Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Slappy has innocence in him
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Wizard World Chicago 2008—
Part 1: For the Love of the Lame
More than ten years had passed since I’d entered the Rosemont Convention Center by habitrail, an excellent aerial vantage point for watching comic nerds line up by the platoon for the Midwest’s biggest comic book/science fiction/fantasy/gaming convention (and the third largest in the country, after San Diego and one in NY, I think). From the hundred-yard long skyway bridging River Road you can watch a skinny Spider-Man working the blocks-long line of colorful fans, many of whom are also costumed, into an orderly but quivering queue of keen anticipation. Actually, from up here, I don’t think he’s having that much impact on the scene. He’s just not that impressive. At least he’s the right basic body-type—no pot belly—though maybe a bit too scrawny for dressing up the Marvel way.
In the dozen or so years since Wizard Magazine bought the convention once known as the Chicago Comic-Con, it has grown from a 10,000-person-per-day event to over 125,000 attendees per annual show, according to the program I am about to receive. It has taken on corporate management that charges even zinesters $200 per table, displacing the old organizers* who gave free table space to just about anyone who did anything related to comics, including lettering one obscure graphic novel (me) and running off xeroxed mini-comics hand stapled in print runs of 100 and sold for 25 cents (me again). It has moved from the lobbies and extraneous areas of the Rosemont Ramada hotel to this mammoth several-acre complex made of multiple parking garages, an "Expoteria" (which no one I know has ever seen), ballrooms with crystalline chandeliers the size of large SUVs, showrooms large enough to get lost in once loaded with people and wares, and rooftops like silvered football fields gridded with almost-Winnebago-sized rooftop AC units, one of which is being serviced by a repairman that several of us notice as we walk past on the enclosed habitrail. One guy comments that it’s a bad sign that the AC units are already breaking down, but once we enter, there’s a subterranean coolness more than sufficient to keep the approaching nerd armies from sweating up their spandex or rusting their chainmail. All this is financed by the stellar $40 daily ticket price, up from about $15 per day back in the Nineties, and by the fact that, according to one vendor, Rosemont Convention Center is its own sales-tax zone, 3% higher than greater Chicago.
Entering the RCC’s main hall, the same Spidey from the ‘round-the-block admission line walks listlessly by, already in an out-of-character funk, overshadowed by the probably 12-foot-tall realistic sculpture of the rather CGI-looking Hulk from the new movie. It doesn’t do anything, but it does look impressive, and I realize now (writing this one week later) that I never approached it or had my picture taken with it, which would be the best use of an in-the-round Hulk statue.
We’ve just passed security and it’s about 8:30am—30 minutes into exhibitor set-up but 30 minutes before the "fanboys" are let in. Most of the security guys are burly, often black, sort-of-tough guys who have pretty cool jaded "whatever" attitudes that kind of lift them above the nerd masses and give them the sort of minor power that one needs for policing weaklings. Actually, though, it strikes me that the world has changed when it comes to looking at this
population of nerds. While the Comic-Con of old was peopled by a much more easily
*The old organizers also included a lady called Auntie Em, who was in charge of the small press areas and sometimes made us chocolate chip cookies.
pigeonholed cast (fanboys), Wizard World has bloated beyond one simple subculture to include not only the stereotypical comic-book crowd* which does include, in greater numbers than in the world at large, the beardy, overweight, stringy-haired, lightly pungent guys and the scrawny, bespectacled, pre-spider-bite-Peter-Parker types, but whole new phenotypes like the androgynous goth kids, the anime fans/hipster college art students, the joe-blow video-gamer types who just as easily take a seat in a sports bar as stroll though this melange, and actually every other type of person except for people like my dad, who could not exist in such a place. If "comic nerd" is a genotype, then we have truly mutated into a phenomenal array of physical forms.
The most important new sub-group in the Wizard World proves to be the costumed characters, or people into "cosplay," a smashed portmanteau short for "costume play" that comes from the international-but-rooted-in-Japan way of dressing up like anime characters. Such costuming, always represented in the Comic-Con society, has exploded in recent years to become a significant slice of the event, much more than just a little spillover from the costume contest (which now offers a $1000 top prize). Costumed presences are always in sight, from the models-for-hire that work some of the publishers’ booths in slut gear resembling "I Dream of Genie" harem outfits, to the serious costume hobbyist like the Predator-suited guy I overheard as I dried my hands in the bathroom, who told an admirer that his suit was "a three-year work-in-progress**," to little kids in Halloween-type Batman suits and goofy teens in hand-stitched X-men tights. The costuming is so pervasive and so various that it fades to background noise until truly spectacular examples of either spectacle or female anatomy appear.***
Where the Comic-Con was once home to an almost homogeneous subculture with some claims to being an underground "counterculture" (at least under the auspices of the sort of paranoia that led the FBI/CIA to make a "groups to monitor" list that included the SCA, or Society for Creative Anachronisms, known to most of us as those guys who dress up like knights at Renaissance festivals, and featured in the movie Darkon. Surprisingly, they were considered a potential threat: social revisionists who might try to, I don’t know, branch off into some pocket universe where jousting and filk singing would bring down the government... maybe some Bizarro-world Ruby Ridge or Waco where they’d refuse to pay taxes until they had to sword-fight the Army), it is now a postmodern Babel where disparate legions converge and basically speak the same language for one weekend. Some might show up to see retired wrestlers Mick "Mankind" Foley or George "The Animal" Steele; others are just looking for good deals on old comics, obscure new action figures, or strange sexual cartoons. There are booths selling swords and battle axes, leather bondage gear, and quirky t-shirts for mainstreamer and nerd alike: from Coldplay and Megadeth to "I (silhouette of Godzilla) Tokyo" to Battlestar Galactica references like "Frak This," and of course every superhero emblem and portrait. There are grown men hunting foreign Transformers, and there are parents of geeks hunting their own kids and looking at their watches. Possibly the biggest draw for the mainstream is that Wizard’s featured guests now include third-rate TV
*Which is actually pretty diverse and has been fairly accurately caricatured on The Simpsons in characters like Comic Book Guy, Milhouse, Bart and guest appearances by famous cartoonists/comic artists
**This ruined my confidence that the more bad-ass, movie-accurate costumes were just expensive factory-mades or actual movie props bought on Ebay. The totally convincing stormtroopers and Boba Fetts walking around had me convinced that the truly perfect outfits were just purchases, but Bathroom Predator knocked me back to thinking anything could be homemade.
***more later, or massive footnote necessary
stars (Missy Peregrym from Heroes), has-beens (Lou Ferrigno*), and even reality-show bums (Johnny Fairplay from Survivor) and celebrity offspring (the son of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider). While I can’t imagine spending time or money to meet these people, there were little battalions of attendees who would erupt into big rooms on certain cues, and then one of the security dudes would be yelling, "If you have a ticket for a special event, LINE UP HERE!" Luckily for those of us retaining some comic-nerd pride, the biggest lines still formed around comic-book writers and artists like Warren Ellis (the Guest of Honor) and Todd McFarlane (whose vast action-figure fortune has allowed him to buy a pro hockey team, but who will always be remembered most fondly for drawing an extra-bendy Spider-Man and creating the Spawn comic that launched Image Comics).
So, as I pass the lackluster ectomorph Spidey and the towering Hulk inaction figure, I enter the gates of Babel but do not feel at home. I still recognize all of the major icons and signposts in this pop multiverse (yes, I’ve been a nerd for a long time, and even cracked a Robocop-based joke** on the drive from Missouri to Chicago, and yes, my friend Marcus got it), but I can tell I’m losing traction, just the same way I’m able to name fewer and fewer of the new bands I hear on the radio. I’m not too excited about the big displays from Marvel and DC. I don’t circle back later to see if there are cool free buttons and flyers at the Dark Horse tables (though Marcus does grab me an extra Hellboy flyer that’s like a tiny poster). We weave past all the big publishers and through the retailers’ booths to navigate the backwaters of Artists’ Alley, where we find the half-table that will be our home for the next three days.
