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Thursday, March 09, 2006


Folks, here's a long one, so you have been warned.

Ever have a weekend that looked utterly promising turn into outright horseshit?

For the first time in over a decade, the Jacob Javits Center hosted a massive New York Comicon, a massive East Coast expo featuring everything that a comic book fan could want to encounter, including hard-to-find back issues, rare original art pages, collectible toys and tchochkes of all manner of description, cult movie and TV t-shirts, enough free promotional shit to choke a goat, and the chance to hobnob with and get autographs/sketches from comic book artists and writers both up-and-coming and legendary; in short, Byzantium to a dyed-in-the-wool geek or wide-eyed kid.

I heard about the event weeks in advance and, thanks to one of my freelance gigs, was able to score a press pass that allowed me free access to the whole shebang for the entire weekend (big thanks to Ace and Calvin for that one!). Thus armed, I arranged to arrive late at the barbecue asylum on Friday and Saturday — no big deal since I’m pretty much there all the goddamned time — and loaded up my courier’s bag with the essential convention items that any geek should have at the ready: sketchbook, pens for autographs, camera, and notebook for making sure one gets it right for the blog. And so, I set off to geek Mecca.

The Comicon — how I LOATHE such cutesy terms for any sort of event!!! — opened for the press early on Friday, with the public gaining entry at 4PM, plenty of time in which to get first crack at the cornucopia of goods for sale and whatever artists were kind enough to show up early.

Now, for those of you who have never beheld the Javits center, it’s a MOTHERFUCKINGLY HUGE convention hall that is regularly host to all sorts of toy, media, technology, boat and car shows, all of which are spread out over several rooms and levels — including one ginormous room that serves at the real display epicenter of the affair — in order to facilitate movement by the massive crowds in attendance. Over a decade ago, during the dreaded Giuliani administration (read “police state”), there were at least two absolutely wondrous and fun conventions held at the place that are still discussed fondly by us con veterans to this day, and the reason that the event didn’t continue annually was because the Giuliani administration was convinced that the whole thing was run by the Mob, and therefore had to be shut down for good. That move simultaneously pissed off the fans and industry folk, and also screwed the city in the ass by cutting off tens of thousands of potential attendees, all of whom were eager to shell out plenty of filthy lucre to fuel the fannish monkey on their backs. So, needless to say, anyone with half a brain could have foreseen the multitude of rabid faithful who would brave even a torrential rainstorm of pus, vomit and ear wax to once more enjoy such a Woodstock of four-color wonderment.

Everyone, that is, except the event planners.

Upon arrival at the center I was overwhelmed with pleasant nostalgia; the air pregnant with excitement as I crossed the threshold into an edifice reminiscent of a precursor to the dome city in LOGAN’S RUN, the anxious children waiting to shake hands and be photographed with their favorite comics characters — there used to be this zaftig chick who portrayed She-Hulk back in the Nineties… — the smelly adult geeks who would otherwise never have left their parents’ basements, all enough to kindle the flames in my evil little heart. And here I was, ready to experience all of that once more.

As I entered I navigated past the impressive life-size Lego statue of Batman through the massive lines of ticket buyers, made my way to the press room and picked up my all-access pass. Then I was directed to the entrance to the main room, and was immediately horrified by a pre-general admission throng; bear in mind that I got there at noon and they had already begun to allow the public to line up for the 4PM gate. Refusing to stand in that queue, I shouldered my way past the masses, quelling any cries of protest with my press credentials as prominently displayed as a CIA photo ID, and breezed through the security with nary a raised eyebrow.

The expected garden of geekly delights sprawled before my eyes; everywhere I looked there were endless displays of comics, toys, posters and other such items that are guaranteed not to get most people laid, surmounted with the occasional cosplay girl (short for “costume play,” as per Japanese geekery culture), and I felt like I had returned home.

Then I noticed that everyone and their brother had a press pass, so much so that even before being opened to the public the place was uncomfortably crowded. Realizing the state of affairs, my internal battle computer kicked into high gear and I made a focused beeline around the place, one that if rendered as a Sunday page would have looked like Billy’s neighborhood trail in “The Family Circus,” and scoped out the artists and available junk.

First item of business was to check out Artist’s Alley and see if any of the people I knew or worked with were about, and the only one I found on Friday who wasn’t inundated with dick-in-hand fanboys was the incredibly talented Kyle Baker.

