Monday, April 1, 2013

Off to See the Wizard (World)

My friend Ed and I had been planning the trip for months. Wizard World St. Louis was going to be the biggest event of the year for both of us, thanks in no small part to the presence of Stan “The Man” Lee, who is essentially the granddaddy of all comic books. I’ve wanted to meet him since I read my first Marvel comic at the age of 6, when I first saw that ominous header that stated, “Stan Lee presents.” I didn’t know who Stan Lee was then, of course, but it was obvious that he was somebody very important, although I couldn’t have imagined how important then.

Tickets were purchased and arrangements made; we (Ed, his friend and coworker Brett and I) would meet in West Plains and carpool to St. Louis, and we would stay with Ed’s friend Tom. The timing was perfect for me, as it was the first weekend of spring break, but the only downside was that I would have to drive five hours home from Columbia on Friday to pack up some comic books to get signed and then meet Ed and Brett later that day for the trip to St. Louis. That’s about nine hours on the road—yikes.

I had been sick all week, so the drive home was especially miserable. My mind was clouded and my eyes were burning, and I was scared to death that mine would be the cold that killed 90-year-old Stan Lee. Thankfully, I made it home without incident, and I immediately set to work packing my old orange duffel bag with clothes and packing my mom’s leather messenger bag (my “swag bag”) with comics. I had about twenty that I hoped to get signed. Lee’s autograph cost $55, so I thought it best to pick just one comic to have him sign (I decided on The Amazing Spider-Man #700, which he handled the letters page for).  Legendary artist Neal Adams was going to be there, also, so I packed a few things to have him sign, too. Others included artists Mike S. Miller, Chris Samnee, Arthur Suydam, Tyler Kirkham and Michael Golden, as well as writers Renee Witterstaeter and Cullen Bunn, and I had stuff for all of them to sign, too.

It took a couple of hours, but I somehow managed to get everything organized and packed in time. I picked up my swag bag and the tin of cookies Mom had prepared, stuffed my camera into my pocket and headed out to the car. I still felt like garbage, but I was excited. Stan Lee awaited.

When I arrived at Ed’s house, he was standing on his porch, smoking a cigarette and grinning from ear to ear. He, too, could scarcely contain his excitement. We compared the contents of our respective swag bags and prepared to begin our journey. That’s when I realized I had forgotten my duffel bag.
First I gaped, horrified, at my empty front seat. Then I cringed at the sight
of my empty back seat. And THEN I started screaming bad words at my
empty trunk . . . at which point I checked the front seat again. Nope, still
not there . . . dangit.
We had a solid half-hour until Brett got off work, so we went to Dollar General so I could purchase new provisions. All in all, it was probably a good thing I forgot my stuff, because I needed a new toothbrush and deodorant anyway, and one can never have too many pairs of underwear, but I was still pretty upset about it at the time. The only thing they didn’t have at DG was a decent comic book-related T-shirt, so we cruised up to Wal-Mart and I picked up a fairly generic Avengers tee. THEN we went to pick up Brett.

The ride up to St. Louis was fairly uneventful. We mostly talked about comic book storylines and whatnot, and I proved to be pretty useful as an encyclopedia of sorts because I remember so many of the little details about comic books (I can’t remember anything I’ve studied in college, but by golly, I can recall every twist and turn of the Hobgoblin saga, culminating in the disappointing revelation that Hobby was, in fact, the effeminate milquetoast Roderick Kingsley, but I digress). I was also regaled with tales of the White Castle of legend, which I had only heard about but had never experienced for myself. However, I was dismayed to learn that onions were the secret ingredient that made White Castle’s burgers so addictively scrumptious, so they conceded that I probably wouldn’t enjoy them; we went to Jack in the Box instead, where I had the Ultimate Cheeseburger and curly fries, a grease-soaked artery-clogger that nonetheless tasted delightful. The lady at the counter even upped the size of my fries to medium for free because it was my first time there. Delightful!

I went to bed early that night, due to my miserable state. However, despite my sleeping like a log, I woke up feeling even worse, with a pulsating headache that spelled further misery to come. Tom made some coffee, though, and between that and an Advil, I soon felt better. We showered, put on our respective nerd gear and headed out to the convention center by 8 a.m. (the show started at 10).

