The Letters Page: Episode 198
Creative Process: Villainous Holiday Plots
Let's get festive!
Run Time: 1:21:02
We don't have a specific plan, so we start telling stories, and this leads to giving away more than we originally intended. No worries! That's what we're here to do! This episode ends up almost being a series of lightning round Writers' Rooms!
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- Today’s prompt is “villainous holiday plots” - this worries Christopher a bit in that the last time they came up with a bunch of doomsday plots they probably wound up on some watch lists.
- A list of relevant time-of-year holidays: Yule, Hanukkah, the winter solstice (Yule is generally seen as a solstice festival, but one can see room for plots that specifically mess with Yule somehow and others that are just keyed on the astronomical event), Thanksgiving is close enough that we can throw it into consideration as well, Kwanzaa, New Years, Ramadan moves around a bit but this year it started the day they recorded this episode so we’ll count it too, Boxing Day, Decemberween, Advent, Christmas, Sol Invictus, Life Day, Holiday, and Festivus.
- They can do the thing where they do a story from various time periods, like a Golden Age story, Silver Age, etc. Adam brings up maybe not Golden Age as he doesn’t know as much about comics then as the rest. He’d want to check with their expert consultants, but it also seems to him that the “purpose” of comics was just different back in the early days. He doesn’t get the impression that Golden Age comics would have ever had holiday specials.
- Down to business - let’s get the gears turning with an easy one. It seems extremely likely that Yule or the Winter Solstice would be a good target for some kind of mystical villain. Something to do with the Earth’s pole being pointed away from the sun and the villain is trying to do a thing to make that permanent - a kind of take on a villain “blotting out the sun” story. [And it’s totally on-brand for a comics story to do this, ignoring the fact that if it’s the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, it’s the summer solstice in the southern one and therefore more sun is happening there.] Maybe something where there’s a magical Yule log and it’s burning with the sun’s power. It will never go out on its own, but as long as it’s burning the sun will be dark or something. Sounds like a pretty campy plot. It could be a Fae Court thing, but it also sounds right up GloomWeaver’s alley. If the latter, it’s probably a ’60s or ’70s plot, but Fae Court would need to be later.
- They’ve discussed in the past the idea of a story arc where the Fae Court goes to war with the mortal world. This could be a pretty decent start of those hostilities: The Fae Court Steals the Sun. Plunging the mortal world into darkness and winter just as they prepare to invade. Okay, now that they’ve connected this idea to a story they’ve already planned it’s a little cheap to then not tell us more about it for spoiler reasons, but they’ll go into it a little. The story is “A Winter’s Engagement” and it’s what they’ve said - the Fae Court has played its tricks on mortals since time immemorial, but this is the first real engagement on this level. There’s something they want from the mortals and are seeking to take it by force but that’s not the resolution of the story - somebody has to marry into the court to secure peace between realms. Okay, enough caginess, let’s take a break to decide how much they’ll tell us so that they can then just say what they’re going to say.
- In late 2011 we get this story that kicks off with the Yule log thing. The story involves the Fae Court and a number of familiar characters who had had reason to interact with the Court at various points in the past (not necessarily ending on unfriendly terms). Discussions between those characters and the Fae involve a number of proposals for how things might be resolved peacefully, but none of them work except this one that will bring the realms together. It doesn’t really change Sentinel Comics or the way things operate in that world, but has important repercussions for the characters involved.
- The setup for that, however, goes back a few years previously to a fairly well-regarded story in Arcane Tales - recently back as that title after reverting from Ra: God of the Sun. It floundered around a bit after that transition - you get some one-off stories, there was a Kismet thing that happened, etc. In mid-2008 we had an event they’ve mentioned once on the air before with no explanation: a six-issue arc titled “Fighting Spirit”. In that story, K.N.Y.F.E. fights a member of the Fae Court - a changeling named Lugh. In the course of that story, Lugh curses her with a blessing of the Fae Court. She can see all of the magic in the world around her (ley lines, ghosts, etc.). This is very much at odds with her general approach to life which was to ignore all of that stuff that wasn’t tangible (sure, she knew that magic and other such nonsense existed, but her expertise is in punching things and so she ignored all of that stuff that falls outside of her pugilistic purview). Oh, and she can only see this stuff when she’s been drinking. Of course, that’s not really much of a limit for her. “Fighting Spirit” winds up being a 6-issue arc of Paige drinking and fighting her way through the world of the arcane. Like, she winds up in the Realm of Discord at one point (Adam: “and in the hospital from liver damage”). It’s just a lot of fun, but she manages to rid herself of this “boon” eventually. It’s not exactly a “joke” story, but it was definitely a more humorous one done for the fun of it. Being a lot of fun, it got a decent amount of fan attention and acclaim.
