The Letters Page: Episode 227
Writers' Room: Tome of the Bizarre Vol. 3 #11
A lot of new stuff in one story?! Yes, indeed!
Run Time: 1:19:13
Adam and Christopher are back to tell all sorts of stories, but bad news: Christopher's audio is still a bit weird, as this episode was recorded on the same day as last week's episode. Not to fear! Trevor and Christopher will be troubleshooting his audio this week to try to solve this issue.
Don't let audio weirdness get in the way of this story! We revisit a character we created on the air of this very show, and even create a "new" villain that we accidentally named / almost retconned in a previous episode! Lots going on! Does it make for good radio? Does it ever? You decide!
Christopher is on his way back from Germany as this is posted, but the voting will be live soon for Contributors on The Letters Page Patreon! Get your votes in before this Friday's live show!
- So, Dr. B submitted “Tome of the Bizarre Volume 3 #11” as a Writers’ Room topic because of a cryptic “we can’t talk about that one” when trying to place the first appearance of Darkstrife and Painstake back in episode 208. Little did she know, playtesters for the Rook City Renegades DE expansion had some idea about what’s in it due to a card citing it in that set. They’re not going to talk about the card in question today (or at least, they’ll discuss the circumstances of what’s happening on the card, but not the mechanics).
- Anyway, this issue is from 1989 and, as mentioned last time, this is the era where Alpha is fighting against her nature as a werewolf (which she later embraces, or at least accepts it). Christopher had some thoughts about where this goes and discussed it in very broad terms with Adam before they began recording, so we’re getting another “Christopher gives the story as he sees it with Adam providing additional details or push-back where required” situation.
- We start with Tabitha Taft walking down a dirt road in the rain at night. Narration boxes explain a bit about her (Alpha #1 was just a few months ago - rebooting her under that name instead of “Wolf-Woman”) and then we get her own thoughts about how she’s been searching out a variety of cures, had analyses performed on her blood, talked to various priests/shamans/etc. but now it’s the time for desperation as she’s worried that she’s going to hurt more people. She arrives at a crossroads and buries an offering. Then we get several panels of her waiting.
- Eventually, an old, black man in a straw hat with a cane approaches from one of the directions that she didn’t arrive from. He asks what’s wrong. She’s just waiting for something. Go on and get out of the rain, old-timer. He sticks around anyway and asks if he can help and that’s when the penny drops that this guy is who she’s waiting for. Adam had a nitpick - we don’t see him walk up. They compromise that it’s immediately apparent to the reader that something weird is going on with him, but not to her so we still have the verbal exchange so he can deliver a “How can Papa Legba help you?” or similar name-drop.
- Sentinel Comics readers could be familiar with Papa Legba (as imagined by SC writers over the years). He was more common in older comics, but he was notable for being part of Robert Johnson’s backstory as the King of the Crossroads that Johnson worked for as an agent making deals and whatnot. When this was later retconned to be tied into GloomWeaver stuff Papa Legba wasn’t erased from continuity but simply rolled into the new status quo. Papa Legba is a figure from voodoo/vodou beliefs and [for better or for worse] GloomWeaver was associated with “voodoo” when he was created. Additionally, this was meant to show the idea that “The Cult of Gloom” manifests in different ways in different places all over the world. It’s not all purple robes in the graveyard (although that’s a commonly used version in the comics) - different servants of GloomWeaver have different motifs and may be serving him in ways disassociated from Cult Leader Massey-style activities. This figure is likely another Chosen of GloomWeaver, but not part of the Massey group who’s not doing the Big Thing™ so much as just quietly sowing Gloom all over the place. Anyway, his “vibe” is meant to be creepy or ominous rather than threatening.
- [Note from the future: I understand that they address the fact that this “Papa Legba” is in line with the version of him from the Robert Johnson legend (where he’s evil) as opposed to actual voodoo/vodou practice (where he’s not) in episode 229.
- Regardless, Alpha figures out that this is who she’s here to meet and tells him that she has been told that she can make a deal here to rid herself of a terrible curse. What curse might that be? Since we’re in Tome of the Bizarre and there are likely readers who aren’t already familiar with her, she just goes ahead and transforms (maybe not full wolf but mostly wolf). Papa Legba is a bit taken aback (or at least acts taken aback - he knew where this was going). That’s quite a burden, but we can make a deal. She’ll owe him and he’ll eventually come to collect.
