The Letters Page: Episode 233
Writers' Room: Justice Comics #588
Can The Scholar survive this eldritch foe?!
Run Time: 1:30:57
We had a lot of fun with this episode, using a foe we haven't talked very much about (other than in a couple specific episodes). Creating more for his look and feel and plots was a blast! We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Get your questions for the upcoming Creative Process about Bunker foes and Writers' Room about Absolute Zero and Fright Train on a holiday train episodes in now! Using this form! Do it!
- The prompt for this episode is “The Scholar lets loose in a fight.” Christopher thinks that for that prompt it’s important that they do a later story - the modern interpretation of the Scholar as this super chill dude and while he may have been depicted that way occasionally early on, it wasn’t a consistent part of his character until fairly recently considering how old he is as a character [debuting in *Mystery Comics vol. 1 #1 in August 1946]. Sometime in the ’70s was probably when they actually started to treat him that way as a specific character trait. As such, a story from the ’90s at the earliest is good as him really letting loose in a fight would be a better contrast after a few decades of that chill status quo. Of course, that also means that they need to come up with a sufficiently bad plot that he comes across such that in order to stop it he loses his chill. Something inexcusable that he needs to stop.
- They spitball a bit (the idea of an “orphan factory” takes a few minutes to play out before being rejected as too silly) and come up with something that on the surface is “good” but is really nefarious. Like, a charity that’s supposed to be helping the homeless, orphans, or other people who are in need of help and have no connections or support and help get them back onto their feet. They have some “success stories” out there to show that their organization “works” and nobody looks too closely. In actuality, it’s run by Count Barzakh. We know that he’s got a system for determining somebody’s potential magical aptitude. In the past, the way that Count Barzakhs do things is to find some people with potential and start “schools” of magic, train up the adepts, and then harvest their power for himself. This time he’s going quantity over quality. Just sort through as many orphans and homeless people as he can in large numbers, find everybody with any amount of knack for it at all, and then harvest all of them.
- He’s automating and streamlining the process of acquiring more magical power and life force. After all, his goal isn’t to take over the world, become famous, or anything else overt like that. His goals are very simply to acquire more power and live forever. It’s just unfortunate that he has to take life from other people in order to accomplish that. He’s not totally abandoning the old style of going after specific high-power individuals, but this can be seen as kind of the low-yield but reliable fail-safe in addition to the large, risky investments.
- Okay, so what country do we want to put this in? They don’t think it’s a large organization - it’s basically just this one “clinic” he set up to run this through. Let’s just put it in Bangladesh. It’s got 165 million people and 5 million of them are homeless, so there’s plenty of opportunity for people to just get disappeared. They almost try to answer “why is the Scholar in Bangladesh?” but that doesn’t need explaining. He’s there because he’s there. Him wandering into a place where there’s a problem to deal with isn’t unusual.
- Before getting into questions that do need answering, let’s deal with the standard meta-level questions. Christopher does a quick dive into the history of Bangladesh to find a good time to put it. In the mid-’00s there was a bunch of unrest and military crackdowns going on. Additionally, the “new” Count Barzakh first shows up in ’94 so that would be a lower-bound and works good. If we set this in the ’00s there’s enough time for this to not be the Scholar’s first run-in with him. Looking at the population data, going back even just to 2005 we’re looking at over 70% of the population there living in slums (things have improved since then - still not great but better than it was).
- Which book is right for this one. Tome of the Bizarre doesn’t work for this era. Justice Comics is always right there. America’s Finest Legacy could work if we want Legacy involved with the Scholar, but that’s harder to justify. Arcane Tales is still the Ra book at the time. JC it is! Let’s put this in mid 2004. We’ll figure out how many issues they need as they put together the story. Likely a 2- or 3-part arc. They could probably do it in one, but that would basically require Scholar specifically showing up to deal with this and they like it more if Scholar is in Bangladesh for some unrelated reason and discovers this going on while he’s there so we need a bit more time. And, deciding that, they kind of do want to establish why Scholar is there in the first place and so this is probably a 3-issue arc.
