Podcasts/Episode 219

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The Letters Page: Episode 219
Creative Process: Scholar Villains

Original Source

Primary Topic

Scholar

Intro

Villains for such a friendly fellow? How can it be?!

Show Notes:

Run Time: 2:02:47

We start off with a real life tale of peril! If you don't want to hear about me and some of my friends in real life danger, I recommend skipping ahead to around the 35 minute mark. That said, it's a helluva story! And everyone survives! Uh, spoilers, I guess.

Then, we make some villains! We're all over the place on this one, and we're thrilled with the things we came up with. A real cornucopia of evil.

Join us next week for an Editor's Note, or, if you're on the Letters Page Patreon, join us this Friday for the live recording of that Editor's Note!

Characters Mentioned

Summary

Overview

  • So, it’s weird that Scholar has been around for forever (first appearance in Mystery Comics volume 1 #1 from 1946). Back then he was a bit more of a detective than later on (but more like a “concerned citizen” who stumbles across a mystery during his travels than a professional crime-solver). He’s not even like NightMist who sets herself up as an investigator who’s explicitly set up as a consultant for whatever weird problems other heroes need help with, he’s always just kind of doing his thing and then a mystery crops up where he happens to be in a position to help.
  • The alchemy aspect was also more incidental early on. Sure, he knew the “ancient secrets of alchemy that he learned from [whatever]”, but that’s more just additional flavor for “he’s a guy who knows a lot”. It didn’t get built up into a “power set” involving transmutation and whatnot until later.
  • His outward persona likewise has a lot of different interpretations over the years. Sometimes he’s kind of just a “normal guy” - chubby, maybe a bit bumbling, but with this depth of knowledge. Later on he’s reinvented into something of a hippy. Then more of the Dude creeps in. Other times he’s this “ancient wise sage” character who might be very determined. All of these are “true” depictions of him. Some of it is the lens of whomever he’s interacting with and how they see him.
  • Villains they already have for him:
    • Hermetic is the big one in that he’s kind of the “anti-Scholar” both in theme and in that he’s often stealing Scholar’s stuff of doing an “evil version” of Scholar’s shtick in particular.
    • There’s some interactions between him and Count Barzakh, although very rare, if only because Count Barzakh only shows up rarely.
    • Apostate to some extent - there’s at least one notable story and there might be others.
    • Deadline to the extent that Deadline was messing with ley-line stuff so they had some interactions regarding that (plus later “reparation” interactions).
  • So, we’ve got a theme of “mystic mages” in terms of who he opposes/is opposed by. What would be an option for something else to do outside of that archetype? In other “Foes” Creative Process episodes they’ve often explicitly done “a Silver Age villain” etc. as their framework. Maybe this time they’ll set out to do specific archetypes - like a bruiser, a mastermind, etc. and then sort them into the timeline as appropriate.
  • Adam’s first thought is somebody who leans even harder into the “hippy” thing. Maybe somebody with powers to actively create a zone of calm and peace around them. This might seem okay on the outside, but it’s not really about Peace and is more Control and has something of a cult vibe to it. Like a ’70s Charles Manson kind of thing. Christopher wants to avoid the Fanatic/Idolater dynamic here, though, where she was suckered in at first only to later find out how bad things were. What’s the Scholar’s involvement and how is it different? The Fanatic story had her basically looking for what he was peddling and getting taken in by him. Scholar stories generally have his opponents underestimate this “weird old simpleton”. He can see it and is onto the plot the whole time, but his outward demeanor prevents his opponents from catching on that he does.
  • Looking at where to put this story… ’70s makes it difficult for a few possible titles since Justice Comics and Arcane Tales have limited availability (the former ceasing to be a comic and the latter switching over to Ra: God of the Sun in the first few years of the decade). Tome of the Bizarre could work, but they wind up choosing Mystery Comics - having it late in the ’70s is also a good choice as this could be yet another “give us more Wraith stories!” example prompting the reboot.
