In the summer of 2006, exactly one month after my birthday, my father and I sat in a small movie theater at Park Place Stadium Cinemas as the credits for Kevin Smith's newly released sequel to "Clerks" - "Clerks 2" [shocking title] - came to a close, slowly panning back on its two protagonists, the infamous Randal Graves and Dante Hicks, as the color washed from the screen and Soul Asylum's "Misery" began its lonesome entreaty to the audience. The theater was not terribly full, its attendant was most likely busy, so with the lights still off, and the other patrons shuffling out, I sat next to my father and started to cry.
To his merit, he never said a word, never offered a joke to wash the moment away, or asked if there was something wrong, of if there was something he could do. There was something wrong - there were a lot of things wrong in my life at the time, most of them not nearly as important as I thought they were, but one of them important enough that I'm relatively sure that its presence still ails me to this day. I was in a place I didn't want to be, there was a person I loved that I was growing apart from, and the end of college was looming, and I had no idea what the future would hold for me. As far as "what I wanted" went, I hadn't a clue.
"Clerks 2" probably should have solidified that feeling to me. That moment should have been a moment of hopelessness, those tears could have been born from that swelling, growing terror. When I discovered "Clerks" in high school, a world had opened up for me, the early to mid-nineties cinema which I had been too young and out of touch to discover showing me something I wanted to be part of, something that said I could be myself, but I was also allowed to make things better -- not in an altruistic sense, but still, better for me. And while "Clerks" was the first, and while it would introduce me to not just Kevin Smith's movies, but classics of both cult and mainstream variety, it would also hold the distinction of being the favorite, of being the inspiration. Of showing that if I wanted, I could do what Kevin Smith was doing too. Not in a way that made it look easy, but in a way that made it look like something that, with work, I could accomplish myself. Attainability, without dragging that which seemed attainable down. A rare, wonderful thing for a cynic.
And now I was watching the sequel to that, not closer to my own brass ring. Not far from the age Smith was when he made the first, and now, here was the second, twelve years later. The cynic hadn't even caught the gleam off his brass ring.
But it wasn't that. That wasn't why I cried. I was crying because, for the first time in so very, very long, as I sat in that theater with those credits rolling, I realized I felt like I was home. Home. I say it again, and realize it sounds corny. But once upon a time I could recite "Clerks" like a priest with his bible verses. More often than not, when I was alone, when I had a moment of peace, it was on, slightly overexposed black and white film glaring off my TV set, in way that could almost give you a certain kind of headache. A moving poster, an electric, full-screen, analog security blanket. Safe. Comfortable. Funny. Reassuring. Home. And "Clerks 2" took me back home.
It was beautiful. I cried. For a while, I think I cried every time. And even now, occasionally, it can catch me off guard.
You can't be that kind of Kevin Smith fan, however, and not know how close to not having that moment in 2006 I came. The original "Clerks" was not so much released in theaters as it was "released in theater(s)," and in this early, initial cut of the film, a great deal of things were different. The drugged out ramblings of Jason Mewes not so alter-ego "Jay" were longer, and included an amusing anecdote about having sex with his cousin. You could also see Randal interacting with the store security camera, and a few more idiot customers also turned up along the way. And there was a small subplot about another unfortunate customer, not of the Quick Stop, but of the drug dealers and Jay and Silent Bob, who needed just a little more scratch to cover his debt, and outfit the Jersey house party he was headed to with dankest of shit that Jay could provide. Of course, he was broke. But there are ways around these things.
So this nameless drug strolled into the Quick Stop while Dante Hicks was counting out for the day, and shot and killed our hapless protagonist, leaving him lifeless behind the counter, not even supposed to be there that day.
Such a depressing ending was listed, early on, as one of the film's greatest flaws, and Smith's mentor John Pierson suggested he cut it, so naturally Smith did. He was a young man, a young filmmaker, and Pierson's opinion held a great deal of weight. Few would ever call this move a mistake, and even Smith admits he only ended the film that way because it was an indie movie, and "in indie movies, someone always dies." It was unnecessary, some even say it would have made "Clerks" a different kind of movie, and that is a legitimate argument to be made.
But let's also be fair; any movie that's success hinges solely on its ending isn't all that good of a movie anyway, and whether Smith had changed that ending or not probably would have had little baring on the sudden jump start to his career. He still would have gotten studio attention, he still would have joined the Miramax Golden Boys, and its pretty likely Smith would have continued making movies much as he has to this day. Smith himself has cast doubts on the Jersey Trilogy having ever taken shape had he kept that ending, but a touch a stubbornness, a different decision, none of this necessarily would have halted the slow creation of the View Askewniverse.
It would still be a universe. Smith was a comic book fan at heart, and appreciated the shared world the three-color heroes shared in their monthlies. Batman and Superman were friends, Spidey could spin by and have a beer with Daredevil, the Fantastic Four could fight the Hulk -- he liked these things, and the continuity that developed between them, because of them, and put it into his own world he was creating, setting [mostly] in Leonardo, New Jersey. And he was a stickler for his own continuity, at least for a while, and when you consider that, in the same context of the death of Dante Hicks, it is hard not to wonder.
