Thursday, April 10, 2014

Return to Wizard World St. Louis

Photos courtesy of Brett Stevens, Tim Church, Ed Button and Wizard Entertainment ... because my camera was too big and clunky to fit in my swag bag. Plus a few I yanked off the web ... not for profit, of course.

As faithful readers might recall, my trip to Wizard World St. Louis last year was one of the most amazing weekends of my life ... except, of course, for the fact that I forgot to bring my luggage and the final day of the convention was ruined by the spontaneous arrival of a foot of snow. But I did get to meet Stan Lee and play "Settlers of Catan" for the first time, so there's that. No complaints there.

This year's convention was set to be even bigger and better than its maiden voyage in 2013. Stan Lee, alas, did not return, but we had the likes of William Shatner, Bruce Campbell, Lou Ferrigno, Jon Bernthal, Eliza Dushku, Adam West, Burt Ward and most of the cast of Firefly. 

I went with the same crew as last year--guys from the local radio station who share my nerdy interests--plus a new addition to both the station and the convention, Tim Church. Tim was kind enough to split some photo op costs with me, and he also provided transportation to the convention. It's kind of cool that we were all journalists--them being from the radio station and myself representing the newspaper in an unholy alliance of media professionals. All we need is a TV anchorman to join us next year and we'll have a full set (incidentally, while we were at the convention we actually ran into an old friend who now works at a TV station in Springfield).

News team assemble!

We got to St. Louis around 8-ish Friday night, which was too late to do anything at the convention. That was okay, though, because this gave us a chance to go to Star Clipper, Ed's favorite comic store from when he lived in St. Louis. We loaded up on great stuff, and among the gems I picked up were a Justice League of America variant with a Robot Chicken cover and a half-priced hardcover of Green Lantern: Secret Origin, which I've wanted for a long time. Yeahhh ... I kinda spent $50 before I even got to the convention, but in my defense, that weekend was going to be my vacation for the year. After years of precariously balancing my budget in college, I felt I had earned the right to live a little and splurge.

We stayed with our friend Tom again. This time, though, instead of playing "Settlers of Catan" we played "Cards against Humanity," which was highly disturbing but also highly entertaining. We shall speak no more of it. I also got to try Jack in the Box tacos for the first time, and THAT was well worthwhile!

The next morning we organized our respective swag and prepared ourselves for the awesomeness that awaited us. I decided to wear my custom-designed "Wokking Dead" T-shirt for several reasons: first, Tim and I were going to get our photo taken with The Walking Dead stars Jon Bernthal and Emily Kinney and thought it would be funny, and secondly, I had brought extras in hopes of selling them to convention-goers as a means of further funding my weekend of convention-related debauchery.

I'm still looking to sell, mind you. Find me on Facebook--
Chris Roll Comic Art--and let me know if you want one.

We then headed for the America Center in downtown St. Louis. First, though, we stopped at QuikTrip, where I made the glorious mistake of having a jalapeno cheddar smoked sausage with chili and cheese for breakfast. Woof.

Entering the convention center again after so long ... well, it didn't feel quite as hokey as "coming home," but it felt good. It took a few moments to get my tickets in order, but because I had the Bruce Campbell VIP package (yeah, budday!) I got to head straight into the main floor ahead of the gathered throng with standard, humdrum tickets ... by about 30 seconds, because I hadn't arrived that early.

