The Letters Page: Episode 230
Creative Process: Darkstrife and Painstake Foes
Scowly heroes get scowly foes!
Run Time: 1:45:58
Christopher and Adam are back at it again! This episode is on the long side, but it's because they're brimming with ideas! Overflowing, even! And thus: this podcast.
Besides making up a bunch of things, they also studiosly answer your questions! Are you satisfied with the answers they provide? We hope so! If not, send in more questions!
New news! Christopher is now doing TWO podcasts! This one, every week, and once a month a podcast called the Play Greater Podcast, along with everyone's favorite Paul Bender! The first episode is already live! Go listen to it!
- So, Darkstrife and Painstake foes (and it is definitely an “and” there - while stories involving one or the other do happen, they are very rare in comparison to things involving both of them).
- There’s a bit of a goof here about one of them going on a date and the other creepily watching through the restaurant window - you can probably guess which one is which in that scenario - the main takeaway from this bit is that, at least eventually, they refer to one another as brother and sister. This is probably codified in the ’00s at latest and is likely a direct response to some edgy writer presenting them as lovers or something to immediate reader/fandom/editors/other writers backlash. Obviously there are some members of those groups who were in favor of such a reading of the characters, but the majority wins out and “siblings” is officially how they see one another.
- They see these characters as having their niche, but the dedicated audience there is quite small. You don’t get a lot of people following the characters, but you get people who might dip in when there’s a limited series (“the ‘Soul-Seeker’ story is great”).
- Stuff we already know: Busybody who they talked about before [spoiler: they definitely haven’t at least by that name, so that’s fun - somebody will have to follow-up regarding her], Æternus itself and the princes thereof - we should probably get into some specifics there today.
- So, Æternus is really their meat & potatoes in terms of enemies/plots (even Busybody who isn’t strictly an Æternus foe is there because of Æternus plots). As such, it’s probably okay to define a few of those things as well as some foes that strictly aren’t for variety. Likely some Japan-specific things given how long they were there/that their “roots” were there even after they start showing up in more main-continuity-related things.
- Let’s start in Japan. If our heroes are trying to be “crime-fighters” in Japan, why not have them tackle the Yakuza? Wait, let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. They’ve definitely fought ninjas/samurai and demon ninjas/samurai - let’s get that out of the way as the basic “fodder” they fight in the same way that the Freedom Five might fight the Blade Battalion. A specific thing to spend time inventing for our purposes today is who’s in charge of them. Let’s go ahead and loop that into the Yakuza. There’s some crime-lord who decides to “supernaturalize” the Yakuza and so we also get demonic “modern crime guys”. Darkstrife and Painstake are out to stop them less because of the demon stuff and more just because they’re a source of crime generally, but they become a target for this guy because he sees them as a potential power source he can harvest.
- We can go one step further and say that this guy is no longer Yakuza. He was some lieutenant who gets disgraced/is supposed to be killed. He manages to turn the tables on the goons that were supposed to kill him and is now trying to set up his own syndicate - the easy name there is the Yokai [note, the more proper spelling is Yōkai, but because it’s comics, the diacritic indicating a long vowel is ignored - this is similar to how The Morrigan lacks the accented í]. He was disgraced because he was getting into these alternate means of power (human sacrifices, etc.) that were a bridge too far for the Yakuza.
- There we go - our “easy” source of all the ninjas/oni/vaguely-demonic thugs/etc. you could ask for. It’s distinct from Zhu Long’s stuff, but treads some of the same ground. There’s probably some bait-and-switch story where they think they’re dealing with Yokai stuff only to discover that it’s really Zhu Long. This guy is in this for his own personal gain and is much more petty than Zhu Long. He’s allowed to exist in this same “area” as Zhu Long because he’s a useful idiot - it provides cover for his own more secretive activities if this joker is out there running a similar shtick.
- This guy is definitely a product of the ’90s and, being as “late” as that means that he’s actually also probably a response to Zhu Long - internally consistent in terms of being Japanese rather than this pan-Asian mishmash. They see him as having a decent variety in “scale” of the jobs he’s pulling, but he’s still not really “running” a large chunk of the city yet (that’s what he’s making a play to take over, though). He has successes, but they’re less “I now control Tokyo” and more “After burgling that private collection, I now have the [MacGuffin of the week] that gives me new powers!” It’s fun that they’ve invented an adversary that the Yakuza can get help from the heroes to deal with - sure, they’re criminals, but at least they represent stability.
