James Crosby wasn't an athlete, a scholar or even a guy with any real achievements under his belt. He just really enjoyed comic books. After he graduated from high school he only worked to fuel his comic book buying habits. Every six months his moment to shine came at the big comic book convention that came to town. He was a wizard at finding bargains and predicting the next big comic books to collect. Many of the shop owners would seek him out for his opinions at the shows. Other collectors even started to take an interest in what he was buying in order to sniff potential winners. That's why it wasn't surprising when in a dark corner of the winter comic convention a completely unknown new comic startup with a single title desperately waved him over to have a look.
James smirked at the comic. He picked it up and started to flip through the pages. In a haughty voice, he commented, "The cover isn't bold enough to draw attention, the splash page was boring and the action is bogged down by the simplicity of the villains. Your heroes are too weak to protect the people, it makes them seem less like heroes and more like regular people trying to fight crime."
The man running the booth frowned and then said, "But the idea was that it was a world that would evolve over time. The heroes would grow stronger as the villains adapted to them."
James shook his head and frowned, "I don't know man, I'm sorry but I think you started this out too slow. The art is pretty good, and the story seems decent enough, but it needs a bigger start to really draw enough attention to blow up. I might check in again once you build the world up. It's just not one I'd follow as it is."
The man running the booth said, "Alright, I thank you for taking the time to look. I'll take your ideas and run with them, take that book on me as payment for helping me make a better story."
James smiled and said, "I will, maybe at the next con, you'll have the book that really shocks the con."
After hearing James slam the book, most of the big time collectors completely ignored the man's booth. He only managed to sell a couple of his books as a result. The man seemed to stare daggers into James all day any time he passed by.
James managed to buy a few dozen books at a decent price and felt as if he had won the lottery as he looked through his new found treasures. He stood at a friend's comic book booth and started to talk up what he found. "Look, dude, I got a copy of X-men number two sixty-six out of a guy's twenty-five cent box in mint! Not only that, I found a second print copy of TMNT for two hundred and fifty that's at least high mint. The guy was just trying to cover his cost for attending the show and took half of what he was asking originally."
His friend Matt was a tall lanky man with sunken cheeks. He had a slight belly and wore a Wolverine t-shirt and khaki pants. He blinked his eyes and said in a shocked nasal toned voice, "Two-fifty! I'll give you five hundred right now if you'll let it go, I can put that up in my shop for eight at least!"
James looked at his friend for a few long seconds and then nodded and smiled, "Alright, Matt, you got it. But throw in a copy of Batman number six oh nine and you got a deal!"
Matt raised an eyebrow and then asked, "You know something about that issue you aren't telling me, dude? It's not a high-value comic."
James just shrugged and said, "Just liked the cover."
Matt frowned and then traded books with James and grumbled, "Every time we do deal I feel like you are ripping me off, even though I am supposed to be the one ripping you off."
James laughed and then gave a wave as he took the money and his bag of treasures and made his way to the exit. He was leaving with the same amount of money he walked in with and a bag of comics that left a huge grin on his face. He felt like he was the king of the world as walked past a line of people dressed as their favorite superheroes. James shook his head at them. He always found the costumes to be wrong somehow like they were trying too hard to match the look of the comic instead of the idea behind the suits. His mind began to wander as he imagined how he would make a super costume if he was a hero.
James got into his car, a peach-colored 1982 AMC Eagle station wagon that was too ugly for words. The floors of his car were littered with fast food trash and empty soda cans. He set his new comic book treasures on the passenger seat that almost never saw a body occupying it. James made the short trip from the convention center to his studio apartment in record time. He was too excited for words as he managed to grab two comics that would fill gaps in his collection basically for free thanks to his wheeling and dealing. Walking into his apartment all that could be seen were rows of stacked white comic book boxes. On another wall was an array of Batman comic books with a single hole in the middle which James walked over and thumb tacked the new book into the hole with a satisfied sigh.
James laid down on his bed and picked up the new books he bought and then for some reason the book he had been given for free grabbed his attention. He decided to give the story a proper read now that he wasn't distracted. Aside from the things he brought up at the show he felt like the story was somehow more compelling than he thought at the time he skimmed it at the show. It was a story about people who woke up to find that they could level themselves up by doing things. The idea was that each time they completed an action they would notice a small number pop up in the corner of their vision. After a while, they would start to notice that their skills and abilities were growing fast. Eventually turning them into what could only be described as a superhero.
James snorted in disbelief and then shook his head. He thought about all of the superheroes he followed, most of them either had genius intellects or teachers who trained them to be superior warriors. They weren't just regular people. He thought of what it would be like for him to have that kind of ability. He shook his head and laughed, saying out loud, "If I had a system like that I wouldn't stick my fucking neck out to help people that's just bat shit crazy."
James couldn't get the idea out of his head, it was running through his mind like a virus. He just wanted to sleep but it was killing him that the comic he read was so flawed he didn't know exactly what the flaw was so he kept rethinking it over and over. It wasn't the skill itself, it was the motivation. Just having skill and ability wouldn't motivate a hero. He thought of Batman and how his parents were killed causing him to seek vengeance. Or how Spider-man had to see his Uncle killed to motivate him. The Punisher lost his family. The mutants from the X-Men were all trying to save their kind from extinction and build up a good impression from regular people. Superman lost his entire planet. The characters in this comic book he was given were just regular people who had no motivation to be more than who they were.
