Archive for July, 2013

The Homecoming Game – Part 11

Continuing/concluding chapter 7 of the serialization of The Homecoming Game…

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I pull out my smokes, and start to shake one out of the pack when Michael stops me with a tut-tutting noise and a shake of his head. “Nope, not inside man.” I stare back, mouth agape. Honestly, truly stunned. “What??!… There’s no smoking inside a bar. In Idaho?! Are you serious?!” He nods grimly “Yep, been that way for a while now.” I’m shaken. Rattled. Like a friend died.An expected “No smoking in a bar in Idaho… the world is completely ending. There’s the proof. Last time I was here, I got asked if I wanted ‘smoking or non-smoking’ in a restaurant! Not being able to smoke in a bar in Idaho is like trying to imagine California without convertibles, or Texas without cattle and oil… The world is upside down, man.”  I need a drink. Badly. Now. I need that waitress to do a bump in the back room and get her ass in gear. Michael shrugs “Yeah… but the last time you were here was over 16 years ago, dude. Shit does change, even in Idaho.” I look at him with a wry twist to my mouth “Yeah, but I bet the Highway speed limit is still 55mph, right?”

He can tell I’m losing it a bit, and motions toward the bar to hurry it up.  The bartender responds by getting in the waitress’ face, angrily pointing over towards our booth, before giving her a hard slap on the ass. Giddy-up little doggie, there’s booze to sell. As she trudges over, holding the bottle in one hand, with the glasses dangerously balanced on a tray in the other, Michael confirms my suspicions. “Of course it’s still 55mph… safety first!” She plants her cargo on the tabletop with a crabby gesture that threatens both the stability of the table, and the integrity of the glasses and stomps away with a sour look.  I’m the kind of person who normally tips servers and waitresses very well. I know how shitty and hellish and exhausting it can be slinging drinks, serving food, busing tables. I’m silently pondering what would have more impact with our waitress… not tipping at all (which she is likely used to), or tipping an idiotically generous amount.  Would getting a $60 tip make her second-guess her behavior, or would it just reinforce her habits and patterns.  All of the variables of how it could play out are running through my head as Michael cracks the metal seal of the bottle’s cap, and pours us each 3 fingers of mid-shelf scotch.  I guess we had to specify ice. In all likelihood, it’d melt to water by the time we got it anyway. We silently toast each other, the thick glasses clicking together, and I slam half of mine down in one gulp. There’s the fire down the throat… rising up out my nose and ears on the exhale. The warmth blooming out from my center… slowly expanding to my chest. Another swig and the glass is empty.  Michael’s looking at me wide-eyed.  He’s drained a finger’s worth of his glass, and I can tell by his expression as I refill my glass that… while he was expecting to drink tonight… he didn’t think we were going to be doing this kind of drinking.  The kind teenagers and college students do before they learn better. The kind you do at parties when you don’t know anyone around you. The kind you do as a form of passive suicide.

 

The kind you do when you’re trying to shore up the dam of denial.

 

I ease back a bit, recognizing the concern in his eyes. I want to talk with my friend. I want camaraderie and brotherhood and laughter and tales. I don’t want him concerned about me. I don’t want him to wonder if I’ve started back down that road. That won’t help me here, and whether I’d say it aloud, I need all the help I can get. “So… other than the usual monkey business of hoping planes at the last minute to go to see Mt. Fuji or attend the Electric Daisy Carnival, what’re you doing?” I clarify myself “…besides agitating the locals for amusement, that is.”
He drains his glass, fills it again, with less this time. “Doing promotion and support for a satellite company out of Portland. They are doing a big push into the “rural” northwest in order to try and beat the cable companies to the punch. Washington State just approved some initiative that’ll lay fiber optic across the state… every home by 2014… so who knows how long it’ll last.” He takes a sip, shrugs “The work’s easy, I get to travel, mostly on my own schedule so I can go see gigs in Seattle or Portland if there’s something worth seeing. It works for now.”  He looks around… slowly… as if really examining our surroundings for the first time. “Whenever this gig is over though, I’m thinking of moving. Head to Seattle or San Francisco.”  He takes another swig and grins at me “Hell, maybe I’ll move to LA, and you can hook me up with a Fahncy Johb in Hollywood with lohts of Mahdels and ACTresses.” He draws the syllabels out like he’s a stereotypical society man seen in a million B movies. Dan Akroyd in Trading Places.I sip from my own glass, then hold it in both hands, looking down at it as I roll the short cylinder back and forth between my palms. “Dude… I hope you know, you ever decide to get out of here… whether it’s two years from now, or two days from now… I’ll help you in whatever way I can.” I drain the last of the second glass, reach for the bottle, pointing at him with one finger as my hand pulls the bottle to me. “You’re too smart to be here. You’ve got too much potential to just exist here.” The caramel liquid splashes into the glass and I look him in the eye so he knows this isn’t me joking or pulling his leg. “You’re smarter and more capable than 90% of the assholes and morons I deal with on a daily basis, so yeah… if you want to come to LA, please do.”

 

He takes the bottle from me, filling his own glass “Thanks. Maybe I will.” A sip taken, he holds it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. Perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of recommending this locale as our drinking destination. “It’s something to think about.” He nods, toasting me with his glass, letting me know that he understands I’m serious, and acknowledging in kind that he is as well.

 

He pulls out the hammer. Tapping the ice. Trying to crack it gently. Not send shards flying that would cause injury or trauma. “So… how’d it go with your Dad?”

 

I drain my 3rd glass. Pour another. Look around the room. Deflect. Misdirect. “I can’t believe how… I know I grew up here, it should be second nature, it shouldn’t surprise me… but it doesn’t matter.” Another sip. Cover the stuttering. The stammering. I mean to talk like this. “Every time, I can’t believe how people talk here…”

 

Michael reaches for the bottle. His glass still half full. He’s not needing to pour… to top off… his own glass. He’s trying to get me to slow down without being a dick about it. Breathe, man. Relax. All these things said in gestures. Shorthand communication between lifelong friends. “What do you mean, how people talk…?”

 

I take an oversized breath, Like a diver that’s been down to long, trying to oxygenate the lungs. Trying to clear the head after having been down in the depths and the dark. “You know… ‘Sure thing sugar’… I actually had a nurse at the hospital say to me with a straight face, ‘good heavens son’, completely unaware of how it sounded. It’s like stepping in to an episode of Green fucking Acres.”

 

Michael snorts, and points toward me, injecting a critical note of clarification “If Green Acres was written by a meth head living with 5 kids by four different fathers in a trailer, using a bucket as a toilet.”The analogy is scary in its precision, and underscores just why I really would like Michael to move to LA. Work with me. If you have any pride in your work at all, you always want to work with people who are smarter than you are. I laugh. Hard and loud, tears rolling down the side of my face. It’s stupid to do so… it draws attention from the cluster of rednecks in the back corner, but I can’t help it. “Dear God… exactly. Dead. Fucking. On.”

 

He smiles and waits. Letting my laughter and tears die down. Watching amused, sipping his scotch, as I slowly pull myself together. The tension that’s been building since I first stepped on the plane at LAX this morning… less than 24 hours ago… a lifetime ago… has been broken. I’m feeling pleasantly buzzed. Warm around the edges. No longer brittle and fragile, capable of shattering at any moment.  The cracks established in the hard surface, Michael tries again. “So… speaking of trailer park life… your Dad?”

 

My head goes to the side as I look at my glass. Resigned now to being “in this”. Accepting that the only way out is to go through it. “Well, on the plus side, he isn’t living in a trailer home anymore… not like he was when I left.”  The corner of my mouth twists, anticipating the completely inappropriate humor in what I am about to say “The down side is that he’s shitting in a bedpan and dying. Hardly ‘movin’ on up’, y’know?”  I get the giggles. Exhaustion. Scotch. The release of tension. Being here. Being in the presence of one of my dearest friends. No other way to put it, I’m fucking loopy.

 

Michael isn’t laughing. His isn’t even smiling.  He purses his lips, looking at his drink while my hysteria subsides. He finally looked up at me, squinting. Measuring. “You had anything to eat today?” This is the flip side of having a friend that knows you so well. They can read… usually without error or flaw… between the lines.  It’s annoying as fuck sometimes. In other moments, it’s what you truly need.  Like now.  I sigh, shake my head. Caught out like a kid caught sneaking a cookie before dinner. “Nah, I…” I snort in self-contempt, knowing how idiotic I sound as I say it “I had some pork rinds before I went over to the hospital.”  Michael’s up, pulling his jacket on, and motioning me to do likewise. “Well, no wonder you’re acting like a 15 year old with his first beer… c’mon buckaroo, let’s get some food in you.”

 

I fumble to get up, miss the sleeve of my coat as I try to put it on. Miss a second time. Manage it on the third, avoiding Michael having to put it on me like I just rolled off the short bus. I’m patting my coat… OCD habit, checking twice that my phone, wallet and keys are where they were put last.  I’m patting a third time… just to make sure… when I notice Michael throwing four $20s on the table as he starts to turn to leave.  I grab his arm, clumsy. Unstable. “Dude… I… I gave you a hard time, bro… but… I… I’m getting this.”  Looking over his shoulder, he cocks an eyebrow. The look of an babysitter annoyed that their charge has proven to be more trouble than initially anticipated. “Jack… c’mon. You can buy the food if you’re really determined to prove you’ve got money.”  He watches me try to process the words. All clever thoughts gone. Dribble-drabble-drop. Down the drain. Finally he puts a hand on my shoulder and gently… but firmly… propels me towards the door. “Now, young man… food.  Jesus, didn’t we learn as young hooligans? ‘Always eat at least 2 hours before going swimming in Lake Drunk’?” I nod, numb and dumb. Eyes heavy, room turning in slow… slow… motion. He steers me out the door and the drunks and barflies, rednecks and washouts, watch intently as we step out into the cold.