The lack of a fanboy army was no shock since this was the pre-public scanning, and he had the good sense to get his own booth rather than be stuck in the Artist’s Alley which he was in the process of setting up when I saw him.

During my Vertigo days I had the pleasure of working with him on a few things, but I first met him during the Marvel Comics years when my fellow bullpen goons would go drinking at Sophie’s bar on 5th Street just around the corner on Avenue A; the crazy bastard was such a consummate professional that he could imbibe Viking-style and then shut off the alcohol effects and return to his drawing board to get the job done. And done WELL. So there he was, setting up his display with his wife, Liz, and eldest daughter, Lillian, providing able assistance. I hadn’t seen Liz or Lillian for a few years, and the last time I saw Lillian she left an indelible impression of adorableness by being a sweet-faced little brunette in a Supergirl outfit, complete with cape. What comics geek wouldn’t find that charming as all get out?

We all shot the shit for a while, and soon enough I wandered over to the table where one of the all-time greats of the business held court: there before my idolizing gaze stood the legendary Gentleman Jim Steranko, the visual innovator whose run on “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in STRANGE TALES and later its own book truly showed what could be done when pushing the envelope with experimental design, psychedelic colors/effects and mildly adult content. If you’ve never seen his work, I urge you to look him up on Google immediately.

Two things surprised me when I met him, namely the fact that he was pretty short, perhaps five-foot six inches, and that he had clearly used his own image when rendering one-eyed superspy Nick Fury; I had previously figured that he’d modeled the character after Jack “Hawaii Five-O” Lord, thanks to the sculpted pompadour and chiseled features, but it was Steranko’s own hipster mug.

I told him that I had worked in the Marvel Bullpen during the 1990’s, and he welcomed me like an old friend, truly living up to his “gentleman” nickname. He then regaled me and a few other gushing fanboys with the story of how he delivered the famous cover for an INCREDIBLE HULK annual, a tale involving him crafting the piece from start to finish overnight, while the book’s interior artist produced perhaps one sixteenth of a page in the same time. Then, as he drove the cover into Manhattan the next day, he had forgotten to shave and decided to do so while his car idled at the inevitable succession of red lights. He was soon rear-ended by some inattentive motorist, and consequently slashed open his upper lip, so when he arrived at the Marvel offices he looked like he’d been in a knife fight and lost. When he finished, he signed a couple of prints for me and I traipsed away, happy as a lark.

Next I sought out Stephen Silver, an incredibly talented caricaturist/animator who’s the design genius behind the Disney Channel series “Kim Possible,” and recent support designer on Nickelodeon’s “Danny Phantom.” He’s originally from England but settled on these shores when he was a kid, so he has that melded English/Californian accent and the basic friendliness that I have experienced from nearly every Brit that I have met. I bought his sketchbook — which I made sure to get signed — and we chatted about what he was currently up to before getting down to the real business of why I sought him out; my old friend Wendy is a HUGE fan of “Kim Possible” and if I didn’t get her an original sketch of the character while I had the opportunity she would never let me live it down. I also wanted a sketch for myself of another character from that series, namely She-Go, the lime green femme fatale, so I handed him the cash for two sketches and left my sketchbook with him to be retrieved the next day. I bid him farewell, and left the venue at 4PM, in an effort to make it to work in Brooklyn on time, hopefully avoiding rush hour traffic and the usual train delays associated with weekend track work.

As I exited, I was shocked to see just how huge the line was; it was literally about two thousand people who had queued up for hours and I was relieved to be able to beat a hasty retreat.

So far, so good, right?

Then Saturday rolled around.

Accompanied by Big Mike, a friend from the barbecue joint, I braved the subway and eventually disembarked at 34th Street, where I received the first omen that the day was about to veer into the Twilight Zone: Big Mike and I bore witness to a super-buff Hispanic, wife-beater-wearing dwarf Michael Jackson impersonator who performed the rote Jacko choreography to “Billie Jean,” resembling nothing so much as Frodo Baggins having utterly lost his shit thanks to the Ring thing and getting his finger unceremoniously and having a seizure. Thus was a strange tone set.