James eventually drifted off to sleep. A voice in the blackness spoke softly, "Initiating transformation. Power system loaded. Experience system loaded. Character creation successful. Motivation system progress 1%. Starting wake-up mode in ten, nine, eight, seven. The voice grew softer and softer until James saw daylight once again. He shook his head and thought, "What an odd dream." He yawned and stretched out he swiftly turned his head as he thought he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. A small red number "+1" hung in the corner of his vision for a split second. He shook his head again only to see another "+1" drift off. He moved his arm wildly and another "+1" appeared. That was when he noticed something off about his apartment. The comic books on the wall had changed. The familiar names were gone and replaced with names that similar yet different.
He shouted out, "Alright real funny, I don't know which of you it is, but I want my real collection back and if I find even a single damaged book you are getting sued!"
Once again a "+1" popped up in the corner of his eye.
James shook his head and frowned, he checked the time and knew it was time to get to work, he didn't have time to play around with the jokesters. He quickly showered and dressed in his uniform and then sped off to work. The little "+1" that kept popping up was very annoying to James, but he did his best to ignore it. When he got to work he felt something was off as the name of the restaurant on the sign was spelled oddly. He looked up and frowned, "Burger Kang? Is this part of the joke?" He looked across the street and noticed that the place across from them had a different sign as well. He blinked and rubbed his eyes and asked, "MacRonalds?"
He walked inside starting to feel confused. He recognized all of his coworkers but the menu boards were all changed subtly so that at first glance it was normal but things were just slightly named differently. Instead of a whopper they now sold a whapper. He noticed a newspaper no longer said New York Times, instead, it had New City Times written at the top of the page, he grabbed one of his coworkers and asked, "Dude, is it just me or does this place look different today?"
His coworker laughed and said, "Yeah man, those graveyard shift bastards didn't mop, Ralphie threw a fit this morning. You got mop duty bro, wouldn't slack it off today. He's in that kind of mood."
James grabbed the mop and started to do his job. He noticed that as he worked his level of skill with mopping rapidly improved to the point that the floors looked like they were being professionally cleaned. The manager came out of his office and stared in amazement as James mopped effortlessly but cleaned the floors back to a new like appearance. He grinned broadly and said, "Great work Jimmy. Thanks for busting ass on these floors. The rest of you bums should take your example from Jimmy."
Everyone stared daggers at James who could only smile and shrug. It went like that all day, anything he worked on would become incredibly easy to him if he did it long enough. All the time the "+1" would appear. By the time he was done with his shift, his coworkers were no longer speaking to him because he had raised the bar for every job in the restaurant to the point they felt like they could no longer meet expectations. Even Ralphie the manager started to feel insecure about his position.
James went to start his car and of course, it wouldn't start. He popped the hood and climbed out hoping he could figure out what was wrong with it. When he opened the hood he was shocked to find the entire motor missing. It was as if it had been completely torn out. He spun around looking in all directions as his heart pounded, he suddenly felt very unsafe. He thought about his work today and decided to try running home, maybe he would get better at running if he did that.
James ran as if someone was chasing him, and just like with his work today he slowly improved at running until it was effortless for him. He managed to run the four miles back to his house in half an hour. For a guy who hadn't done any running in years, he felt like he had accomplished an impossible feat. In fact, he knew for certain that was the furthest he had ever run and when he got home he felt the same way he did at the end of his workday. Slightly tired but still capable of doing more. He looked across the street at the twenty-four-hour gym and decided to find out if the thought scratching at the back of his head was real.
After he went home and changed, he walked over to the gym and then up to the counter and asked the girl there, "Hi, I was wondering what it costs to get a membership here?"
The girl smiled happily and said, "Well, why don't you try out the gym first and see if it's what you need. After you work out, we can talk about our membership plans."
He smirked and nodded, "Thank you, I think I will." He walked inside and started doing a circuit through the gym. Just as he thought each machine became easier and easier the more he exercised on it. He looked in the mirror and noticed that his body was slowly but visibly changing. When he walked into the gym he was still the same skin and bones scrawny looking man that he had been since he graduated from high school years earlier. But just an hour in the gym and he already had started to appear like someone who had been working out for years. James stared in disbelief at the image in the mirror. He looked down at his arms and could see defined musculature. He looked at the machines and suddenly found himself obsessed with them. He would use each machine until he was at its maximum weight and then move to the next. By the time he completed a full circuit of the gym he looked like a bodybuilder. He was staring in awe at the image of himself in the mirror, his clothes were stretched to the point of nearly ripping. He noticed that the sun was starting to come up and realized he had spent the entire night at the gym.
When he walked up to the counter the same girl was yawning and stretching while saying to another girl, "I had a skinny guy come in last night I haven't seen him leave yet, I hope he didn't hurt himself."
He walked up in front of her and said, "Hi, I tried out the gym here, it was ok, but I think I need a gym with more weights. Thank you for the trial though."
She looked at him like it was the first time she had seen him and asked, "I'm sorry, but did we already speak? I don't recall when you came in."
He chuckled and said, "Skinny guy that you were worried would hurt himself."
She stared in disbelief as he walked out. The girl next to her snorted derisively and said, "Girl you need to lower your standards. Not every guy can be as big as a powerlifter. That guy was totally ripped."
James walked to his apartment and sat down on his bed. He suddenly felt his adrenaline kick in as he searched for the comic book he picked up at the con. He found it and immediately opened it only to find that the pages were all blank. The picture on the cover changed to a picture of himself lifting weights and growing stronger. The splash page changed to a picture of him mopping at Burger Kang. The next page showed him running after finding that his car had been sabotaged. Then it was him lifting weights in the gym rapidly building his body by doing each exercise. He stammered and said, "Fuck this, I am not a hero, I have no motivation to be a hero!"
He tossed the comic off his bed and collapsed back on it with a sigh. Maybe he could call in sick, he only had four hours until it was time to work again and he still hadn't slept. He closed his eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.