Baxter Building Ep. 38: “Existentialators at 110%!!”

February 19, 2018

Previously on Baxter Building: It’s an all-new beginning once more, as the Steve Englehart era is behind us, and the Fantastic Four — really, five, because Ben Grimm is still part of the team despite being de-powered — is ready for some old-school adventures freed of the meta-textual war between writer and editorial that has marked the last year or so of the series. Can incoming creator Walt Simonson right a ship that’s been enjoyable, if somewhat listing, for quite some time…?

0:00:00-0:06:29: In a surprise move, we open our first episode of the Simonson era by examining Jeff’s relationship with Simonson’s work, and the fact that — gasp — he’s not really a fan! Well, it’s more complicated than that; he loves the artwork, but doesn’t love the writing. Get your disbelief out the way now, because he might end up converting you by episode’s end.

Instead of going issue-by-issue, we somehow fall into an en-masse discussion of Fantastic Four #334-336, which Jeff keeps calling the “Dark Congress” issues. (We’re unusually bad with issue titles this episode, so I’ll put them here: #334 is “Shadows of Alarm,” #335 is “Death by Debate,” and #336 is, indeed, “Dark Congress!”) I think the issues, drawn by Walt Simonson with art by Rich Buckler and Ron Lim, are “enjoyable in a way that the book hasn’t been in years,” and are gentle — if not particularly funny — comedy, but Jeff doesn’t agree in the slightest, because he sees a more sinister motive behind making fun of silly villains. We talk Mark Gruenwald, Steve Gerber, John Byrne, and then slip very much into talking about the next few issues early, in trying to talk about why these issues disappointed Jeff so much. The short version? Simonson’s writing really needs Simonson’s artwork in order to fully function.

“Once you get to the double page spread on pages 2 and 3, the scope of the book is bigger,” I enthuse as we get to the All-Simonson Fantastic Four #337, although we go back and forth about whether the writing lives up to the artwork here. (Spoiler: It doesn’t, but we’ll get to the reasons why soon enough.) Jeff can’t help but see the specter of John Byrne in these pages, although I think it’s more a shared devotion to the same source Lee/Kirby material. That said, one of Jeff’s reasons for the Byrne comparison is worth its weight in rhetorical gold all by itself.

Discussion on FF #338 opens with the idea of Simonson’s art taking the book back to its sci-fi roots, before Jeff brings up a point of continuity that I hadn’t even considered (or remembered, for that matter), and we talk about the way in which the Fantastic Four comic has somehow stopped being about the Fantastic Four, somehow. What is the central idea behind the Fantastic Four, and how much does the team called the Fantastic Four have to be part of it…? All this, and Jeff’s dislike for Death’s Head, an unnecessary Kieron Gillen slam — those two things aren’t unrelated — and our shared enjoyment for Simonson’s language, if not necessarily his plotting.

1:08:52-1:26:42: Fantastic Four #339 continues to dazzle with the visuals, with a three-page opening sequence that Jeff and I can’t help but pull apart. I said I’d share all three pages, so…

…Really. How amazing is that? (Especially knowing that the final page is a page turn from the all-black panel page.) Meanwhile, I arguably give Simonson far too much credit for giving the readers credit, before complaining that the plot for this issue comes out of nowhere and seems like a waste of time. Jeff describes it as “weirdly half-assed,” and honestly, he’s not wrong. We puzzle through the plan being enacted in this issue as we explain the plot, and it’s not as if we come to any kind of conclusion.

FF #340 opens with me riffing on where Simonson’s head is at as a writer, and what that means for the storyline going on right now. Jeff isn’t happy with this issue’s plot, and tries to argue that this is the biggest waste of time in the entire storyline because of yet another side quest that adds little to the overall story. I’m not convinced, because (a) monsters, (b) Reed’s suicide run, which leads is prompted by some clearly false jeopardy (Not one reader of the comic at this point seriously believes Sue is going to die), but does result in some amazing art, which once again gets dissected. Is this the most we’ve ever talked about the art in a Baxter Building? Possibly, or at least since the Kirby days. Perhaps that’s a clue as to where the strength of these stories lies…

Does the opening narration of Fantastic Four #341 suggest that even those responsible think that the last issue was filler? Maybe, but this issue really tries to make up for it by packing in a whole bunch of plot in an attempt to wrap everything up and destroy all of reality in the process. Well, if you’re going to go out on a story like this, I guess you’re going out with a bang — and we try to live up to what’s going on with some singing, some art appreciation, and wondering why the surprise reveal that sets up the conclusion works the way it does. (Even though Jeff calls it a cheat; I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but Simonson is certainly playing with reader expectation in a way that both works and disappoints.)

We speed towards the end of the episode with a little piece of continuity minutiae — the villain of this entire arc wasn’t actually who she appeared to be, thanks to an after-the-fact retcon — and then a reminder that you can find us all over the internet, especially at our Twitter, Tumblr and Patreon accounts. Next time around: I hopefully won’t be sick so we won’t have to wait a week to record the next episode, and we’ll be going through Fantastic Four #342-349. As always, thank you for listening and reading along.


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13 comments on “Baxter Building Ep. 38: “Existentialators at 110%!!”