It’s Friday morning. My friend Brad, who started the hobby of making comics with me back in high school (with Cranial Stomp Comix #1, 1989), will be coming with us on Saturday and Sunday, but today it’s just me and Marcus. We’ve already stopped at the Exhibitor Registration Booth, where we got our badges without a hitch, and now we’re on the way back to my car to get the rest of our stuff before the masses gush in at 9:00. We split up because I want to make a stop in a Palace Bathroom, one of these really huge, fancy toilet-showrooms that they have upstairs just off the skyways to the parking labyrinths. I don’t think they’re even meant for us to use, but the cleaning staff have the doors open—I think this is probably part of a different convention area, like the one that used to host, on the same weekend as the "Con" (which is only cool to say if you’re thinking of it like "con-artist"), a very high-end gathering of Hindus who all looked like dignitaries in fine traditional regalia—actually, the men wore really nice Western-style suits and tuxedos, while the women, many of them just stunning, wore the picturesque saris in blazing bright colors and metallic gold paisleyish patterns—who all passed the comic nerds in the hallways like otherworldly beings. It might all be compared to Lord of the Rings: the nerds would be the humble hobbits, while the Hindus would be the immortal elves drifting by in the forest. I once glimpsed one of their ballrooms, and they had long tables laid with a kingly feast, and I’m pretty sure I saw ice sculptures. That would be the right sort of demographic for these Louis XIV bathrooms with their marble floors and granite sinks and shining 409-commercial surfaces. While seating myself on a stool, I picture some disheveled geek wandering in here and blasting diarrhea uncontrollably, but of course I’m the only one defiling this holy restroom with my milk-crate full of xeroxed mini-comics and my enfeebled, off-schedule pooping.
*Loser, asshole... long story.
**Something about Robocop working at the Murphy USA gas station, pumping gas to one of the corporate guys in Robocop, who says, "Nice pumping, son—what’s your name?," to which Robocop says, "Murphy," and the logo pops up gleamily.
Scooting past me in the skyway there’s a kid in punk-wear that I already saw twenty minutes before pushing a dolly. Now there he goes in the other direction with a car battery on the dolly. Not a very punk thing to be doing. Or maybe VERY punk.
I get my ass to the Con and score one of the only cool moments of the weekend: crate on my shoulder, I’m weaving my way back to our table when I find myself passing The Iron Sheik, who nods at me and gives a little wave from his table. He’s not in costume, but he’s still easy to recognize because I looked at the program, not because I really know my aging pro wrestlers. I give him a nod and a smile before I actually recognize him, and then consider my relative coolness after hangin’ with the Sheik.
I’m still having a hard time navigating, but it’s pretty easy to remember the basic location of our table. It’s almost 9:00, and I imagine that I’m just ahead of the fanboy tsunami. There is a bit of a humanoid gush near the entrance, but it pressurizes right into the Big Attractions, rarely pumping all the way back into the artists’ tables. I skim past a few mighty heaps of toys and get my numbing hand out from under the crate, setting it down at our spot. Marcus had been worried that if we were late, we’d forfeit our space and it would be sold to someone else, because it said something like that on the Wizard World website, but it becomes obvious that not only are there no people showing up to buy uninhabited spaces, MOST of them are empty at this point, and half of the spaces will not be filled by noon Friday or even Saturday. As we unpack our goods, we immediately spill out into the neighboring spaces on either side of our roughly 3' x 5' slot. I always figure this makes sense, and that it will be easy to draw back in if that person arrives, hopefully without guff, attitude, or grudgery. Back in the nineties I’d had my mini-comics over in the next guy’s space when he showed up, and there was just no smoothing it over—he glared and puffed up and once I said, "Oh, I’m in your space, I’m sorry, we just figured we’d use it till you got here," and proceeded to shift everything back in about 15 seconds, he still acted mad and said something about complaining to the people in charge. At least he was so late that I only had to sit in his aura of hostility for the remaining half of the weekend. I think he was selling Jeffrey Dahmer t-shirts and a poorly drawn, overpriced sensationalistic comic-book biography of Dahmer that had just appeared briefly on CNN because Dahmer had lately been incarcerated or killed and I was standing in the way of Mad Guy’s opportunistic fame gambit. Still, mad as he was, he never did shit to me, and probably still has a closet full of Dahmer crap that no one wants.
So I’ve got my new Fish-with-a-Gun T-shirt over the front of the table, a spinning rack of small comics, a stack of a larger comic called Disappointing Circus* with a sign saying "Own
the most OFFENSIVE comic ever—$2. Must be 18 or dead inside." Marcus has a couple of large multi-colored screen prints over the front of the table, some small comics, a standing binder with prints in mylar sleeves, and a free flyer. We both have a bunch of prints, mostly etchings, lithographs, and wood engravings, mixed in a big pile that’s expanding to the right
of Marcus’s space, because back in the nineties a couple of us discovered that genuine "fine-art" prints could be sold here even though most people had no idea what they were. To my
*A comic made ten years earlier, by myself and four friends, that pretty much lived up to its name. The five of us chipped in for printing costs and decided that the content was "anything goes." Two of the guys "got carried away," in the words of one Ozarks printer, leading to our having to go all the way to Chicago for printing after previously mentioned printer not only refused our work, but called other area printers and warned them to stay away from us. Actually, there was one local guy who didn’t give a shit and would have printed it, saying, "Mountain men having sex with E.T.s? Hell, I’ll print it," but he was too expensive. I think he was hoping it was "a nudie book." We ended up having him do the trimming, because the place in Chicago couldn’t cut it down small enough to qualify as a comic book.
left, there’s a couple of empty spaces that I encroach on by a foot or so. Two spaces to the right of Marcus there is a man who will set the tone of the entire weekend, whose overbearing will and persistence will batter through all barriers. He will become the Intolerable Iron Man.
This fellow, actually named Scott Redding, is dressed in a factory-made padded-fabric Iron Man costume, which is of course one of the more popular outfits this year in the wake of the popular Iron Man film. I first notice him when he opens a duffle bag and pulls out big white ski boots and puts them on to augment his outfit, along with red-and-black cycling gloves. Even though none of it’s metal and the boots are the wrong color, the whole package is actually a decent get-up, but we’ll all be damn sick of it eventually. He generally leaves the plastic helmet on the table until there’s a good photo op, which by his reckoning is about every four minutes. He has neatly integrated himself into the new attitude of the convention by grabbing onto every available shred of exhibitionism, however small, as a window for his sales pitch.
It goes something like this: A brightly costumed person—or, what the hell, even someone wearing a t-shirt with a funny phrase or super-hero on it—comes near. Iron Man says, "Hey, great costume, can I get a picture?" or "That’s a cool shirt—Jack Kirby’s Hulk—can I take a picture of it?" Basically, the only immunity lies in wearing plain dress shirts or otherwise information-free garments, because anyone remotely comment-worthy, from goth or punk to a girl in a bright blue dress with striped socks, will get it. Sometimes the victim will even be a little confused or creeped out. A punk-style couple insists that they aren’t dressed as anyone before impatiently standing while being photographed. A few different girls who just barely trigger the "look at me" switch with unique apparel also give in, with varying mixtures of perplexed pleasantry and mild disdain. Still, whatever their emotion, they’re snagged for the spiel: "I’ll be putting these pictures on my MySpace page, so if you want to see them, here’s a card with my web address (now they’re leaning over his table to take the card), and today I’m offering any of these images (he gestures at the table) for only five bucks, or I can do a custom drawing for five bucks." It’s actually masterful salesmanship. He lures people in with an implied complement (you’re interesting enough to be photographed), gives them a friendly freebie, and then starts selling after establishing rapport. Most of them at least look at his work, and a few of them buy it, usually under the category of "custom work," where they request a certain character in a certain situation, often fighting some other character.* The sad thing about this is that once an order is placed, the customer walks around for 30 minutes or so while Iron Man sketches, cribbing figures and poses from the famous "How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way" book, which he always holds in his left hand below the table while he draws. It’s a useful book, but it’s sort of designed for the novice teenager just learning comic art, not for the unoriginal 32-year-old man posing as a sketch artist in a setting where really SKILLED artists with their own trademark styles are everywhere. I don’t even think about how sad this is until I actually see his work, around lunchtime on Friday.