We made it back to the Javits Center just after 10:30AM and abandoned Mike to fend for himself amidst the sea of rabid ticket buyers. Brandishing my press pass like a crucifix-wielding vampire hunter in a pack of slavering undead, I once more swept into the showroom, but this time I felt like I had walked onto the set of SOYLENT GREEN; people were milling about slowly, like something out of a George Romero flick, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in what can best be described as a claustrophobic’s nightmare. I ducked into Artist’s Alley in futile hope of avoiding the crushing mob, but whoever set up the artist’s space had arranged the signing tables so that the artists were pressed up against the wall like ass-cheeks to a windshield, with about three feet between the edge of any given table and the eight foot partition that stretched all the way to the back of the voluminous hall. Sadly, this tiny space was also allotted for the fans that would line up en masse for their favorite cartooning luminaries while the general foot traffic was expected to maneuver through as well. It felt like one of those death traps in an old movie serial when the heroes would try to stop the walls from moving in and squashing them flatter than Callista Flockhart’s so-called titties.

At least I was rewarded for making my way into that deodorant-optional bedlam by immediately running into my favorite comics-biz curmudgeon, the unsinkable Keith Giffen. Perhaps best known to fans for his landmark run on LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES during the 1980’s, I met him during my ill fated time at DC Comics, and I bonded with Keith due to our mutual general bitchiness and low tolerance of idiocy in those who think they are creative but haven’t created anything of note since the greasy turds that fell out of their hubris-filled asses that morning.

Keith and I chatted for a bit, and I must admit that I have neglected keeping in touch with him like I should; when I was let go from Vertigo editorial Keith was one of a handful of pros who actually called to give me moral support during my involuntary transition back into civilian life after thirteen years in the trenches, and his wisdom/bitterness was like someone holding my hand and telling me in the most nurturing of tones, “Don’t let it get you down, and remember that some day the wheel of karma will turn and run over the motherfuckers like a monster truck demolishing an empty can of Piels beer.” I gotta admit, I love the guy.

I soon moved on, determined to retrieve my sketchbook, see one or two old friends, and get the ever-loving fuck out of there. The crowd was becoming thicker and more oppressive by the nano-second, and my fight-or-flight instincts had kicked into near-panicked overdrive. Eventually Big Mike and I spotted each other, both clearly exasperated by the close space; Mike had waited on the ticket line for nearly an hour, and about five minutes after he crossed into the showroom the fire marshal closed off entry, and posted state troopers to keep the peace. The troopers did a rather shoddy job of it, their incredibly surly and abusive behavior earning them the derogatory nickname of “carpet Nazis.” In solid agreement that we wanted out as soon as humanly possible, Mike and I agreed to rendezvous at 1:30 PM at the Lego Batman, leaving us with nearly an hour and a half to endure.

Making my way over to Stephen Silver’s table to retrieve my sketchbook and accompanying paid-for sketches nearly required a machete with which to hack my way through slowly meandering fanboys and girls, grotesquely obese shut-ins who could barely walk thanks to their own weight, and hordes of bewildered parents shepherding gaggles of squalling children. When I finally made it to the table, Silver noticed me and immediately produced my sketchbook; I flipped straight to the page where he drew an incredible Kim Possible for my friend, but was shocked to find that he didn’t do the other sketch I pre-paid for. My bet is that he was as overwhelmed by the whole shindig as everyone else and just forgot, but I was quietly irritated. He gave me his personal contact info, and soon I will contact him regarding the situation, but he was such a sweetheart that I couldn’t really be pissed at the guy. Thanking him for the work that he did I bid him farewell and good luck, and headed off to get on line to see two old work friends, namely John and Virginia Romita.

When I entered the comics biz in February of 1990 I found myself part of the ranks of the legendary Marvel Bullpen, which at the time was headed by Virginia Romita, wife of “Jazzy John,” who was the company’s art director. Now, meeting a legend like John was a big enough deal to a lifetime geek, but to actually work with the guy on a daily basis? JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, it was awesome. In case you don’t know who he is, John’s the guy who took over after the original artist on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, the lysergically talented Steve Ditko, and perhaps more than any other artist became perhaps the definitive delineator of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. The guy has drawn about eleventy-jillion covers, designed the Punisher, Wolverine, and Spider-Man’s future bride, the scarlet-tressed Mary-Jane Watson, so even if you only have a cursory familiarity with comic books of the mid-1960’s onward, you have more than likely seen John’s work and would recognize his distinctive, clean style.