- It’s status as a recent and well-liked Fae Court-linked story meant it got looped into the war story a few years later, though. In Tome of the Bizarre vol. 4 #30 (May 2012) we get the end of the war arc where we get an “impromptu battlefield wedding” between K.N.Y.F.E. and Lugh. That’s quickly mostly forgotten about in comics as she goes on to continue doing her normal thing in Sentinel Comics with maybe the occasional acknowledgement that she’s technically married, but it’s just a Fae Court thing so that hardly counts, right? Everybody’s got a Fae spouse stashed away in a closet or something. Anyway, the means by which the war ended was that the wedding gift that Lugh gives her was the Yule log. She breaks it and frees the sun.
- So, that was fun in a “getting to tie the episode prompt to a story we had already worked on somewhat” way. Because they already had part of it we’re unlikely to top that one today. Anyway, that’s Yule/Winter Solstice off the list. They’re going to cut Thanksgiving too as that was Green Grosser’s part in the Guise holiday issue. Other things to consider are that the prompt implies that the villain plot has to deal with the trappings of the holiday somehow rather than just happening to be on a holiday. That means that the more codified the trappings of a given holiday are the easier it’s going to be to do. Like, a Hanukkah plot would have to involve eight nights and things escalating every night (because the main symbol here is the menorah where you light one additional candle every night).
- Do we want to just do Christmas and get it out of the way. “Sure, but let’s make it ‘Space Christmas’.” Christopher runs with that and suggests a Greazer Space Christmas, which makes them both giggle a bit. This is gonna be a ’90s story and Greazer is the protagonist. Adam suggests that they invent some situation where Greazer has to act as “Santa” for a bunch of different planets so of course that’s what they’re doing now. Let’s put it in December ’93 (the big Kaargra crossover starts in January ’94 which involves Greazer as well - editorial would have mandated that they wrap stuff up prior to that, so they get that done in November and we have this one-off story in December).
- The question of “how Christmas is this?” needs to be addressed. Like, do they celebrate Christmas in space or does this just happen to superficially resemble Earth Christmas? Why is this issue titled “A Very Greazer Christmas”? Maybe Krampus was an alien this whole time. No, we already did a Krampus thing with Haka. We also specifically need a villainous plot here due to the episode prompt. Let’s have this be Space Christmas rather than Earth Christmas in Space. This can work in Greazer’s book since they’ve already established lots of details there that just happen to be similar to an Earth thing (rockabilly aesthetic, casinos, etc.). So, let’s just say that there’s some alien named [something suspiciously close to “Santa Claus”] who for some reason drives his spaceship around from planet to planet to give people gifts. So, we’re going to say that “Santa Claus” is not a character within the fiction of Sentinel Comics. That is, there isn’t some actual Santa character who flies a sleigh around that heroes have interacted with occasionally over the years or anything - but Space Santa is now a thing. The story here will have Space Santa be the victim of some villainous plot and Greazer may be no goody-two-shoes, but he’s not gonna stand by and allow you to mess with Santa.
- They also like the explanation that Santa can do his world-wide gift-giving thing because he’s this extra-dimensional alien thing that can teleport. The legend of Santa Claus on Earth is a distorted reporting of actual Space Santa’s activity/abilities. Not to say that Space Santa is delivering toys to children on Earth, but it’s something benevolent like that. Maybe it’s not even a single person but an organization that provides aid of some kind to impoverished planets. Christopher brings up the idea of “resources” broadly as we could have this dimension-hopping supply ship be a target for Trickline the Despoiler and the Scravagers. Greazer can’t take on the whole gang, but he manages to save Santa. That’s all well and good, but now Santa wants his help to do the job. That works better with a singular Santa character rather than it being an organization.