Surprisingly, we were among the first to arrive that Saturday morning. There were only a handful of cosplayers around (a female Robin, a bespectacled Zelda, a “Master Chef,” a Doctor Doom and an overweight Magneto), but that soon changed. The line soon snaked back and forth across the entire area, and the excitement was through the roof.
BAH! Doom waits in line for no convention!
No need to stand on ceremony here, Mr. Wayne . . .
Ed and Brett were able to get free media passes to the event (they work for a radio station in West Plains), so they were able to get in early. Alas, I currently have no official affiliation with any publication or media outlet, so I was in the general admission line with Tom. Ed’s friend Meghann met us in line and we chatted there for a while. While we were there, we saw some better cosplayers, such as Spider-Man and the Black Cat. We also saw professional cosplayer Ivy Doomkitty in a Starfleet uniform ... to yank a quote from another sci-fi franchise, THAT'S NO MOON(S)!!

We also got to see the winner of Friday’s cosplay contest, who won a VIP weekend pass. This dude made an Iron Man costume replete with light-up eyes, chest piece and palms, and even hydraulic sound effects. My camera’s flash wasn’t working, so I got Ed to take a picture of me with Iron Man (Ed ended up taking quite a few pictures for me, bless him).
Thanks, Ed!
As soon as we got inside, I made a beeline for the back, knowing that’s where the line for Stan Lee would be. He wasn’t scheduled to sign autographs until 11, but I figured the line would be insane if I waited. On my way toward the back, I noted where some of the other creators were situated for future reference.
Whilst in line for Stan Lee (who started signing early, pretty much as soon as I got there), I happened to notice a little kid—no more than six years old—dressed as an unbelievably cute likeness of Ash from Evil Dead 2, bloody shirt, cardboard chainsaw hand and all. He was with his dad, and I desperately wanted to ask permission to take his picture, but I was afraid to pull out my camera while I was in line. For all of the major celebrities at the convention, and particularly for Stan, there was a very strict “no cameras” rule (because official photo ops cost extra, naturally), and I sure as peach pie didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of line after spending $55 to get Stan’s autograph in the first place. “No soup for you!” I did, however, get a picture with an adult Ash as I left the convention center that afternoon.
Gimme some sugar, baby.
It was fun watching people get their autographs, although I was too giddy to take it all in. It was handled in a very assembly line-like manner, with somebody to check the ticket, somebody to look over the item being signed, somebody to hand the item to Stan and somebody to take it from him and hand it back to the owner. For the most part, it was pretty straightforward and efficient. However, there was a funny moment when Stan accidentally signed a plastic bag instead of the comic inside it (this error was quickly rectified, although I guess, technically, the owner ended up with TWO autographs instead of one, so it worked out better that way).

Finally the moment was nigh. The kid directly in front of me politely asked Stan if he could ask him a question. “Ask away,” Stan said warmly. The kid asked who Stan’s favorite superhero was, and Stan responded with “Spider-Man.” Of course, I thought. Spider-Man was my favorite as a kid, too. The X-Men may have eased me through adolescence, and Green Lantern is the hero I can most identify with in adulthood, but it was Spider-Man who taught me about power and responsibility. It was Spider-Man who taught me about love and loss, and how it’s important to do the right thing even if the world is against you. And Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is the absolute best in comics not just because of the wacky powers and gaudy costumes, but because of the emotional stakes involved in their feuds with Spider-Man. The Green Goblin blames Spider-Man for the death of his son, so how does he repay him? He kills Spider-Man’s child in utero. Kraven the Hunter believes Spider-Man embodies a malevolent spirit that drove his mother to suicide. As Venom, Eddie Brock blames Spider-Man for ruining his career as a journalist and the alien symbiote blames Peter Parker for abandoning it. And Doctor Octopus, the magnificent bastard that he is, actually saves Spider-Man from a fatal illness because he wants to preserve their cat-and-mouse relationship, which is what he lives for (ironically, Octopus dies in that issue, although it doesn’t last).

Moving in to get my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #700 signed, I nervously thanked Stan for Spider-Man. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but I think I said something about how I was very glad to have Spider-Man in my childhood, and I was especially grateful for Doctor Octopus (a villain after my own heart). Stan’s eyes lit up at this, and he gleefully thrust his fists up into the air. “Doc Ock!” he exclaimed with a grin. “He’s one of my favorites, too!”