The first thing I did was go to Chris Samnee's table. I had met Samnee at last year's convention, and he was a very pleasant, friendly guy. He currently draws Daredevil for Marvel and does a lot of cover art for various comics. One such comic was the variant edition of the new Angel and Faith #1, which I had picked up at Star Clipper the night before. I eagerly had him sign it and told him I planned to get it signed by Eliza "Faith" Dushku. Samnee's face lit up and he said, "Dude! That's awesome!" He then requested that I bring the comic back to his table afterward so he could see it. At his command, I took off like a shot, in a manner reminiscent of the little bunny in The Muppet Christmas Carol after a repentant Scrooge tells him to go get the biggest turkey he can find. When I got to Dushku's table, she wasn't there, but a substantial line had already formed. She ended up being about 25 minutes late, but that was okay because while I was in line I ended up running into an old friend, Michael Brasier, who is doing very well for himself as a composer and actor for the Drifter web series (which you should all check out). It was weird asking a college buddy for an autograph, but well worth it. Anyway, I finally met Dushku and gibbered out some star-struck blather about how much I loved her work and was glad to see her character from Buffy still being handled well in comics. She commented on how well the cover artist captured her dimples and whatnot, and I showed her where he had signed it and said I was under orders to bring it back for his inspection. Smiling, she signed it, gave me a fist-bump and sent me on my way. Mr. Samnee was indeed thrilled to see his work signed by the star herself, and was kind enough to snap a photo of it, which he then posted to Twitter at my request:

Words cannot express the joy I felt at that moment.
Let me say, by the way, that I am generally not one to swoon at celebrities. That said, Eliza Dushku is a goddess among mortals. She's very courteous and friendly to fans and could be found mingling with the crowd and exploring the convention between panels and photo sessions. Plus ... let's face it, she's beautiful. But more on her later.

I also made sure to swing by painter Greg Horn's table. Not familiar with Greg Horn? Ye gods. Remedy that, yo! He's a super-nice guy who had arguably the most beautiful work at the show, and, best of all, he was having an early-bird sale that morning: four prints for $40. Needless to say, I bought four. I got a GORGEOUS Doctor Who print that I had initially planned to give a friend as a gift (alas, once my mom saw it, she claimed it as her own, despite knowing nothing about Doctor Who. That's how amazing this print is). I also got a Sinestro Corps Scarecrow, a Joker and Harley Quinn and, my personal favorite, a print of every major superhero movie character in a theater together munching on popcorn. I had a chance to buy one from Greg four years ago at C2E2 and didn't; fortunately he had one this time around.

Seriously, how awesome is this?

Next up was my photo op with Bruce Campbell. I had waited more than five years for that moment because, y'see, Bruce Campbell is the reason I am who I am today. I didn't discover the Evil Dead trilogy until I started college, but it's safe to say Army of Darkness made in impact. When I took my second college writing class, I was assigned a:  visual analysis essay, which would require me to select an image of my choice and then explain it--what is it? What is it saying? What does it mean to me? I initially went with one of my all-time favorite comic book covers:

But I ran out of steam a few paragraphs in, despite the sheer delightfulness of the image. Then I remembered this: 

And so it was that the poster for Army of Darkness became my inspiration for "Of Chins and Chainsaws," which ended up getting me not just an A but also first place in the essay portion of Missouri State University-West Plains' campus-wide creative writing contest. And winning the contest got me a job as a writing tutor. And becoming a writing tutor was what led to me pursuing an interest in journalism. And from there I decided to transfer to the University of Missouri School of Journalism. And at Mizzou I became a published writer and artist (placing second in a design contest with a page of cartoons that ran in The Columbia Missourian). And now I'm a staff writer at a daily newspaper, having graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism, with the makings of an art career on the side. All of this I owe to Army of Darkness. So yeah, I was stoked to meet Bruce Campbell. Which is why I decided to make my photo op as awkward as possible:

He wasn't quite sure how to react to that.

Next up were Bernthal and Kinney. Y'know, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I love The Walking Dead, but I loathed Shane from the start ... and Beth really never did a whole lot on the show (except attempt suicide, sing and disappear). I am SO GLAD Tim and I got that photo op, though. For starters, Jon Bernthal was one of the nicest guys at the convention. He greeted us warmly, shook our hands and even pointed right at my goofy shirt for the photo (Ed would talk to him at his booth later and get him to record a special message for his wife, who was unable to come with us). And Tim was thrilled just to have the opportunity to put his arm around Emily Kinney ... I do not blame him in the least.