He gets up to go to the bathroom and asks us to watch his table. No problem. I’ll finally get a good look at his stuff without his seeing me look, which is good, because I’d have to show some kind of positive reaction if he saw me looking, regardless of how bad it was. As I stand up to see better, Marcus says, "It’s really bad." I take a few seconds to focus, to see past the primary coloring of it all. "OOH, yeah, it is bad." His artwork is truly awful. Lots of stiff, badly
*We later notice the slogan on his card: "If you can dream it, I can sketch it," which inspires some jokes about really challenging him with some bizarre stuff, like emailing him some actual dreams or dreamy madness like a clown-dwarf pushing grapes up a donkey’s rectum.
proportioned figures with bulging muscles floating in non-environments of pure magic-marker color. Lots of situational cliches like the Hulk fighting the Thing, Superman flying in space, and a Predator overhead-pressing an Alien. Nothing but junior-high hand-cramping with labored inking and garish coloring. Some of the figures remind me of character sketches for the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game drawn by this kid James McKiernan back in 8th grade, except James was at least inventing his own characters. "Bad Fan Art" is being painfully defined again and again here. At least he’s not drawing sexual content,* although it’s all quite masturbatory. None of it’s even enjoyable ironically, in that "so bad it’s good" way. It’s just bad.
Around this time, Marcus is getting hungry. I ate cereal at Brad’s, plus the sludgy, sogging remains of a Cutie Pie fruit pie that had fallen into the water in the bottom of my road-trip cooler. It was disgusting, but I strained most of it from the cold water it was floating in and swallowed it for the honor of not wasting food. Marcus had skipped breakfast (as usual, I think), but I still have a few survival items that survived the cooler ride, including the perfect breakfast substitute: a sealed cup of rice pudding. Unfortunately, when dealing with Marcus, this is the sort of food item that meets resistance because he’s never had it before, and he’s like Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials: "He won’t eat it, he hates everything." It’s especially frustrating because he’s a vegetarian who doesn’t really like vegetables, fruit, or nuts to my knowledge. He seems to fuel himself mostly on cheese pizza, Mountain Dew and french fries. He also never seems to age, so maybe he’s onto something, but he’s a hard sell on new things. The only thing I’ve successfully turned him onto is pecan pie, but that was after he protested with something like "I thought only old people eat pecan pie." That’s pretty much his reaction to rice pudding as well, but I get him to take it. He eats a bite, says it tastes like oatmeal, manages a couple more bites and then leaves most of it under the table and eventually makes a run to McDonald’s for fries. When he’s gone, I finish the rice pudding like I’m doing a shot. I say it’s good, but I look ten years older than Marcus even though I’m one year younger, so maybe it’s true that only old people eat rice pudding and pecan pie.
On the plus side, Iron Man returns and resumes his routine, which is the main source of entertainment despite also being wholesale irritation. The day really drags, and the masses never seem to flood our way, although there are more costumes than ever: Zatannas and Black Canaries, teams of yellow-and-black X-men, Northstar and Aurora, Indiana Jones, toddler versions of Batman, Spider-Man, and Supergirl. There’s a pretty cool old guy dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi who really fits the mold and has a very authentic outfit. When Iron Man asks if he can take his picture, Obi-Wan waves his hand slowly and says, "You WILL take my picture," as if Jedi mind-tricking. He seems like a sensible, even grandfatherly man, which
begs the question: Why is he involved in all this costume madness? It used to be that only the oddest exhibitionists dressed Halloween-style for a convention; now it seems to be almost 10% of the con-goers, and probably more females than males.
The "Rise of Cosplay" makes some sense in a psychosexual framework, I guess—for the traditional "hot girls" who are often on display for pay (for a publisher, normally), it’s a socially acceptable way to strut and be worshiped, but with a slathering of silliness to reduce pressure and pretension. For the more numerous nerdy girls who normally lack or suppress struttable stuff, this is the temple where they can become the priestesses: it’s common to see heads turning and cameras flashing for those who probably never turn heads in daily
*Like the guy a few aisles over with the poster of Batgirl (well-drawn at least) posed lasciviously on a bed in the Batcave, biting her lip, thinking "Boy Wonder indeed..."
life—behold, the chunky blond Target employee is now a voluptuous goth vampire with a flowing, flame-red wig, and the scary, yellow-eyed movie-quality werewolf is—surprise, the almost middle-aged mom who looks like she’s about to have a heat stroke as she removes her huge wolf-head. As for the guys, their suits are generally a lot less titillating, but I’m sure they have their own brand of exhibitionism, plus most of them have learned, like Iron Man, that not only do the costumes naturally put one on a collision course with cute costumed girls, it gives them a good excuse to snap photos of the gals and even swap pictures later.
In this brief bubble of a fantasy world, there’s a lifting of inhibitions that, like the internet, lets people forget what their dad would say, or how the people at work would react, when they cut loose with some totally imagined identity on a stage where they are primarily anonymous. That sounds like some recipe for finding one’s true self, to be accompanied by a ‘70s spirit-rock anthem by Styx or Argent or Kansas. On the other hand, it’s analogous to the brand of anonymity/fantasy that turns people into internet gambling addicts and e-pedophiles. Maybe it’s all quite healthy, though, considering that there are lots of social freaks here and plenty of real swords, knives, etc, but very little security, and no one’s ever been attacked at Wizard World as far as I know. And on yet another hand, the anything-goes, fantasy-world bubble pops like spit on a griddle when a truly pathetic human shows up and proves what costumes can’t change; for example, this hugely obese Baby-Huey-ish man who comes past our table and reestablishes the parameters for the human form. You know this happens when Marcus looks shocked and says, "Holy shit, I wish I could get a picture of this guy." He is pretty remarkable. He’s got a basketball-diametered squish for a neck, a leaned-back posture and pursed lips (the Baby Huey part) that make him look both haughty and infantile, and stumpy arms that can’t be lowered for their girth. For all I know, he’s a saintly, sterling individual, but his physique overrides all our concerns for a few minutes. After he leaves, Marcus tries drawing him from memory, but to no avail, sketching instead what looks like a very porky Elvis.
Lots of other people walk by. People who SHOULD like our stuff pay no heed, which is the frustrating part: when people in Star Trek shirts go by, or when dorky teens spend a long time looking at Iron Man’s rainbow of 8x10 cheese shots, we don’t expect them even to look our way, but when punkish teens or anyone who looks like they like a good crass joke goes past, we feel slighted. There’s a college-age kid who walks by at least twice with a backpack full of rock-band patches, most prominently one for "Born Against." I don’t know them, but after seeing it more than once, Marcus complains that if that kid stopped, he’d almost have to like our stuff. "Born Against stayed at my house one time—there’s even a liner note in one of their albums, ‘Thanks to those who saved us from certain death in Springfield, Missouri.’" I’m sure he’s right, but the kid never even looks our way. There’s no way to force people to look at your stuff other than greeting them and giving them something for free, which I have been doing with some people. I have some stickers and comic strips I’m handing to folks who get close enough, but the sheer volume of even freebies is such that you could fill a grocery bag with flyers and stickers if you walked the whole convention center. That’s why we have attention-getting things over the front of our table (the Fish-with-a-Gun shirt and Marcus’s large 10-color screen-print of a hot death-girl in a red dress about to scythe off a guy’s (Marcus’s) head) and I give people things that are a tiny bit shocking, like a sticker of a demented McDonaldland Grimace with a little blood on him and holding a sickle. It says, "GRIMace: he’ll kill your kids... but he won’t rape them." Several people get a good kick out of it, but when I give one to a sour-faced young man in a Slipknot shirt (again, the exact right target for such a thing), it doesn’t please. It goes something like, "Hey, you need a free sticker." He veers my way and says suspiciously, "Why don’t I need a free sticker?" I say, "No, I said you DO need one." He says OK and takes it, scowls at it momentarily and drops it in his bag as he walks away.
That pretty much sums up Day 1: Like standing in the corner at a disappointing party.
Wizard World Day 2: Asserting Our Dominance
Saturday is sure to get better—our second round, the biggest day of the con attendance-wise, and my friend Brad Jones, Cranial Stomp Comix co-founder, is coming dressed as The Devil in red long johns. This has worked before. People love The Devil.
Since Brad knows the train system and we left all our stuff at the convention table, we go by train. It’s a fairly long walk from his place to the station that will give us a good price (one train ride w/o transfer), but we get to walk through a weird steel mill split into multiple buildings (like a steel-making campus) where we see, from a distance, molten steel and sparks flying, and we walk past a two-by-twelve-foot solid rod, like Godzilla’s pencil, that looks inert but gives off heat we can feel from fifteen feet away. They don’t have warning signs or barriers anywhere. If Brad were already in his Devil outfit, it would be a good place to get pictures, as if in the pit of fire; then we’d either get run off or, better yet, caught on fire or smashed between immense glowing crucibles. I’m sure there’s some shit in there up to the task of smelting down Terminators and Lou Ferrignos. We also pass a brief vista of an enormous scrapyard that slides almost instantly from view, a poster that says "Target: RATS" and shows an evil-looking rat silhouette under circled crosshairs, and the office of Brad’s abusive dentist*.
