One-Eye Jack clutches a dagger; the white highlight at its tip forms a menacing star in the night sky. His fedora has breached the top of his panel, and his solitary irisless eye gazes upward at Darla. Her monotone yellow hair, plunging white blouse and ample pre-Comics Code breasts are quiescent, yet One-Eye Jack wonders if he’s just imagining the faint action lines around her poodle skirt — or is she beginning to comprehend the art of motion?
“A stiletto heel to my eye after leading me on, some nerve! Now this ditzy broad acts like she’s the cat’s meow, maybe even some sorta femme fatale,” One-Eye Jack thinks, indulging in a dark fantasy in which Darla’s mouth is agape and her eyes wide open as the tip of his dagger touches her. “But getting over this gutter’s the hard part. And there ain’t no comin’ back if I slip up, just a cold white death.” He tries to imagine a colorless eternity and considers if he should take the sure bet and stay in his panel. “Stickin’ to the script’s for losers,” he concludes, because One-Eye Jack is a henchman created with just enough fire in the belly to afford a subplot in which he could evolve into an archenemy.
One-Eye Jack feels the dagger in his hand; being confined to flatness seems to amplify its weight, its maliciousness. He senses the four-color lines of flux surrounding him. “I’ll start with cyan since it’s a cinch to bleed,” he thinks. He concentrates. Soon thereafter, his dot body begins to flicker as his zoot suit transforms from blue to magenta and the green trim-ribbon of his fedora turns to yellow.
Darla stares at the cyan puddle forming in the bottom of her panel. Her action lines darken, but her body remains motionless. One-Eye Jack watches his terrified victim and experiences an excitement far exceeding the thrill of a one-row caper. His focus grows sharp like a cut-throat razor; soon thereafter, yellow and magenta drain from his body and begin to seep into Darla’s panel, mix with his cyan, and form a murky pool.
One-Eye Jack is a black outline in the foreground of the night sky. “Next part’s the clincher, and I can’t screw up again.” He recalls his previous attempt at seeping into Darla’s panel when he relinquished his tenuous grasp of black, and his world collapsed back to the depiction of a plot designed to entertain the Outsiders. “I was so close…and then I lose focus like some short-winded schmuck that’s run outta gas!”
In the row below, an Eagle Scout, Rex Valiant, stands beside a campfire holding a bundle of twigs. His mile-wide smile and merit badges suggest unwavering selflessness; his Howdy Doody-like red hair and freckles suggest indubitable sappiness. On the far side of the campfire, Darla sits cross-legged. Sharp downward lines form near the corners of her mouth and eyes. She realizes she may be bled-out — not just two rows above, but from the entire issue: a discontinuity that would propagate like toppling dominoes, erasing her from the series. Rex Valiant, teen-adventurer, doesn’t notice the change in Darla’s appearance. He doesn’t notice anything. He just sticks to the storyline and holds kindling over a hastily drawn orange twirl.
Two rows above the campfire scene, the outline of One-Eye Jack seeps into Darla’s panel. Black ink encircles the murky pool that begins to reel through senseless permutations of splotches and streaks — geometric abstractions of malice. Next, the four colors — cyan, magenta, yellow and black — separate and then, in part, blend into the other familiar colors of this world. Finally, the image’s boundaries become definitive, become recognizable: One-Eye Jack is restored and still bears his dagger, which is pointed at Darla’s torso.
The black ink at the tip of One-Eye Jack’s dagger creeps toward Darla and touches her outline. All of the depictions of Darla in this issue, along with the legion of other illustrations of her across the series, are aware their lifeblood is being channeled through one of their sisters. They are fading, panel-to-panel and issue-to-issue, like sun-bleached daguerreotypes. Meanwhile, the killer’s depictions expand. He emerges from shadowy back alleys and fog-enshrouded waterfronts and assumes brazen postures appropriate for an archenemy. Accordingly, the world of Rex Valiant: Teen Adventurer begins to shift. The former henchman is now simply known as Jack because his right eye has grown intact, never having felt the pain of a stiletto heel. Jack, born anew, coruscates in despoiled colors.
Jack watches Darla as she reaches the threshold of vanishing and gloats, “Done it! I finally bled-out that dimwit. Now I’m the Man — the hell with that — now I am the Creator!”
A 12-year-old boy, a strange embodiment of height, width and depth, lies on the top-tier of a bunk bed and flips open Issue 49 of Rex Valiant: Teen Adventurer. Suddenly, Jack’s world collapses. Ben-Day Space has been broached by an Outsider, and it folds back to a neatly scripted singularity that extols the virtues of do-gooders and concludes with a happy-ever-after ending. All of the depictions of Darla are vibrant, including one who sits by a campfire listening to her boyfriend artlessly recap how he trounced a midnight rogue in a previous panel.
One-Eye Jack’s aware he’s just a small-timer limited to second-rate capers; he understands his preconceived role, and he knows how the story ends. But in his gut he believes an ending isn’t necessarily a final ending. So he clutches his dagger and envisions the day he conquers the four-color lines of flux and vanquishes Darla and Rex. Then, having ascended to omnipotence in Ben-Day Space, he will reach out to the oddly deep world beyond and begin to master its myriad colors, all the while dreaming of the day he’ll show the Outsider — all the Outsiders — just what it means to bleed.
James Zahardis is a chemist who writes speculative fiction. His most recent stories have appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly and Every Day Fiction. His stories “The Super-Man in Black” and “Ellie the Centauress” were runner-up and grand prize winner of the 2015 and 2016 Bards and Sages Annual Writing Competition, respectively. James writes out of Long Island, New York.