There was only one place in the world, I learned last weekend, where I could drink with Chris Burnham, interview musicians in unisex bathrooms and un-ironically cheer the hastening of the end of the human race: MorrisonCon.
For three days, at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, a thousand fans would descend on Grant Morrison, a comic book creator whose claims of magician-hood and dimensional travel have transformed him from writer to figurehead of his own cult of personality.
I had been keeping tabs on the decidedly different convention, a celebration of all things magic and Morrison that sold out its $500 tickets almost as soon as they went on sale. The line-up of attending talent was intriguing: Robert Kirkman, Jonathan Hickman, Jason Aaron, J.H. Williams III, the aforementioned Chris Burnham, Jim Lee, Darick Robertson, Frank Quitely, Morrison himself and My Chemical Romance vocalist/comic book writer Gerard Way.
But mainly, I was interested in the grandiose claims made by the con. Would it actually contain, in the words of Morrison himself, "Maximum rock 'n' roll, chaos magic, mind-bending esoterica, sharp suits, surprise guests, and once-in-a-lifetime performances"?
Expecting the equivalent of Burning Man meets Comic-Con, or "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" with a lot more comics and a lot less drugs, I set out across the Mojave, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
Day One: Scottish Magic And $8 Beers
Arriving at the Hard Rock, I checked into the convention and checked out my fellow attendees. While there was certainly the fanboy and -girl crowd typical of normal conventions, the rest were a diverse group composed of tattooed hipsters, punk rock and metal fans, people who were absolutely on drugs and a lone Batwoman cosplayer looking a little lost.
Skewing slightly male and white, there was still a sizeable female, minority and international contingent. Most seemed to be in their 20s and 30s, with the occasional 50- or 60-year old, but by far, the most common sight at the convention were the MorrisonClones, men in suits who had shaved their heads in an exact imitation of the writer.
They came from across the country and around the world: North America, South America, Finland, Australia, the UK, Mexico, South Africa, even China. When asked why they payed thousands of dollars for a three-day convention, many pointed out it wasn't that much more expensive than a regular weekend in Vegas. Yifan, the attendee from China, was even extending his trip into a weeklong vacation across the United States.
But the number one draw was Morrison. For every fan present because they loved "Batman Incorporated," there was another who came because Morrison's claims of having seen other dimensions struck a chord. Walking to the Body English club the first night, I ran into a well-dressed kid from Kansas who earnestly explained to me that magic was real, and Morrison's pop magic advice not only worked but changed his life.
"It's like hacking your mind," he assured me as a dreadlocked bystander nodded in agreement.
MorrisonCon officially kicked off at the nightclub where, two hours and many $8 beers later, Morrison began a magical "summoning ritual" which entailed a 45-minute long spoken word poem set to drone music by Way. Weaving a story about a wizard, Howard Hughes fighting Liberace for the "soul of Vegas" and someone named Wladziu, the piece contained a lot of phrases like "Montecore, his spirit animal, his nemesis that hunts the bromopropane," all of which thrilled the crowd, though many admitted later that, much like myself, Morrison's accent was a little too thick to understand much of the poem.
But, no matter! There was no stopping the outpouring of energy and excitement as fans rushed for the sheets of paper Morrison dropped at the poem's climax.
One of those fans was Justin, a young man from Boston. He and his newly-made friends, whose origins ranged from France to Arizona, told me that they migrated to the Hard Rock for more than just a comic convention -- it was to celebrate the way of being Morrison represented.
"Anyone who's here gets you at DNA level -- you immediately have so much in common," Boston Justin told me as the girls around him nodded.
Did they think this would be a religious experience, I asked.
"I hope so!" Boston Justin responded enthusiastically.
Day Two: Max Landis Will Eat Your Afternoon
Have you met Max Landis, writer of the sci-fi action movie "Chronicle?" MorrisonCon attendees sure did as he took over the "Celluloid Heroes" and "Walking Dead" panels like a one-man army, instigating arguments with fellow panelist and director of Marvel Studios "Guardians Of The Galaxy" film James Gunn, prompting both talks to run so long, the evening's "Trial Of The Supergods" trivia drinking game was cancelled.
But before the afternoon's descent into madness, the convention began with Morrison officially confirming and announcing his "Multiversity" series from DC Comics. The following writing, music and art panels were all named by the attendees I spoke to as their favorite parts, full of interesting information about Kirkman's dislike of working for Marvel Comics, Jim Lee's admiration for his fellow artists and Morrison's repeated advice to never write comics on acid. Or take notes on acid. Or try to navigate a grocery store on acid.
I had obviously underestimated the drug-themed portion of the weekend.
It became clear throughout the show that unless Morrison was leading the discussion, the panels would abandon the lofty aspirations written in the hardcover program guide. The "Celluloid" panel ran off the rails and into the "Dead" the moment Landis appeared. Hickman and Aaron's "Creation Myths: Science, Religion And Magic" promised to analyze "Arthur C. Clarke's belief that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but was actually just a Q&A on the generalities of writing and their work.
That night at the Body English club, British DJ Akira The Don spun records while fans compared creator signing experiences and rumors of a secret after-party with free drinks. Despite the day's scheduling snafus, attendees were upbeat, shaking hands with Quitely and Williams at the bar before setting off for more clubbing, more drinking and more Vegas nightlife.
