It’s that time of year again, back-to-school time, which has inspired yet another post on a school-themed comic story. Looks like it’s kinda becoming an annual blog tradition at this point.
High school looms large in my own personal history, as the most pivotal event of my entire life happened in high school: I fell in love for the first time there. It was junior year and the girl I fell for was amazing; the whole thing felt like something magical and miraculous. It’s what made me believe in God, literally. As a result of this, I would look back on my high school years with a fondness that, at times, bordered on religious fervor. Like I said, the experience was likely the defining event of my very existence.
Almost exactly one year ago, I returned to my old high school to do some work as a sub to supplement my meager income as a freelancer. When I found myself in certain classrooms that held memories of junior year (particularly West Gym, A117, where I first met my miracle girl), all the old butterflies would come back and the joy that certain memories held was almost overwhelming. But then there were other classrooms… classrooms that held other memories. These other rooms brought back memories of just how miserable I was as a freshman and a sophomore—a fact I had either forgotten or (more likely) repressed for more than three decades.
Thirty-eight years ago, sometime around September of 1984, I purchased a comic book with a story titled “Trapped in High School for All Eternity!” That title stuck in my brain for many years afterward, since (as mentioned) high school wound up being such a defining period for me. But much like my recent experience returning to my old high school, when I went back and re-read the story, I was reminded of those darker days again.
An Independent Journey
The comic book of which I speak is Crossfire, a title published by an indy company called Eclipse. Back in the 80s, there were a bunch of independent comic companies publishing a bunch of great comics, though I’ll confess I was a tad slow getting into them. I jumped on Pacific’s Elric with the first issue in ‘83, as I knew and loved the character from Moorcock’s books, but I passed on American Flagg and Jon Sable, despite all the critical acclaim they were getting (which was A LOT, lemme tell ya), mainly because they weren’t superhero-ish enough for me at the time. My first real gateway book for the indies was DNAgents, which featured a team of super-powered teens, so it had natural appeal to a young superhero-comics zombie like myself. I started buying DNAgents in the summer of ‘84, then quickly got into its spinoff title, Crossfire.
The original Crossfire had been a villain in DNAgents that died shortly after being introduced. His costume and tech then fell into the hands of his bail bondsman, a sweetheart of a guy named Jay Endicott, who used the stuff in the pursuit of superhero-ing and was quickly spun off into his own title. My first issue of Crossfire was #5 (Sept. 1984), written by Mark Evanier and illustrated by Dan Spiegle (the same creative team responsible for every iteration of Crossfire/Jay Endicott). This was a perfect jumping-on point for new readers, as it was a one-issue story with a straightforward plot that was readily grasped. The plot went like this:
A mobster named Mainbocher Lyon has been arrested and flipped, agreeing to testify against many of his criminal cohorts. Said cohorts aren’t very pleased by this and put a price on his head. A for-hire killer calling himself the Bunjee Jumper (with a bunjee jumping gimmick, naturally) is determined to collect, while our hero, Crossfire, is equally determined to keep Lyon alive. (Bunjee jumping wouldn’t take off as a fad until the early 1990s, so the introduction of this antagonist in 1984 feels rather prescient in retrospect.)
Then we’re introduced to Billy Slayton, a very unfunny comedian who dreams about getting his big break on The Sammy Flaveman Show (a fictional substitute for The Tonight Show). Slayton gets involved with the Lyon plot when he stumbles upon the location where the cops are keeping Lyon hidden. He then uses this info to wrangle a spot on Flaveman. Note that both Slayton and Lyon had appeared in previous issues of Crossfire (in fact, Lyon had been in every issue since the second), but you could still keep track of the story perfectly fine without having read these issues.
By the time Crossfire #5 reaches its conclusion, Billy Slayton actually felt more like our protagonist, leaving Crossfire seeming more like a supporting character. Being a hardcore superhero nut, I should have found this to be a major flaw in the story, but I didn’t. On the contrary, I found this very refreshing and enjoyed it immensely. You can chalk up a big part of why to the skills of both Evanier and Spiegle, but I think part of it also had to do with me growing and maturing and, just maybe, starting to crave something beyond your standard superhero story.
Then, in what should have been the comic’s lettercol, “Crosstalk,” Evanier gives us a two-page text piece on the horrors of writing for television variety shows. Again, I was spellbound. If you’re familiar with Crossfire, you already know that Evanier ran such text pieces more frequently than he did letters. You may also know that many readers (and perhaps, like myself, you were one of them) felt like Crossfire was always a worthwhile purchase based on these essays alone.