- Oh, how about rather than taking the ship just for what’s on it, they take over Santa’s ship for the purpose of using it for piracy. Like, they chuck Santa out an airlock and then just continue on the route acting as “Santa’s crew” so that they can get into places they couldn’t otherwise. Rather than “Greazer acting as Santa” we get “Greazer and Santa, back to back as they fight Trickline and the Scravagers”. This has got to be some big, hairy, obviously alien, cigar-chomping Santa too. He’s very alien - eye-stalks or similar but also has enough trappings like the red suit and white beard (but, like face tentacles or something) to “read” as Santa. Or maybe he’s just constantly puffing on that cigar and the smoke just hangs around the lower part of his face making it look like he’s got a fluffy white beard. This is just peak ’90s. We should also have the Scravagers dressed up in-character, which happens to look like “space elves/reindeer/etc.”. This is such a ridiculous issue. We probably even get Santa dropping “and to all a good night” as a action hero one-liner as he stomps Trickline at the end.
- For the name let’s got with something like San Tackless. Saan’taclaws. Something like that. And his ship is the R’dolf which has a bright read spotlight on the front that helps him set course for his dimension hopping travel or whatnot. [They don’t actually decide on a canonical spelling for these things - it’s not worth the bother for a one-off appearance like this.]
- We can do one more. New Years could be fun, or trying to come up with something for a menorah/Hanukkah thing. Or we could do a goofy Silver Age story where somebody in the editorial staff was Canadian or whatever and said to do a Boxing Day issue and the creatives just didn’t understand it and so we get something weird with cardboard boxes and boxing gloves. Let’s just do more rapid-fire ideas for all three of these rather than the more in-depth ones earlier.
- Boxing Day: some villain is delivering boxes that punch people (boxing gloves on springs that hit you when you open them). This sounds like a Crossword-level Wraith villain (although he’s not the right one for this) and is in the ’60s. At the end she’s trapped and is about to get just pummeled by a giant boxing glove, but she manages a last second escape. Just really campy stuff. They run through all of these cheesy old villains from the Wraith Rogues Gallery episode and decide that Doctor Rubber is the most fitting. Plus, if the boxing gloves are made of rubber, that gives Wraith a clue as to who’s behind everything. They put this in issue #209 of Mystery Comics volume 1, December 1963.
- New Years: pretty easy, something is going to blow up the city at midnight. Like, Megalopolis has something like the NYC “ball drop” ceremony and there’s a bomb in it or something. That seems too obvious a plot and one that’s been done a bunch. Let’s use that - it looks like that’s what the plot is, but that’s a red herring while the villain does something else. The heroes get there in time and open the ball up to find a note taunting them with what the actual plot was while they were dealing with this. That sounds like a Baron Blade or Entertainer plan. They could also do a non-decoy plot where Choke/Chokepoint does something with this big metal ball that’s used in the ceremony. No, it’s a Glamour plot. It’s got enough spectacle and misdirection for her. She’s set up what looks like a pretty standard villain plot that winds up being this decoy thing that has the Freedom Five running around. Maybe the mirrors on the ball itself are somehow being used to project her illusions around the city. They stop the “bomb”, only to find there is no such device but all of this other stuff has been going on. It’s fun that we can have a “loss” issue here and we can spend the next few issues cleaning up after her. They put this in January 1980 [which, if it’s in Freedom Five means it’s issue #357]. There’s a brief discussion here on whether it’s the New York or Megalopolis ball drop - it’s Megalopolis. NYC is only rarely used - it might feature in character backstories but action is rarely put there as they don’t want to mess with a real place too much. There was probably a 9/11 tribute issue that dealt with it and you might get the occasional writer come in who doesn’t know the fictional Sentinel Comics setting well enough to know to use those made up cities instead, but for the most part it’s just a non-entity. All of the real cities canonically exist, but they want to be able to just really destroy stuff/mess places up without getting anybody’s backs up about it.
