I have a thing about lost causes. I have a thing about the city as a science fiction construct. I have many things. There are things everywhere. Mind your step.
I don’t know when, exactly, I first gazed upon the Heckler. I was young, young enough that I was still collecting comic book cards—the sad spandex nerd equivalent of hockey cards—in the early 1990s. There he was, framed with purple: an agile, manic guy in a yellow-and-white spandex outfit, every inch of it covered in HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! like that weird two-page interlude of the same in Lorrie Moore’s short story “Real Estate.” The same abrasive effect. I didn’t track the Heckler down, though. I have a thing about tricksters and he was like a kernel of corn stuck between my back teeth, no matter how much I went at it with my tongue or my fingernail.
Later, I came to Keith Giffen and started to collect his work. I like the ragged cartoonishness of his figures. I loved his work on the “Five Years Later” Legion, hampered as he and his co-conspirators—Al Gordon, Tom and Mary Bierbaum—were by editorial manipulation in the wake of Crisis.
The exact details of how I came upon a full set of all six issues of The Heckler are not precisely interesting. Other than, perhaps, the salient detail that it was the first and last time I ever tried to use eBay.
There is something gnawing about a cancelled comic book, an aborted series, a lost cause, for me. The Heckler is one of those. Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums began it in a really uncomfortable time—the muscles were getting larger and nastier, threatening to rip out of too-tight costumes—and the series is a complete oddball. From their Legion work it carries the comedy—which it turns up one thousand times—and the densely-packed nine-panel grid, every inch packed with Heckler’s home, Delta City. On top of that, it is an extended pastiche of old comics by Steve Ditko or Will Eisner or Chester Gould, but shot through with anxiety about the creeping maw of bland homogenized consumerism and the madcap energy of old Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The series gnaws at me because they set up so much in six short issues. It’s packed as full as its nine-panel grid—the extended war between the Heckler and the Delta City underworld, led by effete monster Boss Glitter and his mutated henchmen abominations, like somebody got drunk and tried to explain old Spider-Man comics where he faced off against the “Maggia” (because the Mafia were running the distribution companies that saw to it that those old comics end up in drug stores). John Doe the Generic Man and his sidekick Buckshot, an oddball girl whose freckles ignite. The Cosmic Clown, a mechanoid from outer space who has turned his back on his people’s violent ways, consequently gunshy around Earthling clowns. The Minx, the mother of a teenaged daughter, who engages in vigilante justice against the Delta City underworld’s worst monsters—all of whom have gone on awkward dates with her. The Bushwhack’r—a villain who suffers all manner of indignities while trying to hunt down the Heckler, the entire thing an extended meditation on the Road Runner and Wil E. Coyote. Delta City’s own mayor is a threat, a empty-space-faced politician who drapes on masks—conservative or liberal—as he needs. The Flying Buttress, a massive, living digestive system that comes to end the world, attended by the Four Mopeds of the Apocalypse (Plague Boy, Famine Lass, Kid Pestilence and Skippy).
And then it ends. The world is saved! And then ol’ Heckster falls right out of the sky. That’s it. He’s buried under rubble. Killed by crummy sales, most assuredly because it didn’t look like anything else out there at the time.
Officer McDougal stands at the edge of an empty lot in the early morning. The empty lot was, once upon a time, a paradise of donuts—forty-two varieties! Now it’s going to be, eventually, McDonald’s. He can’t hold back the tears.
Forty-two varieties. Now he has to make due with the sack he gets from Dozens of Donuts. “Why do they call the place Dozens of Donuts if they’re all glazed?”
Maybe The Heckler is prescient about its own demise.
I often return to certain books, short stories, poetry, movies and TV shows when working on projects. Comics, too. Comics especially. Things that have the same energy as the project I’m working on, or things where the colour palette matches what’s in my head. I’ve come back to The Heckler a lot. The thing about the lost causes, the aborted comics, the thing they don’t tell you—the potential energy can seethe. The Heckler’s pages moan with frustration, with thwarted power. There are tight thematics and coiled jokes. It’s hard to read it, some days, because you know it’s not going anywhere. What’s behind Boss Glitter’s handheld mask? Why is Delta City such a magnet for the faceless? Reading it is, at times, a little like being a vampire. You want to drain the potential right out of it, find some place to put that potential. Because The Heckler is absorbed into the DC Machine, an endless engine. You can’t pull things out of it. Even if it makes you grit your teeth.
Stu Mosely grits his teeth a lot. It’s funny how much of a Ditko-type he is, although he never spews Ditko’s Objectivist politics, thankfully. He’s grumpy and frustrated and always looks sour—until he slides on the mask. Like Jack Ryder becoming the Creeper, like Vic Sage pulling on the pseudoderm, the Heckler is somebody completely different than Stu. He doesn’t seethe, he jumps out there and runs across rooftops. He has a good time while he fights crime. And I miss him. Miss him like I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about zombifying his corpse and sending him out the window to trail nincompoops across Delta City again.