Friday, February 17, 2006

Run Away. Run.

So there I was, standing in line last Saturday to get into Wondercon, and it seemed as if half of San Francisco was there with me. I was already trying to slink into the background and be invisible due to an accidental attempt to get into the Moscone Convention Center through a door on the wrong side of the building, which ended with multiple security guards running towards me as if I had a bomb in my hands: Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Go around the building and find the other door, they shouted, and I looked at them, embarrassed and wondered if I’d have to spend the entire day being looked at suspiciously as the person who’d tried to sneak in for free when there was a block and a half-worth of potential paying customers on the other side of the building all forming a good and orderly line instead.

There were other reasons for me to try and slink into the background, admittedly, most of which could be considered the other people in line. I’m not really talking about the people who went out of their way to dress up in some amazing and outlandish outfits, here, although there were more than a few of those, ranging from multiple Nightcrawlers (You could choose from the classic Dave Cockrum version to the movie version to the new outfit that he’s wearing today, if you wanted your pick of little blue elves with oddly-erect blue plastic tales) to manga characters that I couldn’t recognize but apparently followed some unspoken manga dress code that decided that any woman’s outfit must (a) be latex and (b) not contain enough skirt to appropriately cover her ass completely. In some interesting decision-making process from the organizers of Wondercon, it seemed as if almost all of the volunteers helping out at the event were dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers, from the various Star Wars movies. You could see them before you even got into the building: Overweight Biker Scouts marching up and down the line, checking to see that no-one’s getting unruly. Short stormtroopers chatting to each other, using headset intercoms just like the movies so that you heard the crackle before a flanged voice said things like, “Yeah, this costume makes it impossible for me to bend down or anythin’. I’m dying in here,” just to ruin the effect. At the front of the line, a Darth Vader stood, silently, his hand raised over those entering the building, like the nerd Pope giving everyone a blessing.

But it wasn’t really those people who were making me want to hide away from anyone I knew who might be passing and see me in line, as weird as it was to see someone dressed as Hal Jordan look angrily at someone dressed as John Stewart, as if he’d stolen his idea. It was other fans. Namely, the fans immediately behind me.

I have no problem with evesdropping, normally. I think that being nosy has a fine and distinguished history, and it’s one that I’ll proudly follow if I find myself with nothing else to do and surrounded by people who just happen to be talking too loudly anyway. I mean, come on. It’s as if they want you to listen to what they’re saying, right? The three people behind me when I was in the Wondercon line were no exception. Their voices were raised as if they’d decided that they were the lives and souls of the party, if by “party” you meant “unusually long line that we’ve all been waiting in for the last 30 minutes to get into the building,” as they passed comment on everyone around them. They weren’t being snarky as such, because that suggests that there was some kind of humor behind their comments; instead, the comments kind of bounced around the areas of “Look at him, he’s a fat geek dick” and “She’s hot.” Which was somewhat unexpected, as it became obvious that the threesome behind me consisted of two men, and the brand new girlfriend of one of the men. So brand new, in fact, that it sounded as if they were still at the second date period of their relationship, or thereabouts. Two other things also became very clear very quickly: The man was taking this woman to Wondercon to try and convince her how cool he was, and the woman had less than no interest in comics, comic culture or anything remotely geeky.

Their conversations went like this. The man on the “date” would point someone out in the line dressed up as some comic character, and explain to his date who that character was in way too much detail. The woman would feign interest (although her convincingness faded the longer he went on). The second man would make some cheap shot at the person dressed up, along the lines of either (a) having gotten the details of the costume wrong, (b) being physically unlike the character, or if all else failed, (c) saying that choosing that particular character was “gay”. The first man would then respond in kind, and there would follow some weird laughter that sounded not unlike pigs squealing during an asthma attack.

This kind of thing went on for, say, twenty minutes, before the woman made some kind of comment about how she didn’t know that her date was “so into comic books,” with the obvious implication that she was not impressed. The man grunted in surprise and then gave the following reply: “Baby, at least I’m not a fuckin’ geek like these guys. Look around you! I’m the best option you got here!”

Surprisingly, this did not send her running away from everyone in tears, sobbing as she realized how hopeless her situation was if that were true.

I stood there, listening to all of this, and fighting the urge to turn around and explain to the man that, despite what he may think, if you wait half an hour in a line surrounded by elves and people dressed up as clones from the Empire to get into a convention where they sell comic books, then, yes, you really are a fuckin’ geek. I also fought the urge to tell the woman that, really, her date for the day couldn’t be the best option she had, because I’m sure that that was statistically impossible given the number of people in line around her. Instead, I stood there silently, wondering why it’s the first urge of every comic nerd to make themselves feel better by putting everyone else down.

