A dead man walked the streets of the city, looking for a comic book store.
Leaves that were left over from the fall, waiting for the spring that hadn't quite come, burst into flame and turned to ash as his boot crunched on them. Flies buzzed up to him, gave him a sniff, and scooted away. Not quite the right kind of dead.
Once, decades ago, the man had been a boy. A fan - of Marvel Comics. He had devoured them, the complex webs of plots, the continuity, the angst.
And then - the experiment. The idea that the dead could speak, not through something as simplistic as the letters on a oujia board or the noise of a staticy radio, but through the things they left behind.
The boy had taken his grandmother's comics collection and - after a week's worth of holding back, of not being at all sure the effort would be worth it - carefully, painstakingly, cut it to pieces. Each word bubble, each caption, was taken apart, word by word.
And when the pile of paper was complete, he bade it to speak. And speak it did-- but not in his grandmother's voice! In a voice of flame, a great roar that sucked in oxygen, sucked in his soul, and sent him to - The Fandom Zone!
The Fandom Zone, afterlife of dead fandoms! Whenever a fan leaves a fandom, they leave behind an image of themselves - through their fanworks, through their headcanons, through their arguments and the joy and rage they inspired in others. And this ghostly image lives in the Fandom Zone, pondering and arguing as they had in life!
The boy merged with the psychic essence of everyone who'd ever been obsessed with Marvel Comics and dropped out! From the moment the Fantastic Four blasted off in their rocket to the stars to the latest X-Men miniseries - he absorbed it all! The power transformed him into a revenant with the power to remember every one of those ridiculous, overheated plots, with the Flame Which Sears Men's Soles burning in his veins-- Marvel Zombie Lad!
Yes, and once, decades ago, Marvel Zombie Lad had been a hero - one of the Legion of Net.Heroes! His sincere and fiery passion had drawn other young heroes to the fold, and the Legion had become the greatest team in the world - a team that still lived, still fought against evil and tyranny!
...but... Marvel Zombie Lad no longer fought alongside them. The love of comics, of the Marvel comics of the early '90s, had burned bright for a time... but as the comics industry went for event after event, collector edition after collector edition, as the collector bubble prepared to pop, he had felt the flame fading, guttering out. He had wandered, as many fans do, away from the passions of his youth, seeking something that would inspire the same joy...
And he had encountered...
Something. There was a great emptiness in his memory, a gap like the blasted crater left by a meteor's fall.
Yes, and then... decades later, the LNH had found him again, wandering without memory and without purpose. And by happenstance, they had shown him something that inspired-- inspired him not to joy, but to RAGE! They had shown him - the words twisted on his tongue, turning acid - Secret Empire! And he had sworn to burn the bloated, polluted comics industry to the ground!
...but... he still lacked direction, still lacked something to turn to rather than away from. So when the East Coast Brotherhood of Net.Villains, a team of career Bad Guys whose various incarnations had fought the Legion since the early days, had offered him a place in their ranks, he had accepted.
And now, he was walking down these late-afternoon sidewalks with the measured pace of one whose undead body does not tire. He was on a mission. Somewhere near by, tucked away on an unassuming side street just off the main drag, was the most powerful comic book store in Net.ropolis - the Comics Cooperative! And he was to destroy it!
He didn't understand what value this would have to Mister Homage, the Brotherhood's leader. But it didn't matter! For in this moment, Marvel Zombie Lad was taking his revenge! Revenge on the corporate structure that had taken his favorite characters and cast them into the dark, that had folded and spindled them until they were unrecognizable, that had stomped their hob-nailed boots on his soul! This, Marvel Zombie Lad swore!
Lo! There it was! A seemingly harmless two-story building, wedged between a restaurant and an office supply store! A brightly-painted facade and a neon "OPEN" sign! Wide windows gaily decorated with posters! Squirrel Girl! Ms. Marvel! Ironheart! Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur! Icons of Marvel! Icons of what he must destroy!
The guttering flame in his heart burned bright now, wreathing his body, his fists in rolling, roiling red-yellow flame. It was time!
"Hold, ye who intend evil!"
Marvel Zombie Lad looked up toward the voice. There, on the concrete buttress atop the second floor-- a silhouette in the blinding sun! With a leap, the figure landed on the pavement! A young woman, black, wearing a leather jacket - and wreathed in curling, coruscating, red-yellow flame! "This place is defended! So swears-- Marvel Zombie Girl!"
He took a step back. "What!?"
And yet-- it should not have been surprising. He had been gone for so long, and it was a feature of the genre that new, young people stepped into the shoes of previous heroes. And yet, and yet-- he had lost the spirit-- how could he have considered that another would have it?
No matter. He would show her what ebon night of the soul she was stepping into, and see if she wanted the mantle after! "'Ware, girl! The power of Marvel Zombie Lad is the memory, branded upon the brain, of every plot back to the very beginning!" The flames leapt high around him, wind scattering the candy wrappers and cigarettes on the sidewalk. "Do you believe you possess the strength to handle the convolutions and the retcons, the glory and the defeat?"
Marvel Zombie Girl smiled, with dark eyes, eyes that had seen the shadows beyond the veil. "I have no such pedigree. My fandom began with the Avengers movie." She took a step forward, into a fighting pose, the flames swirling high around her. "But I have the same depth of passion! The same furious investment! The same thundering disappointment at being let down-- by Joss Whedon-- by the post-DeConnick Captain Marvel writers-- by the very throughline of the company that was supposed to protect my dreams! I have the same burning rage, and--" With a crackle, the flames around her burned hotter, rising to blue-white! "I have the hope you left behind!!"