- Onto the guy in particular. Adam is imagining “ghost scars” in addition to whatever pre-existing Yakuza look he has going (tattoos, maybe a missing finger or two). Christopher suggests Shigeru Sano (or, rather Sano Shigeru for proper surname-first order) as his name and Mamushi as his alias. Adam isn’t sure about the latter as while we can easily look up what that is/means now (as a deadly type of native pit viper there) it wouldn’t really be something that a general American comics-reading audience would be able to look up quickly in the ’90s and suggests “Ghost Viper” as the general “comics name” (with the understanding that it’s really Yūrei Mamushi in Japanese).
- Further discussion about other name options - mostly centered around the fact that mamushi isn’t just the Japanese word for “viper” but means “darkest one” and is just the name of this specific species. Adam points out that the “Ghost Viper” thing can be chalked up as a loose translation and that the context would be sufficient to let people know that he’s being called “ghost [snake]” rather than “ghost darkest one” (an alternative option to remove that reading is Yūrei Hebi or Yūrei Dokuhebi - Ghost Snake or Ghost [poisonous snake]). We can even really lean into snake imagery in the gang’s look. Honestly, the “real” Japanese name doesn’t even really need to ever come up; Ghost Viper is cool enough on its own.
- Going back to the idea of him missing fingers (due to failures while in the Yakuza), maybe we go a bit farther. He’s lost that whole hand - he’s missing most of the forearm on that side, but he’s using the power he’s accumulated to make himself a “ghost hand”. He could be missing even more pieces, but he’s captured a ghost and has bound it to him. He’s basically haunted, but he’s in control and uses the ghosts hand as his own. Maybe we have later versions of him where something had happened to him and he was presumed dead, but then he shows up again with even more ghost replacements.
- So, that’s a fun enemy. He can give out temporary “buffs” to people that’s a good source of one-off foes. He can give his underlings more permanent abilities so they can be more interesting to fight. He’s out there grabbing supernatural power as it is, so either he finds out about Painstake or they specifically cross him at some point and he recognizes her potential as a power source he could tap into and it becomes an obsession for him from there.
- It’s possible that the Yokai have been around in comics longer than Ghost Viper himself. He’s a ’90s character if we ever saw one, but the idea of the heroes having to fight “demon ninjas” can go back into the late ’80s no problem but the question that prompts of “wait, where did the ninjas get demon powers?” is what results in the introduction of a separate organization (the Yokai) and then Ghost Viper as the individual responsible.
- His first appearance sounds like a Mystery Comics thing. It’s no longer twice-a-month, but Rook City Renegades existing gives us some room to put crime stuff happening elsewhere in MC. In late ’93 there’s some Zhu Long/Operative stuff going on [the previewed RCR card “Zhu Long” from the temple environment cites the November ’93 issue with The Chairman speaking]. We don’t really have “back up stories” in this era outside of oversized issues, and this seems like it’s a short arc and there wouldn’t be backups in multiple issues in a row like that. Do they take over the book for a while or do we have issues alternate between the Ghost Viper stuff and parallel action with the standard Rook City crew dealing with some Organization/Zhu Long thing? We could have Darkstrife and Painstake fighting ninjas in Japan while Expatriette, Mr. Fixer, and Wraith fight ninjas in Rook City with the implication that they’re related stories only for the reveal that they’re not. That sounds good - let’s put August ’93 as the first appearance of Ghost Viper (MC vol. 2 #240). Let’s go ahead and put the first appearance of the Yokai in the previous issue.
- Timing-wise this is a little funny since just that spring we had the Chrono-Ranger in feudal Japan story.
- Okay, now let’s do something not-at-all related to Æternus before doing a few princes of Æternus. They have an idea that they need to flesh out, including why they’re mad at Darkstrife and Painstake (or vice versa). Maybe they hate demons generally - it’s not specific to Æternus. Somebody who wants to cleanse the world of all that is impure… so… Evil Fanatic (in terms of motivation)? The idea they have already works if they say that the person’s powers are corruptive and destroys them slowly over time. Somebody who was given/granted/cursed with power and is mad about it and so lashes out at anything supernatural. It’s somebody they imagine as “hunting” Darkstrife and Painstake - do they want to lean into the “religious zealot” angle? That kind of makes sense given the demonic nature. The safe thing here is to make them a religious zealot for a faith that they make up for the story so they don’t tread on any toes. Maybe they’re the last follower of a religion, but the deity no longer exists. There’s still latent power there, but since using that power is what killed the god this person using it also slowly kills them.