Immediately afterward, I changed lanes (lines) and got my photo taken with Eliza Dushku. I shall repeat myself, I was merely a fan of her work prior to the convention, with no intention whatsoever of developing a schoolboy crush, but darn it, she's absolutely delightful. And, alas, taken.

Yes, that is the dreaded "hover-hand" you see. Yes, I am ashamed.
And yes, it was still TOTALLY worth it.

The best part, though, was that after the photo was taken, and I was being ushered (herded) out of the photo room, she happened to squint at my T-shirt and grin. "The Working Dead," she said. "I like it!"
"Actually," said I, "it's the 'Wokking' Dead. See the wok?"
Dushku nodded approvingly and laughed, as did the camerawoman. As an afterthought, I added, "I actually drew this."
And then, to my eternal flabbergastification (??) and joy, Eliza-freaking-Dushku gave me a thumbs-up and said, "That's badass."
Verily can I die a happy man.

After that, I wandered around the convention center looking for cool swag to buy. I visited comics legend Neal Adams, who went from charging $5 per signature last year to $20. I still had him sign one of my books and bought one of his, because he's Neal Adams, but I was hesitant to part with that much money.

But how could I say no to THAT?

I also met Greg Capullo, who is pretty much at the top of the food chain as far as current comic book artists are concerned. He's the penciller on Batman, the best-selling comic out right now, and frankly, I expected him to believe his own hype. I was happily proven wrong. Although he had some serious lines at his table, Capullo took time to talk to all his fans, and seems to genuinely love his job--which is truly a dream job. He signed several of his books that I had, including What If Daredevil Killed the Kingpin?, his first Marvel work. I also got it signed by writer Danny Fingeroth, who was kind enough to sign a copy of Spectacular Spider-Man #86, which he is actually a character in as well (with art by Fred Hembeck, he of the swirly knees).

David Mack was a particular highlight. It took me forever to find the guy's table, but he definitely goes above and beyond for his fans. It's the 20th anniversary of his breakthrough comic, Kabuki, and he was giving out free prints. He also drew a limited edition Wolverine and the X-Men variant, 1/3000, which I was fortunate enough to get a copy of with my VIP swag. But we got to talking about his Daredevil work, and I said I only recently discovered his run. He asked me where I bought my comics and I sang the praise of the Book Nook, the local store I frequent in West Plains. He then pulled out an extra Kabuki print, which he then signed with an extra note, "Thank You Book Nook." I delivered it to Jay at the Book Nook yesterday.

The Book Nook is an awesome store and Jay here is an awesome guy. Although the selection is small (West Plains
is a small town), there's always something good to be found, and they're more than willing to special-order stuff.

I will say, though, that not everybody was awesome. Arthur Suydam, he of Marvel Zombies fame, was not very nice at all. I hate to trash-talk a dude, especially a dude whose work I like, but Suydam isn't getting any more of my business after that weekend. First off, he raised the prices of his prints to $20 a piece. That's totally fine--it's his stuff, and he can charge what he wants, plus he really is a talented artist. But he will only sign books you bring if you buy something from his table, and everything on the table is $20 a pop. However, and this is where it gets upsetting, he has a donation jar on his table for The Hero Initiative, a very worthy charity that helps comic book creators in need, particularly those with medical bills or other problems they can't handle on their own. The jar has a sign saying Arthur Suydam will gladly (gladly) sign your books--plural--if you make a donation, and it says to donate whatever you can--no minimum required. I stuck a fiver in the jar and pulled out a stack of maybe four books. Suydam looks at me with a smirk and says, "That'll get you one." I was surprised and a little upset--after all, I already gave him my money when I bought the books in the first place--but I still picked the one book from my stack that I thought was the coolest, and that I thought he might enjoy seeing again: Savage Tales #2, a Marvel magazine-sized publication from the '80s that had a distinct Heavy Metal vibe about it. Suydam signed it, yes, but only after spending a solid minute talking about how much he hated that cover and never wanted to see it again. He also led Tim to believe he was selling three posters for $20 when in fact they were three for $20 each. The bottom line is, Arthur Suydam's art might be cool, but he's not Neal Adams. Adams can get away with being kind of a toolbox because he's Neal Adams. Arthur Suydam won't get another dollar from me.