And for a moment, that hope, in his breast-- but no! "Bah!" Marvel Zombie Lad leapt forward, swinging his burning fist! "Once, such hope felt real! Now, I know it to be false! Another tool of that loathsome corporation, the bait on the hook to keep you reading, keep you buying issues!"
She parried his blow and went in with a kick! "And has your apathy brought you newer, better stories? Has it created a comics company without these flaws?"
"Perhaps not-- but perhaps razing the grotesque rot that remains will bring some new life to this blasted heath!" He thrust out his arms, and his aura flared, a wave of pressure exploding out from his body.
Marvel Zombie Girl managed to block at the last moment, arms held up in a Claremontian X in front of her, blue-white aura flowing back in the wave of pressure like a windsock in a tempest. When it ended, she shook herself out and stood unbowed. "This place is not your enemy, fool! It is full of those who are absorbing the good that still exists - the representation and the joy and the promise and struggle of a million young heroes that might be! They deserve a chance!"
"A chance to be betrayed?" Marvel Zombie Lad pressed his attack, charging forward with a right and a left. "A chance to feel the same blazing pain we have!?"
"They already have!" A lance of blue-white fire from her chest! It scored him across the cheek, spinning him to the side! "How much of their lives have been run by the uncaring men whose greed and exploitation have wounded you so?" A kick in the belly, knocking him in the other direction! "They see the grinding of the world's gears, yet they snatch joy from them! And not just joy, but inspiration! They see the things they desired so hard for so long, and get to hold them, truly experience them-- even if for just a moment before they're taken away!"
And while Marvel Zombie Lad was off-balance, with a leap, Marvel Zombie Girl pressed an arm across his chest, pinning him to the brown brick facade of the restaurant next door! "And they channel that understanding of what it's like to see yourself there on the pages into their own creations! Fanfiction! Webcomics! Their own stories!" He could see her eyes wide, burning, yearning to be understood. "Can you deny them the chance to speak those stories into existence, the opportunity that Lee and Kirby and so many others who built this monument had?"
He looked away, flame churning in his gut, feelings, thoughts in chaos. "No... but... nnn... GHH!" Flame BURST from his body, knocking Marvel Zombie Girl away - a wave of pressure that was deeper, darker and more desperately powerful, like the smoky warmth of Hell! "They will have the chance - once I sever the connection to those awful men! Once I knock down the temples of false worship! Once I free you from my curse - the curse of this damned emotional attachment, this love that only causes pain! I do this now, in your defeat!"
Marvel Zombie Girl landed, hard, on the pavement, scraping her elbows and hands. Her flame faded to a blue-white flicker.
Marvel Zombie Lad stepped forward, standing over her, flaming fists high. "Go. You're beaten."
She rolled over, looking up at him... and grinned. "You're the one who's lost this battle."
"??" Marvel Zombie Lad took a step back in shock. Preposerous bravado! A bluff! But-- "How!?"
"Don't you see?" Marvel Zombie Girl rose fluidly to her feet, the Flame Which Sears Men's Soles rising up around her, as if the blows had never happened. "You're trying to get rid of the younger, female, legacy character of color who's stepped into your heroic role... just as Marvel has done with its heroes, so unfairly, so many times! You have become everything wrong with modern Marvel Comics... ALL YOU HATE!"
Her eyes locked on his, opening wide. She tapped into the power at the heart of the Flame - the Penitence Gaze, seeking out and revealing the guilt in his heart - revealing her words to be TRUTH!
"NOOOOOO!" Marvel Zombie Lad cowered back from the burning truth, mind aflame with searing Angst.
"You dismissed the joy others took from your lost love!" The merciless gaze burned him unabated. "You fought against our hope! You became the fandom bully!"
It was true, it was all true! Marvel Zombie Lad staggered back, fell to his knees. His flame drew low, turned to a heat shimmer, went out.
His rage-- his mission-- a sham! What profit it a man to find his purpose - if he lose his soul!?
Suddenly he could no longer feel the Penitence Gaze upon him. He looked up. Marvel Zombie Girl stood there, flame low, holding out a hand.
"I... I don't understand," he said.
"Your actions were wrong. But your feelings are valid," she said. "There is so much to be frustrated about, so much wrong with this industry, this world. You are not the only one raging. Instead of fighting against us, you can fight alongside us. Add to our flame. You were a hero once. You can be again."
"...I..." He looked away, hands clenched. "I don't..." This could be it. The direction, the purpose he'd been looking for.
...but... he wasn't ready. Finally, he admitted it to himself. He wasn't ready to let his rage lessen, burn down to the levels of a hero, not a destroyer. He had to get it out first. Else it would consume him.
He wasn't ready to join her. He couldn't reject her. His hand went down to his belt, and he thumbed the emergency East Coast Brotherhood of Net.Villains teleporter, and he was gone.
Marvel Zombie Girl watched him disappear, leaving behind a trail of blue sparkles, and burn marks on the pavement, and...
She nodded, once, hand curling into a fist, pressing to her chest. "Someday." She looked off, toward the sun, as it sank below the horizon. "Someday."