The Letters Page: Episode 27
Is Ra the true Egyptian God of the Sun, or just a madman with the power of fire? Or, is he something else entirely?
Run Time: 106:57
We start with a quick overview of who Ra is, and then start breaking down his long and somewhat convoluted story. Let's dig right in.
In the first ten minutes of the show, we reveal Ra as a villain (of sorts) and then kill him off (sort of), and not at all as a joke! And it's not even the most exciting ten minutes of the show!
Starting just before the seventeen minute mark, Adam attempts to name all nine of The Ennead. He does... OK. More on those folks next week!
Around 28 minute in, we start getting into just HOW all of this Egyptian mythology stuff has been translated into modern Sentinel Comics.
Lots of great questions in today's episode, with a ton of story stuff covered entirely in the Q&A segment.
At 55 minutes, we get a question that sparks a REALLY long answer with a ton of story. Enjoy!
Wow, this is a long episode. Whew!
Lots of big reveals in the future section. We talk about the future of a minor side character from the card game timeline and what happens to them in the Tactics timeline. And then! In the RPG timeline section, we go into SPOILERS! Skip from 96:55 to 103:55 if you want to avoid major story spoilers for the RPG.
- Dr. Blake Washington Jr. was a notable archaeologist (although not important in the larger events of the setting - he might occasionally be mentioned or consulted for stuff in his area of expertise, but it sounds like he was a less prominent "figure" in the setting than Meredith Stinson was pre-Tachyon) who was investigating a pyramid when he found the Staff of Ra which makes him an avatar of the Egyptian god Ra. He had a secret identity more along the lines of nobody even considering that they were the same person than him actually putting any effort into the ruse. Ra isn't a different person - his personality changes somewhat due to the power/knowledge that being Ra imparts, but it's not like there's just this Ra personality out there as a stand-alone entity that overwrites the Blake Washington Jr. one when the body swaps happen. The Ra!Blake personality is a bit angrier and more arrogant than baseline Blake, but he's the same guy.
- Ra came on the scene a long time ago in the comics, mostly in sci-fi/fantasy stories where he'd fight monsters/aliens (a lot of Endlings showed up originally in such stories before being retconned later once the concept of the Enclave of the Endlings was developed). He had important roles in stories that fleshed out the Sentinel Comics setting - he was the first known person to discover Insula Primalis, which was his "home base" for a while (fighting dinosaurs being another fun comics story). He'd also show up in other heroes' stories and, because he's arrogant and burning all the things, they'd fight ("hero vs. hero due to a misunderstanding" being another classic story option) - Legacy and Haka are specifically mentioned. He wasn't so much a "superhero" in the kinds of stories told with him (just monster of the week with the normal Blake personality doing his archaeology stuff).
- As comics started to focus more on those superhero stories we had things like Citizen Dawn showing up and taking over Insula Primalis because the writers didn't really know what to do with this weird, angry fire god. They kind of did a "Death of Ra" thing, but without really killing him off - they just had Blake Washington make the decision to not use the Ra power anymore and just focus on his academic pursuits. He's gone for a long time.
- When the writers decided to bring him back they needed a plan to "rebrand" him - they needed to interesting things with him right away, something that would allow him to make the transition into more of a standard "hero" than his earlier comics iteration, and to give him a major threat.
- They give him a student, Martin "Marty" Adams, who followed him around on his digs. In a story, they are checking out some old scrolls found in some old Egyptian urns when Marty drops one. It breaks and dust swirls around him and into his body. He falls into a coma while his skin turns gray and ashy; it's mummifying him. They rush him to a hospital, but there's nothing to be done - at least medically. Blake knows that this is some kind of curse and that Ra could do something about it, so he changes in order to fix things. This "fix" requires him to go and deal with Anubis and Ammit - the deal offered was to trade his soul for Marty's. Ra declines and after a bit more arguing they just fight. At the end of this, Anubis agrees to save Marty, but that Ra will pay for it (in ways that he can't possibly imagine). Ra shrugs this off and leaves figuring it's a job well done.
- Ra is now "back" and is now an active player in Sentinel Comics again. Marty recovers and is still Blake's assistant/student, but we don't really hear about him for a long time as the comics are now less focused on the archaeology and more on Epic Egyptian Struggles! OK, so step one of the plan complete - they had an interesting reason for Ra's return.