As I said, issue #5 was a great starting point. The Crossfire storyline that is the subject of today’s post began immediately afterward—a two-part tale told across the sixth and seventh issues.
When Crossfire #6 (Nov. 1984) begins, Jay is watching TV with a woman (a date, presumably) when a talk show hosted by Benjamin Wright, whose program is described as a lot like a pro wrestling show, only “without the class,” comes on. Changing the channel to the news, we get a report on how the Machete Killer, a serial killer who targets B-movie actresses, has just claimed his tenth victim.
Sidebar: Part of the Machete Killer’s m.o. (which will become a major plot point later) is that he appears to take pictures of his victims, as he leaves used flashbars at the scene of every murder. Remember this is 1984 now, so no digital photography—if you’d care to learn more about flashbars, flashcubes, and the like, click here.
Then we cut to a police station, where several compulsive confessors are claiming to be the killer. One of these sad people is Dave, an old high school classmate of Jay’s. When Dave threatens the cops with a blade, he’s arrested and he has to call on Jay (a bail bondsman, remember?) to bail him out.
As Jay is driving Dave home, they talk and we get treated to some flashbacks that offer more details on their lives back in high school. This is when we meet Howie, another high school classmate who really made Dave’s life hell back then. When Dave asks aloud, “Why me? Why does everyone always pick on me?” Jay thinks to himself, “Because you’re there, Dave… unfortunately.”
During this same flashback sequence, we see the teenaged Jay on a beach date with a rather lovely girl, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much. “Howie’s always picking on Dave,” he complains to her. “It’s not your problem, Jay,” she responds. “Stop worrying about everyone else.”
What a great character moment this is. It sums up Jay Endicott perfectly: he’s a selfless man with a heart of gold who cares and worries about everyone else—almost always to his own detriment. Evanier would give Jay such character moments with great regularity, if not every issue.
Later on, Jay, as Crossfire, almost catches the Machete Killer after he’s killed victim #11, but the police get in the way. The next day, in a movie poster store, Jay discovers that this latest victim had been the star of Stewardess Beach Party, a B-film that had been playing on Comet Cable the night before. Further digging reveals that all of the Machete Killer’s victims had movies playing on Comet the night they were killed—and that night’s movie is Chainsaw Nurses, starring Wendy Winthrop.
So Jay is off to the Actor’s Guild office to find out what agency represents Winthrop so he might get her address. To his surprise, he runs into his old classmate Howie, who happens to work there. During casual conversation, Jay mentions Dave’s recent false confession to being the Machete Killer. Though the agency turns out to be little help, Jay eventually does track down Winthrop’s address, while Howie reconnects with Dave.
That night, while Jay prepares to stake out Winthrop’s apartment, we see Howie watching Chainsaw Nurses at home, alone. Howie wonders to himself why he can never seem to connect with a beautiful girl like Winthrop. Then he thinks, “She’s like Joyce Rosen,” a girl he knew from high school. “Joyce… you never understood… never.” We then see Howie put on the Machete Killer costume, while a large machete lay ominously in the trunk of his car.
While Crossfire again fails to capture the killer, he at least prevents him from killing Winthrop. Unfortunately, it would appear the Machete Killer later picked another victim to take her place that same night: Ellen Wright, another B-movie actress and the daughter of Benjamin Wright.
The following morning, Howie pays a surprise visit to Dave and convinces him that he is indeed the Machete Killer, as he manages to “find” key pieces of evidence (photos) in Dave’s apartment. When Dave returns to the police station to confess yet again, this evidence (which he brings with him) is enough to get him arrested.
This presents quite the quandary for Jay Endicott. Not only does he know Dave could never harm a fly, as Crossfire he’s fought the actual killer and thus absolutely knows Dave simply isn’t big enough to be the guy. But he can’t tell the authorities this without revealing his secret identity.
Crossfire #7 (Dec. 1984) is the issue that carries the actual title, “Trapped in High School for All Eternity!” It opens on another high school flashback, this time from Howie’s point of view. This is followed by some TV footage of Benjamin Wright railing against “liberal” judges and how his daughter’s murderer, the Machete Killer—who everybody believes is the hapless Dave at this point (and even Dave himself believes it)—has to die for his crimes. Meanwhile, Jay is desperate to catch the real killer, as this seems the best (and perhaps only) path to save Dave. And that’s going to be a major challenge, as Comet Cable has gone into reruns, only showing movies starring the women that have already been killed.
