Saturday, January 29, 2005

a rediscovered masterpiece

I found an odd corner of my personal history on the Internet today — a sordid little chapter of my college experience called "Exx Man."

I shouldn't say I "found" it, since that makes it sound like I just happened to discover it purely by accident. The truth is that I went looking for it deliberately, because it suddenly occurred to me this morning that I had posted the entire thing to a Usenet newsgroup, a sort of predecessor to today's forums, in 1992 or so.

"Exx Man" was the high point of a collaborative story board on Lafayette's computer syste. Begun my senior year, Exx Man was the sole story my senior year, after three separate stories competed for readership and participation during the second half of my junior year. It was also the most successful story, judging by audience participation and number of installments, ending with more than 100 parts and probably close to a dozen contributors.

It began simply enough as a superhero story, with the first part written by a fellow student named Frank Puskas. That held true for roughly one installment, Frank's own, before readers discovered that Exx Man actually was an inmate in an asylum who merely believed that he was a superhero. In the second part, where we made this discovery, David McCandless began the story's steady ascent into comedy with the introduction of the supervillain Dragon Poker, named after a poker game played in the "Myth" series of fantasy novels.

And so it went. Before long, we discovered that Exx Man actually wasn't even a man — she was a woman who merely thought she was a man. When she made that discovery, her superhero days ended, and she became a hairdresser.

Around this time, Frank noticed that we had been messing about with his story, and he made a desparate attempt to bring it all back into line by introducing a character named Dr. Dingle. Dingle was a mad scientist, experimenting on Exx Man and who was about to give him superpowers. All this stuff about being a hairdresser was just a delusion.

Frank stopped just short of that, though, leaving me a window to step in and reveal that the Dingle scene was merely a flashback, and that it was Dingle in fact who had genetically changed Exx Man into a woman.

For the next several weeks, Frank and I got into a minor power struggle over Dr. Dingle and his role in Exx Man's life. Frank brought him back in and tried to reassert his vision for the story, prompting me to turn Dingle into a squirrel, run him over with a truck, and serve him as the entrée on the college meal plan. Frank revealed that Dingle hadn't actually been so much killed as much as just stunned, so I had him shot to pieces by a rowdy bunch of exterminators. I later was forced to annihilate Dingle when Frank had him cloned from a surviving tail fragment, but by that time, it had become so much killing Dingle off in new ways that I started bringing him back to life myself.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, we made fun of one another; offered extended commentary on college life; and shamelessly cribbed from M*A*S*H, Tom Stoppard, the "Terminator" movies, "Speed Racer" and other bits of pop culture; and just generally had a blast.

The story, I suspect, was more popular with the student body than I realized at the time. There were four of us who were regularly contributing to it, but a surprising number of people offered one- or two-time additions, and I got feedback from other people who never contributed to it about what a riot it was. (As well as the standard, expected criticism from friends who wanted me to know how useless it really was.)

More than 12 years later, I'm amazed how many elements of "Exx Man" have stayed with me. Dr. Dingle and Markle City (named after Markle Hall, the administration building at Lafayette College) each carried over into the "Chicken Soup for the Soulless" writing McCandless and I have done for our Brothers Grinn project, currently on hiatus. Other bits, like casting Spridle from Speed Racer as an evil genius on the level of Richard III, have stayed with me as a private sort of joke. Other characters — particularly the triad of Drake, Quince and Elwood — have shown up in one form or another in various bits of fiction I've written.

The other stories never fared as well. The day Paul Galvin launched the story board in 1990, another student and I posted story openers so close together that neither of us knew the other was doing it. The one I began was a Star Trek story, set aboard the U.S.S. James Kirk in the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It made it about seven parts before dying with no ending, but can still be found here and there on the Internet as "The Cardassian Confrontation," often linked with "Deep Space 9," although the story was written months before DS9 debuted.

The story Ron Dauphin began was a murder mystery set around a bumbling detective named Drake. Drake's story was pushed to a hasty wrap-up, after a dozen parts at most, and although it had funny moments — most notably when Drake killed the main character from a third, wholly unremarkable story someone had tried to start on the board — it never went anywhere either. To the best of my knowledge, the Drake stories don't exist anywhere anymore.

The year after I graduated, there was a meager attempt to start a new story based on the second-season Star Trek: TNG episode called "The Royale." It was later co-opted into a time-traveling secret agent story with overtures of Robin Hood and Star Wars, but it died pretty quickly itself.

Exx Man outdid them all. It made it to more than 100 posts, had no competitors for attention while it ran, and actually absorbed previous stories from the story board, like Detective Drake, who finally came into his own when he was partnered with two special agents from the FBI who came to Markle City to investigate the bizarre chaos that had followed Exx Man around since his (or her) arrival.

The Exx Man story is awful, it's meretricious, and it deserves no place on the Internet. Still, it was a lot of fun to write, it remains the best example I've ever seen of what a collaborative story can be, and even if it is all those things I said — I still like it.

You'd be crazy to read it.

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