GARGOYLE TOSSED THE FIREBALL back. It did no good. The Firebug merely laughed.
On the balcony, the short, stout figure of The Fiddler, wrapped only in a toga, could be seen in silhouette, playing his whining violin.
“Wow!” said Mel under his breath.
“Fiends!” roared Gargoyle, pounding one huge mottled fist into the wall to which his mighty chest and legs were chained. It did no good.
“Fifteen all,” grinned The Firebug, lobbing another fireball at Gargoyle’s scaly face.
With a cry, Gargoyle turned his head away, his hair catching fire from the force of the heat. “Aaaaaaeeeugh!” he howled, smashing his fist into the wall, struggling to escape.
“Give up, Gargoyle,” purred a hissing voice. “Don’t you know it’s over for you?”
“But it’s just the beginning for us,” cackled The Firebug.
“Begin the beguine!” drawled The Fiddler, drawing his bow across the screeching strings, which magically became melodious.
“A dance!” decreed the woman, a raven-haired beauty. “A dance to the death!”
Above, The Fiddler’s Buddha-like bulk took on a kind of diabolical grace as he played most mellifluously. Unendowed with his partners-in-crime’s supernatural powers, he fed his criminal genius on feasts of wild boar and milk-fed snails, and was a master of manipulation.
“Look out, Miss Hiss!” The Firebug’s hatchet-face broke into an ugly, angular grin as he blew softly into his palm, watched the blue flame erupt from his skin, turn yellow, then build into a hot orange ball, which he drew back behind his purple-haired head---
---and threw like a poisonous dart---
---as Miss Hiss drew back, shielding her incredible sea-green eyes with snakeskin-gloved hands---
---and Gargoyle flexed his mighty thigh muscles, snapping the chains that held him, took his weight on his back, which he forced even further back against the wall as he lifted his legs---
---smashing the fireball to smithereens against the silver soles of his steely cowboy boots.
“Cool,” murmured Mel.
“Shot!” said The Firebug in his cracked, high-pitched voice. “But, really - why fight?”
“You can’t win,” drawled The Fiddler. “Not against us.”
“Give it up, Gargoyle - to me.” Miss Hiss smiled, starting to wrap herself around him. First her tail, then her scaly body, changing all the while until only her gorgeous face remained, protruding grotesquely from the body of a thirty-foot serpent. Her forked tongue flicked in his ear. “Give in ... we’re taking over!”
The courtyard rang with the laughter of the damned. Gargoyle writhed in agony, feeling the life being crushed out of him by the snakewoman’s muscular body. His flaming hair burnt close to his cracked, hideous face as The Fiddler played on and on, The Firebug ran about in fits of the giggles, setting fire to everything, and Miss Hiss really put the squeeze on her catch of the day.
Is it all over for Gargoyle? Will the supervillains take over? Find out next month!!! the pink ink at the bottom of the comic strip panted.
“---aaaaaaeeeugh!” Mel’s chair, balancing on two legs, shot out from under, and he ended up flat on his back, staring up at the fire-safety sprinklers set into the classroom’s ceiling. Oddly, he wondered if they would really work in an emergency. He wouldn’t mind a shower right now to cool his burning cheeks. All the kids were laughing at him.
“And what, exactly, young man, do you call this?" Miss Trent the English teacher was standing over him, her pendulous belly blocking Mel’s view of her plain, mean face.
Amazingly, Mel was still clutching his copy of Gargoyle: Champion of the Universe, its luridly coloured cover upheld for Miss Trent’s cold inspection.
“See if you can exercise a little self-control, Master Romans, and kindly repeat what I just said about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Scream?” asked Mel, getting up, rubbing his thick crop of dark brown hair and feeling his cheeks glow even redder. The kids were still laughing. Even his best friend, Rod Marshall, was trying to mask a smile.
No wonder Mel sometimes felt that Gargoyle, the grotesque superhero who protected the world from its unseen enemies, was his only friend. Gargoyle and the genius who had created him, Ambrose Alexander.
Ambrose was Mel’s real hero, since he had grown up right here in Vale River, and risen to international fame. Not that Ambrose was what people meant when they used the word celebrity. Mel didn’t even know what he looked like. Some said he was mad. Others that he drank. Either way, he seemed to be a recluse, living only for his work, at some unknown location---
---maybe in New York or London ...
... maybe right here in Vale River. If so, Mel might have actually seen him without even knowing it!
Just the thought of it made his palms sweat.
“Well?” Miss Trent’s grey tombstone teeth ground together in an unkind smile. “Tell the class, O Comic Book Clown!” She ripped the book right out of his hands. For one heartstopping moment, he feared she might actually tear it to shreds.