30

07 2013

The Homecoming Game – Part 10

Returning to the serialization of The Homecoming Game. My apologies for the delay, enjoy…

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“Do I drive

Or am I driven

Can I break

What I’ve been given”

- Crash and Burn, The Sisters of Mercy

 

VII – PENSIONER

 

O’Brien’s hasn’t changed. It’s alcoholism caught in amber. Social DNA frozen in booze-soaked time. The dark, small space. The mirrored bar with fewer bottles and varieties than you’d expect in even the meanest of dives in Los Angeles.

Or Idaho for that matter.

The blood-red vinyl of the booths surrounding the perimeter. The faux plants with an inch of dust on their plasticine surface and blue-black lighting embedded in the gap between the back of the booths and the wall, giving a pale purple glow shining upwards on the water-stained walls. It’s halfway between the cantina in the original Star Wars movie, and something out of a David Lynch movie. Sparsely populated. A handful of freaks and aliens hunch protectively over their drinks at the bar, or in boozy isolation at a few of the booths. There’s one cluster of men… flannel and trucker hats. Facial hair and a “chaw” lodged in their cheek, distending it like a boil in desperate need of lancing. A city of empty Coors Light bottles inhabits their tables, and I notice they are… I think… around my age. My hackles go up instinctively. Reaction of a dog in the presence of a larger, dangerous predator. I make it a point not to look at them as I scan the rest of the abyss.

Michael’s waiting. Ensconced in the booth on the far fall. Closest to the door. Farthest from the group of beer-chugging miscreants. Ex-Spies never sit with their backs to the door or window, even decades after retirement. Escapees from redneck torment make sure they know where the exit is, and that they’ve got a lead in reaching safety.

Old habits.

Michael grins, wide and happy under his layer of scruff, and waves me over, downing the rest of whatever is filling his mug with his free hand. “Dude! You’re late, and you’re lagging… already had two beers waiting for your tardy ass.”

I grin back at him, my smile as wide and as heartfelt as his “Well, if they’re still watering down the beer as much as they used to, you’ve actually only consumed maybe half a beer. Two-thirds at most.”

He looks up at the ceiling, scratching his chin in thought as I sit down across from him, pondering the accuracy of my statement. “Hmmmm… true enough. Only one thing to do. Better switch to booze.” He half-turns, waving to catch the waitresses’ attention before motioning her over.

Michael’s one of the few… the VERY few… people I actually miss from this town, and wish that I could see more often. Since my escape from these environs, I’ve only seen him in person a handful of times. En route to Burning Man, a trip to LA to see some obscure band that has reformed for a “one night only” benefit gig in the City of Angels. A 5 hour layover at LAX en route to a “seeing the sights and smells” trip to India. Whenever he’s in town, or passing through, I do my damnedest to make sure we meet up, the desire to spend time with him in person often outweighing scheduled commitments and my curmudgeonly trait of hating to leave the house for any reason unless I have no other choice. It’s not exaggerating, or hyperbole in the slightest to say that he’s saved my life more than a few times. Sometimes from the threat of others. Sometimes, from my own self-destructive parabolic arc. I feel, if I’m honest about it, like complete shit because over the years I’ve repaid his friendships with phone calls, texts, or emails that are infrequent at best. Annual at worst.

Because he is a true friend, he never gives me shit about that.

The waitress takes a circuitous path to our booth with a speed that makes my arrival here seem prompt and timely by comparison. Michael turns back to me with a raised eyebrow and a twist to his smile that says wordlessly ‘Shit never changes, what ya gonna do?’ Waiting the sloth-like arrival of the waitress, Michael leans back, stretching his arms across the top of the cracked red pleather of the booth. “So… I don’t suppose you got lucky enough to have your old man drop dead before you got to the hospital.”

I snort in response “No, God continues to show his complete lack of support for me in the matters of familial harmony, and evidently… like my lovely wife… seems to believe that I have an urgent and deep-seated need to engage in the joy of familial bonding.” I pause for a minute, cocking my head in thought. “Or patricide. One of those.” Michael responds with a short, barking laugh and nods his chin at the waitress who has finally fought her way through the motivational molasses of personal apathy to arrive at our booth. “Hey Ang, Can you bring us the oldest bottle of Scotch that you’ve got, with a couple of heavy bottom “old fashion” glasses?” He twitches his head and thumb in my direction “He’s paying.”

I give him a look of mock disapproval, clucking my tongue at his audacious use of my funds. “Oh, nice…” He responds with a wide-eyed shrug, full of innocence and childlike mirth. “What? Hey, you’re the rich and famous guy…”

Eyeroll as I slump back against the booth. A gesture of pained defeat and acceptance of my fate. “Dude I am so not even close to being rich…” Although I’m not either of the appellations that Michael’s hastily slapped on me, like a low-rent convention badge… peel off sticker with “HELLO MY NAME IS” pre-printed on sheets of eight, with a sloppy designation scrawled in hasty sharpie marker… I catch my own lack of denial on the latter definition. There’s a cold internal grimace of disappointment that my own ego won’t let me deny it.

Old habits, indeed.

The waitress turns to me, folding her arms just below her breasts, an unconsciously habitual movement, no-doubt adopted over years of barroom work in an effort to increase her feeble takings in tips. She cracks her neck in an extreme and sharp twist to the left, the popping noise adding a counterpoint to the rhythmic snapping of the gum she chews with almost angry force. We look wordlessly at each other. Appraising. She’s somewhere close to Michael’s and my age… 5 years in either direction by my guess… shoulder length dirty blond hair hanging in lifeless, drooping curls. Dark eyes, rimmed by dark circles… either sleep deprivation or excessive drinking, or speed, or “D. All of the above”. She must have had a decent figure 20 years ago, but bad eating, lack of exercise, and I’m guessing childbirth has given her a classic case of “riding pants”… thighs and butt oversized in comparison to her skinny upper body.

I take in all these details and more in a split second, but I don’t recognize her. I’m not really surprised by this. Even in a region as small and incestuous as the Lewis-Clark Valley, there are “tribes”… and if someone is out of the orbit of yours and the affiliated associates, you might go your entire lifetime living 4 miles away from them and never know of their existence. Add to that factors and variables of her possibly attending Lewiston High School, or having moved to the “big city” of Lewiston after growing up in Pomeroy, Asotin, Uniontown or any of the small communities scattered in the 30 mile radius surrounding the Valley, as well as the non-trivial odds of her not having completed any schooling past 10th grade due to teenage pregnancy. That’s not even touching on the fact that, generally speaking, people in this area do not “age well”. I’ve always been a bit stunned by the difference in apparent age in the average 40 year old here, vs. the average 40 year old in Southern California. Even removing factors like plastic and cosmetic surgery, there’s a worn, drawn appearance to most of the population here that’s absent in their Californian counterparts. It’s not a great and perplexing mystery… unsolvable by science. It’s the simple fact that life is harder here. It wears and abrades. Coarse grit sandpaper grinding down on life. Weathering it on a daily basis.

“Ang” raises a skeptical eyebrow at me. Gum snapping like bubble wrap.Her hip cocks out to the side. Classic Clarkston or Asotin High School pose taken on by the majority of girls when talking to a guy. Simultaneously showing defensive, bad-ass attitude mixed with not-very-subtle aspects of ‘hey boys, here’s what I got.’ It works on 15 year old boys when the girl is in the same age range. Possibly it’s effective on the barflies frequenting O’Brien’s on a regular basis. To my eyes it strikes a tone of sadness. Youth gone, never to return, failing to realize the moment… the time and place… has long since passed. “Yer Famous, huh?” Her head cocks to the other side, eyebrow staying arched as if to say she’s no gullible rube willing to believe any story told to her. “Hmmm, never seen yer picture ‘r nothin’ in the Enquirer, or People…”

I turn my head to Michael, giving him a look that plainly, wordlessly, tells him: ‘You fucker, see what you’ve done now?’ before turning back to the skeptical waitress. I give her my best snark-free and beatific smile. “Yes, and let all just take a moment and celebrate that minor… yet oh, so critical victory, shall we?”

There’s a moment of confusion that clouds her face as she attempts to process what I’ve just said. Michael is looking down at the floor, knowing that if he makes eye contact with me he’ll start laughing and like the hyenas in the Lion King, he might not be able to stop until his death. She finally shakes her head, deciding to try a different approach in determining the validity of Michael’s statement. “Soooo… if yer famous ‘n all… what in the name a’th Lord are ya doin’ here in Lewiston?”