Day Three: "Make a fucking army and take over the world!"
The morning of day three was filled with jubilant smiles and intense hangovers as everyone I spoke to at the continental breakfast bar reflected positively on the weekend thus far.
"I'm overwhelmed by the level of love with the comics fans that's happening here," Morrison-con co-founder Kristen Baldock told me as she and her crew set up. "There's a real beautiful community vibe, and that's exactly what we were hoping to create."
"I think it's been an incredible experience, not just for the creators to network and talk to each other in a way they normally don't get to do with these things, but for the fans to experience something more intimate...I think it's a really cool thing to do, and why it hasn't been done before, I have no idea," Williams told me as he chatted with attendees about music.
Over and over, fans stated they had never experienced a convention so intimate, and they all loved that no one was trying to sell them anything.
"I felt short changed by the whole [San Diego] experience," an attendee from South Africa told me. "I didn't connect with what I wanted to connect with, I just felt like a consumer."
"So far, this has been really great," Yifan from China said. "I wrote a thank you letter [to Morrison], so I'll let Mr. Frank [Quitely] pass it to him -- that would make my day!"
Though the stated draw of MorrisonCon was its muse, circling the buffet table it became clear that what fans really wanted was the convention of yesteryear: intimate affairs where readers and creators could make a one-on-one connection. That experience simply doesn't exist at San Diego the way it is now, nor in New York; some cited DragonCon or Emerald Con as coming close, but even those were "too crowded" or too bent on "promoting the latest crossover or event." The niche world of comics had become mainstream, and the cozy set-up of MorrisonCon was the response.
And really, who better to represent the niche of the niche than Grant Morrison? He's a huge name if you know comics, but if you don't -- like the bewildered Hard Rock staff who kept asking me if there was an art show going on -- it's a name that means absolutely nothing. It gave attendees the feeling of being part of a secret society or, as Baldock called it, a "beautiful community." These people got it, down to the DNA level.
Yet I couldn't help but feel something was missing.
Maybe it was the hype. I sat through a bunch of interesting panels, but for the most part they didn't feel different from those I've sat through in San Diego or at countless other cons. Certainly, fans loved the access to creators, but there was nothing especially esoteric about having Jim Lee sign your program guide, unless, I guess, you had him draw a pentagram.
Problem was, from the description I expected to step into a transcendent, crazy, chaos-magic performance art installation, and instead I found myself at a very cozy and intimate convention. There's nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but it certainly wasn't the rock 'n' roll insanity I pictured on my drive into Vegas.
While most I spoke with were absolutely thrilled to experience a convention removed from the crush of San Diego, there was one kindred soul who felt the same way I did: Boston Justin.
"I expected it to be more -- esoteric, more mystical," he told me when I ran into him Sunday morning. He hastened to add that it had been a wonderful convention in every way -- the word "intimacy" was once again uttered -- but like me, he had been hoping for a once in a lifetime experience, not just a pleasant weekend.
"I expected a little more," he said.
That day, it was Morrison's turn to take over, guiding Sunday's talks back onto the path of weird magic, weirder science, the internet, art and anything else he could work in.
"My only contact with anyone who reads [my] stuff is on the internet, and that's just soul destroying. The vision of yourself that's presented as this messed-up, fucked-up lunatic who's like a company-man-stooge, not human -- that's horrific!" Morrison confided in the crowd during a lull in the Quitely spotlight panel.
"Then you come here ,and everybody's cool, everybody's nice everybody wants to be friends, everybody's learning the same shit -- isn't that what it's about?" Morrison added as the audience cheered. "We all fucking rule for being here, and for coming and talking to each other, and making a difference and thinking new thoughts...that's what we have to fucking do!"
This impassioned outburst , a frank talk on magic, conspiracies and the apocalyptic end of the world. Like Morrison's earlier spotlight, the writer and guest DJ Akira were less interested in lecturing than in having a conversation. Comments flew back and forth from the audience to stage, ranging from thoughts on ominous planetary alignments to Morrison's belief that humanity's salvation rests on changing its consciousness -- and that was exactly what attendees were doing right now.
"Make a fucking army and take over the world!" Morrison roared as the audience leapt to its feet and roared back.
Odd as it was, there was a genuine sense of communion as Morrison shouted encouragement at the attendees, a palpable energy that rested somewhere between rock concert and Catholic Mass. In that room, the words Morrison were saying made total sense; in that moment, magic was real, because all magic is is the idea that if you try hard enough, you can change your life. After all, if Morrison could go from shut-in writer to globetrotting comics god, why can't we?
Perhaps it was the crowd's standing ovation at the end that ultimately changed my mind, people rushing to sign each others' program guide "yearbooks" and laying plans to collaborate on a MorrisonCon attendee anthology.
Maybe it was talking to Richards, who shouted into my microphone just before a swarm of laughing attendees pulled him under, "We set out to change how they approach comic book conventions, and I think we pulled it off!"
But really, I think it was running back into the one person who had shared my reservations that morning. As the audience cheered and, in some cases, wept, Boston Justin barreled down the aisle towards me, grinning from ear to ear, eyes shining in the convention hall lights.
"I want to amend what I said before," he said. "This absolutely was a religious experience."