I settled in at the spot where John was said to be signing after he got off of a panel appearance at 1PM, and the wait began. Other fans began to line up behind me and I was assured by the volunteer “helper” that even though the signing position had been moved, I would still retain my space as first in line, which was fine with me since I just wanted out as soon as possible since I had to eventually get to work and I wanted to squeeze in some lunch. So I continued to wait, and the helper began to usher people over to the new signing spot while still assuring myself and the people who had gathered in back of me that we would still get first shot at talking with John. I even agreed to hold the place of a foreign
fan who had to run a couple of other quick errands. One fan doing a courtesy for another, right?

Pretty soon it became obvious that the helper had no clue what he was doing so I called over to the signing organizer and asked him what was up; he told us not to worry, but clearly didn’t give a fuck about those of us who had patiently waited and began to tell the people on the other line how many autographs were allowed, how much they had to pay to get one, etc., so I said to him, “Excuse me, but what about us?” The jerk then sneered at me and said “These people were here before you, so you just have to wait.” I told him that that was not true and that his own assistant had asked us to wait while ensuring us that our places in line would be honored. The organizer then rudely told me that the helper obviously didn’t know what he was talking about and that we would basically have to grin and bear it, and shut up and read the company’s books that were on display — note: it was not said in those exact words, but the gist was crystal clear.

Then John and Virginia showed up and I called out to them; their eyes bugged out in recognition and Virginia ran over and gave me a big bear hug, quickly followed by John. We briefly caught up on what we’d all been doing, and I agreed to talk with them shortly; once they left to settled, the fans who were waiting patiently behind me looked at me like I had just grown an extra head and asked, “You know THEM??? We didn’t know you were a luminary!”

A luminary. Me. Yeah, right.

I explained to them in brief the story of my years in the biz, peppered with anecdotes about Bullpen life, John Romita’s simple human excellence, and answered any questions they may have had. Presently, Virginia called me over to keep her company while John did his thing for the line-jumpers; after we filled each other in a several points of mutual interest, I told Virginia I’d see her and John again in a few minutes and returned to my space on the screwed-over line. That’s when I noticed that the foreign guy whose place I was holding had skipped onto the other line and was getting a sketch from John.

I called over to the guy that it wasn’t cool to screw people over like that, and the jerky organizer came over to me and attempted to admonish me with, “You know, John’s appearances at these shows are very rare” — a flagrant lie — “and I want to make things as pleasant for him as possible, so I’d appreciate some cooperation from you.” At that, I told him that he should be trying to make things pleasant for the many fans who had not only waited politely but were also about to shell out a minimum of sixty bucks each for an autographed copy of the book on sale. He retorted with, “Well, that guy was on the other line since before you got here!” The fans in back of me rallied to my aid and called the guy out form being full of shit and he eventually realized that we were not going to take his bullshit, eventually moving us to our rightful place in the queue.

By the time I reached the Romitas I no longer had enough time left to get a sketch, so I just settled for a quick snapshot of the three of us together, all the while wishing that I could kick the organizer in the balls so hard that they’d ricochet off of his palate. I got their current email address, promised Virginia I’d keep in touch, and left the overcrowded nightmare in search of Mike at the Batman statue.

By the time I got out to the statue, the crowd situation was openly hostile, disappointment practically dripping from the air. The state trooper presence now looked like something from a fascist state, and one female officer in particular was haranguing the crowd with Nuremburg intensity. The potential fire hazard was such that no one else was being admitted, which is a bit of a problem since that included celebrity guests, panelists and various industry bigwigs, ensuring no new friends being made at either DC or Marvel Comics. Even people who had pre-registered and paid for their tickets were turned away, including some friends of mine from upstate and even an unfortunate group who had flown in from England specifically for the event. Anyway, I soon spotted Mike — who, at six-foot-six and four hundred and twenty-five pounds is rather difficult to miss — we disgruntledly headed off to lunch in the Manhattan Mall. Mike summed up the whole experience thusly: “Well, that was fun… No, wait. It wasn’t.”

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, that night while on my way to the bus to get home from work I witnessed the horrifying sight of some huge Hispanic dude beating the living shit out of his girlfriend.

The poor woman was screaming in terror and pain while her “man” kept slugging her upside the head and bouncing her off of the parked cars that lined either side of the street, and in the scariest moment of this mess her boyfriend bounced her face off of a windshield.

Now I couldn’t just stand by and let this happen, but I was in no way stupid enough to physically intervene since the bastard may have had a knife or a firearm, but I did calmly approach him and say, “Dude, don’t do this. You’ll end up in jail. Please don’t do this.” My attempt at peacemaking was met with the Neanderthal whirling around, stuffing his gigantic ham fist into my face and screaming, “YOU GET OUTTA MY FUCKIN’ FACE, OR I’LL PUNCH YOU IN THE FUCKIN’ HEAD!!!”