I don’t want to get in to this. Not with “Ang” certainly. Not with anyone right at the moment. I want to drink. I want to forget. I breathe in deep, exhaling with a sigh. Michael blessedly jumps in, saving me, earning forgiveness instantly for starting this whole weird chain of discussion points with the waitress. “He’s a friend from way back Ang’, I invited him up here cause he needed to do some research for his next movie… Very important, but sensitive research, so he needs to keep a low profile, OK? Just get us the bottle and glasses, and keep Billy and Toby and their posse out of our hair, and I’ll make sure it’s worth your while, OK?” He pauses for a split second before flashing the grin again and nodding sideways in my direction while keeping his eyes on her. “I mean he will…”

Michael’s attempts at humor and levity are lost on her. She’s deadpan in expression as she tells him that the “best” scotch they have is Johnny Walker Black, and it’ll be $60 for the bottle… letting the info hang there for a moment, as if sure that the price tag will shock us into the retreat of watered down Coors Light or Budweiser on tap. I tell her that’ll be fine, and Michael reaches out as she starts to leave, catching her by the wrist, telling her in all seriousness to “Make sure it’s a sealed, unopened bottle, ‘kay?” She nods, telling him “Sure thing sugar”, and turns to make her laconic way to the bar to get the bottle. We watch her progress and I tell Michael “5-to-1 odds it’ll take her no less than 20 minutes to get back here.” He shakes his head and tells me it’s a “sucker bet” and he can’t take any of that action. I turn away from the slow motion spectacle and call Michael out for starting this whole trip down Surreal Booze Delivery Lane. “So… thanks for that by the way…”

He leans back against his side of the booth and gestures in a helpless manner. Cheshire grin wide on his face. “Hell man, entertainment here is scarce, you gotta make do with what your given. It’s like puttin’ on a play in a barn… you watch ‘em now. Even though I told her to keep it quiet, she’ll tell Matt… the guy minding bar… and in 10 minutes, they’ll all be like little wind-up Godzilla toys… pacing back and forth, sparks shooting out left n’ right while the rocks they have for brains grind together trying to figure out who the hell you are…”

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28

07 2013

Here’s the Thing – Part 3 (Thought about SDCC)

I had planned originally to post this on the Wednesday of preivew night before SDCC kicked off. It’s telling at how truly and completely SDCC devours all time around it like a pop-culture singularity, that I’m just NOW getting it finished and up. Re-read the First and Second entries if you need to refresh your memory prior.

After this, I’ll return within the next day or two to the ongoing serialization of The Homecoming Game

—–

To prepare for this post, you need to listen to the Who’s Eminence Front. Here’s the video if you don’t have it handy…

The Who – Eminence Front

So, then…

I had returned in late 1990 to Washington State to attend WSU in Pullman. I did a number of comic gigs while I was there… the aforementioned gig for TSR, inked a story for Phil Foglio’s Xxxenophile, drew one story for Denny Eichhorn’s Real Stuff, lot’s of little things here and there. The bigger thing was that, while at WSU, I got involved in Student Publications. Specifically the Daily Evergreen. I started out in the ad department, working on Macintosh II’s using Photoshop 1 and Aldus Freehand. I learned computer graphics in a daily production environment on the job. By the end of the first year, I was doing the Editorial Cartoons. By the second year, I was doing a daily strip about college life called Edge City, and editing the Entertainment Section. By year three, I was doing all of those, plus serving as Art Director for the Ad Department. Plus I was in a band. Plus I worked 3 nights a week as a DJ. I Kept Very Busy.

Straight out of college, as in two days after Graduation, i had a job as an Associate Editor for U the National College Magazine. U was a monthly insert (we called it the “Parade” of college Newspapers) that once a month went out to be inserted into every single college paper across the US. I left 2 days before graduation since I had to drive down to LA for the job. I got there late the night before the first day of work. Working at U was not what “was advertised” to us… the Art Director and EiC had quit. It was stressful at a level far above our pay grade. There was an investigation going on regarding some “shady dealings”. I lived up to my name… I was vocal, I made it clear I wouldn’t lie for a job. I got canned.

The combo of working insane hours for 4 years straight, in comics and print, for very little money, had taken a bit of a toll, so I called my friend Andrew Brandou and asked if he knew anyone who was looking for freelance artists. i actually had more computer graphics skills that 90% of the artists in the market, so I figured I was fairly employable. He told me about a 3 month gig he’d heard about through a friend at Philips Media. I applied for the job. The contract turned into a staff position, which turned into a Senior CG artist position. Philips was going under fast due to the flameout of CD-i, so an artist friend I’d met at SDCC, Omaha Perez, told me about an Art Director gig that had opened at Disney Interactive. I applied, I got the gig. Met Steve Niles there, became great friends along with scores of other incredibly talented artists, writers, designers, and programmers. Left Disney, went to Quicksilver, built up their art and Creative Department from zero people to a staff at the peak of 15 on site. During this 15 year span of working in videogames, I still went to SDCC every year. The only “comic” I had been doing was a periodic webcomic called DeathMarch that ran on GameSpy, but I’d worked on Disney’s Aladdin, I’d worked on Star Trek. I maintained my “pro” status (while feeling very much like a faker).

By 2005, I had gotten very… twitchy. I was getting fed up with the insane production hours in videogames, the lack of control over the end product, and most of all, I missed telling stories. I’d been writing piles of notes for specific projects I would “get to one day”… and yet the days kept ticking by.

Warren Ellis putting up the Engine was the spark that finally ignited this twitchy bundle of sticks into something resembling a fire under my ass. It was the “shit or get off the pot” moment for me… I could tell by the people gathered there… some who I knew from long ago (Like Steve Niles & Ed Brubaker and James Owen) some who I was “meeting” for the first time… that there was a core of individuals gathered here, ready to try and really make comics interesting again. So I dove in and floundered around. Tony Lee and I started on a project together, which would eventually come out with a different artist as Hope Falls. Derek McCulloch and I got Image to agree to publish the book that he and I had pitched to Vertigo back in ’98 called Displaced Persons. We did a preview of the book at the 2007 SDCC, and I will forever think of that year at SDCC as, The Last Fun Con. I connected with the people I’d met on the Engine. We laughed and we joked, and we talked about comics and “what comics needed” and what our dreams were. Old friends and new. As I was leaving on Sunday, I mentioned to Joe Keatinge (who was working at Image during this time) the idea of doing an anthology based off of Tori’s songs. I hadn’t even gotten the words out and it was “done!”

The original plan had been a “leisurely” development, with a release in October 2008. Two press opportunities came along and everyone… including all of the artists and writers involved… agreed we could, and would release the book at SDCC 2008. That meant we needed to assemble a 480 page project, with 12″ x 12″ art-stock pages, 3 different edition types, with 52 stories by over 100 creators in 4 months. I was told by very good friends of mine with years of editing experience who worked at DC, who worked at Dark Horse, who worked at Marvel that “Dude, there is NO FUCKING WAY you can pull this off. It is completely impossible!”

I knew we could.

The team at Image, the artists and writers, Tom Muller & his wife Liz doing the packaging design, we were all fucking in and we were going to not only make sure the book came out, but that it blew everyone away. We were going to show them all. I got the “artist proof” of the limited edition 2 weeks before SDCC, and I might’ve cried when I went through it. I was, in a word, stoked.

This SDCC… 2008… this should have been my “moment of glory”. My Successful Return to Comics. Solid published proof that yeah… I make comics, and I make damn good comics. We had signings set up from the beginning of preview night through the final bell on Sunday. A Featured Panel and signing on Saturday.   Even a follow up signing at the Golden Apple in LA a few days later. We did a signed, limited edition print of the cover that would be specific to SDCC, that each of the the creators appearing at the show could sign, and that would could sell for $35, which would then be split amongst the creators at the show. The thought being that, by doing so, each of the creators would get some kind of “income” for the time they spent signing at the booth (because we knew it was going to be crazybusy) while making sure that the accounts for book sales could be processed and disbursed after the con, according to the various micro percentages for each creator on the book. Traci Hui, Drew Gill and Joe at Image had done a great job making sure we had not only the prints, but also lovely mylar sleeves (available for another $5) to protect the prints.

Tori’s manager and I had agreed that the signing would have to be limited to 100 people. We’d both had decades around Tori fans and knew that even 100 could potentially run into hours if not managed correctly, and we were being allowed a 1 hour signing slot after the Featured Panel on Saturday. To keep the numbers down, the deal was that the first 25 people to buy a book on Wed would get in, the first 25 on Thursday, the first 25 on Friday, and the first 25 on Saturday. We figured that allowed for people who got to the show early, and didn’t penalize those who wouldn’t arrive at SDCC until later in the week. There were numbered, printed tickets, with the logo of the book on them, that were being shipped with the books to SDCC and would arrive on Wednesday morning. It seemed like a Very Good Plan.

Because of my job at Quicksilver, I arrived late by an hour to Preview Night. Frazzled and sweaty and tired from the drive down from Orange County, but despite it all, I was pumped up and excited. Joe met me at the front of the convention center with my exhibitor pass and “Sped Walked” with me back to the booth filling me in… there was a line of over 100 people in line to get Comic Book Tattoo (and to try and get the passes for that day). They were Not Happy at having to wait for me to get there. That was item #1.

Item #2… we had no books.

500 books had been shipped to the show. We had the signature for receipt of the books at the convention Center loading docks. 150 Hardcovers, 350 Softcovers. Because of the way the convention center works, Image (nor any publisher for that matter) cannot transport their items from the loading dock to the respective booth. That has to be done by the Union Workers at the convention center. They had signed for the books when they were delivered, but 500 book disappeared between the loading dock and the booth. I stopped dead and looked at Joe and Traci who had just joined us “Holy sweet fuck… what are we going to do??!?!?” We had 4 boxes of the signed, numbered, limited edition. 4 books to a box. 16 books. 500 missing. A line of 100 Not Happy fans, and I Am Not Jesus. I cannot make 16 limited editions into 500 regular books. Oh yeah, and the tickets for the signing… those are lost too.