- So, she makes the deal and goes on her way, but she’s still a werewolf, so what does the deal actually get her? Christoper thinks that the “curse” that gets addressed is one of denial. This can mark the turning point where she starts being more accepting of her own nature. Of course, the problem here is that her attitude goes too far initially and she is too accepting of being a wolf when she’s transformed (almost to Apex-level thinking, although he doesn’t have his first appearance for another year).
- This whole crossroads deal and subsequent problems draw the attention of a figure we’ve heard about but whose “comics name” hadn’t been public yet: Robert Johnson who calls himself Rambler (that’s a reference to the real Robert Johnson’s music. This would have been the name used going back to his first appearance in the comics. As described back in episode 171, he was a crossroads agent who rebelled and defeated GloomWeaver. He was banished from GW’s service, but not stripped of his bargain-making powers. He can do low-level rituals (probably faster than non-powered NightMist can), but he’s mainly not going out and actively doing magic so much as being aware of it, knowing the dangers involved, and knowing how to neutralize it. So in this story, Alpha probably goes on a joyous wolf rampage and the action afterwards shifts to Rambler who’s encountering the after effects (like, she killed a bunch of livestock or something) and he’s got to figure out what deal was made and how to counter it.
- The sequence here is that we’re with Alpha until the deal is made. We don’t see her actions from there, only the aftermath as Rambler investigates. He can tell that whatever the deal was, it’s unleashed something terrible. We’re not building towards a fight between Rambler and Alpha - instead he comes across her in a field with a bunch of dead cattle that she killed and gorged herself on before then passing out and reverting to human form. Whatever happened was real bad. From there we transition to a panel that has her waking up, finding herself chained up in a nearby farm cellar. Rambler’s there - he’s heard tales of what she is, but this is his first time coming face to face with one.
- She tells him (and the readers!) her story, along with vague memories from the night before and how she was reveling in it for once. She can’t go back to that and beats herself up a bunch for making the deal. Rambler talks her through it - looking for solutions to one’s problems isn’t bad. Some solutions are worse than others. Anyway, if she wanted to “not be a werewolf” that seems to be a boon that Papa Legba is either unwilling or unable to do for her. This is the first hint of what’s to come in about a year when Apex shows up with the message of “the wolf is who you are, the human is just a disguise” which then becomes more of a theme for her.
- Anyway, back to this issue which becomes a showdown between Rambler and Papa Legba. Adam has an idea for how to get there - we have to resolve this problem in this issue because we can’t have the problem created in this title really have an impact in the ongoing story of her own comic. Rambler’s “fix” is to suggest that she make a deal with him - he takes on the consequences of the previous deal and she’ll just owe him later on down the line. Her response is reasonable in that she doesn’t know him and he’s got her chained up, but she didn’t know the last guy either and now she’s even more desperate than before. She’s just got to hope that this one turns out better. She winds up back at square one - her situation has not improved re: being a werewolf, and now she owes mysterious stranger #2 a favor (which is still probably better than being an out of control monster and owing mysterious stranger #1 a favor).
- This gets into a bit of a discussion on the character of Rambler. He’s not overtly “good” - he’s still this guy going around making deals and collecting on debts. He’s just honest about things and what he leaves unsaid are usually things that will turn out good for the person as opposed to Legba’s version where what they don’t know will turn out bad for them. Heck, he might even say something like how he doesn’t actually plan on ever cashing in the favor, but he might find himself in a situation where having a big, strong werewolf on his side could come in really handy and he’ll give her a call. That’s better than the open-ended “you owe me” that the creepy guy from before left things at.
- Anyway, this is where Alpha exits the book. As a bonus, Rambler throws the bindings he’s used to hold her into the bargain. He tells her to try changing and she can’t. He may not have ever run into a werewolf before, but turns out sometimes stories are enough. Why does he have silver chains in the back of his car? Don’t worry about it. The last thing he needs from her is what the box she buried looks like and approximately where she buried it.