Brad elaborates: From the sidewalk you can peer into the entryway and see a photo of the disturbingly tanned dentist flanked by his harem of lovely assistants. There is something definitely Hasselhoffesque about him and I immediately didn’t like him—a sort of exuberant cockiness that usually masks insecurity and makes me ill-at-ease. But the assistants were all super nice (as well as lovely) and I figured, "Well, I suppose he’s the sort of guy you’d want to fix your teeth." I had broken out my front teeth skateboarding when I was a teen-ager and had had dentists telling me for years that the old replacement teeth needed to be redone—and now I finally had insurance to cover it. One of the first things he said (while talking me into an expensive whitening procedure I didn’t want) was that my teeth were naturally yellowish, "Probably because your family is English or Irish, right?" So I said "Yeah, Irish," while thinking "actually more Scots-Welsh but whatever." Later he was talking about ball-room dancing and that it was actually a sort of manly art or something, and I put in that my wife had talked me into doing Irish set dancing with her and I had actually really enjoyed it—which is true. A couple of appointments later he had Jeopardy playing on the big screen TV and he and assistant were guessing questions while they worked on me (which was actually much less unsettling than when they were watching baseball and the Cubs were losing.) So one of the contestants had on a tie with lots of little beer mugs on it and I think maybe he said his hobby was home-brewing or something. So the dentist starts deriding this guy and saying "What a jerk! He’s probably Irish—look at those beer mugs! It is just so grating when people identify too closely with their ethnicity." So maybe it was just him being randomly harsh and judgmental, more than abusive to me, but it didn’t increase my fondness for him. This is coupled with the severe pain I experienced (the whitening made my teeth feel like they were ice cracking and melting in their sockets, and the replacement caps he put on my missing front teeth gave me constant pounding pain for about a month so that I couldn’t bite down on anything and could hardly eat at all) and also his dismissive attitude when I expressed alarm at the pain and asked if it was normal—"sometimes there is some discomfort if the patient is particularly sensitive, just stick it out, take some extra strength Tylenol—you’ll be fine!"
Brad has a bulk pass that he swipes to get us on the train pronto, but we wait awhile on a platform for the train and we soon notice lots of probable convention nerds gathering. We did just walk through neighborhoods where college kids seemed well represented, but until the platform they seemed to manifest mostly as attractive female joggers, all of whom seemed to stay back there while the nerds converged trainward. Brad points across a barrier to adjacent train tracks, which are for the Metra train that serves the generally wealthy suburbs. We await a CTA train, run by a different authority. He says there are signs along the way, on the Metra side, that seem to poke fun at the CTA trains for being late a lot, saying something like, "We’re on time—are you?" It seems harsh, considering that they probably have more money and I don’t think the two even serve the same routes, but them’s the breaks, CTA. Luckily, our train arrives straight away, pretty much on the money.
Arriving at the convention line, we begin the nefarious but totally justifiable trickery of getting the Devil in for free. This is necessary because 1) we already paid $200 for our table space, which is plenty, and probably unrecoupable (but it comes with only the two badges), 2) it should be pretty easily pulled off, and 3) this is the Devil we’re dealing with. Brad joins the long line about half a block out. Marcus and I proceed to the doors and show our "Exhibitor" passes, then go all the way to our table and freshen it up for business. Then I take Marcus’s pass back outside to Brad. No one checks ID, and there are only occasional casual sweeps by a disinterested security dude once you’re inside the convention. Easy.
The convention coughs up more of the same, but we do start to get some takers on our top-notch quality goods. Brad stands in the aisle as the Devil and engineers some salesmanship, mostly by handing out free stickers and telling knock-knock jokes*. We rediscover that our core audience, at least for our printmaking work, is the grown woman. More than half our sales go to young mom-types, girlfriend-of-artist-types, and other females who like art but maybe not the flood of mostly sexist art that gushes through the squeezing sweaty fingers of fandom. There’s a pair of pretty, possibly Hispanic twenty-something girls who buy a few of our prints and come back later to get a couple more: soothing vindication in a blast-furnace of indifference. Brad walks around a lot as the Devil and digs right in, bringing back some freebies and minor trades that make me realize I haven’t yet seen a damn smidgen of the convention at large. He also debuts his cornerstone joke/comment for the con: "Have you guys been around this place? . . . eh, it’s mostly comics (said dismissively, as if he thought it would be mostly something else).
Brad settles in a chair to do some knitting on his chainmail shirt made of silver yarn that really does look like links of metal (more like aluminum than steel, but still pretty metallically convincing). He wields thick silver knitting needles that he got from an old lady at a sewing bee. He says they handily conquer cheaper knitting needles, which are made from plastic. These are not far from being like a pair of ninja throwing spikes. There are only two chairs for our table, so I get up to walk around, and one of the first things I do is find an extra chair. I know that there must be a stash of chairs somewhere in this building, and I find them pretty quickly by walking the building’s perimeter. Back behind a curtain, between bathrooms and big loading doors, a stack of blue chairs sits unguarded. Then I weave through the artists’ tables and do just what I wish people wouldn’t do to me: keep just enough distance that they can’t lure me in with their sales pitches. Still, I do see some things that draw me in, and end up buying a comic that I don’t really want, and a hand-painted toad-sized sculpture
*actually, the same joke over and over: "Knock knock: Who’s there? I eat mop: I eat mop who?/I eat my poo. (Try it at home).
of a squat, nubbiny bird character that my wife should get a kick out of.
It takes ten minutes just to cruise around most of the artists’ alley in glancing fashion, and I’m skipping a lot. There are probably close to 500 artists here, very few of them familiar. I do recognize a few guys who have been here year after year, but only a couple that I’d call old troopers from the days of the small press/zine group I used to hang with. One is Paul Sizer, a good artist who always hovered on the brink of professional success with a science fiction comic called Little White Mouse. The other is Pam Bliss, the most tenacious and consistently productive maker of mini-comics to come out of the upper Midwest despite never having produced anything I actually like, which I feel awful admitting. Her drawing is OK, and she has good production values, and she makes cool buttons and t-shirts, but she’s never written a good joke or story that I know of. She’s popular with quite a few people, and she’s a nice, friendly person, but all her comics are sort of pithy, unfunny, blandly quirky yawners with competent but generic artwork, and again, what a dick I am for saying so. I end up talking to her, and the other thing about Pam Bliss is that she hasn’t seemed to age in ten years. Maybe she time-warped here. I don’t know if she’s 35 or 55, and it doesn’t help that her husband Nick looked like a grizzled biker dude back in the nineties. I’ll guess that Pam’s 45. She’s branched out from her Sparky the Dog comic by doing drawings of people’s dogs by request, for five dollars. Just like your pals at Cranial Stomp, she’s having a tough time offsetting the $200 table fee. I’m still not feeling it for her comics, but she has pretty cool shirts—dark blue with a white skeletal coelacanth image, saying "paper comics are not extinct." I trade one of my shirts for one of hers, which is nice because her shirts are superior in both fabric and printing, and possibly even design.
I walk around. There are tractor-trailer-loads of geek shirts. There are towering banners with two-story logos and drawings of women flexed, through miracles of revisionist anatomy rivalling cubism, so their butts and their boobs are consistently shown in concert, sometimes nearly aligned and in the perfectly hemispherical glory that only computer-rendered color gradients can deliver. There are stormtroopers encountering Boba Fetts. There is a booth with leather S&M gear that I sort of want to apply to my wife, but wouldn’t have a prayer of getting the right size. There’s about a half acre of snacking and bathrooming in one cinder-block backwater of a corner which serves as the concessions area. There are lines up to 400 kids long for guests I cannot see. There are 18" statues of Lara Croft that cost several hundred dollars. There are tiny Godzillas and Godzillas of stature, and glass showcases holding every component of every Star Wars entity and machine in Lego form, each with a tiny hand-written price tag. There is a triumphant river of tragic humanity running through it all.
