Diary of a Convention Visit
This past weekend, I was a guest at the inaugural Cleveland Comic Con, which was actually held in the nearby suburb of Independence, OH. I've written about convention experiences before, both the positive and the negative, but this time I kept something of a diary about what a con trip is like for a creator.
I got work done during the day, but not everything I wanted to accomplish, which is the way it always happens before a con trip. Never enough hours. Thursday night I packed a bag, which means I threw some clothes in a backpack. I've done this so many times for a weekend trip, it's like muscle memory.
Then I had to figure out how to bring some trade paperbacks to sell at the table. I end up filling a Diamond box with TPBs, mostly my creator-owned books "Shinku" and "Samurai: Heaven and Earth." I'm completely out of "Ravine" copies, having sold through all 20 that I had at the last show I did, and there wasn't enough time to get more. The box went in a small suitcase, meaning I'd have to shell out $25 for baggage fee, since I'm flying United rather than my preferred airline, Southwest. The con paid for my airfare and the hotel room, so it's not like the $25 is a big deal... though it's annoying to pay an airline to do what they used to do for free.
I got into bed somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m.
My flight departed at 10:14 a.m., so I had to be up by 7:30 to be out of the house by 8 or so. The drive to Albany Airport is only 30 minutes, and it's usually not a terribly busy airport, but I'd rather be way too early than a little late. I checked my e-mail in the car while my wife drove. After she dropped me off, I checked in (coughing up the $25 for the bag), got through security, and had enough time grab a coffee and a snack at the airport Starbucks.
The worst part about a convention trip is leaving my wife and kids (not to mention our dogs). Yes, cons are a necessary aspect of the business, and certainly they can be fun. But given a choice, I'd really rather be home with my family. Knowing I'll miss my daughter's cross country meet doesn't help.
The flight to Cleveland from Albany was only about an hour in the air, so it was a small jet -- one seat on the left side of the plane, two on the right side, tiny overhead bins. My backpack fit in the overhead, but not the portfolio I'm using to carry dragon prints featuring Stjepan Sejic's art from our "Ravine" series. The portfolio is actually my daughter's (a gift to her from Terry Austin), and I borrowed it for the weekend. Thankfully, it fit under the seat in front of me.
Seated next to me was a guy from Cleveland who had been in Saratoga Springs for business. We talked the entire hour flight, about comics, about our kids, about coaching baseball and basketball. He asked me for information on the con, and said he'd come by on Saturday. (He didn't.)
My plane landed a little before noon, and Mark Shaw from Nostalgia Conventions was at baggage claim to pick me up, holding a handwritten sign with my name. We stopped at the Superman display in baggage claim, which commemorates the Man of Steel's birth in Cleveland thanks to teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. There was a monitor playing a Superman video, a life-size statue, a "phone booth" with Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez illustrations of Clark Kent and Superman. I took photos of everything, but nobody else in baggage claim paid much attention to it.
On the short ride to the hotel, I called my friend and artistic collaborator Lee Moder, who made the two-hour drive over from Pittsburgh for the show. I found out he was literally a mile from the hotel. I also texted back writer-artist Andy Lanning, who had texted me while I was in the air.
The con was being held at a Doubletree Hotel, so I had the convenience of staying in the same location. With room cost taken care of by the con, I still needed to leave a credit card for incidentals like room service, or those movies you don't want showing up on your bill (neither of which I indulged in). The desk clerk handed me a couple of warm cookies, and the promoter's guest liaison appeared, handing me per diem cash to take care of meals during my stay. That certainly doesn't happen at most cons, and I didn't expect it, but it was a welcome kindness.
I dumped my bags in the room, then hopped in Lee's Mini Cooper for the 15-minute drive to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the lakeshore. Honestly, the chance to visit the Hall was the deciding factor in me agreeing to the trip, figuring I'd have little chance to ever see it otherwise. Lee and I roamed the Hall until closing time, missing fellow con guest Steve Englehart, who was there as well.
Music is a constant, daily accompaniment when I write. Since I write all day, virtually every day, I listen to a lot of music. Seeing the treasures displayed in the Hall was a rare treat: guitars played by Keith Richards, drawings by Jimi Hendrix, U2's Trabants, props from Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
But by far, the main attraction for me was the Beatles collection. A lot of the other items displayed felt like cool artifacts; the wall of Beatles items felt like history. Looking at John Lennon's Sgt. Pepper uniform and Rickenbacker guitar, or Paul McCartney's gray stage suit and handwritten lyrics, made complete strangers smile warmly and nod at each other. There was a sense of reverence and even joy in everyone crowded around the displays, me and Lee included.