- Christopher mentions that this is happening concurrently with a 3-issue arc over in Cosmic Tales involving K.N.Y.F.E. and Sky-Scraper fighting something in space.
- So, why is the Scholar there? He could be tracking someone/thing around the world. It could be a ley-line thing - Waykeep was established in 2000 after all and it could be another ley-beast issue. Yeah, that works. We’ve got Scholar trying to track down Waykeep or other ley-line-related weirdness and that trail has led him to Bangladesh. The book has some “road diary” exposition as he’s describing what exactly he’s up to following these things. While he’s on that trail he comes upon some kind of “damage” to the magical fabric in the area, which he then investigates.
- More on the charity - it can actually be a functioning charity that really does help most of the people that it interacts with. There’s just a very large volume of people that come through its system and, sadly, not everybody can be helped. Some people are just too far gone, what with the drugs or disease (or having their souls all but shredded by the process by which Count Barzakh takes their small amount of magical potential) or they’re just too stubborn and resist our program and they’re basically left as empty husks of the person they once were and are still out on the street. Such a shame they wouldn’t let us help them.
- Anyway, the deal here is that the weakness/rift in the magical background of this area is why Count Barzakh has set up shop here. He didn’t create it, but he’s found out that shoving a person through the rift can disrupt their “essence” or whatever enough for him to be able to rig up a thing to let him capture it. He’s set up an assembly line process for power acquisition. It can’t be so obvious as to lead the Scholar right to his door, but it’s something that he can notice and get at least a “within these few square miles” fix on it. Within that area things are so snarled that it’s a simple thing to track.
- Maybe he finds one of the “husks” that’s left over and can get some information there, or he finds a local guide who can help him figure out what’s going on. Like, he can’t talk to the husk person, but another local can tell him the story about how that’s somebody who “failed” the program at the charity or whatever - that’s a handy way for us to actually get the spiel about what the place does and its success rate into the narrative and we can get into the ethics of a program that helps a lot of people, but has a small number of cases that wind up like this. They’re not totally catatonic, but are in a “walking vegetative state”.
- Okay, so how does this story break down into the short arc structure. What they’ve got so far can be most of the first issue, maybe with him figuring out that a Count Barzakh thing is happening by the end. Then the second issue is the main conflict between them (even if not direct conflict right away) that gets resolved and then the back half is the realization that Barzakh was just using an existing problem that he now has to solve separately and that’s when Waykeep shows up. Issue three can be Scholar and Waykeep fighting leading into the two of them working together to fix the rift in an uneasy alliance. With that decided, maybe we keep Waykeep out of the picture at first. Scholar isn’t tracking her or the ley-beasts, just ley-line stuff generally when he finds the snarled-up area so when she shows up late in the second issue it’s a surprise.
- Should probably actually say which issues these are: Justice Comics #587-9, April-June 2004.
- Adam doesn’t think that Barzakh needs a rift to do what he’s doing, but Christopher disagrees. While he has been doing this sort of thing for decades, it’s one at a time and it takes time and effort (which is why he needs to find and foster the skills of magically talented individuals - it has to be worth his time and effort). What this rift does is allow him to do it quickly and easily enough for him to not have to care about the relative strength of the people he’s subjecting it to. It allows him to expend little enough time and energy that he can afford the shotgun approach and the apparatus he sets up doesn’t even require his presence; he can just stop by occasionally to “top up”.
- In the end, Adam convinces Christopher. The prompt is a situation where Scholar cuts loose in a fight and adding in the complication of a pre-existing rift and having Waykeep show up takes us farther from that. Barzakh merely taking advantage of an existing anomaly (and automating it, which “takes some of the dirt off his hands”) isn’t monstrous enough. Having Barzakh tear open reality for the purpose of taking the lives of hundreds of people is “better” for the purposes of getting Scholar sufficiently mad at him. We can have the situation in the second issue where Scholar makes his way into some cavern where he sees this rift in reality that large numbers of people are being shuffled through with Barzakh standing atop the accompanying apparatus where he’s draining power from them. Scholar takes one look at this and declares that this whole thing needs to come down.