At the end of the circuit, almost back at our table, I end up talking to a nice, unassuming guy working on a webcomic called Homeless Robot. He has a primitive but cool cardboard cut-out displaying his character behind him, and a really beautiful print of the cityscape where his story takes place. He has a really solid, regular-joe demeanor that seems less like salesmanship and more like friendly presentation of something you might enjoy, and he has one of those faces that seems benign to the depths of genetic memory, as if his ancestor was your ancestor’s best pal. As it turns out, his comics are well-drawn, entertainingly written, and PAINSTAKINGLY produced: he draws the panels with characters in place, scans the artwork, colors it in the computer, then draws portions like arms and legs and mouths that will move, then animates something in every panel, synchronizing it all with sound effects and voices that he records. Lifting a laptop with dwindling battery power, he turns it toward me and fires it up for a couple of "pages," answering a few questions I have about how it’s done. It’s fairly impressive, but what I remember most about him is how getting the comic done consumes his life. He says that he has a crappy job, and he comes home and works on Homeless Robot, and that’s pretty much it—no girlfriend, no other interests—just like I used to be, at probably the same age. I hope he gets a movie deal or a girlfriend, because life’s too short to dedicate it all to one’s webcomic.
Late morning Saturday the guys to my left show up at their table with boxes of magazines to sell. I start pulling in my comics where they’re spilling out into that space, with an obligatory apology for intruding, but luckily the guys are fine with it and say they’re just dropping their stuff off while they finish cruising the convention.
During a slow spell, the sight of some attractive woman reminds us of ten years ago when one of the guys in our group back then kept looking at some hot gal a few tables away and saying, "That chick must be some kind of prostitute or something—it’s like she’s got a chokehold on my mind!" We laughed and debunked his claim: "That’s what hot chicks do, Billy—they make you want to look at them." Billy was kind of a reclusive smut nut who collected freaky porn and other "scum," like videos of genital torture and people eating shit. He threw a few "scum fests" where he showed his favorite clips and tried to blow people’s minds. He choked with laughter whenever anyone appeared horrified or grossed out, and then he’d say something like, "A little too much for you, huh?" Much to his chagrin, the internet came along and rendered his collection obsolete with sites like "Rotten.com." Now most of what Billy spent years collecting can now be found or topped in a few hours of web-searching, and any girl that now catches our eye can be jokingly referred to as "must be some kind of prostitute."
As if in response to the underlying and/or overwhelming sexuality of the costumed characters that infest this place, a couple of jokers come down the aisle dressed as Aquaman and Green Arrow with their crotches stuffed outrageously, posing for every camera in sight by putting hands on hips, grinning big, and thrusting their bulges forward. People seem to love this; the two become the stars of the show for a few minutes wherever they go. There are also a couple of girls dressed like Vulcans (though one might be a Romulan or an Asian elf) who present a fairly asexual counterpoint, and yet another pair who are pretty sad in their mastery of nerd kung fu, in that I can’t even identify their specific garishness. One, in tight blue pants and a big yellow collar, reminds me of "The Commander" from Trekkies—the Arkansas woman who goes to her printing-house job in her Starfleet uniform—and the other is a chubby short girl in a full-on spandex super-suit complete with cowl. Marcus tells me later that they are Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. I’m pleased that they are characters of limited renown, because it’s like they’re living within their charismatic means, and my failure to ID them is probably their version of totally kicking ass, because I’ll bet they enjoy stumping folks. These are costumes as trivia questions.
There’s a teenage girl who aptly sums up the whole experience by turning to her dad (I hope), a beatnik-type guy in an old-fashioned suit, and saying, in her anime cute-girl duds, "I just love all the attention I’m getting."
One surprising thing is how mundane all the costumes are becoming, as we are numbed by the parade of many get-ups and by the continuous drain of witnessing Iron Man take ALL their pictures. He’s grinding every one of them through the dark satanic pepper mill of his artistic failure, where we all come out pulverized. Astonishingly, he’s recruiting followers: there are two teen girls—a petite one in a sort of Asian-flavored sailing uniform, and a rather hefty one in a black robe with white edging and a huge sock on her head—who are becoming Iron-Man accessories, sometimes hanging for up to an hour on the inspirational words of Redding, who has been dishing out smidges of non-wisdom so unmemorable that I can’t remember a single sample. The girls just seem so impressionable that it’s sad that they can’t find better counsel. There’s also a semi-attractive Xena, Warrior Princess with a properly fitted leather costume, a lame plastic sword, and, we will soon learn, lopsided breasts, who has bebuddied Iron Man with the familiarity of an old acquaintance, as if they know each other from previous conventions. Xena watches his table for a while when he goes to get food or relieve himself, and of course he’s not gone quite long enough.
We’re joined by Mr. "Tales of Questionable Taste," the guy to my left, who settles in and unpacks boxes of a magazine called Tabard Inn, but he always refers to it as Tales of Questionable Taste, asking people, "Do you like tales of questionable taste?" to lure them in. If that last sentence seems repetitive, try sitting next to him. He’s a pretty ok guy, and I trade a copy of Disappointing Circus for one of his magazines, which isn’t half bad in its politically incorrect zeal. He also has harsh bumper stickers saying things like, "It’s not a child, it’s a parasite." All in all, we’re in sort of the same boat: not at exactly the right convention, but getting by. Ultimately, he sells very little. I only see three or four copies go out the whole weekend, though I hear "Do you like tales of questionable taste?" about two hundred times.
Mid-morning Saturday, when Marcus and I are scouting out our potential publishers, they announce to the whole convention by intercom that Michael Turner has died after a long battle with cancer. Whatever energy that drains from the masses probably feeds directly into Marcus so that he won’t die after his long battle with cheesecake art, which Michael Turner dominated through his comics Witchblade and Fathom, the covers of which always showed slickly perfected swimsuit model poses ornamented with biomechanical arabesques, sharp talons, wet hair by Mucha, and battle-bitch eyes. I sometimes defend them as well crafted cheese despite their brainless unoriginality (concepts via pure derivative super-stereotypes, style pretty much lifted from Jim Lee/Marc Silvestri/Image bullpen). Marcus always goes for the throat and points them all to the crapper. The news of Turner’s death gives Marcus the briefest pause and faintest undertone of mercy as he says something like, "That’s too bad, I know he was pretty young, but I won’t miss his artwork at all."
Back at the table we regroup and Brad heads out on a Devil mission, giving out some stickers and mini-comics. He returns with a few flyers, cards, and comics. There’s a glossy postcard with slutty girls on it from a company called Zenescope. These cards are EVERYWHERE, but Brad got his from the live models working at the Zenescope booth in harem-girl clothes. Marcus points at the card and says, "Did they give you that?" and Brad says enthusiastically, "Huh? Man, they gave me a BONER!" I see them later and they are pretty cute, but I’m more in sync with Brad’s sentiment when at some point I go by the Warren Ellis signing and there’s a girl made up as Anna Mercury, one of his new characters who is basically a flame-haired bombshell in black leather dominatrix gear with two revolvers on her hips. She looks absolutely B-movie-ready and turns out to be just a fan who dresses up for conventions, not a paid model at all. I would have never guessed, except that days later, when I look up Iron Man’s MySpace page, there she is. There’s a link to her own webpage, where she’s dressed up as about half of the spandexed female characters in the comic-book world: Black Cat, Spider-Woman, Rogue, Mystique, Phoenix. Now that I think about it, there are no DC characters in her repertoire. Maybe she’s a Marvel Zombie. She’s posted some "civilian" photos, too. She’s more average than gorgeous, and clearly on the thick side, but she really fills out a flesh-squeezing costume with aplomb.
Brad does some record shopping at a booth with a bunch of old albums run by a grizzled old British headbanger named Jonas who becomes Brad’s hero for about three hours after answering Brad’s query for Saxon albums by saying, "Mate, if I had any Saxon here, I’da bought it all meself!" Brad comes back emptyhanded on the albums, but apparently he was able to soothe his battle-metal craving by buying an actual broadsword from another dealer after minimal deliberation. We all sit around wielding it a bit, and at some point Xena is back manning Iron Man’s station. I knew she entered the costume contest, so I ask her who won, but she only knows that she didn’t win—she left after failing to make the finals. We both agree that it should have been the Mojo guy with the little Spiral girl sidekick.* Brad is showing off his broadsword and they take a picture together. Brad says, "What do you think it’s made of—what kind of metal?" and Xena says with swift certainty, "pot-metal." This sort of sucks the wind out of his sails, and she hammers it home, saying "pot-metal" more than once and detailing the sword’s cut-rate origins, mentioning Pakistan or China. I can’t disagree, since we all know Brad didn’t just buy a hand-forged antique or museum piece; in fact, I’m sure Brad’s sword’s pedigree probably includes the name "BUD K," America’s greatest importer of swap-meet junk swords. I know because I’ve bought a few myself, including a 12-inch jumbo pocketknife emblazoned with a flaming skull and the phrase "Bad to the Bone" for a friend who didn’t think it was as funny as I did. Anyway, once Xena gets tired of picking on Brad’s sword’s craftsmanship, she goes away and Brad says, "Man, that Xena’s kind of a bitch." I think she was just playing around, but I say, "Yeah. Her sword is just plastic."