Mike Grell, of Green Arrow and Warlord fame, was also at the convention, and I was very excited to meet him. He wrote the very first Green Arrow story I ever read--a great back-up tale featured in Action Comics #444 (which is also my favorite Superman comic, but is unfortunately torn to shreds). In stark contrast to Neal Adams (and Arthur Suydam, for that matter), Grell only charged a dollar per autograph, which I was happy to pay, and I even got a free comic out of it. He also had EXTREMELY limited edition sketchbooks for sale (only 25 made), and I bought one for $75. Why so expensive? Because Grell then drew a custom head sketch on the blank cover. Naturally, I chose Green Arrow, because GA is his bread-and-butter. And he did not disappoint ... indeed, he crafted a masterpiece.


And, for the next 30 minutes or so, I hung out at Mike Grell's table, watched him draw and talked comics, and let me tell ya, the man is not just a consummate pro but a really fascinating guy. The first question I had was why, out of all the characters in DC's stable, he was drawn to Green Arrow? He replied that he has been into archery since he was a child, which was cool, and he was also drawn to the Robin Hood element. Furthermore, he delved into what makes Green Arrow an appealing character as opposed to his fellow Hard Traveling compatriot, Green Lantern. Green Lantern, Grell said, is all about upholding the law--he's a space cop. Green Arrow, on the other hand, is more concerned with justice, whether the law is on his side or not. Green Arrow, despite being pretty obnoxiously liberal, nonetheless cares deeply about righting wrongs and sticking up for the little guy, and I have to agree with Grell: that makes him pretty darned cool. I also asked Grell about his run on Iron Man, since at least in terms of powers and backstory, he's pretty far removed from Green Arrow. Grell laughed and replied that he took on the Iron Man job because he needed the money, but also because he wanted to bring a new take to the story of Tony Stark. He felt Iron Man had become too much like Superman--literally the Invincible Iron Man--and he wanted to ground him somewhat, to bring back some humanity and address the sense of isolation that comes from walling oneself up behind a suit of armor. He also wrote the story in which Iron Man revealed his secret identity to the world (which I did not know), and said that was the storyline that got him fired from Iron Man. In the story (which I have not read and have not been able to find as of yet), Tony Stark is at an event and sees a little boy's dog get loose and run into traffic. Tony immediately suits up, jets forth and saves the dog. No cataclysmic event like the Wrecking Crew threatening to destroy New York if he doesn't unmask. No soul-searching storyline that ends with Tony wanting to be honest with people. Just a boy and his dog. And the fans were livid. So was Iron Man's supporting cast, who asked why in the world he would spoil his identity over a dog. "I didn't do it for the dog," Tony insisted adamantly. "I did it for the kid." And that, Grell said, is what a hero does. I agree, and I really want to read this story now.

I also had the opportunity to meet and get an autograph from William Shatner, whose spacefaring, swashbuckling ways as Captain Kirk entertained me greatly in my childhood and beyond. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie (or Trekker, if you want to nitpick), and one of my most treasured books as a kid was a hardcover of his memoirs I got for Christmas one year, Star Trek Memories. As you might have guessed, I had him sign that sucker! Whilst en route to his booth, however, I ran into one of my favorite teachers from MSU-West Plains and her daughter (the TV employee I mentioned before). We talked briefly and then I had to run ... at which point the convention volunteer at Shatner's booth told me that A) my printed-out autograph ticket was insufficient and I would have to hike all the way across the building, from end-to-end, and exchange it for a little red card, and B) I would need to hurry because Shatner was about to leave (according to the schedule I had, he was just supposed to be starting his autograph session, so either he started early or they changed the schedule). I sprinted through the crowd of similarly physiqued nerds (re: portly gents) to get to the registration booth, got my little red card and sprinted back, just barely making it in time. Shatner shook my hand, thanked me for coming and signed my book, "To Chris, Basdofhoa Shgaefawtrgh." For real, I can make neither head nor tail of his signature, but I was and still am so happy to get it.

