The Letters Page: Episode 256
Writers' Room: Tome of the Bizarre Vol. 3 #90
The nicest fellow and the edgiest twins, but as 90s as all get out!
Run Time: 1:35:13
We come in with no concrete ideas... and yet hit the ground running on a three part story sure to shock and amaze! Heroes! Cults! Thrills and spills! We've got 'em all, and more!
We also read letters, answer questions, and leave frustrating crumbs about future content in unplanned ways, as per usual!
Join us next week: Tuesday, August 1st: Episode #257 - Writers’ Room: Parse in space! And then... GEN CON!!
- The prompt is a story with the Scholar, Darkstrife, and Painstake. There are two ways to approach it: a Scholar story that happens to involve Darkstrife and Painstake or vice versa. Actually, the submitted topic is “The Scholar meets Darkstrife and Painstake” which we could take literally as the time they actually met one another. It’s probably somewhere in the ’90s. The twins are introduced in the late ’80s and they don’t think that there’s over a decade of those two existing without meeting Scholar.
- Surprise First Appearance Update! Adam mentions that Darkstrife first appears in NightMist #36 - the month before TotB v. 3 #3 where Painstake first appears. They’d mentioned at some point that it was possible that he’d first appeared facing NightMist before, but it was not clear until now whether that meant a different issue from Painstake or just that his initial appearance in that issue was vs. NightMist.
- They want them to be at least somewhat well-established before today’s story. They leave Japan in June ’93 (at the end of the first issue of the Pain and Strife limited series). Up until that point they’d (mostly) been in Japan. Scholar could meet them in Japan, but Adam wants to push this more towards the mid-’90s. Pain and Strife is all plotted out through its 4 issues, so that can’t be where it happens anyway. So, where do they show up after that?
- Adam has art appearances for them in Tome of the Bizarre which is the obvious front-runner. Arcane Tales is busy being Ra: God of the Sun at this time (we’re probably looking at the ’94-’95 Backdraft era anyway). Rook City Renegades is possible, but that kind of necessitates all three characters who aren’t traditionally linked to Rook City to meet up there for some reason (like, it’d almost have to be an existing Scholar story that happens to be set there that the other two wander into). The last real possibility is Justice Comics, but of the two best choices TotB really is the better one. As long as they find a slot for the story before Naturalist takes over in summer ’96 things are fine. There’s a bunch of room available, but where exactly they can put it is dependent on how long the story is so they’ll figure out which issue(s) the story is in after they figure out what the story is.
- After some consideration Christopher suggests that if this is the first time Scholar meets them what could work is: The twins are doing a thing and it’s turning out to be too much for them to handle, Scholar shows up “to save them”, but rather than saving them what happens is that he gets them to save themselves. In that case, are they fighting one of their villains or a Scholar villain? Christopher had initially thought that it would be one of their foes, but it could be interesting to have it be one of Scholar’s. That’s why he shows up in the first place, but then pulls up with a “you’ve got this” when he sees them.
- Let’s see. The last time they did a Scholar episode it was a Count Barzakh thing, but if they do too many more Count Barzakh stories their claim that he’s not a major villain kind of gets undercut, so somebody else this time. Let’s just have a quick gander at the Scholar Villains creative process episode for inspiration. Hmm… while it’s tempting to throw Lion Man into the mix, a more arcane option is probably a better move. If we’re already looking at demons and other faith-system-adjacent material, why not Halcyon (the cult leader type guy who could suppress people’s emotions/thought processes to make them more suggestible)?
- Having this kind of serene cult practitioners at odds with Darkstrife and Painstake in particular is fun from a “wait, are we the baddies?” kind of situation. What is the cult doing? Christopher started to suggest “normal cult stuff” but then backs things up. This is a multi-issue story and the situation is that Halcyon makes a deal with a demon prince. Sure, he has his cultists and he can draw some power from them, but he’s open to exploring some other options. Like, maybe he explored Cult of Gloom options but that wasn’t his exact vibe. The idea here is that he can draw power from his own cult normally using his usual, low-level shtick, but the deal he makes is to channel that energy to the demon prince who then gives Halcyon himself more/different power beyond his emotion/thought suppression gimmick.