“But ... we’re not doing Shakespeare,” protested Mel, blushing anew as he heard his voice go up an octave. Why couldn’t his voice break overnight, while he was asleep, all in one go? All this pressure was going to give him a fresh crop of zits! Life wasn’t fair.
“Pull yourself together, Master Romans,” said Miss Trent coldly, turning her broad back on him and waddling up to the front of the classroom. Now, can you answer my question, Mister ... Marshall?”
Rod’s blush was a mild imitation of Mel’s, mainly because he hated speaking in class now that he had his new braces. Mel suspected his friend would rather go back to taking violin lessons - something he’d loathed - than make a thirty-second speech in front of his fellow students.
“Well,” said Rod uncomfortably, “you know how beauty’s in the, uh, eye of the beholder, so ... what one person likes, someone else might hate.”
“Correct! I’m glad someone was paying attention. What you believe has value is valuable to you. What you believe is beautiful is beautiful to you. Perception is reality. Was Hamlet completely mad, or only, as he said, north-by-northwest? Macbeth was certainly insane, driven crazy by a guilty conscience, tormented by the ghosts of those he’d murdered. They might have been only illusions created by the witches, but they were real to him.”
“Like Gargoyle,” muttered Mel.
“I beg your pardon?” Miss Trent hissed. Her eyes flashed like an angry reptile’s.
Mel swallowed hard, glanced down at the awkward length of his bony body, and felt his jaw set in a tight line. Looking up, he locked eyes with his tormentor. “I said it’s ... just like Gargoyle.”
“What gargoyle? Where?”
“In your hand.” He couldn’t keep the snicker out of his voice.
Miss Trent glared down at the comic book she was holding. “This? You’re comparing Shakespeare to this? Melvin Romans, you are ... hopeless!” She stomped to her desk, opened the top drawer, and dropped the comic with a look of disgust.
“Maybe Gargoyle’s real. How do you know he’s not?” Mel felt the warm thrill of excitement flood his narrow chest. Or maybe it was fear. He knew she’d make him pay for his outburst, but right now it felt so good.
“Anyone who believes in comic book characters is an mad as Macbeth, casting spells and trafficking in the occult. I hope that won’t turn out to be you, Master Romans. You know, not so long ago ... they used to cut crazy people’s brains out!” She smiled.
The bell rang.
“Hold that thought, Master Romans.”
“I’ll leave you with this thought - death hurts. Good night, Arachno!” Miss Bent blew out her candle and slammed the dungeon door. In the darkness, chained to the cold prison wall, he could hear the clatter of a thousand rattlesnakes---
Oh no! Is it all over for Arachno, the hairiest superhero since Spiderman? Find out in next week’s thrill-packed ish!!!
Mel’s hand sped across the paper as he inked the pink words across the bottom of his comic strip, The Amazing Arachno.
Somehow, it always turned out to be kind of close to the adventures of Gargoyle, but Mel made it fresh for himself by introducing people from Vale River as characters. What would Miss Trent say if she knew she was the model for the blackhearted Bettina Bent, the nastiest villainess since Miss Hiss?
Mel smiled. Revenge was sweet. Let the world think he was a skinny, awkward, zit-faced geek. When The Amazing Arachno made him a wealthy writer like Ambrose Alexander, no one would be laughing at him. They’d all be applauding---
---and he’d be gone, gone, gone.
There was a knock at his bedroom door. He flipped over his drawing and put his English homework on top. “Yes?”
His dad was already opening the door. Short, plump and balding, the only thing he’d passed on to his son was his sense of always being slightly ill at ease.
I hope I don’t go bald, thought Mel. That would be too cruel.
“Phone, son. It’s Rod.” He summed up his opinion of Rod by rolling his eyes, then backed out of the room.
Mel knew better than to answer back. His dad thought that Rod was a nerdy know-all who spent too much time surfing the net and not enough on schoolwork. The truth was, Rod was a good student who just didn’t need to study hard. Not the way Mel did. Rod had an almost photographic memory. Mel felt justified in hating his friend a little bit for that. Not that Rod could help it. No more than Mel had been able to help not knowing the question to Bent Trent’s question today.
But that was no excuse for laughing at a friend when he was down - literally. Rod usually took the soft option. At least Mel had had the guts to speak up.
And it had felt good.
“Superdude,” Mel said into the phone.
“You’ll never guess.”
Mel felt his breath catch in his throat. “A-Ambrose?” Oh, great - now he was developing a stammer!
“They got him.”
“They took him away.”
“To the loony bin - right here in Vale - he said they were coming for him.”
“I meant,” said Mel, feeling like he wanted to throttle his friend, “who did he say was coming for him?"
“The Fiddler. The Firebug. Miss Hiss. He said they got out. And they’re going to take over.”