At this point, I had received my signed comic and was being shuffled away from the table, but I hastily added, “Thank you for inspiring me to become a writer.” I don’t know if he heard me or not (he was already signing another autograph), but ultimately it didn’t matter. I had already gotten Stan Lee—the greatest living legend in comics—to smile. It was more than I had expected and it was enough to send me on my way with a smile of my own. Besides, I know I wasn’t the first kid to get hooked on Marvel and be inspired to take up writing as well.

Stan Lee is now 90 years old. I don’t know how many conventions he has left in him (hopefully many years’ worth to come), but I’m impressed he’s gone to as many as he has. One thing is for certain, though: he enjoys being Stan Lee—the legend, the Generalissimo, “The Man.” He’s 90 years old and he’s still going to these conventions, even though he surely must be set for cash. Why? Because he’s the flamboyant elder statesman of comics. Because he’s a huge draw for these events. And, most importantly, because the fans love him and he loves the fans. God bless Stan Lee; may he be able to grace conventions with his charm and sincerity for years to come.
Plus, my collection has a new crown jewel!
Next up were Tommy Castillo and Rick Burchett. I had a couple of issues of Detective Comics for Castillo to sign (the run with The Charlatan, one of my favorites) and the Batman: Mask of the Phantasm adaptation and an issue of Justice League America for Burchett. I then moved on to Chris Samnee, who had a pretty good line in front of his table already. I got in line and started digging through my swag bag to get my Samnee books, only to have Renee Witterstaeter scold me and the others in line for standing in front of her name plate. We moved around to the other side of the table, at which point I noticed something crucial. Y’see, many artists charge upwards of $20 for a simple sketch, so I didn’t plan on getting any at this convention. However, I saw the guy in front of me buy one of Samnee’s Daredevil hardcovers. It was $20, and Samnee cracked it open and drew a sweet head sketch for no extra charge. I raised my eyebrows in a very Jack Black-like fashion and dug out a twenty. By the way, Chris Samnee is super nice. We chatted for a few minutes, and sure enough, I got a head sketch in the hardcover I bought. I’ve enjoyed Samnee’s work on Captain America and Bucky, and he posts some pretty neat stuff online, too. After meeting him in person, I can definitely say I’m a fan for life now.
Neal Adams was charging $10 a pop for autographs, so I only got one (my Giant-Size X-Men #3, written by Joss Whedon). He also had some sweeeeet Uncanny Avengers variants for sale, but I didn’t want to pay $20 for them. Brett had him sign—I kid you not—the first appearance of Havok in X-Men, which Adams told him was his second Marvel assignment. How awesome is that?
Cullen Bunn was pretty awesome, too. We talked about his run on Venom and the disturbing nature of Deadpool Killustrated (a comic I greatly enjoy, even though, oddly enough, I want Deadpool to lose).
I met up with Ed, Brett, Tom and Meghann after an hour or two and we decided to go get lunch. We ended up at Flannery’s Irish Pub, and let me tell ya, it was fantastic. I got a barbecue bacon onion burger (hold the onion) and Ed got what he said was the best fish and chips of his life. Ed also bought us an appetizer platter that came with toasted ravioli, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders and fried pickles (OH, how glorious the fried pickles were!). It was an excellent lunch, and on the way back to the convention center, I ran into my friend Joe, who I haven’t seen in almost a year.
At center is the aforementioned appetizer platter . . . delectable! 
When we got back to the convention, Ed, Brett and Meghann went to get their photo op with The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden. As I walked around the convention center, flitting from booth to booth, I could see actors James Marsters, Henry Winkler and Morena Baccarin, but I knew I couldn’t afford their autographs so I kept going. Shoot, Juliet Landau, James Hong, Billy Dee Williams and Lou Ferrigno were around there somewhere, but they, too, were charging more than I could afford to spend. Stan Lee’s autograph was my big expenditure for the event, and I have no regrets.
I wasted some time in line trying to win some free stuff (and all I got was a lousy wristband, haha), and then I ran around looking for bargains (no, “Thrift Shop” was not playing in my head, although I suppose it probably should have been). In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time doing that, but how was I supposed to know (spoiler alert) I wouldn’t be back Sunday? There were quite a few things I had my eye on, but I figured I’d have time to go back and shop around later. How deluded I was . . .
In any event, I did end up buying some pretty cool stuff. I bought a Marvel Zombies vs. The Army of Darkness print from Arthur Suydam (it got pretty beat up on the ride home, unfortunately, but it’s still gorgeous), as well as a convention-exclusive, limited edition Walking Dead #1 reprint that I had him sign (people are already selling it online for $50-$70; make me an offer). I also bought a Jim Lee-signed underground comic from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s booth (I’ve wanted Lee’s autograph for years, and I missed my shot at getting it at C2E2 three years ago). I found a booth with “4 for 99 cents” comics and stocked up there, and then I went to a booth with some dollar items and a 25 cent box. I picked up most of the Avengers vs. X-Men series, crappy though it was, just for the sake of having it (besides, if nothing else, the artwork is gorgeous, particularly Adam Kubert’s toward the end). I also got the one issue of Winter Soldier I was missing (I had a second printing, but I wanted the full set of first editions). All in all, I did pretty darned well, and I didn’t spend anywhere near as much as I was afraid I would.
I did, however, get attacked by a walker . . .