- To stop beating around the bush, they only had a tiny bit of detail decided beforehand. A Darkstrife and Painstake foe named Martyr. It doesn’t have to be power that’s killing them, but maybe it’s just causing a lot of pain/suffering (it’s more interesting for a hero to have powers that are killing them since if a villain has that problem you can kind of just wait them out). They still have the mentality that they have a holy crusade to hunt down evil/unclean things, but using the powers hurts them. The deity grants Martyr its power as it’s dying, relating that it’s also something of a curse.
- So… how is this not just Æternus-related? Having some god somewhere out in the world who makes this deal with a person that will cause them suffering sounds exactly like an Æternus plot. Within the world of Sentinel Comics what would, say, a Sumerian god be? It’s got to fit into the established metaphysics somewhere since “the gods in the comics aren’t really gods”. Adam feels strongly that we shouldn’t have a “trickster masquerading as Martyr’s god” situation because then the trickster is the real villain, not Martyr. Christopher’s fix is that what we really have going on is some kind of item that grants power rather than it having been the entity directly. Martyr follows a dead religion since the god of that religion is dead. What the nature of that “god” really was doesn’t really matter since they’re not present - all that’s left is this artifact that grants power.
- Christopher threw out “a tooth from the dead god” as one of a few options and Adam really likes that. Martyr finds this tooth, goes into a fugue state, and writes a book. Unfortunately, the book isn’t in a language that he knows and so there’s a drawn out process of working out a translation. What he knows is that there is true power involved here and so he takes the teachings imparted by the book seriously. He’s been presented with irrefutable proof that something came to Earth from Beyond™ and is now gone - all that’s left is this tooth and now the teachings that he’s received. There are a lot of people who would be convinced by that.
- They’re thinking something along the lines of the first “commandment” that he translates is something about how you have to give up your old life. Like, the tooth doesn’t have a “mind” but it can impart a vibe of “the thing I once was is dead, to follow me you must also be dead”. What’s the best/most metal way for him to use this tooth? Stabbing himself in the heart with it? Yeah, that’s pretty good. So, yeah, that will kill you but the power in it will sustain you as long as you’re following the commandments - in a book that you can’t read… Maybe one he follows a rule that part of the book becomes clear to him. You get this guy who’s trying all sorts of things in an attempt to discover what his “god” wants him to do - maybe he incidentally interacts with Darkstrife and Painstake (like “cuts them off in traffic” level sort of interaction) but that’s enough to trigger a revelation that he’s supposed to defeat those of demonic power.
- Oh… maybe the “god” was the last survivor from a realm that Æternus had conquered. They escaped that realm and couldn’t survive here, but left behind enough “will” for this to happen. Martyr could be the only follower of this thing.
- Where to have him show up… Sounds like a late ’90s to mid ’00s kind of thing. Probably not in the “Eternal Torment” [or maybe it’s “Æternal Torment”?] story. Not in the Pain and Strife limited series. Not in “Soul-Seekers” (which is 2009). There’s a fair amount of thematic crossover with Dark Watch, but they aren’t part of that book/cohorts of that team. Let’s put it in Justice Comics #524 [January 1999]. Maybe this could be an aftermath of “Æternal Torment” - like that invovled Æternus “awakening” and that caused the tooth to “wake up” a bit.
- Look and powers? There’s not a lot of restrictions here. Adam’s thinking eldritch, so Christopher suggests maybe trying to evoke the idea of an “eldritch high-priest” given his status as the only follower of this thing. Oh… oh no. He didn’t write a book - he carved the tenets of his new religion into his own flesh with the tooth (each sigil represents complex ideas, so it’s much more concise than the original “book” idea). Since there isn’t a “realm” for the power to come from, we say that by taking the very last remnants of the last survivor from that realm and plunging it into himself the power is all internal to him now - he is the realm. Adam also wants to give him a blindfold - he sees far more once he abandons the use of his physical eyes (also, looking upon this realm hurts, given how it was inhospitable to the “god” - they considered having him put out his own eyes, but having “removing his blindfold” as a built-in weakness is handy for a villain).