I then slipped away to grab an early dinner at The Dubliner with Ed and Tom, where I had some epic macaroni and cheese and a pitcher-and-a-half of ice water to wash it down. The food was great; the service was not. But it was still a worthwhile diversion and a great meal ... that sat like cast-iron in my stomach for the rest of the night.

Next up was getting Bruce Campbell's autograph. I figured with my VIP ticket, I'd be able to zip in and zip out relatively quickly; this was not the case, as EVERYBODY in the line was a VIP. But I didn't mind how long I had to wait, so long as I could deliver the manila envelope I'd been toting all day in my swag bag. In said envelope was a copy of "Of Chins and Chainsaws," a letter explaining its significance, a print of a sketch I had drawn of the Army of Darkness poster and a print of "The Wokking Dead" just for grins. When at last my turn came, I gave him a condensed version of my tale and handed him the envelope. He accepted it and set it aside, but I have no way of knowing if he actually ended up reading it or not; indeed, I don't expect him to. But I had to try, and I'm glad I gave it to him even if it never gets read. I'm doing well for myself now and I owe him one. Anyway, I had him sign the limited edition lithograph that came with my VIP package, and he signed it as Burn Notice character Sam Axe. Pretty sweet, yeah?

Oh yeah.

For the past year or so I've had a blank cover variant of Green Lantern #13. I bought it in hopes of getting a custom sketch someday, but in the weeks leading up to the convention there was a bit of a process of elimination as I contacted various comics professionals. Mike S. Miller cancelled his appearance at the convention. Chris Samnee wasn't doing sketches this year. Ethan Van Sciver and Salvador Larroca cost too much. And Neal Adams cost WAY too much. But as I wandered the convention center that Saturday evening, I happened to pass by Van Sciver's table, and he said he was charging $100 for a basic character bust sketch as opposed to the $200 he had told me on Facebook. Double-checking my wallet, I commissioned a sketch of my favorite Green Lantern villain--the renegade GL himself, Sinestro. Van Sciver said he wouldn't be able to finish it that night, but I could come by the next day and pick it up. I told him that worked for me because we were shooting for heading back to West Plains around 3 so we could catch the season premiere of Game of Thrones. He said that was fine. Elated, I paid him and wandered off in search of more swag.

That was essentially the end of Saturday's convention events. On our way out, I got my photo taken with Jesse Pinkman's Monte Carlo from Breaking Bad, which was awesome:

Don't do drugs, yo.
I also got a few photos with some cosplayers:

I'd Peek-at'chu!


Hellooooo, Starfire!

I don't know what that is, but it's cool.

Do you know what happens to Chris when he's
struck by lightning? HE CRIES AND PASSES OUT!

"No one cared who I was until I put on the mask."
"I cared."
A bunch of freaks ... like me!
STL Ghostbusters! 

My friend Amber came and picked me up from Tom's house a little before 9 p.m. and we went and watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier while the guys stayed in and played "Settlers of Catan" and ate Imo's. The movie was flipping awesome, by the way, and I'll save myself the effort of writing a full review by telling you right now: go see it. The action is fantastic, the themes of political paranoia are highly relevant in today's society and it's the first Marvel film to do Nick Fury justice (he finally gets to smoke a stogie and open up a can of whup-@$$). Indeed, on the subject of whup-@$$, I would say that some people open up a can. Others open up a case. Captain America, on the other hand, purchases his wholesale.