  • [Aside - in choosing a spot Christopher mentions an Absolute Zero story, a Wraith story, and a Jonathan Donovan story in passing. Also, three villains debuted in ’77 - I have Apostate and Mr. Jitters listed that year, both Vyktor and Tamar were introduced that year as well as the first gene-bound Maerynian, but I don’t have anybody else listed at this time.]
  • They put it in MC vol. 1 #381 from April ’78. Jacob Jenkins is a cult leader. He has his Cult of the Crystal Consciousness. That’s right, it has “cult” right there in the name. They’re taking it back. Anyway, his villain name is Halcyon. He can definitely be a recurring villain. He’s probably got some low-level mind/emotion control going on. They don’t think he has his follows fight for him or anything - he’s likely just “feeding” on them in some way, which is why he has them around. Oh, or not even that “magical” - it’s just the standard mundane cult leader thing where he bilks his followers out of money and he enjoys the power he has over them. We have Scholar notice a bunch of rich people selling all of their stuff and going off to “live in the woods” or whatever with this guy and takes it upon himself to see what’s going on.
  • In later appearances, Halcyon likely uses his powers more actively. Really trying to control people more. Well, “control” might be a bit off. They think he more works by suppressing people’s emotions and thought processes. This might make them more suggestible, but it’s not outright “mind control”.
  • They want a more physical, bruiser type since Halcyon’s indirect conflict is still along the same lines as Hermetic or Count Barzakh. Maybe something that comes up in the early ’80s - the gritty direction comics were going then could give Scholar more excuses to transmute his own limbs into iron or whatever and actually get into physical fights. Christopher jokes that the guy is something like a circus side-show guy who would do things like ripping a muffler off a car and take a big bite into it - the idea being that if Scholar turns into a tough material, this guy could still bite through it. Then they actually run with the idea and give him metal teeth.
  • Okay, so we’ve got this minor villain who has metal teeth and can chew through anything. What else? Christopher suggests Adam’s least favorite power set: stretchiness. Maybe the guy can stretch his arms out really far to grab whatever he’s after and then “rubber band” them back really quick to take a bite. Hmm… well, if we’re going with the metal teeth thing, maybe have the stretchy bit be the tongue. They want to not get too close to Toad, though. Chameleons have the tongue thing too, but if you’re using that animal you lean into the camouflage thing and go the route Marvel did.
  • In the end, they land on giving this guy more metal prostheses than just the teeth and base him on the thorny devil. They’re also kind of little, and we don’t really have a lot of small villains - actually physically small. Make the guy something like 4'8" but covered in metal spikes and with the teeth and everything. They don’t think he is “part lizard” or whatever - he just liked the theme and ran with it. They joke around with “dumb names” for the guy and Spike deVille is what they land on. First appearance Mystery Comics vol. 2 #82.
  • He was this circus sideshow guy who did the “biting through non-food items” shtick, but eventually he bit off more than he could chew and messed up his teeth and he gets more durable replacements made. Over time he keeps needing to get stronger and stronger ones (iron, steel, titanium, etc.) until he’s got a set made out of a made-up comic book metal. On the idea of some of these metals actually being kind of toxic to have in your body, they like the idea of him eventually having some kind of “toxic breath” attack in later appearances.
  • Involvement with the Scholar? Maybe there was a circus story earlier on where Scholar in his “wandering into a situation” way figured out was bilking people out of money (more than circuses already do?). Okay, so they’re putting on the show like you’d expect, but while that’s distracting people they’ve got pickpockets working the crowd. The Scholar isn’t debunking the “circus” so much as busting the other stuff. Spike here wasn’t really part of that story, but that circus was his job and he blames the Scholar for losing his source of income. This “criminal circus” is even a fun idea as a back story for more than just this one guy, too. Let’s do them right now.