- This idea that existing in the world being painful due to himself being the realm of his dead god (which was incompatible with the world) is fun. It could lead to a long-term goal of eventually converting the “natural realm” into a place more like his god’s, where he’s no longer in pain just by existing. He doesn’t believe that he can bring his god back (it’s dead and he accepts that as given), but he hopes that by making a new place like his home that there could be an opportunity for new life like what his god was. Maybe he sees his body as also being the “incubator” for the offspring of his dead god, if he can manage to create a place for them. [A few minutes later] Christopher suggests “The One Who is Lost” as the name by which Martyr refers to his god.
- That’s all very interesting, but what does he do in a fight? [Christopher picks up the RPG book to get some inspiration.] He imagines that Martyr is strong, but not incredibly so (say, being able to pick up and throw a motorcycle, but not a car). He doesn’t have blood anymore given how his body has been changed. Adam considers “elasticity” (their least favorite superpower) as a way to make it even more clear just how much his body is no longer just the paltry human flesh it once was. It’s kind of shaping up that this guy is basically invulnerable - the sigils marking his body offer protection on their own to make him durable and the changes to his interior (and the whole “isn’t really alive anymore” thing) just add to that. So, he’s tough and strong and his body can warp and twist in horrifying ways. Maybe he can teleport too - like, not “blip around the battlefield” style, but he use his stretch powers inwards to kind of pull himself into himself and wind up somewhere else. It’s a creepy “slow teleport” that lets him get away.
- So, Darkstrife is going to just want to hit him with his sword, which won’t work due to the “basically invulnerable” thing and so Painstake will have to do something with magic to trap him (or maybe she even tries to heal him). Maybe he’s also got a thing where he believes (and may be right) that if he brings about the correct set of circumstances and then dies that it will generate the birth of the new realm or whatever. That’s part of the Martyr name - he’s “died to his previous life” and his existence is suffering, but he also plans to die to bring about They Who Would Be.
- They think that he doesn’t have a name. Obviously he had one, but it no longer applies and has been forgotten by the time we come across him in medias res.
- Moving on - they’ve run long just doing what they’ve done so far, so let’s cut to the chase. They already have a few demon princes in mind, so let’s dispense with the charade of inventing them on-air. There’s one demon prince that’s specifically a Darkstrife foe and one that’s specifically a Painstake foe.
- The former is known as Lusithar and is an unreasonably beautiful “hottie” with long blond hair who will rule Æternus because they’re the best, most perfect being - “perfection” is their shtick. Darkstrife is a threat to Lusithar’s claim on the thrown in that they have equally “valid” claims (although Darkstrife is also unreasonably pretty, although is far from perfect). The joke there is that everybody’s claim is equally pointless and Darkstrife doesn’t even want the throne, but Lusithar still has a need to destroy him.
- The latter is Seviathall - a figure armored in crystal and with a “wicked tongue” in many senses of the words. This is the trickster/manipulator/deceiver/corrupter type. Plans within plans, but also underminer and temptress. She predominantly wants what others have. She likely wouldn’t even want the throne if there wasn’t somebody else on it/vying for it.
- [A Cult of Gloom letter providing a gift basket for Painstake and Darkstrife, saying that if they ever want some real power they’re welcome to swing on by their place. This devolves into several long digression between Christopher and Adam about fruit.]
- [Continues] Have the twins and GloomWeaver ever interacted? Of course they have. Certainly with some of GloomWeaver’s Chosen. They’re more well-suited to appear in solo-NightMist stories than they are in general Dark Watch stories and have probably teamed up with her in NightMist before the team formed. There’s plenty of “Æternus vs. GloomWeaver” fodder in here (ranging from straightforward conflict between the twins and the cult to things where the cult and the twins have to work together to “get their dad’s to stop fighting” because a direct conflict between them could wind up destroying various realms).
