“The Last Gatekeeper: ShondaVision, Wyatt Duvall’s Tombstoned, and the Self-Imposed Shackles of Superherodom”

“What is nostalgia, but grief persevering?”-the synthetic human known as Mirage in ShondaVision

The gatekeeper. Is there any more pathetic creature in genre-dom than this self-appointed arbiter of who is and who isn’t a true fan? 

The middle-age mom who has seen every single Star Cars movie in the theater, but who hasn’t watched all of Yugo Wars, read Timothy Khan’s General Impala Trilogy, or played Shiner Cars of the Republic on the PS4? Truth be told, she doesn’t even know those things exist. 

The life-long fanboy who not only insists that the animated Batmensch: The Mark of the Phantom is better than all the live-actions films in the entire Batmensch series  but who was so enamored with Ran Jackson’s film that he dove headfirst into the writer-director’s oeuvre and knew in his heart of hearts that he watched the single best hour of television when he finished the “Amadeus” episode of Pharma Bros?

The six-year-old kid who bought a Baby Grout doll at the Hall Monitors of the Galaxie rollercoaster gift shop at Dismay World, renamed it Shrek, and reads it bedtime stories every single night?

No, says the gatekeeper. They haven’t devoted their lives to Star Cars, Batmensch, and Hall Monitors of the Galaxie, slavishly shelling out immeasurable amounts of money with the desperate gusto of an evangelical TV watcher hoping to secure their place in prosperity gospel heaven with each and every GoFundMammon donation. 

The problem is this: Star Cars isn’t a replacement for having personality, much less a purpose or, gasp, a religion. Neither is Batmensch or the Hall Monitors of the Galaxie. Each one is a corporate-owned piece of intellectual property, and the studio executives who paid to produce those respective products don’t give a hot, steaming pile of bandar fodda about your feelings.

But more than anything, the gatekeeper is a sad, silly little basement-dwelling beastie because he is blind. For him, the object of his fanboy affection is a shining pocket universe on the hill in which only he and other diehard fans inhabit. He doesn’t see these objects for what they truly are: modern American culture itself. 

It doesn’t matter what the particular property is — whether it’s Star Trucks, Iron Magnet, or My Randy Stallion — it is impossible to escape the influence of these genre behemoths. They are legion. And their numbers grow with each sequel, each spin-off, each reboot, and each roll of branded toilet paper.

Which brings us to the latest bit of genre pop confectionary to become all the candy store rage: ShondaVision. 

On paper ShondaVision doesn’t sound like it would work: Dismay’s mutant hero the Seafoam Witch and her astral projection lover Mirage are trapped in an apparent pocket universe of their own, one in which each episode is an homage to one of Shonda Tymes steamy, soap-opera dramas. And yet this odd combination of superheroics and soap works — whether it’s in the form of political intrigue (Controversy), medical drama (Grave’s Anatomy), or courtroom drama (How to Get Away with Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome). 

But why does it? If you’ve read this far in this essay, you know that answer: the gates to fandom have been torn down. Today, we are all fanboys and geek girls.

So, when the Seafoam Witch delivers a Meredith Grave-esque monologue over the closing montage that ends Episode 2 of ShondaVision — the one in which it is revealed that the witch herself is seemingly controlling all the characters in this prime-time drama in which nearly all-powerful sorceress has been caged — comic fans and soap fans rejoice because both share a common tongue: superheroes. 

But like the Seafoam Witch and her husband Mirage, we didn’t choose to live in this world of spandex-clad Greek gods. It was thrust upon us.

Hungry for a common culture, something that felt distinctly American when so many things that once seemed American have been revealed to be false, we devoured it as quickly as a starving man will eat a half-empty can of dog food, as well as any maggots contained therein.

And few have feasted as greedily as Wyatt Duvall. The result, Tombstoned, is less a novel than it is a violent regurgitation, an attempt to expel the sickness that had turned the author’s insides into a war zone and revealed genre itself to be a war crime. 

Duvall’s passages on the Delivery Boy sum this illness up quite nicely:

This was the third time that Buck Sparkman had been hired to bring in the Delivery Boy. The Boy could fly. He had X-ray vision. He could lift a car with his mind. And he could brood with the best of them, lamenting all the times his loved died at the hands of criminals, both minor and super-villain. Most of the time, it was his parents. Other times, it was a high school sweetheart. Sometimes it was his bionic bearded dragon, Deep Dish. It didn’t matter who died — or if they died at all. The Delivery Boy needed a reason to seek justice. And right now, he was fighting with his landlord: The costume crusader was two months behind in his rent, and the landlord was threatening eviction. Either the Delivery Boy settled up today or he was going to get kicked out of his one-bedroom superhero HQ. 

All of this had happened to the Delivery Boy before. Twelve times as a matter of fact. 

Truth be told, a lack of money was a constant problem for the men tights who patrolled the city’s streets, the skies, and the anime-themed massage parlors. A snerf snerf was $50. A snerf snerf was $75. Snerf snerf $100. Just one more and the Delivery Boy would receive a free snerf sundae served in a plaid schoolgirl skirt and topped with a freshly snerfed snerf. 

