there might not be a good place for that to actually happen (the dynamic could easily be Guise misusing some mystical artifact, Carmichael getting all anxious and ranty about it, then Scholar steps in to say things are okay and to calm down). The thing about the Scholar also being right about magic kind of defuses Carmichael. They don’t know there’s room for it, but it’s interesting to think about.
- Other than the XTREME, spiky, flame-spewing, double-neck guitar, what instruments does XTREME Argent Adept have? Earthquake bass. Bagpipes that belch flame and the bag itself is some kind of live creature that he’s stuck the pipes into. He’s got a “takes up an entire building” style pipe organ that calls down lightning from the sky, there are explosions where the lightning hits, and demons pour forth from the resulting crater.
- There’s a Bloodsworn Universe that has a “fight economy”? Do you pay for fights with money or do you pay for things with fights? If the former, why are fights so expensive? Do you need fight permits? Is there a fight tax and a fight IRS? If the latter, which direction do the fights go (if Adam wanted to buy some soda water, does he punch the clerk or does the clerk punch him)? There isn’t a concept of “money” in the Bloodsworn Universe - everything is paid for in fights. One of the things you pay for using fights is fights. Like, if you want to have a big fight next week, you need to put down a deposit of a quick brawl now. In buying soda water, Adam would have to fight the clerk to take it. It’s not like one just punches the other. Adam says he wants the soda water, the price is one fight, then they square off for a few quick rounds of fisticuffs and then can get on with the rest of their days. It’s not about winning or losing the fight, but having the fight. The intensity of the fight is reflected in how “expensive” the item is. As everybody knows, all fights can be measured in Fight-o-watts, so if Adam instead of doing the basic boxing rounds were to instead pull off some amazing kick-flip and pulls a chair out of nowhere to hit the guy, that would fill the Fight-o-watt meter up faster. There are a lot of ways to generate Fight-o-watts and some are faster than others (duration will get there, but skill, power, and artistry can get there faster). People take jobs places for training/practice. You’ve gotta fight your landlady for rent at some point, so why not work someplace to practice some moves so that the rent fight is over faster.
- Something they talked about briefly off-air involved Adam thinking of the phrase “Witness the Birth of Death!” which is just too killer of a line to not use. They want some kind of looming figure that’s mysterious rather than just having Necrosis. Maybe have Naturalist fairly small in the foreground surrounded by “husks” - maybe get a bit metaphysical and have some of them be his animal forms in husk form (like, it’s actually just the husks of regular animals that have been animated, but the writer/artist are messing with the readers). The looming figure could be a gloomy Death figure made of smoke and sludge. Give him the scythe and everything to drive the point home even if that’s not what Necrosis looks like.