Panic.

Think.

Improvise.

At this point we figured, “ok, we’ve got a problem today… we’ll find the books by tomorrow, so we need to just get through preview night.” In order to deal with the short-term delay, we made a deal for those who wanted to get in to the signing and who had waited in line for the Preview Night allocation of slots, but did not want to drop $150 on one of the few signed, number limited editions. We’d sell them one of the prints at $35… same price as the Softcover book, I would sign the back of their badge (because trust me, my signature is… unique) and when the books arrived, they could get a softcover edition, plus keep the print for putting up with the hassle, or they could give us $15 and “upsell to the hardcover” while still keeping the print. We’d eat the loss on almost 100 prints that night, but it would be ok. The fans would be taken care of, the books would be here tomorrow, and it’d just be a “minor bump”.

The books were nowhere to be found by Thursday. At 4:45 pm, Traci, Joe, and Eric and I decided that we couldn’t be sure the books would show up in time, so we’d have to order an emergency overnight drop ship of 300 books… 200 softcovers, 100 hardcover.

Now…

think about this…

EACH book weighs 7 pounds for the softcover. almost 13 pounds in hardcover. It is HEAVY. A fan sen me a picture where she broke her foot by dropping the book on it! We’ve just literally ordered a ton of books be delivered via FedEx overnight. We didn’t have a choice… we had to have the books. I didn’t sit down to do the math because, frankly, I was already in rocket-powered “JesusFuckingChrist” panic mode, but even without doing the math I knew this would be Very Very Bad and Very Very Expensive and it meant the project as a whole… and every creator on the book… would not make the money we had expected. We made the order. We hoped the books would show up by Friday. We took the loss and tried our best to deal with the hours of Very Annoyed Fans on Thursday.

Friday was a “rinse, repeat”. More angry fans, more badges signed. Finally, at 5pm, the books arrived, and we all breathed a bit. The creators could actually sign their stories instead of a print they didn’t draw. We could sell the damn thing we’d all been busting ass on like crazy people for the last 4-6 months.

Saturday was panel day.

Now…

The last time prior to this that I had been on a panel was… let’s say 92-ish? (I can’t be sure of the exact year) Right after SDCC had moved to the new convention center. I was on a panel with John Romita Jr., Matt Wagner, Reed Waller, and Kate Worley on the “Depiction of Drug Use in Comics”. Getting to the panel on time was VERY easy… there were no crazy crowds to navigate through, and even with JR JR being in his post-X-Men prime, the audience had maybe 200 people in it max. It was a good sized panel, active discussion, funny, but it was not in any way shape or form “hectic”.

For Comic Book Tattoo, we were a “featured panel”. Tori was flying in, we had five of the creators, myself and Douglas Wolk serving as moderator. We’d have a 45 minute break between the end of the panel and the beginning of the signing session that was scheduled for one hour, in which 12 interviews were scheduled with everyone from CBR to Time Magazine to SPIN and MSNBC. It was a Very Different Beast. We had a room at the Marriott next to the convention center to prep, dress, and get ready for the panel. Being that I still smoked at the time, I spent most of the hour leading up to the panel chain smoking and slamming down as much Pepsi Max as I could. 20 minutes before the panel, the “Escort” arrived.

For “High Profile” guests, there is a guard/escort to and from all events. This was a newsflash and a half to me. Four large men showed up at the hotel room. they surrounded myself, Tori, her manager and assistant manager, and guided us down the hall to the elevator, checked the elevator to make sure it was “clear”, took us down to a service floor, and then checked the area immediately outside the elevator to make sure that it was “clear”. As weird as this was, it just got weirder with each passing second.

We went, fully flanked by security, through a series of service halls and tunnels, up a service elevator to a back area of the convention center I wasn’t even aware existed… the whole thing felt very “Special Ops” and again… weirder and weirder by the second. We were finally taken into a “special green room” for the featured panels, deposited there and told to wait until they got us. If we needed to use the bathroom, one of the security detail would accompany us and make sure the bathroom was “clear”.

Did I mention this was getting weirder and weirder?

In the Green Room I look around and 5 feet away is Hugh Jackman, a few feet over is Lena Headley and Summer Glau (who were appearing at the time in the Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles). Tori knew Lena and they started chatting. I nodded to Hugh and again for the 400th time thought What… the… fuck… I’ve worked in entertainment for almost 30 years, going back to doing my first storyboard gig for a feature when I was 16 years old. I don’t get starstruck, or awed by “celebrity”. To me, they are just people that Do The Work. This whole situation, though… it was damn weird.

Finally, the security detail grabs us, we get into formation with the other panelists, and we’re moving. Fast. We go back behind two black curtains, and Douglas Wolk starts introducing everyone, and the panel is off and going. The presentation part goes very well, Tori and I picked the panel participants based on who we thought would be able to provide the perfect mix of creative insight with comedy and banter, and the mix was really good. Ted McKeever, David Mack, Elizabeth Purvis-Genco and Kelly Sue DeConnick riffed on the themes and the process with clarity, charm and humor. When we got to the Q & A portion, one of the audience members asked Tori what comics she liked reading now. She didn’t hear the question and it was repeated… Tori leaned over to me and asked “what’s the name of the crazy Surreal Time Spy comic…?” I whispered back “Casanova”, which she nodded, then repeated to the audience. The panel concluded after some more Q & A, including a funny bit about the The Joys of Swearing… (which starts around 3:20)

and we were done.

Now…

for those of you who might be living under a Comic book rock for the last 5 years, Casanova is the Brainchild of Matt Fraction with brain-ripping art by the very talented twins Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. It is quite simply put, one of those aforementioned comics that kicked my ass into actually getting back into comics again. Matt also happens to be married to Kelly Sue DeConnick… the only person besides myself who wrote two stories for Comic Book Tattoo, and who was on the panel.

Matt was in the audience for the panel, and as the security phalanx moved us out, Matt quickly came over to give Kelly Sue a hug and to tell Tori a simple “thank you” for mentioning Casanova. He wasn’t trying to have a big conversation, or have a pow-wow that would have slowed us down… he was simply trying (because Matt is truly Good People) to acknowledge his thanks. Instead, the security detail threw up and arm, blocked him from even getting close, even though I was insisting “it’s ok, he’s…” and they hustled us off before the exchange could be completed.

And it may seem naive, it may seem petty, it may seem misguided… but that moment… that was the one that “broke” SDCC for me.

I’m not kissing ass here when I say that Matt is simply put one of the best 5 comic writers in the business today. He’s helped redefine comics in both the indie and mainstream worlds, and (IMNECTHO), you would not have the Iron Man film series as it exists if not for Matt’s riffs on the character. I have lifelong friendships that endure to this day that occurred because of random moments like the simple act of grace and courtesy Matt was attempting, and the possibility of moments like that… new friendships, new connections, new inspirations… in that moment it was very painfully clear, SDCC could not allow for them any longer.

Now, mind you… I say that, having been through the logistical hell involved in just one “mid sized event” at SDCC that I entirely understand why it has to be that way. The show is Too Big. There is simply Too Much Going On at any given moment, and with the massive number of “non comic celebs” that attend the show, the logistics and security HAVE to be run at this level.

But the part of me that went to his first show in 1987… the part that made friends, and contacts, and a life in this business through those casual encounters and happenstance moments… that part feels an incredible sense of loss. A sense of loss for myself, and for my daughters who love comics and writing and want to make their own. For the generation “trying to break in now”. I’m well aware that change is constant, and conventions rarely reach a level of sustained homeostasis. They either expand and explode, or they wither and die.  It doesn’t make the aspects lost any less sad.

I’ll always love SDCC. It gave so much to me, in so many ways. But I mourn it at the same time, as that show no longer exists.

Here’s the Thing – Part 2 (Thoughts about San Diego Comic-Con)

Continuing on the relationship I have to San Diego Comic-Con, which I started writing about yesterday. Trying to explain the mixed and somewhat conflicted feelings I have towards the show.  In the last entry i talked about the first time I attended in 1987.  I won’t cover every year… we’d be here too damn long, it’d be even more rambling and pointless than my writing usually leans towards, and it wouldn’t hit the 3 ‘notes” that I want to… like Gregorian Bells ringing out… either to announce Mass, or Funerary service, or perhaps a baptism.

 

So, then…

 

After the debacle of SDCC 1987, specifically my throwing away my job because I was so. goddamn. sure. I was going to work in comics, I did a move that actually displayed some degree of sanity.  I decided I “needed to work on it”, and so my intention was to go the the Kubert School in NJ.  I had missed admission for the upcoming academic year, but I moved back to Washington State, camping out at my Mom’s house, and proceeded to work on samples, and comics and drawings.  Trying to write stories, trying to draw stories.  Sucking very badly at the beginning.  getting a little better here and there. Bit by bit.  I had the advantage that it was the 80′s and the Black and White small press explosion was in full effect.  You did short 4-8 pages for companies like Innovation, or Eternity or Calibre, and you knew it was “small time” because those anthologies only sold around 40-60k copies each, which meant you only made around $2-4k for your crappy little Black and White story, but it was learning, and you were getting paid.