- Adam’s idea is to have Darkstrife and Painstake approach the Cult of the Crystal Consciousness legitimately. Sure, the word “cult” in the name is a bit of a red flag, but they’re literal/adopted demons so beggars can’t be choosers. Maybe whatever their specialty is can help with their control issues and the fact that they’re sharing one soul means that they might benefit from anything that can help keep the shine on it. Maybe we can find another one?
- After hearing that, Christopher considers that maybe it’s better if these two showing up is what prompts Jacob Jenkins to have the idea to make a deal with a demon prince in the first place. They join up and when he starts pulling energy from them he notes that there’s more going on with them. Maybe a demon prince notices that there’s some guy who suddenly has access to some demon energy and offers a deal - Halcyon doesn’t know what to do with this stuff, but the demon can take it off his hands in exchange for some power he can use.
- Which demon? Seviathall is the one that seems most likely, but Ismodial or Greezigrax could also work. Lusithar is too direct and wouldn’t work with Halcyon - you need somebody properly manipulative (Greezigrax only works if they want to be a little silly with things). They go with Seviathall.
- Thinking 3 issues now. The first issue starts with our young heroes messing up in some way, finding/joining the Cult, and it ends with Seviathall approaching Halcyon. Maybe the screw-up is that they’re fighting some demon thing and they wind up pulling too hard on their soul and both of them wind up demon-y. They defeat the monster, but probably hurt some people (maybe even kill - it’s the ’90s and we can get away with that). They are out of control - they are specifically trying to not be this way and they keep doing it anyway and have some soap-opera angst about it.
- Christopher was originally thinking that Painstake was the one to suggest it, but now thinks that having Darkstrife be the one to find out about the Cult and suggest it as an option. Like, it shows just how shaken he is about how things are going that he is the one to suggest a fix. She can be skeptical but agrees to check it out. Everybody being calm and serene and helpful is just what they need. Just clear your mind and relax. Meanwhile Halcyon will just pull some energy from you, no big deal. This is all very helpful to them in that it keeps them from overtaxing their soul, but they’re going about it in a way that turns out to be bad.
- So, we have that all going on in the first issue. Then by the time Scholar shows up in the second issue for some anti-Halcyon action the twins are just Flavor-aid-drinking cult members. Scholar isn’t there because of Darkstrife and Painstake, but because they’re invested in the goings on we actually get a fight between them and Scholar when this old guy rolls in and tries to take away the refuge they’ve found for themselves.
- Issue three starts with them in conflict, but is when Scholar does a Scholar and talks them through “You can totally manage this yourselves, guys. Do the work. You’ve got this.” This then transitions to them going against Halcyon and eventually revealing Seviathall’s involvement. Cult members are freed, Halcyon escapes (although now doesn’t have his followers and owes a demon prince a debt), etc.
- Okay, so let’s flesh out exactly how the Seviathall deal is presented. She’s noticed the energy Halcyon is working with. She approaches him with a pitch centered around the idea that Halcyon can draw on this energy and gets some sustenance from it or something (mostly, drawing the energy from people just makes them more suggestible and so he can get them to do what he wants), but can’t really do anything with it. If he passes that energy on to Seviathall, she can then give him actual power. Sure, he’ll owe her for that power, but as long as the energy keeps flowing (especially the stuff from those two new followers you’ve got over there) then that covers things.
- Issue 2 is then a demon-empowered Halcyon vs. Scholar. What does that actually mean? Probably just straight-up “physical threat”. He’s always just been this low-level mind control/emotion-suppression guy. Now he can shoot demonic energy blasts or other actual offensive things. Oh! Adam mentioned in passing a bit ago that Seviathall actually has a bunch of crystals growing all over her which was a fun coincidence for the Cult of the Crystal Consciousness, but Christopher now runs with that and suggests that the physical token of the deal and how Halcyon’s empowerment works is that Seviathall breaks off a chunk of her crystals and shoves it into Halcyon’s chest. It’s basically an infinite battery that he can pull from to shoot energy, make himself stronger, fly, etc. He’s just going to get all sorts of cool powers as long as he keeps providing his end of the deal by passing his followers’ energy to her.
- Does she take the crystal back at the end of this or do we have a powered-up Halcyon running around? Nah, by the end of the third issue he defaults on what he owes and she takes the crystal back by ripping it free. Of course, now he’s got a gaping wound in his chest and he definitely dies as a result of this as opposed to any other outcome that one might imagine that involves a powerful demon and a recurring minor villain.