At that point I deduced that the guy was drunk, cracked/coked-out, or both, and my days of taking it to anybody in a non-sparring, hand-to-hand throw down are probably over due to being out of shape and practice, and I was never Bruce Lee in the first place (hell, not even Peggy Lee, but I did have my moments…). So I hauled ass over to Fifth Avenue and called the cops. Thankfully the local precinct is within spitting distance, and four rollers pulled up in no time, but, alas, the brute and his victim had disappeared from the street. I gave the police full descriptions and wandered back to the bar, where a party thrown by our waitress/goddess, Tracey, was winding down.

I sat at the further end of the bar, trying to avoid the party and not be a downer; fortunately, our statuesque bartender, Joy, decided to check in on me and that is when I lost it. I began to ramble and bawl over the fact that here was a woman being savagely beaten in front of me and I could do nothing to help her; I was nauseatingly overcome with a feeling of fear and utter helplessness that brought me back to events that happened over thirty years ago. I will eventually get around to discussing that story, but not right now.

Anyway, Joy sweetly assured me that I had done the right thing and that even if I had gotten into it with the guy someone would have been seriously injured and most likely incarcerated, and in all likelihood his girlfriend would have sided him despite the ass-kicking she had endured. Tracey soon came over and did the same, and while their wisdom did help somewhat, I still was crushed by my relative uselessness in that situation.

I walked home, making it through my door by 3:30AM and attempted to sleep, but to no avail, and then faced the grueling Sunday 10:30 through closing shift totally on autopilot, fueled during the post-family dinner rush by beer and tequila. Even that night’s rerun of “Drawn Together” didn’t make me laugh.

I guess I was due for a seriously suckass weekend for a while, but this one violated both my love of comics and my genuine need never to see domestic violence again, and let me be the first to tell you that that just plain fucking sucks.


Jared said...

I'm sorry I missed John and Virginia. I would have liked to seen them.

Velma said...

Damn, that sucks. I've not been to a comics convention since the era of Dimension Conventions -- and there was another one of that sort -- in the 80s. I don't think I've missed anything, except increased rudeness. And you did what you could, and kept yourself from being damaged.

Larz said...

I'm sort of surprised. Batman would have reacted to a domestic incident in progress.

Anonymous said...

Ace Petrone says

Don't listen to Larz. You did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Big Mike sez:

Mismanagement of throngs of dweebs, dorks, geek, and other aressted development types has in the past resulted in fantastic displays of... well, not a whole hell of a lot. It was frustrating to see the generally pacific crowd having bullshit crammed down their throats with a boot, then smilingly thanking the retarded, keepers of the javits center peace, for the privilage of enduring such mental/physical brutality and informing them politely that they'd see them next year. My status as a very large person helped, in me just walking into the line and the "organizer" not saying shit to me, so i was afforded the opportunity to witness the unnessecary bedlam first hand. Imagine I had prepaid to enter and then been denied at the gate? Imagine me perched on top of the only functioning computer monitor left at the registration desk, blaze red face sweating with exertion whilst flinging giant piles of my own excrement at the organizers of the event, simultanioulsy kicking the shit out of whatever items could be found in a 25 foot radius, just before the tazers brought me down.
why was the comicon in the small hall? why was it on a weekend with 3 other events? why would anyone in their right mind plan an event frequented by the aformentioned obese parental cellar dwellers with 5 foot corridors for human traffic. why do i forsake capitolization and punctuation in this post? my simple answer to these questions, stupidity, ignorance, lack of experience, lack of planning, and the perpetually corporate, generally greedy viewpoint of: Make the most amount of money possible while providing the absolute least amount of service to the consumer. why pay for the big hall when on a design worksheet you can fit the same exhibitors into a room half the size! enough rant, i apologize for using the vault as a soapbox, but i have to agree that what was to be a sure fire hit, with fans and industry coming together in the halls of the unwashed became an unmitigatable, untenable mess, with bad PR for all involved. the highlight was waiting for the bus home. It was all summed up with the nearly nude 13 year old cosplay girl with the dryer vent tube on her head, handing out flyers with her creepy tophatted scumbag companion- Comicon New York, treading the fine line between prurient and vomitous.