- Next up, make him a hero. This is where they bring in Calypso (seen in Ermine's deck - a much less powerful iteration than when she was first introduced). She's taken the city of Cairo hostage by controlling all of the water - she's like a 40-foot-tall water creature. Ra shows up and does his standard "Nobody can stand before the power of Ra!" boast but she isn't impressed because she's made of water. It's a big, cool fight, though, which he eventually wins (evaporation being her major downfall, apparently). Here's a case where he's not just fighting some weird monster, but he's doing so to save people. Heroics!
- Somewhere in there we have him run into Fanatic for the first time, but more on their interactions later (and in her episode). He's now met a bunch of the "modern" heroes, but he's still operating as a solo character - he's not part of a team.
- Now onto phase three - introduce a major threat specific to him. This is where the Ennead come in - a group of nine gods whose cult rose to prominence after Ra's cult had (in actual, historical mythology). This is the price that Anubis alluded to - he did some sand shifting to uncover the temple of the Ennead. This newly uncovered dig site attracted a bunch of grave-robbers, many of whom died from the various traps and whatnot, but finally nine of them, led by Roderick Ward, made it to the central chamber and took up the artifacts there becoming avatars of the Ennead in the same way that Blake Washington became Ra.
- The Ennead are the most significant/important enemies of Ra in the Multiverse era of stories, but we'll get a lot more specifics about them next week. Generally they decide that being in charge of Egypt isn't enough and they set out to take over the world, blowing up cities and whatnot (y'know, standard villain stuff). Ra shows up pretty quick given that he can recognize their energy being back in the world and takes them all on by himself. This does not go well for Ra.
- When he loses, they chain him up (see some of his incap art or the cover of Baptism by Fire #4 in the Villain Challenge PDF) and Isis uses her magic to lock him into the Ra form, but without any of the powers that normally come with it. Fanatic saves him, but then he goes into exile in the desert as a kind of penance (he's in Ra form, so he's functionally immortal even without his fire powers).
- The Ennead continues to wreck stuff, but other heroes manage to push them back to the point where they just have territory they control in Egypt (and, realizing that there's significant pushback out there, they seem content with this). As they continue to hold areas with considerable population centers to hold hostage, the heroes can't really make a major push to take them out.
- Ra's out of the picture again, but not for as long as his last absence. When he reemerges, he's lost his general pharaoh look and is now rocking an awesome beard. The Ennead are like, "Hey look, Ra's back" and he responds that he's not Ra, but Horus of the Two Horizons (again, this is a callback to how the cult of Horus supplanted the cult of the Ennead in actual history - and that a further development of the Horus myth was to conflate his identity with Ra - even mythology had retcons!). Fanatic helps out too, but this is primarily Ra's fight. The Ennead go after him as an existing "internal" threat and so don't rain down destruction on their cities as they would have in response to an external one. He's smarter this time, going after them individually and picking them off instead of a head-on rush against all of them at once. He prevails and the Ennead are out of the picture until pretty much the end of the Multiverse era - they don't do the thing where they pop up for small stories periodically that a lot of other villains do.
- This progression takes him from bombastic monster fighter to more of a "normal" hero - although still a loner who shows up in crossover events (like Vengeance, which is the next major thing that involves Ra who shows up right away to help, and promptly gets beaten up by Baron Blade due to the latter's newly-acquired powers).
- This is more or less his status quo until OblivAeon. Dr. Blake Washington Jr. is still around, as are some of his supporting cast like Marty, but more often it's just Ra doing Ra stuff, and that mostly in crossover stories involving the likes of Fanatic or the Prime Wardens in general.
- Once OblivAeon himself shows up on Earth, Ra is there - he's amassed a force consisting of Anubis and the Ennead and they form the first and largest single strike against OblivAeon, cracking his shield. Prior to that, nothing the heroes had done had affected him at all. Unfortunately, the counter-strike against them instantly kills everybody but Ra, who gets out a few more good lines (including words to Fanatic) before dying, as see in the End of Days ARG entry.