- Seviathall isn’t actually involved in the conflicts directly - we don’t get her teaming up with Halcyon in the fight with the heroes, she’s just pulling strings and setting things up. It’s quite likely that nobody other than Halcyon is even aware of her involvement.
- This is good timing. This is somewhere in ’94 or ’95 but in ’96 we have a 3-part story in TotB vol. 3 #95-97 where Seviathall is trying to manipulate Painstake into just taking the soul for herself and we get Darkstrife going head-to-head with Seviathall [these issues are featured on the Demonic Form and Demon Prince cards from the Darkstrife and Painstake deck shown in the Disparation campaign update about them]. This kind of makes Christopher want to put this story in ’95 so there’s a more direct connection between the two stories. Then we get Æternal Torment in ’98.
- With that in mind, we’ll put today’s story in Tome of the Bizarre volume 3 #88-90, July-September 1995. The following Seviathall story then starts up in February. It’s nice that the three issues fit into the ’90s comics style of storytelling where each leads into the next, but are also each their own thing. The first has the twins screwing up with their soul and joining a cult where the leader makes a pact with a demon. The second has Scholar fighting an old enemy, but there are some familiar faces in his retinue. The third has the three heroes “working together” and taking down the baddies.
- After running into all of this, it’s quite likely that Scholar involves himself in “Æternal stuff” as once he becomes aware of it and deals with the twins it doesn’t seem like a thing that he would ignore.
- We all recognize that the longer a character has existed in comics the more likely they are to have had a romantic subplot - the Scholar has existed since the Golden Age of comics but other than his wife and children that forgot him after he became the Scholar, we haven’t heard of any relationships for him; has he had any romantic interests over the decades? They do think that in the Golden Age none of his backstory as described was in existence. In those early comics he was more of an everyman/bumbling detective type. He’s a guy who understands the magical world, but he’s just a guy who’s stumbled into some power and is doing the best he can. In those, there are probably a series of romances that he is oblivious to. The Silver Age is where the alchemy thing comes into play and he’s a bit older. It’s sometime after that that they retcon an origin story for him with the old name/family that he lost [the guys say that it’s probably the ’80s at the earliest, but we know that establishing this stuff was the major part of Vagabond’s Tale which started in ’74]. That being said, he’s always just kind of wandering in and out of other people’s stories. He’s a supporting character for Sentinel Comics writ large. To readers he seems like some arcane entity for a while - is this even a man? Given everywhere he shows up and what he does/knows there are probably some fan theories that he’s actually some extradimensional being or whatever. They continue to wonder just how long it is before the story of what exactly happened to him took to be revealed to readers - possibly not even into the ’00s. Maybe after the Fall of the Prime Wardens. They wind up putting putting the definitive explanation of what Scholar even is in Arcane Tales vol. 2 #500-504 starting in August 2006, just after it returns to being that title after its long stint as the Ra book. [Again, Vagabond’s Tale is right there, but they could exclude some of the details until later and/or they retcon the contents of that book.] The next three issues (AT vol. 2 #505-507) are Æternus vs. GloomWeaver/Realm of Discord stuff. Eh, let’s have it be 4 issues instead of 5 so that we can have a one-off story in issue#504 between the Scholar thing and the Æternus thing. Anyway, it’s hard to have a consistent love interest for him because he doesn’t headline his own book. We probably see some indications of his romantic life here and there. Like, NightMist goes to him to have some tea or whatever and there’s a kindly woman there who leaves them to have their discussion and she’s just never explained. There are people in his life, but we only ever see the edges of his life and so they’re not really explained. Was the woman a romantic interest? Somebody else he’s mentoring? Some other kind of associate? It’s unclear! They will not be doing a Scholar Supporting Cast episode because it would be very unsatisfactory. There are intentionally no answers to some of these questions.
- [Letter preamble compares Scholar to Undertale’s Sans (and some Homestuck characters - Adam has at least some knowledge of Sans but neither of them have knowledge of Homestuck and so ignore that comparison). This prompts Christopher to ask Adam:] Is Scholar like Sans? Initial reaction is “no” but he doesn’t really know enough about Sans to be able to say either way for certain - he’s seen some Undertale being played rather than playing through it himself. This feels like one of those things where there’s a lot of meme-lore about characters and that’s what we’re dealing with.