frozen by Sub-Zero . . .

and skewered by a Predator.
When I met up with the others again, I was surprised to find Ed talking to Scott Rogers, owner of Game Stash in West Plains, which is a Mecca of sorts for video game enthusiasts in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. I didn’t know Scott was going to be at the convention, but I was glad to see him. He even snapped a picture of me with a Rogue cosplayer, which was cool.
As two wise men once said, "Schwing!"
At this point, the convention was starting to wind down for the day. We had initially planned to go to the after party, but we were so tired at that point, we just headed back to Tom’s place and played Settlers of Catan until late into the night (Settlers of Catan gave way to lively political debate, which gave way to Mortal Kombat, and we never did finish that second game of Settlers). After a while, I went to bed, but I ended up sleepwalking when I heard them come in from a late-night Jack in the Box run. I frantically emerged from the bedroom, convinced they were getting ready to head back to the convention, and I didn’t want to keep them waiting. It took me a moment to realize it was still night time and I was sleepwalking, at which point I sheepishly turned and shuffled back to bed.

From fun and games . . .

To the start of a serious discussion . . .

To full-on political discourse! Egad!
The next morning, though, as we had feared, the weather took a turn for the worse. I had really hoped to go back to the convention (I had a weekend pass, after all), especially since I had spent the previous day running around and getting autographs. I had planned to meet up with my friend Amber on Sunday and spend the day taking it slow, enjoying the sights and filling my swag bag with sweet deals. But the snow was coming down fast, and it was a four-hour drive back to West Plains in fair weather. So, alas, we decided to head over to Star Clipper, a local comic shop, and then head back to West Plains before the weather got any worse.
Too late . . .
Unfortunately, the weather did get worse while we were there, so we didn’t even get a chance to grab lunch. We did, however, pass by Blueberry Hill, so I snapped some pictures of some of the stars on the sidewalk. And, whilst at Star Clipper, I picked up the “State Birds” variant of Uncanny X-Men #1, so I’d call it a win overall.

The drive home was nuts. The wind was so strong, the snow was coming down in sideways sheets, and halfway home, Brett heard from his parents that there was a foot of snow in Columbia. Holy snap. Also, I ate at White Castle for the first time, but I ordered the chicken sliders instead of the burgers. Ed convinced me to try a piece of one of his burgers, and frankly, I didn't care for it (the onions were its undoing). The chicken, however, was great, as were the cheese-slathered crinkle fries. Yummmmm . . .
The farther south we got, the less precipitation there was. The stretch between St. Louis and Rolla took the worst of it, but there were just scattered flurries in Willow Springs. Anyway, the entire front grill of our vehicle was encased in ice by the time we got back to West Plains, as was the antenna. Pretty funny. And there was no snow whatsoever in Couch.
The worst of it

Now entering Silent Hill . . .

The home stretch, and there is nary a flake nor a flurry. 
When I got back to the house, I was exhausted but very, very happy. And, to my shame, my duffel bag was still on my bed.
Right where I left it . . .
Overall, it was the best weekend I’ve had in a loooooong time. Ed, Brett and Tom are three awesome guys, and it was great hanging out with them and enjoying the convention together. Everybody seems receptive to the idea of doing it again next year, and I hope it pans out. Hopefully the weather will be a bit more cooperative, too.


Special thanks to Ed Button for the photos that are actually clear.