Mechanics of these gods in Sentinel Comics
- In ancient Egypt, thousands of years ago, there were powerful entities who referred to themselves as gods (identified with these specific gods), although they weren't actually "gods" in the sense that all of these stories about "being the sky" or similar were true, although they certainly encouraged such stories in the populous. Each of them had items tied to their own iconography that eventually became Relics (the Staff of Ra, Atum's Scarab, etc.). These entities had once been human, and were long-lived, but were not truly immortal (most died in combat, but some could still die of old age), and so eventually they're all dead (except one). However, all of their power and knowledge/memories, upon their deaths, would wind up in their Relics (not their minds though, again: Ra and Blake Washington Jr. aren't different people - just that having a ton of extra memories dumped into your head might have an effect on your personality somewhat).
- The Relics don't automatically impart the power on whoever touches them, though. They have to have some kind of resonance with the person and will kind of "call out" to them ahead of time. This is why notable archaeologist Dr. Blake Washington Jr. picked up this ancient artifact almost immediately instead of following best practices - he was almost compelled to do so.
- This all fits except for Anubis, who's the original Anubis - part of his powerset as the "gatekeeper of the underworld" was to be immortal and so the original never died. His role was also to be the guard of the underworld and to keep stuff in there from getting out (otherwise we'd have zombies "every damn where") and he wasn't interested in ruling the world, which is probably for the best. Ra manages to convince even him to come help against OblivAeon, and so dies for the first time (leaving the Rod of Anubis around with the rest of the Relics, although most have been scattered and are unaccounted for).
Behind the scenes: during the initial brainstorming session for the game, they decided that they wanted to include a figure from mythology, but which pantheon (there are good reasons for not doing the Norse one)? They eventually landed on Egyptian myths, because they just liked it, but also because so much of it is actually not really well-known enough to really bother people with getting details "wrong". Plus, the historical sequence of prominent cults mentioned previously lent itself to a neat set of stories they could model the comics' history on.
- What is the War of Heliopolis arc? It's the story when Ra makes his return as Horus of Two Horizons, taking down the Ennead.
- Who was the first superpowered human on Earth; we know that Haka has been around a long time, as have the various Virtuosos of the Void, and there are mythological entities like Ra around whose origins are a long time ago, so who was first? Why? The first was a Virtuoso of the Void, but one whose name (and instrument) has been lost to time (more in a few weeks!). Haka was much later by comparison - only a few hundred years old, he was born more recently than La Capitan was. A Virtuoso of the Void has to be around to counter Akash'Bhuta, and so has been around for a long time. Ra and the other mythology-based guys only date back to when those cultures/legends got started.
- How many wielders of the Staff of Ra have there been/how much control do they have over the Ra personality? First, the "personality" is more of just the result of the wielder's personality now having more knowledge/memories and so is still the same person (as has been mentioned). There have been "several" people to wield it over the centuries during the Egyptian culture, thousands of years ago, but then none at all after that until Blake found it again (then another in the Future section).
- Can he repair/restore the Staff after it was destroyed by Baron Blade (see Blade's Vengeance card "Vengeful Assault")? The Staff has a physical form, but the power isn't just contained by that physical manifestation - even if the staff was burned and the headpiece melted down, it would re-manifest somewhere. This is also part of the implication of the mechanic in the game that Ra can throw the Staff and then re-summon it. There are things that could theoretically damage this power intentionally, but it's never happened.
- Guise can use other characters Equipment cards ("Lemme See That"), has he ever used Ra's Staff? What would happen if he did? Does Ra become Blake again if he drops it? Ra can operate without holding the Staff, it's not what gives him his powers on an ongoing basis - it's just a "trigger" to set up the connection. While Blake is Ra (that is, he's the one connected to the power even if he's not actively being Ra at that moment), nobody else can be Ra. The Staff is a focus for him and he likes having/using it, but it's not a necessary condition and it wouldn't impart that power to others, even Guise (especially Guise - the Ra-entity would have no interest in Joe King).
- Ra is the Sun God, Citizen Dawn gets her power from the light of the sun - what's their relationship like? Did she ever try to recruit him? Would she consider him an equal/rule with him? Dawn would not rule with him, doesn't consider him an equal, doesn't care that he's the "god of the sun" or whatever. They've only met a few times and it's always been antagonistic as neither of them is the type to be subservient to (or even a peer of) anyone else. Possible world in the multiverse where Citizen Dawn approaches him on bended knee to offer him a crown as the ruler of the Citizens of the Sun that he would accept, but there's no way that any Dawn we've seen would do that. They both draw on the sun's power, but that doesn't mean that they'd "get along" because of it - neither really even "gets along" even with people they like.