- [Getting into Darkstrife and Painstake, who the letter writer hasn’t really gotten to yet, but it sounds like they’re related to Japanese beliefs/afterlife stuff?] They are not really tied into “Japanese afterlife” ideas. They are demons from Æternus and by the time they were created in comics Æternus was its own thing with its own identity. The Shinto aspect of Painstake is meant as a contrast to the Æternal/afterlife stuff (leaving aside that Æternus is not really/primarily an “afterlife” so much as simply another dimension that’s just associated with pop-cultural ideas of “hell”). Her connection to Shinto is more simply related to her upbringing and the cultural beliefs of her family. She uses it as a waypoint to guide her through the challenges in her life (which is largely what all religious practices are).
- Given a long history of alchemy within Taoism (largely concerned with becoming an immortal, xian, but which also resulted in, say, gunpowder’s discovery), has the Scholar ever really had many dealings with Taoist or Buddhist entities of this stripe? Would the Scholar himself technically count as a xian given the alchemical transformation he underwent? They cannot speak authoritatively as to whether he would count as xian. Scholar probably runs into all kinds of things like that over the years, but we might not see those encounters on the page. In the cases where it does happen in a comic, some of those encounters are probably handled well, but others are probably very poorly. It’s probably more common that things get name-dropped as he’s talking about something else he was dealing with lately rather than those being the focus stories themselves.
- Has Expatriette run into any alchemist villains who are interested in any of her bullets/gunpowder? They don’t think so because that’s not Expatriette’s story. It’s a cool fanfic idea that could be explored by people with more knowledge of the related folklore and whatnot. Go wild.
- Since Painstake was born in something like a grub form before changing to look human, would that play into some Taoist ideas that venerate some insects? They don’t think this was specifically why. The idea was just that she was born as this gross, blobby, larval thing and we happen to associate that kind of thing with insects. There’s also some fungal stuff in there. Anyway, there are other insectoid demons in Æternus as well, so she’s not the only possible connection if you want to play around with it.
- [Letter concludes with a discussion of “Cultivation Novels” and related things, and the best I can make of it is xianxia if you want to read up on it. There’s a connection to “demonic” characters who take part in Taoist ideas beyond the question of good and evil, which is kind of getting to the through-line of this whole letter as it relates to Painstake. It’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to be a parallel in Western genres outside of some entries in the SCP Foundation and, once again, Homestuck.] They’ll take your word for that one. Where you want to draw those parallels you’re welcome to - they did not intend those themes, but they’re not opposed to people reading them as present. That’s a big part of fanfiction all over the place. You can get a lot of interesting stuff out of that.
- What’s with Darkstrife’s glowing red eyes (a lot of the time eyes like that indicate power use, but he seems to have them everywhere, even out of combat)? Is it a side-effect of growing up in Æternus/channeling Æternal energy? It’s those things. Sure, he’s born a human, but living there for that long changes you. He’s not not human, but he’s more than that now too. Conversely, Painstake started as non-human but has become more human over her years living on Earth.
- Can Darkstrife turn his eyes “off” or are they always like that? Does he have to wear sunglasses to hide them? Yeah, sunglasses. People see his eyes and get concerned and he has to claim that he was at the eye doctor earlier and had his pupils dilated and so needs the sunglasses, etc. Also, he always needs to look cool. See also: his aversion to shirts.
- Painstake seems rather powerful given that she draws the attention of various Æternal entities, but what was the deal with the demon that was destroyed/created her? Was it also very powerful (and therefore probably a Big Deal)? Any connection to the various Princes? Who was powerful enough to destroy them? Were they stopping it from completing a specific plot or had they just happened upon a demon and fought it as a matter of course? Do they ever encounter the twins? They think that Painstake’s “mother” was a demon prince. Not one that they’ve named in the interim given that they were well and truly destroyed. They think that she was very close to actually managing to claim the throne of Æternus and the a bunch of other princes had to actually work together to destroy this one. They set things up to get her sent to Earth and destroyed there in such a way as to prevent her reforming later. Her way of getting around that was to create an offspring. She might be dead, but she leaves something new as her new revenge. There’s probably a bit in Æternal Torment that’s about Painstake’s “destiny” of taking the throne herself, but she rejects it.