- Cut from him asking the question to him digging up the box. After he’s got it, we get a dialog bubble from off-panel saying that “That doesn’t belong to you.” Rambler and Papa Legba exchange greetings (“I thought I’d seen the last of you.” “I’m sure you didn’t think that for a moment”) and it comes out that the debt owed is now Rambler’s rather than Alpha’s and Papa Legba doesn’t need/get to know what Rambler is getting out of it.
- Christopher’s idea here is that the only “fight” in this book is the off-screen one between Alpha and a bunch of cattle. The conflict here at the end is resolved by Rambler somehow getting Papa Legba to make a deal with him. This is functionally a horror comic and so we don’t need the standard level of superhero action. The trick is how to engineer things so that Rambler gets one over on his old boss who’s been doing this crossroads thing longer. Some kind of galaxy brain, thinking outside of the usual crossroads-deal paradigm bit of wordplay?
- Adam suggests that maybe, rather, having to deal with Rambler being around or whatnot is itself more of a downside than Papa Legba actually wants to bother with and just cancels the debt himself. We start with a thing about how Rambler may have gotten his deal with GloomWeaver nullified, but the two of them never had a satisfactory resolution to their relationship. “Oh, but this will be so good for you”, Rambler begins. He’ll just go back to working for Papa Legba like before - going around, making deals, picking up info from all of the people he’s making deals with, but Legba’s only owed one debt. Once Rambler’s back on the team, he can keep working until he wants to quit. But now Rambler is the one collecting the debts and accumulating power from the poor unfortunate souls who come to the crossroads to make a deal. Sure, all of that power is supposed to get passed up the chain of command to GloomWeaver, which you do without fail every time, right? You don’t keep any for yourself? Because it would be a shame if people collecting the power didn’t follow through on their duties.
- As he’s describing all of this the art is showing how this would go down (with wavy borders or whatnot to indicate that it’s just hypothetical). At first, Papa Legba thought that this would be great with him finally getting the respect from this upstart that he deserved. As we go down this road, we see Rambler instead growing to be this powerful Gloom-infused sorcerer or something. We cut back to “reality” and Rambler is his normal self again, but Legba is still fearful. Oh, or better if Papa Legba has a good poker face and isn’t really outwardly fearful, but he’s got a bead of sweat running down his face. Christopher has another idea that while Papa Legba presents as an old man already, his hair is still mostly black with some gray. During Rambler’s story, his hair gets progressively grayer until he’s mainly gray with some white. Then when we cut back to the “present”, that change has stuck - he looks older just after having gone on this mental journey (given that his appearance is already somewhat handwavy to begin with this is another way that we can be shown how much he’s shaken by this scenario).
- Adam’s hangup at this point is that it seems like Papa Legba’s deal isn’t binding enough if he can just say “forget it”. That’s not it. The deals are binding and Rambler has to fulfill a request from Legba. Up to this point we’ve been operating under the idea that the request is “work for me again” at which point Rambler spun his tale of how that would go. When he’s done he says “Do we have a deal?” which is when Legba is startled back to the present and suggests that, no, that won’t be necessary. Pick me that peach, would you? (Or some other totally mundane task that can be completed right now. Actually - having it be a peach in the South is good, so let’s go with that.) There’s still some “Are you sure? I always do right by you and we’re such old friends” kinds of outwardly-polite-but-actually-threatening exchanges. We cut to Rambler walking away from the crossroads. Legba takes a bite of the peach and Rambler calls back over his shoulder “Watch out for the pit.”
- They like this story. We get a feel for the “dark circumstances” that surround both of these characters. It showcases both Alpha (who’s been around forever, but it quite obscure so now that they’ve given her another solo book it’s good to get her out there in front of readers again) and Rambler (who’s also been around forever, but is very much a “sometimes food” and has never had a book of his own; he’s even more obscure than Alpha).
- When was the original Robert Johnson story told in the comics (the first time he shows up, before the retcon that Papa Legba was GloomWeaver)? Start with a retcon of the retcon - as should be obvious from today’s story, Papa Legba is retconned to be an agent of GloomWeaver, not GW himself, who acted as a go-between for him and Rambler. The story was first told in Tome of the Bizarre volume 2 #90, June 1966 - the first appearance of both Robert Johnson and his identity as Rambler.
