July 28, 2018

Until You Stay Dead: Star Brand and Computers

Star Brand #12

I have worked much of my career as a software engineer, and too much of my career has been devoted to addressing "legacy" code, keeping old code working, removing new bugs from old code, patching old code to do new things.

Increasingly I find myself referring to a passage from a comic book I read in my pre-teen years. The passage appears in the graphic at the top of this post, and comes from a comic book called "Star Brand", later renamed "The Star Brand".

The Star Brand is a star-shaped tattoo that grants its bearer tremendous powers -- flight, super strength, invulnerability, and the ability to shoot deadly energy beams from your hands. In the course of the comic book, two people bear the Star Brand -- a tall, bearded man referred to only as "the old man", and Pittsburgh car mechanic Ken Connell. The old man and Connell increasingly don't get along and Connell kills the old man. The old man, because of his power from the Star Brand, comes back to life. Connell then kills the old man again, and the old man comes to life again. Connell kills the old man yet again, and the old man comes back to life yet again.

It's at a comic book convention in Pittsburgh where Connell, dressed as a super hero that he none-too-imaginatively called "The Star Brand", encounters the old man after killing him for the fourth time. Connell is understandably perturbed; you would think that a man you kill would stay dead, especially if you killed him many times.

Connell's reply, transcribed from the above graphic:

Okay, old man. I thought I'd seen the last of you, and I don't know how you keep coming back, but I killed you before and I can do it again! And I'll keep doing it, until you stay dead!

The old man responds back with the word "Fool!" and proceeds to attack back at Connell stronger than ever.

It's alternately inspiring and frustrating: To have the tenacity to keep at a given task even when such tenacity doesn't get the job completely done, doesn't "kill the old man" so to speak. But the frustration is that, despite the tenacity, Connell has failed, because the old man doesn't stay dead.

I have felt the inspiration and the frustration myself in my career, and I wonder if those four words in a little-read comic book may prove prescient in contemporary computer programming and much else besides.

"Until you stay dead."