While another murder does take place during this time, it doesn’t fit the m.o.—the victim is not a B-movie actress, but a non-famous “rich lady in Belair.” After exhausting all other leads, however, Jay decides he has nothing to lose by looking into this latest killing, and discovers the victim and her husband are both former high school classmates, Joyce Rosen and Ricky Tompkins. Jay later wonders if there could be some connection, but “no… there couldn’t be.”
So it’s back to the movie poster place. When it starts getting late, the proprietor tells Jay he wants to get home so he can watch Chainsaw Nurses on Comet. Jay observes that this is a bit “sick,” as the star was recently murdered by the Machete Killer. The proprietor then reminds Jay that the star, Wendy Winthrop, was the one actress who managed to escape the Machete Killer (thanks to Crossfire).
Jay is off like a rocket to Winthrop’s apartment. Sure enough, the Machete Killer has beaten him there and is stalking Winthrop once again… and calling her “Joyce.” Crossfire does arrive in time to thwart him (again), even though he manages to escape (again). Still, this proves that Dave isn’t the Machete Killer, right? Nope—cops chalk up the incident to a wannabe copycat killer, as the evidence they have on Dave (thanks to Howie, the real killer) is still too overwhelming to be ignored. To make matters worse, Dave then gets shot by Benjamin Wright while being transported to another prison facility. Ironically enough, Wright gets off with a slap on the wrist for this, thanks to one of those liberal judges he’s always complaining about.
Jay is at his wit’s end when he suddenly recalls the killer invoking the name “Joyce” during that second attempt to kill Winthrop. He runs back to Dave and catches him just as they’re about to bring him in for surgery. It’s at this point, finally, that Dave reveals his recent encounter with Howie, “the first one to figure out I killed all those girls.”
This sends Jay racing to Howie’s apartment. While Howie isn’t there, several spare machetes are, along with the Comet Cable Guide, with that night’s program circled: The Evil Eye, starring Roxanne Nelson. This represents the first lucky break Jay has truly had in the case, as he knows Roxanne Nelson—and regular readers knew her too, from “The Starlet” and “The Starlet II” in Crossfire #’s 3-4 (Jul.-Aug. 1984), respectively. Just as it was with Slayton and Lyon in issue #5, you don’t need to know anything about Nelson to follow the story here, it’s just a cool Easter Egg for regular readers. (Sidebar: That two-part “Starlet” storyline ends with one of the most apropos quotes I’ve ever come across in a comic book. I’ll have to cover it at some point in the future here.)
When Howie, as the Machete Killer, turns up at Nelson’s apartment, Crossfire is no longer playing catch-up. This time he’s got everything set up to finally capture the killer, with Nelson tucked safely away as the DNAgents’ Rainbow takes her place. Evanier gives us a couple of pages of dialogue wherein he goes into greater depth on Howie’s psychosis before the heroes lower the boom on him: “Roxy Nelson… I’ve known you for months… since The Evil Eye came out. I like the way you gave yourself to the man on the boat… Do it for me now… just like on the boat.”
When Rainbow (disguised as Nelson) explains to him that the scene wasn’t real and that she’s just an actress, he gets angry, and we’re given another high school flashback where Howie is violently rejected by a classmate named Barbara Chaney.
“You did it for the guy on the boat! What’s wrong with me?”
“Please! You don’t understand! That’s not how women really are!”
“I’ll tell you how women really are! They tease you… they give themselves to other guys… then they hurt you! They won’t let you touch them! You did that, Barbara! …You won’t hurt me again, Barbara Chaney!”
Oof. Howie is like the Platonic ideal of the incel, several decades before the word “incel” was even invented.
After Howie is captured, the final page offers us Benjamin Wright showing no regret over having shot Dave Krugger, with Wright instead placing blame on the police for having charged the wrong man. Then Howie is brought in by the cops just as Dave is being released, and Howie rants at him that he’s an “ugly, repulsive failure in life” and “not fit to live!” When Dave expresses exasperation over why Howie has always hated him so much, Jay reveals that it’s because of what Dave “reminds” Howie of.
“But I was never a threat to him,” Dave says. “I’m nobody. I never had a good job or a girl or even a good friend… What do I remind him of that’s so awful?”
“Maybe it’s better that you don’t know,” Jay tells him.
Never Goin’ Back to My Old School
There are plot points and threads I didn’t mention, like Jay discovering he has artificial blood as a result of a transfusion he previously received from Rainbow. Another involves a run-in Crossfire has with the “Sentry Squad” (a Guardian Angels type of group), wherein he gets unmasked and a member of the group may have recognized him as Endicott. Benjamin Wright will also return in the next couple of issues, but I tried to eschew these plot threads more relevant to other stories and stick to developments pertinent to this two-part storyline only.