 

(and yes kids, the irony is completely dripping off of that previous paragraph)

 

Roy had gotten hooked up with a guy who put out Kung Fu magazines, and who decided that since this comic book thing was taking off, he wanted in on it, so Roy and I ended up editing Tales of the Ninja Warriors, Tales of the Kung Fu Warriors, and… inexplicably… a skateboard-themed comic called SHRED.  Neither Roy or I skateboarded. Neither one of us knew crap about martial arts. Didn’t matter. Each month we were doing 16-24 pages of comics across three different books.  we used our editorial position to get friends some of their first gigs, and to hire people that we admired or dug (since the book actually paid a page rate).  Getting Ted McKeever, pre-Plastic Forks to do the cover for Shred #1. Getting Bernie Mireault to ink my pencils for Street Rott… these were golden moments for us, and I found myself drawn more and more to the “stories about the people”.  The struggles of “normal humans” were the stories that I was becoming obsessed with drawing and writing, and the Spandex Overblown of the pre-Image-exodus Marvel just struck me as cold.  I was becoming an Indie-nerd when it came to comics, and by that point I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t have a “real job”, then I couldn’t do the kinds of comics I wanted to do.

 

In summer of 1990, I asked a couple of friends from when i had lived in LA back in 86-87, Andrew Brandou and Tori Amos, if I could “couch crash” for a couple weeks at each of their places while I tried to line up a steady storyboarding gig either in animation or on Rock Videos.  They were incredibly giving and helpful and said “come on down!”

 

May turned into June, turned into July, and I hadn’t found a gig.  Klasky Csupo said I wasn’t “quite right” for storyboarding the Simpsons.  There were some rock videos for Marty Callner here and there with the Scorpions and Aerosmith, but nothing steady, and my finances had fast reached the point where I would have to make a choice of fish or cut bait.

 

I decided to go back to school. This time, I’d go to a “real” four year college. Get a full degree, maybe a Masters degree and teach while I made my comics.  Because at that point, that was the motivation… i just wanted to make the comics. I wanted to tell people stories. I wanted to make them laugh or make them cry, or fear, or love.  I wanted to reach out and say “hey… this is what being human is, don’t you think?”  I registered for WSU in Pullman, Washington and would head back a couple weeks after Andrew and I went down for SDCC that year.

 

Now…

 

Over that 3 month period of job hunting, I had basically been camped out on Tori’s couch.  It was one of the hottest summers in decades, and her apartment had NO AC, so she and then-boyfriend Eric Rosse had ensconced themselves up at his climate controlled place in Tarzana while they worked on new tracks, trying desperately to produce some 11th hour miracle songs that would get Atlantic to agree to put out the incredible music she’d been working on for the last two years.  During the days, Andrew and I would drive to Hi De Ho comics in Santa Monica or Golden Apple, and I’d pick up issues of Grendel, or Sandman, or Taboo, or Beanworld, or try to complete my back issue hunt for issues of Cerebus.  These expeditions… multiple times a week… resulted in 12 stacks, 3 feet high, of comics and graphic novels, neatly arranged around Tori’s apartment, like monoliths.

 

One evening Tori came by to pick up some stuff, and was stunned at the stacks of comics.  She wasn’t a comic reader, had no interest in them, but she asked “OK, so if I was going to read ONE of these, what should I read?”  I thought for a second, knew the frustration she and Eric had been going through with the new songs, and handed her issue #17 of The Sandman. “Calliope”.  She sat down on the couch, I went back to sweating over color and line samples for an animation company. A few minutes later, she’s looking at me wide-eyed… “Do you have MORE of these?!”  Within hours she had all of the single issues I had with me, plus one of the trades, and was on her way back to Eric’s.  I was stoked that I had gotten a friend to like A comic book.  The first step is always the hardest…

 

A week later, Tori showed up at the apartment with a tape with 5 new songs.  She asked if I wanted to hear them.  I said of course, and the notes rolled out… blue shiver of something undefinable as I heard her tell someone goodbye by saying “If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hanging out with the Dream King. (Neil says hi by the way…” I might have cried. I know I shuddered.  I told her “this is GOLD. This is AMAZING.”  She wasn’t sure, but I knew, good god I knew.  She left the tape.  SDCC was the next week.

 

And Mr. Neil Gaiman… he was going to be a guest.

 

I didn’t tell Tori I was taking the tape. I certainly did not tell her I was going to give it to Neil.

 

Andrew and I had, for the last few years, been putting together an annual mini-comic called “OUCH!” that contained two 8 page stories, where we would each draw the story the other wrote.  Each year there would be a “theme”, and other than that, it was wide-open crazytime.  We’d “release” these each year at a room party held at the Hotel San Diego… a fleabag dive that cost $32 per night for the two of us. No AC, roaches the size of Texas… and usually the day before the party we’d hand out flyers to pros we admired or knew to try and get them to come to our sketchy dive of a party.

 

THIS was social networking in caveman years.

 

Once at SDCC, we located the Spiderbaby Grafix booth, where Neil was signing with Michael Zulli for their adaptation of Sweeney Todd that was being serialized in Taboo. Clive Barker and Steve Bissette were there as well to promote the adaptation of Rawhead Rex.  I waited in line to see Neil… only 8 or 9 people deep, but to this date it is the ONLY time I have waited in line to see someone… and when I finally got to the front, I shambled and rambled and muttered about the release party, giving him a flyer and wouldn’titbegreatifhecouldcomebutdon’tfeellikeyouhaveto, and I finally gave him the cassette with Tear in Your Hand, Precious Things, Little Earthquakes and a couple other songs on it, telling him “This is a friend of mine… she’s got a label deal so she’s actually ‘real’… she sings about you and she loves Sandman, please don’t sue her!”

 

Neil did the patented “Curious Neil” headcock, not unlike that of a Westie or Scottie dog, grinned and said “OK”, and I moved down the line to Mike Zulli.  I stopped, and Mike looked a bit startled.  Most people in line went from Neil, then exited, not bothering to stop, but I loved the Puma Blues.  The last few issues were MAGIC and dear god I wanted to be able to create stories like that.  I asked Mike if he was doing sketches, and he said yes, what did I want.  I told him “please draw what YOU want, what would make you happy.” He sat back a bit, looked a bit surprised, then happy, then drew the most beautiful Puma in ink and colored pencil and chalk for me and it’s still one of my favorite pieces of art I’ve ever gotten.

 

Two booths down from Spiderbaby was TSR, who had decided to get into comics, and were doing “theme” lines… horror, Sci Fi, Fantasy, etc. with games in the back of each issue. Roger Silfer was running the place and saw my portfolio and called me over.  I went. This time no Eeyore Presence.  I’d been published enough times that I knew I could do comics. Maybe I wasn’t great, but I didn’t suck complete ass. I wasn’t a “plumber”.  He really liked my stuff, wanted to hire me to do 4 issues… I’d be working with Doug Moench as the writer and my editor would be Steve Gerber.  Two of my favorite comics of ALL time are Howard the Duck and the Moench/Sienkevitch run on Moon Knight. So, being told “hey we want to pay you a page rate to work with these two” out of the blue, with no warning… that was some kind of small, wonderful treasure stumbled upon.  We could go home and not even have the party that night, because it couldn’t possibly get better.

 

Oh, but it did.

 

Andrew and I expected maybe 5-6 people to show up to that year’s “OUCH! Release Party”

 

Maybe.

 

Instead, by 10pm, the one 20 x 10 foot room was packed with dozens of people, and dozens lined out into the hall.  The room fridge had broken, there was no AC, two of the three windows had been painted shut.  It mattered not in the least.  It was a Great Time.  Neil had come along, telling pretty much EVERYONE over the course of the day about “this interesting party”, so Bob Schreck, Neil, Kate Worley, Heidi MacDonald, Pia Guerra (at her FIRST SDCC), Reed Waller, Derek McCulloch, Mike Dringenberg, Chip Mosher, and dozens of others came in, did drawings, shot the shit. Got to know each other.  Friendships were formed that night that last to this day.
 
Wasters

Neil & I argue dead mystics over warm beer


 
At one point, Neil and I sat on one of the beds, sweating our damn asses off, drinking warm Miller Beer, arguing the relative merits or the writing of Aliester Crowley.  There was the infamous “shirt swap” (A story I’ll leave up to Neil to tell).  At 3 or 4am, the last of the folks petered out and it became one of those parties that, again… to this day… has become one of those “oh, holy shit you were there too?!” events at SDCC. An event that happened because I handed someone a tape and a flyer to a party for a minicomic no one knew of.

 

That was 1990…

 

Part 3 to come…

Here’s the Thing – Part 1 (Thoughts on the San Diego Comic-Con)

Here’s the Thing…

I’ve had more than a few people over the last handful of years ask me the question:

What do you think about the San Diego Comic-Con?

The frequency of this question has only increased over the last couple of years since I and the wife  and the comic-con-loving daughters have moved down to San Diego.  Kids at school find out that the girls get in because their Dad is a “pro”, and invariably at some point I have a parent or two asking “how do I get tickets?” What’s the secret?”  I tell these people “The secret is run. Run far. Run fast. Run the fuck AWAY! Odds of you getting tickets are stacked against you, it’s too expensive, and you will find yourself more miserable in a short period of time than you ever thought possible!

(or, a more-polite, parentally acceptable version of the above.)

