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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:





The knock on the door came at 10:15 am on a Tuesday. Just like they said it would. I hesitated before answering. “It’s just a routine checkup,” I kept telling myself. I said it a few more times because I didn’t sound so convinced. Was ten-fifteen too early for a drink? My dry lips stuck together for a second, tasting like the back of a licked stamp.

“Mr. Maxwell?” Came the voice from behind the door. It was an accountant’s voice, prone to neither passion or indolence, but to prim efficiency.

“Yes,” I hoarsed. Clear the throat, lose the stamp taste, no you can’t have a drink yet. “I’ll be right there.” The bolt snapped and I slipped on the doorknob. The room needed painting, I noticed. A little too scuffed, a little too shabby to be believable.

“The Board doesn’t take kindly to lost schedules,” the voice said again. “Yours is the second today, and I’ve many ahead of me.”

The accountant voice came from a wiry busybody slid into a sharply-pressed gray flannel suit. Thin rims perched on his nose which was pressed to a Moleskine notebook. I couldn’t read what was written in it.

“May I come in?” he asked without looking up.

“Oh, yeah, sure.” I stepped aside, only half-tripping on my own foot in the process. “Something to drink?”

“Thank you, no.”

“There’s the couch.”

“I’ll stand, thanks.” He sniffed once in quick disdain. “We both know why I’m here.”

“One More Day?”

“One More Day.” He sniffed again, then un-tensed his shoulders for a moment. “Look, Maxwell. The Board hasn’t had much trouble with you. You’ve been working your quiet little corner of things just fine. You pay your dues on time, mostly. We’d all prefer if you had a higher profile, but you’re fine for your niche. In fact, it might be better if there were more like you.”

“There’s only one of me.”

“Rhetorical.” He glared over his spherical glasses. “Look, I don’t make the rules. I just get sent out when someone dodges them.”

“But it’s been done to death already.”

“That,” he snapped “is the farthest thing from the point. The farthest. The Board guaranteed coverage in every square inch of the Commentaryverse. And if you think that your little crack about the usage of Mephisto in December counts, you’ve got another thing coming.” He only let a touch of anger slip in his last few words. Before, it had been mere impatience, but it was becoming a little more red and smoldering as he continued.

“Look, I know it’s a bad story. I know it’s editorially-mandated plot-hammering. We all know that.”

He scratched something in his notebook, yellow pencil flicking like a canary smear on a Pollock canvas. “Go on. Get it out of your system.” His resentment was smothered this time.

“It’s an impossible situation. They’re trying to reconcile the passage of fictional time with the passing of real time. The system breaks down after a certain point.”

“Not the Board’s concern.” Another scratch or two. The notebook motionless in his hand. “You’ve taken too many passes, Maxwell. You have to step to the plate this time.”

I sighed. “I can’t do it.”

“Can’t or won’t?” The scratching paused, but I could feel the pencil vibrating, awaiting my reply.

“Can’t. It’s a no-win situation for the commentators, too.” I felt a weight pressing down on my shoulders, slow and inexorable. “If we support it, we’re labeled as nostalgia-loving basement-dwellers. If we revile it, we become driven by nerd-rage, and we implicitly endorse the JMS run on the book, which I thought was pretty much wrong no matter what I thought of BABYLON 5.”

He rested the pencil in the crease of the notebook and looked up. His gaze softened to that of mere granite. “I’ll go on the level with you. We don’t care whether you love it or hate it. The Board, that is. But you must love it or hate it. You must say its name while you love it or hate it. You must remind people that it’s a currently-available Marvel comic. You must keep the name afloat.”

I sighed. “So that’s it. Commerce. Not story, not character, not even outrage.” Another sigh but the weight wouldn’t go away, the air wouldn’t quite leave my lungs. “Just commerce.”

“We prefer to call it ‘business.’ Those page hits don’t manufacture themselves.”

“Look, what if I promise to say a lot of bad things about INFINITE CRISIS? Would that fix the tally in my favor?”

“Don’t be an idiot. You’re a diehard Morrisonian.”

“No!” I sputtered. “I can do it. I said that his current BATMAN run wasn’t quite delivering.”

“That’s a far cry from being able to badmouth his work.”

“But I’ve reconsidered his X-MEN run, and while it started great, it wandered toward the end. A bit.” I looked at him sheepishly.

He considered it for a moment.

“Back to the matter at hand,” he said finally. “You know we’re talking about your license here. The Board doesn’t like to pull them, but we can only afford to have team players on board.”

I went back to sweating. So much for that gambit. “What do you want me to say?”

He laughed softly through his nostrils. “The Board doesn’t tell commentators what to say. Just that they say something. Preferably something inflammatory or passionate, no matter which side you take.”

“What if all I can muster up is a kind of flaccid indifference?”

“That’s a start. It suggests a shoddy work on the publisher’s part. Get their name spelled right.”

“No, seriously. I can’t even get mad enough to bother. I mean, the story damns itself, right? Spider-Man makes a deal with the Devil to absolve himself of all responsibility and consequence. That’s the total opposite of what makes the character.

“Spider-Man is Job*. I figured that out when I first read the character. Well, after I figured out who Job was. He gets hit in the chops over and over and yet he gets up and doesn’t chuck his responsibilities in the trashcan and flies off to Tahiti. That’s not what he does. He’s a guy who gets dealt a hand and plays his best. He doesn’t throw the game because he starts with two parts of a flush. This whole storyline is just a big bucket full of not getting the character.”

Chink! The pencil tip snapped off in the notebook and described an arc, landing at my feet.

I dimly realized that the pencil had been scratching along in time with my voice. It started faint, butterfly faint, and then picked up steam until it became frenzied and finally, broken.

“Excuse me,” he said with a start. “It seems you’ve been holding back on us, on everyone.” He reached inside his breast pocket for a second pencil, discarding the broken one in the same gesture.

“Not really. Was I getting out of control there?”

“No, but…”

“Did I lose my temper? Was I gripped by The Rage?”

He scratched something else in the book deftly.

“I haven’t read a Spider-Man book in years, other than that Ty Templeton/Dan Slott book a couple years back. Man, that was fun.

“I’m not their audience. I still have a fondness for the character, but it’s not something I need to see dressed up in modern clothes and modern presentation. It’s not storytelling anymore. Like you said, it’s just business. It’s hard for me to get all worked up about that.”

The penciling stopped. He looked up and closed his notebook with a dull slapping sound as if the pages were too heavy.

“I think we’re done here.”

“Yeah. I suppose we are.”

“Maxwell. I just want you to know whatever the Board says, your writing is okay. But I’m not the one who calls the shots.”

“You know I could go independent.”

He paused, rolling the thought around. “Yeah, you could. That’s a choice. But then so’s rolling with the pack.”

“Yeah. I figure.”

“If you want to change your mind, the Board is watching your RSS feed. It isn’t too late.”

“I’ll give it some thought. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

He didn’t.

*And yes, I thought of this before I saw Steven Grant say the same thing this week.

Matt Maxwell

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