- Does Ra ever leave Earth? How would his powers work in space? Has he been to Magmaria where everything's immune to fire damage? How would he do in a fight there? Ra has never left Earth, nor has he been to Magmaria. He draws power from the Sun, but it's interesting to think about if he could do so with other Suns (or, say, on Dok'Thorath where there's more than one). To fight Magmarians, maybe he'd try to use fire to destabilize some rocks that would then fall on them, or maybe somehow draw the heat from them (probably the most effective method) - he's smarter than the average Magmarian, but they're also mostly not very antagonistic.
- Do the other heroes see him as a god? Why not work with the Prime Wardens? He calls himself one, but it's not like the other heroes worship him - although the positions held on what he is are kind of all across the board. Many think he's just an arrogant jerk. Nightmist has more insight to what's actually going on with him regarding ancient magic. Chrono-Ranger is probably like "Sure." with a shrug.
- Can Ra fly/levitate or just move around on foot? He can, as a manifestation of "power", kind of levitate, but he can't move around with that.
- Does Blake Washington Jr. prefer his fish grilled, steamed, or RAw? He prefers it charred.
- What does the world think happened to Dr. Washington? If the question is about "while he's Ra", then the answer is "nowhere" as he's around just as much as he ever was (which includes going off on expeditions/out of sight for long periods). If the question is "after OblivAeon kills Ra" then it's just assumed that he was one of the millions of casualties due to OblivAeon in general.
- Does Ra ever get hate-mail from firefighters? If he had an address that he could be reached at, he probably would have.
- How many iterations of Ra have there been in the "main" Timeline? Just the two "modern" ones.
- A bio for him mentions that he "trad[ed] his spirit for another chance as a defender of the physical realm", what implications does this have for Ra (or the Ennead) going forward? This was skipped over in the overview:
- After his initial defeat by the Ennead and his wanderings in the desert, he eventually heads to the Tomb of Anubis. There he calls upon Anubis to make a deal for additional strength. Anubis explains the whole "this is the payment exacted for helping Marty" thing and tells him to take a hike. Ra tries to leave, but Ammit calls him over (pretty funny voice for Ammit at around 57:45) and takes him to her realm and weighs his heart against a feather (this is more Egypt myth stuff) - she only gets to eat his heart if the heart is heavier than the feather of Truth and so far he's coming up on the good side of that arrangement. She wants to make a deal to give him power in exchange for her getting to eat his heart anyway, once his time has come (this scene is the Horus of Two Horizons incap art in the variant art pack).
- The heart represents some aspects of the "soul" in Egyptian myth - Ammit gets to consume his Ka and Bâ (roughly the "spark" that differentiates the living from the dead and the essence of his personality, respectively - there are three more parts to this "soul" business in Egyptian myth too). In exchange, he must take on two burdens that will allow her to get these two parts of his soul in exchange for the power she'll give him. He thinks he can outsmart her, and so hears her out.
- First, he must blight a field that many people rely on for food and then he has to turn a desert oasis that people depend on into a lake of fire. He takes some time to think about this, and all of the implications of these actions (i.e. a lot of people will probably die because of this). Being in this spiritual place, he can actually interact with these parts of his soul - he winds up using them to act in the world. His Ka is sent to cause the field to be extra fertile and to bloom overnight, speeding up the harvest, and his Bâ in the form of a hawk to the oasis, where he kills an ox and causes its rapid decay to poison the oasis, but people see this an know that they need to go elsewhere.
- The next day Ra agrees to Ammit's terms. He goes to this freshly-harvested field and blights it (but given that the harvest is already in, so people won't starve because of it) and to the oasis and does the whole lake of fire thing, but the people are already all gone. He returns to Ammit, thinking he's successfully tricked his way out of this, but finds that now his heart outweighs the feather anyway - while he did what Ammit asked of him, he defrauded her to do so and that trickery is bad. He gets the power anyway, though. This is a major reason that he's "gone gone" after OblivAeon - Ammit ate his soul when he died.
- On the Ra: Horus of Two Horizons promo card, he looks a lot like Citizen Anvil, is this a coincidence? Anvil has brown hair, Ra has black hair. They're not the same person or related. It's just a coincidence.