- Wait, La Comodora has a crew? Who are the most prominent members? What are they like? What kind of gear do they have? They misspoke. La Comodora doesn’t have a crew in the way that La Capitan has a crew. She has associates that she works with and sometimes they’ll be on the ship for a little while. It’s kind of analogous to “associates of the Freedom Five” like Sky-Scraper. La Capitan as a motley assortment of crewmembers from across history who are extensions of her whole bit - they’re a bit more than “minions” but they go with the ship and she’s the captain of the ship. La Comodora’s “crew” is more based on Disparation than on La Comodora herself. She picks up helpers in the various universes she visits to help with a thing, they live on the ship for a while, then they get taken home. Chrono-Ranger is the most prominent member of this assemblage, but Chronoist is a member of this “crew” like K.U.N.A.I. is. Sometimes they make a one-off appearance, sometimes they’re around for a while or come and go. There are not going to be Crew cards in La Comodora’s deck. A simulation of the “crew” would be to play a game with her and a bunch of alt-reality Variants. She’ll have leadership-type cards in the deck to show how she’s used to working with other people, but they’re not an extension of “her” like La Capitan’s crew were. Think of it as a rotating team that operates out of La Paradoja Magnifica rather than a crew of the ship. Maybe a few dozen people overall, but we don’t really see more than 3 or 4 at once. That would probably make a decent Creative Process.
- We know that La Comodora puts any stray La Capitan she captures through a “temporal detox” procedure - did she have to do anything similar with the crew members? We probably occasionally see La Comodora and Chrono-Ranger dealing with crew members that have picked up a significant temporal signature of their own, but none of them are as tangled up as La Capitan is. For the most part, detoxing La Capitan will undo whatever weirdness she’s entangled others in.
- What happens to all of the various Las Paradojas Magnificas (other than occasionally salvaging them for parts to repair her own ship)? She has a very specific thing she does with them. She dumps them. In a big dump for ships. [They seem like they’re being very cagey about this while also being rather nonchalant about it, so I’m not sure if this is a big deal or not.]
- If La Comodora has a crew we have the same problem as the old crew - how does La Comodora avoid duplicates showing up throughout the Multiverse? Does the relic that La Comodora herself has that prevents herself from splitting extend that effect to others? Do they have their own items that do similar things? Are they just very careful? Is it not addressed and I’m thinking about it too much? The team members show up infrequently enough that they are not tied to the temporal tampering that La Comodora herself is doing. Some writer probably explains that her relic also protects the whole ship.
- How long does Greazer’s “partnership” with La Comodora last? Does he help against OblivAeon? What does it mean for future appearances of Greazer? It doesn’t last up through the end of the Multiverse, but he’s part of the aforementioned “team”. As for the future, time will tell.
- How much does K.U.N.A.I. show up after this? Is she ones of the background characters during OblivAeon? Is she a casualty during the K.N.Y.F.E. fight? Probably one of the portal characters. Maybe part of the K.N.Y.F.E. fight.
- How well would Sky-Scraper get along with K.U.N.A.I.? She might be excited to meet a new Paige, but this Paige is not as fun. There’s something missing. She’s very cool and does cool things, but she’s not fun. They both think of K.N.Y.F.E. as one of their most fun characters.
- Why does K.U.N.A.I. on the cover of Cosmic Tales vol. 2 #536 not have the more genre-specific proportions of her anime-verse compatriots on Disparation vol. 2 #21? They talked about this. The main reason is that this isn’t an anime-verse story.
- How much of an alt-reality persons appearance is a quality of the universe they’re in vs. a quality of the character themselves? Is it just cosmetic changes? You don’t get notable physical characteristic changes. For example, you don’t become an animal person if you wander into the Animalverse. If you’ve got a sword arm in the Extremeverse and go to another reality, they still have a sword arm. It’s also probably not consistent across all instances. Especially during OblivAeon there are probably a lot of art style mashups to indicate the variety of home universes people are coming in from through the portals. There’s also a consideration that most artists just don’t draw in different styles at the same time. For anime-verse issues they might actually hire a mangaka to do the art. As such, any visitor to that universe would also look like that in that issue since it’s the style of that artist.