That response, to both casual acquaintances, and to fellow pros and long-time SDCC fellow attendees is a reflexive response at this point. I don’t even think twice about saying it, or some variant of it
(with embossed foil cover, sold two weeks later on eBay at a 400% markup, no doubt)

The truth, however… the truth is a bit more complex. A little more… melancholy and regret.

I first went to Comic-Con back in 1987, when it was in the old Civic Center building.  The building is still there. Walk up Front Street to 1st Ave if you want to see it, and marvel at the fact that… that year, in 1987, they broke convention records by having 40,000 attendees.  I had driven down with my then-art school classmate, Roy Burdine, because we had seen an ad in the Comic Buyer’s Guide. A FULL PAGE ad that had Captain America pointing his finger straight at you saying “MARVEL COMICS WANTS YOU!“, followed by the fact that Marvel would be looking for new artists, new writers, new inkers and letterers at the Con.  Roy and I looked at each other for about 3 seconds (if that) then got to work on creating a Deathlok story… a 4 page short that basically riffed on the moment between Frankenstein & the Little Girl in the classic Universal Film.  We had no idea what we were doing, this being pre-internet, and managed to produced 4 pages that… in MY mind… were awesome.  They certainly were impressive considering i had never in my life tried to create a professional comic before.  Being that I had sound judgment, and a good head on my shoulders, I quit my job the week before the con, and Roy and I made the drive from downtown LA to San Diego. Paid the $10 for the weekend pass (registering on the spot) and I made a beeline for the Marvel Booth.

I say booth, but at the time, the Marvel booth was four folding tables, arranged in a box, no background, no table skirt. Some comics and posters scattered here and there. If you saw such a table in Small Press Alley today at any convention, big or small, you’d immediately dismiss them as being a shoddy operation.  At that time, at that place, the Marvel “booth” was PLUSH. They had an enclosed space people could not walk behind them while they sat at their table.

I, obviously, had to be a part of this.

Now, as we’ve determined, I had a good solid head on my shoulders. Which is why i made a beeline to the Marvel table, identified the man who was the Editor in Chief at the time, slapped the portfolio with the illustration board samples in it on the table, stuck out my hand and said:

“Hi, I’m Rantz Hoseley, your new inker!”

The EiC raised an eyebrow, and looked at me, looked around to see if someone was fucking with him… this long-haired rocker-looking kid grinning at him couldn’t be real, right?… then once he figured out that it was indeed “for real”, he slowly started going through the pages.

It took him about 5 minutes, he cocked his head and looked at me with a wry grin and said “Sorry, Can’t use you.”

I stood there, A flood of cold ice pouring down my back, feeling as if I’d been delivered a death sentence. “But… is… uh… could I… uh… do you have a place for interns or anything?!?  I can…” He waved his hand, making it very clear the discussion was done. “Kid, trust me, go be a plumber. What you got there? you should be a plumber!”

Roy muttered something along the line of “holy fuck” as I turned from the table an aimlessly walked through the hall. I had NO reason to stay there.
Now, understand, I’d dreamed of being involved in comics since I was in 2nd grade. Since I figured out… hey, there are people that do this for a living. Marvel was, up to that point… the pinnacle. What the fuck was i going to do?! What worth did I have?  None. Not a bit. I’d completely and utterly failed. Done.

I’m wandering like a gutshot soldier.  Not quite dead yet. But numb and knowing death is coming. It’ll be here any minute, when a lanky guy from behind a different table a few rows over calls out “Kid! Hey, Kid! C’mere!”  I wander over, notice that the hand-lettered sign says they are “Dark Horse Comics” I’ve read The first 3 issues of Dark Horse Presents. I’ve read the one issue they’ve put out of Concrete… one of the weirdest comics I’d ever seen aside from the Flaming Carrot… so I know it’s a “real” company, if a small one.  The lanky guy grins, sticks out his hand “I’m Randy, you’re an artist? We need an artist to help us finish up a book, let me see your stuff.”

I manage to somehow not cry but tell him in my Very Best Eeyore that I’m NOT an artist. The EiC at Marvel said I should be a plumber.  Randy waves the assessment off telling me to ignore that asshole, insists on seeing my stuff.  So I show him.  He spends almost 20 minutes going over the pages, then looks at me, nods, and says “Look, you’re not ready yet, but there’s something there.  I’m not an artist, but you need to work on things like line weight and spotting blacks…”

He pauses and calls over Michael T. Gilbert to get his input. They both nod and point to areas where I’m off in the weeds, but just as often pointing to things I inadvertently did right. Mike takes a brush pen, the first i had ever seen, and in 2 minutes does a sketch of me standing there, that is all gesture, not detail, but INSTANTLY nails the scene, the setting, the characters, the depth of the environment. It was like living in a Black and White world for your entire life then discovering hey kid, there’s this thing called color…

Randy Stradley then apologizes for not having business cards yet, but proceeds to write the office address and phone number down on a piece of paper for me, and tells me to stay in touch.
I believe him when he says it.

Roy and I wandered, dazed out into the main lobby. Sitting on a bench, talking about what a fucked up deal that was with Marvel, what a horrible ass I had been, and how incredibly cool Dark Horse was (From that day on, I have been an Evangelist for Dark Horse, and even did some little work for them back in the 90s).

As we sat there, with the few purchases we’d made, within rapid succession, I saw Jack Kirby come around the corner with Roz. Roy and I both bolted upright like soldiers in the presence of a general. He shook our hands, said hello, talked to us briefly about comics and art and the ups and downs. “You love it? Yeah? You keep fighting. Remember that” Kirby said and Roz led him off.

That was just the first year I went.
1987.

 

The Homecoming Game – Part 9

It’s been a rocky week, so my apologies for the slight delay in putting up the next installment.

…..     …..     …..     …..     …..     …..

“Angel, come closer

So the stink of your lies

Sinks into my memory.”

Fountain & Fairfax, The Afghan Whigs

 

VI – PATTERNS

 

The parking lot is a black field. The sodium lights spaced in a grid of nine cast tight spotlights and discolor the hue of any object struck by their illumination. The fallen snow beginning to create mottled fractals on the surface. White against black with nine circles of blue marbling under the towering poles. The high pitched hum from each light meshes with the next, building to a dull, grinding electric whine that sets the nerves on edge. My car, the only one in the lot, has turned ox-blood red under one of the lights. The metal is wet and glistening. Spotty and uneven with the pulpy bits of snow that haven’t quite yet melted away. It looks cancerous and bloody. Out of place.

My hands won’t stop shaking. It’s the cold. I’m sure it’s the cold. Almost 20 years in LA. No snow. No ice. No sleet. No weather like this. The body has gotten lazy in warmer climes. The body has forgotten. This is “mild”. This is nothing.

I try to pull a cig loose of the pack, and my fingers are all stumps and butter. Unable to be precise. Can’t get purchase on the paper cylinders. The grasping becomes more urgent, desperate. The box pops from my hand, the cigs for flying. Slow motion in the glow of the sodium haze. Cancer sticks. Nails in my coffin. Tumbling. End over end toward the grey and black slush. I watch them fall. Spinning slowly. There’s a sad beauty to the descent. The inevitability of it all.

Falling.

Descending, inexorably.

I don’t even bother trying to grasp for them.

Not even one of them.

Frozen.

Paralytic in that last moment of stuttering clumsiness. Watching them impact, one by one, the paper instantly becoming translucent by the moisture. Dissolving. Threads of tobacco swelling, bursting the paper. Slow motion science film on decay, unfolding in real time.

Fuck.

…..

The Homecoming Game – Part 8

Continuing the serialized release of “The Homecoming Game“. This concludes Chapter 5.

…..     …..     …..     …..     …..     …..     …..

 

I’m immobile. Looking in, unable to move. Struck dumb. All my clever words gone. I’m pulling away internally, trying to force my body to turn. Screaming at it to walk back down the hall. Walk out the door. Walk away. His eyelids flutter, slowly open. Eyes slowly loll around the room, aimless. Morphine will do that. They stop as they come to the doorway and his brows furrow, confused. I can tell he’s fighting to focus, trying to determine if what he’s seeing is actually there or an opiate imagining. When he finally speaks, his voice is croaking, coated with sandpaper. “Now… now I know I’m dead.” He tries to breathe in deeper, to get enough air in his rotting lungs to speak. “S’funny. Thought the tubes n’ shit’d be gone n’ I’d be able to walk ‘round.”

The words come back quickly to me. Maybe not as clever, but biting, nonetheless “Maybe it’s hell.”

He gives a slow, small nod in my direction “Well. That’d ‘splain you being here.”

He’s silent for a moment. Looking at me…. Thinking? Trying to stay conscious? Trying to speak, but physically unable to? I have no idea. His face is blank, emotionless. That mask… so blank and lacking in any form of intensity, is almost as unnerving as the sight of how frail he’s become. My mental associations of him… of his personality, his presence, his speech and cadence… are nothing but emotion. I wasn’t ready for this. He, after what seems an eternity, finally speaks again. “When did you get in?”

My reply is short. Facts only. “This afternoon.”

“You here for awhile?”

I shrug “Awhile… Don’t know. Depends on how things go, I guess.”

We stare at each other silently. Each with our masks in place. Ceramic and hard. Brittle and emotionless. He finally sighs “how what goes?”

I look him in the eye. Pinning him. “This whole thing.” I look away as I gesture in an ill-defined motion with my hand. “Being here.” I look back to him again. Another shrug, noncommital. “At some point I have to get back to work.”