Elsewhere in the Hall, I was disappointed that the guitars of The Clash's Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were not currently on display. Nor was a stage outfit worn by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, one of my favorite, criminally-underrated bands. Years ago, when I worked as a newspaper journalist, I did a phone interview with Zander, who was honestly a little prickly.
Even while wandering through the Hall, there was work to attend to. While looking at Les Paul's historic guitars, I responded to a DC editor about dialogue for an unannounced project.
After buying T-shirts for my wife and kids, Lee and I left the Hall of Fame and headed for the site of Jerry Siegel's house, 10622 Kimberly Ave., less than 15 minutes away. After a couple of wrong turns, we spotted Kimberly Avenue thanks to the Superman "S" on the street sign. The chance to stand in front of the "Superman house" was the other real allure to the trip for me. I wanted to see the birthplace of, not only the first superhero, but the entire genre.
The neighborhood was sketchy, but the former Siegel house itself was well maintained (thanks in part, I assume, to the funds raised to preserve it). It's privately owned, and not open for tours, but there are two display fences in front, one with the original "S" shield, and one with an information sign. When we pulled up in front of the house, a couple of schoolkids -- a brother and sister, it seemed -- were reading the sign. They eyed us suspiciously as we got out of Lee's car. We said hi, but their body language made it obvious they weren't sure we could be trusted. The girl told her brother, "Come on..." and they crossed the street and walked away, glancing back at us. It made me sad to have that happen at the cradle of Truth, Justice and the American Way.
We took some photos in the fading light, and my gaze wandered to the top floor, to a window with a Superman "S" in it. My mind wandered back three-quarters of a century to the hot summer night when a "strange visitor from another planet" sprang into Jerry Siegel's mind (or so the story goes). Supposedly Jerry's imagination was so inspired, he ran to where his friend Joe Shuster lived, and told him his idea.
We drove a few blocks over to Amor Avenue, to the site where Joe Shuster's apartment building once stood. If anything, the neighborhood was even rougher. There was a wooden fence at the site, a corner lot, with large reproductions of the initial Superman pages. But half the fence was gone, apparently taken out by a drunk driver and never replaced. Seeing the dilapidated sites, I couldn't help but think of the struggles of Golden and Silver Age creators to receive their due.
Lee and I drove back to the hotel and met up with other guests Steve Englehart and Sean McKeever, as well as members of the con staff. We attempted to eat at Melt, a grilled-cheese restaurant just a half-mile from the hotel, which had been recommended to me on Twitter by Nick Borelli of the ShortBox Podcast. But the wait was 90 minutes, so we ended up at another place even closer to the hotel. I realized I was starving, having eaten nothing all day since that breakfast sandwich at the Albany Airport (and one cookie).
After dinner, we walked back to the hotel, and I grabbed one more beer in the hotel bar with Lee and Sean. By the time I got back to my room, I was in time to watch the closing moments of the Cardinals pounding the Dodgers out of the National League playoffs. As a Mets fan, the irony of Carlos Beltran going to the World Series with the Cardinals is not lost on me.
The first night in a strange bed I invariably sleep poorly, tossing and turning rather than sleeping straight through. This was no exception. On the plus side, the "Superman" theme by John Williams ran through my head most of the night.
On the day of the con, I was downstairs a little after 9 a.m. The show promoters had a hot breakfast buffet -- fruit, pastries, eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, oatmeal -- for guests and staff. It was the first time I'd ever seen something like that; very thoughtful and very much appreciated.
A little before 10 a..m, I headed up to my room to grab the books and prints I'd brought. For years, I never brought anything to sell at shows, but I eventually came to the conclusion that most people liked the opportunity to buy books directly from creators. Writers are never going to make serious money at conventions the way artists can, but it does help ease the pinch of lost work time. Maybe even more importantly, it helps promote your creator-owned work, getting things like "Ravine" and "Shinku" into people's hands.
The first person I saw when I walked into the convention room was my "Green Lantern" collaborator and Kyle Rayner co-creator, Darryl Banks. We've talked on the phone and e-mailed, we worked together on the "Green Lantern Retro" one-shot a few years ago, but this was the first time we'd actually seen each other in person in 14 or 15 years. It was like no time had passed, except for some gray hairs, and we picked up the conversation right where we'd left off. The friendship and familiarity that come from having worked together steadily for seven years are precious things.
Darryl and I took photos with fans (and each other) next to a life-size Hal Jordan statue, we both signed plenty of "Green Lantern" comics, I dispensed some writing advice, looked at a few portfolios, saw a glow-in-the-dark GL tattoo. I chatted with a man wearing a Tarzan jacket and John Carter T-shirt, who mentioned the art in "King's Watch," and we spent some time praising Marc Laming's work.