Late Saturday afternoon, after I’ve pretty much given up on seeing any old-time small-press
players (besides Pam Bliss), I’m outlasting a long dead-time at my table when I hear a guy say, "Whose fucking Red Rogue stand is this?! Whose goddamn Cranial Stomp stuff IS this?!" I look up to see an adult version of a teenager who used to have his balls knocked off by our comics, and there he is now as I peek over the comics and hold up my hand in a way that shows I don’t know if I’ll get hugged or punched by this man that is now mainlining adrenal reminiscence with a mobster’s brawny gusto. "It’s mine," I say, biting the bullet. I think he even remembers my name. He’s beyond super-pumped and says, "Look, I gotta go get my buddy and we’ll be back for ALL of this shit!" It turns out they have a table of their own just about a hundred feet away, and they’re well entrenched in their own publishing enterprise now, launching a few different comics recently under the label General Jack Cosmo Productions.
He comes back a few minutes later with his buddy, who really has not changed much and is just like the pumped youngster of old. His name is Michael Beazley and he gives me a little internal dollop of big-brotherly feeling. They each want one of everything that they don’t have, plus replacements of their old Red Rogue t-shirts, which have long-since worn out. Much to their pleasure, I still have some of those same shirts in the same box from ten years ago, still smelling nice and plastic-inky as if they are not antiques. I give them some free stuff to round out their heaps of Cranial Stomp delight. They each lay a $20 bill on me and go back to their table with the hearty satisfaction of triumphant Vikings after a pillage.
Brad’s been knitting and building up some disgust for Iron Man, who sticks to his monotonous pitch like an autistic teen. We make some battle metal jokes to distract ourselves. Marcus comes back from a shopping run with some bargain trade paperbacks, including a
*Mojo is a fat, almost Jabba-the-Hutt-like evil creature from an alien world in X-Men comics. He has long sharp fingers, demonic features, cyborg tidbits attached to his body, and his sidekick is a little dwarfish armored girl with six arms and a couple of swords, reminiscent of Indian representations of Shiva.
Doom Patrol collection. Unfortunately I point it out, drawing the attention of the momentarily unoccupied Iron Man, who tips his way into a nonexistent conversation by starting with something casual, like, "Oh, is it the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol?" Marcus mutters, "Yeah," and we’re launched into a strangely rehearsed-sounding primer on the series. It’s as if he teaches a comics appreciation course at some cut-rate college in Canada: "The most interesting thing about* Doom Patrol," he says in a most boring way, "is how The Chief engineered all of their accidents so they would become the Doom Patrol, so that it’s hard to decide if he’s actually good or evil . . . (something about the ends justifying the means) . . . (something about how he was introduced to the series) . . . (the word dichotomy was used, I think)." I suppose he might be trying to befriend us by showing that he isn’t just a total mainstreamer, that he likes weird stuff too, but the sum effect is just to leech away our enthusiasm for Doom Patrol and drive us into a dumb, antsy slump of looking around, like waiting for a Jehovah’s Witness to go away.
At some point on Saturday they have the signing by Todd McFarlane, one of the headliners, which packs a deja vu punch because ten years earlier there was a line just as long to a younger Todd McFarlane sitting in front of a Spawn funny car with an elaborate, supernatural paint-job, and most of the kids in the line, then and now, are carrying either a Spawn comic or a Spider-Man #1 with the variant ink colors of which everyone owns at least one copy. I actually have to take a short detour to get around the line, which snakes around obstacles. Walking away, I guess it to be a 90-minute line at one signature per person, and I think it would be a funny joke to wait through the line just to give McFarlane a copy of a comic strip I drew called "Action Figures Found in Nature," which shows things like "Acorn" and "Pebble Team" as action toys. I don’t know if he would think that’s funny, but one good thing is that he’s rich enough to avoid the Lou Ferrigno syndrome of charging fans $20 to sign anything. He can just sit there in astounding financial security giving autographs magnanimously, which is nice for the kids who already shelled out 40 bucks just to enter the building. I know Ferrigno makes a living this way, but it smacks of mercenary arrogance to charge people just to talk to you, especially when you are a lame-ass.**
*pronounced "aboot," in his McKenzie-brothers-like accent
**Here’s the story of how we discovered Ferrigno’s lameness. Twelve years earlier, my group of friends had a table just about twenty feet from the Lou Ferrigno booth. At first we thought it was cool, and figured we would maneuver our way into Lou Ferrigno’s heart in neighborly fashion, like with a snack or something. The more we watched, though, the more it appeared impossible to even approach the guy without handing over $20. Two guys in suits funneled people into a line and sold them a comic that Lou could sign. At first we thought the comic was just overpriced, but it turned out that $20 was just the minimum amount you had to pay to be in the line, and the line was the only way to Lou. The two suits acted like bodyguards and wouldn’t even let you near without paying. After the first day, we ate at McDonald’s and my friend Matt got excited about a new idea: "Let’s get Lou Ferrigno some McDonald’s Gift Certificates! ANYone can use those." We laughed, but it was just crazy enough to be worth trying, so we bought the $5 booklet of gift certificates. As if cornered by fate, Ferrigno was caught unguarded near the entrance before the show, and Matt had the goods. Ferrigno finished talking to a man, and we swooped in, set down the boxes we were carrying, and stood in the big man’s path. Matt said, "Hey Lou, thanks for being the Hulk!" He held out the gift certificates and I think I said, "Yeah, we got you McDonald’s Gift Certificates." Lou just held his hands up defensively as Matt held out the booklet and said, "Oh, no, no." He wouldn’t take them. He’d been talking to the guy before, so I know he could either hear or read lips, but he just stood there acting like we were pointing a turd at him. All he had to do was take them and act pleased, or even insult us humorously like Harlan Ellison did to us once, but instead the awkward moment stretched out until Matt just gently patted the booklet onto a nearby tabletop and said, "Thanks for being the Hulk, Lou," and then gave him a Fonzie thumb as we walked away. It was as if we were trying to win the trust of some stray dog with a piece of food. By failing to demonstrate even a smidgen of social grace, Lou Ferrigno drained our enthusiasm while simultaneously shitting his own spiritual pants. That is why Mr. Ferrigno, seen by many as a handi-capable role-model for the hearing impaired, will always be a non-heroic numbskull to me.
Mercifully, the day does wind down to an end. We roll up our wares and funnel out with the multitudes, with our sacks of free junk, Brad’s sword, our little victories and our ever-revised strategy for getting somewhere. The train gets us back into Brad’s neighborhood. We detour to Quimby’s Bookstore and then to a Thai restaurant, where we meet Brad’s wife for dinner. Eventually, at Brad’s place, his wife listens to our con stories with a sort of bemused pity, but she also surprises me with some deviations from her normally very academic persona: she wishes my wife had come so they could have had girl-talk, and she wishes Brad would get off his battle-metal kick and play something she could enjoy, and stop being selfish. When he asks what she would like him to do for her, her answer is memorably funny, because, I suppose, it relates a childlike desire in intellectual diction and a serious tone: "Well, you could get me a kitten and build it play-structures."
Day 3: To Win for Losing
Sunday morning, I eat cereal after Brad shows me the whereabouts of the necessary components; I, in turn, show Marcus the cereal stuff, but he notes that the organic milk and boxed cereal are really expensive, implying that he doesn’t want to be a drain on Brad’s resources. I’m like, "No, he said to eat, to get whatever we want," but Marcus isn’t going for it, whether out of self-denial, lack of appetite, or the pure good citizenship of not wanting to deplete a friend’s pantry.
It’s sometime after we get to the convention when Brad asks me, sounding worried, "Hey, does Marcus sometimes just not eat? It seems like he might be skipping a lot of meals." I say, "Yeah, he’s always doing that. He acted like he didn’t want to use up your cereal, but he’s also not much of a breakfast eater, maybe because he’s not used to getting up early, plus he’s picky anyway... he ate one of the most limited menus BEFORE he became a vegetarian, so now he’s pretty much down to cheese pizza and Mountain Dew. I brought a whole cooler full of snacks and stuff in the car, and I don’t think he ever went for any of it."