- Has anybody except Fanatic attacked them just on the “just look at them, they’re obviously demonic” basis? How about Hexterminator? Definitely Hexterminator. NightMist fights Darkstrife a little bit in his first appearance. The twins are right in the sweet spot of “seems like they should be foes initially”. The trope of heroes fighting the first time they encounter one another is one that’s largely absent from Sentinel Comics, but these two in particular are an exception. A lot of heroes have the “Oh, no! Demons!” reaction the first time they run into the twins. And they’re not wrong. It’s especially a problem when Darkstrife and Painstake are fighting a group of demons and then other heroes show up to fight all of the demons present. They come in a little late to be targets of the Satanic Panic of the early ’80s, but were likely originally a response to it. Like, people were complaining about Fanatic and some edgy writer thought “Oh, you don’t like Satanic stuff, huh?” and ran with it.
- How often does one or the other of the twins “go berserk” and have to fight the other? Maybe not “berserk”, but there are definitely “for some reason they have to fight one another” incidents. Painstake “going full demon” and Darkstrife having to rein her in is probably the closest to “berserk”, but maybe Darkstrife decides that he will grab the throne of Æternus for some reason and she has to talk him down. Darkstrife is easily misled/corrupted and Painstake is a ticking time bomb.
- Has Painstake ever taken demonic form long enough to cause harm? Is Darkstrife cursed in some way that stops him from sharing the soul? Yeah, both of those are things that have happened.
- As somebody raised in Japan, does Painstake speak English? In what language do Painstake and Darkstrife speak to one another (given he was raised in Æternus and she in Japan)? Adam’s experience in Japan was that most people could understand English, but speaking it well was less common and skewed toward younger people. They think that Painstake is a native Japanese speaker, but one who learned English in school. Darkstrife speaks in tongues (granted, it’s demon tongues and so it probably hurts you to listen, but he’s understood) and eventually learns Japanese and English. They don’t think that he would have a “foreign” accent when speaking English (“being a demon” requires you to learn to blend in), but she does [apparently actually being a demon doesn’t automatically grant that ability].
- How adherent is she to Japanese beliefs and customs? Does she actively practice Shinto like her human family? They (in their admittedly incomplete knowledge of Shinto) don’t think that a belief that everything has an associated spirit and whatnot necessarily conflicts with the idea that there’s this place full of bad “spirits”. They think she is still practicing to the extent that you would see that in the comics (which basically boils down to the occasional bit where you see her doing some ceremony incidentally - just a reminder to the reader of what she believes; you don’t see Christian characters praying all the time, you just see little reminders here and there).
- On the note of Painstake (presumably) being bilingual; are there any other polyglots in Sentinel Comics? Fanatic: Spanish (but also Host-speak many languages), Unity: Hebrew, Parse picks things up pretty easily so she likely has a lot to choose from, Haka: Maori (but also would have picked up others over the years), Legacy: 1st-year Spanish (bless his heart, but he tries), Tachyon can learn them quickly so she likely knows some that are specifically useful to her (so Chinese, Russian, etc.). Dr. Medico: Spanish, La Capitan/Comodora, Muerto: Spanish. [They joke that K.N.Y.F.E. speaks Scottish which is a different thing in Sentinel Comics, but Scots is an actual language of its own.] In terms of people speaking a language other than English and the one corresponding to their cultural background, Parse probably knows the most (barring something like Omnitron-X which can probably trivially “learn” a language at a Google Translate level).
- What are the names of Painstake’s parents and sister? That’s a great question that they definitely have an answer to and aren’t just making it up right now. Father Nobu, mother Noriko, sister Yuko.
- What does her family know about her hero/demon identity? She ages faster than normal, so how much do they know that something weird is going on? Yeah, her sister is “younger” than her in terms of how they look to the world if not in literal age (although her sister is a teenager by now). The family knows that something is up, but they do their best to just love/accept her. She is also just gone a lot, which causes some friction. There’s plenty of opportunity for family drama centered on familial expectations vs. what she has to do - big emotional moments resolving problems, etc. Her parents don’t know that she’s a “demon” (whatever that means), just that she is beyond their understanding. They don’t care; she’s still their daughter. Yuko knows more as Akari has tried to open up to her about things, but struggles with it. The parents are very traditional and her sister is less traditional than she is.
