I was going over the chapters of my novel "CONSPIRACY!" and this excerpt seemed apropos for the comic book fan. Actually, reading it again, I'm shocked at how brutal it is.
John Byrne makes a cameo.
BTW, I'm almost done formatting the novel through Chapter Eight, and will have the whole chunk available as a free PDF soon. Please email if you want to be on the list.
From "CONSPIRACY!" Chapter Five:
The Con took place in the gymnasium of a Catholic School, and the interior had that musty smell of wet granite and parochial school textbooks from the 50s. Tables were set up in a concentric fashion: the one giant circle around the perimeter of the room consisted of dealer’s tables; the smaller circle were made up of a half-dozen publishers; and in the middle of the room was the crown jewel of the Con: John Byrne himself. Most of the conventioneers were either standing in line for a Byrne autograph or waiting for portfolio reviews with the companies. How I envied the carefree days when I could have simply waited for the autograph, bought a few stacks from the quarter bins, and called it a day. But from this day forward Byrne was a potential rival for jobs, and I could no longer indulge in the simple joys of the comic book because when I looked at one all I could see was business business business. These were the cold facts that I would have to live with if I wanted to be a Professional. Childhood’s End.
The Dixie Comics line was the longest for portfolio review, but since they were the biggest company at the Con it was well worth the investment of my time. Regardless, about ten minutes into waiting I regretted not buying some reading material beforehand. All I could do was observe, and observing was no good because all it did was spur me on to think. A lot of inconvenience and suffering in this world, in my estimation, could have been avoided by the prevention of excess thought. Take my fellow artists on the line, for instance. To be idle and to observe and to think naturally would lead my mind to comparisons between them and me, Them and Me.
I tried to figure out how good an artist they were just by the mere sight of the creatures, by the hair on their heads and the gait of their walk. A terrible, choking competitiveness seized me, as I noted the sheer numbers of people on this line and others, so many of the Blessed, could it be really possible that they were all Blessed? Such numbers only created the certainty of failure, failure for somebody, failure for most. Because I knew that Entertainment was not the Great Democracy. And I wondered if the Illuminati would deign to find the comic book industry a worthy enterprise for infiltration.
My line passed directly in front of a publisher of porn comics, and me and the Others could not help but gawk at their wares. The vilest of American-made psuedo-manga, school-girls suspended in the air by multi-pronged demons with Mickey Mouse eyes, big-titted fairies in SS uniforms fucking each other up the ass with dildos in the shape of Kermit the Frog, anthropomorphic ibexes dressed in crotchless Star Trek uniforms 69ing each other in a weightless orgy in space...to think that a rich tradition of graphic storytelling pioneered by the Ancient Mayans and given the breath of life by Al Capp could have sunk to this level of depravity!
And by far the worst of it, the most despicable and evil perversion of the four-color medium, had to be the bondage comics. What sort of sick fucks could get off on seeing women tied-up and abused, being reduced to buckets for cum-deposit or human chaise lounges, the fodder for their puerile malformed sexual fantasies of domination? I frankly didn’t know how Dixie Comics could stand being in close proximity to such an organization, albeit only for a day–A DAY WAS TOO LONG, in my opinion. I was embarrassed for my industry.
“My Industry” -- I took stock of the panorama of the Con, warts and all, and said to myself: My Industry. It was finally happening. I was taking that crucial first step. This was the answer to all my failures in life -- I never wanted to take that first step and commit myself. The power really was in my hands, not in some capricous, mocking God. Ms. Albana was right -- I had to stop blaming other people. I never really went out there and tried. And even if I didn’t get that first assignment today, even if all I managed to do was gain a mere toe-hold in the doorway of the comic book world -- it would be something to build from.
“Fetish comics, it’s the future,” said a faraway voice. It came from a short, walleyed man in his 50s in a beige overcoat that was standing near me, an overstuffed shopping bag mended with cellophane tape in each hand. At first I thought he was on the portfolio line but he wasn’t.
“Who...me? You’re talking to me?” I asked in the polite hopefulness that he was mistaken, gesturing vaguely towards my chest.
