What the Hell Happened with WCA #56?

By | Monday, January 06, 2020 5 comments
One of the comics I regularly bought as a teen was West Coast Avengers. After I'd been buying it a while, John Byrne started writing/drawing the book and I was initially thrilled because it was his work on Fantastic Four that really made me a comics fan. At first, I was pleased with his the story, but things seemed to get more confused as his tenure wore on. What turned out to be his last couple issues, in fact, not only included some character choices that I didn't like, but the stories seemed disjointed and didn't make much sense.

Thanks to Erik Larsen, I recently learned that one of Byrne's final issues originally was to feature Scarlet Witch giving oral sex to Wonder Man, but this was edited out as the last minute! But when he shared the page in question, I immediately recognized it as part of where I got really confused. And, in doing some digging, I think there was a lot more going on here than an adolescent attempt at naughtiness.

So the basic plot of the issue is that Scarlet Witch has become a bad guy, and has captured several of the Avengers. She taunts them for a bit until her father Magneto and brother Quicksilver show up. Then the three of them laugh menacingly until the next issue. Honestly, not a lot happens in this issue. Some background exposition and posturing mostly.

Now, here's the first page in question as it was published. Scarlet Witch has the Avengers helpless and she tortures Wonder Man...
West Coast Avengers #56, page 6
I was a naive teenager and didn't really get what the hell Wanda was supposed to be doing here. Clawing through Simon's chest and then..? I don't know, something painful, I guess. Evidently, some readers read this as her castrating him. Never occurred to me, but I was stupid that way.

Anyway, here's the art the Byrne originally submitted...
Original art for West Coast Avengers #56, page 6
Wanda's scratching is caressing, she disappears below readers' view, and Simon's dialogue is much more subdued.

Brian Cronin spoke with then assistant editor Len Kamniski about how the story got so far as to be lettered and inked like that...
During this period John's working method was to dispense with plots, scripts and etc., and just go straight to drawing the story. Obviously this saved precious time in terms of meeting production deadlines. John would send in the completed book, inked (when he inked himself, of course) [This issue was inked by Paul Ryan - BC] and lettered (his computer printed balloons already pasted down).

Saved a boatload of time, that. We managed to get the completed book into production in the nick of time every month, instead of bowel-shrivelingly late like most other stuff. And you have to give John his due, having the confidence to just charge ahead, plotting, drawing and dialoging from panel to panel.
Cut to the day the book needs to go to the printer. Kamniski reviewed it, saw this page, and went to the book's editor Howard Mackie to make sure he wasn't reading too much into things. He wasn't. Kurt Busiek was in the offices that day and recalled...
Since the book needed to get out the door quickly by that point, Kaminski himself made the art alterations and thinks Chris Eliopoulos (who was on staff at the time) re-did the lettering.

(For the record, Byrne had this to say about the sequence when asked about it in a 2001 interview: "One of my 'mutant powers' seems to be an ability to give readers lots of room for their own imaginations to work. Witness your own reference to the 'sadistic sexual scene' between Wanda and Simon. There is nothing in the scene as written and drawn to indicate her attack is sexual or, indeed, precisely WHAT her attack is. I left that to the minds of the readers. And, largely because of this, there was nothing in that scene (or many of the others fans often refer to) for the Code to reject.")

The story shifts focus to Hank Pym for a bit, but the first panel showing Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man again looks like this...
West Coast Avengers #56, page 17, final panel
Although I haven't been able to find scans of the original art from this page, I'd bet that this panel has been modified too. Wanda's hand looks too small for her head and it doesn't look to me like Byrne's style of illustration -- I suspect this was added to reinforce the clawing/scratching she was doing earlier. I don't know if this was a hand statted from another source or if this was drawn in, but I doubt Byrne had it in there originally. [EDIT: In looing at this panel again more closely, I think her hand was indeed there and drawn by Byrne but it was positioned differently. My guess is that she was wiping the side of her mouth, further suggesting she had just completed fellacio on Simon. Her hand was moved away from her mouth and claws/sharp fingernails added to downplay the sexual connotations and play up a vague sense of violence/torture.] Also USAgent's dialogue, "How could you HURT him like that??" looks like it was changed too. None of the letters in "HURT" stylistically match anything else on the page, and there seems a smidge too much space on either side of it as well, suggesting there was a different, slightly longer word there before. "Violate"? "Defile"? "Debase"?