Not that the Delivery Boy didn’t try. He applied for a job last week. Just like he did two weeks ago. Whenever the Boy apprehended a criminal, he hung them from a streetlamp and collected their spare change when it hit the pavement. Last week, he scored enough to buy a Flappy Meal. 

The last time the Delivery Boy held down a job for longer than two weeks, it was as a delivery flyer for a fast food joint called Sky Pies. He liked the job well enough. It gave him an opportunity to watch over the citizens of the city, to protect them from the undesirables. The only problem: Boy’s customers never knew if he was there to deliver a pizza or rob them. He always wore a mask.

And with good reason.

The Delivery Boy had the worst case of acne in the history of the world. 

To make matters worse, every single zit on his face was territorial. The whiteheads hated the blackheads. The blackheads hated the whiteheads. And everybody hated the deep, red sores. And neither a tube of Clearasil nor a UN peacekeeping force could stop the ethnic cleansing. Children cried. Women screamed. Grown men fainted. The elderly were left without stories to tell the bedpan orderlies. Even, the pope had excommunicated the Delivery Boy’s face. The costumed crusader was a pariah and a pizza delivery man without a job. He was penniless and powerless. 

Duvall’s disdain for superheroes is also on display in the way that Buck Sparkman dispatches the Delivery Boy:

When Buck Sparkman fired a barrage of coupons at the Delivery Boy, the superhero erected a wall of pepperoni to block the attack. But Buck was not dismayed. He knew what to do. 

The air in the room began to turn cold, and the mozzarella began to harden. The Boy countered. The pipes overhead coiled and turned red, and the mozzarella began to soften. Buck was impressed. Clearly this was no mere driver, and as far as superheroes goes, he was impressed. The cravedigger knew he had to get creative. Buck had to plumb the depths of his mind for a plot device that the Delivery Boy could not counter.

And it came with a knock on the floor above. The knocks came in pairs.

One time.

Two times.

Three times. 

Four.

And each time the knocks grew louder. 

At first the Delivery Boy was startled. And then annoyed. 

But just as suddenly as the knocking started, it stopped. The floorboards above creaked. The Boy’s eyes followed the sound as it moved to the opposite side of the room. Without warning that was a rapping, a furious, clenched fist rapping at the one-bedroom superhero HQ door. The Delivery Boy shouted, “Whaaaaat?” The words and the tone were instinctual. He had no control over his actions.

Buck Sparkman smiled. The cravedigger had the Delivery Boy.

“Clarence, stop making all that racket. What are you doing in there?” the gruff voice behind the door said. “And take out the trash. Now.”

The Boy’s shoulders slumped. “But, Mom, I’m in the middle of something,” he replied with a whine.

“I don’t care,” the voice countered.

“In a minute,” the Delivery Boy shouted back. 

“No. Do it now,” the voice said. It clearly had lost its patience.

“All right, all right,” the superhero replied, defeated. He began to raise his arm to give the voice behind the chamber door the signature one-fingered salute, but his arm was blocked by a thin but durable wall of clear plastic. He could barely bend his arm at the elbow. 

“No,” the  Delivery Boy shouted, leaping up. But it was too late. The comic book bag had already been taped shut by the cravedigger.

Standing on the other side of the plastic, Buck Sparkman was holding a Brick Street Comic Book Price Guide in his left hand. With the other hand he was pointing at the value of  Delivery Boy No. 1, the superhero’s debut. It was $184, the exact amount he owed his landlord. Clarence smiled back. For a brief second, he felt something akin to pride. 

As one who clearly was so steeped in comic books and hokey space operas, Duvall must have had an affinity for genre tales at one time. More importantly, he must have sympathized with those who sought refuge through them. As many of the vignettes in Tombstoned do, the passage on Chuck Wiggins opens with Buck Sparkman engaged in domestic activities:

Buck Sparkman set down on the steps and tossed back a bottle of retch. His backyard had succumbed to the clap. The grass was red and irritated, and the azalea bushes were oozing a viscous cheese. The disease had slowly worked its way down the block, spreading from tree to tree, bush to bush. Buck shook his head and grimaced. The birds and the bees were promiscuous this time of year.

The cravedigger could hear the lawn mowers powering up across the neighborhood. 

There was Amal Muzz right now. He could tell by the excited hum. 

And B.J. LeRoy’s, always noticeable for its fascination with dirty talk and a tendency to say, “Who’s your daddy?”  

As for Sparkman, the cravedigger’s mower was nastier than them all. It attacked the soil like it was its enemy, snerfing the grass and slobbering antibiotics on the lawn. Every other week, Buck made hate to his lawn and it showed. 

The Sparkman residence had yet to receive a Yard of the Month placard and likely never would. At least as long as the restraining order was in place. 

Buck yanked the chain and the lawn mower grunted, gurgled, and growled. The birds flew from the trees and the squirrels grabbed their nuts and snerfed themselves. This would be the day that Buck Sparkman defeated his backyard once and for all.