When we enter the big showroom, I notice for the first time that the U.S. Marines have a recruiting booth there. I almost do a double-take to make sure it’s not just a promo for some video game, but it’s real, and I’m naturally thinking, wow, they’ve gotten pretty desperate if they’re signing up this crowd... it would be like a Captain America scenario come to life: "We’ll take this 98-pound weakling and give him the super-soldier serum..." but these days it’s more like they’d have a roster full of loafy kids who know a bunch of military hardware specs from playing Metal Gear, or whatever the fuck, on their Playstations, but can’t do a single pull-up.
After we complete the musical name-tag scam, our table is one chair short for the three of us, so I go on a little quest to find a chair legitimately, rather than taking one from another table as some fink probably did to us. I get distracted scanning some artist’s tables, but it still only takes me a few minutes to find a nice cache of folding tables and stacked chairs behind a curtained area that’s also a buffer zone to the bathrooms. It’s one of my better moments of the weekend, because I just set out thinking, "I’m sure there are some extra chairs in this place, because there’s no way they hit it right on the nose, and they’ll be stacked somewhere out of the way, but easily reached if needed," and I found them so easily that I felt right in tune with the organizers, as if we shared the same definition of common sense. As if on cue, it’s only about an hour later when a guy from the neighboring row of tables, a guy in his twenties I can only describe as uptight and Russian-looking, comes straight at us and accusingly asks, "Did you guys take my chair?" I suppose it’s just because we’re the only guys in the immediate area sitting three to a table that he looks like he’s caught us red-handed, but I feel positively self-congratulatory and righteous as I say, "Oh, no, I went and found an extra chair this morning," and instead of ignoring or inflaming him, I shut him right down by pointing toward the semi-secret chair trove and saying, "come on, I’ll show you where they are." He has a brief internal struggle, I think, because he looks like he wants to keep looking for the guy who stole his chair, so he can get in his face and be pissy, but my way is better, so he follows as I lead him all the way back through the curtain so I can point out the chairs and prove my innocence. He really doesn’t seem too grateful, because in some way I’ve outmaneuvered him. Maybe it would have been funny to say, "Actually, I did take your chair, and I put it over there just to piss you off, plus I sat in it naked and let my balls touch it." But I didn’t.
We’re giving out lots of free flyers to people who will probably just throw them away. I think it’s just me at the table when Iron Man starts telling me about how funny and cool it was when he went to Denny’s last night in his costume, ordering food with his helmet on, acting like Tony Stark, etc. I think it’s kind of funny, too, in a sad sort of way that would dishearten his mom. It kind of warms me up to him for a little while, as he’s just a sociable kind of nerd, as well as a Canadian; in my experience, it’s pretty hard to hate Canadians even if you’re not all that excited about them. This guy can’t help it that he’s almost outselling us with his sadly deficient superhero tributes. He’s just here to have fun and try to offset his expenses by sitting on the money-taking side of the table.
Unfortunately, it’s not long before the Sailor-Moon duo/Iron Man Fan Club returns to terrorize my peripheral vision by basking in his glow. They hang on his every Canadian toot for half-hour chunks, and at one point one of their mothers is there, actually participating in the unwholesome wank-fest by asking what her daughter can do to develop her creativity and interest in art. I can’t hear it all, but it goes something like, "You just have to listen to the right people, and not the ones who want to take advantage of you, and you have to look at the really good artists, and just keep working on your skills all the time, and you’ll get better." He doesn’t really say anything that’s false, which would make it much more tempting to stand up and say, "Don’t listen to this man! He’s a goober! This is like asking a panhandler for business advice! Go ask someone who is good!" But they like the guy, and maybe they’ll stay in touch online, or meet every year at the same convention . . . it would be wrong to rain on their charade.
Witnessing all that suckling of the youth by Iron Man has made us thirsty. Under the table, I have most of a warm 2-liter of soda left from my cooler. I’m gearing up to drink it warm, because that’s the kind of low-standards guy that I am, but Brad pulls of a feat of charisma by going up to one of the concessions counters, where pop and lemonade are two bucks for a small cup, and asking the lady, "Could I just have a cup of ice?" After she gives him one for free, he says, "Can I have TWO cups of ice?" She says, "Now you’re pushing it," but she gives him another one, so now we’re enjoying ice-cold off-brand beverages for free, or for the price of the 2-liter back in Missouri.
Sunday is shaping up to be a bust, sales-wise. There seem to be plenty of people in the building, but they’re not wasting much time on the unknown artists. This gives Iron Man chances to get up and go shopping. His old ally Xena, Warrior Princess, is back to watch his table. She ends up looking at some of our minicomics, reminding me that they’re there (Our comics, once seen as hilarious and necessary by a certain segment of the comics world, have become soberingly unpopular. Aside from the two Red Rogue fans, only about four people the whole weekend have even touched them despite the totally commercial-quality spinner-rack I’m displaying them on.) Xena does seem to have some sense of humor, but not of the Cranial Stomp variety: she flips through a couple of comics and lobs a couple of confused smirks. With some training, she might join our forces, but I can tell she wouldn’t become a fan without a bandwagon. She does, however, take interest in a page from Red Rogue #22, where the joke is, "Red Rogue met a girl one time who had two different sizes of breasts, but it didn’t bother her that bad." She holds it up and smiles, saying, "That’s pretty common, you know. One of my boobs is a lot bigger than the other."* It’s pretty candid, but offered in a spirit of good ol’ conversation, not with any weird innuendoid undertones . . . it’s more like she just read it off of a trivia card or something. I volunteer: "Yeah, my wife is the same way—not very much difference, but just enough that I could tell after she pointed it out." Xena uses her boob
sizes to launch into a short review of the downside of breast-feeding, and some related stuff about her son, who has never been with her here, perhaps because he might ruin the Xena, Warrior Princess mystique even more than the plastic sword, which does, to its credit, make a metal-on-metal sound when you tap it on an object, which she is wont to do. Finally, the topic dead-ends in a problematic moment, when she asks, "How old do you think I am?" I guess, after a long "ummmm," 29, and Brad says something more like 25 as if doing damage control for my guess. She shakes her head and gives the rather shocking answer: 21. I’m like, oh, sorry, but she says people always think she’s older than she is, and really, she does look closer to 30. Maybe it’s because she’s tan, which, as my wife is always quick to warn, tortures the skin. I point out my numerous gray hairs, confess my age, and lie that people think I’m older than I am, too (I don’t actually know, because no one ever guesses my age. I suspect I appear to be the age that I actually am.), but she doesn’t seem to be mad at my guess. In a way, she seems pleased that I reinforced her usual results. The bottom line is, Xena is 21 and has lopsided breasts, but we don’t sell jack-shit today.
About all that’s left for us is the acquisition of rare treasures before the circus folds up its tent.
I hit the dealers for a while. It doesn’t take me long looking through comic boxes to realize that I don’t have much appetite for comics or graphic novels that I haven’t already collected. I’ve seen a couple of mighty fine Transformers—like a foot-tall old-school Megatron that turns into a gun—but they’re all readily available via internet. I find a bored-looking Asian kid with some pretty kick-ass metal junk sculptures. "Do you make these?" I ask. He doesn’t, but it sounds like he knows the guys in Vietnam who do. I get this foot-tall chicken-headed gladiator sort of guy with a ball-and-chain weapon for 50 bucks. It’s mostly made of bike chains, springs and sparkplugs welded together, and the arms, head and waist move (four points of articulation, in action-figure talk). The kid says it’s made entirely of motorcycle parts, but most of the head is actually an iron pipe elbow used in plumbing, so this quote may reduce the odds that he has any connection to the sculpture’s creators, but he packs it nicely in a box for me, for safe transport. Later in the day, I also get a cool painting of a mermaid (really a reproduction that looks like a painting on canvas), and for my wife, a Hello Kitty item which I can only describe as a mega-emblem: a toaster-sized, 3/4-inch-thick layering of three colors of plastic, deeply engraved by some kind of sign-cutting machine to carve the image of Hello Kitty as a bas-relief. For me, though, it is the junk sculpture that is the champ souvenir of the day.