- How much do they know about Darkstrife? Is he just a “close friend”? Do her parents try to push them together romantically, not knowing about the “soul sibling” thing? Do they even know he exists? Do Yuko develop a crush on Zane (or vice versa)? They try for a long time to hide his existence from the family (he doesn’t care to meet them and she doesn’t think it would be helpful in any way). There’s some family drama due to Akari just disappearing for a while. Yuko finds out/meets Zane and there’s probably a gamut of responses there from “he’s bad news, stay away from him” to “who’s this cute guy?” and all of the various responses that Yuko has get nixed by her sister. The parents likely meet him later in the story, but they wouldn’t approve of him - “who’s this guy that you’re calling your family?” There’s likely a running thread of their stories where Painstake is concerned about getting back to her family and trying to live up to their expectations of what she does in her life. Despite the standard trope of “you all should just talk” being there, there’s also likely at least one time where they do talk and it goes poorly. Then she disappears for a long time again and then the subsequent talk goes better and that cycles around a few more times, slowly getting better.
- Are there any infernal felines in Æternus [this was a Demoncat letter]? There aren’t any in Æternus, but that’s because all cats are from Æternus. They left there to come here. Seriously, though, they’re sure that there are “demon cats” out there.
- Do the twins ever go up against established Sentinel Comics villains? Hermetic being interested in the direct line to demonic power that Painstake represents and/or the runes that Darkstrife has on his body? The Cult of Gloom using the two as pawns in some kind of power play between GloomWeaver and Æternus? Those are good. Apostate is another likely candidate as he is one to muck about with other realms. They mentioned Hexterminator and GloomWeaver earlier. Biomancer maybe. They do interact with some of the established characters, but not a lot.
- How about heroes (NightMist wanting to banish them back to Æternus even if she knows they’re not villains just because they’re so dangerous, say)? How about Soothsayer Carmichael given that he and Darkstrife are in similar boats - knowing the “how” of magic without the talent? Carmichael would definitely feel that they were “too dangerous” but doesn’t really have any means of doing something about it (other than maybe trying to convince NightMist to do something about them). Darkstrife isn’t really in the same boat as him because old Cedric isn’t a magical being himself. Like, Darkstrife isn’t really doing much magic himself either (“pulling his sword out of his chest” is about as magical as he gets), but he’s still way more “attuned” to magic due to his upbringing. Soothsayer Carmichael would be very interested in them as a thing to study - he knows a lot about Æternal stuff, but they’re something new. NightMist probably would go back and forth in her opinion on them as they really are in a “will they/won’t they” kind of situation regarding Good.
- Did they have a duo or team name? They likely have phrases that people use to refer to them (“The Æternal Duo”, “The Soul-Seekers” during that story in particular), but they don’t have a general term. Most of the time it’s just Darkstrife and Painstake.
- Is it possible that by the RPG era they’ve moved to Megalopolis and now live in the Blighted Zone? If her parents or sister are/become notable botanists having them move to Megalopolis also makes sense, right? The twins do eventually move to San Alonso [they thought that they had discussed that around the time they created Busybody, which they only just now start to realize that they maybe didn’t do that on the air].
- Last week you mentioned a demon named Greezigrax - who is he and are there other princes of Æternus that you’ve named? Greezigrax is a simpering, sniveling kind of guy. They talked about Lusithar and Seviathall earlier today. Mannock is very grabby. Other names are: Abbados, Ismodial, and Belagorr.
- Is there an in-universe name for the “real world” as a realm as opposed to things like Æternus or the Realm of Discord? In context it’s often just “home” or “the real world”. Denizens of Æternus might say “the human realm” (ignoring the fact that there are lots of other worlds and species than Earth and humans). Getting “back to Earth” also comes up. “Our home realm” is a common one. In terms of an “official” name for it, they come up with “The Central Plane” which isn’t specific enough to be Earth/human-centric, but also speaks to the fact that it seems to be where a lot of things connect and is what alternate universes tend to relate to. It also makes a nice, specific reason for Æternus to want to conquer it.
- Is The Central Plane considered a “realm” (as in, would a denizen of the RoD consider it and Æternus to be similar things in the way that we consider the RoD and Æternus to be similar)? Is it considered it’s own kind of thing? Yes and yes. It’s a realm, but it’s also this crossroads of realms. Like, the Realm of Discord and Æternus don’t touch one another as easily as they both touch the Central Plane. Christopher also posits that it’s not the only such crossroads, though.