The last page of the story, when Quicksilver shows up, also includes a shirtless Wonder Man with scratches running across his chest down to his ribs. These also must have been added by Kamniski, as they are not visible on Byrne's original art...

In looking for an explanation, I thought perhaps there were some notes on the letters page, but what I found was more curious... a drawn, one-page apology from Byrne about Tigra's appearance in that year's Avengers Annual. What struck me as curious was that it's billed as an "important announcement we promised you back on page six..." Except that now-infamous page six has no such promise. The reference is actually on page nine. Well, it's the numbered page nine -- the page numbering includes ad pages, but even if you just count story pages, it appears on the seventh story page, not the sixth one. What gives? Did the overall story come up a page too short at some point and a new page had to be added?

(For clarity, any page numbers I reference for the rest of this piece will be the story page numbers, not the published page numbers. I'm looking primarily at the original art to try to get closer to what Byrne intended before the book was published, so I'm using the page numbering Byrne included on the original art.)

Well, no, the final page of the story was numbered as page 17 on Byrne's original art... and it is indeed the 17th page of the story. It's possible that Byrne just goofed and said it was "Page Six" when it wasn't -- perhaps he just miscounted. But that seems unlikely given that each page of original art has the page number written by him at the top, so it wouldn't be hard at all to confirm where the reference is. Which suggests that somewhere between story pages 5 (the fellatio page) and 17 (the last page), the page numbering was changed. I was able to come across the original art for pages 9, 10, 12, 15, and 16; and those are all numbered accurately. So the change seemingly occurs between 5 and 9. Let's pin that for a minute.

The next issue is Byrne's last in the series. Obviously, he would have been working on his parts of #57 already by the time all the last-minute changes to #56 noted above were being thrown together. The issue is wholly written and drawn by him, but it ends rather abruptly. The next two issues are fill-ins before Roy and Dann Thomas take over writing duties and return to the Scarlet Witch story. (Additionally, Paul Ryan is then moved from inker to penciller, with Danny Bulanadi taking over inking duties.)

Why did Byrne leave West Coast Avengers? He's explained it thusly...
The departure was as sudden as it was for a simple reason: a bone-head EiC who did not pay attention. Several months before the Immortus storyline got started, we writers and editors were summoned to the EiC's office for the purpose of concocting the latest . . . shudder. . . Summer Crossover. As I had a storyline coming up in AWC that would be pretty cosmic and wide reaching, I offered it as the basis for the Crossover. The EiC said no, he didn't want to do that for the Crossover. So Howard Mackie (AWC Editor) and I returned to our jobs on the book, and went ahead with the story as planned. One month before we got to the Big Reveal, as it were, the EiC suddenly noticed we were doing the storyline he had "rejected". He ordered us to change it, immediately. Howard protested -- the EiC had not said we could not do the storyline, only that he did not want to use it for the Crossover. Finally the EiC pulled rank -- we Must change our story, as we did not have "permission" to do it. (Permission was needed only if stories caused major changes to characters or continuity. This did neither.) Since there was nothing I could do with all my months setup, other than the story as planned, I quit in protest, with Howard's support.
That summer's crossover ended up being "Acts of Vengeance." But what was the story Byrne was working on that he had to change immediately? He actually explained that as well, in talking about some unused cover art he drew for West Coast Avengers #58-59.
Unpublished cover for West Coast Avengers #58
In thinking about Scarlet Witch's powers, he reasoned that if her power was to change probabilities (as it was generally explained at that time) that meant that she would have to be manipulating time itself in order to make the probability of something happening 1:1. If an object broke, it would break along a natural fault -- but that natural fault would have to be there in the first place. So Scarlet Witch wasn't creating a fault, she was manipulating time so that the fault was always there in the first place! With this thinking in mind, Byrne further reasoned that such manipulations of the time-stream would attract Immortus' attention. And indeed, Byrne has Hank Pym discover Wanda's powers are altering time in #56, and we see Immortus metaphorically lurking in the background. In an FAQ, Byrne explains how he intended the story to play out from there...
Discovering Wanda's power, he was going to kidnap her and use her to further his plans. And the first thing he was going to do was alter probabilities so that when the Avengers battled Kang the first time, Kang won!