I’ve shot my wad and spent most of the money I’ve made this weekend. Back at the table, Marcus has something he’s gotten in trade from Gris Grimly, a darkly funny artist who makes
* It strikes me now that there must be some kind of psychological meaning to saying "One is a lot bigger than the other" rather than "One is a lot smaller than the other," but I don’t know what... maybe that she’s a positive thinker. . . a "glass half-full" type of gal.
twisted fairy tales and such. Lots of "children’s books" that are really for adults, kind of like an Edward Gorey for the post-Anne-Rice crowd. I go over to the Grimly table to see. There are a couple of hip youngsters running the tables. I’m thinking about how my sister has one of this guy’s books and really likes it, and how she has a baby and a one-year-old, and then I’m looking right at a table with some of his drawings printed on onesies, little outfits for babies with skulls and zombies on them, but I’m just not all that crazy about them, and I know I’d be self-conscious dealing with the goth chicks in charge, so I don’t get one. Walking back, though, there’s kind of a goofy young crew running a BIG display that I’m just noticing for the first time, thinking, wow, there’s no way those kids made enough money to pay for a booth that big—probably a thousand bucks for the space. Three kids around age 20: a cute girl and a couple of guys wearing tuxedos, getting as many people as they can to sign a sheet of posterboard before the day is over. They’re selling t-shirts, but from the look of the stacks behind them, they’re NOT selling t-shirts. Some of them are pretty funny cartoons with stick figures. There’s one I like where a guy tells another guy in a banana suit, "Bananas aren’t scary," and then on the back, the banana guy is stabbing with a bloody knife. They seem like my kind of people, so I go grab one of my Fish-with-a-Gun shirts and, as predicted, they trade. Facing the inevitable carting home of tons of unsold stuff will make traders out of most folks. In some cases, it makes givers out of them.
There’s about an hour left, but dealers are packing it in all over the place. Like people at a baseball game who leave in the seventh inning to beat the traffic jam, the exodus builds until basically everyone throws in the towel, although there are little last-minute deals being made here and there, where people hurry back to see if some item still remains or has been marked down. Vendors are carting boxes to the big bay doors that have been invisible all weekend; now that they’re open, it feels weird to be able to see parking lots and streets from inside the center. The illusion is breaking down; the real world is streaming in.
We pack our stuff up pretty quickly. There’s always a funny feeling at this point, a hybrid of disappointment and relief. Since the convention doesn’t climax or build to any final event, it just breaks up organically according to some weird model of mob behavior. Plus, I think there’s some surprisingly early deadline for getting your ass out of the building before security just beats you up or something. Right at the last, I buy three stickers from a guy right behind us, near the "did you take my chair?" guy. They’re stencil-cut vinyl decals you can stick on your car, and he’s got every logo, emblem and simple character nerds might want: Spidey faces, G.I. Joe and Cobra emblems, a few rock bands, you name it. I get an Autobot symbol, a Decepticon symbol, and a little white alien with big eyes that I think is actually one of the tree spirits from Princess Mononoke, but everyone will think it’s an alien. Months later, when I see an infomercial for the CriCut on TV, I think that’s probably how the guy cuts out the decals.
Lots and lots of abandoned flyers, cards, programs and more are left scattered around and tossed in trash cans. I can never see this stuff without equating it with defeat or bitterness, maybe because Marcus has thrown away perfectly good comics in the past after spending hours making them specifically for the convention, in the spirit of "fuck it," and then I’ve come along and rescued the stuff. But throwing it away might be the right move, because I still have comics and t-shirts boxed up from the Nineties that I’ll probably die with.
We’re maybe a block out of the parking garage when one of the other guys says, "Oh shit, there he is!" It is the Intolerable Iron Man, walking down the sidewalk in shoes but still
wearing most of his costume, carrying his unnecessary ski-boots* and his plastic helmet. He holds his head up with pride that is only battered by our knowledge that he’s walking to Motel 6 with a probable stop at Denny’s or McDonald’s. We know because all the nice hotels are connected to the convention center and he’s walking away from it, alone, toward an evening guaranteed to be filled with a tally of his rising expenses and then some of his awful sketch commissions —ones too complex to complete on-site, that he might have to charge more than five dollars for so that he can mail them to the customer later. To think that he has come all the way from Calgary for THIS is almost too much to endure, but as we pass him he appears fulfilled, undefeated, like a football player after a good game that denied him victory but only by inches. He would rest, heal, and rise again, too sly to self-examine or too dumb to know futility when he sees it. With any luck he could find an inspirational movie like Teen Wolf on the free cable TV in his room, and he would draw the finest shitty fan-art the con-world has ever beheld. Then he might reward himself with calm but tender** masturbation to a selection of today’s images of costumed girls on his digital camera’s tiny screen.
As brief as it is, seeing Iron Man outside the convention is probably the defining image of the weekend for me. It’s funny, depressing, and eye-opening, just like seeing one of your school
teachers out buying toilet paper or something: it makes you consider the full and fraying tapestry of this person’s life, which in this case appears to disintegrate beyond the walls of Fortress Fandom.
So, it’s over: not just the weekend, but maybe the convention world as I once knew it. Gone are the days of Skin Graft Comix (the St. Louis punk-rock of comic books), and Ass Destroyer, their actual punk band that I never heard play (but I saw one of them drunk at a publisher’s party, yelling "My cock’s on fire!" with his pants down), and their girlfriends who stitched together dolls of Commander Floyd and Serious Brown, their heroically obscure characters. Gone are Cody Hudson and the other cool kids from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who knew how a comic-con could be just as sweaty as a mosh pit but even more smelly, and Grass Green, the old veteran of classic comics, with his eternal five issues of Wildman & RubbeRoy, who had to supplement his comics income by selling pre-lined bristol board and lettering supplies.
Gone, the years in the Ramada lobby and meeting rooms, when you might pass non-congoers in halls, like old guys saying, "I haven’t seen this many freaks since I went to the demolition derby!" Gone are Rocco Comics, the Chicago version of Skin Graft, publishers of Hamster Man (the most hilariously crappy comic ever, so funny it was later reprinted by Fantagraphics, I hear) and instigators of a hotel party that led to Rob Syers of Skin Graft unconscious after a chokehold by a pissed-off Hispanic kid, and me getting a liquor bottle broken over my head by said kid’s belligerent bud. Gone, the years in a row seeing the mohawked, leather-and-chains-clad Guy Davis pushing his similarly punked-out girlfriend around the convention in her wheelchair, and bringing us inspiration by actually liking some of our stuff. Even longer gone, Bob Burden, the coolest man in the industry, having drinks at the Ramada Bar with Roxanne Star and selling original sketches for as little as ten bucks . . . talking to Mike Mignola the year of the first Hellboy stories and seeing him push his baby girl around in a stroller . . . Harlan Ellison cussing us jokingly ("Get the fuck away from me!"), taking our lame freebies and accusing me of having made up my name . . . my friend Robert
*As Marcus points out, his boots were the wrong color, a huge pain to wear, and they never showed up in photos.
**Where he imagines, if God or this girl (the one being jacked-off to) or Marvel Universe’s The Watcher is aware of what he’s doing, that he sincerely cares for the girl and treats her right, and cuddles up to her before and after, and buys her dinner and allows her space in his home and his life, so as to do her as much honor as is possible while basting a Kleenex in her name, except he doesn’t know her name—only her character’s name.
Lewis fearlessly nerd-flirting with a French-maid outfitted girl in a Hotel Sofitel elevator and getting this beautiful little smile out of her . . . a Skin Graft vs. Fantagraphics whiffle ball game in the Ramada courtyard featuring both Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge, in the early days of Hate and Eightball, where Bagge was hyperactive and Clowes was probably the only person on the field looking less comfortable than I was . . . checking into a Motel 6 after a long drive with Phil Morrissey, a bearded adult man who volunteers to the desk clerk, "Yeah, my grandmother gave me the credit card this weekend, so I’m like, I can live with that." . . . Ian Shires, a middle-aged stoner-looking guy with the most inexplicably long-running minicomic, Dungar the Barbarian, getting punched by a drunken Rob Syers because the Ozzy Osbourne patch on his fraying denim jacket "ain’t rock & roll" . . . going out to eat at Denny’s and being seated right next to this guy from the convention who makes a lame comic called Pigeon Man, so of course we code-name him Pigeon Man—he looks depressed as hell, and he’s got two or three spastic kids with him, one of them so pale you can see the veins in his forehead, and they’re making their hands like guns, pointing the barrels to their temples and saying, "This is funny!" as they pretend to blow their own brains out . . . . All of them gone, but not quite forgotten.