The next day, I had more time to just enjoy the convention and hang out with the guys. I also visited Tommy Castillo's table because I had a Batman issue he had done. To be quite honest, he was one of the artists I was just getting an autograph from because he was there. It wasn't an overly meaningful issue or anything ... but let me tell you, it is now. Castillo's wife took the first glance at the issue and said, "Hey, Tommy, isn't this the one where you drew Kermit the Frog in a trash can?" Now, THAT got my attention. Castillo flipped through it. "There's Oscar. There's Gonzo. Nope, no Kermit." At which point he whipped out a black Sharpie and proceeded to draw KERMIT THE FROG AS BATMAN.

Let's let that sink in a bit.

He drew Kermit the Frog as Batman. For free. On the cover of a Batman comic. I had come seeking a mere signature and left with one of the coolest items in my swag bag. Rock on, Tommy Castillo. You made a fan this weekend.


I also picked up a great custom Doctor Octopus sketch from St. Louis artist Ellis Ray III, who used to work with Ed back in the day. I heartily implore all y'all to check his work out, too, because he rocks, as an artist and as a person.


Tim and I also got our photo taken with the crew of the Serenity: Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin and Summer Glau. Now, I hadn't initially planned on giving Fillion anything; he was charging $100 per photo op or signature--$25 more than the far more legendary William Shatner. But the Firefly photo op was $165 for all four, and with Tim splitting the cost, I figured it was well worth it. I had wanted to get a photo with Adam Baldwin anyway (he's been one of my favorite TV actors for a while now, thanks to appearances on Angel, Firefly and Chuck), and Tudyk and the others were an added bonus. There were FOUR lines for the Firefly photo op, which is understandable, and Tim and I wound up in the third line. It took a while for things to start moving, but once they did, they moved fast. Whilst in line, I got to meet J'onn J'onzz and Batroc ze Leaper (who claimed he was actually S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, but I knew better):

He's obviously Wolverine.

And then the moment arrived: we were face-to-face with Captain Mal and company. Alan Tudyk was closest, and he eagerly stepped forward to greet us, shaking both our hands. Baldwin, too, seemed excited to be there and gave us a warm welcome, dragging Tim close in a one-armed bear hug for the photo (Baldwin is HUGE, by the way--a legit 6'4" and built like a house--so it was certainly a relief to see he's actually a very nice guy). Fillion and Glau, however, didn't even acknowledge us. Didn't smile at us. Didn't offer to shake our hands. Didn't say "hi." Just sat there and smiled for the camera when the time came (although Fillion's smile was more of a smirk). It would have been really depressing had Tudyk and Baldwin not been 100 flavors of awesomesauce. Tim says he got Glau to wave at him as the ushers shooed us out, but I have no visual proof.

As if I needed another reason to like Baldwin and Tudyk ... they're
awesome actors, and class acts to boot!

Having wrapped up all my photo ops, I headed back to Van Sciver's table. He hadn't started yet, and was doing another commission. It was almost 2. "Oh ..." I said, crestfallen. "My group's leaving at 3." I figured if all else failed I could give him some postage and have him mail it to me.
"I'll just crank it out," he said. He motioned to an empty chair behind his table. "Here, pull up a chair. You can hang out here."
I was shocked, surprised and overjoyed ... and yes, more than a little bit awkward. But we ended up talking about comics, drawing techniques, movie history and more, and it proved to be a great hour. He got my Sinestro sketch done at about 3:45, and it was superb. Van Sciver is a cool guy and a fantastic artist, and he absolutely nailed Sinestro's look.


After that, it was time to pack up and head out. We stopped in the atrium for a Sad Selfie to commemorate having to leave:


Once Tim's vehicle was full of swag, laundry and whatnot, it was time for our annual trip to White Castle on the way out of town. As usual, I got chicken sliders (because the burgers are awful) and everybody had some delish cheese fries.

I got home around 10 p.m., sore from head to toe and coming down with a cold. But at least I didn't forget anything this time, and despite the pain in both my body and my bank account, I can safely say it was one of the best weekends of my life. Plus ... TANK PICTURE!