- Okay, we don’t have to shuffle too much of what’s been said so far. The only real difference is that Barzakh actually did create the problem and while the Scholar manages to destroy the apparatus and whatnot, he doesn’t seal the rift on his own and that’s when Waykeep shows up, blaming his very existence for this sort of thing happening, and then they fight/eventually work together to fix it.
- Let’s get into what “cutting loose” means for Scholar in this situation. Sure, he brings down the whole operation, but is he trying to kill Barzakh? Does he wind up removing Barzakh’s other hand? Christopher thinks “turns Barzakh into stone and throwing him through the rift” is the kind of thing we’re looking at. Adam suggests changing him to glass instead as that’s a stronger “there’s no way he survived that” thing (which the genre savvy among us know means that of course he survives it). His hope is that throwing Barzakh through it will be what seals the rift, but it doesn’t. The rift actually starts growing (the apparatus had also been holding it stable and now it’s growing unchecked). Also, while the “regular” people walking through the rift just had them emerge on the other side in the drained state, the glass Barzakh just disappears. Removing the apparatus and throwing a much more powerful practitioner into the rift has “solidified” it and it’s now a rift to somewhere else rather than just a vague area that people could pass through. Eh… that’s too similar to what they had happen to the Seer recently. Maybe it “atomizes” him, but he reforms somewhere else later using the power his Hand of Glory gives him. The main point is that this feels like Scholar, well, not overdoing it, but it sure feels like an intentional murder. Y’know what - having the glass not be atomized but hit the ground and shatter feels more visceral, so let’s have that be what happens. See, if Scholar had just turned him to glass and shattered him that likely would have been the end, but throwing him through the rift first did something that will allow his return.
- Which issue are we doing a cover for? Not issue three as that’s the most glossed-over one. Adam’s leaning towards 2 and Christopher agrees since that’s the one you can have Count Barzakh on and people would like to see him, probably.
- Is it possible that Free Radical remembers the Scholar (due to his being unstuck in time)? Assuming that Free Radical survived OblivAeon and that he met the Scholar before OblivAeon, would his pre-OblivAeon self remember Scholar and his post-OblivAeon self not? Could this be a plot point where Guise is just happy to be able to talk to somebody about his friend? Could Free Radical take a message from present Guise to past Scholar and return with a response? They don’t think that he could “send messages”. Anything that Free Radical “remembers” is pretty suspect in the first place. When we catch up to him in the Block, he’s gotten real bad in that he sees everything coming to one point and that point is nothingness (similar to La Comodora realizing that there was a problem when suddenly there was a time she couldn’t travel beyond). By the point we see Free Radical in a pre-OblivAeon time but after it’s known that OblivAeon is going to be a thing he’s not in a good place - he’s kind of undone by the idea that everything is going to end but wasn’t supposed to. It didn’t used to be that way and that panics him. It’s almost funny how this unhinged person likely has the clearest vision of what OblivAeon represents (other than possibly La Comodora). Post-OblivAeon Free Radical hasn’t been talked about yet and they’re not really ready to do so. He’s messed up in a different way now as he’s paranoid about going backward too far because what if he finds himself unable to come forward again and the sandwich bag is also confusing him. Does Free Radical remember the Scholar? Maybe, but he’s got plenty of other mental problems.
- Do Darkstrife and Painstake ever fight one another (physically or emotionally)? They fight each other more than any 2 other heroes ever fight each other. They don’t think that “familiarity breeds contempt” is a truly accurate saying, but the kernel of truth that’s there is present here. They spend so much time close to one another that they inevitably start getting on each others’ nerves.
