Going to a comic convention is a lot like going to a costume party on a day that isn’t even close to Halloween. The whole trip to the con, you feel like an absolute tool: you suffer the questioning glances and open stares of all the “normal” people who, going about their daily business, suddenly find themselves inexplicably standing in line for the cash machine behind someone in a full Superman costume or someone trying to push the little buttons on their cell phone with his Wolverine claws. You can read it in their eyes: “Who the hell is that freak? What does he think he’s doing?”
All of this you endure because, the minute you step through the doors of the convention hall, all your anxieties fade away. You are home. You are amongst your own kind.
Admittedly, I was in neither full Superman costume nor was I brandishing Wolverine claws (although more than a few folks were). But I did struggle off the bus with my giant bag of comics I was hoping to get signed and a backpack bursting with all three Hellboy Library Editions which caused me to walk with an odd slump. (You have no idea how heavy those things are!) Even without any outward comic paraphernalia, I was quite clearly “one of them.” And I did breathe that same sigh of relief when I stepped through the doors and saw other people ladened with similar burdens.
The Emerald City Comic Con never ceases to amaze me. Every year, the organizers outdo themselves, turning what was once a decent local convention into something worth getting on an airplane for. According to accounts, some 8-10,000 people drifted into the Washington State Convention Center this year. Now, that is just a twinkle in the eye of the great San Diego Comic Con, which gets easily ten times that number, but it is still very respectable. The guest list improves each year as well, with a good mix of the old guard with some hot new talent. This year had the head honchos from both DC and Marvel in attendance–which was a real coup. And, of course, Stan Lee.
As always, for me, the real fun of a convention (aside from ogling the CosPlay girls, if I must be completely honest. I don’t know what era of comics had the Scarlet Witch in an outfit that consisted entirely of a red fishnet body stocking, a matching red-vinyl thong and bra set, head gear and a cape, but I’m eternally grateful for that) is meeting the creators whose names grace the inside of my favorite funny books. This year offered the chance to meet quite a few folks who I had never met before, as well as a few old favorites.
This guy wins the award for being the coolest, most laid-back comic creator I have met. Len Wein pretty much just hangs out at his booth with a little sign with his name on it, and takes his fans as they come. He was happy to chat, sign some books, and just generally be mellow.
One of the things that most struck me about Len Wein was how few visitors he got and how that was altogether his choice. If he wanted to, he could have a bright colorful banner up saying Len Wein, Creator of Wolverine and The Swamp Thing or Len Wein, Editor of The Watchmen or Will Eisner Hall of Fame Comics Legend Len Wein. He could have had all sorts of people lining up to sign their Wolverine claws or action figures, all sorts of parents hauling their little kids in Wolverine costumes over to shake hands with the creator of their beloved character.
I wonder, in fact, what it must be like for Len Wein to have so many people running around dressed as your creation (and there were a lot of Wolverines), yet so few of them aware of the fact that the character’s creator was sitting right there in the hall. Is that disappointing? Somehow, I don’t think so. He seems okay with how things worked out.
Apparently, he just isn’t interested in that kind of attention. He would rather have the fans who know him for his work come over to say hello rather than have to advertise or otherwise sell himself. And that’s pretty cool. (And if you are one of the ones who don’t know who Len Wein is, then shame on you!)
Comic conventions do not appear to be the favorite part of James Robinson’s job. He is a rather grumpy fellow who took frequent breaks from his booth to ease his hand that was sore from signing. When I showed up with my stack of twenty comics or so to sign, he let out a sigh and gave me this look that was just pure contempt.
The moment before he opened his mouth to tell me that there was no way in hell he was going to sign that many comics, I made the quick attack of buttering him up a bit by telling him that he is one of my favorite modern comics writers (which is true), that I loved the Cry for Justice mini-series (also true), and then launching into how I thought he was one of the few writers who really understood what makes American comics unique—meaning the history and legacy of the characters (most definitely true).
James Robinson is apparently entirely susceptible to flattery because he looked at my stack again, thought about it for a bit, gave me a quick “Well…thanks for that,” and then started signing. Once he got going about a subject that interested him, he was really chatty. He even went so far as to flip through some of the pages of my copies of Cry for Justice and point out how brilliant Mort Weisinger was, and then dug out some copies from his own stack of his current run on Justice League so he could keep signing and chatting after he was finished with the comics I brought.
Clearly, a comic convention is not the best setting in which to meet James Robinson. He should be met at a pub, with ample pints flowing and the conversation veering wildly from why The Marvel Family is difficult to write well to how modern art effects have taken some of the creativity from artists who used to have to figure out how to draw a man moving faster than the eye can follow without using blurring effects and color fades. He is a great guy who knows and loves comics dearly but who doesn’t seem to be too comfortable in that particular setting.