The old man squints. He sees a chink in the surface, a gap to be exploited. He sticks it in. “Thought you were ‘Mr. Big Hollywood’ now. Mister writer.” He draws out the syllables of “mister” like a curse or evil incantation. “Still have to go back to a ‘real’ job, eh?”

There’s a microsecond of white-hot rage. The urge to fly across the room and open his fucking throat with the swift, single slice of a scalpel. A red smile to match the grey one plastered across his thin, grey, chapped lips. I bury it. Don a thin smile of my own. Showing him with action that I’m above all this, so fuck you dead man. “No… writing is my ‘real job’, and the only one I have, thanks. I can do the writing anywhere. The writing’s the easy part. The quick part. Selling’s the shit that takes time, and I don’t think that studio execs are likely to come up to this lovely environment to listen to me pitch projects or negotiate contracts.”

His gaze is starting to drift now. Halfway here, halfway on a morphine cloud. His mouth turns up in a wistful smile. “I gave you that, you know… you got that from me. Your ability to use words.”

My stomach is churning and I want to scream, but keep it in check. “If, by that, you mean the ability to lie convincingly, then I’ll give you that.”

He stares at some unknown point in space. Towards the ceiling. Seeing something I can’t. I stand silent, waiting to see if we are done with this round. If the bell has rung and I can go back to my corner. No. Not yet. His head rolls towards me, silhouetted in the doorway. “Well, you never know…”

I’m lost. I have no idea what planet he’s on, or if he’s even talking to me at this point, or some unseen ghost. “Never know…? What? What are you talking about?”

His eyes track back and forth, lazy and barely in his control, but they finally lock onto me. “’Bout bigwigs… Hollywood assholes. ‘Bout them comin’ up here. ‘Lot of ‘em come up to g’fishin’ n’ huntin’. That one… ahhhhh wha’ th’hell’s his name…?”

He’s drifting now, it’s not just his eyes. I know opiates. Narcotics. He’s feeling pain and not giving two shits about it. A five ton monster truck of pain could roll over him right now and his only possible response could be ‘Yep, that’s a monster truck of pain. Damndest thing.’ He’s mumbling to himself, trying to catch the speeding train of thought, but it’s going too fast for his fingers to find purchase… finally grabbing on to the rail. “That’s it… Vance… no… Vince. Vince Neil. Y’know, that guy from the Motley Crue band? He comes up here pretty reg’larly. Y’know th’one. Th’ Aerosmith song’s written ‘bout him… Dude looks like a lady’re whatever.”

His train of thought has had a head on collision in my brain. A devastating three semi-truck, passenger train, two Hyundais and Ford Escalade illogical pile-up at 120MPH. Spraying broken data, erroneous facts, and stupidity with an explosive force that drops my jaw in amazement. “Holy…”

I sputter for a minute. Shake my head. Look at him. Hands on hips. I feel like I’m in a really bad sitcom. Waiting for the laugh track. How the fuck is this my life? This moment. Really? “OK… first, the whole ‘Vince Neil-slash-dude looks like a lady’ myth-slash-story is just that. It was a bit ‘leaked’ by Geffen Records to radio stations so that when they played the song, rednecks like you wouldn’t flip the fuck out that Steven Tyler was singing about his experience with, and fetish for, transvestites…”

I still can’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, the discussion I am having. I had braced myself for any direction this might go. I mentally note that I shouldn’t blame myself, whodathunk my insane father would attempt to bond or argue with me over Vince Neil and a 20 year old song. “…And secondly… what the fucking hell does that have to do with anything? Vince Neil?”

My father looks back at me. A skull with heavy-lidded eyes. Disappointed that I can’t see the logic in his assessment. “Well, you like that band, right?”

I’m still not seeing it… Still wondering what the point is… Still wondering why I agreed to this trip in the first place. “Motley Crue or Aerosmith?! Whatever, whichever… Yes, I was nuts about them… when I was 16! That was 20-some years ago. My tastes in entertainment have kind of evolved a bit since then…80’s hair metal isn’t a big part of my music-listening life these days!”

He rolls his head back to look at the ceiling. The pillow barely moving with the minimal weight of his head. “Ok, well still… Point being, stars do come up here.”

I want a cig more than I have ever wanted one in my entire life. The need is painful at a cellular level. I want to stick one between each finger and inhale from each one of them simultaneously. Instead I grab at my temple, pressing hard enough that part of me observes in wonder that my skull hasn’t cracked and imploded under the pressure. “I… I cannot believe you are… in all seriousness… equating Vince Neil with the VP of development at a movie or TV studio. That’s just…”

Speechless, I can only stare at him for a moment from under the hooded shade of my fingers. Disbelief having reached critical mass, it spills out of my ears and nostrils. Spattering the tile floor. Slowly filling the room with sticky contempt. “Christ… what the hell do they have you on?”

His eyes, flick in my direction without any movement from his head. His lizard tongue comes out, trying to add moisture to his parched lips. If I was a kindly man, I’d walk over, hold the tan, plastic cup of water with a straw in out for him. Allow him to speak more easily. With greater comfort.

I stand in the doorway, waiting.

“Morphine drip… if it gets bad, I got thes’ buttons. Releases Oxycontin, or Darvon.” He Looks puzzled for a moment “Maybe Demerol. Can’t ‘member.”

Enough. Just… enough. No more.

“OK, well… I gotta go. Visiting time’s almost over. I’ll come by tomorrow.”

His eyes sharpen. Livened and clarified by vitriol and piss and vinegar. They lock on me, narrowing. Finding their target. “Timed that pretty well, didn’tcha?”

I twitch. “What?”

There it is. The predator smile. Smaller. No teeth showing. But the lip curl, the eye glint. I know it too fucking well. “Timed y’visit so you’d only have t’deal with the ol’ man fer a few minutes. Give y’n excuse ‘s why y’gotta leave.”

The drugs are pulling him under… words slurring more and more, but the hunter is fighting it. I wants blood. It smells weakness and wants to come out and play. “Jesus… nice to see you’re just as self-centered and paranoid as usual.”

The deflection bores him. Or the drugs are too much. Either way, he pulls in the claws, letting the prey scamper.. Bloody and terrified across the new snow. “Hrpf… Like y’said, visitin’ time’s over. Tell th’ nurse I need’ta see her on yer way out, would’ya?” and then his eyes close. Trying to make it clear to me… he’s the one that’s done talking. It’s him in control. Same as always. Same in his mind.

I stand there, looking past him out the window. The reflection of my silhouette on the glass. Past that the snow comes down… wet stars colliding against the sterile glass. He forgets… that is not how it ended. That is not how it will end. He needs reminding. He needs to have his drug-softened mind jolted by fear and memory.

Enough.

 

 

07

07 2013

The Homecoming Game – Part 7

“Did it all seem so easy

So easy to concede

Giving in, Giving in

The chances seemed so slim”

- The Slim, Sugar

 

 

V – PRODIGAL MADRIGAL

The snow is starting to really come down by the time I get to the hospital. 8:35pm. A little more than 20 minutes to deal with this.  A mere 15, if I take into account clearance with hospital security, possible interruptions from the medical staff, unplanned patricide. Scratch that last thing. I can deal with this, I work in Hollywood. I deal with idiots and morons every day. I can certainly deal with this. It’s just one more asshole. One more idiot. Flesh and blood does make family. You don’t derive destiny from DNA. No fate but that which we create ourselves. Each man the captain of his own destiny. And so forth. Etc. Etc…

I’m glued to the seat of the car, watching the flakes fall. Bob Mould is howling “the chances seemed to be so slim” on my headphones. The fourth cigarette has burned away, down to the filter. I’m not paying attention to it. It burns me. I’m not paying attention to it. Absently shove it into an empty Red Bull can.

I shake my head.

Move, you asshole.

Get it over with.

…..

I know this hospital well. Growing up, I visited friends recovering from appendectomies, removal of tonsils, and the occasional drunk driving accident. Lilies. The rooms always had lilies in them, making my allergies act up, and triggering memories of Easter and funerals. I remember a moment in High School… clearly thinking when I visited a friend who had shattered her hip and leg in a car accident “Aren’t flowers supposed to cheer you up? ‘Brighten the room?’ Then why are they using ‘death flowers’?” It seemed to me at the time… and I’ll fully admit i was a morbid, dark, moody little fucker at the time… that it was almost like the hospital was trying to ease the patients into death. As if the choice of flowers was their way of wordlessly telling the patients “Well, we’re keeping you alive now, but death is just around the corner, waiting…”

“Get used to the smell.”

…..

Passing the Emergency Room entrance. I remember the last time I was here. On the back of a gurney, rushed through the admission doors. Two days before I left for Los Angeles. Bleeding. My Mom panicked and scared. Me looking down in distanced amazement at the red bloom that kept growing in a slow fan across my shirt. Radiating downward from my neck. Not scared thanks to plentiful amounts of Pot and Vodka and Cheap Bad Beer. Staring in wonder, thinking that it seemed like a lot of blood.

Thinking ‘I can’t die yet, so I won’t’.

Unworried.

Stop this. Get your head in the game. You are not that person. It is not “then”. Stop drifting.

Clarity.

Focus.