“That’s where the money is. Superhero comics, a very limited market. Not like the war years. Even girls were reading then. But now: it’s just a nostalgia racket, quaint like a repro’ed Munsters lunchbox. You can’t build empires upon such a principle, and you can’t cross oceans. Bring Superman to the Middle East, they’ll think he’s a fag. And worse than a fag, they’ll think he’s a puppet for the Great Imperialist Satan. I mean, look at him: red, white and blue spandex, a total yahoo cheerleading faggot for apple pie and Perry Como. And don’t get me started on Captain America, though at least he’s fucking honest about who he is and what ideology he was fighting for. But Superman? Uberman. Batman...Devilman. They’re think we’re fucking crazy overseas, and all they’re really buying from us is Andy Sidaris movies and cancer. But fetish porn–that’s the universal language my friend. Everybody acts so normal and pious in this country but the truth is, most of us are fucked up by our mothers. Even when the mothers are good women and trying not to cut our pecker with safety sicissors so we don’t stroke it in public, we still get fucked up, because mothers can never provide us with want we ultimately, primally need -- which is complete osmosis into the host body. That’s what we want. We’re never going to get it. We’re constantly raising up our eyes to those pendulous, holy tits we never forgot from our earliest moments on this earth, and we’re constantly getting our hands slapped away. Is there no redress in a civilized society for such a consistent frustration of our basic impulses? Yes there is my friend -- it’s safe, it’s plentiful, and it’s disease-free. Fetish Porn. In fact, fetish porn is the foundation of the entire graphic medium. Check out the histories of the major comics publishers -- built on the backs of gentleman’s magazines and lurid pulps chock full of bondage and the limpid, half-obscured titties of imaginary WASPy broads that would never in reality date neither the artist nor reader and thus needed to be taken down a peg or two. Ever read old Wonder Woman stories? They thought that shit was normal back then. We were all reading it. My dick never got so hard than with those classic comics: Phantom Lady, Black Cat, Marvel Mystery Comics, Jungle Comics. There is something so goddamn erotic about pre-PC fetish porn, whether it be Irving Klaw or a Mike Grell Legion of the Superheroes cover. But those days are gone forever, I guess. So we’ve traded our respectability and secret thrills for a multi-million dollar industry. Now I can get anything I want. The choices are unlimited. The demand is unlimited. The growth is unlimited. Yes indeed: fetish porn is certainly the future -- and some might say even savior -- of the comic book industry.”
“Um...why are you telling me this?”
“You’re not Sal Mendoza?”
*** *** ***
The editor doing the review seemed like a jolly, red-faced, friendly-looking sort of very heavy-set man, wearing a huge black polo shirt with the Dixie Comics logo and a graphic of their flagship character, The Thickness, tastefully embroidered onto the pocket. I noticed that he spent a long time with each artist, going over each page of art, making comments, and giving some kind of paper to take back with them -- so I could tell it wasn’t going to be a rush-job or a gyp or anything. As I stepped up to the table, barely able to restrain my hands from shaking as I unzipped the portfolio, I tried to cast out halcyon dreams of comic book stardom from my mind and look at things from a realistic perspective. Realistically, I probably wouldn’t get an immediate assignment from this. He might even think that I needed work on a couple of areas before he could hire me, and send me back with instructions to work on my drapery or hair textures or something. Yes, that was the more realistic thing.
“Hi, I-I’m Tod Moriens...a big fan of your company. I buy The Thickness and all the comics in the Thickness family every month...”
The portly man smiled and looked back at two twenty-somethings that were sitting further back within the bowels of the booth, amongst stacks of comics and empty pizza boxes. They both wore black polo shirts with the Dixie Comics logo and a graphic of their flagship character The Thickness tastefully embroidered on the pocket.
“You hear that? We got a Thickness fan here...gimmie a button.”
One of the twenty-somethings looked up sleepily from a comic book he was reading, took a quick sip out of a giant soft-drink container, fished something out from the big plastic bag he had between his legs, and tossed it at the man.
The man tried to catch the metal disc between his meaty palms but it skidded off the tops of his fingers and made a bee-line for the bridge of my nose.
“You ok there, kid?”
I pressed my hand against my nose and quickly brought my fingers back into my vision so I could see if I had bled. It smarted like a motherfucker but there was only a very thin, watered-down sheen of blood.
“I-I’m going to be fine...”
“Kee-fuckin-Rist,” the man bellowed at the assistant in such a loud tone it made the muscles on my nose involuntarily spasm, “do you know what you just did? You almost took this guy’s eye out! Gimmie some ice!”
The twenty-something turned pale and stumbled off of his seat, running towards his boss with the soft-drink container.
“Uh, we got nothing left in the cooler...”