- When did he first show up specifically as a NightMist foe and agent of GloomWeaver? He makes a few appearances between his first issue and what you’re asking about, but that is in Tome of the Bizarre vol. 2 #179 (November ’73 [the month after NightMist becomes the headliner for the title]). He’s not a major player, but he does show up occasionally as an enemy for her for about a decade. He’s complicated in that he doesn’t think that he’s a hero, or a good man, or a good person, but he wants good things to happen to people and he doesn’t like bad people. He’s just bound by evil for those first few decades of his existence. He’s not a good person but he can stop a lot of bad people.
- When did he manage to free himself from GloomWeaver’s servitude? TotB vol. 2 #290 (February ’83) - that’s the story mentioned in the original episode that talked about him where he bests GloomWeaver in a
fiddleguitar contest, making GloomWeaver feel hope and thus getting banished from his service. Another note on that service: even prior to this when he was a “NightMist foe” he wasn’t a villain, just an agent of villainy. As in, NightMist would say something about how he should not be doing whatever he was doing and he would agree with her, but what can he do about it? It’s less that they fight one another and more that he’s tasked with setting things up, which turn into things that she has to stop. We probably even get occasions where he tips her off in a “Man, it sure is a good thing that you don’t know that GloomWeaver is [doing the thing], huh? Sure would be a shame if somebody were to stop him, because I work for him and am in charge of getting that ball rolling.”
- [Letter purportedly from, not about, Justice Comics #68] Oh, so now you’re just putting your hand on the scales by putting specific issue number up for voting without any context, huh? What does the average workaday comics issue have to do to get a turn, huh? When’s my time to shine? Let’s see, that was December 1945. They’re probably not going to ever do that issue because the two of them don’t know enough about Golden Age comics (they know a bit, but not enough to really do them justice). There is always The History of Sentinel Comics which will have more to say on that era, but it’s not done yet.
- At the time of her first appearance, was the Matriarch written in such a way that she could have been a recurring villain or was she always intended as a one-and-done? Everyone is always designed with the hope that they’ll be the next big thing. There are royalty considerations to keep in mind for characters that you create. It is strange that Lillian Corvus disappeared other than the occasional appearance while in jail. The tragedy of many characters is that later writers might consider using them, but then just make up their own character (in the hopes that their creation will go on to be the big thing).
- Was Lillian always potentially redeemable? They don’t think the version of her in that first story was. That was part of the point of the Night’s Plutonian Shore retelling - to humanize her a bit more. She was presented as pretty unrepentant and “generically evil” in her original incarnation.
- When the later writers decided to make her a hero, did she have a reputation as a memorable villain or just a piece of trivia about Absolute Zero’s first appearance? Mainly the latter - being an early Freedom Four enemy and the one that AZ got brought in to fight was the main reason people knew her until the NPS story.
- Did any of her “screen time” as “Tachyon’s cousin in jail” help shift readers’ perception of her? Yes, definitely. If it wasn’t for that work, it’s unlikely that there would have been enough reason to do the NPS and Harpy stuff.
- Did the Chairman ever try to recruit her given that she was in a facility that he’s basically in control of? No, she was basically forgotten by people both in Metaverse and in the world of Sentinel Comics. Note that the NPS reboot was done with the intention of making her a hero. It was weird that she had been so forgotten given her connection to one of the premier heroes, so they finally decided to do something with her.
- [Jokey comment about how Harpy has a lot of “Court” villains and the whole “killing two birds with one stone” thing leading to there being a rock-themed villain - here’s a suggestion for that villain’s name: Quartz!]
- [Suggestion to add Cooltopians to the list of “what do we call the Letters Page audience?” options.] They think that Cooltopians are a strict subset of the overall audience - the shippers (or people involved with the Thirst Sheet™ which they won’t get into here, but if you’re on the Discord you probably know about it).
- Is the Corrector’s prison an actual legal prison that just happens to have some extra prisoners in it? At least some writers treat it as some supervillain base of operations kind of place and others treat it as just a regular prison (at least, it is presented as a regular prison - they don’t think it’s an actual “legal” prison, but he may have mocked up some paperwork if the writers are wanting to make some comment on how the prison system is bad regardless of who’s running it or something). Some writers blow it up and go over the top, others are using it as social commentary (the former is the more common version). This prompts Adam to have an idea for, if not the original Corrector, maybe a copycat or a second guy using the name or something, where the prison he sets up is shown to be a really nice “rehabilitation center” or whatever, but is really brainwashing people. Christopher thinks that brainwashing is just part of the standard Corrector m.o. so that can just be him. This can be a case where the heroes have shut down his original Corrections Facility and this is his version of a “disguise” - a much different type of prison. Brainwashing is on the surface to make them productive members of society but the real reason is to make them sleeper agents to capture more people that need to be “corrected”. He’s just the worst.