- You recently said that they couldn’t be separated from one another very far due to their shared soul, but what about their years of life on separate planes of existence prior to meeting? They were apart and didn’t know any different. They could feel that something was missing in their lives, but didn’t know what it was or that things could actually be different. Once they met it was more of a “I can’t lose this again” response. They are not “fine” being apart and are noticeably less powerful when distant from one another. It’s not that they literally can’t be separated, but it weakens them and makes them feel that longing again.
- What is Painstake’s magic like? Is it at all similar to what NightMist does? Has she ever tried to get training from an expert? It’s not the same as NightMist. It’s more akin to an intuitive, sorcery thing rather than book-learnin’ and is “soul magic” - as in “magic powered by a human soul (er… up until it changes”).
- Does Darkstrife’s upbringing in Æternus shape his interactions with people? Is he always trying to strike bargains with shopkeepers? Does he assume that every gift he’s given comes with strings attached? He’s not haggling with shopkeepers (although his moral compass is probably pretty skewed to the point where he just steals a lot), but he’s likely suspicious of anybody giving him anything. There’s always a catch and things aren’t what they appear (“I’ll sell you this hotdog for $2” “What’s your game, hotdog man?”).
- Martyr was covered in sigils that he could read, but what happens when he starts “gooping”? Do the sigils start to warp along with his flesh? Are they on his face and he just avoids warping his face? They’re all over his body and they bend and stretch along with the rest of him. Well, sometimes. Other times he “goops” and they stay static - it might depend on whether they’re “active” at the time in which case those particular ones might stay as they were. It’s inconsistent and inconsistent is creepier.
- Has Ghost Viper ever reached out to Zhu Long for anything (minions, magic, etc.)? There’s probably some story that involves some interaction between the Yokai and Zhu Long. What’s more likely than what the question proposes is a situation where the Yokai are in a fight and are losing at which point some Zhu Long ninjas just show up and solve the problem for them and leave some resources. Zhu Long is basically just bailing them out with a “Love what you do. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” Ghost Viper asks what Zhu Long wants from him. “Oh, I’m getting what I want from you.” What the Yokai are doing is strictly helpful for Zhu Long, so expending a little effort to make sure that they continue to exist is warranted.
- When Painstake’s family is concerned about where she’s spending her time, are they concerned that she’s joined the Yokai? Are the Yokai even known about to the public? They’re not known about at nearly the level that the Yakuza are known about. There’s probably some knowledge that there’s some kind of criminal conflict going on, but the nature of the various factions likely isn’t widely known. While her family doesn’t know about that group in particular, they are worried that she’s gotten herself involved in that kind of thing generally (and they’re right in a way). Her hanging out with Darkstrife likely doesn’t help, though. They see him and assume that she’s gotten involved in evildoing and she responds “No, but I see where you’re coming from”.
- Do they ever see her doing something heroic in front of them and they come around on the whole thing? Yeah, that probably happens eventually.
- Who is Busybody? We know they’re a foe of Darkstrife and Painstake and that they’re Æternus-connected (although not from there) and are in the San Alonso area, but what’s their deal? Are they in San Lazarus in the RPG era? Sorry - they were 100% convinced that they had talked about her on the air. They think that a Writers’ Room would be the best place to talk about her. If they do the issue where she becomes Busybody it would do a good job of telling us her deal, and it’s an issue that caps off a west-coast Darkstrife and Painstake story (and sets up a new era). What else can they tell us… She’s a she. She’s human. She loves spreadsheets. She’s a character they’re very proud of. What happened is that Christopher and Adam had a long video call that wasn’t related to the podcast but basically wound up doing something so much like a Creative Process that they both just categorized the event as one in their memories.