This guy, by contrast, is right at home at the Emerald City Comic Con. He lives here in Washington and puts in an appearance at the local conventions pretty much every year. If there is a word to describe Kurt Busiek, it would be “amiable.” He has a big smile for everyone wandering up to say hello, and you get the feeling that even if you brought an entire longbox of comics for him to sign, he wouldn’t say no or give you any grief for it. All he asks is that you let him have a few bites of his sandwich in between signings–a perfectly reasonable request.
Kurt Busiek has signed my entire run of Astro City over the years and promises that, next year, there will be a few more for him to sign. Looking forward to it, Kurt!
So, in a previous column I made a big stink about Stan Lee charging for autographs, but to be honest, now I feel kind of bad about it. Meeting Stan Lee was awesome. The guy just radiates charm and was so warm and genuine that I felt like a total cheapskate for whinging about a couple of twenties.
Of course, the hours leading up to t
he actual meeting I was still fuming with bitterness—which wasn’t helped by the poor planning and organization. The Emerald City Comic Con was clearly not prepared for the attention that Stan Lee drew. Even though we had purchased our tickets online and received a time for our signing, we had to wait in line for about an hour to cash in our printed receipt for the actual signing ticket before we took our place at the back of the enormous line of people waiting to meet Stan Lee. Because these lines were in the back of the main convention floor, that meant that we created a huge wall cutting through the middle of the floor, and everyone trying to get from one side of the convention room to the other had to look for a breeching point in the line to cut their way through. I happened to be standing right in the middle, which meant I had a constant stream of people cutting through where I was standing, arms full of goodies and faces clearly annoyed. We were in their way, and they were in ours.
Things weren’t looking good at all when I saw that my signing was scheduled for 12:00, and yet Stan had a photo session scheduled for 12:30. It was pretty clear that not all of us were going to make it, and everyone just kept crossing their fingers that the cut-off point would be the person behind them, not the person in front of them. Finally, the axe fell with me all of five people away from the finish line, and the event staff told us to come back at 3:00 for the next signing session. This pissed me off to no end, and I made the staff write our line-order on the back of our tickets. If I had to come back at 3:00, I wasn’t going to do another hour or more in line. I wanted to get right back into position 5.
The few hours of waiting flew by as I went around the convention, and in the meantime, the event staff had wised up a bit and done something they should have done in the first place. The Stan Lee signing was moved into an entirely different room from the main convention, which meant we could line up in peace without disrupting everything and we wouldn’t be so cramped and put out. I got back into my #5 spot at about 2:45 and started chatting with the folks around me while I waited.
This turned out to be one the coolest parts of the convention because the guy waiting in line behind me used to be an animator in the 80’s, working on cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian and Blackstar, both of which I was an absolute devotee of back when I was a tyke. He told me stories of working with Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, and how he pitched a Fleischer-inspired superhero series that was turned down because the trend was for cartoons with lots of accessories that could translate into sales in the toy department (think He-man), and no one was interested in clean, simple designs and quality animation. This same pitch would, of course, later become the success story of Paul Dini and Bruce Tim when they proposed something similar a decade later with Batman: The Animated Series. Timing is everything, I suppose. I can’t remember his name, but if you have to be stuck in a line for an hour or so with someone, this was definitely the guy.
When Stan did make his appearance, about thirty minutes late, he came tottering out—guided by a couple of thick minder—and the waiting fans went pretty much mad with cheers.
With all the fluttering staff surrounding him, all of whom need to be paid, I get the feeling that the $40 signing fee is more their idea than Stan’s. The man himself seems more interested in meeting his fans than counting the pennies, and all of the dirty business of checking ticket times and such was done well out of his view. Instead of some assembly-line run through, everyone got a little face-time with “The Man,” along with a handshake and some of that perpetual grin. He seemed impressed that I had owned my tattered copy of X-Men #1 for more than twenty-five years, being a thirteenth birthday present from my father so many years ago.
Stan Lee is 87 years old and looks it: he is a grinning old grampa who has that kind of smile that sinks right down into your heart. I think you would be hard-pressed to maintain any sort of bitterness or cynicism when you are right in front of the guy. Meeting Stan Lee was magical, like meeting the real-life Santa Claus. He is the stuff that dreams are made on.
Final Note: While I loved meeting Stan Lee, you mustn’t think that I lost all of my hard edges. I did, in fact, pull of a desperate gamble and “stick it to ‘The Man'” at least a little bit. Each $40 ticket was good for a single signing, and if you wanted Stan to sign two things, you had to pay $80, or $120 for three items. I carefully concealed a second comic underneath my first one when showing the minders my ticket and item to get signed, figuring Stan wouldn’t know who had paid for what. I was correct, and when, like a magic trick, my one comic turned into two, Stan didn’t bat an eye, signed them both, and just kept chatting away. I figure I paid $40, stole $40, and that puts me at zero.
Ha! Take that, Stan Lee!