  • Adam does some investigation and it turns out that there’s no real reason they couldn’t use “Lion Man”. And if we’re already doing stupid names, he’s Lionel Manning. He was a lion tamer who got fused with a lion (maybe a magic act was going on adjacent to his lion taming act and there was a horrible accident). He’s not like a werewolf, he’s always in this beast-man mode and the consciousness of the lion is still latent in there too, so he’s got instincts and whatnot and is a good opportunity for some really cheesy dialogue when he talks about them.
  • They think an aerialist of some kind is good next (trapeze artist or high-wire/tight-rope walker, etc.) since acrobatic flips and kicks and stuff is fun. More investigation reveals that Tight-Rope is available. She can make invisible “ropes” - she used them as part of her high-wire act, but as a villain she can use them as whips or to tie people up, etc. Dumb names are a bit more difficult this time [the first two basically wrote themselves, they had to take an off-the-air break for this one], but she’s Cordette Strand.
  • Now that we have a “team” of villains, they think that maybe the circus was totally above-board [well, to the extent that circuses ever are] and it was just these three people who were running the crime stuff within it, so Scholar just cost the three of them their positions rather than busting the whole thing up. Then they became a trio of hired goons, basically, and that’s when the “upgrades” start happening with Thorny Devil’s teeth and spikes or whatever. Three minor villains working together seems more like a suitable threat to Scholar as well.
  • Do they use a name for their “team”? The Sinister Sideshow or something like that seems okay, but Christopher thinks that over time they kind of drop the circus trappings. They probably don’t need a name. They’re jobbers. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t.
  • Do we want a “bigger” villain? Somebody who does actual “villain plots”? The ones they made up this week so far have been in it for the money (and it’s nice to have more options for people just in it for the money), but how about something that’s out for more. They don’t need to be as “big” as some of the established villains that Scholar goes up against, but still “big picture” if obscure.
  • What’s a type of villain background we haven’t really dealt with? An alien or somebody with a device (hold up, Deadline is an alien with devices). A “monster” doesn’t feel right… maybe an “intelligent monster” - hearken back to the more pulpy Golden Age years and have it be like “a lizard man from beneath the Hollow Earth” or something that’s a call back to something Scholar did back in the ’40s.
  • Oh, on the “monster” idea, they like the idea of a highly-intelligent but possibly non-speaking predator. Why’s it after him? Maybe it uses the ley-lines for something, and so everything that Scholar does is basically painting a giant target on his back as far as this thing is concerned and it wants to consume his power (as well as him and the Philosopher’s Stone while we’re at it). If we want it to be recurring it probably shouldn’t be so animalistic. Oh, okay, so the first time we see this thing that’s how it is, but that’s just one expression of the “true” being that we’re dealing with. It can send itself out as this “ley beast” thing, but also a person, or a cloud of insects, or whatever. It has many forms it can choose as this ley-line entity. They don’t want to connect it to the Fey-Court, but that kind of mercurial vibe is appropriate. [Adam thinks that this idea is too similar to another villain that they already have but whom he doesn’t want to name on the air, which is intriguing. It also, apparently, has something to do with “narratives”.]
  • What if we have the story with the ley-beast and he defeats it. Then later we have somebody show up later who calls themself the Ley-Hunter. The beast was their hunting animal that it had set on the Scholar because he is a problem that needs to be dealt with to restore balance or whatever. Maybe they’re still some subterranean entity, but it’s their job to make sure the ley-lines are clear/aren’t being messed with. Sure, the Scholar is doing good with his powers, but he’s still using something that this entity has a job to make sure are not used. Scholar, just by his existence, causes disturbances as the ley-lines are pulled toward him like a magnet.