And then, my train of thought was interrupted by a man dressed as Captain America trying to shake my hand.

“Hi, I’m Captain America,” he boomed, “Ultimate Avengers! Premiering today!”

Fuckin’ geek.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Plan B

So there I was, eighteen and in art school, all fresh-faced (or as fresh-faced as you can be with a beard) and ready to learn. I was, I’d been assured many times, at the cusp of adulthood, and this was the point where I knew that I’d had to put away such childish things as comic books and comic book culture and focus on my studies and my future. Mark Waid was to be replaced by Paul Klee, and my evenings and my money were to be spent in pursuit of a higher education that society would embrace. My ambitions were set, my execution was ready.

It was the first exam of the season, towards the end of the (calendar) year. The exam was being held in the lecture hall, so we were all sat in this massive amphitheater and silently panicking to ourselves about all of the things that we’d managed to entirely ignore in the three months of classes up until that point about all of the great painters and what they did when and what that all meant. The questions for the exam were to be projected onto the screen, and then we’d write our answers in an allotted time before the next question would be projected, and we’d have to move on. Considering how laid back the rest of our art history classes had been – Think friendly old man talking about his childhood and then occasionally remembering that he should probably mention an artist at some point – this all seemed incredibly high-pressure, and it was obvious from the fumbling of pens and paper that I wasn’t the only one thinking that.

Our lecturer stepped onto the podium, and after a few words of good luck, he switched the projector on and turned the lights down low. And that’s when I remembered: My mind is wired wrong.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had this thought; in fact, it was a perennial when it came to exams, all the way back to High School, when the mere thought of math or physics exams was enough to reduce me to a shivering mass of muscle, sweat and fear. The problem was always the same, and the problem was always this: No matter how hard I study for something, no matter how hard I try and cram my brain full of the information that I need to remember, when I actually have to have access to it, my brain will only offer up useless comic-related trivia.

I was sitting there in the art history exam, desperately trying to remember the details of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, and all I could visualize were old Spider-Man covers. I have the vague memory of what the Gericault painting looked like – There was a raft, and it was on stormy waters, and the raft was falling apart and the people on there looked kind of ragged – but it was nowhere near as clear in my mind as that first cover where Spider-Man was wearing his black costume, with the pose recalling Amazing Fantasy #15, even as the colors seemed more contemporary and vibrant (There was a red sky, I seem to remember, and my mind at the time started wandering even further, wondering if the red sky was a shout out to DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series, where it was all about the red skies, and then I started thinking about Crisis and that I’d missed that series for the most part but picked up the twelfth issue in a store in Florida on my first trip to America when I was a kid, and the way that that comic had felt like some strange other melodramatic world that made X-Men look deep. This was before I had come to accept my inner DC fanboy, of course). As I sat there, pen in hand and refusing to magically write the answers that I needed, I started to wonder if I’d chosen the wrong career path for myself.

The idea of being a “Comics Professional” is one that’s occurred, I have no doubt, to every single person who reads comics these days. When the market shrinks to the size that it is now, I have a depressed faith in the idea that everyone who makes the Wednesday afternoon trek to the store to pick up that week’s new releases has either hopes that they will one day be discovered and given the keys to either DC or Marvel (or perhaps even both), or else they have broken hearts having realized that those dreams will never come true. I’m probably in the second of those categories, despite the occasional glimmer of the first returning whenever my judgement is impaired (Years and years of wanting to break in but not having the courage of my convictions wore away at my desire to be in comics). But when I was eighteen and in an art history exam that felt like it would never end, I felt that the world of fine art and design was clearly not one for me. Given the way that my brain appeared to work, there was only one course of action open to me: I had to be a comics critic.

Back in those pre-internet days, however, there was no easy way to hit that obscure career path. There were the trade magazines, like The Comics Journal or the then-good Comic Buyer’s Guide, sure, but they were American and full of people who knew how to write. There was one British magazine, Comics International, but it too seemed like a closed shop to a boy who was trying to swear off of comics anyway. I briefly considered writing a zine, but realized almost instantly that doing that required more effort and potentially money than I was willing to invest considering I really should be studying for a career and all. And besides, part of the effect that bringing yourself up on superhero comics is that you start to subconsciously believe in two things despite yourself: A simplified morality and a belief in fate managing to pick the right people despite circumstances. In the back of my mind, I felt that, if I was supposed to be discovered and be a comic critic, then it’d happen somehow no matter what.

And so, I sat back in my uncomfortable chair, and tried to clear my mind of all comic thoughts, and think about the Raft of the Medusa. My comic future, whatever it would end up being, was certain no matter what I did, but it could only help to have a back-up plan, which would only happen if I could remember what that damn painting looked like.