- How many deities from Egyptian mythology are walking around around? We see 100% of the Egyptian deities in the setting. The mummies in the Tomb of Anubis are magically-reanimated corpses related to the fact that they're close to the entrance to the underworld and are being used to guard those gates. That being said, other deities existed, but their Relics are unrecoverable (more next week).
- How are Ra and Blake Washington separated? Have all bearers of the Staff gone through all three "stages" that Blake did? Does the Staff impart an allergy to shirts? The connection/differences between the Ra/Blake personalities has already been discussed. Every Ra has gone through/will go through the Dawn-Zenith-Sunset sequence. As for shirts, they catch on fire easily and get between him and the sun, so Ra just tends to do without.
- How did Ra and Fanatic wind up friends considering the differences in theology surrounding them? "Friends" is generous - they're friends but not friendly as they get under each others' skins even if they care about one another. They were both "freak of the week" kinds of characters and wound up in a few stories together in their own books, plus interactions in crossover events. The main crossover for them specifically was the Baptism by Fire limited series. They fight well together even though their very natures contradict one another, but that doesn't get in the way of making out. They are "frenemies with benefits" - not a "couple" as you'd normally think about things.
- How much of Ra's personality is Ra vs. Blake? Does he seem himself as two entities? Blake is a bit brash already, decisive and reactionary, but his temper is under the surface (as a human adult who's managed to navigate academia), but Ra has no "under the surface" setting and his temper is right out there on display.
- How does Egypt react to his (and the Ennead's) appearance? Well, Ra's book was never about the political/legal situations, and so it doesn't show up much. Egypt's "official" position is that these aren't really deities and it's not like Ra tries to rule or anything, but Egypt kind of does adopt Ra as a kind of "mascot" for the publicity and his presence does spark an increase in interest in Egyptology. There are stories that involve people starting to worship him, which he doesn't seek out, although he seems pretty cool with it (seeing it as right and proper that people do so, but does have to then deal with the responsibility of having this kind of following.
- How/why does Ra convince the Ennead and Anubis to work with him? He goes to Anubis first and lays out the whole "end of all reality" problem to get him on board pretty quickly. He and Anubis go around to track them down, but we'll get into the rest of that story in next week's episode given that it's more about the Ennead and their varied reactions.
- What's up with Ra in the Tactics timeline? That's a good segue...
- Tactics - there's a new Ra (and fairly recent on the scene when the game starts up). Noticeably younger, less arrogant, more enthusiastic - somewhat idolizing view of other heroes (especially Legacy). This is Thiago Diaz - the Potential Sidekick in Spite's deck. During the cardgame timeline, during OblivAeon, he's in Megalopolis visiting Freedom Tower ("you know, where Legacy lives") which has a museum level for visitors. Certain areas are still off-limits, and this is where the Staff of Ra was put after his death. Thiago is able to get through to that area despite any kind of security systems that should have stopped him, and he's compelled to pick up the Staff - making him the new avatar of Ra. The physical form of Blake Washington Jr. didn't particularly look like Ra (Ra's taller/buffer with darker skin), but there's a bit more of a physical change to make Thiago look the part as he's still pretty young at this point. Thiago!Ra is "more of a hothead" but less "hot tempered" than the previous iteration. Brash, not angry.
- RPG - Ra is dead. That being said, Spoilers for RPG story stuff follow: If they do anything with Ra in the RPG timeline, it won't be until way down the road. This is about a couple of other characters: Anubis and Ammit. For the first time, the Anubis entity has died, transferring his power and knowledge into his Relic, the Rod of Anubis. Feel free to ask questions about the old Anubis for the Nemesis Interlude. In the RPG timeline somebody is drawn to the Rod to become an avatar - Martin Adams, Dr. Blake Washington Jr.'s protege. While Ra's mantle comes with the built-in role of leadership, fire, passion, control, and whatnot, Anubis' comes with guardianship, knowledge of the balance of life and death, and magic as a concept as well as his role as the guardian of the gates to the underworld - keeping people out and the monsters and weird stuff there from coming out. The starter kit involves him, and his becoming a member of the new iteration of the Prime Wardens, but while he's doing that he's not doing the job of guarding the underworld. Instead, Ammit is handling that role, although not in the same way that Anubis did. She's powered up after eating the soul of a god, but she's more willing to let stuff back out of the underworld when it suits her. She's the 'source of a lot of antagonists' in the RPG timeline.