  • That’s cool. Okay, so we have not just that one ley-beast, but a series of them over a period of years. One’s something like a wolf, then a falcon, then something else, etc. Starting in the ’90s they just show up occasionally as a thing that he has to deal with and they’re assumed to just be a naturally-occurring thing. Then in the ’00s or so we have the Ley-Hunter show up as the payoff.
  • First appearances! The first time a ley-beast shows up is in Tome of the Bizarre vol. 3 #62 in May ’93. The story is that it shows up to attack him and he has to flee. Then he learns enough about it that he can then defeat it. It’s just a magical energy creature that hunts him when he does ley-line stuff and such creatures become a recurring threat. They could even see an arc in TotB after it becomes the Naturalist’s book where the two of them have to team up against these things and eventually introduces the entity behind them. That’s a three issue arc: #150-152 from September-November 2000. This is really fun as a Naturalist story in that there’s this nature spirit who is all about the “natural order of things” and isn’t trying to do anything particularly villainous other than trying to kill the Scholar, who, sure, is doing stuff that’s messing up that “natural order”, but is inarguably a good guy. Drama!
  • They talked off-the-air a bit about this character. She’s not “in charge of” the ley-lines, but is kind of a “maintenance worker”. She’s a Scholar villain in that while he’s not harming the ley-lines, he’s still anathema to her purpose/nature. She does show up in other stories as well, however, as a more “natural order of things” type of character. As such, she can show up as an ally against a villain who’s messing things up for her. She’s probably at least mentioned (if not appearing) during the Deadline event. The mercurial personality and non-Human personality/morality thing mentioned earlier is also still present. They name her The Waykeep (rather than “Ley-Hunter”) and see her as a spirit or similar that has possessed a person to do her thing. That at least gives Scholar an extra “I have to save this innocent person” angle to his conflicts with her. That leads to a fun bit where he succeeds in freeing the person temporarily only to find out that they are a willing participant in this - they had a terrible life anyway and are on-board with the Waykeep’s mission. Presumably there have been many hosts for the Waykeep over the centuries, but it’s a consistent host during the appearances in the comics.
  • They also think that the Waykeep is a naturally occurring thing that came into existence the first time that ley-lines got interfered with. Ley-lines got warped somehow and this “spirit” sprang into being with this purpose. Waykeep itself is more of an “it”, but we will generally call it a “her” because its current host is a woman. Thinking about it a bit more, they don’t think that the “freeing her” bit needs to actually happen, he just mentions it as a goal and she brings it up herself. She’s not trapped, she willingly joined with Waykeep. “Freeing” her would actually just kill her at this point which is yet more fodder for the “don’t just kill her” thing.
  • What are her powers? She can create these “ley-beasts” [they then get sidetracked and never actually came back to the point beyond what her “job” is].
  • Maybe at some point at the end of the arc that introduces Waykeep, Scholar figures out some way to mask his effect on ley-lines. Something that masks his exact position so she can’t pinpoint where he is instantly. Oh, or at the end of the conflict he manages to banish her. Then when Deadline shows up and starts messing with everything it winds up freeing her. Hmm… that might be too long of a gap. Maybe we just realize after a short time that banishing her is bad - she did a lot of important work outside of “killing the Scholar”. Without her doing her job, it’s much easier for other people/beings/etc. to futz with the ley-lines. It’s interesting to have a situation where it becomes obvious that the Scholar doesn’t know everything and makes a bad call.

