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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:




Maybe it’s time to quit. You know the feeling. Instead of eager anticipation, you’re suffused with an airy dread. Eventually the air is bled out of it and you’re left with something not unlike lead, dulled and senseless. Before long you’ve decided that numbness beats the alternative.

But somehow, somehow you can’t marshal the strength required. It should be easy, effortless. And still you hang on, fingernails dug into the cliff face as the tiger breathes hot meat breath into your tearing eyes. Instead of reaching for the strawberry, tantalizingly close, growing impossibly out of the cliff face, you cling. Cling.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s a koan. A contradiction. This one, tells the story of a traveler who’s chased to a cliff face by a ravening tiger. The traveler lowers himself down the edge, but can’t find a place to stand. Below him is an equally ravening bear, teeth bared and spittle flying as it snaps at the empty air, trying to get a bite of the tasty traveler. The traveler hangs on, and he spots a strawberry vine growing out of the cliff face. Instead of clinging to the cold stone that makes his hand bleed, he reaches out and bites the strawberry, the ripeness and the sweetness of it filling him.

I won’t tell you the meaning of it. You’re all smart people and you can put two and two together.

So yes, the dread.

Every time I see, oh, let’s say, “Batman really oughta just kill the Joker” discussions. No offense to Chris Weston, mind you. He’s a favorite artist of mine. I paid a whole big chunk of money for the double-page spread out of THE FILTH #3, I think. He drew it; it’s gorgeous and mind-bending. But the discussion is pretty meaningless overall.

And yet, people will flock to it like piranha fishies to the unfortunate water buffalo that stumbles into the Amazon river. The dead horse will be beaten, pulped, reconstituted and beaten all over again. No possible angle will be left unmolested. There will be a lot of bleating and protesting and molehills will be super-sized into Everests.

But the point will be missed. All those fictional bystanders that the fictional supervillain will kill because the fictional superhero wouldn’t overcome his fictional personal credo of not using the fictional weapons of his fictional adversaries.

Was that un-subtle enough?

None of this happens. It’s all made-up. It. Is. Not. Real. INFINITE CRISIS is no more a fact than the Death of Captain Marvel than is Superman fighting Muhammad Ali. Alan Moore, who I’ve grown more and more to take issue with as I grow older, got that much right. He understood it. They’re all imaginary stories. None of them happened. But that doesn’t prevent people from trying.

Batman isn’t going to kill the Joker unless that’s the whole of the story in the one-shot or whatever. And very few people are ever going to get a shot at even attempting to tell that story. Frank Miller, for one, and even he refused to take the easy way out where the fictional character just chucks everything out the window and relents to bloodlust and the “reasonable” decision. Coincidentally, Darwyn Cooke tackles this very issue over the course of his story EGO, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Okay, sure, the Joker is a homicidal maniac and the only way to keep him from killing again is to kill him. Unless you decide to write a story where he never kills anything or anyone ever again. If you want death to be the only thing that stops the Joker from killing the little kid wearing the “IRVINE, CALIFORNIA” t-shirt, then you got it. But what if I write a story where the Joker is subjected to an experimental treatment which shuts down his urge to kill and instead turns his predilections towards creating video installations? Or if he decides that he loves puppies and bunnies and kittens more than he loves to kill?

Or I write a story where Batman goes berserk and just snuffs the Penguin, Joker, the Riddler and Lex Luthor, just for kicks? I mean, they’re all killers, right? Why the hell not? Why the hell shouldn’t Batman just waste them? He obviously can’t succeed because they’ll just break out of jail over and over every time the writer needs a villain to fight. Poor Batman, it’s not even really his fault. Anyone would break under the strain. After all, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is just another way of saying “insane”, right? Anyone would crack under those circumstances.

So, what’s more crazy, the fictional characters jumping through the same hoops or the readers expecting something different to happen after thirty years? Or sixty?

Maybe, just maybe it’s time to stop reading those kinds of stories then? Maybe they’re not being written for you anymore. Maybe the only way you can get a jolt is if you break the characters. Superheroes can do a lot of things, most of them impossible, but when you break them, they cease to function. It’s possible that you’ve outgrown them and you’d get a bigger hit out of GRAND THEFT AUTO. GameStop is thataway --->.

But you won’t let go, will you?

You won’t embrace the fundamental contradiction at the heart of these books: that these characters are immortal and unchanging, but they’ll become unworkable if you bend them too much. There’s a basic goofiness and childishness to them (naiveté and innocence if you prefer) that makes reality and darkness ridiculous. Sure, it can be used as a flavoring, but too much of anything becomes parody, intended or not.

You crave verisimilitude and relevance. At least you think you do. You say you do. But I myself have to wonder. There was a time that I thought that the swing towards realism was the best thing to happen to comic book heroes ever. I was also in college once. I used to think that tequila was terrible until I found good tequila. Tastes change. I used to think that character change was the end-all, be-all of comics. To some degree, it still is. But it’s something that can only be sustained in very special cases.

And is usually brushed over quickly, as is possible in serial fiction, where reboots are as commonplace as dirt. When you find it, however, treasure it. Then maybe stop reading after that. You just might feel better. Otherwise, embrace the contradictions contained within the set of tropes that we call superhero fiction. It does what it does very well, and can’t do too much else. Embrace the serial franchise (I myself do only in limited doses, much like a bitter dark chocolate), or move on to something a bit more meaty. But please, for the love of all that’s good and pure in this world, don’t whine about the rules that make it work. All that shows is that you’ve passed the sell-by date and should consider a different hobby. World of Warcraft is an excellent consumer of free time; it comes highly recommended.

Matt Maxwell

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