- Do characters recognize that they look different when in other universes? Somebody like Guise might comment on it, but nobody else would. It’s the readers who can see the difference, but that meta-layer knowledge is specifically Guise’s shtick. [I mean, look at art from different eras just within DE arts - the same characters look wildly different across decades and they’re all in the same universe the whole time. Same deal - different artists draw differently.]
- Are there any Disparation issues where Universe 1 characters are depicted in fan-favorite art styles? Almost certainly. Something like characters who weren’t around during the Golden Age getting that treatment, etc.
- Does Greazer’s “power set” include getting a jukebox to play with a well-placed tap? Yes.
- If so, are there any incidents where he tries it only to break the thing and wind up in debt to the proprietor? Sure, there’s some room for a comedic scene where he walks into his favorite joint and tries it like he always does, but puts his fist right through the thing (he’s mad about something and inadvertently takes it out on the poor jukebox) and now everybody there is mad at him.
- We learned that during Greazer’s time with La Comodora he meets other versions of himself who seem on top of things and with equally excellent hair - is our Greazer just the worst Greazer? They don’t think he’s bad, but there are definitely other more successful ones. He’s often down on his luck, but he’s not Setback. Very little of that is down to his competence - he’s a very competent bounty hunter. He’s just sometimes out of his depth or there’s some twist at the end of a job that makes him realize that things aren’t going to go how he wants them to go. None of that is because he’s not dangerous.
- [Suggestion that rather than Black Stallion a better car name in opposition to the Pink Lady is the T-Bird.] Eh… T-Bird has a different vibe. They were going with another [color][noun] formulation. They understood the reference, but the vibe is the important thing.
- Recently you mentioned Greazer as being a gun-haver, which made me think of another notable Gunhaver and through a train-of-thought arrived at the question of how much penetration into the educational sphere the Sentinel Comics character got? Were there notable examples of, say, Legacy and Wraith appearing in various edu-tainment programming? Is Greazer out there making bad space choices and Captain Cosmic tries to get him to turn things around? Is Spite used in “Say no to drugs” campaigns? There’s definitely edu-tainment stuff using Sentinel characters. None of it is considered canonical, but who cares. Comics, animated shorts, etc.
- Shortly before they did Sentinels at all they had a character: Captain Eduardo Blackboard and the Educationeers who went around in a pirate ship. Let’s say it was a show that was made by some Sentinel Comics creators that went on to do this animated show. They had originally considered making La Capitan a reference to that but decided against it as it was too silly/a joke only for the two of them. Man, what was even the context of why they did this. Something to do with the H. R. Slim universe (they had seen a license plate that read HR SLIM which they decided meant Human Resources Slim - given the initials that eventually worked its way into Sentinels by way of Mr. Fixer; the whole reason his initials are H.R. and nickname is Slim is down to this one, incredibly dumb inside joke). They made a whole universe for these weird, edutainment-esque characters. It wasn’t even for anything. It wasn’t even for the game that eventually gave rise to SotM. They were just hanging out doing dumb things. Scholar and Hermetic also had origins there as dueling alchemists who wanted to poison each other constantly. As them about this during a live show if they haven’t already talked about it.
- Christopher thinks we might want to do #89. Either it or #90. Issue #88 is probably the twins in all-out demon forms as they’re overcome by demon stuff as the soul is overcome. That’s not the cover for the prompt, though. The second part could have Scholar against ranks of the cult who stretch into the distance and we see the twins in there. The last part would be Scholar, Painstake, and Darkstrife vs. Halcyon. That’s all set up in the prior issues so putting the main conflict of the issue on the cover isn’t really a spoiler or anything.
- Adam thinks #90 as he has an idea. There’s this abstraction thing that he can do with a big face of the baddie in the background with the heroes coming at you. It’s showing off the fight but it’s not a “fight cover”. Throw some crystal things in there. It’s just this strange era-specific thing that comics did in this period.
- We’re also getting to see what Halcyon looks like, but this is a demon-empowered version of him. With the abstracted nature of the art that might not be obvious, though. Like, if they give him a purple face or something it doesn’t have to be clear that that’s not just part of the aesthetic.