Obviously, "Mallrats" could have went on without him. "Chasing Amy" also could have been made without a hitch, and in fact it's "down ending" would fit better in a world where Dante Hicks was dead. In "Chasing Amy" everything was darker, everything was just a little more real - Jay and Bob, in their few moments of screen time, even seem a bit harder edged... not the kids from "Mallrats" but more like two someones who could have walked into a Tarantino scene. "Dogma" is much the same, though with a brighter gloss, and a feeling like Smith himself is trying to regain a little of his ridiculousness, and little bit of the light-hearted charm, while dealing with something with so serious that the filmmaker would get death threats himself. And why not? If someone would kill over drugs, or a pack of smokes, some Hollywood-hotshot lampooning the Catholic faith probably shouldn't be surprised that a few folks might want him dead.
Other parts of the mythos are more problematic. The Oni-published Clerks comics could have easily been prequels, at least one supposes, barring of course the Christmas Special, but like we've seen with Joss Whedon, even if that had been produced someone could have come along and agreed to its canonicity. "Chasing Dogma" now actually fits better, but its eventual metamorphosis into "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back" seems unlikely. Randal and Dante are the impetus for Jay and Bob's ejection from outside the Quick Stop, and it's difficult to swallow that Randal Graves would have ever been able to pick up with his life after "Clerks" and keep working in the video store, steps away from where his friend died. And even if he somehow could, Randal Graves is not so immutable that he would be the same man after such a tragedy, that he'd be able to slip back into old habits, and care enough about arguments concerning Morris Day and "Clash of the Titans" to ever call the cops. Those wheels would not be set in motion.
The cartoon, I suppose, could have still happened. Why not? Though again, what seems more likely is that the "Dogma" cartoon that was originally considered would have taken shape, maybe not made it on ABC, but found a home in syndication. Hell, maybe Kevin Smith could have used that cartoon to walk away from Hollywood completely, become a "TV guy," with a cast and crew diametrically opposed to the cheap animation and one-note jokes of a Seth MacFarlane-dominated prime time cartoon landscape.
All right. So there probably just wouldn't have been a cartoon.
And there probably wouldn't have been a "Clerks 2." And if there had, what would it have been? What would the Askewniverse look like without Dante Hicks? Maybe Randal would have been forever tied to the place that claimed his only friend. Maybe it still burns down, and Randal never looks back, goes to Mooby's, and winds up being the one who knocks up Becky, a relationship which could never persevere, never last, as Elias looks on, probably more of a punching bag for Randal's ever-growing spite for the world. Because he hates everything, and thinks everything is stupid. Who the hell would ever want to be his friend? And what the hell else does he have in life to live for?
Smith has said "Clerks 2" was as much about being in his 30s as "Clerks" was about being in his 20s. That's fair. That picture above would probably not reflect Smith's 30s, even without Dante Hicks, giving it all the more reason to never be made. But then again, what if it wasn't? What if, without Dante, Smith had no outlet for what he felt he needed to say? Where would Jay and Silent Bob be now, what venue would Smith find for his one big musical number? Kevin is an artist, a writer, who is always at his best when he has something he feels he has to say, and Dante really, was his first avatar to express that. Would Holden [Fucking] McNeil have been his second choice, had he left his first back on that Quick Stop floor? Is he still out there, chasing Alyssa Jones?
It is a morbidly fun game to play. Would Dante Hicks would have had some small part as one of the many kinds of living dead in "Dogma" [he has, of course, the experience, from being one of the living dead in "Clerks"]? Maybe not in physical form, but as some twisted Alan Rickman-uttered metaphor for the meaninglessness of existence, about the man who put himself out one day, who lived a day so important in its unimportance, and who, on the precipice of change, was denied that change by an act of random violence, by a bullet from some hoodlum of a gun? And then a sobbing Last Scion, so angry at the Lord who she feels has forsaken her on her question, screams back at him, asking why, why the Creator couldn't himself have saved this man, reach out to him, protected him, just ended the picture a minute or so early, that he may go on living, and make the changes he had planned on. Or not. Couldn't his God have given him the time?
The best things in Kevin Smith movies occur in conversations, the nuanced parts that take a little more attention, that ask someone to look at the threads between the characters. You have to take the time. Maybe Dante Hicks would have been remembered like that, the reason his cousin Gil goes for the big prizes in "Mallrats," a parable for living life to its fullest in "Chasing Amy," a memorial in the background, if you just pause the laserdisc, or put the DVD on slow motion, and run through it, one frame at a time. Here lies Dante Hicks. "The Lord Has Taken Him Home."
Every comic book fan loves a good "What If...?" Everyone wants to see the Elseworlds or Earth-2476, everyone wants to know about The Nail. It's hard not to be interested, it's hard not to want to leave the comfort of the fictions we know, and visit places where Superman still has the mullet, where Wolverine has killed the X-Men, where Donna Noble turned right. We want to see how they'd be different, how they would cope if we perversely reallocated their losses and theirs gains. And right on the edge of that, we wonder what we might have sacrificed, and how we too might have been changed.
In July of 2006, if Dante Hicks had died, I would not have sat in a movie theater and cried openly in front of my father, hunched over the back of a faux-velvet seat, the only thing keeping me from falling to my knees in genuflection. I would not have this small moment, which most would think was of little consequence, as a part of my life. And though I can speculate endlessly what this would have changed for Kevin Smith, or my father, or even the fictitious Randal Graves, I cannot imagine what it would have meant for me.