Questions

  • Is Hermetic a prominent foe because his Blood Magic can somehow throw Scholar off his game in terms of alchemy? Are there plans to make Scholar and Biomancer more direct foes in DE than they were in EE? Does Scholar have many recurring foes in general? Hermetic is a prominent foe for Scholar partly because he simply insists on being so. He’s still a powerful alchemist and is willing to cheat/use methods one really shouldn’t. By “fighting dirty” he can sometimes get an advantage. They think they got the level of interaction between Scholar and Biomancer about right the first time around. It’s not that they never meet, but not often and it’s usually more indirect conflict. Biomancer doesn’t really interact directly with anyone. He has some recurring villains, such as the ones they just created today.
  • What kind of dummy would fight the Scholar more than once (given that he generally seems to try to talk to his foes and help them)? That is certainly a situation that has come up multiple times, but the fights he gets in otherwise are often less “I want to fight the Scholar” and more “I am doing a bad thing and the Scholar happens to be around and so tries to stop me”. Unlike heroes like Legacy who have that whole Inspiring Presence thing that can make people want to be better, Scholar is more of a “have a conversation with them” guy and in the process of talking he can help you out. He gives the best advice of anybody, but there’s nothing about him that is inspiring in the way that Legacy is. His presence, however, is often calming.
  • Did the Scholar understand that he was dying when the “of the Infinite” thing happened to him? If he did realize it, did he leave any notes or other materials behind to help inspire the next generation of heroes? If not, how did he plan on stabilizing himself? Yeah, he likely had an awareness of “well, this is going to be the end of me”, but such an end would have been a lot longer in coming than his actual end was. He was still surprised by how soon he wound up dying, but he was accepting of it. What he leaves for the future was ''Guise''. NightMist was more the type to have a story based around a journal she left or whatnot (plus all of the relics she sent out to other keepers). Scholar wasn’t that meticulous and was always more enigmatic. There might be an interesting story about somebody (Guise?) finding Scholar’s houseboat and putting together what everything he kept was/meant (if anything significant in the first place: sometimes a tennis racquet is just a tennis racquet). Would it be more interesting for Guise to be the one sorting through things, or somebody who knew him but no longer remembers him? There’s something there.
  • It was great to see the America’s Boldest Legacy story avoid a common criticism of superhero stories (that they’re protective of the establishment/status quo - the heroes can’t push for great changes because then their world diverges too much from the real world and it’s hard to maintain that) by having the characters seeing injustices and actually working for change. [not a question, but got a response] Yeah, it’s really tough to continue to write a story over the course of several decades if you’re introducing big changes like that. Disparation really lets them cut loose. The main continuity typically lets the heroes “make the world a better place” by also introducing supervillains, invading aliens, rampaging robots, or other big novel threats. They maintain the status quo simply by stopping the giant catastrophes that the real world doesn’t have. The heroes aren’t fighting for the status quo, it’s just that they’re in a world with other more immediate problems that take their attention and by solving those problems, the world just so happens to remain recognizable to us otherwise.
  • What would Finest Legacy and Boldest Legacy think of one another and their family histories? Joe would probably think that Paul was “just a government stooge” initially. Over time (whether a conversation or a team-up arc or something) he’d come around to seeing what the Paul Legacies are doing and appreciating at least Paul’s heart and intentions, even if he thinks the family history missed opportunities. Paul would think that Joe’s great, but that maybe not everything needs to be this big revolutionary deal. That isn’t a story that happens, but that’s the kind of thing you’d do with those characters. Paul could learn from Joe that maybe he should get out of his comfort zone and deal with problems that don’t initially seem like a Legacy problem. Joe could learn from Paul the advantage of building up a network of people, setting down some roots, and the power of “Marketing” for lack of a better word. Neither of those are necessarily lessons that they need to learn, but they could easily see a Metaverse fan-fiction 4-pager comic about this. [Christopher: Oh no, now we’re getting to the level of working out fan fiction that happens in the Metaverse…]
  • How strong is Joe’s regeneration power? Can he regrow/reattach limbs? Can he survive being decapitated or having his head destroyed? They have a bit of on-air disagreement here. Adam had thought of it as being a superhuman level of what normal human healing can do, which would rule out limb regeneration. Christopher thinks that he can regrow an arm, but it would just take a long time. Like, the initial wound would heal over, and then over time it would slowly just grow back. Adam is talked around to this position. Decapitated or a destroyed head/brain kills him. Destroying a vital organ probably kills him too. Like, if you puncture his heart or a lung or something he could probably get better, but destroying enough of them would kill him too (like, it takes some time to regrow a limb, so if he needs some time to regrow the heart, that’s time that the heart isn’t there to pump blood to keep the rest of him going).
