Content warning: gun violence.

When Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse came out last year, one of the concepts that it “introduced” was this idea of canon events (introduced insofar as codifying as a narrative storytelling mechanisms within the universe, not so much the concept of a canon event itself). The death of a loved one. The death of a cop figure. Certain fights with certain villains. Universal constants. Things that even across reality were steadfast and true.

And it got me thinking about my canon events. The incidents that shaped me as a person, that ingrained so deep into my being that they became a touchpoint for every action, whether consciously or unconsciously. And specifically, it brought up a particular incident, back in the late 2000’s (by which I mean 2007ish).

It was relayed to me that the boyfriend of my friend thought I was “the type of kid who’d shoot up a school.” This person had never met me before. This person who I would never meet in any capacity. And yet this person somehow managed to lodge a sentence that has been stuck in the back of my skull cap for several years to come.

You know the stereotypes I’m sure. The quiet, unassuming kid. Kept to himself. We talked about it in media all the time back then. It’s Pearl Jam’s Jeremy, a blending of a suicide and school shooting. It’s Warren from Empire Records in the final act. It’s Jimmy in one of the heavier episodes of Static Shock. It’s Jonathan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Earshot.

It was a time where we lived in the shadow of Columbine and Virginia Tech. Or rather the immediate shadow of Columbine and Virginia Tech. Twenty-five years later, we are still living in the shadow of Columbine. Fourteen years, still haunted by Virginia Tech. And those are just the two that happened to happen in April and the two that got me thinking about that single sentence fragment.

“The type of kid who’d shoot up a school.” 

And somehow, the worst part of all of this is not the fact that it was said to me, but that it was said so casually and also by more than one person throughout the years. 

I am in fact an introvert. I get overwhelmed by crowds of people, and I know that I am not inclined to violence, but not everyone knows me and nor do I expect everyone to know me, but that assumption is a wild one. The image painted, a terrifying one.

Hearing this dark future projection changed something in me. It did not break me, it steeled me in a way. I fashioned a resolve, a determination. I’m going to be undeniably better than the shadowy outline you see of me. I’m going to rise above this nonsense accusation. I’m going to be a better person out of sheer spite that someone would ever say that to me.

Now the public image of a shooter has certainly changed over the years. The conversation has become intertwined with talks of mental health. And I remember that shift well. I remember going to a 3AM showing of The Dark Knight Rises, getting home at 6AM, and then waking up a couple hours later to see that there was a shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Claims of being “The Joker.”

In 1988, Alan Moore penned The Killing Joke, one of the most iconic Batman stories for better or for worse, that detailed the sequences of events that broke the man who became the Joker. It was just one bad day. And maybe that is true in the world of comic books, where everything is in a heightened state of everything, where your name has an undue influence on whether you end up a villain or a hero. 

But it’s just never one bad day. I can’t believe that a person can break that easily. Although, I can believe that the actions taken on a day can have a ripple effect. I can believe the actions have consequences that are permanent and heartbreaking. And I choose to believe that we can still choose to be better even when faced with horrors, both internal and external.

The mass shooting is both a trope and a dark reality we still reckon with. It’s the school shooting in the season 1 finale of The OA. It’s every cop and other type procedural as a kid or adult rages against a system, or a group, or an individual. It’s incels and MRAs and anti-establishment types.

It’s the news headlines. It’s the perpetrated violence of bullying. It’s the misconception that all of this could be mitigated with one good person at the right place at the right time with the right tool (in some cases, a gun. In some cases, proper deescalation training). It’s the sadness of knowing someone thinks you could be something awful. It’s the grit of trying to prove them wrong even though they never met you…and probably never will.

I have a bookmark buried somewhere with a quote from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” And most days, I chose to be a beacon, a lighthouse, a stalwart source of maybe a foolish ideology that ‘it didn’t have to be like this.’ But there are also days where I choose conflagration, a cacophony of “how dare you place me anywhere in the vicinity of those people” and “what possessed you to say such a terrible thing to a person.”

When people think of that “that type of person” it has changed in some ways and in some ways it hasn’t at all. I can’t speak to the conditions of what it takes to break bad. I can only say that back in the late 2000s, someone said something so cruel and so callous that I haven’t forgotten and have made it a point to be a better person to spite them, specifically.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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