And yes, it is one heck of a two-part story. At the beginning of the seventh issue, Evanier offers the observation, “High school is like a used car: you can never completely get rid of it,” and I’m sure most of us can relate to this quite well. Regardless of one’s individual experience in high school, it’s fairly universal that our adult selves are first formed there, making it a pivotal time in all our lives.
When I’ve come back to this story in more recent decades, I’ve identified more with Jay Endicott’s high school experience. But after my recent work at my old high school and the ugly memories I rediscovered there, I was reminded that when I first read these comics in ‘84, I was Dave (and yes, serendipitously enough, my real name also just so happens to be David). In his own words, the fictional Dave was a “nobody,” who “never had a good job or a girl or even a good friend.” Well, that was me—at least for the first couple years of high school. And if I’m being completely honest, I had more than a little Howie in me, too. Not the bully Howie, but incel Howie.
Like the fictional Dave, I was bullied a lot. Unlike the fictional Dave, I didn’t have one primary bully, but several. When one of my bullies wasn’t around, there always seemed to be another nearby to happily pick up the slack. I was a late bloomer, so I was shorter and a lot scrawnier than most of the other guys, which made me an easy target. (When I attend school reunions these days, I’m one of the biggest guys there; usually the biggest, not that it does me any good now.)
One thing that didn’t bloom late were my hormones. If anything, they bloomed early, as a seeming ocean of testosterone was constantly churning inside me when I was fourteen, fifteen, rendering me utterly girl crazy. I crushed on every girl I saw, but naturally, none of them were remotely interested in me. Some of them even taunted and belittled me, which probably did more long-term damage than the physical beatings I took from the guys.
I reacted like most loser nerds do and became bitter, resentful, and whiny. I often complained aloud to myself (because I had no friends to complain to at that point) about how terrible all the girls at school were because none of them were interested in a “smart” and “good” guy like me; the only guys they were interested in were “dumb jocks.” It’s the incel mantra, pretty much.
Here’s a lesson I wish someone had taught the fourteen-year-old me back then, along with every other incel out there today: Begrudging someone for not finding you attractive is ridiculous because attraction is not a choice—it’s something you either feel or don’t feel. Also, maybe try seeing things from the girl’s point of view? In my own case, why would any girl have wanted to date me back then, when I was so underdeveloped I could have passed for a sixth grader? High school girls want to date guys that look like they’re in high school (at least!), not some kid who looks like he’s still in elementary school (which is what I looked like as a freshman and sophomore).
Oh yeah, and that view I held of myself, that I was a “good” guy and “smart”? I wasn’t much of either, really. All these incels who think they have some kind of wonderful personality, let me assure you: you don’t. Yes, many of the women rejecting you might be doing so for shallow, superficial reasons, but if they actually got to know your personalities, they’d probably like you even less, as you’re all fairly terrible people. I know, because I was one of you for a stretch there. Thankfully, I would eventually evolve into an actual human being.
And this is precisely what my love for miracle girl made me feel. I remember describing the experience at the time as feeling like I had finally “joined the human race.” Prior to this, I had lost all connections to humankind. My best (and only) friend was my dog and I really had no other friends of the human type. Loving my miracle girl is what saved my soul and restored my connection to humanity.
The fictional Dave had also been cut off from humanity, falsely confessing to being the Machete Killer just get some attention from another human being; any other human being, for any reason. Howie had likewise lost touch with his humanity, but took it a step further when he also lost touch with reality.
Getting physically bullied as a kid (or anytime in your life) is an awful thing to suffer through; getting mocked and belittled is similarly bad. Heck, just being ignored, dismissed, and/or neglected can scar you. But you can’t let these things turn you into a monster. Remind yourself that whatever your circumstances may be, they can always change. In fact, it’s fairly inevitable that your circumstances will change. And if you persevere and just push through, maybe you’ll find a miracle person of your own.
Mark Evanier Q&A
I contacted writer Mark Evanier and he was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions about this storyline, along with a few broader queries on Crossfire and the television business.
What was the inspiration for “Trapped in High School for All Eternity” (assuming there was any particular inspiration)? Had you recently attended a high school reunion or anything like that prior to writing it?
I had attended a high school reunion… the last one I’ll ever go to. I’ve skipped the ones they’ve had since because I learned all I needed to know about them and how some people advance and how some just don’t.
As a reader, Howie came off as super creepy. As the writer, was it likewise creepy for you, working out the psyche of a serial killer? Did you do any research on serial killers in preparing this story?