  • How demoralizing is it for villains who discover that even after going through the effort to finally puncture his bullet-proof skin, he just heals back up almost instantly? More or less demoralizing than Paul shrugging off something with his Single Attack Negation? It’s a little demoralizing, but his healing still isn’t instant, so it’s not like the work is undone immediately. Seeing Paul shrug off your doomsday cannon blast is probably a bigger hit to morale.
  • How long had you had the idea for America’s Boldest Legacy before finally getting a chance to talk about it on the podcast? What prompted the story? The prompt was basically just considering an alternate take on American history. Legacy himself is basically a core sample of American History, so what if we started with a different core sample and have it still be Legacy. The original conversation probably happened 2 or 3 years ago. The more fleshed-out version of everything would have been worked out just in the weeks/months leading up to the episode - certainly this year.
  • How many more Disparation stories do you have tucked away from the podcast? [ominous laughter]
  • Can you share one with us now? They will not do so now, you have a lot coming soon. Be a little patient.
  • Why did you choose to not stick with the lantern emblem for America’s Boldest Legacy (“lawn jockey” with an upraised lantern were used as a signal for a stop on the Underground Railroad)? They specifically wanted to change things up for this iteration of the Legacy idea. Also, the lantern was a much more central piece of the family identity in the main continuity due to the Paul Revere connection.
  • Why use the Big Dipper constellation as the symbol since it doesn’t actually contain the north star (although it can be used to locate it relatively easily)? Because the connection here is a book that Adam read as a kid that included the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” bit from the Underground Railroad days. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper and it’s specifically because it is easier to locate and then use to find the north star that it was used. The Big Dipper is the beacon that leads the way to the north star as Legacy is a beacon. He isn’t “true north” himself, but will help lead you there is the vibe they’re going for.
  • [Letter starts with a bit about finding it hard to believe MLK would run for president or vice-president before even getting into which party he would be running for.] That’s actually something they specifically got from real life - apparently he had been considering or had been in discussions with people who thought he should run. This may have just been a rumor, but it was a detail that got them started for their own story. Obviously, the world was different and him surviving the close-call assassination attempt likely would have changed things even further in terms of his approach/outlook and the country’s response to the assassination attempt that made his eventual run successful, but the idea of him running wasn’t totally on the two of them.
  • Since that issue came out in 1990, during a stretch of Republican presidents, was that a consideration made in how you wrote the story? Absolutely.
  • Would you please expound on the thought process behind making him a Democratic vice-president? Looking at the political figures he’d associated with, it just seemed to make the most sense (of course, keeping in mind that it’s not a 1-to-1 world match). Adam also considered that in the era the comic was produced, most comics writers were Democrats and would have written it that way for that reason if nothing else. In 1990 they had this president, and so if they’re telling a story with a different president…
  • Was it intentional that you had Reagan lose to MLK in the 1984 election, which in the real world Reagan won with 98% of the Electoral College vote (the largest landslide victory since FDR)? As popular as Reagan was, the idea is that MLK is also very popular, if in a different way. He was somebody who would have had a level of notoriety that would allow for a favorable comparison. Also, once again, the writers of 1990 would have likely had nothing but positive reference points for MLK and extrapolating that backwards they likely held him in higher regard than he would have had in reality.
  • Let’s say that somewhere we have a Legacy who’s a master of magic and then uses alchemy to create a flesh child - does that flesh child count as a child for the Legacy powers to pass on? Does the level of autonomy Legacy gave the flesh child matter? They bring up Geppetto and Pinocchio - if this Biomancer Legacy made a flesh child for the purpose of having a child, then it would count. The regular Biomancer doesn’t really think of the flesh children as “his children”. This brings up the question of whether a Legacy who’s a real jerk and doesn’t care anything for his biological children would pass powers on to them. In that case it’s “whatever the writer thinks makes the best story”. In general it’s always just “whatever entity is considered the first child of Legacy gets the Legacy powers”. Heck, they could see an almost literal Geppetto Legacy who is childless and makes a puppet where Wellspring comes down and makes it a real boy.
  • If the Legacy line could pass through an adoption, how “official” does that have to be? Does Wellspring care about the formal, legal paperwork? It’s more the symbolic thing. However, this generates some laughs about Wellspring having to come down and revoke their powers after a discrepancy with the paperwork was discovered. That’s more of a job for the Singular Entity of Bureaucracy.
  • Does main Sentinels Universe have Potato-corn? No, it’s only found in the Mordengrad of the America’s Boldest Legacy setting.