  1. David Morris Feb 19, 2018

    You have my vote for the Wait, What? singalong podcast. Anything really would be charming, Muppet songs, pop hits from your respective youths, but if you felt like pushing the boat out an operatic re-enactment of some of your greatest disagreements might make me smile. I like these issues, but agree it’s mostly the exceptional visual flair that that elevates them. It’s frustrating as the involvement of a competent editor could have improved things substantially. I did enjoy hearing you both talk so much about the art. One of the things I get from listening to you is the way you think of story, I lean more to art. What fun to hear you so enthusiastic about the visuals.
    Randomly, the Kang wordplay, brought ‘Kangs of New York’to mind. I don’t know if that’s been a title, or will be one.

    • Voord 99 Feb 21, 2018

      I thought the dramatic reading of Geoff Johns’ Justice League a few years was absolutely hilarious. Could we have similar spoken-word vignettes interspersed between the songs?

  2. Mike Murdock Feb 19, 2018

    I met Walt and Louise Simonson at Baltimore Comic Con last year and I have to say they were some of the nicest people you could possibly meet. Seriously, they were just great. Although there was a wonderfully awkward moment where Walt was asking if anyone wanted to sign anything and no one came forward because they were all there to talk to his wife.

    Side note (speaking of Simonson), there’s a great interview Miles Stokes did for his Thor podcast where Simonson said that he did all his sound effects himself. Given that they’re just as creative here, I suspect he did them and not the letterer.

    • Jeff Lester Feb 19, 2018

      I’m so glad you said this, MM. I was looking at how wonderfully uniform the sound effects were and started to wonder if they were indeed Simonson’s work. I shoulda researched that.

  3. Oh, man. I thought this was going to be the last hurrah of FF and instead… I am fascinated by the extent to which 2018 will be the year of Jeff Lester soliloquies.

    (seriously, if this is how Simonson is being greeted, I really have no hope for how DeFalco/Ryan will be received)

    So far as making fun of super-villains go… y’know, there is a long Marvel Universe tradition going back to Stan Lee himself where the villains have been treated like jokes. There are definitely some villains who should not be treated that way but I really can’t get behind the Ranks of Ramrod Rehabilitation Recognizers.

    • Secrets behind the podcast: Jeff and I have both had off-air conversations about how we’re going to survive the DeFalco/Ryan issues, because as someone who’s read many of them, they’re arguably the worst this series gets, and there’s more than 50 of them.

  4. Rick Vance Feb 19, 2018

    I always took the first arc that Simonson draws as deliberately throwing everything at the way in way that is supposed to be farcical and empty. I feel like it makes this pretty obvious and a large part of it is that the art is so good that it can carry you through (a lot of how I feel about a lot of comics written by Lee but drawn by more intetesting people)

    Also the way this run goes with the riffs on “World’s Greatest” and even the plot follows this throughout.

    • Voord 99 Feb 21, 2018

      Right. I find myself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms that our hosts made of these issues (and I have some that they didn’t make*).

      But, my God, do I want to disagree! This felt like such a breath of fresh air once Simonson was both writing and drawing. It’s like he was the first person to look at the Kirby FF and say, “You know, I think part of why people liked this was that it makes an unforgettable visual impression.” And I think the cultivated contrast between the goofy/staid FF-go-to-Congress plot and the spectacular science-fiction plot that follows it is a deliberate part of how Simonson makes that impact.

      Remember how a few years ago Grant Morrison was going on about “hypercompressed” comics. That’s what this felt like to me.

      *The whole registering-superpowers thing is, for me, just one of those places superhero comics can only go at great risk. The moment you start asking “Well, how would superpowers be handled in the ‘real’ world?” the entire genre starts to collapse, because there’s no way that fistfights between people in brightly-colored skintight costumes would ever be part of the picture. Superhero comics offer very little purchase for having any sort of “realistic” political arguments about this sort of thing.

      And God knows, Simonson doesn’t really have any solution to that. He’s completely hobbled by how toothless and cautious his depiction of Congress is. It feels very of its era — note how Simonson goes out of his way to have one of the characters observe that both conservatives and liberals are on both sides (so that no element of the readership will feel alienated from the narrative).

      • The idea of Simonson’s FF as an outlier for what Morrison would later do in JLA is something I’ve thought about before, but Jeff has made me reconsider how compressed they actually are, so… Well, we’ll see how I feel about the run by the time we’re finished with it, I guess.

  5. Look at Graeme show love* for a Marvel Comic’s run, detractors.

    *About to enter this X-Men fan’s initial foray into the FF, #347-349!

    ah, 1990.

  6. Bob Heer Feb 25, 2018

    I read most of this run for the first time recently, since I originally started the Simonson run with #346, and liked the rest of it quite a bit, but never got around to getting the backissues, expect #337, and the collections came out at a time I wasn’t comfortable buying too much from Marvel. I was kind of underwhelmed, although I found more to like in the comics then any other post-Kirby run I’d tried up to this. I think part of the problem is that the idea of a Walter Simonson run on FF isn’t something that this run lives up to, and reading it now you know going in that it’s going to be a short run. I kind of feel the same way about Simonson’s New Gods stuff, what I’ve read of it doesn’t live up to what I want it to be.

    Anyway, the filler congress three-parter is too long and saps the momentum out of the book from the jump. Plus I wish Simonson wasn’t saddled with Englehart’s changes and had the classic team to work with from the start. The next five issue story has so much potential to be an all-time great FF run, but winds up disjointed. Not sure why Iron Man and Thor had to be there at all, got no love for Death’s Head or the Gladiator.

    Haven’t read the #346+ run in quite a while, looking forward to seeing if I like it as much as when it was new.