- Hanukkah: This could be some Freedom Five mystery story that’s unfolding over the 8 nights and Unity is the one to catch what’s going on (being an observant Jew - Wraith has the cultural background but how observant she is basically depends on who’s writing her at the time whereas Unity is consistently represented as being observant). Maybe it’s something involving oil - the “miracle” of Hanukkah involved oil lamps and are what the menorah lights represent - they can even still be oil lamps rather than candles. Maybe it’s something involving Professor Pollution or maybe Revenant. The trick here is that whoever it is, it needs to make sense for them to be doing a “Hanukkah plot”. Well, why does any criminal do themed crimes like they do in comics? Anyway, maybe Professor Pollution is stealing oil from supplies and is going to dump it all and light it on fire on the 8th night. Or there is an oil spill in the ocean near Megalopolis and she sets smaller fires over the course of a week leading up to her setting that on fire. Or there are 8 major oil spills all around the world and she’s going around lighting them. They might have to abandon this as the question of “why a Hanukkah theme?” keeps getting in the way. Adam pulls an old trick out of his back pocket, though: this can be a bad story. Those exist. This does not have to make sense from Professor Pollution’s end - the Hanukkah thing is just there for Unity to contribute. Maybe Professor Pollution (who neither of them had a feeling was Jewish anyway) is just doing a crime and also ruining a holiday just to do so. Not everybody’s going to get it, but those that do… Yeah, it doesn’t have to make sense. Unity being the one to handle this means it’s likely Freedom Five again. Maybe look for a bit of a dry spell where they can say that the creative team wasn’t terribly great for a while. In the process of looking for an issue to put it in, they also consider having it be in the mid ’00s and have Miss Information be the one to put Professor Pollution up to it - something to keep the team occupied and off her tail. They play around with the idea of this being an 8-issue arc (because Hanukkah), but that’s a ton or space spent on a dumb story like this, especially in this era considering there’s so much Miss Information stuff going on. They restrict it to being November and December 2005 (FF #667-8).
- [There are two letters written in verse today. The first by Amelia leads off at around the 52 minute mark:] Where there any comics written in verse/to a song? Any of them use anapestic tetrameter (the meter used in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”)? If so, how was it received? There are definitely comics written in verse. “Musical” comics are a weird concept, but you can kind of make it work if you use a song that everybody knows as the basis, but something that’s like a musical episode of a tv show doesn’t really work in comics (and wasn’t really a gimmick for most of the medium’s history - Adam says that some modern attempts have been made but he doesn’t think they work). [As an example from their own work: they did have that one La Comodora issue set to “What do you do with a drunken sailor?”]
- Has the villain that sometimes goes by Kris Barron ever come into conflict with or pretended to be Kris Kringle? They don’t think so. No conflicts because, as discussed earlier, Santa Claus doesn’t exist as a “real person” within the fiction of Sentinel Comics. They have a feeling that if they were going to do a Christmas issue with Baron Blade it would end with somebody giving him a gift and him tossing it aside because he doesn’t need such things. Then he opens it when nobody else is around.
- Has GloomWeaver ever had a noteworthy Christmas plot? That seems like a good prompt for a very dark story. It’s pretty common knowledge that depression and suicide rates increase around the holidays. It’s a rough time for a lot of people. They probably don’t want to specifically tell that story, but the potential is there. The one they’ll actually do is a The Cult of Gloom Ruins Christmas story where the hero is Guise. It ends with him giving gifts to all of the cultists and bringing Holiday Cheer. Ultimately this causes this chapter of the cult to just disband entirely.
- [A sentimental letter from Angry Taxpayer at an hour an 40 seconds] Have any villains started trouble on Christmas just because they realized that if didn’t go out to pick a fight with somebody they’d just be spending the holiday alone? That sounds like the Hippo/Absolute Zero story [episode 8 of the Freedom Five animated series\]. Maybe something along these lines with a bunch of low level villains are in the Wretched Hive when Expatriette and Setback come in for some eggnog (Setback is not sure they should be there, but Expat thinks it’s where they need to be). It’s always on the verge of breaking out into a brawl, but it’s quite a nice evening. That’s likely a vignette as part of an issue rather than being a full issue on its own, but just a more upbeat interaction between some heroes and villains who don’t often get to have pleasant holiday interactions.