My story would reveal this in flashback, however, as we would open in the world long after this had happened. Pretty grim place, where most of the familiar heroes had been killed off or never become super powered in the first place. No FF, since they never took that rocket ride. No Hulk, since Rick Jone [sic] has never driven his car onto the Gamma Bomb test site. (One of the main characters was going to be Peter Parker, who had not become Spider-Man because of Immortus' manipulations.)

As the story progressed, we would learn slowly what had happened -- and also learn that we were not seeing "present day" Marvel, but rather a time a "few months" (Marvel Time) ago. The date would be just prior to when Thor, in order to save a wounded Black Knight, had used his hammer to open a portal in time and space and stuck the Knight into it. We would learn this when the Black Knight basically fell out of the air into the post-Kang's victory world. In that timeline, Thor had not placed him in the "time stasis", so when the changed world "caught up" to that moment, out popped the Black Knight. The multiverses intersected at that point, you see. Well, the Black Knight pretty quickly figures out what's going on, learns there is an underground (of course!) and helps the folk of the twisted version hunt down and stop Immortus, freeing Wanda (herself another link to the multiverse, by virtue of how Immortus has been manipulating her power) and setting everything right.

When all is restored, the Black Knight of course is back in that "hole in time", and Wanda is the only one who remembers how things were.
John Byrne's original 'dark' Scarlet Witch sketch
By the time Byrne proposed this, he had been noodling on the idea for at least a year or more. His first "Dark Scarlet Witch" sketch (seen at left) dates from 1988 -- the year before his first West Coast Avengers issue even hit the stands! (Although since it is addressed to Mackie, presumably this came from after he had been offered the gig and he was actively pitching ideas to Mackie on what he wanted to do with the book.)

This appears to be the story that then-Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco "suddenly noticed" just before the "Big Reveal." Now, since Byrne offered the story up as a line-wide crossover previously, DeFalco would be in a position to see where a story was going before readers. So what would have been only hints or foreshadowing to most people would be easy-to-read signposts for DeFalco.

Let's get back to that page numbering. Byrne's page six has the Human Torch asking Hank Pym about Tigra, and Pym discovering that she's escaped. Page seven has Pym relay Tigra's recent history and ends with Immortus gloating to himself that he helped in her escape. The next page, as the story is published, begins with Immortus gloating for a single panel before we get back to Hank Pym. At the bottom of that page, Pym sees a bright flash of light which is revealed on the page after that to be Quicksilver and Lockjaw teleporting in. Since we have the original art, we know that teleporting page is numbered properly, and it would have been page 6, 7, or 8 that needed reworking. Given that page 6 ends on the dramatic reveal that "Tigra's escaped!" and page 8 flows very directly into page 9, my guess is that it's page seven that is new.

The Tigra recap is largely unnecessary, and Pym's "since the Torch has never met her" explanation is a bit of clunky dialogue that's serving fans' attention to continuity more than the story itself. It also disrupts the rhythm Byrne uses throughout the issue of single-page sidebars to check in on characters not in the primary story. If this page originally began with Immortus' taking credit for Tigra's escape, it may have continued with him revealing portions of his plan. This would follow the one-page sidebar format for Immortus as well as cut the Pym/Torch sidebar to a single page. But a full-page sidebar of Immortus would have been what DeFalco saw as a red flag that Byrne was going ahead with his alternate reality story. Given that Immortus himself is still left in the story, DeFalco did not seem to have any issue with Byrne using Immortus and/or having him act as a Machiavellian villain; it seems to be more an issue with this alternate reality storyline. The remaining Immortus panel on page eight is oblique enough as to mean almost anything (Immortus' dialogue is basically him just saying the Avengers are pawns in his plan) so the intervening page could have been changed without any appreciable impact to the story in this issue.