- So, given Dark Watch’s beat is Rook City, what is the relationship between the Corrector and the Organization? Just by necessity, you can’t casually cross those two comics concepts. You could do a specific story about a time where the Corrector takes down an Underboss or something and the Organization comes in and dismantles the place out from under him. Or another where he has some mysterious benefactor that’s helping him build a new prison and he doesn’t realize he’s working for the Chairman. The story is about their interactions if you address it at all, but there are a number of ways that it could go.
- Is he just hyper-fixated on the Harpy that the Organization flies under his radar? Does he not operate in Rook City? Is he miraculously convinced that Rook City’s rampant corruption is within the bounds of the law? Has the Organization tried to kill him, forcing the heroes to protect him? All of those are things that could happen in a story. The last is kind of iffy, but, again, you can do stories where they’re pitted against one another if you do so with intention. He does operate in Rook City. There is a question of “if he goes to prison in Rook City, does the Organization just kill him” which gets into “yes, unless they don’t” story reasons, but also pointing out that Rook City prisons are largely recruiting facilities for the Organization if you’re a normal criminal. They can see a case where the Corrector - as somebody who targets criminals, gets sentenced and we have a final three panels of him freaking out about being sent to a Rook City prison and the implication is that he immediately gets murdered once he’s there, but then he just shows up the next time a writer wants to use him. He must have escaped.
- Does the Corrector’s prison have an official name? Each one is different. He calls them “correction facilities” but they’d be individualized depending on what the current gimmick with them is.
- Was there a time in the Multiverse era for a Kismet/Moxie team-up? There was time for such a thing. Funny you should ask. [Adam says that sure there was plenty of time but it didn’t happen. This upsets Christopher and so he relents, saying that it was a joke and that “You can do it, still.” So, it looks like this is explicitly a thing they have written up to have happened.]
- The above question made me consider the team-up name (or shipping name?!?) could be Luck & Pluck, but that reminded me that Pluck is already a character: is Moxie Pluck’s mom? No.
- If the Harpy can use her powers to summon birds it stands to reason that she can summon that most useful of birds, the hawk; by the transitive property, can she summon The Law Hawk? She can control hawks. She can also probably summon Brianna Hawke, just, y’know, with a phone call. [They talk about a canonical phone number. Somebody in the Discord called it on a whim, despite the guys saying to not do that because they just made something up, and it turns out it’s a phone sex line. Googling it says it’s an electronic security company, so either way, maybe don’t call it.]
- Are there any shape-shifters besides werewolves (well, we know about one changeling in the Fey-Court, but don’t feel bad if you forgot about Lugh, K.N.Y.F.E. forgets about him all the time)? You’ve name-dropped “Kitsune” as a member of G.L.O.B.A.L. but would readers know about the multi-tailed foxes from issues of Arcane Tales or something? The hero Kitsune is not an actual kitsune - that’s not to definitively say that there aren’t kitsune in the world of Sentinel Comics, just that they are not one of them. There are other shape-shifters (say, the Naturalist), but most are one-offs rather than a “race” of people. There’s the tengu, but Chrono-Ranger took care of that situation. Werewolves kind of are just one thing that change into one other thing and there are a lot of individuals that can do that (the Fey-Court is full of beings that can shape change at least that much - there are a fair number of others who just use illusions rather than actually changing, though).
- There’s a lot going on in this issue. Maybe do a “Rambler vs. Alpha” cover even if that’s not really the story? It’d be a thing to sell the book. Adam thinks he wants to market this more as the horror comic that it is. Maybe Papa Legba doing “puppets” of Rambler and Alpha. Oh, even better: voodoo dolls as that’s more on-brand. Maybe he’s holding one and is ready to jab it with a pin and the other is on the table next to him with pins already in it. The Alpha one has the pins already because of the arc of the story. Foreshadowing!