The tombstone cracked. Buck let go of the throttle. The mower rumbled to a halt, gasping for breath.

The cravedigger read the epitaph. His services were needed. A superhero was trapped inside a burning building. It was the third time this week.

Buck sat down on the back steps and typed a message.

“A fire rages like a hemorrhoid

Attracting cape and cowl

Another superhero cries.

I’ll be there in five.”

None of that meant anything, of course. Sparkman didn’t even plan on taking a shower for another 15 minutes.

He grabbed the handle to the lawn mower and pushed the beast back to the shed. The squirrels juggled their nuts and chuckled, and the birds cursed his name. Buck didn’t mind. He hated yard work. But not as much as he hated superheroes.

Not that this was always the case. In his youth Buck loved all the greats — the Fantastic Fab Four, the Spittoon, Captain Honor Roll, and the Incredible Chud. But then the day came when Peru Nicklas’ malfunctioning tombstones triggered a worldwide breakdown of each and every iPlot. 

The next day, not too much had changed. 

Yeah, his mom lost her pregnancy weight and dad was finally able to find a moment of peace and quiet, but the world was pretty much how it was the day before, mildly amused at itself and looking for somebody, anybody, to laugh. But then Buck ran into Chuck Wiggins at Atomic Comics.

 Chuck was born a loser to a stay-at-home shoeshine man with a five-figure crystal meth habit and a mom who could take more licks than a Frootsie Roll Pop. Try as he might, Mr. Wiggins never got to the center of a jail cell, much to Chuck’s disappointment.

Buck remembered how Chuck had shown up at tee-ball practice with his usual long white shirt — the one that covered up the cigarette burn scars and bruises — and an unexpected change in skin tone: he was purple, just like the Incredible Chud. That is if the Incredible Chud had been transformed by purple magic marker and not, oh say, gamma radiation.

Chuck had immersed himself in a day-long marathon of Incredible Chud cartoons, and he thought it’d be a good idea to make his skin the same color as the brute-like, take-no-snerf beast. It worked, at least from the hairline to the bridge of his nose.

Buck and his buddies never mentioned their teammate’s appearance, not in the dugout, not in school the next day, or in the years later when they bought reefer from him. But they always knew, and, more importantly, Chuck always knew that they knew. 

But something was different about Chuck that day at Atomic Comics, the day after the Great Pomeranian Incident at Peru Nicklas’ house. Buck could sense it from across the store. He wasn’t sure what it was. It was almost as if Chuck Wiggins’ body was throbbing, like an infected finger or a malevolent boil. Sparkman tried not to stare at Chuck or his skin, which, Buck couldn’t help but notice, was slowly turning violet, Violet.

Chuck Wiggins grinned as he thumbed through a copy of the The Incredible Chud: The Saga of the One-Eyed Snerf. His lip was split, he was missing a tooth, and his mouth was full of blood. Sparkman watched him as he took the issue and walked to the counter in stiff lumbering steps. Chuck then paid and walked out the door, his growing body barely fitting through the frame. Buck could’ve sworn he heard the sound of ripping jeans and the theme music to the late-70’s television adaption of The Incredible Chud. As fate would have it, that was the last time Sparkman saw his one-time teammate.

The police report was unclear of exactly what happened next. No one saw it happen. Judging by the purple spray on the alleyway walls, Wiggins had simply exploded. All of him. Everywhere. Like even in the cracks of the bricks and mouths of the bums that slept in the alleyway and the cats that slept with them.

Days later, after everyone realized what Peru Nicklas had inadvertently unleashed on the world, Buck finally understood what had happened Chuck Wiggins: his dream had come true. He had turned into the Incredible Chud. But all of those years of anger and rage were too much to contain. Once he began to grow, he just couldn’t stop. 

Needless to say, Buck Sparkman hadn’t picked up a comic in years. He was worried what effect they might have on him too. It was a smart decision.

These days no one bought comics anymore. The skies were filled with them.

Comparing the tale of the Delivery Boy and the tale of Chuck Wiggins, it’s clear that one can be viewed as a critical commentary on the older fan while the other can be viewed as a sympathetic commentary on the early fan, the impressionable child who escapes into the world of superheroes and other genre heroes. But if that child doesn’t learn to seek leave his shelter, he will mutate into a gatekeeper, a slimy, sullen, solitude Smeagol who has fully retreated from the real world and into a intellectual property fantasy world of variant covers, limited editions, and mind-numbingly dull debates about minor canon infractions. 

Knowing what we know about the tragic conditions of Duvall’s childhood, any discussion of superheroes in Tombstoned must note Duvall’s familiarity with those who love genre; one might even surmise that Duvall had once sought refuge in the world of comics himself. 

Be that as it may, there is no escaping the fact Duvall believed that much like the Seafoam Witch, the genre gatekeeper was trapped in a self-made fantasy world and the only solution was an exorcism, the likes of which the star of ShondaVision would certainly approve. Cue another one of Meredith Grave’s classic montage monologues. There will be screams.

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