The man rolled his eyes at the assistant’s feeble attempt to hand him the container, made a grab for it just as the young man pulled it away, then became angrier and let out a growl as he grabbed the wet cardboard cylinder away from him, tore off the top, gingerly grabbed the ice with his big fingers, and dropped them in a mylar comic bag. He folded down the top of the bag and handed it to me.
“Here, it’ll stop the swelling.”
“T-there’s swelling?” I asked nervously, suddenly becoming very self-conscious of my appearance.
“What? No...no, there’s hardly any swelling...no, you’re fine...”
“Well, I-I just wanted to show you some drawings I did...”
“Yeah, just–just wait a minute, alright? Calm down for a second, I gotta do the Protocol...”
I pressed the bag against my nose and looked at the table where my portfolio lay, unopened. Near it was the button, a black metal button with the Dixie Comics logo and a graphic of their flagship character The Thickness tastefully lithographed upon its surface. The man was furiously punching tiny keys on his cellphone, his neck looking like a sinewy chunk of beef with a timebomb lodged in it.
“Yes, give me Legal...yeah, hi, I have a situation here, where one of my assistants accidently beaned a fan on the nose with a button...yes...yes...no he looks ok...a little blood...yes...yes...no, he doesn’t seem angry...no, I don’t think he would....no...right...yeah, I don’t think he would, doesn’t seem the type...yeah, uh-uh...uh-uh...ok...ugh, really (shit!), ok. Ok. The yellow form? Ok. Ok. (Fuck!) Ok. Ok. Gotcha. Ok. All right. All right. Ok. Bye.”
The man’s face achieved a color of purple that I only saw on corpses on A&E’s Cold Case Files. He clicked off the phone and called out to his assistants: “I need the yellow form! And a nice book! Do we got a nice book for this gentleman?”
Soon I was facing a legal-sized yellow document with a pink carbon behind it. It smelt good like those carbony papers usually did. It was entitled, “Liability and Silence.” It said basically that I wouldn’t sue Dixie Comics because of the incident with the button, no matter what injuries unforseen may emerge as a result of said incident down the line. Further, I would agree to never mention the incident to any media organization, comic industry employee, retailer, fan, or other member of the classification homo sapiens-sapiens that I might have the chance to have a meaningful relationship with.
I was perplexed. As I usually was with legal forms. Perplexed and paranoid. Income tax forms, voter ID cards, credit card applications–all those things gave me the willies. I was always afraid I was going to either sign my life away or put in some wrong data and go to jail. That’s why I had H&R Block do my taxes, avoided voting, and never owned a credit-card.
But it just didn’t seem an auspicious start to my comic book penciling career to sue the company I wanted to work for. Besides, the idea of bringing a lawsuit against the home of “America’s Most Beloved and Familiar Superhero,” The Thickness, seemed downright rude. And I didn’t see the fuss anyway, I got hit by falling debris all the time. I was sure some asshole out there would have jumped on the chance to suck that company dry. I mean, that’s how people get successful all the time, by being assholes and taking advantage of a situation. However, I was no asshole -- I was a man of integrity. And I was sure that was a quality that would be duly noted and perhaps even benefit my career in some way. Like the remover of the thorn from the lion’s paw.
The assistant handed me a signed and numbered leather-bound edition of “The Thickness: A Marriage Made In Malt,” reprinting that famous story arc where The Thickness finally tied the knot with his long-time love Barren Ovaries. The cover was black and had the Dixie Comics logo and a graphic of their flagship character The Thickness tastefully embossed in the dead cow-hide.
I signed the Liability document in my neatly-delineated cursive: “Tod Moriens.”
Then the editor boomed: “Next!”
*** *** ***
After straightening out a little misunderstanding whereby the editor thought he had already seen my portfolio, he started to see my portfolio. And what a pro! The way he expertly looked at each page, running his hairy, cigar-like finger over certain points, counting off certain unknown, arcane elements with his head. I racked my brains trying to figure out his poker face -- here a smile, there a frown. Following each page, I felt as if I was being given a quick refresher course in all the events of my adult life. Every pin-up and story fragment contained within it the feel and flavor of the time in which it was written: meeting Kim, knocking Kim up, marrying Kim, Kim giving birth to Beowulf, divorcing Kim, Kim dating other men, Kim going steady, Kim getting remarried, Googling Kim, accidently bumping into Kim at a “Garden Of Eat-In” near her apartment and her not recognizing me even though she was looking right in my face...
Yes, it was all there.
*** *** ***
“You have quite a portfolio here.”