Precision…

Standing at the Nurses station. Identical to the nurses’ stations in any hospital, in any town, in any state. Idaho, California, Virginia, Atlanta, all identical. The nurse on duty is a big woman with choppy black hair, the inky color just starting to show the early dusting of tiny flakes of grey. She doesn’t notice me, immersed in the magazine placed open on the counter in front of her. She concentrates through her glasses… squinting at some detail… some bit of important information that makes the corner of her mouth twitch upwards. I clear my throat to get her attention and her head snaps upwards, a moment of surprise on her face before it’s immediately replaced by a smile. Friendly, wide and genuine. “I’m sorry, is there something I can help you with?”

She looks familiar, and I’m annoyed that I can’t place her, but I keep focused on the task at hand. I’ve already stalled and delayed too much as it is. “Yes, actually, I’m here to visit someone who’s a patient here. Probably in the oncology ward. Can you tell me where I might find him?”

Her fingers are flying over the keyboard in front of her, efficiently calling up patient rosters as she asks me for details “Certainly, name of patient?”

“Alex Saren. S-A-R-E-N”

She freezes briefly, as if trying to remember a thought that has flitted out of her mind too quickly to recapture, before giving an almost imperceptible headshake and returning with arched eyebrows to the monitor and her data entries. “Yes… Saren. He’s in Oncology…” She hesitates, looking for a moment at the information on the screen. “I’m afraid he’s on limited access though. Only visitors allowed are immediately family.”

I give her a tin, but polite smile. The bare minimum required. “It’s OK, I’m his son. Do you need to see my ID?” Just saying it aloud is an effort.

The nurse doesn’t notice. She’s up out of her chair with a big grin, and is coming around the counter. Genuinely radiating waves of pleasure in helping me out. OK, so there’s one difference between this hospital and the ones in other states. “Oh, good heavens no, son. No, no, no… you say you’re his blood, I’ll take you at your word. Now… Come on, I’ll show you down there… it’s room 187. Visiting hours are over at 9pm though, so you only have about 15 minutes.” She steers me down the hall, navigating the maze of cross-connecting halls and passages easily.

As we walk, I make reconnaissance small talk. “If it’s all right to ask… is he on any painkillers or sedatives?”

The Nurse stops abruptly, twisting to shoot me a puzzled look before returning to her task of guiding me to his room. “Yessssss… yes, he is.”  The puzzled look appears again, skirting the outer territories of suspicion. “Why are you asking?”

I give the nurse a wry look that I hope conveys some sense of humor, some sense of being the son who’s ‘seen it all’ , and now finds himself deep in a situation that he knows won’t be pleasant. “Oh, it’s just that he was … cantankerous… enough before he got cancer. I don’t want to even imagine what the hell he’d be like with cancer if there weren’t painkillers involved.”

She comes to a complete stop, the rubber soles of her white orthopedic shows squeaking out a miniature protest. She turns towards me, her face serious, without threat or judgment. “Son, if you don’t mind my asking you… has it been… um, awhile since you’ve seen him?”

I answer her plainly. Honestly. “Yeah. It’s been awhile.”

She puts a hand on my shoulder, either to comfort or steel me against what I’m about to face. “You might want to be aware that he more’n likely looks pretty much different than the last time you saw him. Cancer… ” She grimaces slightly, but doesn’t break her gaze “The treatments… they have an effect.”

I appreciate her kindness. The consideration. Her action again sparks that nagging feeling that I know her from somewhere. That she’s familiar. Work flint on an ancient zippo, the wheel scratching, but not igniting. It’ll come to me. Maybe. Right now, the clock is ticking. I give her another small, thin smile. “OK… well, I thank you for the warning. I appreciate it”

She smiles at me, releasing her hand from my shoulder with a couple of reassuring pats. “Certainly. It’s just down there on the left.”

I walk the three of four small strides to close the remaining distance to stand outside the doorway. Looking in. The dim room. The figure laying there, covered by a thing sheet up to its chest. Wires and tubes stringing back and forth from the failing flesh to the machines haloed around it. Pumps and drips and beeps and pulses. Changing colored lights from the monitors giving weak random hues to the cloth and flesh. A feeble 1970′s-Casio-drum-machine rave for the dead.

I had blown off the nurses warning.

Not really imagining the changes that might’ve taken place. How his appearance might be altered from the cancer burning him from the inside. I’ve had friend die of cancer before, had friends die of AIDS. I’ve seen people waste away. I was there with my Mom during the last month before she died of cancer. This isn’t an alien world to me.

I was sure that his appearance wouldn’t even phase me, but it does.

To put it mildly.

Eyes take it all in with the mind screaming, reeling, spinning, trying to reconcile the mental image I have of my father… a picture that’s already more of a blurry impression. A visualization of moments of solidified emotion over an objective, empirical, “real world” representation …A physical incarnation of a huge intimidating force…

That impression slips and slide, and scrabbles for any point of contact or purchase against this gaunt, hairless, emaciated thing in the bed in front of me. It’s found wanting, and falls away.

I ‘m sure I’ve gotten the wrong room. I must have heard the number wrong. The disconnect between the preconceived appearance, and the person in front of me is just too great…

Impossible to reconcile.

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03

07 2013

The Homecoming Game – Part 6

Last part of Chapter 4 from the ongoing serialization of The Homecoming Game. Enjoy, you nutty kids, you…

 

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The room is grey from chain smoking. Staring out the second story window at the sky. Black. The inky canvas being broken with the beginning of a snowfall. Weak, small flakes falling. Melting as soon as they hit the ground. Too impotent to build up to anything other than a thin wetness on the ground. If the temp drops tonight, the roads will be icy. How completely perfect. How utterly predictable.

Of course he has to be dying now, in the midst of winter. Making this overripe cliche swell to the point of rancid explosion under its own fetid weight.  It’s not enough that I’ve had to return to a town I swore, 16 years ago, that I’d never set foot in again.  It’s not sufficient on the melodrama criteria chart that I’m here to say ‘goodbye’ to a man who I swore that I’d castrate myself with a penknife before I’d step foot in his presence.

No, of course not.

Even the fucking weather has to chime in and underscore the fact that this entire endeavor is like a bad ‘Lifetime, Television for Victims’ movie.

I should put the beer in the minibar fridge.

The tap water tastes weird, metallic. Not like I remember.

I remember childhood drinking from straight the faucet in big, thirsty gulps. Water unbelievable cold and clear and sweet.  It was one of the biggest shocks when I first moved to LA… that people would drink bottled water. Understanding immediately with sad acceptance why they did so once I tried drinking LA tap water myself.  The beer has sat out too long. It’s not even slightly cold.  The pork rinds, while tasty, have left me with an insane thirst. I look out at the snow falling, remembering catching snowflakes on my tongue in elementary school. Remembering the teaching cautioning us every year to not do so with the first snow of the year.  Too many toxins in the air from the mill that the first snow had to ‘clear away’ before snow was safe to catch on your tongue. If ever it was.

…..

Michael picks up on the third ring.”Second circle of hell, fornicators and carnal malefactors.” It takes a good couple of minutes for me to stop laughing long enough to speak.

“Dude… I knew I was in hell, but I didn’t think I was in the fun part of hell.”

Michael gives a hard snorting laugh

“Duuuuude, you’re in town?  What the living fuck man, is the world ending?  A comet blazing down in apocalyptic glory I don’t know about?”

It’s like no time has passed. One of the things I love about Michael… it can be hours, weeks, months, or years between when we talk, and we pick up without missing a beat. “Yes, I’ve returned to this mecca of dentally-challenged inbreds. Shocking though I’m sure it must be.” I can hear the grin in his voice, and it’s infectious. “So what great calamity is upon us that you actually dragged your sorry ass back here.” the conversation continuing as I walk down the hall of the hotel, looking for the ice machine. Reminded of the Shining… If the Overlook Hotel had absolutely the blandest architecture known to man.

“My old man is dying. Supposedly.  Have to go see for myself in an hour.”

There’s a low whistle across the line. “Man. So… you came back to finish the job, make sure the bastard actually does kick the bucket?”  Michael’s joking, trying to lighten a situation he knows is… conflicted… at best for me. He has no idea how close to the mark he is.

My throat makes a sound like fallen maple leaves attempting laughter. “No such luck. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here.  The lovely wife however, has a heart of gold, and chooses to occasionally burden me with it.”

I find the ice machine, and tell Michael to hang on for a minute, as the grinding clatter of ice shooting into a plastic bin overwhelms any attempt to talk. As I pull my finger off the childishly big green button, I resume the conversation “So… what you up to tonight?”

Michael is instantly there with the game-saving play “I’m guessing beers and booze?”

“Yeah beers and booze i think are a highly necessary proposition.  I should be done at the hospital around 9ish… where can we go with the minimal amount of redneckery and cleatus spawn?”

Michael thinks for a minute as two of the brown bottles drop in the ice bucket with a satisfying ‘CHURK’.

“Probably O’Brien’s is the best bet.”

“What? Really?!”

I can hear Michael’s amusement. “Yeah, seriously. Old timers just go their to drink. No pool table or darts to attract the idiots. Too dark inside to be a good pick-up joint for cowbelles.”

I’m dubious, but willing to take his lead. “OK man, O’Brien’s it is. See you there around 9.”

….

Standing. Looking at the clothes in the drawer. I’m scratching my arm, tripped up by the dilemma… What the hell do you wear to see someone you’ve wished dead a million times, and now they finally are.

Emily Post has a fundamental lack of information regarding etiquette and protocols in this matter.

01

07 2013