The convention staff brought around drinks (water for me, I don't drink soda), and then boxed lunches. I traded Darryl my Doritos for his potato chips, like kids swapping school lunches. We ate at our tables, taking bites between autographs and conversations. I always feel beholden to stay at the table as much as possible. Inevitably, the minute you walk away, someone comes by looking for you and feels slighted that you're not around.
Darryl gave me a Kyle sketch, and put the hard sell on me to get a stand-up con banner. It's something I know I have to do, but I never remember it until I'm about to leave for the next con.
The crowd was steady all day, except for a brief lull around noon. My sense was that the attendance was a pleasant surprise for the promoters, around 1,200, pretty healthy for a one-day, first-time show.
The dealer's room closed at 4 p.m., and Darryl and I were scheduled for a Q & A session immediately after. The Q & A lasted more than 90 minutes, as we discussed everything from our favorite characters to what superpowers we'd like to have, the creation of Kyle Rayner to why his girlfriend Alex ended up in a refrigerator, the underlying messages in "V for Vendetta" to the dearth of minority characters. When the session was over, I signed some more autographs, posed for a few photos with fans, and then had time to pop up to my room for 20 minutes before dinner.
This time, we got into Melt because one of the con staff went there and put our names on the wait list, then hung around for 90 minutes until the table was ready. Obviously, way above and beyond the call. We got seated within five minutes of arriving.
It was worth it. My grilled cheese with potatoes and chorizo was amazing, and a Dogfish Pumpkin Ale was a perfect complement. I sat next to Darryl and we talked about finding something to work on together, chatting about publishers and characters and Kickstarters. After dinner, Darryl headed home, making the two-hour drive back to Columbus.
Despite our caloric stupor, I stopped in the hotel bar for one more beer with Lee Moder and Sean McKeever. Steve Englehart had an early flight back to the West Coast on Sunday morning, so he begged off. Understandable but disappointing, as I would've loved to talk more with Steve. I swapped editorial horror stories with Sean, and asked about his decision to take a staff job at BioWare, working on a "Star Wars" video game. Sean told me he appreciates the steady paycheck, but still misses comics. We also watched a moron at the bar trying to pick up one of the wait staff, making a complete, braying ass out of himself in the process.
I went back to my room and climbed into bed just before a grand slam put the Red Sox into the World Series. A little before 1 a.m., the hotel fire alarm went off, spilling everyone into the halls. I pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, but my door shut behind me too fast, meaning I had to head down the stairs barefoot and without a room key. The alarm turned out to be a faulty sensor, so after a little while, everyone went back to our rooms (though I had to get a new key card from the front desk).
I met Lee for in the lobby around 9:30 a.m. and we drove to the nearest Starbucks, less than a mile away. We talked about future plans, both for "Shinku" and a slate of other creator-owned concepts we intend to get to, as well as an impending work-for-hire gig. Yes, the will be more "Shinku," as soon as we clear up the coloring situation on the book.
While we had our coffee and pumpkin scones, I put a few dollars in a donation can belonging to a guy in electric wheelchair. The money goes to offset the cost of his therapy dog, a 105-pound Malamute named Bear who visits schools. Bear was waiting patiently out on the sidewalk, getting petted by everybody who went in or out. I came to realize Bear and his owner were daily fixtures at Starbucks, Bear's framed picture hanging on the wall.
I went outside to pet Bear, who offered me his paw, then rolled over to get his belly rubbed. In fairly short order, I was down on the sidewalk happily wrestling with Bear, getting covered in saliva and dog hair. I felt fortunate to share a moment with a beautiful dog and his kind owner, but it also made me miss my own dogs.
Lee drove me back to the hotel, and after a hug, hopped in his car and headed home. I grabbed my bags, and a couple of con staffers dropped me at the airport. Check-in, security, walk to the gate, board the same small plane.
While we climbed to cruising altitude on a beautiful, clear day, turning out over Lake Erie, I thought of my late father, gone 18 years now. I was a late-in-life baby. My father flew combat missions in World War 2 as a tail gunner in a B-24J Liberator. He never lost his love of flying. I teared up at memories of how he would always call me from an airliner phone, full of wonder that such a thing was possible.
I opened the copy of "The Avengers" OGN I'd bought along, reading the introduction by Clark Gregg, in which he enthuses about Jim Starlin, my friend and mentor who got me into this business. Jim and I made plans to have dinner with our wives soon, but it keeps getting rescheduled for various reasons. I need to fix that.
I was back on the ground less than an hour later. My wife picked me up, and I was home by mid-afternoon; hugs from the kids, kisses from the dogs. Fifteen minutes after walking through the door, I had a Skype call about an upcoming project. Back to the real world.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.