“What are your plans?”
“My plans? Well...I’m pretty much open right now. I’m up for anything.”
“Do you have a job?”
“A day job? Yeah, it’s just something I’m doing in the meantime, you know, until.”
“Well...some editors take like 30 seconds to look at a portfolio, give a fan a bullshit story, and send them blissfully on their way. But I don’t do that. I look at everything that’s given to me. And I judge things in a rational, objective manner. I feel you deserve it -- it’s how I give back to the community.”
“Ok, no problem...I like honesty. I myself am a very honest person.”
“That’s good. It’s a good trait to have. Some people don’t like honesty. You’re honest with them and next thing you know they’re all up about your ass, talking trash, calling you “the meanest guy in comics” and all that.”
“I can truly say that you’ll find nothing like that from me...you can be as blunt as you want. Whatever criticisms you have -- I’m honored to hear. It’s going to make me a better artist.”
“Ted, you will never be a better artist than you are now.”
“No, no, what I mean to say is: you’ve reached a certain level of development as an artist. I’ve seen this all the time. Some artists, you look at their stuff when they’re young and you can see -- literally see -- the potential lying there. You say to yourself: “damn, imagine this guy when he’s got a year’s worth of regular sequential art behind him.” Other artists, you can just tell that this is the best they can do. It goes beyond “working on” certain inadequacies in the art, taking a class, studying a book. Some people just have “it,” the mysterious undefinable It -- and It can’t be taught or studied or achieved without “It” being there all along. Your art is passable -- I’m sure among your group of friends or in high-school you were considered talented. Your art teacher in eighth-grade thought that you were wonderful and you were the only one among your school buddies to be able to draw Wolverine. Maybe you even did a few neat cover repros, some short stories featuring characters you made up yourself. And so you thought you would become a professional comic book artist -- you thought this because you hadn’t the benefit of anybody with any tangible link to the industry whatsoever look at your work and tell you otherwise. And so you might have spent...how old are you? Thirty-five?”
“I turn 31 this year,” I croaked.
“So let’s say you’ve spent ten years, your adult life, thinking this was going to be your career. And so you didn’t plan anything else out for your life -- never pursued seriously any subjects other than art in school, never even got training in computers, a skill, a trade...you live the life of “an artist,” an artist-to-be, looking for his big break. What you need to do now, you need to find a skill. Because the competition in comics is hard enough as it is, even for the really talented. Too few companies, too few comics, too few sales -- and tons of “artists-to-be.” Everybody wants to be a comic book artist. I never met a comic fan yet who didn’t want to be an artist or writer. And only the best get a shot, that’s how it works in a democracy. And then even then -- you have to have connections. You have to have connections! There, I’ve said it. You need to network, to hustle, to be a real go-getter. If you have all this, maybe, if there’s an opening, you get a shot. And even if you get a shot, it don’t mean nothing, you could be unemployed the next month. And even if you get a regular gig -- unless you’re really a superstar, you’re not going to make a tremendous amount of money. And you are nowhere near the level of any of this, to even do a fill-in, because you just don’t have “It.” You can see it in the hands, a tell-tale sign. Your hands look like dead birds. You just don’t “get” hands. Hands can’t be taught. So my advice to you is: choose another career. Draw in your spare moments as a hobby, as a lark, impress your friends–but do not make this your career. Your artistic talent is not enough to support a career in comics. It’s that simple. Now, I know this all sounds harsh, but I’m doing you the biggest favor anybody has ever done for you.”
And so the course of my life was set.
*** *** ***
I don’t remember much else about the Con. I was sort of in an altered state after the portfolio review. I just let myself drift into a very long line and be swept up in the crush and flow. We were like a queue of loinclothed servants & soldiers in an ancient Egyptian painting, just a repetition of arms and legs, an infinity of figures. At some point I ended up in front of John Byrne. I never did find out if he was charging for the sketches or not, but if he was he gave me a free one anyway. I guess I must have looked pretty pathetic -- my nose was swollen like a golfball and I had some dried saliva glued to the side of my chin. I guess the saliva was because I had lost the ability to close my mouth. It just hung there, slack hinge.
He asked me what character I wanted and I sort of blurted out “Machine Man.” I could hear a couple of snickers around me and Byrne himself was a little taken aback. I had apparently committed a faux-pas in coolness. But Byrne dutifully drew the awkward-looking character, skillfully rendering his chromed skull, permanently startled eyes, frozen box of a mouth.