- What are Darkstrife and Painstake doing in San Alonso? The west coast of the US became a very popular setting for things in the ‘90s. They originated in and spent most of the ’80s in Japan, but they started getting popular enough (and that’s very much speaking relatively - they were by no means “popular characters”) to get them more directly involved in continuity and so go moved over to the west coast of the US. That’s where they develop more supporting cast stuff (also from that lost video call, so they’ll talk about that in the eventual Writers’ Room too) and there’s a whole “demon hunter” phase where not only are they hunting demons, but they’re demons who are being hunted. It’s a whole thing.
- When choosing the Ghost Viper name, was it more because he’s just into snakes or is it just the venom/dark one imagery? The latter. He definitely has snake tattoos, but he’s not a snake enthusiast or anything. There’s probably an issue where he’s in a fight somewhere that somebody’s got snakes in a terrarium that gets broken and he freaks out because he’s actually afraid of them.
- [An aside that started as a “Ghost Viper/Night Snake crossover when?” thing reveals that the Animal-verse versions of Darkstrife and Painstake, also determined in that video call, are Darkshrike and Cranestake.]
- Does Sentinel Comics have an equivalent line to DC’s Justice League Dark (Darkstrife and Painstake seem perfect for that kind of title)? Dark Watch is kind of the most appropriate team for that kind of thing. You don’t need “Freedom Five Dark” when you have Dark Watch right there. NightMist (and Mr. Fixer due to Zhu Long involvement) just being on the team kind of pulls the book into this territory with some regularity.
- [General comment regarding Christopher and Adam’s “energy” differences between the first and second episodes when two are recorded back to back: SkyWhale’s assessment is that their energy levels are better during the second one. They’re warmed up already and hit the ground running.]
- [Bloodsworn Professional Wrestling letter, starts around 1:04:55] Our special event tonight is Fear Factor!
- Ambuscade vs. Glamour in a carnival haunted house: This is a super good fight. For the sake of making it interesting, let’s say this is when Ambuscade still uses the invisibility tech vs. peak Glamour. So, like late ’80s early ’90s Ambuscade vs. ’00s Glamour. The fun part here is that we have a guy who can turn invisible vs. a lady who can make unreal things visible. This one doesn’t have a super clear winner and could (should?) totally be written to have multiple apparent endings and reversals. “Serialized one-upsmanship” the fight. If Ambuscade for real gets his hands on Glamour he’s going to win, but that’s a super hard thing to accomplish. Ambuscade would win if you want the story to have a “scrappy upstart” win. Glamour’s shtick is being in control of everything, so having him defeat her systems is fun. Glamour is going to win if you want a “pride goes before a fall” story where he is being arrogant and laughing at her illusions and whatnot, but eventually him ignoring and walking through her illusions is what leads him into a trap. The Ambuscade win is marginally a more interesting story, but it would come down to the individual writer.
- Biomancer vs. Gene-doctor Kronz infiltrating Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory in search of the OblivAeon shard that BPW staff told them was hidden there - they both get 24 hours in their fully-stocked labs to whip up whatever support they can before the event: “Biomancer wins, but here’s why he wouldn’t” - because Gene-doctor Kronz is more willing to just do a thing. Biomancer’s going to try to get fancy with things and Kronz will just say “Gene-bound, Attack!” and ignore whatever secret plans Biomancer is trying to be tricky with. This isn’t a fight where Biomancer suffers a personal loss, just an opportunity that he makes a play for. He loses those all the time. “Oh, I planned on Kronz getting the shard so that I could observe what he does with it.” Sure, guy. That being said, if it was just flesh children vs. gene-bound it’d probably go to the flesh children. One-on-one would go poorly for the flesh child, but Biomancer’s forces in bulk can win by attrition and he’s better at improvisation. Like, when gene-bound fall in the fight he can then just use them as materials for more flesh children. So, the way they think this goes is that Kronz gets the shard and calls his gene-bound to come with him. Some of those gene-bound are now flesh children, though.