I don’t recall doing any special research but you can’t follow the news without learning something about serial killers. It was a bit creepy but then that’s what happens when you set out to write a creepy story.
Can you recall how you came up with leaving the flashbars at the crime scene as part of the killer’s m.o.?
Nothing in particular. I just needed some sort of “signature” to link the crimes.
Was Spiegle the sole designer of the Machete Killer’s look, or did you offer some input? Spiegle was so experienced and so good at that point, it’s not hard to imagine you trusting him implicitly and giving him a lot of (if not total) artistic freedom.
I trusted Dan without reservation. Once in a while, I would give him a little sketch or sometimes a detailed description just to tell him what I’m imagining but I always told him not to follow it if he had a better idea. He usually did. I think the Machete Killer was all his design.
At the beginning of the concluding issue, Crossfire #7, you open with a flashback to high school graduation, where Howie sees Jay kissing Joyce Rosen and figures maybe he can get a kiss too. But she just shakes his hand and says she’ll miss his “antics.” Then the caption reads, “At least that was how he [Howie] remembered it.” I was never quite sure how to read this—was reality all that different from Howie’s memory?
Probably not. It was probably a rejection but maybe not as blatant as he remembered it to be. We often in our memories make the good moments better and the bad ones worse.
This is a bit of an oddball question, but… I assume Dave and Howie were products of their environment, messed up by their parents, as most of us are, but we never see them (their parents, I mean). In fact, in the entire run of Crossfire, I don’t recall ever seeing Jay’s parents either. Any particular reason you didn’t delve any deeper into the backstories of your characters?
No particular reason. But I don’t buy the premise that folks who are messed up are always messed up by their parents. There can be a lot of other reasons. I was always trying to get more action into the comic and when you start getting into relatives and backstory and such, it can get very talky. If the comic had lasted another fifty issues, I’m sure we would have delved into all that.
In 1986 you told The Comics Journal that your characters weren’t “based” on or even “inspired” by particular people; that they were more “composites” of people. I’m thinking Benjamin Wright and his daughter Ellen were at least somewhat inspired by Wally George and Rebecca De Mornay, right?
I knew (and know) almost nothing about Wally George and Rebecca De Mornay so no, not consciously. But maybe I heard something somewhere that stayed with me.
I’ve been blogging about Spider-Man a lot in recent months, so maybe I just have too much Spidey on the brain, but it occurred to me when re-reading this story that you could have readily turned the Machete Killer into a long-running storyline, making his identity a big mystery and holding off on the final reveal for many months (if not years, like the Green Goblin). Did you have any thought of doing such a thing at the time?
No, because I never knew how long the comic would last. It was selling okay but Eclipse was having a lot of trouble getting paid by the dealers and there were other problems. At no point would I have been too surprised if they’d said we had to stop the book soon. So I didn’t want to plan things for far in the future.
Crossfire was generally an easy book to follow, as continuity was not overly elaborate or complex. Were you purposely trying to keep it easy for new readers to pick up the book, or did you simply prefer to write stories that were less continuity obsessed?
Both. I like endings if they’re satisfying and I was always trying to get to a good one.
I was in high school for four years (grades 9-12). The first two years I was more of a Dave; then more of a Jay for the last two. Which one were you in high school (if either)?
Never a Dave. Sometimes a Jay. There’s a fair amount of autobiography in the comic though it’s not too overt. And Jay Endicott was driving my car.
Hollywood was such a great setting for a strip/story, why do you suppose other writers didn’t use it more often back then? Was it as simple as you grew up in Cali and lived there, while most other comic writers (at the time) seemed to be from the Northeast?
Maybe. I don’t know. There are times though when a writer thinks, “What am I more uniquely qualified to write than anyone else?” I’ve been pretty much immersed in Hollywood and show biz all my life.
Last question, one more relevant to television than comics. I touched on your old “Crosstalk” columns in this post and was wondering if the backstage politics of screenwriting, casting, and producing have changed that much (if at all) from when you wrote those columns in the mid-80s. The way we consume television and film has radically changed, obviously, but is it still pretty much the same behind the scenes?
No. I wrote those articles when the TV business was mainly CBS, ABC and NBC. Now, it’s more streaming and HBO and Netflix and many other channels with online delivery services. The kinds of shows are changing, the kind of deals are changing, etc. Some things are the same but there are a lot more markets in which to work and that changes the whole dynamic.
…A gigantic and very public thank you to Mr. Evanier for taking the time to answer my questions. I highly recommend everyone check out his own blog, News from ME, here.