- Is there a Sentinel Comics version of the holiday classic “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells”? There’s gotta be. The limiting factor is characters with 2-syllable names. It’s probably “Jingle Bells, Dark Watch Smells” as you get the team, Setback, NightMist, and Harpy (and “Fixer” and “Expat” both work as shortened names too). Oh, this can tie into the previous question. This is the song that is being sung by the bar patrons when Expat and Setback walk in the door. Everybody is all tense, but then Expat sings the last line of the song herself and everyone cheers. You guys are alright today.
- Does Baron Blade send missile-toe instead of Christmas cards? Baron Blade only recognizes one holiday in this time of year. It’s name translates to “it’s cold outside but we keep ourselves warm by building tools for our glorious leader”, but sounds better in Mordengradian.
- Why does Dr. Jennings agree to treat Paul Parsons (isn’t treating the person who put you in jail a pretty big conflict of interest - everything else you said indicated that he was otherwise a pretty good therapist and so should know that)? This is kind of addressed in the comic. Legacy doesn’t know that Dr. Jennings was Mr. Jitters. Jennings recognizes him and is worried at first and his internal monologue notes that it would be inappropriate for him to treat Paul and has to wrestle with it a bit. In the end he comes down on the side of “helping this person out would be good for my own rehabilitation” which isn’t actually a great place to be in as a therapist, but that’s the Mr. Jitters side talking to him.
- While “Mr. Jitters told him to do it” is a good explanation, I have an alternative: Jennings knows that except for the conflict of interest he’d be the perfect person to provide therapy for Paul - he knows as much as anyone alive about fears and how to work through them which is what is needed after the Iron Legacy event; does he just get so convinced that he is the person who can get Legacy the help that he needs that he ignores the ethical considerations his own history brings into the equation? Yeah, it’s a little of column A and a little of column B here. That’s the reasoning he gives himself and they seem like good impulses but all of that stuff can come from Mr. Jitters.
- When Dr. Jennings hypnotizes Legacy into retrieving the relic, does that bring Legacy into conflict with the police or other heroes? Given it’s just after the Iron Legacy story, this makes for a good “Legacy going bad?” story hook, right? It’s definitely teased as a Legacy going bad story and some Freedom Five members (who don’t need a lot of explanation as to why they’re involved) would voice such worries. Sure, Mr. Jitters is the villain of this whole arc, but Dr. Jennings is really a side character at this point and so they wouldn’t be telegraphing his involvement too much.
- How prone to retcons are Sentinel Comics stories? That is, the Jennings/Legacy story is one that shows Legacy as a very human character with worries and weaknesses - does a later writer discard all of that because we can’t be having our shining beacon of heroism show gasp weakness! - has a later writer tried to make it so that Legacy was only in therapy so that he could keep an eye on Mr. Jitters? This was a particular era of writers undermining Legacy as this unshakable pillar. It kind of started with him being knocked out during the Voss invasion and letting Young Legacy take up the mantle briefly. Then we have Iron Legacy with its obvious baggage and then Vengeance where Baron Blade takes Legacy out fairly quickly with the serum. The late ’80s and early ’90s is a time where Legacy is around and is the leader, but the writers are also painfully aware of his history and want to do something more interesting with him. It’s also a more cynical era in general. They do get “soft reboots” of Legacy from time to time as new talent comes in and want to get a kind of refresh on the character. They probably wouldn’t specifically go back to address the therapy stuff in particular, though. If nothing else, the stigma of going to therapy has decreased as time has gone on. It’s more likely that they just ignore it entirely rather than going back to undo it.
- Who was the fear demon/god that was connected to Mr. Jitters’ relic? Have they appeared since then? Were they later revealed to be a more recognizable entity like GloomWeaver? It’s never addressed. In the early days it was just a “demon fear god talisman” and left at that. It’s never more specific about what it is. They don’t want to define things themselves at this point either, but they will say that it’s not GloomWeaver - his stuff has a very specific look and angle of approach and this doesn’t fit. He’s not trying to trick you into not knowing that he’s involved - you need to know his name and despair.
- [Very long, very impressive poem from A Humbug Cult of Gloom to close things out as well - 1:13:50 to 1:16:55 and is worth a listen. There’s no question, it’s just hilarious.]