- Everybody’s scared of public speaking - the Freedom Five, Prime Wardens, and Dark Watch all wind up in Rook City on the same day and an un-revealed Miss Information, Apostate, and Bruce Watkins all want to get the public riled up against their least favorite hero group - who gets the people of Rook City more wound up against the heroes?: Apostate, hands down. They’re all very good at it. Miss Information has inside information that she can use very effectively for these purposes, but she’s not as good a propagandist as the other two - she’s good at exploiting that knowledge for her own plans, but less so for this kind of thing. Bruce Watkins is the best there is at taking any little thing that a hero does and blow it up into a full-on scandal (“These five things that Wraith does to her coffee will enrage you”). Apostate is on another level. He managed to take down the Prime Wardens without lying, just using their own truths against them.
- Gumbo vs. Battle-forged in a tax office!: Battle-forged is a better fighter, but Gumbo is a werewolf. As much as they want Battle-forged to have a shot here, Gumbo takes this in a walk. He’s a big strong viking dude with some extra tech, but he’s still just a normal guy at the end of the day. If you put Gumbo in (non-silver, but heavy and unbreakable) shackles and leg irons with a ball and chain attached (y’know, because of the tax evasion) this would be closer.
- You joke that K.N.Y.F.E. spoke “Scottish”, but that isn’t that far off since Scots (distinguished from English, largely by the “funny words” that she uses) and Scots Gaelic (an entirely separate Celtic language) are things that exist- does she speak the latter? Yeah, Scots is what she’s usually speaking and she knows some Scots Gaelic, but not in a conversational way. More specific words and phrases she’s picked up. She’s not going out of her way to study languages, she has a real blue-collar sensibility to her.
- For other characters:
- I would guess that Wraith speaks German, Japanese, and Chinese (depending on who has a reputation for being “rich” at the moment)? Yes, that tracks.
- Legacy is trying to learn Spanish but my head-canon is that as Heritage he’s trying to learn some Native American languages in his free time? They really like that idea.
- Ra speaks ancient Egyptian (while Dr. Blake Washington, Jr. likely speaks Egyptian Arabic and a few other languages in the areas where he works)? Yes. While Blake can’t speak ancient Egyptian, he can read it as much as Egyptologists have managed to work it out. They can see a situation where Blake is confronted by something he needs to decipher quickly and tries to make a deal to “let Ra out” briefly as a shortcut. Then, Ra just yells out what it says and then goes off to do whatever it is he wants to do.
- Naturalist I imagine speaks a bunch since Nigeria has 3 major language centers as it stands and then there’s the international business angle? Yeah, he knows a lot. The official language is English, but Yoruba and Hausa are the other major ones and he’s likely at least conversational in those. He probably also speaks the same ones that Wraith speaks for the business reasons.
- I assume that Parse can learn any language almost trivially, but speaks them all with an Australian accent because she learns them in her head rather than by talking to people - how’s that sound? Yes, but in a very “Google Translate” way and she’s also terrible at idioms (not in a Sky-Scraper way, just in that she doesn’t use them/speaks incredibly plainly).
- We gotta show Barzakh so we’re doing JC #588 in May 2004. It’s part 2 of 3, so do we need to show that on the cover? Let’s at least come up with a title and Adam will look into that. Adam throws out “Human Resources” which gets a laugh, but Christopher suggests Dispell Disaster (with the double L so we make it obvious that we’re leaning into the magic thing). It’s probably gonna be Barzakh standing on top of the apparatus in a “victory shot”. Probably don’t really need Scholar to be there. Are there any specific appearance notes for Barzakh in this? We haven’t actually ever shown him before. He was this science guy in the ’80s before he got the magic, but now that he is Count Barzakh he’s gone all-in on the ancient sorcerer thing. He’s got the Hand of Glory, so that has to be there. Christopher’s got some notes, but they can do that off the air because Adam will need to do his own spin on things anyway.
Note on Bangladesh
- Having learned more about Bangladesh in the process of making this episode, maybe look into the JAAGO Foundation at https://www.jaago.com.bd/ That seems, at a cursory examination, to be a decent one.