Hang on, though! Let me pull out another section of what Kaminski said, talking about the day the book was set to go to the printer...
It arrives first thing in the morning from the colorist. Editor Howard Mackie quickly reads through it, declares it good, drops it on my desk to proofread, after which I'm to finesse it through Production and have Mark Gruenwald sign it out. I don't recall if Tom DeFalco was out that day, which technically was the only time the process was allowed to skip him, or if was one of the times you waited for Tom to go to lunch or something, then take to Mark, plead screaming lateness (usually true anyway), and get him to autograph the release forms WITHOUT READING the book.

Everything up till that last bit was Standard Operating Procedure in Editorial. But Mark NEVER skipped the final read-through; even when Tom was IN, Mark'd read it first, then pass it to Tom. Yeah, some of it was his continuity cop fixation, but there were plenty of times he'd catch a typo that got through and do the corrections himself with a pen and whiteout...

ANYWAY, Mark virtually never signed out a book without reading it, and on those occasions ONLY for guys who belonged to the Former Assistant Editors to Mark Gruenwald Club. I believe there were two. Howard was one of them.
Now while he's a little vague on the specifics of why, Kaminski is clear that DeFalco did not check these pages at this time. Nor did Gruenwald. The final art pages were only seen by Mackie and Kaminski. Mackie, as noted in Byrne's quotes above, was fine with the Immortus story and Kaminski, as Mackie's assistant at the time, wouldn't have had the authority to alter a story that radically at the last minute. Which means that DeFalco must have seen the pages (at least the penciled versions) previously if he were to put the kibosh on that story.

But if DeFalco saw the pages previously, that means he saw -- and glossed over -- the scene where Wanda is implied to perform fellatio on Simon. It's certainly not the type of thing an editor is usually looking for, especially in Comic Code Approved books at that time. If you're reading through dozens of books as part of your job, you're probably not going to scrutinize the guy who's been doing solid work on that specific book for the past year.

What DeFalco did catch, however, is the Immortus storyline Byrne had previously suggested as that summer's big crossover story. Seeing that likely drew his -- and the other editors' and creators' -- focus from any other specifics of the issue itself in order to address DeFalco's broader story concerns. I expect the back and forth between Byrne, Mackie, and DeFalco took some time before they came to a conclusion. At which point, Byrne said he'd do whatever rework was needed on #56, then finish his work on #57 and he was done. We don't know exactly when this discussion took place, however.

We know, though, that oral sex scene wasn't actually identified until the day the book was set to go to the printer, which was obviously after the discussion mentioned in the above paragraph. Which means that, by the time Kaminski caught it, Byrne had already quit. Even if they wanted to reprimand him in some way for causing the last minute panic in the office, it would've been a moot point. He had already reworked whatever he needed to for #56, was almost certainly well into drawing #57 (recall Kamiski's note earlier that Byrne skipped plotting and scripting, and went straight to drawing) and already said that would be his last issue.

So any suggestions or rumors that Byrne was fired for including a scene of fellatio/masturbation/castration aren't true. He left the book over editorial conflicts (a frequent reason he has for leaving a series) and the offending scene, which he had drawn before his conflict with DeFalco, was only discovered after he quit. And while the subsequent creative team did wrap up the Scarlet Witch/Immortus storyline, they retconned how Byrne had interpreted her powers, saying they were augmented by Immortus and explicitly reverted Wanda back to how she had been handled before Byrne. The notion of Wanda manipulating time itself was dropped, and the overall scope was downgraded considerably. It provided a resolution to the story, still involving the same players Byrne had started with, but a fairly far cry from what he had intended.
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Matt K said...

Wow wtaf tho

Yeah, this was a hell of a rabbit hole to stumble into!

Pj Perez said...

Great article, Sean! I was also a big fan of this run (and Byrne in general at the time) and didn't understand why he seemed to do all this build up only to leave in the middle of the storyline's peak. And now that whole Wanda/Simon scene finally makes sense after 30 years.

Also, I can't believe it's been 30 years.

Thanks! I was really pleased to finally piece this story together.

I really try to avoid thinking about those intervening three decades, though!

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Quite the historical reconstruction from primary sources. It is funny to see how these sorts of "creative conflicts" are oh so similar to those in other work places. Boss is unclear, subordinate does good job within stated parameters, boss sees completed work and is unhappy, subordinate interprets this a boss changing their mind/going back on word, and conflict ensues.